“I told you so” and more

“How are you doing Tianxin?”

People, especially my American friends and professors, have been asking me this question repeatedly in the past weeks. One professor sent me an email of considerable length with heartwarming words to check-in with me. She said she was particularly concerned about me because when she enjoyed her break in Antigua she heard people referring to covid-19 as “the Chinese flu,” and each time she heard that phrase she thought of me, the only Chinese student in her class. Is Tianxin home or on campus? Has he met any discrimination? When my mom heard about the email from me, she said she felt less worried and was very touched by the love and care expressed by this professor.

I am a little bit flattered, to be honest. Everyone is having a hard time and as an international student who has the ability and privilege to travel and stay at one of the most expensive liberal arts colleges in the United States, my situation is relatively not so bad. Or, perhaps, I have already overcome my worst time in the pandemic crisis(I hope so).

At the beginning of the semester, not too long after I posted my first blog here about the coronavirus outbreak in China, a group of Chinese Wesleyan students formed an activist group “WesInAction” to raise money for China and raise awareness of the spread of the disease and its social implications. Over a weekend, students did extensive research on the situation in China and the virus itself. To better deliver our message and voice, we organized related information into a pamphlet in clean-cut, minimalist design. We also set up an info table at Usdan, the place where I wrote my truly emotional first blog. For almost an entire week, I sat there during lunchtime and afternoon, asking people if they have heard of the new coronavirus and if they’re curious about what’s killing Chinese people and may soon spread to the world. How bad is it? How can I help? How concerned should we be?

Usdan is like a train station, a spot of transition. I saw people come and go, waiting in line to swipe cards, grabbing a sandwich and a cup coffee in a hurry, changing their directions to avoid certain people with whom they had a funny history, searching for a seat by the table, on the couch or on the floor just to turn the same pages over and over again and letting loose of their thoughts in light-hearted chats with friends. I saw all of these when I stayed there for a relatively long time, at the info table of WesInAction. In front of me were bloody red posters of the event, printed instructions for ways of donation, and pamphlets that cover both scientific studies of the pandemic and the proper ways to take precautions. Due to the limited resources we had, we do not have enough copies of pamphlets to give away, so we had to explain the content to passengers and ask whoever is interested to read it at the info table. And we got the instructions and posters printed by the COL secretary in her office for free. These carefully-prepared and designed yet numerically under-prepared materials certainly did not block one’s sight to appreciate the busy scene of Usdan, since, on average and in my experience, no more than three non-Chinese students would stop at our info table per day, and I sat there for about three to four hours daily.

I had the thought to write about this experience at the info table in my senses blog when I was sitting there. It was almost as if I was invisible. And I somehow felt sorry for calling passengers, especially those that I know, to attract attention. They have controls over their own bodies and minds and if they wanted to talk to me they would have done it already. Why should I intrude on their stable lives and force them to care about the other side of the world? But occasionally I knew that I was definitely not invisible by the look of people walking by. They carefully throw a look on the side, maybe on the red poster that shows two Asian faces in pain, then my eyes met theirs, they would often smile back or speed up and that’d be the end of this awkward encounter.

I did not intend to blame or to mock on anyone who didn’t pay much attention to the outbreak in China, and I hope to say more than just “I told you so.” It is only normal that people tend to care more about their present lives, the people that they know and not distant, disturbing, and indeed strange people and disease. The similar kind of delay of proper reaction to the pandemic that is happening now in the states may very likely happen in China if the pandemic was originated in the U.S. or somewhere in the global south. Yet again, in this particular case and stream of history, people did choose to arrange their attention in a rather arrogant way that resulted in ignorance and multiplied pains. I have recorded a podcast for Argus about the virus when the first case occurred in the US, and we Chinse students have been vocal the whole time on campus. Even when almost all domestic students were petitioning to open the campus after the break, many of us argued online with people about why closing the school is the only reasonable and responsible choice. Sadly, ignorance of others always fails humanity.

Now that all of the “Chinese pain” becomes universal as the coronavirus spreads all over the world, people witnessed the development of the disease and wondered how things “suddenly” got so serious and messed up. But nothing is new, really. This whole situation got me reflecting on the ways of effective communication, the importance of identifying with others’ experiences, and what more can we offer beyond saying “I told you so.” To me, the urge to say “I warned you about this” is a fair one, yet it is not satisfying in terms of combating the current situation. How can we cross the boundary of self-other and, at least, provide with each other some genuine emotional support?

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