Fearing For My Mother in Wuhan, Facing a New Sinophobia in the US

Zhao Liang

From Zhao Liang’s Mask Series

Wuhan is far away. My annual trip to the city was long and exhausting, a pilgrimage. A fourteen-hour international flight would take me from Newark to an airport in Beijing or Shanghai, where I would wait another few hours before boarding a domestic flight to complete the journey. I went back again last June to visit my mother. The dusk gave way to night when the cab driver dropped me off under our big camphor trees. The scent of locust flowers filled the early summer air. The ceaseless noise of Wuhan streets became remote.

I had to walk my last fifty steps with my luggage in tow to reach the gate of the apartment building. The night, not yet too hot, had a fantastic unreality. In the dark I could see the white tips of gardenia flower buds on the tall bush in my mother’s half-abandoned front yard and the light pouring from her bedroom window to the balcony. I could even hear her low voice talking to someone and her shuffling steps. My heart beat a little faster when I buzzed the door.

Inside was my China past: unchanged, yet also growing older each year. The apartment is the same on-campus housing that we were assigned when my father took his last teaching job at Wuhan University in 1981. China’s sea-change had never really touched its interior. Was it because of the fluorescent light that the rooms all looked so dim, the furniture so grim? Or maybe it was my grogginess—I had not slept a wink for twenty-four hours.

Jiwei Xiao

The author and her mother in New Jersey, 2014

Only the caretaker was new and bubbly. I called her “Ah-yi.” “Your mother has been waiting for you the whole day,” she said, taking the luggage from my hand. There she was, my mother—noticeably older and smaller. She walked slowly toward me, the right side of her body leaning on a metal cane. She was a bit shy when I hugged her. So frail she seemed that I felt like lifting her up. She was wearing so many layers of clothes that I could not tell how thin she really was.

Ten days later, when I gave her a goodbye hug under those camphor trees, I was again quietly shocked by what I held in my arms. I had never cried at our departure. There was no need. For sixteen years, I would show up predictably at her door in May or June, occasionally in July. I would stay for a couple of weeks, leave, and then come back the following year. I didn’t really understand why, this time, I was a mess in the car that took me to the airport.


Nobody saw it coming. Wuhan had been growing fast in recent years, wealthier, too. It was obvious to a visitor like me who saw the difference between years, not months or days. The Wuhan Tianhe International Airport was upgraded to being one of the best in the country in 2017. Paris and San Francisco were a direct flight away, convenient for wealthy shoppers and tourists; then, a couple of weeks after I last returned, direct flights from New York started up. Wuhan’s expansive subway lines now connect the three boroughs divided by its rivers; in the past, they felt like three separate cities. Real estate values have kept going up. As for me, I was delighted to find movie theaters popping up on the top floors of big shopping malls, plusher and better equipped than any of the American multiplexes where I live.   

“On January 10,” a high school friend told us recently on WeChat, the most popular Chinese social media app, “I went back to Wuhan University for a visit. Students have all left for the winter break. It was drizzling. There was such peace and quiet on campus when I was walking down Cherry Blossom Avenue. Who could have imagined a disaster was ready to strike?” In fact, by late December, the Wuhan health authorities had already known of about twenty-five mysterious, troubling pneumonia-like infection cases. They miscalculated the risk and chose not to sound the alarm through China’s national infectious disease reporting system. Keeping Beijing in the dark and “not alarming the public” had, as it turned out, disastrous consequences.

When news about the coronavirus broke, my sister and I were more worried for my mother than she herself was. I thought about what I would do if I were to get a phone call or a text message bearing bad news—as happened nine years ago, when I learned my father had fallen into a coma. Her age and pre-existing health conditions put her in the most vulnerable group: she has high blood pressure; an old fracture in her thigh bothers her often; her back pain is constant, often excruciating; and she is prone to ailments generally. She is also the kind of person who takes comfort in knowing that medical facilities are nearby and easily accessible when she needs them.


Jiwei Xiao

The author’s mother and niece in Wuhan, 2018

The crisis developed so quickly that my worry about her accidently getting infected during one of her hospital visits was replaced by other concerns. On January 23, the eve of Chinese New Year, the entire city was sealed off and placed on lockdown. Outside my mother’s apartment building, community volunteers dressed in red vests patrolled the campus’s residential area. Nobody was allowed in and out of their homes. The purchase of rice, vegetables, and other necessities was taken over by volunteers dispatched by the neighborhood committees. Life indoors twenty-four hours a day every day was dreary and at times hard to bear. But like other people, Mom and Ah-yi complied and settled into the prolonged quarantine.

