I think one thing I never realized, or identified with when I was stateside was that I was an American. Of course, you know this when you live there, when you make jokes about how awful your country is, or in relation to Canadians, but when you live abroad, it becomes a marker of your identity.
When I was backpacking, your nationality was part of your introduction: your name, your nationality, a major city someone knew from America, and what brings you there.
Now that I am stationary in China, American means what comforts I seek (sugar for example, is a marker of American tastes). In the past few months though, I have felt a strange sort of patriotism, or at least horror, as I am asked nearly constantly about my country by others. I’d like to talk a little about my national identity and how it has affected me the past few months.
When the virus started, I was stranded here in China, walled off from news and media, and my American relations were worried but not too worried about a virus that was relatively abstract (even to me).
As I sat in my living room discussing provisions in late January (Do we have enough rice? Can we get canned goods? What about produce?) with my significant other, worried about how to get masks to go to the grocery store, the American media tore China apart. I had to turn away from my country, and from others. I fully isolated myself because I felt abandoned and misunderstood.
Down the block Chinese lined up for masks, and I sat and watched the numbers climb as the whole world gleefully watched China descend into a nightmare. I think it was in January that I first understood what propaganda was in terms of American media, and it was not Fox News, it was everyone including your friends and family. A lot of people don’t even realize they believe in propaganda so easily (and so thoroughly!).
There was a cognitive dissonance, as I could not understand the Chinese news very well, but knew it was not as bad as American media reported. (The empty shots of Shanghai being treated as martial law when reality they were taken during Spring Festival made me stop following CNN). This was stressful at best and frightening at worst. After all, I cannot trust anyone’s judgement on the situation, as no one was reporting accurately for different reasons (the government here wanted to celebrate their response, and America wanted to demonize it)
I turned away from both of them, and left for Japan in a panic with another friend of mine from America. I needed to remove myself from my home country and my home to try and find some equilibrium.
My friend had left Japan for America that week, and told me to come back with him.
“It’s safer in America that in it is China.”
Of course it is, home seems safe.
I returned to China instead, I cried on the train to Haneda airport, and helped another Chinese family who were there for spring festival but did not know enough Japanese or English to find their way to the terminal. They were returning home to Shanghai, it was safe.
As I boarded my flight back to China, I felt like I was doing something that was irreversible, and one week later, China closed it’s borders for good, as of writing more than 4 months later, the borders are still closed.
The catchall term for foreigners in China is “American” (美国人) and arriving back in China things had gotten much different than when I left. There was anti-foreigner sentiment everywhere due to some rumor mongering that China had successfully contained the virus, and all new cases were brought in by foreigners.
Shanghai shut its’ borders and grounded flights.
Fear had settled into communities and rotted and when I arrived to my apartment, a new guard who had not seen me, tried to turn me away until another neighbor chewed him out. I was not a bad American, I was their American.
Rot spreads quickly, and I began to feel fear of strangers as well. There was a stream of videos from other expats who had chosen to stay, people who were barricaded into their apartments with boards and metal sheeting by their neighbors in fear of the white Americans who brought the virus.
Expats who had escaped the country warned me to be careful around my neighbors, anyone who was not Chinese, anyone who was 美国人 was in danger.
American friends sent me articles on CNN about “racists” in Guangzhou. Except it was not racism, but xenophobia.
I waited for them to come for us next, as we were the only American in our neighborhood.
It was while I waited for my neighbors to suddenly remember their American and board me up inside my apartment that America started to experience the virus that China was recovering from and as China came after foreigners stranded inside China, America came after China.
China was beginning to pull itself out of the darkest days, the “turning point” happened quietly and without much fanfare for many Chinese people.
A post on Weibo made a plea to stop being scared of 美国人 when you see them, as any American had been trapped in China for more than 3 weeks and were not carriers of the virus.
The trains were empty, and no one sat near me, an American trapped in Shanghai, a city that had been closed for more than two months.
WHO declared the Chinese epidemic to be a pandemic, and the world began to feel the panic that I had felt so acutely these past few months, alone, isolated, with my national identity a weapon in the country I lived in, and the country I lived in a weapon to my identity as an American.