a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
I am confronting an SAT mock test at eleven o’clock at night when my parents tell me to pack up necessities and leave the house immediately. In the last few days, I had read posts on neighborhood lockdowns every minute: restrictions on Covid in Beijing are tightening day by day, and the rumor of a citywide lockdown was spreading like wildfire.
It is now the winter of 2022, the point where everyone is frustrated yet numbed to the three years’ pull of pandemic control, I know that our neighborhood is going down too. Residents could never control when the lockdown ends, or when the whole thing ends at all, and I have an SAT test in Macau ten days later.
An app called Health Code was installed in 2020 to track people’s Covid test status. A green code will show for two days after a negative result was tested, and people can only enter public places with this green amulet. Health Code’s design reminds me of death in the way it circles the rectangular photo of the user with colorful circles blinking, as Chinese people arrange yellow and white chrysanthemums the same way around the portraits of the deceased on funerals.
The Health Code’s day count of a negative Covid test result will alter after midnight, which is 40 minutes later, and I wouldn’t be able to check in hotels. The guard at the neighborhood parking lot exit is an old man. He sits, on his own, in the fog of a November winter night, and the white light of his booth shines a cold light on our faces. “This place is locking down tomorrow morning. No way back if you leave now,” he said as we pass through. We enter a hotel three minutes before the health code changes, and without asking more, the lady at the counter reminds us to take a Covid test first thing the next morning.
Macau had rained earlier this evening before I get off the plane. The moist air is filled with the typical salty flavor of subtropical oceanfront areas.
I’m carrying nothing but a red canvas bag, the one with the words “I rebel against everything obviously true” on it. Inside the bag are my laptop, a notebook, and a vocabulary book.
Taxi rides are bumpy. The car goes and stops randomly, giving me a subtle sickness. My mother tells me to look outside at the view, so I did, and all the majestic hotels, fountains, and casinos unfold. It has been a long time since I saw scenes this luxuriant, but I guess there weren’t many guests inside. Tourism was long killed by restrictions on Covid.
The color red is the color of the nation’s flag. I’ve been taught since youth that the flag was dyed by the blood of those who sacrificed for their country. The color red is the tall walls of the Forbidden City, the rotten royalty, a distanced echo from history’s pieces. The liquid inside the test tubes that holds cotton swabs of Covid tests is red and colloidal. Green Health Codes alter into red ones after a positive Covid test result. Fire is red, only the debris of foliage will remain on the grounds it has passed through, and perhaps these are why fire and anger are often paired in similes.
The sun falls soundlessly in winter. It suffocates, rots, and diminishes solemnly into the last trace of crimson cloud, staring at the world ferociously at the edge of the sky, congealed in blackness, like the capillaries at the corners of eyes. The color red appeared once more, and I read about the fire in Urumqi.
A northern city in China, its name meaning “a beautiful pasture”, was brought to the turbid center of rage. Different versions of the stories emerged, telling people how a lockdown killed people with steel bars preventing them from escaping when the fire broke out.
My parents left me alone in the hotel room to give me a quiet studying environment, but I keep scrolling through the news on the websites which were not shut down yet, but later would be. I couldn’t focus. Things were twisted. I had escaped from the center of political conversation to get to a language test, but the test didn’t seem imperative at all when life and death were at the forefront of my mind.
I cannot recall exactly when I first began using the phrase “everything is your stepping stone” to comfort myself whenever I couldn’t focus on what I am supposed to do, or I wanted to do something unrealistic for a high school student or even just to read and write. I know how tests are tools necessary for me to do greater things. I also know there are protests all over the country now. Calculus questions are under my hands, but all I can think about are the lights lit right now in Beijing. The anger rages and soars in the winter gale, overtly fearless and unprotected, roughed inside out.
The delicate lights of the casino outside seem surreal, as does the delicate person inside the hotel room.
We took our Covid tests in a stadium inside a university. I thought of Pavlov’s classic experiment on conditioned stimulus where dogs started salivating to plain triggers that used to signal the arrival of food: the people lining up in front of the testing stand are the dog of Pavlov of the age, and the descendants of this generation probably wouldn’t understand why we open our mouths instinctively when a cotton swab comes.
