It is 11:59 pm, Mr. A finishes his homework and feels really tired. He lies on his dorm room bed and watches the news. Recently, the Coronavirus has become the most popular topic.
“A lot of people are infected with this virus globally, and the situation in the San Francisco Bay Area is not good. Do you guys have plans to go back to China?” Mr. A asks his roommates.
“We want to but we’re worried about how we will continue our courses if we do, do you think they will cancel them?” His roommates ask him. ‘Maybe, who knows what will happen tomorrow’ he thinks. His roommates are talking still when Mr. A feels overcome by tiredness and drifts into sleep.
“Wake up, wake up!” Mr. A opens his eyes slowly to a strange sound. He does not know how much time has passed.
“Wait a minute! Where is here?” Mr. A says out loud looking around anxiously. He is sure that he is in his dorm lying on his bed asleep. But “here” is not his room, there is nothing “here” except white walls, white floor, and white ceiling. Mr. A is lying on the floor, “I want to go back!” He shouts at the ceiling. Mr. A stands up, he wants to find some way to escape this strange place.
“You do not need to leave here, just stay here. ” A strange voice says.
“Who are you?” Mr. A asks.
“You do not need to know, you just need to know that you are in Exile Land and you cannot return to your original world. You are an exile pushed into Exile Land, it is good here, isn’t it good here? Here just belongs to you.” The strange voice replies.
“I am an Exile? What do you mean? ” Mr. A does not understand what this strange place means but a strong fatigue makes him fall asleep again.
“Ding-ding” the alarm on his phone sounds. Mr. A wakes up reluctantly and starts his daily routine by checking his email. ‘Well, none of my professors are canceling classes’ Mr. A feels a little bit disappointed. He’s still unsure when and if he should buy his ticket home. However, when he anxiously checks a few moments later he finds a new email in his box alerting all students that live classes have been canceled and will be taught online. He shares the news with his roommates,
“Hey, you guys, our school has changed all of our courses to online.” The news gives Mr. A a sense of relief. He asks his roommates if they will plan to go back to China,
“Yes, we believe we can buy tickets now, hopefully, we can find some cheap ones.” Mr. A’s roommates feel very happy, “Do you want to go back to China with us, Mr. A?!” Mr. A’s roommates ask him excitedly.
“Yes, I do want to,” he responds cheerfully. Mr. A is sitting with his laptop and does an immediate search, “Here is a ticket that is really cheap and it flies to my city, Wuhan, directly.” Mr. A replies. His roommates see the concern on his face. Wuhan has been reported as ground zero for COVID 19,
“Don’t worry, just keep taking the same precautions that you have been and continue to care for yourself,” they try and reassure him.
“Yes, okay, thank you…I hear that we will be quarantined for 14 days when we get to China.” Mr. A says.
“That’s okay, at least we can escape from here and see our parents.” Mr. A’s roommates say. After a week, the time is getting close to leaving for China. Everyone feels very positive.
“We‘re ready to leave! Bye Mr. A!” The roommates say goodbye to Mr. A.
“You are the first to leave, see you guys,” Mr. A says goodbye to his roommates.
Mr. A’s dorm room becomes desolate. ‘Well, my flight is in 24 hours, let me enjoy my last 24 hours in this room,’ he thinks. However, when he checks his ticket information, he cannot believe his eyes. Due to the virus, China issues out new flight restrictions, and a lot of flights are canceled. Mr. A’s flight is one of the canceled flights. He feels very disappointed and upset. Now the only way is to find another ticket that will hopefully not be canceled. He immediately checks if there are surplus tickets that he might be able to buy. ‘I do not care how long I need to wait for the flight in the airport or how many times that I need to transfer to other connecting flights, I just want to find access to go home.’ Mr. A thinks. He finds a $2000.00 dollar ticket but this is more expensive than the average price, the cost is almost three times more. ‘That is very expensive for me, however, I have no choice now.’ Mr. A thinks and buys the ticket immediately.
