Content warning: mental health, racism
This story is dedicated to my mother, who always encourages me to read and write and trusts in my ability to write well.
I have finally sat down to write about what has happened to me the past two weeks (January 17 2020 to February 2 2020). I have finally sat down to face the phantom haunting me and recount the fear, anxiety, alienation, isolation and discrimination Chinese people have encountered since the outbreak of COVID-19 . As I am under strict self-quarantine for 14 days and can’t go anywhere, I have a relatively undisturbed environment to write down these unfathomable fragments.
Xue Zhao takes a deep breath in as she walks into the departure hall. She checks in at the counter with her parents Fang and Feng. Fang’s hair is mostly black and curly, with some white hairs. When she smiles, her eyes look like two slender crescents. She wants to walk slowly, but she is pushed by the passing of time. The usually busy air- port is now almost empty. Everyone’s face is covered with a mask. Everyone stands apart, keeping a safe distance between themselves and others. Xue looks at the boarding time of her flight to Kuala Lumpur, 3:15PM.
Xue and her parents walk to the border force. She gives her father a cuddle. His smile is warm and strong.
“你现在到是逃离疫区了!（Now you are es- caping the epidemic country!）” Feng says.
“ 这并不是我希望的！（But it is not my will!）” Xue pursed her lips. “ 不要忘记去马来西亚升舱！（Don’t forget to upgrade your second flight to the first class in Kuala Lumpur! ）” Feng holds his daughter’s shoulders with some pressure.
“你要来澳洲陪我!（You should come to Australia to keep me company!）” Xue cuddles her mother and cries.
“以后三，现在肯定不行。(Sure, but not now. ) ” Fang’s eyes are red and filled with tears.
After passing the border force and security check, Xue tries to connect with the airport WiFi but she can’t. She misses the chance to read the news article her classmate Yingying sent her several minutes ago: Australian President Scott Morrison Restricts People of Republic of China Passport Holders from Entering Australia.
Xue finally enters the first class cabin and sits next to a middle-aged Malaysian man. He stares at his phone for a long time be- fore take off. Xue is too exhausted to keep her eyes open. By the time she wakes up in the middle of the flight, the travel ban policy has been widely circulated on WeChat.
Xue huddles up in the corner with a blanket, looking at the changing clouds from the window. The Malaysian uncle right next to her has fallen asleep, tilting his head towards her. There is only an hour left to reach Malaysia. Feng sends Xue an audio message on WeChat about the travel ban, as well as a news article on this new policy. Xue wants to go to the bathroom. She can hear his gentle snoring. She jumps over his crossed knees, waking him up. She smiles awkwardly.
After they land at Kuala Lumpur, Xue con- nects with the airport WiFi and listens to her dad’s audio message on Wechat. He says: “你大孃刚刚在朋友圈发了这篇关于澳 洲禁止中国人如境的新闻。你到了吉隆坡， 给澳洲海关打一个电话，问问他们明天还可
不可以入境，要是不行的话，你也不用再飞 去澳洲，你在吉隆坡买张机票回家吧！(Your auntie just posted this article about the lat- est Australian travel ban against Chinese on Wechat moments. You must call the Austra- lian border force and ask them whether you can enter Australia tomorrow in Malaysia. If they say no, you must buy your flight back home in Kuala Lumpur so you don’t waste your time flying all the way to Sydney.) ” Xue loses her sense of direction. She stands in the aisle, blocking the Malaysian uncle.
“你需要我帮忙拿你的行李吗? (Do you need help taking your luggage out?)” He asks.
While Xue is waiting on a sofa in the airport lounge with a cup of fresh coconut water, her classmate Yingying videocalls her.
“雪， 不要去悉尼。你去了也是浪费时间。 我在朋友圈已经看见有人被遣返了！（Xue, don’t go to Sydney! You’d be wasting your time and efforts. I have already seen Chi- nese students sent back to China!）” Yingy- ing says urgently.
Xue hesitates. She doesn’t know what to say.
“澳洲海关还会罚你的款！（Australian border force will also fine you after you land in Sydney tomorrow morning!）” Yingying continues.
“莹莹，我必须去试一下。你不懂。我已经 出门了，已经在路上了，我明天早上必须要 去试一下！（I must give it a go, Yingying. You don’t understand. I have already left home and on my way. I must give it a try tomorrow morning!）” Xue says.
