Do you know what fear feels like?
I didn’t. Not *really*, not until that night. There I was, 4am in the morning, covering my head with a pillow.
A few days before that, on my 18th birthday, in between two exams, I got the notice that the educational program I had poured myself over for months, that would have served hundreds of students, died.
I felt eerily placid. Calm. And secretly relieved–I had been swamped by my classes and duties, and not having to labor myself over the program every Saturday would be lifting a huge burden.
A few days after that, I received an unofficial screenshot, and then the official announcement, that school would be cancelled and we were kicked off of campus.
I laughed. Like, actually. As I walked down the corridor I couldn’t stop myself from smiling. I must have looked like a crazy person (turns out, people were partying at the school lawn and the drunk were most probably crazier than I was), but that was my genuine reaction. Wow. I don’t have to write my essay or review for my exam now. My goodness. I can go back to procrastination and binge-watching crappy shows.
As people struggled to arrange for flights or storage options, I wasn’t much worried–in fact, I had too many options. Being a citizen of China, I had the luxury of slapping a “CDC level-3 country” label to my name and comfortably got my petition signed off to stay on campus (in contrast to many other people who were in arguably worse situations than me, be it international students or unsafe home conditions, who had their petitions rejected, an issue that exploded on an email chain to the whole school and included email headers like “Lawyer Up” and a sit-in protest at the central lobby). My relatives in Indiana would also gladly take me into their homes. And I knew enough people buying plane tickets back to China that it didn’t sound so bad of an option, especially if you’ve been bombarded with WeChat posts that talk about how it could get really ugly in the US (this was back when US only had a few hundred cases) and at least in China, the government was taking actions.
So there I was, mildly stressed that I might have to pack my stuff even though I’m staying on campus (since I might need to move to another room), flipping through Amazon Prime to see what I could watch, when a text came at 11pm on Thursday night, March 12th.
No one ever texts me.
At first it didn’t seem like much. The message, which was from my school’s emergency alert system, simply said that classes would be cancelled tomorrow (which didn’t have any effect on me because a) I didn’t have classes on Friday, b) if I did, the instructors would have cancelled it already unless they want to drown in students’ spit and despise) and students “move-out by Sunday”, two days earlier than the originally announced date, which also shouldn’t have any effect on lucky me, who would be staying on campus, having the whole kitchen to myself (ooo I should cook my noodles dish again tomorrow), hmmm maybe even going to the lab to get some work done on my research project during the summer. That’d be nice.
Then I saw a WeChat image. Now, I did get a ton of WeChat texts all the time, including posts like “the US engineered the virus”, or “we are screwed”. But this one, this one was a screenshot that said someone’s father is on the city council and heard they might shut down the place next Monday, so they tipped our school and that was probably why the move-out date got moved to Sunday.
Did I buy this? I don’t know. But slowly my brain turned into smush. Oh no. Oh no no no. Not that I would have left campus if the state didn’t shut down, but not having the option to leave? I pictured yellow caution lines on state borders and people crying to get out. I pictured empty shelves at the supermarket and harrowing survival stories.
So I messaged my friend from China, who was also going to stay on campus. She picked up my worry, and I don’t know who influenced who, but she was not so sure anymore. And I definitely wasn’t sure anymore. I messaged my mom and my dad, who by miracle were both on WeChat that day and responded promptly. A day or two ago, my dad had sent me the message “this is a once-in-a-century situation, don’t take it lightly”. I thought he was being melodramatic, but now it haunted me. I could DIE. Me. It was not just vaguely worrying about my relatives halfway across the globe anymore. It was me. After all the college application and the tuition money and the problem sets and the dreams about the future. I could die. Just like that.
Once the decision was made that I would stay at my relative’s place, everything was fast action. I went on Delta’s website in a frenzy, with trembling fingers and a racing heart. I bought a plane ticket in 10 minutes. Without stopping, I jumped off of my bed and started packing. I hated packing, but I knew I had to start. I put on my Spotify playlist and went at it for hours.
I was not alone–I mean, you can’t expect college students to all be asleep at 12am, but literally everyone had something going on that night. Finally, at 4, I texted my mom and said my good nights. I would pack the rest on Friday and leave on the earliest flight on Saturday morning.
And then it hit me hard. As a sleep-deprived college student, you’d think I can just fall into sleep in two seconds. But I didn’t.
No, adrenaline was not going to let me off the hook that easily. Any noise from neighboring rooms sent a shockwave through my body, and there were plenty of noises. This was not my usual “I couldn’t sleep because I just watched a cute love story”. No, this was fear. Real fear.
For the first time in my life, I felt true fear. Intense. Primal.
Eventually I did fall asleep. The next day featured more packing, me and my Chinese friend wearing face masks (that was the identifying feature of international Chinese students instead of Asian Americans) and dragging our stuff — her a regular luggage, me a full-length mirror and a vacuum cleaner — to drop it off at my club’s office, and me running in the rain to make my pop-up acapella concert only to realize, while sitting on the cold hard floor and panting, that it was cancelled because people were already leaving or busy making arrangements. The next next day featured an almost-missed Uber drive because a) I tried to carry stuff from my fridge to our dorm’s drop-off location for food pantry donations only to realize of course, they don’t take frozen meat from the freezer, b) I had to sign stuff and return my key as my chronically-troubled-with-paper-cut-or-other-unidentified-wound hands trembled from the sting of Purell, and c) dragging three luggages was not a smart idea. The Uber driver was nice enough to wait for me, and said it was ridiculous what my college was doing (shutting down a whole school because, what, one student had it?) while I quietly nodded and gripped my face mask. And 32 hours after that moment of fear, 20 minutes after turbulence in the air that scared the hell out of me, I arrived in Indianapolis safely with parched lips (as you might imagine, drinking water and wearing a face mask don’t exactly go together) and a dizzy head.
Two months later, as I sit snuggly in my bed in Indiana, I still shudder at the thought of that night. I really didn’t have much to fear–I didn’t have an abusive home environment that I had to return to, a significantly increased death rate for my population, unemployment and a financial disaster…but that night, fear had me. And I will never forget.
[submitted on 5/10/2020]
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