The week before I came to Macau, I was reading “Worldly Land,” a book of the genre Malaysian Chinese literature. Under an overcast sky, Macau looks very much like the Southeastern Asian city in the book, and even the extravagance collapses into a melancholiac view. Gray-green wall plaster, exfoliated down by the dampness and turned yellow and pale. Palm trees sway in the wind. Outside the fast-food chain store, young people who, based on their appearances, came from countries like Malaysia or Singapore to work, sit down by the wall and relax in the breeze. A few students carry a large piece of wood and set it outside a carpentry classroom, and they stand by it and chat.
“You heard the news in the mainland?” one asks.
“Yeah,” another one replies, caressing the prayer beads on his wrist. “Things are really going to change this time.”
They look up at the pure white sky.
The room of the second hotel I am staying at in Macau privileges the residents with a view of the sea through the windows. A young attendant follows us in to introduce the room’s functions. I gaze at the sea, the waves near the shore are turbid, but further away, where water approaches the sky, a thin long line with a metal-like glimmer extends, shimmering swiftly like a necklace.
“Is that the GuangZhuAo bridge?” I ask the attendant. As the words come out of my mouth, I remember what it felt like to feel good about everything. The bridge, connecting Hongkong, Macau, and a city from China’s mainland, was constructed in the years just before Covid, and I recall how it was the nation’s pride, appearing day after day on the news and reading materials in school. I recall how we all felt like prospering, like how it often was in the middle of a long test, when simple tasks grew into complicated and piled-up words, disrupting breaths and sabotaging your mind, and you start to recall the days preparing for the test when well-scored mock tests and vocabulary lists baked into you a splendid aura of certainty to succeed. As the test time slipped away and hands shook, you questioned deep down whether all that was illusion.
The attendant smiles charmingly, and the sweetness seems to mean more than just the habit of a worker in the service industry. With the sound of the waves coasting, I cannot tell which question the answer is responding to.
“Of course, it is!”
The days’ count would be one less after a solid night of sleep, bringing the person walking the tightrope one step closer to the end. After a day of tensity and being on guard, the test, cunningly and silently, approaches me under the cover of night. I am not supposed to be afraid of tests, anyway, after three years of cotton swabs invading my throat compulsorily, I should be immune to the pattern of a repulsive testing process followed by a result that could be deadly, leaving one unable to intervene. I am supposed to be numbed, but I am not. Somehow it feels like a good thing, to hold grudges.
Tomorrow it will be only one day until the SAT exam. So why am I still writing this turmoil down?
Why am I asking myself a question like this.
The mock test today is fairly easy.
The news of a government meeting on Covid control issues reminds me of how I burst out: “I hate everything political!” in May of 2022, the time when all the students in Beijing were forced to take online classes at home for restrictions on the pandemic control, again. Seven months later, I am still deeply connected with political matters in every move of my mind. Eventually, I would never be truly distanced from politics as long as I cared about the plights of the world, but I can still break politics down into pieces and blend it into my life so that I can contemplate it gently.
Finally, on this gentle night, I felt ready.
I swallow a headache pill when I step out of the test building. The SAT is done, but I’m feeling ill.
It is time to go home. I feel like missing everything.
The plane descends. I wipe the small window 37 times. I pick up my phone 17 times to take a photo, and out of them, 16 are blurred. I blink too many times to keep track. The plane leans to the side 3 times, and I see her more clearly. She is wearing a beautiful robe of lights from millions of families. The 49 minutes the plane is descending, the Tian’ an men Square seemed smaller than when I looked at it on the ground. Finally, I do not have to see the country through the double reflections of the window. Whenever a catastrophic deluge of emotions tends to flood me again, I will think of the days in the beautiful salty breeze, and my irrationality will eventually land on the solid earth of mind.
The plane lands. The policies on Covid were no more near how they were ten days ago. During the ten days I was gone, neighborhoods were locked down, protested by residents, and freed. I thought there would be an unbearable cold awaiting me, but the air was merely not as hot as the air in Macau.
I take a deep breath.
Ziyun Peng is a fifteen-year old writer who grew up in Beijing, China. Previously unpublished, she is currently seeking to deconstruct the beautiful East Asian culture and staring into the plights created by modern politics. She loves reading, writing, and feeding her jellyfish.
* = Editors' Choice work
Unless otherwise noted, all pictures used are open-source images in the public domain.