A new book, Reconnecting Aotearoa: Loneliness and Connection in the Age of Social Distance, features essays exploring the importance of social connections as a result of the pandemic and its isolating nature, and represents a stirring “political call to action to push back on the myriad forces that separate us from each other”. In this extract, Athena Zhu writes on love in the time of Covid.
It’s 7.04 a.m. on a clear autumn day. Dawn is approaching and the first rays of sunlight are beginning to seep through the forest canopy. I’m surprised by how good I feel despite having only had three hours’ sleep.
Hiding behind a tree, I wait excitedly for our guests to arrive. Fourteen sleepy people have gotten up at the crack of dawn to witness Colin and me exchange our wedding vows. It’s the intimate, unconventional, somewhat bizarre wedding set in nature that I’ve always dreamed of.
What I’d never dreamed of was that I would get married on the other side of the world with none of my birth family present. Nor had I imagined I would marry someone who had never been to my homeland or met my family in person. I thought that type of thing occurred in a different time, during the earlier settler period maybe, when a journey home took months on a boat.
This is 2021 and it seems that Covid-19 has granted us time-travel powers whilst stripping us of air-travel ones.
Colin and I met a year before Covid. He an American, me a Kiwi, both of us expats in China.
Like many Kiwis, I grew up dreaming of that great rite of passage, the OE. Although my plan was initially quite conservative – a hop across the ditch to Melbourne for a few years – my OE eventually extended over 12 years and counting. Riding the currents of economic forces, I drifted north from Australia towards Malaysia, Singapore, eventually landing in China.
That’s how, in the age of modern air travel, telecommunications and multinational corporations, I became an expat. I’ve been in discussions over the years on what the difference is between an expat and an immigrant, if there even is a difference. From my vantage point as the child of immigrants, there is. Defining characteristics of expathood include more frequent cross-country moves, a greater familiarity with the annual work visa renewal process and an aversion towards owning any furniture. Most significantly, an expat has a different sense of identity and home, for the present and the future. Home has always been Aotearoa and I had never considered setting down real roots anywhere else (although I did crack a bit by the eighth year and adopted a dog).
On my last trip home before Covid, I hadn’t brought Colin with me. We’d coupled up two months prior and in the transient world of expat dating, it had felt too early to invite him on the trip. As I climbed up Mount Tauhara one weekend with a book of nature-inspired poetry by Mary Oliver that Colin had gifted me, I regretted that decision. I yearned to share the feeling of my homeland with him. I hoped that one day soon he’d be able to compare the pine forests of North Carolina with the kauri forests of Northland, and revel in the beauty of our homes together.
Our relationship deepened over the following months and we started taking these trips. I joined him on his annual migration home to Chapel Hill and celebrated a winter Christmas, still a rarity for me. New Zealand was next. We booked flights to Auckland and hut spots along the Lake Waikaremoana track for February 2020.
I remember the moment that was the beginning of the pandemic for me. It was January 23, two days before Chinese New Year. I had been on a business trip in Beijing and was about to catch the high-speed train back to Shanghai. During the three-day trip, there were murmurings of a novel virus outbreak in Wuhan. My colleagues handed me a mask before I left for the train station. I took it out of courtesy, thinking I probably wouldn’t need it. But I did. Everyone on the train wore a mask throughout the five-hour journey. I saw no signs or official announcements about mask-wearing. It’s amazing how quickly humans follow a crowd.
Over the next few days, the official announcements came and the larger ramifications of a world in pandemic started to unfold. Announcements of lockdowns in Wuhan, school closures and office closures. Shanghai usually gets quiet around Chinese New Year, but this was different. On the streets, every hour was 3 a.m.
A week and a half before our scheduled flight to Auckland, we were on our way to lunch at a friend’s when Trump announced travel restrictions from China into the United States. Colin asked me if New Zealand might do the same thing. ‘No way!’, I said as I ignorantly suspected Trump’s move was driven by factors unrelated to actual epidemiological logic. I knew so little and had so much to learn.
We did decide that evening though to shift our flights forward, realising there was no point in waiting around in a ghost town. Somewhat arbitrarily, we decided to reschedule to February 3, the day after our next friend gathering (nurturing your ‘friendmily’ is critical to expat survival).
As it turned out, that wasn’t quite early enough. Around noon China time on February 2, New Zealand announced the closure of borders to non-residents travelling from China, starting at midnight. Our flight was scheduled to depart at 00.05.
We still went to the airport together, but only one of us boarded the plane. This time, the pain of Colin’s absence was much greater. I had by then pretty much figured out that he could be my partner for life, but it felt impossible to make that decision without him meeting my family and my homeland. Can he really commit to being with me without seeing the people and the place that made me? I felt like this scuppered trip was costing me the ability to progress in my relationship and my life. In despair, I resented the virus, and I resented national borders.
I stayed home for close to a month. We celebrated Mum’s 60th birthday, took a trip to Taupō Bay and Cape Rēinga, and watched Covid unfold throughout the world. At the end of the month, I started thinking about returning to China. It was extra hard to leave home this time, there was so much uncertainty. How severe would this virus be? How long will it last? What will happen if it hits New Zealand? What if my family catch it? However, I had a sense that China might change their entry rules and if I didn’t go back soon, I might not be able to. I didn’t want to leave Colin, or the business I was building there, in limbo. At the beginning of March I returned to Shanghai via an eerily quiet transit through Hong Kong airport.