They were the lucky ones. It was hard for me to describe to my mother what I had seen online, on the shaky cellphone videos circulating from one WeChat Group to another that transmitted harrowing images of Wuhan hospitals on the brink of collapse. The despairing cries of those who lost their beloved ones brought me to tears. I knew that grief. But my peacetime experience, bad as it was, could not compare to that of those who were swept into disasters in such a rapid, chaotic, and frightening fashion. I didn’t give these details to my mother, nor did I share with her my own emotional turmoil at the heroism and cowardice that I saw by following news and individuals’ posts online.

On February 7, the day when China’s most high-profile coronavirus whistleblower, Dr. Li Wenliang, died from Covid-19, the fragmented, gossipy social media community swirling around me snapped into one colossal body, convulsed in pain and anger—like a person suddenly receiving a blunt blow. Numerous virtual candles were lit. Many called for a national funeral; others, for official apologies. On March 11, China’s People (Renwu) magazine published an interview with Li’s colleague Dr. Ai Fen, exposing the egregious behavior of officials at their hospital. Right after this piece was deleted by China’s Internet police, the WeChat community started a collective race to outrun the censoring machine by reposting the article in varying forms, fonts, and languages.

The sparks of a fire of fury were soon blown into high flames. Someone somewhere must have gotten the message. It was a small triumph that a defunct article like this—really, one of tens of thousands that get waylaid and squelched by the censors every day—was brought back to life. I had always thought there was no real community on social media. But now I started to believe that, atomistic and wayward as it may be, the Chinese netizenry could have a will—and maybe even power in a time of crisis.

I know our wrestling with the hidden Internet police and their censor bots may have looked a bit like a game, a mischievous act, a Cheshire Cat’s grin. Reposting articles requires so little and incurs no real risk, after all. Yet it is precisely because of these virtual masses that honest individual voices could be amplified and saved.

Neither hysterical nor plaintive, the Quarantine Diary published daily on WeChat from January 25 to March 24 by the Chinese novelist Fang Fang reads like a mix of a war reporter’s dispatches from the frontline, a mother’s long message for her concerned children, and an open letter of J’accuse. Her chronicle of life under the sixty-day lockdown in Wuhan, her angry cry for justice and accountability, and her penetrating criticism of China’s party loyalists, rendered in unpretentious style, won her tens of millions of enthusiastic readers. As soon as her posts went online, around midnight each day, they were viewed more than 100,000 times. Her readers reposted them as quickly as censors deleted them. Despite being slandered and mocked by her detractors, Fang Fang emerged as a true hero, revered by her fans and admired by her fellow writers. Her final diary entry quoted the Bible:

I have fought the good fight.
I have finished the race.
I have kept the faith.

The quarantine will be gradually lifted in Wuhan, starting April 8. The Chinese propaganda machine had started spinning narratives about a triumphant war against the virus long before the tears from loss had dried. But let us not forget, in Fang Fang’s words, those “patients dying with unanswered grievances, their families devastated by anguish, and survivors’ struggle for life awakening to being-toward-death.”


March 25. I woke at dawn. My husband told me he was going downstairs to put a case of N95 masks out on the porch for his colleague to pick up and transfer to our local hospital in New Jersey. As the administrator of a WeChat group comprising Chinese-American faculty members, he volunteered, together with a couple of other members, to coordinate donations for their teaching hospital. Masks donated by individuals, as well as by several local Chinese-American groups, were dropped off on our front porch. Within days, they had pooled together almost $12,000 and collected 4,500 masks, nearly half of which were donated from friends and families over in China. 


Similar such grassroots donation activities—as I learned later from a WeChat group I’ve set up for people, mainly Chinese-American immigrants, to share their experiences of this crisis—have taken place in many other towns in New Jersey, on Long Island, in New York, and farther afield, including Austin, Texas, Winchester, Massachusetts, Lexington, Kentucky, and elsewhere across the US. The WeChat social media app, which enables both the publication and policing of ideas and information with almost equal efficiency, has become the engine that powers many of these charitable groups.

But it is the shock at this cataclysmic happening for the second time before our very eyes—first in China, now in the US—that has stirred people into action. Only two months ago, we were donating to various Chinese-American expat organizations that were leading charity efforts in response to the call for help from doctors in Wuhan. Little did we think then that, a few months later, our local hospitals in the US would be running into a severe shortage of personal protective equipment. It was especially painful for me and my friends, some of whom themselves work in health care and hospitals, to see the US authorities repeat their Chinese counterpart’s tendency to dawdle, to deny, to feign a semblance of normalcy—all of which, in China, had contributed to the disastrous havoc that convulsed Wuhan when the outbreak of coronavirus began there.

