First post: 2020 in review

2020, the year of the COVID-19 pandemic. A year that made history, and not just national history. A momentous year for anyone old enough to have a sense of things happening, and I’d say that would be anyone at least 4 or 5 years old. “Where were you during the COVID-19 pandemic? What were you doing?” It wasn’t just a day or a moment, like the moon landing my father-in-law gave us a framed clipping of, or my memory of waking up in the still-dark early morning hours of Sept. 11, 2001, preparing to go to school and turning on the radio. Vivid memory after vivid memory of 2020 is going to be etched in my mind, surpassing possibly every other year of my life. Watching the caterpillar tractors crawling all over the mountain of earth, building within days an emergency hospital in Wuhan; seeing this news story in December/January and not knowing this interesting but unsettling story in one place would become a worldwide catastrophe. Almost crying during a phone call with my dad in late March, in my dorm room with everything in wild disarray as I prepared to beat it out of Hawai’i, arguing over whether I should be buying another ticket 2 days before my scheduled flight — which was to happen in 5 days — in case it was canceled (my dad won the argument; I bought the ticket, and was glad I did because the flight was canceled). Sitting in the Honolulu airport at sundown, catching a photo of what I saw out the window: an airport runway sunset. (Who could tell it was Honolulu?) Getting back to Canada with a slight cough (thank goodness it didn’t get any worse), landing in Vancouver in the morning, riding in an SUV all day to Kamloops with my fiancé to start our new life together.

And that’s just the first quarter of the year. So many more little stories… in contrast to the little stories that should have happened but didn’t. No PhD diploma ceremony, my advisor didn’t place the hood on my head, my parents didn’t come to Hawai’i to finally see the place where I had spent 4 joyful years and meet my friends and students (taking a vacation from caring for my brother with special needs); Miggy’s transition into a group home, which was going well, was postponed. No celebrating with friends; no small wedding in UBC’s Nitobe Garden like we had planned to have, though we did end up getting married in a smaller ceremony with just Kent’s parents, aunt and uncle, in Kamloops. My parents didn’t get to come from Vancouver; Kent’s sister and her boyfriend didn’t get to come from Calgary. The maximum limit for a party dining out was 6 people, and we were 6 people.

And then the big things started to happen. Within a week of our wedding, I had two Assistant Professor job offers, in Japan and Hong Kong. I accepted the one at University of Hong Kong. This was in early July. A gruelling two months as Kent, his parents and I renovated Kent’s condo (he did most of the work, we helped, and we only hired people for the electricity and tiling, which we did not have the skills to do), put it on the market, had visitors keep coming in on short notice, finally sold it, then had the problem of moving, and paperwork, and visas, and driving down to Vancouver and my parents’ place with two heavily loaded SUVs, putting 15-20 boxes into a shipping crate, sending this halfway across the world — this is about 1/3 of our possessions; the others had to be jettisoned/donated/gotten rid of in haste — flying to Hong Kong in mid-September, quarantining for two weeks in a hotel, finding an apartment to rent the first day out of quarantine, moving into it, furnishing it, settling in as I also started my new job, unpacking the 15-20 boxes when they arrived in early November, and finally here we are in mid-December finally all settled and I look back on the grad student I was in January 2020, in a dorm room in Hawai’i, pretty sure I would get one of the two jobs in Canada I was shortlisted for (I didn’t), and realizing that everything I was “pretty sure” would happen in a certain way in 2020 never happened, and a whole lot that was totally unexpected happened instead.

If I go back, let’s say, a dozen years instead of a dozen months, I also see a stark contrast between that past me and the present one. When I recently graduated from my BA, my mentality was “Why not me? Why not me?” Why did I not have a well-paying job? Why, with a fancy degree, did I move back in with my parents? (It was the year of the 2008/09 financial crash in the U.S., where I had done my undergrad, and I had chosen to major in English literature and creative writing.) Now, with this less-than-a-year-old PhD diploma — what a lucky time you always choose to graduate; this time the year of the COVID-19 pandemic! — I am an Assistant Professor of Education at a top 40 world university (top 10 in Education), and my question is “Why me? Why me?” Why me in this job, and not one of my equally knowledgable and hardworking peers? Why are we scholars and expatriate professionals living the high life in Hong Kong while blue-collar workers live in “coffin homes” (i.e., one of several capsules piled high upon one another in a run-down studio apartment, or even hallways), and while old women with bent backs push huge trolleys of cardboard boxes down the street to take to recycling?

I feel that it is the end of that period of my life of “fighting” to establish myself and “be successful.” The next period of my life will be a struggle to find meaning, to be useful. Even if I do prove to be useful, even if I do excellent scholarship, it still doesn’t seem to justify the massive inequity that exists in this world of global flows of capital that perhaps COVID-19 putting a damper on (for a while) was a good thing? Or is it just the start of another era — another ruthless, socially unequal era just like every other era of history, with China as a global superpower, and Hong Kong University with all its well paid new assistant professors, promising new graduates from many fields, lured from the West (no jobs in the West with COVID-19 shutting down the exodus of mainly-Chinese international students that mainly comprised those universities’ revenue)? Perhaps it takes a pandemic to highlight how we are living history in the making, even though this is always the case.

Published by annamend

Assistant Professor in the Department of Linguistics, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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