This time last year, I was in China, celebrating a true Chinese New Year with my family for the first time in 20 years. My mom, Yeye (Grandpa), Nainai (Grandma), and Jiujiu (my uncle), Jiuma (his wife), their kids.
This year, everyone’s isolated in their respective cities. Yeye Nainai in Changsha, Jiujiu and his family in Shanghai, my mom in LA, me in New York.
I call my mom today, as I do every weekend now. I’m trying to do for her what she did for her parents at my age, when she had just moved to the States. But mostly, she talks, and I say “uh-huh” every once in a while.
She picks up, and immediately says, “I cancelled the April trip”—one of our twice-yearly trips to visit her parents in China. “They’re projecting that the coronavirus outbreak will be worst around then.”
Who’s they? I don’t ask.
“But just letting you know, Nainai isn’t doing well. She fell 7 times last week, and she’s got a big bruise on her face. There’s no broken bones, but she’s depressed and frustrated.”
A familiar anxiety flashes in the back of my mind: did the last time I’ll see my grandmother already pass? I try to remember her face, her hair, her fragile skin, what it feels like to hold her hand when we walk together.
My mom laughs. “Nainai keeps falling while getting up from the toilet. Yeye can’t help her stand up either, so she has to lie on the floor of the bathroom for hours until the caretaker can visit and help her get back up.” The last time Yeye tried to help pull her up, he fell too, and the two of them couldn’t get up for hours. I had imagined them rolling around like turtles on their backs, flailing their arms. My mom and I had a good laugh about that one, unable to do anything else from 7,000 miles away.
I joke now, too. “Hey, if she has to wait that long, she should just keep pillows on the floor, get comfortable.” We chuckle.
“I think she might have had a light stroke. But we don’t know. She can’t go to the hospital right now since that’s the more dangerous place to be. And normally Luo a-yi”—Auntie Luo, a close family friend—“could visit to check in on them, but she’s got a fever. She’s waiting for test results to see if it’s the virus. Jiujiu is worried sick, he’s calling them several times a day now. But he’s on lockdown, it’s not like he’s got anything else to do either.”
“Aiya, if anything happens, I’ll still need to go back. Even if the virus is bad. But I wouldn’t make you do it.” I think, No, I would come with you anyway.
My mom chatters on, complaining about her mother, unable to process her worries in any other way. “Aiya, I keep thinking, if she picked a safer sterilization procedure in the 80s, her uterus wouldn’t be falling out now, so she wouldn’t need to pee all the time, so she wouldn’t keep falling off the toilet. She’s too stubborn. She doesn’t want to learn how to use the pessary ring. Then she wouldn’t have to pee so much. I don’t want to burden you like that. But whatever city you end up in, I’ll move there.”
More anecdotes. Yeye ordering groceries the other day, and seeing that all the instant noodles were sold out except for the Wuhan-style hot dry noodles. Palindrome Day taking over Chinese social media, maybe because everyone wants a distraction. Ordering $400 USD of surgical masks last week, only to have all those orders get cancelled by the suppliers. White boys coughing pointedly at her and other Chinese-American aunties at the airport last weekend. A couple coronavirus cases in Southern California now—“but they’re all people from China, you know.” Not like us.
We try to stay rational about it all. The panic outside of East Asia is totally overblown, we say. This flu season has killed an order of magnitude more people in the U.S. Wuhan Coronavirus has only killed a few hundred in China, and the mortality rate seems pretty low compared to SARS. And if it spread to the U.S., we’re in good health, live in a rich country, have access to high-quality treatment. If we got sick, we’d probably be fine. The biggest risk is the strain on healthcare infrastructure, and the well-being of the poorer patients and healthcare workers. We tell ourselves it’s not worth freaking out over.
But still, my mom implores me to take Airborne. She swears by the stuff. Every time I visit her, she sneaks another tube into my backpack. It’s her love language. I’ve read the studies, know it’s just placebo. I hang up, then take a double dose anyway.
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