The Pain of the Others, photo credit: Jinling Wu
I moved into a ground floor flat early last year. It was the only place with a backyard among the three places I had stayed in Edinburgh. When people were told to stay at home because of the virus, I felt it was such a blessing that I had made this decision, although it meant being much further from the city centre where the neighbourhood was not as nice.
When the economy stopped, my decision paid off. It was preferable to grow your own food, cook by yourself, eat and drink alone. I did a lot of cooking, made my first ever batch of sourdough bread, read and wrote a lot. Part of me had to thank the quarantine which removed many unnecessary distractions and I could finally focus on the real writing work I needed to get done now that I was alone. Without that, I would have become so incredibly bored.
There was so much sunshine during the whole of spring that I had never experienced before, after soldiering through two difficult springs with endless windy and rainy days in Edinburgh. Nature returned its favour after the humans reduced their footprint. I started enjoying my breakfast tea in the backyard.
In March, the only big tree in the garden was still bare and there weren’t any leaves to cover my head. I couldn’t help notice that there were many eyes behind the windows from the high-rise near my backyard. I felt like I was being watched, like an animal in the zoo. It was understandable that when people were locked up in their houses, they became interested by moving objects outside their windows, by a person, a bird, or a cat. Other than that, everything was quiet and peaceful. I once heard someone singing in an emotional but terrible way. It made me smile. This whole period was emotional and terrible.
Then things grew worse. Three nights in a row I had a nightmare in which I heard a woman screaming. The sound pierced my head. I woke up in the middle of the night and felt very upset. I pondered how I felt during the day and tried to trace back what might have triggered my inner craziness but I had no clue. Then the other night I woke again and went to the bathroom. On my way back to the bedroom, I heard that scream again. It was everywhere at once and it became clear that it was not my voice. There was a real person screaming at the full capacity of her lungs out of desperation. That brought back all my fears and worries.
I was born in a small town three hundred kilometres from Wuhan. When the virus broke out in December, I first heard of it from my social media. It wasn’t surprising to see a cluster of flu patients filling up the hospital in the winter. Wuhan was also very far. Some of my family still lived in the same province. But none of them had any serious relationships with the provincial capital.
Wuhan had been a powerful industrial city. It had a few highly ranked universities. Some of my friends went to study there. The street food and the avenues flanked by cherry blossoms in spring were charming. When I was 16, I attended a science camp in Wuhan in the summer during which we were taken to visit a steel mill one afternoon. The steel industry was a landmark industry of the city, the epitome of its strength and pride. That day I saw bloody red molten steel from the furnace cooled with water sprays. I saw two male workers walking about and I had a frightening picture of the liquid steel splashing on human flesh. I wasn’t sure I understood the concept of hell then but the imaginary scene filled my body with horror. The mill was so overheated that we rushed out soon after.
In January, the city cried out for salvation. Apocalyptic scenes overwhelmed the press.
A young woman posted on Weibo, the Chinese Twitter, saying her father couldn’t breathe, but she couldn’t get a hospital bed for him. Can someone help? Some people left behind sad emojis and blessings. Some accused her of being overly dramatic: “why do you make a big fuss out of your own problem in the public? This isn’t a free helpline.” A few hours later she updated her status. Her father had passed away.
It wasn’t her being dramatic. It was damn life.
A man committed suicide near the grand Yangtze River Bridge. According to the passersby who captured him crying on their phones before he jumped, he could not carry on because he was infected with the Coronavirus and couldn’t risk passing the virus onto his wife and only child. There was no public transportation available and he had to walk between the hospital and a rented place where he lived alone. It was a very long and lonely walk and he was sick, his body too heavy to accomplish the task. He had not seen any chance that he could get treated by doctors behind the impossibly long queues.
The fear, the isolation, the unbearable burden of living ate up all his hope. He chose to die before the virus could finish him.
