Living through protests in Hong Kong then experiencing another hot spot, New York during the Covid-19 crisis, I discovered that escaping danger is not the answer. Rather, sitting still and figuring out how we can be better is what we need now.
“Good thing you’re leaving now,” said my mom while lounging on the couch watching the protests on TV. We were sweating with the AC on. It was only June.
Good thing I won’t have to worry about school days disrupted by marches.
Good thing I won’t have to worry about discrimination for speaking Mandarin.
Good thing I don’t have to worry about getting beat up if I dressed in all black.
Hong Kong, China – October 2019: Thousands of protestors block Nathan Road to place economic pressure on the Hong Kong government. Photo credit by Freedom Fung.
Good thing I’m leaving, now that I’ve graduated high school. Now that I’m off to college for a year in Florence, Italy, which is half a quarter across the world from Hong Kong, a city-country, slowly ripping itself apart.
Two months later, it was August, 2019, and I was 9,000 kilometers from home. As I sat on the stone ledge in front of my new dorm building, surrounded by cypress trees, overseeing an olive grove while basking in the Tuscan sun, the Hong Kong protests were the farthest from my mind. I was worried about making friends and exploring Florence, learning new languages and discovering my place in the world.
Firenze, Italy – February 2020: The view from “my spot” on the campus of NYU Florence encompassing the olive grove, Villa Ulivi, and Villa La Pietra. Photo credit: Rosalyn Shi.
Idyllic life interrupted
It was easy to be immersed in my new life, wrapped up within the protective bubble my university provided, surrounded by naive youth and supportive staff. However, traces of reality slipped through the cracks of my rose-tinted glasses until eventually they broke. Crack. My wallet was gone.
It happened at the Uffizi Gallery, full of tourists on a free entrance day. To me, I was a university student researching art for a school assignment. To a pickpocket, I was an Asian girl, foreign and alone and unaware. He bumped into me. “Sorry,” he said. “Sorry,” I said.
My fantasy shattered into reality. My cash, my credit cards, even my ID–gone in an instant. I was nobody. I was nobody all along.
Of course, reality doesn’t stop there.
After the fall semester, I returned to Hong Kong for winter break. It was my a tradition that me and my mom share—getting Tiger Sugar bubble tea together at Mong Kok, just outside the MTR station. When she ordered a cup of bubble tea in Mandarin, she was met with an impatient, condescending tone from the cashier who was all-polite to the customer before us. Initially, I felt embarrassed that my mom chose not to speak English. Then came the sour taste of shame for being embarrassed at her instead of angry at him.
Hong Kong – November 2019: Protestors marching against the “Chinazi” regime in Tsim Sha Tsui. Photo credit by Freedom Fung.
What did he want? He wanted democracy. He wanted the withdrawal of the extradition bill that seemingly encroached on his home. He wanted the demonstrators’ riots to not be called riots and for all arrested protestors to be released unconditionally with all their charges dropped. They wanted the government to admit all their wrongs without ever acknowledging their own.
The cashier was obviously a part-time college student. From the news and a simple search on protestor demographics, I knew that the majority of protestors were university students. Logically, it makes sense. They are young adults who are eager to practice their newly gained independence and autonomy, who bear the future of their city-country, and who don’t have jobs to lose or other risks except for their education.
Their recklessness stems from their admirable but naive desire to make a change. They are wholeheartedly fighting for what they believe is right, but rightness does not ever mean wrongful discrimination and oppression of a people and their voices. Judging us for what language we speak has got nothing to do with the freedom he’s fighting for.
Hong Kong – November 2019: Crude graffiti on entrance of MTR station in Yau Ma Tei. Photo credit Kon Karampelas.
Peace flipped upside down, again
A few days later, in the safety of my Hong Kong apartment, I saw a YouTube video of a JP Morgan banker get beat up by protestors for saying in Mandarin, “We are all Chinese people!” A white man, a western reporter, blocked the banker’s way to re-enter the office building, thus instigating the attack. In the comments, people began to criticize the protesters’ hypocrisy and western media bias.
I felt relief that finally, non-mainlanders are speaking out against the protesters’ violent and destructive acts that are glossed over by western media. I felt relief that people recognized the complexity of the protests and were willing to face its reality instead of consuming an easily digestible sugar-coated story.
