My gap year in China was disrupted on January 31st. It was the week after Chinese New Year and the coronavirus had grown from a benign, far-away tumor to a pressing, straining problem. When the news came – pack your bags, say goodbyes, we are evacuating to Taiwan – public transportation had all shut down. Kunming, a city of ten million, had only four confirmed cases. Still, nerves rippled through the city. Everyone wore a face mask. Neighborhood security guards took temperatures. I packed my luggage and expectations in one afternoon, then said farewell to my homestay family.
“CongCong will be back,” my homestay dad predicted, using the nickname my parents call me.
“Think of SARS. It took eight months for things to get back to normal. In eight months she’ll start college in America,” my homestay mom countered.
“I’ll be back. I don’t know when, hopefully sooner than we expect. But I’ll be back,” I said.
My homestay sister helped herself to the last bite of salad, wiped her fingers, and gave me a hug. The next morning, I was on a flight to Bangkok. The morning after, I was on a flight to Taipei, Taiwan.
My gap year in Taiwan was disrupted on March 18st. “Expect the unexpected,” as Tim Gunn would say. If I hadn’t truly internalized that as an eight-year-old watching Project Runway, I’ve internalized it now. The plan was to stay until May 1st. Plans changed. Back in the US, all my friends went home from college. I said goodbye to my gap year friends in San Francisco. I flew to DC and texted hello to my high school friends.
Mom, dad, sister, and grandma were waiting for me at home.
My sister pushes out her hands and commands: “Stay away from me!” She’s half-joking, half-serious. I laugh and haul my luggage to the guest room. My grandma is staying in my room. This tickles me. Grandma planned to return to China last week, but decided to stay and wait out the disease. Now, Nanjing hasn’t reported a new case in twenty days. Corona rages on in the US.
At home, I pass time like normal. I eat and play cards with my family as normal. I procrastinate on Chinese homework I’ve kept from my time in Kunming, as normal. All the while, I think about how abnormal these days are.
COVID-19 has touched every corner of this Earth. It’s followed me like the moon. Thinking as a biologist, that’s highly respectable. Not many diseases can strike a balance between transmission, death, and fear. A perfect storm, COVID-19 has struck all three. I nod my head to you, good microbe, and ask that you stay away from me as I am staying away from you.