How COVID redefines my concept of “home”

Tracy Mondo^

home, Hanoi, society

Kayf haal-ik?

Leila, my close French friend of Bahraini origin, always asked me this particular question in Arabic, even though we talked to each other in French. For her, translating ‘Kayf haal-ik?’ simply into ‘how are you’ does not do justice to the Arabic sentence by any means. When she asked me this, which literally means “How is your heart doing at the moment?”, she did not mean the superficial and super short “ça va?” that we often heard in France but expected a detailed catch-up. Leila called me the day when the Vietnamese government imposed a partial nationwide lockdown in early April including in Hanoi, which for months had been seen as a “national enemy”, to prevent further community transmission of COVID. “It must be very hard for you”, she said, knowing that I was already back in Hanoi. Little did she know that I had locked myself up before the lockdown was put in place.

COVID has made me stay home, in the truest sense of the word. I was in Quito for the UN Youth Conference, on migration, when I was told by my university in Beijing in late January (also the start of the Lunar New Year), without rhyme or reason, to cancel my ticket back to campus. Back then I had not been aware of the virus outbreak because of my previous eventful trips. From start to finish, my university was quite vague about the gravity and magnitude of the outbreak. I had no choice but to reroute my flight back to Hanoi and start staying with my parents for the first time after 6 years of living abroad. The news was both a boon and a bane. I was in a high-mobility mode previously, due to both my study and activism. Many of my assignments and papers had been completed at the airport or even on the airplane. The absence of mobility allowed me to concentrate fully on my thesis, even though it would also mean doing digital fieldwork at home. I have been fortunate enough to stay in the safest country in the world as Vietnam has emerged as a success story with zero deaths (at the time of writing).

Unfortunately, it was also the first time I have observed how my acquired “foreign” values clash robustly with traditional Vietnamese mindset, as I was switched to a Vietnamese life. 

I did expect a joyful Tet holiday[i] after a long stay abroad. While my Chinese friends could not enjoy chunjie (春节) or the Lunar New Year this year, COVID did not affect the festive atmosphere in Hanoi. Hanoians were nimble to equip themselves with some precautionary measures yet remained largely nonchalant. Yet, I retreated to my room after the first few days. Relatives bombarded me with intrusive and judgmental comments and questions: “How come you look so slim in reality but fat on picture?” Most often showered me with default advice before saying goodbye, “You should get married, otherwise your parents will suffer a lot. You have to be responsible!” They said it with a serious tone as if I had been living irresponsibly for the past few years, even when I told them that I had been working, volunteering and joining various anti-racist movements in parallel with my full-time study. Paradoxically, I was derogatorily called a “lông bông” or a vagabond as I hopped from country to country, even though it was indeed a privilege.

“Whom should I be responsible for?” If I were in Europe, I would talk back without hesitation. But in Vietnam, I am supposed to keep silent and force a smile because I am duty-bound to avoid humiliation for them and my own parents. “Whatever your senior relatives say, you have to treat it with respect. If it is wrong, you tell us and we shall communicate with them. You are not equal to talking to seniors”, said my father, who takes a zero-tolerance approach to children talking back. Of course, this rule also applies to my parents, who still believe in the Vietnamese saying, “fish without salting will go rotten, children who disregard parental advice will inevitably go astray”, despite my almost 30 years of age. There was no room for open and equal discussion among the young and the elder, which I repeatedly asked for during my talk on youth participation in Europe. Ironically, at the Forum in Quito, I was selected to speak about how to shape narratives on migrants. Back home, I feel powerless to change the ages-old narratives on personhood and womanhood of my own family members. While I often talked about inclusive policy elsewhere, I could not do anything as I was left out of the conversations within my own family with seniors.

Since my return to Hanoi, I have been treated not as an individual, but rather a child of my parents.

Local police officers gave my parents a call to inquire about my whereabouts and current health condition before COVID, instead of asking me when they had my contact details. Representatives of my neighbourhood (the smallest administrative unit in Vietnam) warned my parents to stay away from foreign values, without defining what they really are. Every now and then, my parents were reminded of the danger of going to China as the virus is still raging, even though the reminders came from people who had not been to China and do not speak any Chinese. Colleagues of my mother, a retired civil servant, called her to warn me against hostile forces. Relatives told my parents to urge me to settle down, as if I were the real “undetonated bomb”[ii]. Some even suggested that my parents see a medium to help me regain the “balance” that I was clueless about. Many times, I was included in their sino-phobic comments, either by chance or by choice.