Despite China’s warning and the alarming example of Wuhan, the US federal government has, in the words of New York Times reporters, “squandered its best chance of containing the virus’s spread,” thanks to its very slow and disorganized response to the epidemic. Besides this institutional failure to mobilize on a greater scale, there has also been a widespread dismissive attitude toward the virus—from President Trump himself until very recently, down to young Springbreakers sunning themselves in throngs on the beaches of Florida.

Some critics are now questioning whether the “othering” of Covid-19 as a “Chinese virus” explains in part why the US and other Western countries were initially so complacent and cavalier about the threat of coronavirus. Could it be that Wuhan is so off the map in the West’s imagination of the world? Yet government decision-makers should have known better, given the information they were getting. Wuhan’s huge urbanized population of more than 11 million, its place as “China’s Thoroughfare,” its growing status as an international air travel hub, together with China’s murky, top-down bureaucratic system and the virus’s highly infectious and insidious nature, all combined to determine that the disease’s spread could not have been contained within the boundaries of a single municipality, nor even those of one country.

A specter is haunting the globe—the specter of a treacherous pathogen. “You can’t stop it, if you can’t see it,” goes the expert advice, and our government leaders have now, belatedly, taken that message to heart and are starting to do the extensive testing that can help slow the pandemic’s spread. But another terrible scourge—no less hard to combat—is also abroad: the blinding “facial recognition” racism that renders any “Chinese-looking” Asian in the US vulnerable to harassment, shaming, even violent hate crimes.

We have no effective testing kit for this pestilence as long as it lurks among us. It doesn’t manifest until it attacks people. Anti-Asian incidents around the globe spiked after the epidemic outbreak. In the US, President Trump’s calling Covid-19 “the Chinese virus” has further incited Sinophobia and anti-Asian racism in general. Although he later walked back his xenophobic statements, one suspects that the damage had already been done.

For many Chinese and Asian Americans, this is a particularly terrifying time. What many of us fear most about going out in public these days is not the coronavirus but hatred from strangers. We’ve been glared at in grocery stores, yelled at by passers-by on running trails, called “corona” by pickup basketball playmates. We’ve been shunned and attacked for wearing masks; we’ve been shunned and attacked for not wearing them. One painful memory of mine from the summer of 2018—of an encounter with a rabid harasser who hissed threatening insults at me at the San Francisco Airport—has returned to haunt me. I can’t help rehearsing in my head the things I would do and words I would try to use if I were ambushed by another hateful stranger.  

And yet, I know, as a member of an ethnic minority in this country, that we must not isolate ourselves; we should instead reaffirm our full membership in this society. There is, in fact, already a collective awakening among Chinese-American immigrants to the urgency of consolidating their ties with local communities. The ad-hoc donations we’re setting up are genuine charitable gestures in their own right, but they’re also an affirmation of our American identity. We may feel caught in the middle, but we also benefit from both cultures and both nations. Giving what we can give and doing what we can do are simply right during this time of national crisis. The US is our country, too.

There are moments of unnamable regret and unsoothed sorrow. One friend told me that, as a new immigrant and a mother of two, she sees the pandemic unfolding mainly through TV. She could not forget the moment when she saw the images that showed the death toll in Italy. “When I saw those stacked up coffins, I really felt sorry for them, as if this were our fault,” she said, “so I cried.” I recognize that sadness. But I am also bewildered: Why should we feel responsible or even guilty for this catastrophe?

Some people have compared the coronavirus to a mirror that reflects back to us things that were previously unseen. But this epidemic really strikes us more like a lightening, splitting our lives into past and present with a violence one could never have imagined. Like the citizens of Oran in Albert Camus’s The Plague (1947), we “do not believe in pestilence,” for we consider ourselves “humanists.” We wish that this entire thing were unreal—“a mere bogy of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away”—yet it is too real:

but all (as in our sleep) is different:
neighbors, chairs, walls, and no one sees us — 
we’re foreigners.

—Anna Akhmatova, from “Northern Elegies, #4


No, my mother is fine. She will survive the lockdown that’s soon to be lifted. This summer, if we both get through this disease all right, if the current suspension of flights and visas is relaxed by that time, I will go back again to Wuhan to visit her. It will be the longest journey. This time, when I see her, I will give her a hug and lift her up.

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