After a couple of hours, when Mr. A checks his ticket’s status. The disastrous news happens again. The ticket was canceled. Ok, let me check available tickets again. Mr. A does not give up. But this time, there are only a few tickets available and… their prices are very expensive, ‘$6000.00 ?!! I do not think I can afford this price.’ Mr. A feels very hopeless and he calls his parents and tells them about this unfortunate news. Mr. A tries to comfort himself and his parents by speaking about routine,
“Well, now the most important thing is I need food to support my daily consumption. Lucky, I have some masks which can protect me if I go outside.”
Mr. A wears his mask and goes out to purchase some necessities. He must be careful because this virus has a 2 to 14 days latency, it is very dangerous if he goes outside without protection because he does not know who is a virus carrier. Also, he does not know whether markets have enough goods and materials. When this virus broke out, a lot of people stockpiled a lot of goods and food, even though it seemed unnecessary. ‘Face masks are most necessary’ Mr. A thought but no one was wearing them, he observed. But Mr. A must shop to eat. When he leaves the campus and goes out into the streets. Mr. A feels some unfriendly eyes on him. He hears some news about Americans beating Chinese people because of their belief that the Chinese spread this virus to the U.S. ‘I have to be careful about this situation, I have to avoid these people, I do not want to have conflicts with them.’ While he’s walking and worrying about this he arrives at the market.
There does not seem to be a lot of customers because a lot of food is sold out. Most of the shelves are emptied. Mr. A just needs some eggs, rice, and meat, he pushes his cart, walks to those food shelves directly and avoids contact with other customers. Lucky, there is some left of what he is there for, Mr. A puts his items in his cart. Suddenly, a young man grabs the meat which Mr. A put in his cart.
“Hey, Chink! You don’t deserve any of this food!” this young man says angrily. Mr. A does not want to make conflict, the best way to avoid conflict is silence. So, Mr. A does not say anything and moves to another shelf to get another pack of meat. “I am talking to you, take your mask away! Because of your country, we cannot go out—the bars are closed! I think China just wants to make trouble for the world, you are the sinners. You need to pay, understand?! I do not know why you dare to go shopping to buy our food. Get out of here!”
The young man rips off Mr. A’s mask, which makes him very fearful. He could argue with him, maybe even get into an altercation. However, he does not want to engage. Mr. A is an international student, his actions could impact his student visa status and whether he can continue studying in the United States. Mr. A leaves the market and goes to another market to try and buy some food.
It is 9 pm when Mr. A finishes shopping and goes back to his dorm. He takes a shower and goes to bed. His engagement with the daily dystopia is making him feel further isolated. When his ticket was canceled he bought a new one but it too was canceled. He went to the market to buy some food however, he was harassed violently by the local young man. The fatigue of it all makes him fall asleep. He slips into the white cube of Exile Land again. ‘Here again…Again? This is Exile Land, I was here yesterday.’ Mr. A realizes he had no recall of this dream from the night before until he was in it again. The strange sound voice speaks again,
“Exile Land protects you who are sheltered from the reality of the real world, there are no people who can bully you here. You can stay here and escape your existence.”
“Wait, but I do not want to stay here, this is not my original world.” Mr. A shouts and feels the sharp pain of a headache and falls fast asleep again.
Mr. A’s parents buy a total of seven airline tickets in a desperate attempt to get Mr. A home. He feels hopeful that he may get home, but still feels a sense of dreadful hopelessness. The reason why he feels hopeful is that he still has five tickets that are not canceled. He believes he still has a chance at going back to China; the reason why he feels hopeless is that he does not know if these remaining tickets will be canceled or not. Also, these tickets are not cheap, under the circumstances of the virus, a lot of airline companies reduced the number of flights, this reduction in flights caused the available tickets to skyrocket in price. The seven tickets Mr. A.’s family bought for him cost $30,000.00, this causes a serious financial burden for his family. They won’t be able to buy any tickets beyond the seven that they already have.
Mr. A believes it is necessary to ask the airline company about how long before he can get his refunds for the two originally canceled tickets. He calls the flight company’s service hotline. Mr.A tries three times, however, he cannot get through to a representative. Mr. A believes there must be a lot of people trying to call with refund questions. When he calls a fifth time, a flat voice answers his call,
“Hi, how can I help you?”
“Hello, yes, excuse me, I’m calling to ask how and when I can get refunded for two canceled tickets?” Mr. A asks politely.
