Closeness In The Age Of Coronavirus

I went to China to visit family over the holidays. But a quickly spreading virus turned family time into something more complicated.

Squiggly Line
When my sister was two and I was six, my grandmother came from Jinan, China, to stay with my family in Tuscaloosa, Alabama for a year to help watch us while my parents worked to get their degrees. When she arrived, we taught her a handful of English phrases we thought she might need: How much? Too much. Nice to meet you. She also wanted us to teach her a special one: No hug. It’s unhygienic and obscene to press your body so close to someone else’s, she griped.
Today, my grandma has forgotten nearly all the phrases she learned, but ‘no hug’ still rolls off her tongue. The first time I visited her in China as a teenager, bounding out of the car from the airport during a summer visit: No hug! In my 20s, when I introduced her to my boyfriend, who speaks about as much Chinese as she does English: No hug, she warned him. But when I last saw her, just two weeks ago, as China was under quarantine because of a mysterious coronavirus that turned into an epidemic, what used to feel like a personal quirk took on a graver warning: Absolutely, definitely, don’t even try it, No hug.
My mom, sister, and I were in China because we were supposed to be visiting my dad’s father, who was ill and not getting any better. My own dad was waiting to go later. The plan was to visit Taiwan, Seoul, then Jinan, China where my mother’s family lived, before arriving in Qingdao, 660 miles northeast of Wuhan, roughly the distance between NYC and Detroit, where — though I didn’t know it then — the virus originated. Before we left the U.S., our relatives in China mentioned that there was a bug going around the country, and we should bring extra face masks if we had them. Just in case.
But while we were sightseeing in Taipei, we started getting news from friends and family on WeChat that the flu didn’t seem like the standard strain. Local news was reporting that it was a serious form of coronavirus — a group of viruses that includes the common cold and SARS, all of which can cause respiratory infections in humans — and was quickly spreading across China. By the time we reached Seoul, the Wuhan coronavirus was front-page news on international newspapers. There were a couple cases in my dad’s hometown of Qingdao, and coronavirus patients were also being treated in the same hospital where my grandfather was being taken care of. As we repacked our suitcases in a small hotel room in Seoul, to head to Jinan, we fretted over whether it’d still be safe to visit.
But by the time we landed in my mother’s hometown — wearing the duck-billed N95 surgical masks that my sister, a medical student, had gotten us —the decision had been made for us. We couldn’t go any farther. My uncle met us at the airport (no hugs this time, but he was never a big hugger, anyway) and explained that the government had been cordoning off neighborhoods, shutting down public transportation, and access to public spaces and private businesses. The hospital where my grandpa was being treated was on lockdown, as were the apartment complexes that housed my father’s side of the family. Non-residents couldn’t enter, for everyone’s safety.
When we arrived at the three-bedroom apartment where three generations of my mom’s family lived, we knew it’d be the last stop on our trip. The circumstances were unsettling, but we were so happy to see them, so my mother, my sister, and I awkwardly reached out to touch my aunt, cousin, and her daughter, Jiajia, on their shoulders. This time, we didn’t try for a hug — for our health.
But even without the threat of a virus, my Chinese family wouldn’t have naturally greeted us with a huge embrace. East Asians just don’t hug. While every family is different (just like families in the West can range from fairly chilly to Tom Brady-level intimate), generally speaking, not touching is as normal in East Asia as air-kissing is in Europe. The first time I tried shaking hands with someone in Japan, I felt like I was trying to tango with someone who didn’t realize we were dancing. To say hello, we gesture: to an empty chair, to grab a bag you’re carrying, through an open door. When we say goodbye, we wave in the direction of whoever’s leaving, even if they’re just a foot away. Even among family members, physical affection is rare.
Things are slowly changing for the younger generation. My cousin, a single mom, had moved back in with my aunt and uncle, and everyone was helping her raise Jiajia — a precocious three-year-old who orated rather than babbled, and loved instructions, dogs, and Fruit-by-the-Foot. My cousin sometimes hugs Jiajia — not the fully enveloping bear hugs that come so naturally to American parents, but they’re hugs nonetheless. Most of the time, Jiajia doesn’t even hug back, but you can tell it delights her.
The hugging is a point of contention with her grandparents. “It’ll spoil her,” my aunt complains to my mother. Affection, she wants us to know, gives children the idea that other people will tolerate selfish behavior (“I just want it, you can’t tell me no!” Jiajia loves to yell). They believe children should learn that they’re part of a family, not the center of one. A three-year-old might not be able to cook dinner, chauffeur the grandparents, or bring home an income, but she can eat everything on her plate, clean up after herself, and not bother mom when she’s resting. 
In China, love means actions — not affection. In America, having to “do” anything in order to receive love, especially for children from their elders, turns love into a transaction. But in China, duty is the purest expression of love: the acts, considerations, inconveniences, unacknowledged self-sacrifices, and extra labor are what you do in order to spare someone else pain, no matter how piddling. 
I can see how action-based love can seem cold, to have to work so hard for something that should be given freely. But the way my Chinese family sees it, Western pronouncements of love — physical closeness, inquiring about feelings, listening — can seem superficial, even performative.
