Exiled in triplicate

Does the diaspora even have a choice?

I am fortunate that I can nestle up with both my school assignments in the Victoria, B.C. weather—Canada’s warmest winter city—amidst this global health crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic has vaguely limped onto the shores of Vancouver Island and is set to make its first major splash in the coming weeks.

Insulated by the privileges of youth and education, I’ll probably make it out okay.

But surrounded by beaches and wintering birds, it’s hard to reconcile my peaceful surroundings with the heavy thoughts reverberating in my head during this time in purgatory.

The first whispers of this disquieting new plague came through my phone from Hong Kong last December. The city bears the dubious privilege of being the world’s canary for news and movements from within China with the highest freedom of press in the Republic.

Friends and family beamed messages and videos across the Pacific, asking for help.

Photo provided by: Michael John Lo

The city still bears the scars of the SARS pandemic that began in the neighbouring Guangdong province and swept through the city in 2003. To this day, my mom keeps a mini bottle of hand sanitizer in her purse, a relic of a different pandemic.

Hong Kong, a city on tenterhooks since 2019, is hypersensitive to any news that manages to find its way across the border. The people of Hong Kong, understandably wary of leaving the problem to be handled by Chinese authorities after their handling of the SARS pandemic in 2003, began frantically sourcing supplies of PPE and N95 masks from their overseas connections.

In those early months, I felt like the prophet Cassandra from Greek myth, warning of disasters and dangers that I was witnessing from my diaspora links.

I wore a N95 mask on the plane during my January trip from Victoria to Montréal as Canada confirmed its first case on Jan. 25. Taiwan—where my parents ended up settling after we left Hong Kong—would lock its borders down shortly after.

I’ll spare you the details of our current reality: I think we know how it unfolded from there.

While the virus continues to flourish here, Taiwan remains virtually free of COVID-19. The island of 23 million—of similar size to Vancouver Island with its mere 800,000 residents— has enjoyed more than 200 days with zero local transmission. It seems like my parents go to film festivals and concerts every other week.

I can only stare wistfully at their smiling faces on the phone.

Meanwhile, I make sacrifices like everyone else to try and fix what we could’ve mitigated if we had listened to the cries of the diaspora, warning us of what was to come.

I once made a promise: while I was studying at University of Victoria, I would visit my grandparents on the mainland every month, regardless of how busy I was on the Island.

That meant 12 to 13 hours of transit on the weekends to Port Coquitlam, B.C. to run errands and spend a few exhausted hours with my grandfather. We would visit my grandmother, Kit-Ling, in her care home, tending to her needs and deteriorating health while my friends went to parties or on weekend trips to Tofino.

Ever the filial grandson, I even stopped by on the last night before my summer trip to Hong Kong in 2019. That dedication would pay off—I was able to help with my grandmother’s unexpected trip to the emergency room. I would kiss her goodbye that night, leaving the Royal Columbian Hospital at two in the morning to pack for my flight back.

It would be months before I saw her again at the funeral.

My grandfather moved from suburbia into East Vancouver, shedding twenty years of collected memories when he left their house. I would continue my visits to his tiny new apartment that would evoke memories of the apartments in Hong Kong. He continued to complain about his knee and started practicing calligraphy again.

We grew closer as the world closed around us.

When an outbreak hit my grandmother’s old care home, we thanked the twists of fate that saved Kit-Ling from experiencing it in her last days. We knew that even if she had missed infection, she would’ve never recovered from the isolation and confusion of a pandemic.

For me, despite living in denial for the summer and making multiple trips to Vancouver over the course of this year, the good times came to an end in September. I exiled myself from my grandfather, choosing the pain of separation over playing Russian roulette with COVID-19.

I call him on the phone instead between my deadlines and the bouts of isolation fatigue. He’s hard of hearing, so he doesn’t recognize my voice immediately. The conversation is halting and unsatisfying. We worry about each other, but we can’t do anything about it: he’s too old and I’m here. A disembodied, encouraging voice is all I can be for now.

Besides, it’s not like I haven’t had practice.

Photo provided by: Michael John Lo

I’ve avoided defining my diaspora in this piece. The complexities of pinning down an identity weaponized and politicized by so many in this space is beyond my means. Everything is sized up when the diaspora meets, starting with your languages and the colour of your shirt, down to the very terms you use.

Like many others in Hong Kong, my ancestral lands are situated in Mainland China. My grandfather made the trip into Hong Kong for life-saving medicine in the war-torn, famine-ridden decades of the 20th century and stayed there, raising his kids and eking a life out in that ruthlessly capitalist city.

My parents have now made their home in Taiwan.

These are bland statements, but each sentence cuts an already fractured people even further.

The journey from our homelands is an exercise from unity to multiplicity. We now organize ourselves to exclude each other and the diaspora grows ever more disparate.

Language fails me when I try to explain how reductive terms like “Chinese-Canadian” or “Hong Kong-Canadian” or “Asian-Canadian” are. It’s hard to even put it together in my own languages.

If I ever eventually get to visit these places again, it’ll probably feel bittersweet and unfamiliar. Staying grounded and connected isn’t possible when each of us are moving in vastly different trajectories.

Perhaps the bonds of kinship will prevail, like the stories say.

All I know is that Hong Kong is imprinted upon me like tattoo ink that’s gone too deep, bleeding into its surroundings, tainting me with its implications.

I’ve been glued to the screen even before checking coronavirus tickers became our daily morning rituals: images of my parents exploring the Taiwanese countryside juxtaposed with the latest livestreams of the crisis in Hong Kong. Every week there seemed to be new courthouse rulings and late-night arrests.

Distracted mornings when the conflict turned viscerally physical, sleepless nights where I would watch the familiar cycle start all over again, sneaking glances at my phone while I was in class, at parties, in bed.

While I write, the destruction of the city continues unabated.

I have watched the same overpasses and streets that I roamed freely in my teens turn into battlefields and birthplaces of trauma. The streets are silent now, silenced by law and plague. If I had stayed, I could have had a say and been part of the change, but I was born with the lifeline of a Canadian passport. I cling to it, wondering if I can walk lightly on these unceded, unsurrendered lands, wondering if I can use these double-edged papers to bring change without inflicting more trauma.

Even if our pandemic reality is wiped away tomorrow, I’m already unmoored. The world is shifting and I’m caught in between, a product of unfolding history.

Michael John Lo is a Senior Staff Writer at the Martlet.

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