I emerged at 10 in the morning from a bad dream, feeling the way people feel emerging at 10 in the morning from a bad dream. To think that merely two weeks ago I was still waking up at 5:30, out of my own volition, to jog around the Reunification Palace. That has now become virtually impossible, not because I no longer find the nostalgic air of early morning jogs soothing, but because there is now nowhere to park my scooter so I could continue these jogs. They have closed down all public parking sites; the private ones are still operational, but they don’t open until 7. That means I might as well take my jogs in the afternoon. It would soon become clear to me that that, too, would become impossible. Or highly irresponsible, anyway.
I took my scooter out for a ride, counting in my head the 6 – 7 quarantined sites that have popped up overnight along Lê Quang Định, Lê Văn Duyệt, and Trần Quang Khải. Barricade tapes everywhere, cordoning off danger zones and places that shall not be entered. Are we late to this game? This should not be the time to fear or hide. Just last night, I watched 10 back-to-back YouTube clips of Stephen Colbert, who, in his kempt hair and characteristically conservative suit, was grinning at his full live audience inside the Ed Sullivan theatre. Everyone in the theatre has been vaccinated, he gleefully announced to the camera; so has 70% of the US population. Brand America is back. Now is the time to rejoice, rebuild, remember. His guests cheered him on as they congratulated him on escaping his makeshift studio at home where he filmed his show for more than a year, looking tactically rugged to send the right message out to the world.
The Baemin driver standing a few metres away from me was pissed. He was arguing with a customer on the phone; it appeared that the customer was asking him to deliver her food from a restaurant that was located in a quarantined zone. He tried to explain to her that if he entered the zone, he would be locked out of his app, and that would mean he could no longer work. That didn’t seem to be good enough a reason to get her to cancel the order – which would trigger no reprimand for either party – as she appeared to be trying to teach him a secret route that would somehow cheat the app out of detecting this reckless ordeal. It was at this point that the driver completely lost it; an onslaught of expletives befell upon this cruelly stubborn customer: she needed some sense knocked into her. She hung up; I think she must have cancelled the order. I laughed manically. Justice was served; the world felt righteous right in that moment. The driver drove away, frowning, muttering something to himself. I watched him until he was out of sight. I thought about how long it would take for food delivery drivers to test positive. That was not a cruel thought. It was an inevitability waiting to happen.
People are afraid that their loved ones would suddenly disappear. Suddenness is time’s ultimate victory; no warning, no extra instance to spare: a total and complete arrestment of time. We live well for ourselves, but perhaps more importantly and more deeply, we live well for the sake of others. We blame: our neighbour who didn’t fact-check before posting something false on Facebook, that gay flight attendant who broke quarantine because his employer didn’t make it a punishable offense to do so until it was a punishable offense to do so, this minor religious group who dared congregating and ‘bringing back’ the virus even though that is absolutely not how it works. We carried on because at some point, we simply had to have better things to do. When the gates bolted open, there was no use for blame. Let’s get together, they say, we are all in this together. Let’s send help southward; let’s take some photos and ship out some kids on their first expedition to become heroes. Let’s engineer stories, let’s confuse and anger people some more. Somewhere amidst all of this, we ended up blaming: big corporations, oligarchic capitalism, the naivety of the nhà quê, the pretend generosity of the người thành phố. We were wrong; we never escaped the need to have someone to blame. This virus is the ‘enemy’; there is no other possible alternative for the way we think about the species with whom we share this planet. We’ve lost this battle; we’ve lost the war, too. In the end, it would appear that Miracle, TX has an expiry date. We all knew this at the back of our head. For what miracle would last forever? The West is the affliction and we are the cure. No longer. Jarden has returned to Miracle. Whatever you’re looking for, it ain’t here.
I made a playlist called ‘roaming around saigon’ for the exact purpose for which I named it. Departures are hard. As I breezed through the deserted streets of Saigon at 6:30am the day before I leave to get tested in D7 – I need a negative test result certificate in order for me to board my flight – the streets teared me up. Barricades and checkpoints are in place throughout the way; the police are checking whether you’re leaving the house for the right reasons. I had seen footages of people bullied and shamed for being outside for the wrong reasons; I was anxious and in no mood to argue. I joined the queue of people who could afford spending $150 to have their tests done at a private lab, away from the much bigger queue of centralised national testing. The usual suspects were there. One woman in an ugly travel agent polo herded a group of South Koreans who cut in front of me so they could get tested together, having established a deal with the hospital. I honestly did not care. I was leaving, and I did not expect people to not behave the way they always would on my behalf.
But people are full of surprises. I was stopped at a police checkpoint later that same day, having driven once again to D7 to collect my covid-negative certificate, and asked what my purpose of travel was. I used the language of the government directive – that I was out to khám bệnh, to seek treatment for illness – and handed the policeman my hospital invoice. He looked over it for several seconds, gave the piece of paper back to me, and wished me a good rest when I get home. ‘Em về nghỉ ngơi nha’, he said. Before that day, I don’t think I had ever said thanks to a policeman and meant it. I told myself to never forget that people are people. They are not cardboard cut-outs of my or your expectations. If I forget this basic tenet, then there is no point in carrying on.