For the entire break, I was paranoid of what language I spoke and my outward appearance. So, when spring semester began at NYU Florence, I was sad to part from my parents, but glad to be free of living constantly on edge.
Hong Kong – June 2019: Protestors in Mong Kok in the streets I used to frequent. I often ate at HeSheEat cafe. Photo credit: Rosalyn Shi.
Settled back into the dorms, I returned to my home atop a hill. Ironically, I felt more comfort in a foreign country that was somehow less racist than the country I called home. Italians less racist against Asians than actual Asians? Now that’s saying something.
But just as I began to settle in again, getting back into the rhythm and making the most of what I had left in my year abroad, I saw the words: “Important NYU Florence Update.” My world was flipped upside-down again.
The words swam before my eyes, passing through with no registered meaning: “cancelling classes…required to depart by Thursday morning…what you may leave…” After frantically reading the message, I called my parents, numb and unfeeling. We booked a new flight in less than 72 hours. I stripped my room of everything and laid on the bed, thinking how just earlier that morning I scoffed at how everyone was overreacting.
Later, when the students who left heard how Florence and the entire country locked down, the general sentiment was: “Good thing we left then.” Good thing we’re with our family and loved ones now, good thing we’re back home during this crisis. Good thing we “escaped” the virus.
My tumultuous, 17-hour-turned-36-hour journey home was unforgettable. Travel was full of delays, chance encounters, and sleeplessness that I cannot get into here. But, I am still haunted by the things I heard at the Florence airport.
“Dad, the flight is canceled. It’s canceled. No–the earliest next flight is in Bologna. I’m not going north to where the virus is! Yeah, so I have to wait here for a day so I’m at risk anyway. This is so stupid. I just want to go home and see grandma.”
He was a young man with a cart full of suitcases, and one of many others complaining about the virus without a mask or gloves on. Granted, the stores may have run out of masks, or he was just another person in the airport who feared the virus, but did not practice preventative hygienic measures. I felt a twinge of sympathy cut through my annoyance at his mention of family and home. We all wanted to go home. But, my pity was short-lived. The virus had not even spread to Bologna yet. He was just another teen, afraid of and upset by everyone’s inflated fears.
Amongst the chaos of the airport, one thing was startling clear: everyone who had the luxury of seeking escape sought it.
Finally, I arrived in New York. I was filled with relief, but it was fleeting. Shortly after my 14-day self-quarantine, coffee shops like Starbucks and Maxim’s Cakes closed down. Then, libraries and restaurants. Even grocery stores. Only one H Mart remains open within my neighborhood in Queens because it was small and sanitary enough.
New York, USA – March 2020: The Hong Kong Supermarket in Flushing, open on March 9th, closed on March 26th. Photo credit: Rosalyn Shi.
New York, USA – April 11, 2020: Shoppers lining up outside of H Mart, practicing social distancing. Photo credit Rosalyn Shi.
Out of the hot pot into another hot spot
From Hong Kong, a protest hotspot and border neighbor of the novel COVID-19 virus, to Italy, the European epicenter of the disease, and now New York, the worldwide epicenter of the disease, I have constantly fled from unrest and turmoil for the past year without knowing.
Escaping immediate danger is not cowardly. It is intuitive for survival. What is cowardly is to run and not reflect on the problems that caused you to flee. The pandemic could have been contained if countries like Italy and the United States saw what happened to China as a precautionary warning instead of a science-fiction tragedy (and, for a time, the butt of many jokes). When the problem finally reaches us, we counter our neglect with evasiveness, again and again.
Reality is everywhere. We face tough issues every day, whether we choose to acknowledge them or not. To escape is to ignore, but ignorance does not erase their existence. Ignorance does not erase reality.
We must ask, “Why is this happening?” and “How can we fix this?” instead of pointing fingers and sighing, “Good thing it’s not happening to us.” We must reflect and discuss and push for solutions instead of waiting for them to appear.
So where will we go next? When will we run out of “good” and unaffected places to go? When will we exhaust our “Italys” and “New Yorks” before the virus came? With the way we are headed, we will stop saying “later” to our problems when there is no longer a “later.” We will finally take action when “later” is forced to be “now.”
And by then, it will be too late.
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