“Don’t encourage her,” my aunt repeats, as my cousin dodges a gleeful slap from Jiajia as she crouches to embrace her daughter after a successful trip to the potty. But my aunt encourages Jiajia in different ways, like spending an hour making an elaborate lunch just for her, with special mini noodles and thinly sliced vegetables that’s easier for a tiny mouth to eat.
On New Year’s Day in China, we all gathered around the television to watch the annual state-produced Spring Festival Gala. Seen by an estimated 500 million people, it’s the world’s most-viewed televised event, and has become as integral to the holiday as a menorah is on Hanukkah, or turkey is on Thanksgiving. The tone is usually aggressively patriotic and melodramatic, but this year, for the first time since it started running, the Gala included a non-rehearsed segment that focused on the coronavirus. It took on a paternal tone.
The presenters acknowledged how isolated those in Wuhan might feel in quarantine, but urged them to remember their duty: “Staying at home is your greatest dedication and sacrifice against the epidemic,” said news anchor Ouyang Xiadan. As for the rest of China, presenters asked them to think about a self-imposed quarantine as an opportunity to spend more time with family, but also as a way to declare their love for their countrymen: “A quiet New Year’s will help us all be safe. This is your biggest contribution to fighting the epidemic.”
I was in China, but wanted to know how the U.S. was reacting to the virus, so I scrolled Twitter, via a VPN that let me bypass China’s firewall. Both objective reporting and panicked reactions from the West — from Chinese-Americans, Asian-Americans, and non-Asians alike — reinforced the stereotypes that Chinese culture was cold and unempathetic. 
There was the usual moralizing over the dirtiness of the niche local tradition of consuming wild animals (“with heads and beaks attached,” read the first sentence of a NYT article about Chinese wet markets), and stories vilifying Chinese tourists too selfish and obstinate to care about Western notions of personal space, exposing entire cruiseliners, passenger planes, and foreign cities to the virus.
But there was also a focus on the callousness and inhumanity of Chinese culture, which allowed this epidemic to turn into a pandemic. News outlets reported that the government initially covered-up the severity of the epidemic, describing a government more intent on good PR than the welfare of its people. The unforgiving quarantines and swiftly implemented bans on travel, traffic, and assembly were only possible with authoritarian muscle and “questionable” ethics that seemed to further hurt already sick people, forcing them to walk for miles in order to seek out care. Even the state request that people stay indoors with their own loved ones had become a problem, as self-quarantines were leading to cross-generational infections among family members. Western outlets ogled the run on surgical masks. Technically ineffective, they suggested that no one should be wearing them, nevermind that masks were already as common an accessory in China as headphones or sunglasses, and seen as a courtesy — a polite gesture — to your fellow commuter. Instead of a polite gesture by your fellow commuter, the mask communicated something evil, inciting hate crimes against Asian American in NYC.
But sitting on the couch, watching my family move around the apartment, I didn’t see coldness or callousness. I saw their best attempt to take care of each other in the way they’ve always done it, even if that wasn’t with hugs. I listened to my aunt talk about how being a loving, responsible parent often meant breaking her own heart, by hiding away her laughter and lightness from her child. She never joked in front of my cousin, or allowed herself to be silly or joyful. As she spoke, I saw her as she was back then, taking a beat behind the front door as my cousin came home from school, working to stiffen her lip before turning the handle.
It struck me how easily what looks like love to some can look like cruelty to others.
When it was time to go home, the mood was different. We were closer. My mother, sister, and I had spent the past week acting within our Chinese family's modes of love, so as we were leaving, they felt it was their duty to act upon ours. This time, we all hugged goodbye. “Bao yi bao!” my cousin instructed Jiajia, who wasn’t used to wrapping her arms around anyone who wasn’t her mom. “Give your aunts a hug!”
When I landed in Los Angeles, after having had my temperature taken five times at three different airports to check for fevers, I finally discarded my face mask, then turned on my phone to see a text message from my father. My grandpa had passed away. None of my immediate family had gotten to say goodbye, nor would we be allowed back in the country for the funeral.
And so, we did all we could do and turned to each other, my father, mother, sister, and me, armed with our dual ideas of love and family, our dual heritage in China and America. We texted and called each other, trying to shrink the distance between us. We asked what we could do, and wordlessly did what we ought to, helping each other out with errands and work, sending each other kind texts just because. 
In China, the virus persists. Death and infection tolls are exponentially growing, with over 600 deaths and 31,000 infections. Patience and trust are wearing thin. Was the government protecting its people, or was it lying to them? Were appeals to love a tactic of brutality?
Shortly after midnight last Friday, the doctor and whistleblower Li Wenliang died of the same disease he warned the public about. Earlier in January, he had been detained for “spreading rumors” about the existence and severity of the coronavirus. When news of his death broke, a dam broke too. Online, an outpouring of outrage and frustration flooded Chinese social media. Posts demanding freedom of speech appeared, then were deleted by censors. In America, my family’s texts echoed the same refrain: I feel helpless, I’m so sorry, things are horrible, please try to feel better, what can I do? We were so far away from our Chinese family, and even each other.
When I texted my dad I was scared he was lonely, he wrote back, “That’s sweet, but don’t worry about me...Your job is to take care of yourself.”
It wasn’t a hug, but it felt like one.

More from Culture

R29 Original Series