My prediction became a reality. China and New Zealand became two of the very few Covid-free havens in 2020 due to the restrictive travel policies they enacted. During the tough moments of missing each other, my family and I found relief that we were in the two safest countries on Earth.
The unprecedented travel restrictions tipped the rules and calculus of expat lifestyles upside down. Gone was the security that you could go home whenever you want. Forget about using your location of work as a jumping-off point to travel the region. The trade-off of career progression and international experience at the cost of a little less family time had to be recalculated. Every expat has a Covid horror story. In mid-2021, I met a man at Shanghai Pudong airport who was on his way back to Spain. He was walking away from an exciting senior role at an industry-leading company where he had dedicated years of his life. Securing this position was originally a triumph, but that was before he had to grapple with the uncertainty of Covid travel rules, resulting in an unplanned separation from his toddler and wife for more than twelve months, with no end in sight.
For me, my trip home turned out to be the last time I would see my family in person for over two years, and the last time that I would ever see my grandmother. I was cycling home when Mum called from Grandma’s bedside at Auckland Hospital. I stopped on the side of the road, cars and bicycles of Shanghai traffic streamed past me as I tried to tell my grandma ‘I love you’ one more time. I had watched her slowly slip away over the past decade from Alzheimer’s, so at least this wasn’t a shock. Yet still, prior to Covid I’d assumed I’m only a flight away should anything happen, and I had deemed that a reasonable trade-off for the adventures of living abroad.
I lay awake that night waiting for the final phone call. It came around 3 a.m. Colin held me as I cried. I was so grateful then that at least I had the ability to talk to them, to see them even, although through a screen. Immigrants of the past wouldn’t have had this luxury.
Covid made me acutely aware of nationality and citizenship rights, and the physical distance from family. I’ve heard that many other Kiwis have come to a similar realisation; I saw the media report that swaths of us had repatriated home. Covid has forced us to be conscious of how we choose our home; we can’t be in the middle, one foot in, one foot out. Maybe that’s a good thing. We are made to commit, to embrace the place we are in and people we are with more fully. But, as an economy with a small domestic market that needs strong exports to thrive, the loss of the Kiwi expat community may weaken New Zealand’s cross-market knowledge, relationships and competitive advantage. Of course, less global mobility also means loss of the personal growth and learning opportunities that come from living abroad. These things are never simple to judge.
Throughout the two years, Colin and I frequently deliberated over whether or not to travel home. The rules meant spending up to five weeks in quarantine, quite challenging for us as entrepreneurs. More importantly, our circumstances meant we were each barred from entry to the other’s home nation. Given the fluidity of rule changes, we didn’t want to risk potentially being stuck apart, as we saw happen to several of our friends. After weathering Covid together, we knew for sure we were the dream team, but as foreigners, we couldn’t get the paperwork to seal the deal in China. We watched intently for any indication of the rules loosening.
Finally, in October 2021, the press started reporting that the US was preparing to open its borders to travellers from China. As soon as the official announcement was released, we took action. Flights were booked, rings were made and we planned our wedding in two weeks. On the day we booked our flights, I managed to get to the fabric market thirty minutes before closing time to get a dress made. I was nervous when I told my mum our plans; we knew it would be unlikely for my family to attend due to the isolation and quarantine policies in New Zealand. She was hugely supportive and understood completely.
We tried to make the most of it. Since it wasn’t possible to be traditional anyway, we let our imaginations fly. We held our ceremony at sunrise, outside in the woods. Colin and I hid before we approached the ‘altar’ together: I squeezed behind a tree, he lay prone in the grass. A close Kiwi friend who lived in Vancouver got ordained to be our celebrant. During our breakfast reception, Colin’s family took turns reading out the well wishes sent by my family and friends in New Zealand. Our photographer, a former photojournalist from Turkey who had also been stuck away from family due to Covid, told us he had never heard of a dawn wedding before we called him and thanked us for the unique and memorable experience.
I was finally able to bring Colin home in 2022, although we were almost caught on the wrong side of the tracks again. Less than a week before our scheduled flight to Auckland, the Shanghai government announced a four-day lockdown that would end the day we were due to fly. Not willing to risk another season stuck away from home, we purchased a new set of flights and departed Shanghai the day before it went into what would actually become a two-month-long lockdown.
As the plane approached Auckland, I craned my head from my middle aisle seat, desperate for a first glimpse of home. I felt elated, relieved, joyous and safe, knowing I would soon be with my family and friends in Aotearoa. As soon as we could, we paid a visit to Grandma and introduced her to her newest family member.
Gazing out at the Waitematā Harbour from her final resting place, holding Colin’s hand in mine, I’m grateful that Covid has made me more sensitive to the physical distances from important people and places in my life, more appreciative of every moment I get to spend in their presence.
This is an extract from Reconnecting Aotearoa: Loneliness and Connection in the Age of Social Distance (BWB Texts, RRP $17.99), edited by Kathy Errington and Holly Walker.