I reunited with my former classmates of primary school, secondary school, high school and university. Some were reluctant to talk to me because I had been in China prior to COVID.  Some were inquisitive about my journey to the West and also to the Northern giant neighbour. Some were questioning how I had been Westernized or Sinicized, or whether I made a lot of money abroad.

The National Library staff member looked at my affiliation with a Chinese university as if I were part of the virus, even though I could prove to them that I had left China way before the pandemic.

By studying abroad, and even having been to 40 countries on full funding, I lived the dreams of my parents, who have never crossed the Vietnamese border. Yet, I am often accused of being whimsically Westernized, though most of the accusers have never been to the West and have little idea of what they mean by “the West”.

I restrained myself from going out, not because I thought I had to put other people or the society or any imagined community above self, as it was instructed on an hourly basis in newspapers, TV or in the SMS sent to us every day by the Ministry of Health.  I was terrified as the community named and shamed a COVID victim publicly on all digital platforms because she had travelled to Europe and spread the virus to dozens of people. What if I really contracted the virus and became the black sheep of the whole country? To be honest, I care more about a potential public assault on my own privacy than a powerful virus attack on my body.

Staying at home, I lack the “zone of suspense” (Martin, 2018) to distance myself from social expectations and cultural burdens. I felt cut adrift from my own city. COVID made me cotton on my struggle between my international activism for equality and adherence to Vietnamese values. I am proud of Vietnam’s fight against COVID but not pleased. I cannot wait to move again, to wherever I feel truly myself. Home should be fluid and not fixed. Home is where the heart is.“I am not feeling home at home. I need dépaysement[iii]. I am full of fernweh[iv],” I said to Leila.

^Tracy Mondo (pen name) graduated from the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam and had an Advanced Diploma in Italian culture from the University of Perugia, Italy. A firm believer in gender equality, Tracy has worked and volunteered for multiple UN projects on gender and civic engagement. In 2015, she embarked on a multi-university MA program on European studies in France, Germany and Sweden on Erasmus Mundus scholarship.  Upon graduation, she worked for UNICEF projects in Germany on social integration. Tracy finished her 2nd MA on Chinese society at Peking University and served as Director of Delegates at the Yenching Global Symposium in Beijing 2019. 

Endnotes

[i] The Vietnamese Lunar New Year, or the Vietnamese version of the Chinese New Year

[ii] In Vietnamese: quả bom nổ chậm, referring to unmarried daughters.

[iii] A French concept, which means “being away from home and to a foreign land”.

[iv] A German concept, indicating a desire to be somewhere else.

18m² Refuge

How COVID-19 helped me take cover from racism

Dionysia

anti-racism, gender, trauma

Positionality

I am a Southeast Asian heterosexual cis-woman. My position in racial privilege translates to class privilege through education and employment opportunities, taking me to where I am now; I have shelter and a scholarship funding my education in Finland.

Race and racism in Finland

My racialised experience in Finland is predominantly made up of sexualised racial microaggression and witnessing the racialised experiences of my non-white peers. I came mentally prepared for such an experience. I was well aware that I will become a racial minority, also likely to be fetishised because of my gender. However, no one will ever be prepared for prolonged trauma, and no one should feel responsible for preparing themselves for racialised trauma(s) in any form.

Receiving prolonged unwanted stares from white men is almost a default. I was urged to take up a generic English academic writing course, which my white Finnish and white-passing non-Finnish peers were able to opt out.