“Oh, the refund, there are a lot of people who have applied to get refunds. So, you need to wait five to seven weeks to get it.” the voice says coolly.
“But, why do I need to wait five to seven weeks to get my refund? I think usually the refund should be returned to my original account within a month. I mean, that is too long…” Mr. A says frustrated because he does not want to continue causing financial stress for his parents.
“I told you that there are a lot of people who want to get their refunds, you are not the only one. So, do not ask me again about why you need to wait five to seven weeks. This is not the usual situation understand?” the voice answers with attitude. Mr. A believes he should let his parents know about this refund situation. He calls his parents and tells them about the whole conversation with the airline representative.
“Do not feel any pressure or anxiety, my son. We believe we can overcome this difficulty together. However, I just want you to know the reason behind why you need to wait five to seven weeks for getting your refund. The airline companies do not have enough cash flow during this COVID 19 crisis, they’re floating your money. They are using your money to pay other people’s refunds and using it to staunch other financial hemorrhaging. You may be among a group that is being refunded or may continue to wait until their cash flow can allow for your refund. So, that is the reason why you can see some flight tickets which must be canceled in the future still appear on their website. They know these will be canceled, but they still post on the website and hope people buy these ‘non-departure tickets’. This is a good chance for them to generate some financial benefits.” Mr. A’s mother explains.
Mr. A understands that airline companies have financial issues now, however, he cannot understand how they will simply steal his money, in particular, in this time of crisis. ‘Many people are living in difficult circumstances, but some people still want to profit and capitalize on people’s tragedies.’ Mr. A sighs and wonders when he will return home to Wuhan.
Every day while he waits to go home, Mr. A does the same things. He wakes up, takes online courses via Zoom, cooks in his empty dorm room, does his homework, and he goes to the market when he has to. He usually chooses night time around seven or eight pm to purchase food so he can avoid contact with a lot of people. However, Mr. A feels very lonely because nobody will talk to him and he has no one to talk to. Mr. A cannot go out. His dorm room looks very big without his roommates, it just seems like a big cage. He prepares to do his homework after eating but suddenly, his phone rings, it’s his parents calling him. His father had very bad news for him…that his maternal grandmother had passed away in the hour before their call. Mr. A and his parents cry together over the phone.
When Mr. A was a child his parents were very busy so Mr. A lived with his maternal grandmother so she could care for him while they worked. She loved him very much. She always bought his favorite snacks. Sometimes, she was very strict and full of advice because she wanted Mr. A to be a successful person in the future. He cannot accept this bad news, riddled with grief he wants to go back immediately. However, there are no cheap tickets or guarantees still and even though he could take a plane now, he will still need to be quarantined for 14 days once he gets home.
He cannot see his maternal grandmother one last time before she is put to rest. His parents tell him that due to the virus they cannot have a proper funeral. Quiet praying is the only thing that they can do now. Mr. A just cries and begs his maternal grandmother to forgive him because he is not able to go back to China now. Recalling the memories of his maternal grandmother and him, Mr. A just feels deep sorrow because she will not see the day when he becomes successful. The virus not only deprives his chance to see his parents but also separates his maternal grandmother and him eternally…
Mr. A lies on his bed and hopes his maternal grandmother can appear in his dream when he falls asleep. He misses her. However, he does not dream of her when he is sleeping. He enters Exile Land again,
“Now, you know what exile land is, I tried to offer you a safe haven from this reality.” The strange said.
“Yes, I know now, Exile Land is a place which separates people by time, space and feeling. I do not know if I need to blame the virus, blame politics, blame racism, xenophobia, blame the culture or blame myself for why I did not buy an early ticket, I am exiled by these factors. I lose my freedom, my kinfolk, and my dignity. I do not know which thing I could blame. Maybe, this Exile Land is the only place where I can escape reality. Everything is white here and it is a proper place to relieve my pain.” Mr. A says.
“Now, do you want to wake up and go back to your original world?” the strange voice says.
“No, please let me never wake up.” Mr. A says, with an eerie smile.
“Ding-ding” the clock rings to wake Mr. A again. However, this time, nobody wakes up and shuts the alarm clock off. Except for the alarm clock, the room is silent…