“但是如果你被拒绝的话，你相当于在飞机 上浪费了30个小时，而且还需要自己花钱买机票回来！（But if you are turned down, you would have wasted 30 hours in the plane and paid for another flight to come home! ）” Yingying asserts.
“我知道但是我不介意。我本来改签已经 花了3000元。我刚刚升舱又花了5000元。 如果我花了8000元，哪儿也没去到，我会是 这个世界上最大的傻瓜！你难道不明白吗？ ！这是一场赌博！（I know but I don’t care. Changing my flight to today has already cost me 3000 yuan (600 dollars). I have also just paid 5000 yuan (800 dollars) to upgrade the second leg of my flights. If I just go no- where with paying 8000 yuan (1400 dollars), I’d be the most stupid person in the world! Don’t you understand?! This is a gamble!）” Xue says.
“。。。我只是。。。（…I just…）” Yingy- ing trails off. “我知道你担心我。谢谢你告诉我, 我必 须得去。（I know you worry about me. Thanks for telling me. I’ve got to go.）” Xue says finally.
She hunches her back and lowered her head. She covers her face with hands and takes a deep breath. Should I really go?
“May I sit down?” The Malaysian uncle points to the seat next to her.
“…Sure…” Xue says.
“I just saw you upgrading your ticket at the counter. I’m still sitting next to you in 2B. If you need to go to the bathroom during the flight, please let me know. I do not mind getting up at all.”
“Thanks a lot.” He smiles like Xue’s father, warm and strong. Xue glances at her watch. There are only 10 minutes left before boarding.
The Malaysian uncle helps Xue with her luggage, without asking her. She settles on the soft leather seat and puts on her eye cover. God, please, let me enter Australia. Or what else can I do except pay for another ticket to go home?! She doesn’t notice the tears leaking from her eyes.
In the plane, Xue thinks about what she should do if she is rejected by a border officer. I can argue with the border officer by saying I have never been to Hubei, nor have I met anyone from Hubei.
“I can also say I have spent almost all of the time at my home and did not go out much to the Australian border officer!” She gets excited about how strong her argument will be.
“They do not care about what you say.” The Malaysian uncle looks at her.
“Did you hear my conversation with my friend in the cabin?” Xue asks.
“Yes, sorry. I accidentally overheard your video call. I didn’t do it intentionally. I am sorry again.” His brown skin looks darker in the dim light. His eyelashes cast shadows underneath his eyes. “Try not to worry too much. You can only know whether Australian border force will let you in after you land. All you can do now is have a good rest. Otherwise, was changing the flight worth the money?” His voice is deep and calming.
“But what if I can’t enter? I don’t want to buy another flight back home.” She asks.
“Don’t think too much. I will help you when the situation comes up.”
Xue is stunned for a moment. “Thank you. You are very kind.”
He gives her two gentle pats on the shoulder. She falls asleep and wakes up when the plane lands at Sydney Airport. She lines up with other passengers, waiting to be examined by the border force. She grips her passport and incoming passenger card tightly. She writes down Malaysia in the column of the flight origin instead of China.
Xue squeezes a smile to the poker-faced border officer. He frowns at her dark red PRC passport without even opening it.
“Are you a student?”
“…… Ma’am, sorry, you cannot enter Australia because the latest travel ban has already been in effect since yesterday.” He opens his hands and holds his palms against each other. He looks at her like a circus show audience looking at a performing elephant.
“But I am NOT from Wuhan, nor have I been in contact with anyone in Wuhan.”
“I understand. But I cannot do anything except inform you the time and the price of the next flight to Chengdu.”
“But it is unfair! I have been studying in Australia for five years and I will graduate this December.”
“Ma’am, you have two options, either purchase the 10PM flight back to Chengdu at 800 dollars or I will have to cancel your student visa and quarantine you in Kangaroo Island for two weeks.” Xue’s eyes are wide open. Humming fills her ears.
“Oh……okay, please get me a flight back home.” Xue’s face is grim.
“Please tap when you are ready,” the officer points to the POS machine.
“Di.” The POS machine shows a tick and your payment is successful! Surprised, Xue turns back to see the Malaysian uncle standing behind her.
“Why?” She asks him.
“Hahaha…… didn’t I tell you I would help you when the situation comes up? My daughter could not finish her studies. You remind me of her.” He says gently.
She waves goodbye to him as he passes through border force. The same way she waved goodbye to her father.