These were just two of the many stories I could still recall with vivid detail that I read in January. At the time, I felt the compulsion to check the news every other second and couldn’t stop thinking about them afterwards. Then I dreamt at night and experienced the desperation again. Now when I look back, the censorship had already wiped many stories away just as the owners of the stories were wiped away by the deadly virus. People were not allowed to dwell on their anger and sadness. They were rushed to move on, to straighten things for themselves and continue on as a functional cog in the big machine.
The whole country froze for about a month. The usually lively spring festival was very quiet and filled with grief instead of bubbling celebrations. Things slowly became better after that.
Luckily all the people I knew were fine. It felt like a miracle.
One of my childhood friends stayed in her flat for more than two months in Wuhan with her family. The only fresh air she ever breathed was through the living room window which they never dared to leave open for very long. She described it as nightmarish.
In a parallel world, my life in Edinburgh mirrored a different nightmare. On my last bus journey, a few people looked at me with obvious anger and two of them stepped out of the bus immediately when I got on. Once when I went outside my flat, an old man stared at me in a way that chilled me to my bones for the rest of the day. During a meeting with a producer in a train station cafe, a group of teenagers couldn’t turn their eyes away from me. Then I nervously choked on my tea and started coughing… In that moment I wanted to disappear from the public.
My last trip back to China was in April 2019. I wasn’t in China when the virus broke out. But my travel history wasn’t written on my face. Etched onto my face were my thin Oriental eyes and lips, a source of suspicion and fear in the era of Coronavirus.
I remember my first assignment in film school was to make a fictional movie trailer on the theme of apocalypse. One of the judges said that despite some technical merit, she couldn’t feel the apocalyptic fear. Now, in these times, I thought I could deliver a film with real feelings. Reality had outsmarted the fiction of the past.
In February, when China started to move out of quarantine, I had a short break that allowed me to breathe until the crisis broke out again in Europe. The tragic narrative repeated itself in Italian and Spanish. Soon after, I started hearing ambulances day and night here too.
The whole world panicked. Leaving the house became a life-or-death decision, a moral burden. It had consequences.
Someone left a message in a foreign language on my Facebook which, when auto-translated, read
China and nature
anything could happen
On a report about Australian fires and climate change, a netizen named ‘chinavr’ wrote
Chinese should hold their farts
they are the real problem of global warming
now their poisonous farts stink the earth
stop your racist rant
Chinavr responded with
you propaganda-brainwashed bastard
get yourself a proper coffin and rest inside
In Guangzhou China, Chinese nationalists defamed black people. I wrote back
fought for racism in foreign countries
only to see my home country was flooded by the devil
then I was told
you don’t fit in
stay out of China
I could imagine
some day someone would point at my nose telling me
my grandpa was killed by the Chinese virus
he was killed by you
you Chinese cunt
out of guilt
I wrote a story for a Chinese media platform about how the UK finally decided to lockdown. Some of my old acquaintances called and asked me if I needed any protective equipment. I had left the country a few years ago. Many of them I had not talked to in ages and we eventually stopped putting likes on each other’s posts.
We skipped the chit-chat and went straight to our current concerns. Are you ok? Do you have access to fresh food, and toilet paper? How are the people working in the hospitals? Do they have PPE?
The questions were followed up with quicker actions. It wasn’t easy for them to mail the face masks nowadays with all the restrictions. They phoned the delivery companies to confirm which were still delivering overseas packages, they paid ridiculously high prices and had to travel far to send them. When the masks were delivered to my door, there were notes saying: for you, your family and friends, and whoever else might need them.
I had not heard the female voice screaming at night for a while. Sometimes I woke at night and thought about what happened to her. Perhaps she had got the help she needed or the circumstances had changed and she was no longer desperate. Nevertheless, the night wasn’t as cold when I knew there were people somewhere feeling the pain of the others.
Jinling Wu is a writer and filmmaker from China, currently based in Scotland. Her film works have been shown at the Lift-off sessions and Edinburgh Multicultural Festival. Her recent English publication was on The Willowherb Review. She tweets @WuJinling1.