Future Tense

When You’re From Wuhan, the U.S. Coronavirus Outbreak Is Déjà Vu

Some Wuhanese never thought it would reach here. Some thought it was only a matter of time.

The Manhattan skyline on March 18.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

My hometown in the news,” I tweeted on Jan. 15, with a screenshot from an article about a new SARS-like virus found in China. It was a sardonic reference to my hometown, Wuhan, a city that almost no one in America had ever heard of, even though its population exceeds that of our biggest metropolis. As a kid answering the question of where I was from, I wished that people would know the name Wuhan the same way they knew about Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong.

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January was before the makeshift hospitals, before the martyring of a whistle-blower doctor, before nearly 800 million people were placed under lockdown, before the virus started spreading in earnest beyond Chinese borders. Now it’s late March, and people the world over are panicking as country after country shuts down. But for those like me—members of the Wuhan diaspora living in the United States—the daily headlines and panic come with a sense of déjà vu. We’re living through the coronavirus outbreak twice: first watching it affect our families overseas, now seeing it reach our lives directly.

Last week, China began to lift restrictions on Wuhan and surrounding Hubei Province. At the same time, Gov. Andrew Cuomo placed “shelter in place”-type restrictions for the state of New York, where I live now, and now one in five Americans has been given similar instructions. As China’s case numbers have been going down, the U.S. leads the world in (confirmed) numbers of coronavirus infections. For Wuhanese in America, our homes have switched places.

Watching the recent events in America is “reopening the experience of grief that I felt when I was looking at it happening in Wuhan,” says Rui Zhong, a China analyst at the Wilson Center in Washington. Zhong, like me, was born in Wuhan and moved to the United States around age 5. All of her grandparents are quarantined there, unable to go outside for the past two months; one aunt works at a hospital and has a pass to go to and from work.

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For a long time, it seemed that everyone in the U.S. treated COVID-19 as an abstract foreign policy issue, Zhong says. As she puts it, the usual reaction would be that the outbreak was really unfortunate, “now let’s talk about movies next weekend.” Even a few weeks ago, when the Wilson Center was ordering its employees to work from home, one co-worker wondered whether the move was an overreaction. But Zhong’s family’s experience in Wuhan made it clear to hear that  these actions would be necessary.

Ivy Yang agrees about the seeming lack of urgency in the States. Yang, who is studying for her masters at Columbia Business School, was born in Wuhan and came to the U.S. when she was 9. Last Christmas, her parents came from Wuhan to visit, but were unable to return because of the lockdown. Stuck in the U.S., the entire family decamped to a place in New Jersey.

“In New York, it was a very slow ramp-up and then it kind of hit in a very extreme way, but for Wuhanese living in New York, we were always very vigilant,” she says. Long before official warnings began to proliferate, Yang was avoiding public transportation and large events, telling non-Asian about the importance of hand hygiene and explaining why people were wearing masks. Two weeks before the schools officially closed, she pulled her 6-year-old son out of first grade. “A part of me just didn’t believe that, given how much traveling there is in New York City, that there wasn’t a case,” she says. “The last flight out of Wuhan was on the 23rd of January, and I remember just counting the days—14 days from Jan. 23—and thinking that if anything happened it would be during that duration.”

I was not nearly as careful as Yang. When my father (in California) called in January to say that he was canceling his back trip to Wuhan out of fear of being quarantined, I thought he was being paranoid. I had never heard of an entire city being quarantined before. He relayed rumors that the situation was much worse than reported in either Chinese- or English-language media, but I merely told him to stop calling the virus “SARS” and said that misinformation was very common on social media.

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In February, we received news that a relative in Hubei, my mother’s cousin, had died from the coronavirus. Soon, I was hearing stories about how only one member of our family could go outside for a few hours, and how my uncle—quarantined with his parents, away from his wife who was quarantined with my cousins—was learning to cook out of necessity. Still, it wasn’t until the virus hit Italy that I realized that it would not be contained and that I should start staying indoors. If it could reach southern Europe, there was little reason it would not reach the United States. Even then, I had envisioned a slow rollout, not an entirely new state of affairs within two weeks.

Similarly, the spread of Covid-19 came as a surprise and a disappointment for Zeyi Yang (no relation to Ivy), who came to New York City from Wuhan to pursue graduate studies at Columbia. “This whole of January and February, I always thought this was a tragedy for my hometown,” he says. “I didn’t know my life in New York was going to be impacted. It’s caught me unprepared.”

Zeyi remembers seeing the World Health Organization refuse to declare a pandemic and hearing officials claim that containment was possible if countries took the correct precautions. “[T]here are a lot of things that the Chinese government didn’t do well when they were handling the crisis, and I secretly thought if this was happening in another country, it [would] be different,” he says. He didn’t expect other countries to make the same mistakes.

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For all of us with family back in Hubei, the conversations have changed in recent weeks. I still ask my family about how they are doing, but, now, they are worried about my hygiene and the dangerous hotspot of Brooklyn. They say that New York is the new Wuhan. Once, Zhong mostly asked after her grandparents; now they give her advice about sanitizing packages and wearing gloves and tell her to take a shower whenever she gets home. Yang has gone from coordinating with extended family to get food to her grandparents (who live in an 18th-floor apartment) to receiving inquiries from Chinese friends who ask if she’s OK and whether she needs masks. Friends did end up sending some, which she donated to the local police department.

Zeyi’s parents call frequently to make sure he’s not going outside, and his mom also warns him to exercise during this time so he doesn’t gain weight during quarantine like she did. The whiplash from the change in fortune is surreal. Zeyi’s mom, a human resources manager, has returned to work. Meanwhile, all his classes are online, his research trip to Nepal has been canceled, and Columbia’s journalism career fair is virtual now, with many attendees pulling out.“I’ve been staying at home for two weeks except for one or two grocery trips,” he says. “I already feel like this is so unbearable, like I don’t know how I can cope for the next month or two months. But … my parents have already done this for two months. I can do it, I’m just not sure how to.”

My wish that people know the name of Wuhan was granted, though it’s a monkey’s paw wish if I ever saw one. Zhong, too, says that when news of the virus first started to spread, she became dejected thinking that people would associate our hometown “with this horrible illness forever.”

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She wants people to remember Wuhan for other things—for what Zhong calls its “Midwest part of China energy,” its riverside Rust Belt-like history, its love of carbs, its down-to-earth accent. Yang, too, wants people to know Wuhan for more than the virus and even for more than landmarks like the Yellow Crane Tower, which is widely regarded as a symbol of the city but is the kind of place that locals usually never go to unless you have friends in town. (See: Times Square.) Yang is working with artists in Wuhan on an initiative called the Reboot Project to showcase different aspects of the city: the foodie culture and breakfast delicacies, the punk music scene, the business potential, anything but bat soup and disease.

As for me, I bite my tongue now when family members warn me to wear masks if I can. I don’t roll my eyes when my dad keeps shipping me plastic gloves, or preach about misinformation when I receive texts about how the mail might have coronavirus so I should try to sanitize everything before opening. In January, I was arrogant, but I was proven wrong. In April, as my grandparents are able to go outside again and I’m staying six feet away from everyone, I will be glad that the worst is over for them and ask for their advice when I need it.