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Distance in the age of surreality

November 13, 2020

This piece represents the opinion of the author.

I was taught to appreciate distance on a small playground during a rainy day. Having attended a boarding school in suburban China since I was 12, I remember the compulsory military training that first confounded my idea of an inseparable family life, forever based in unconditional love, connectedness and rationality. A squadron of middle school freshmen congregated on a narrow field, being told by an authoritative, militaristic voice to “hold still, or else.”

It was the first time I thought about, in a cliché catch-up to an adolescent angst, how unfair the world is. I thought the idea preposterous and deeply unsettling that this transition to residential life would drive an insurmountable wedge between myself and my loved ones. Of course, fairness was far from the norm in early 2000s China—still, I had brooded over the seeming heartlessness of it all.

In the days when proximity was a luxury, I had grown to make peace with distance. Seeing my family once a week propelled me to advocate for myself. Still, I internalized a legible routine: I’d wake up, go to class, do homework and at the end of the week go home to do pretty much the same. There was a predictability in my life that blindsided my family, and perhaps myself.

The last time I saw my parents in person was January, thinking the predictability that I had been so accustomed to would still be within reach in America, oblivious of the impending global fiasco.

Toward the end of calculating predictability, I had watched HBO’s 2019 miniseries, “Years and Years,” before the coronavirus pandemic. In many ways, the show’s implacable satire and ingenious conception seemed like the perfect mix of dystopian fiction and effective entertainment—with an ending just fairy-tale enough to disconnect it from realpolitik. Set in a Britain reminiscent of Trump’s America, the show narrates, with unnerving fast-forward sequences, the two decades following the demise of traditional democratic governance in Britain and the ascension of a prime minister modeled after Trump—with the same penchant for embattled remarks, fanatical populism, xenophobic animus and disdain for the truth. Perhaps the entertainment lay within the framework of ultimate unpredictability: as the characters scream “What happens next?” the scenes cut to ominous segments of newsreels that portray the world, well, going to shit.

A few weeks later, the themes of the show started to materialize in real life as the world descended into panicked chatters of chaos—followed by the ghastly silence of lockdowns. When our classmates retreated to their homes, I, along with thousands of others in this country, sat in abeyance in a sea of confusion and fear.

I should’ve realized that with the Trump administration, mercurial policies are a norm and clarity very much the exception. Don’t get me wrong—living here has been, for the most part, great (saving the fact that I can’t see my dog). But it was certainly sobering to reckon with just how welcome foreign students are in this country. In a string of decisions handed down by the Trump administration over the summer and into the fall, international students, especially those from China, had their very presence politicized. We could, as the story goes, no longer stay aloof from the nuts and bolts of American politics.

The China travel ban, which started as a sensible countermeasure to the spread of COVID-19, has apparently warranted no review today, when the United States has 3,000 times the infection rate of China, which has much more effectively contained the virus. People with Chinese travel history are still banned, with no exception for student-visa holders like the one in place for European countries. Clearly, this ban doesn’t arise from public health concerns anymore—it is instead an instrument for hostile diplomatic relations, if not xenophobic exclusion.

On July 6, Immigration and Customs Enforcements issued guidance that mandated the departure of all students who don’t have in-person classes in the fall. It sent a torrent of confusion and anxiety over the collective future of potentially thousands of foreign students in this country, with school administrations scrambling for adequate response and support. Even though that edict had been withdrawn, trepidation over the government’s chilling message persisted.

Exactly a month later, the White House issued an executive order seeking to ban WeChat in the United States, foreclosing the most (and in some cases the only) viable internet messaging option for Chinese people abroad during a pandemic. There was a period when my mom was so worried that our contact would be lost at any minute that she couldn’t stop messaging me just to see if it still worked. Little by little, reality morphed into the fantastical TV world, where the idea of a predictable period of distance has developed into an unending limbo of anxiety. No longer can I foresee that a tangible date will come for things to go back to normal, nor can I tell myself I’ll be home soon and that the weekend is just around the corner.

The latest in the series of unpredictable dilemmas has been the election, in which the president again demonstrated extraordinary defiance against norms, claiming baselessly that the election is fraudulent. As a member of a group of people whose future is very much on the line but can only sit by and hope for the best, this chapter has been marked by no less than a constant state of psychological distress.

With each of these successive blows and no end in sight, months of quarantine and introspection has driven me to return to the motif in “Years and Years”: What happens next? Perhaps more importantly—what do we do in the meantime? When our collective belief in a predictable and reliable state of society is on the brink of collapse, as climate distress manifests in more and more parts of the world, as the idea of tomorrow evokes less ordinary nonchalance than anxious anticipation in the age of absurdist politics, the reality is, the idea of future itself has become a visionary revolution. And it’s up to us—with the courage to exact change and a willingness to see the plight of others—to send reality back down to earth so we can go home for the weekends again.

Tianyi Xu is a member of the Class of 2023.

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