The pandemic COVID-19 has taken its tour around the world. Within weeks what looked first as a story limited to east Asia resulted in over one million cases in the U.S. and 90,000 deaths around the world.
COVID-19 hit some countries like waves with some governments learning from the initial epicenter, and taking more precautions than others.
In Wuhan, the initial epicenter, China government officials lifted the lockdown after 77 days, restoring “normalcy” into everyday life. Israel proposed “exit strategies” for its lockdown as early as April 19th.
Watching these countries from miles away, the thought of going outside for groceries still seemed like a farfetched idea for many Americans. As death tolls in New York climbed up to numbers near 800 daily, Governor Andrew Cuomo said he was looking for ” the curve of infection flattening in the state.”
Images still stick with me of Chinese citizens, including a video of a woman banging a homemade gong and crying for help on her balcony, as her sick mother could not be admitted into the hospital. “Healthy” citizens of 55,000 people wait in the train station trying to make their way out of the city. People jump over fires in the streets, a well-kept tradition performed to demolish bad luck.
It is harder to restore normalcy as trauma and fear still sit with citizens reviving from putting everything on halt; grief over loved ones was put on halt, work was put on halt, and even the beginning of Lunar New Year was put on halt.
On social media, an unnamed 30-year-old Wuhan resident speaks out in a personal essay describing his everyday life during this time as a “living hell.” He illustrates a timeline describing the urgent measures enforced on the public by the government–like donating rice and oil to feed medical staff workers because there weren’t enough meals for them. Then came the medical staff on strike, despite knowing their licenses would be revoked and their family’s jobs would be affected as well. Before the virus this Wuhan resident thought it was
“OK to sacrifice some level of democracy and freedom for better living conditions…What has happened in Wuhan is as if your house caught on fire and all your neighbors knew but forbade you from jumping out of the window. Only until the fire is out of control, and the entire town ablaze, do they slowly begin taking responsibility while highlighting their own heroic efforts.”
He emphasizes that COVID-19 revealed gaps between generational views about freedom, ”The younger generations born after 1995 and in the 2000s, notorious for having the ‘Little Emperor’ syndrome’, have good impressions about the Chinese system, putting the nation before all because they have been living in an era of prosperity and have yet to experience adversity.” As this is the first time a huge tragedy has hit home to the younger generations since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests , the Wuhan resident describes his account with a well known Chinese saying, “When the stick hits my own head, I finally understand the pain — and why some others once cried out of pain.”
Reading this personal essay lead me to reflect on daily comments my dad has rung over my ears since Lunar Day.
He finds more to like about China’s order and discipline compared to how he describes New York: “There is no order or discipline here, look (in) China (they) have police enforcing people to stay in and they’re spraying disinfectants on the streets.”
“They all are competing to be the ‘Big Brother,” my father says as he proudly shows us WeChat headlines describing thousands of masks being shipped to America and to other countries in the world. The phrase ‘Big Brother’ brings chills down my spine recalling the ‘Big Brother’ from George Orwell’s novel, 1984, raising issues of overpowering censorship and dictatorial invasions in the name of security.
However, the concept of individualism holds a different context in Asia, where the “odd one out” is deemed a failure. There is a long history of respecting hierarchy. To belong means you have earned the place in the association.
So I understand that when my dad says he approves of China as ‘Big Brother,’ he considers it a prideful title equivalent to the leader of a triad. The term big brother or ‘Dai Lo’ is an honorific title and by no means an arrogant one. It is granted to leaders with prestige and social authority. One of the basic leaps to becoming a member of the triad is to swear oaths that promise loyalty to the Triad and its members. In order to earn the title of Dai Lo, they exercise discipline, have access to resources, and show their ability to control the young. In turn, the title claims respect, resources and face.
This honorary definition is no comparison to the western metaphor of “Big Brother” that describes any prying or overly-controlling authority figure and attempts by government to increase surveillance. The imagery of a pair of eyes peer over me obsessed with over the thoughts in my head, is probably not the image that my dad pictures at the moment. But who will ‘Big Brother’ be as COVID-19 test the lengths of the leaders whose countries are hit the hardest?