Rose Lu is a Wellington-based writer and software developer who released her debut collection of essays, All Who Live on Islands, last year. This story, entitled Notes from Mandarin Class, was written in response to Britomart’s commission for a story about the Covid-19 lockdown.
Three months ago my Mandarin teacher, Li Jing, asked me where she could buy face masks. I didn’t know. I suggested the pharmacy, but she had already checked there — they were out. A staff member told her to try Bunnings. She went there and found masks designed for home renovations, filters uselessly coarse. Taobao had sold out of masks months ago, and she thought perhaps I would know of a source that she didn’t. But I had never bought face masks in New Zealand. I couldn’t recall ever seeing them for sale. When I was in Asia they were a common sight in convenience stores. I remember walking down aisles, passing displays of chocolate, chips and face masks. People passed me on the streets and in the subway, nonchalant in their masks.
Six weeks ago Li Jing tried to give me some of her face masks. A relative back in China had sent them to her. She apportioned some of her stash into a zip-lock bag for me and my household. My partner and I were still planning on going to Korea and Japan in a month. Li Jing had been keeping a closer watch on the virus’s spread than me. Airports were a dangerous place to be. I felt like she was more worried than I was, and told her to keep the masks. In class she taught me the Mandarin word for Covid-19: 冠状病毒 | crown-shaped virus, explaining that the virus looks like the headdresses that ancient Emperors used to wear. Over the following week my social media started changing. A Shanghai dance studio I followed started posting online classes. I read a New Yorker comic about Chinese millennials posting quarantine cooking recipes to Xiachufang, a Chinese cooking website. A fellow Chinese-New Zealander tweeted: “the racism that's coming out of the woodworks from this c*ronav*rus is absolutely wild, i'm used to a lot but this is next level… like, my sister couldn't book a haircut?? in new plymouth??? she hasn't been out of the country in years?!?”
Three weeks ago Li Jing and I had an argument about whether the New Zealand government was doing enough to contain the virus. In rapid Mandarin she explained how quickly and aggressively the Chinese government had been investigating cases of Covid-19, tracing each new case back until they could link it with an existing case. Later I would learn that the English term for this is ‘contact tracing’. I didn’t have subtle enough language to convey what I wanted to say to her about the initial cover-up, the reliability of media sources, our differing expectations of governments. In the end I told her that New Zealand is unlike Britain and America, and that I trusted our government to do the right thing by its people. She fretted that New Zealand would be too late in locking its doors, her knowledge of the virus’s trajectory months ahead of mine. Later, I received email after email informing me of festival cancellations. My partner and I cancelled our trip overseas. I called my parents, and they told me that my grandparents had stopped going for walks outside.
A week ago I messaged Li Jing asking if she still wanted to go ahead with class. She replied yes; it would be her first time leaving the house that week. She came to class wearing a face mask and carrying a package of face masks for me. I thanked her and took it. We discussed moving classes online to WeChat in the future. I read several articles about the efficacy of face mask usage. They’re hard to use properly. Washing your hands is more effective. There weren’t enough of them for health care workers.
Lockdown was announced scarcely half an hour after my flat got back from the supermarket. The three of us had already started working and studying from home, and we had fortuitously decided to buy our week’s groceries at lunchtime. I sent a voice message to Li Jing. As I suspected, the news hadn’t gotten to her yet. I called my parents. They were in good spirits; they had been anticipating this for the last month and had been slowly stocking up the chest freezer. My mum said they wouldn’t go out today for their evening walk, she’d been hearing too much news about discrimination against Chinese people. My dad said that he had tried wearing a face mask but found it too uncomfortable. He had left China before face mask usage became normalised.
On the day of lockdown I read the Wikipedia page about Taiwan’s response to the pandemic. By early March, Taiwan was producing an average of 9.2 million face masks a day. Soldiers had been redeployed to mask manufacturing facilities to help staff production lines. Taiwan had stopped exporting masks overseas and had implemented a domestic rationing system based on the buyer’s national identification number. I looked at their graph of cases. It was very different from ours.
On the third day of lockdown it poured with rain. But our house had run out of fresh vegetables. We made three shopping lists: one for Mango, the local Indian grocer; one for Yan’s, the Chinese supermarket; and one for New World, the Western supermarket. I would go to Yan’s. I prepared for the bike ride, donning my waterproof shoes, rain pants and rain jacket. I hesitated by the packet of face masks on the kitchen table. “Where are the face masks?” my partner asked, stuffing a grocery list into his jacket pocket. I handed him one. He wore it easily and headed out. I took another face mask out and looped it around my ears. I adjusted the bottom of my glasses frame. I remembered the wire across the nose, and pressed down on either side. Was I touching it too much? I inhaled and exhaled. My glasses misted up. My dad was right, they’re uncomfortable. It was too restrictive on my breathing. I couldn’t imagine cycling with this thing on. I took it off. I had definitely touched it too much. I stuffed it into my jacket pocket and headed out the door.