I managed to get out of it eventually. Teenagers yelled “sexy Asian lover’ at me, while white older women hissed at me at the mall. In a country where ‘personal space’ is said to be taken very seriously, my space was often invaded by white people walking into me on a wide pavement even when I was walking on the right side (pun intended). Cars do not always stop for me when I cross the road carefully, yet I see white people jaywalking all the time, and cars stopped without fail.

säänsuoja

Source: Finnish Nightmares (provided by author)

Many non-white peers share similar experiences of getting walked right into. Some internalised the microaggression, believing they are on the wrong side of the street, yet I observe white people walking on both sides all the time. A white Finnish friend told me that I can walk anywhere I wanted. An older white man lifted his hand up to my Latinx friend’s face as we walked. It was also flu season at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, a Japanese friend of a friend was yelled at in public to stay home because she sniffed. It was cold, many people were sniffing. But no one (white) gets yelled at. “Flu season, you know?”, they shrugged. During a bell hooks book club that I participated in, non-white participants shared passionately about spatial struggles here.  We satirically brainstormed ways to reclaim and negotiate our personal space, without being subjected to physical harm, i.e. getting walked into and crossing the road without the fear of getting knocked down.

The construct of “race” does not exist in Finland, at least not in official statistics. The closest alternative to see race in national statistics is based on whether one is foreign or not, commonly indicated by where they came from¹ and spoken language for instance. While race could not be seen in data, race is highly visible in daily life. One can neither reject their ascribed racial identity by strangers nor refrain from ascribing a race to others. The covert ascription of race is experienced and practised through institutionalised racism and microaggressions. According to a report by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights,  perceived racial harassment in 5 years before the survey was most prevalent among African descent respondents in Finland. Knowing that my non-white peers are experiencing similar, if not crueller racial traumas made me feel less alone. However, it also gives me immense pain and anger being reminded that it is a matter of life and death for some of us in the world’s happiest country. Happiest for whom, I often challenge.

Comfort during COVID-19

In March, universities shut down and all classes shifted online. I was home all the time, except for weekly grocery shopping.

After the initial weeks of shock, helplessness and adjustments, I started liking the city more. That’s because I was home, a 18m2 studio, away from the aggression. I was home and I could rest.

A black woman who attended Ijeoma Oluo’s talk wrote that she “will heal at home in silence” resonated with me strongly. During this period, I unknowingly lost a significant amount of anger, I felt light. Even going out felt easier as public spaces were empty by then. Lesser people equals lower threats of microaggression. I needed to be home to enjoy the city.

On 4th April, I went to an uncrowded supermarket. A white male security guard followed me. The supermarket was so empty that I knew it was no coincidence that he was wherever I was. I knew it had to do with my race. I looked to see if there are other non-white shoppers. There were two central-Asian looking men. “Why did he think that I could be a thief?”, I thought. Aren’t men more likely to be profiled as criminals? I didn’t even have a bag, those men had bulky bag packs. Frustrated, I walked right up to him and stared at him angrily in his eyes, knowing I can get away with it because I looked the part of a fetishised ‘small docile Asian woman’. He turned away pretending to just be there coincidently, minding his own business. I left, but saw him at every opposite end of each aisle watching me pass. I laughed off this incident to my friends about the cliché textbook example of race and gender-based abuse of power.

As warm summer approaches and society opens up, the pressure and urge to go out increased towards the end of May. I found myself meeting people outside more frequently than pre-COVID-19 days. Yet I dreaded going out alone, something I enjoyed previously. I could not make sense of wanting to go out yet felt extremely unmotivated to do so. When I realised the fear underlying my dilemma, I broke down. I cried for days. I thought my knowledge of sociology and gender studies have made me invincible. A friend accurately and eloquently summed up my feelings, “There is no amount of rage that can quell your fears.”

Not once I blamed myself for what happened. It was not the security guard being attracted to me, as some of my east Asian friends rationalised and tried soothing me with. I experienced trauma, yet again. I am still scared of going out. I am hypervigilant when out alone. I want to punch every man I catch staring me down. I utilise the privilege from my proximity to whiteness when I go out. Every independent trip outside is a victory for me.

My 18m2 refuge provides me comfort and a hideout during the COVID-19 pandemic. But it is not enough to heal, COVID-19 will no longer be an acceptable excuse to hide.

To heal is to allow others to care and fight for me when I am tired. It does not matter who and what is their race. It is not a failure when I did not get meaningful support from the community that looks like me. It is not treacherous to receive support from people who did not look like me. I can resist colonial hangover without resisting white people’s imperfect fight for me in times of injustice, as long as it does not stem from white saviourism or performative allyship.

Note

1. This consists of country of birth, origin, nationality and country departed from, of individuals and their spouses.