'Fight this pandemic like it's the enemy'
photo taken at Trung đoàn Pháo binh 58/58th Artillery Regiment in Quốc Oai, Hà Nội - where I was quarantined with 137 other Vietnamese nationals for 14 days. We were half of the first ever direct commercial flight from Houston to Hanoi to repatriate Vietnamese nationals amidst COVID-19.
Daily facility disinfection in quarantine camp
What do we get when we strip people of what they want the world to see in them?
Not vulnerability. Vulnerability is a cunning game; the most wicked among us use vulnerability in others as the only sure way of knowing themselves. If hurting one another is not an option, why bother? But people are resilient, even when resilience is not what is expected of them: the motherland is taking care of you, you are home. Vulnerability is what we seek in our enemy; the homeland is not an enemy. Those who might forget where they came from risk losing the most sacred of all possessions: a place to come back to when friends and foes alike have abandoned them in the hour of need.
Not rawness. Even without all the makeup, Instagram filters, #OOTD, and general pretence, people are rarely at a loss to present themselves in a way that works. Even without familiar resource, the self finds a way to exteriorise, fully oxygenated. Those who give keep on giving; those who take remain takers. Nothing brings out the best or worst in people; people make do given what they have. Transformative experiences cannot be assessed in advance, revelations are almost always too late. The sort of experiences that can change who one is manifests in the event as visible to the eye, but even more so in the solitary meditations audible only to the mind.
Not an interlude. There is no coherent narrative from here. When intermissions last as long as the acts, a new genre emerges. Breaks become work, and people grow comfortable with not knowing which part of the performance they are in. Distinctions become redundant; people eventually get on with life as though there is no alternative. Planning, much like thinking ahead, becomes futile. There is the present moment, and not much else. Visions are contracted as days morph into doughy parchment strings of written memories. Weightier is each step; outlook from the makeshift crow’s nest proves hazy as one climbs down, gazing at their own navel.
People are living testaments to places and time. I slept out of sync with the automatically adjusted clock on my phone for the first few days at the quarantine camp in Quốc Oai. But I was not alone. It was 3am; I was lying on my back, staring at the reading room ceiling through my military-green mosquito net when I noticed my roommate was also awake. And so were the rest of some thirty people in my block – a repurposed auditorium-cum-meeting room/library complex. We hailed from a different time, a time in which we can no longer live, but a time that has followed us here. Home. A place we had longed to come back for so long, it felt like a chore now that our longing has been replaced with a collective lag: the sound of bored yet eager quarantined subjects – the soldiers called us their công dân/citizens – sweeping fallen leaves with a crude broom at 4:30am shocks us with how familiar and comforting a bizarre situation can feel.
People flirt, even in the strangest of circumstance. A connection becomes a matter of tantalising urgency: we can wait no longer. To be quarantined is to no longer be in isolation: an oxymoron that found a way to resolve itself within the span of 14 days. Risks are recalculated and deflated every time they come up: days at home are worth months, if not years, over in the other place/ở bên đó. Only the luckiest get to go back: the screening has already been done. How often would you find yourself in such a situation? Now is the time to make friends, plant seeds, pass around promises. People hold their cards close to their chest only to lay them all on the table over a few Heinekens/vài lon ‘ken’ – a crime of a beer that holds the Vietnamese nhậu/drinking table hostage. People repeatedly do things they are not supposed to – you have to understand/thông cảm đi – because people behave in a way they will never fully understand when they become locally resubjectivised in biopolitics writ large.
(photo: Annie Anh Pham)
People band together out of habit. Maybe that’s a habit of survival, but not in the hunting and gathering sense: the bộ đội/soldiers fed us three times a day, without fail, to the hour. We lived on military time: the bugle would sound at 5:30 for wake-up call, 11:00 for lunch, 13:30 to signal the end of siesta, 18:00 for dinner, and 21:30 for bedtime. A structure was already in place; any disobedience can only bring people closer together. Any hacks, workarounds, and – you expected this – acts of kindness inject a full dose of humanity into the rhythm of a public health crisis turned militant. Clan membership is randomly conferred in times like these; little does it matter whether one truly belongs to the tribe they have so been selected. Sovereignty has notoriously been about make live and let die – now it is also about making the exception: who gets to go home and for what reason. A plague is confusing and unsettling to a hermit for at least two reasons: how people keep on unwittingly spreading the disease to one another, and how much they need each other in order to survive.
(photo: Annie Anh Pham)