Today, at 10 a.m. the air raid siren wailed all throughout the country for three minutes as everyone collectively grieved all that had been lost in China’s outbreak and what would be lost in the ongoing pandemic. It was arresting, breathtaking. I sat on my bed in my room before the event, wondering if I needed candles or flowers, only to realize that the plaintive cry of the air raid siren said enough.
This weekend marks Qingming Festival, a traditional Chinese festival where families go to graves to leave offerings, mourn, and sweep the tombs of those they’ve lost. It feels different this year, especially for families who recently lost someone. It’s different this year, too, for those who lost someone but never got a proper chance to grieve because of all the other grief in the world. It even feels different for people who’ve lost the things they can’t name.
Spring is blooming here nonetheless. The trees are misting green along Yuyuan Road. In the parks, people hang their masks on tree branches as they find a patch of grass to lie on top of (still at a safe distance from others) and breathe in the spring air. For two months, so much of that air was filtered, or kept inside mid-gasp. Now is an exhale.
Life goes on, even when it seems cruel. Time in Shanghai already feels like it can be divided into “pre-virus” and “now” which, though by all intents and purposes ought to feel like “post” instead feels like a kind of New Normal. We have made it to the other side, yes, but not without some bruises along the way. I am back to commuting to work (and cussing at bikers who cut me off). But — I am now packing lunches, since the office asks us to get takeout from the building’s cafeteria during designated periods, an improvement all the same after two weeks of staggered staffing in our open-office setup. I can meet up with friends, but now that many of us have families and friends abroad, we are far from done being concerned with the virus. (Plus, some of my friends are now trapped outside China because the country slapped a travel ban on all foreigners entering the country — with scant exceptions).
I am so grateful for my job, my friends, my family –– I only grow more grateful every day. I am also blown away by the can-do spirit of so many people back in the U.S. and elsewhere, and how compassion and beauty win out in the end, no matter how dark the dawn. Even now, I’m still amazed by my Shanghai friends and I being able to make plans without first trying to figure out how it’ll work over Zoom, or if we ought to hang out at all. Rooms still smell of disinfectant. Everyone carries hand sanitizer with them. But we’re in the same room. We’re still here. A miracle.
I’ll be honest, my moods still oscillate between a muted panic; a sense of defiance against a crazy world; and a sense of sadness for the intangible things we’ve lost, even if just the everyday normality and small gestures of love we’ll have to regain after it’s over. My top-played songs on Spotify reflect this: at times, “Survival” by Muse; at times “At The Door” by The Strokes or “Goodnight Moon” by Eric Whitacre; at times “I’m Still Standing” by Elton John. I even made a very dark humor playlist themed around apocalypse in general at one point to laugh at when I’d feel the insanity of the world creep in (don’t judge me –– I was in a mood). But I think it’s okay to oscillate, and as a friend recently reminded me, it’s important to “feel all the feels.”
How do you write during a pandemic? I don’t really know. Do you rally? Do you admit that things can still be hard, and that I myself will be doing my own form of grieving this Qingming Festival? Do you seek out the beauty no matter what? I’m an optimist, but I admit that as I’ve watched the situation unfold in the U.S. it has been hard for me to write here, though I try to stay in contact with family and friends as much as possible. Is that weakness? Or is it those necessary three minutes of release? I don’t have the answer.
But I think the most important thing for us to do when we’re ready is to let ourselves wail if we need to, like that air raid siren this morning. It’s important to remind ourselves that we don’t need to capitalize on this time or be productive or prove that we made use of ourselves, if all we actually feel capable of in this moment is to stay indoors, stay in good health, and encourage others to do the same.
There is no right or wrong way to live through a pandemic. You just have to stay safe, and that’s enough. Life will go on, though it may at times feel cruel.
It may also, however, be beautiful in ways you don’t expect.
Just this past week after work, I biked over to a shoe store, where back in November I’d decided to get a pair of red heels custom-made as a 30th birthday present to myself. Pre-virus, I stood in the tiny shop, sifting through patterns, getting my foot measured and outlined on a piece of office paper, and chatting with a shop employee who spoke in a soft, whispery voice. Now, I met her again, the two of us chatting from behind face masks after not meeting in almost two months, and she unveiled the bright red pair. I thought they were the most beautiful shoes I’d ever seen, a stark relief against so much chaos.
Beauty finds a way. But first you have to let it.