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Going Back 'Home' in the Time of Coronavirus

by Emma Liu |June 5, 2020

Communicating science to the public is not always easy. It requires a different set of skills than those generally used to address the scientific community. Claudia Dreifus, lecturer in the Master of Science in Sustainability Management and an adjunct professor of International Affairs and Media, shares these skills in her class Writing Global Science for International Media. The course invites students to produce different stories that address global science topics in a more personal and relatable way for the non-scientific public.

It is important to “learn how to translate global science,” says Dreifus. “Science is performed by passionate individuals who use their intelligence and determination to seek answers from nature. By telling their stories […], we believe that there are ways for science to be successfully communicated to readers who might otherwise fear it.”

Below is the work of one of her Spring 2020 students, Emma Liu. Emma is a student in the Master of Science in Sustainability Management program.

* * *

I was sitting in my friend’s living room watching Schitts Creek and trying to distract myself from the constant refreshing of the news that pervaded the first couple weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, when my friend turned her phone toward me. “I don’t mean to upset you,” she said, “but I think you should see this.”

My mind went blank as I took her phone and read the headline. Australia was going to close its borders to all non-residents in the next 24 hours. My stomach dropped and I scrambled to the government website to try to find more information. My parents were living in Australia, and with my university classes online for the rest of the semester, I had planned to go join them there to wait out the pandemic. In an unfortunate coincidence, my own Australian residency had expired earlier that month and I had sent in an application for renewal, but it was stuck in processing.

There was very little information on the Australian government website, and the link to apply for an exemption to the border restrictions didn’t actually lead to any such application. Reading through the announcement, I realized that my scheduled flight to Sydney the next morning would put me in Australia just hours after the restrictions were in place and so I wouldn’t be able to board the flight. I wouldn’t be able to get home.

I knew that my parents in Australia were also glued to the news and were likely reading the same things I was. I didn’t want my panic to amplify theirs, so I didn’t call right away. Instead I sat curled in a ball on my friend’s couch and laughed at the situation to avoid crying. I laughed out of sadness and astonishment that this had actually just happened. After a week of constant worrying and debating, I had finally made a plan to go home and quarantine with my family, and now all of a sudden that plan had disappeared into thin air.

My friend reached out to give me a hug and I stopped her knowing that if she did hug me, my emotions would overflow into a sobbing mess. I thought that the best way I was going to get through this moment was to acknowledge that it was entirely out of my control and stay focused on the next steps that I could control. So, I tried to push the idea of going home to Australia out of my mind and turned to the next option, which was to go to Hong Kong.

people in a bus wearing masks

Photo: zydeaosika

While debating the decision to go home, my sister and I had already decided that it would be best if we left the United States. She was being asked to move out of her university housing in Colorado, and I didn’t want to be alone in my apartment in New York City, where I was going to grad school. I had just moved to New York in the fall, and my roommate and friends close by were all leaving the city.

We had two options then, to go live with our parents in their house in Australia or go to Hong Kong, where our mother is based part-time for work and keeps a small apartment. Australia had been the first choice so that we could all be together as a family and have enough space for the four of us. But with the sudden border restrictions being put in place, my sister and I would have to go to Hong Kong.

I texted my parents and confirmed with them the new plan, then called my sister in Colorado. With international flights being abruptly canceled left and right, and rumors of a national lockdown in the United States that would separate us, my sister and I scrambled to book ourselves on the next flights to Hong Kong.

When people ask me where I am from, I actually usually say I am from Hong Kong. I was born in Hong Kong and lived there until I was nine. However, with my parents being expats from Canada and Beijing, I have moved around a lot since then. However, COVID-19 would now send me back to Hong Kong for the indefinite future.

After a fitful night’s sleep, I stood in the check-in line the next evening for my flight. I wore the only face mask I had, a leftover my friends gave me. Everyone around me also wore face masks, but many also had on gloves and protective eyewear, like the safety goggles one would wear in a woodworking shop. Some passengers wore bright white paper coveralls or rain ponchos to protect their clothing from rogue virus droplets. Most western countries were still telling the public there was no need to wear masks. In contrast to the check-in lines for other flights around me, Hong Kongers looked perhaps paranoid or overly cautious. But considering Hong Kong’s recent history with epidemics, the fear-driven response was not unexpected.

Seventeen years ago, in the spring of 2003, the SARS-coronavirus devastated Hong Kong. SARS had a fatality rate of 17 percent and caused 299 deaths, including eight healthcare workers, in Hong Kong. The common memory of this epidemic has stuck with all Hong Kongers and evidence of the caution it instilled in people has been noticeable around the city ever since. It has definitely informed how the city has responded to COVID-19. As of May 1, 2020, there have only been four deaths due to COVID-19 in all of Hong Kong, a city of 7.8 million people.

For the past 17 years after SARS, a mask-wearer in Hong Kong might have a cold themselves or be concerned about catching something, but overall, wearing a mask when you’re even a little sniffly is seen as a common courtesy to others and a basic personal hygiene matter. In most of the city’s high-rise buildings, elevator buttons are covered in a plastic layer so that they can more easily be sanitized multiple times a day. Frequent handwashing is very common, and at the popular burger chain Shake Shack, there is even an automated handwashing station next to the ketchup dispenser. When you arrive at the airport, all passengers have to walk through infrared temperature screening area to identify anyone who has a fever.

My family was all living in Hong Kong when SARS hit, and as a six-year-old, it was one of the first significant memories of my childhood. I remember a large bottle of hand sanitizer appearing in the family car after school one day; the damp, musty feeling of wearing a face mask all day; and my four-year old sister pulling hers off constantly much to the annoyance of my parents.

Knowing that Hong Kong had so far controlled the spread COVID-19, I was comforted by the precautions and care that the people around me in line were taking. When we boarded the flight, everyone was given two extra masks to wear and a form to fill out. The form was similar to an immigration form and had us report countries visited while away etc., but it also asked for our seat number so that if we did get diagnosed with COVID-19 they could track down anyone in who sat near us. Even if it wasn’t a complete fix, it felt good to see that there was some sort of plan in action.

Then, once we landed, we filled out more health forms, received an informational booklet on COVID-19, signed a contract stating we would self-isolate for two weeks, and received baby blue electronic tracking-bracelets which were connected to an app on our phones called “Stay Home Safe.” The whole process took about 40 minutes and then I got in a taxi to go to my mother’s apartment, my new “home,” to go into strict quarantine for the next 14 days.

The few minutes in the taxi was the only time I was allowed to spend outside for the next two weeks, so I looked for clues as to the state of the city while I passed through it. There was definitely less activity but I couldn’t tell if the city seemed subdued because of the early hour of the morning or because of the virus.

From the bedroom window of the apartment, I could see a road winding its way through the densely foliaged Hong Kong hills and past our building. I tried to assess whether the amount of traffic I could see was at a normal level. Then I was comforted by the sight of a bus pulling up to the bus stop to pick a couple of people up—at least this daily occurrence was still happening. A bit later on, I spotted a few members of a swim club doing laps in the bay together, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that at least some public gatherings were still active.

Although I have memories of this place, when I have come back to visit, I still never felt like a local. We left when I was nine. I do call it home because I was born here. I have come back to visit almost every year or so, but I don’t speak the local language, Cantonese, and I haven’t really kept in touch with anyone I used to know when I lived here. Coming “home” to Hong Kong isn’t the same familiar feeling as going back to Los Angeles, where I lived for four years and I still have a community and feel like I actually lived there. However, in this situation, it was still a home of sorts, closer to my parents in Australia, and seemed like the best place for us to wait out whatever was to come next in this pandemic.

Now that I was in Hong Kong and was legally bound to stay in the apartment, I had run out of things I could do to control my situation, so I tried to settle in. I decided to start off my quarantine easy to at least try to set myself up with a better mindset for the months to come. I considered it a good day if I exercised even a little to get some endorphins going, showered, and ate one full meal sitting at the dining table. I also checked the news only for a few minutes toward the end of each day. Whenever I got stuck worrying, I tried to focus as much as possible on what I had control over, and what I was grateful for: I was with my sister and not alone in New York, I had somewhere comfortable to live, food to eat, and, most importantly to me, a view of the deep green hills of Hong Kong that rise up behind the clustered skyscrapers.

I was starting to feel this weird sense of deja vu from all the times I was uprooted when moving around during childhood. I tried not to think too much about what my plans for that spring in New York were, about my room in the city sitting empty, about the internships that I had applied for, and projects that were left hanging. From experience, I knew that dwelling on what could have been and all that was being missed out on only made me feel worse. No amount of desperate longing and thinking about going back to the way things were would change the situation. I had tried that enough times to know that nothing would change—instead, each day would be clouded by frustration.

Trying to keep a positive mindset was made easier than other times because I knew more people going through the same thing. I hopped on Zoom for book-club meetings, virtual high-school reunions, and FaceTime family dinners. Everyone’s life was on pause and we could all get used to this new normal together.

The first seven days of home quarantine passed by slowly. I spent a lot of time just looking out the window and sitting on the balcony in the morning patch of sun. The whirlwind of the past week combined with jetlag had left a brain fog that needed to be cleared. Then once I got past the halfway mark, the days blurred together and almost flew by. Online classes started up, and activities and homework expanded to fit the time available. At midnight on the fourteenth day, my sister came into my room with a pair of scissors and we cut our now worn and slightly frayed blue bracelets off. In the morning, we went out and saw what was happening in the city.

With our newfound freedom, we decided to put off any work for the day and go to the mall. Everyone was wearing masks, and we got our temperatures taken before we went into any café or store. Restaurants were open, just at half-capacity and everyone had to be seated at least 1.5 meters apart.

After 14 days inside the bubble of the apartment, it was a relief to see how normal—if just a bit quieter—things were in the city. Although the constant temperature taking was a bit weird at first, it felt safer knowing that no one around me had a fever, and that anyone who had come from outside the city had spent 14 days in strict quarantine. Mask-wearing showed that we were all still being cautious about the virus, providing a sense of solidarity. The little inconveniences felt worth it for the freedom to move around as usual, grocery shop, and eat at restaurants.

As of today, I am going on week 8 in Hong Kong, and groups of 8 or fewer are allowed to gather in public again. I’ve reached out to old friends who I haven’t talked to in years and made plans to join in for barbecues and beach trips. As with most people, I still feel a deep longing to go back to the way things were and the life I so quickly left behind. But with so much uncertainty about when that will happen, I am trying to make the best of what is in front of me right now. If I spend the next few months in Hong Kong, which is likely, at least maybe I can make some good friends and get to know the city better, and the next time I come back it will feel more like home.

Emma Liu is a student in the M.S. in Sustainability Management program at Columbia University. 

The M.S. in Sustainability Management, co-sponsored by the Earth Institute and Columbia’s School of Professional Studies, trains students to tackle complex and pressing environmental and managerial challenges. Visit our website to learn more.

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