His phone buzzed him awake from his dreaming. Groaning, he slapped his hand over to grab the phone and squinted as the bright screen dominated the darkness of the room. He was glad he had bought the light-canceling curtains, but he blinked several times as he turned off the alarm and grabbed his glasses. His screen was filled with notifications:
- An email from his advisor: “Because of the Confucius Institute’s closure, we unfortunately will not have funding to pay your scholarship this semester. …”
- A photo from a classmate on Instagram: “Feels good to see my family over the weekend. #blessed …” Everyone is blonde and smiling at the table.
- A voice message from his mother: “Xiao Ming, I’ve heard WeChat will be banned in the US. …”
- A reply on his cohort’s group text: “Can’t wait to see everyone at the coffee house today! …”
- An article on Weibo: “US COVID deaths rise to 200,000, by far the highest in the world. …”
- A post on Facebook from his old roommate: “Thanks to everyone for my birthday celebration! …” A picture with him and ten other people–none of them with masks.
- A tweet with a video link: “Chinese man attacked in subway, police call it a hate crime tied to the coronavirus. …”
He glanced at the time and noticed an hour had already passed by. It was now after ten o’clock, and he had a class on Zoom in about twenty minutes.
Five more minutes, he thought as he clicked the screen off, rolled over, took off his glasses, and put the phone back on the table.
He jumped when he heard a knock on the door. He froze and pulled the blankets closer. Was it really a knock? Who would be knocking? He grabbed his phone and looked at the time: 11:45. “Oh, zao le.”
Again: knock knock knock. “Ming? You there? It’s Darius.” It was his RA. He sat up in bed and rubbed his face, wondering if he should answer or not. With a sigh, he grabbed his mask, got up, and unlocked the door. Even with the mask covering half his face, Darius’s expression gave him away; he looked shocked at Ming’s matted hair, red eyes, and dark eye circles but then tried to shake his reaction. “Uh, hey man, just doing my rounds. Is it okay if I come in?”
Wasn’t he just here? This was supposed to be a monthly health and safety check, but it felt like he was here just the other day. Ming was suddenly aware of how much stuff was lying on the floor. “Uh, yeah, I guess, come on,” he said as he used his foot to try to push over some of the ramen packages, tissues, chip bags, and laundry.
“Mind if I turn on the light? You’ve got it pretty dark in here with those curtains.”
“Yeah, I have it.” Ming made sure to close his eyes when the light came on.
He stood awkwardly while Darius took a glance around the room. “Well, man, it’s pretty messy in here, and to be honest, you might want some air freshener in here or something. It seems pretty stale, you know what I mean?”
“Yeah, yeah. I just have a lot going on, you know? Sorry.”
“No, I get it, man. You, uh … you okay? I don’t hardly see you come out of your room. You need anything?”
What was Ming supposed to say? Every day, it felt harder and harder to get out of bed. The world felt so dark and heavy, and he felt unwanted and unwelcome.
This year had been an almost non-stop barrage of attacks into what he thought would be the best years of his life, studying abroad in the United States. First when COVID broke out in Wuhan, he was terrified for his family there. His grandmother died in January. Then there was a growing sense of paranoia and blame on him when COVID was coming to the US. “You’re not sick, are you?” he remembered someone saying to him back in February. It still made him wince.
It was hard to concentrate on school, especially when it all became online in March. The teachers were harder to understand, he couldn’t ask questions, he couldn’t keep up, and his grades plummeted. Then COVID was being called “the Chinese virus,” and hate crimes against Asians were spreading all over.
When school ended in May, Ming had nowhere to go, and all his friends went back home to their families. He wanted so badly to go home too, but tickets were outrageously expensive, there was no way he could afford it. Then the Confucius Institute closed in June–the one place he felt connected to a Chinese community that understood him. All the professors and visiting scholars went back to China.
He lost his on-campus job at the center. With no income, he stayed on campus as long as he could then slept in his car when campus shut down. Then in July the government threatened to send students home who were taking only online classes. But there was no way he was going to take an in-person class. He just–couldn’t. He still didn’t know how he was going to pay for this semester. Now WeChat was being threatened, which is the only way he had to speak to his friends and family in China because of the Great Firewall, and–
“Hey. Ming? You okay?”
Ming noticed his face was hot, and he felt like he couldn’t breathe under his mask. He looked down at his hands and saw that he was shaking. “Tian ah,” he breathed, ashamed. He just shook his head and covered his face with his hands.
“Hey, it’s okay, man. I can’t imagine what kind of stuff you’re going through. Do you want to talk about it?”
“What can I say? I don’t know how to say.”
Darius closed the door behind him. “Listen, Ming, I know things are really hard right now. This year has just been unreal.” He sat down at Ming’s desk and saw a photo of who he assumed were Ming’s parents. Ming slumped down on his bed. “Do you have any brothers or sisters?”
Ming shook his head. “The one-child policy, you know.”
“Ah, yeah, right.” Darius pulled up a picture on his phone and handed it to Ming. “I got a sister, Kendra. She’s been in the protests downtown ever since George Floyd happened.”
“This kind of stuff has been happening since I can remember. One of my earliest memories is my mom shaving my head because a white boy kept pulling my hair in preschool. It’s nothing new, but it’s been coming to a head this year, you know? My parents don’t want Kendra marching because they think it’s too dangerous, and they don’t think it’s going to change anything. But I think they’re also kind of proud of her for it. They’ve told me to keep my head down and focus on school and stuff, but it’s hard, you know? I keep expecting a phone call saying she’s been hurt or she’s in jail or something like that.”
“I’m sorry,” Ming said, giving the phone back to Darius.
“Yeah, well, I guess what I’m saying is that I do know a little bit of what you’re going through. By living our lives, being who we are, and looking the way we look, people are going to think we’re causing a problem.”
“But you always look so cool–I mean, you never look like it affects you. You smile, and you’re nice and talk to people. I don’t know. I can’t do that. It’s too much.”
“I understand. There are days I feel like that too. But if I’m honest, let me tell you what keeps me going. I follow Jesus, and He said the world ain’t gonna be easy, but His burden is light. He gives His followers the Spirit, which helps to comfort us, give us strength, and show us what to do. I pray for that a lot.”
Ming nodded. “My nai nai–oh, my grandmother is–was a Christian. She prayed, she went to church every Christmas and Easter, and she had a cross on her door. But my father didn’t believe it, and he didn’t want us to know about it.”
“Do you think your grandmother feels sad that your dad didn’t believe?”
“Maybe. I never thought about it. I guess it always hurts if your child doesn’t follow what you believe.”
“Yeah. My parents are actually not Christians either.”
“Really? But you are?”
“Yeah, maybe someday they’ll understand, though. I pray about that. I learned from my high school basketball coach, actually.”
“You play basketball?”
Darius noticed how Ming’s face lit up. “Yeah, man, you like basketball?”
“Yeah! I watch the NBA highlights every day.”
“Yeah? Who’s your favorite? Oh oh–who’s the tall Chinese guy, what’s his name?”
“Yeah, Yao Ming! And Jeremy Lin!”
“Right, yes! I do like the Houston Rockets, but I don’t really have a favorite. I just like a good game, you know?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I do. Can’t beat a good game.” Ming nodded. It got quiet. “Well, I should probably keep going on my rounds. Gotta check out other people’s rooms too. But, listen, can I pray with you? I think God knows what you’re going through, and He can help you.”
“Sure, I guess. I’ve never prayed before, actually.”
“That’s okay, man. All you have to do is sit there. I’ll do the talking if you want,” Darius said with a chuckle. He leaned over his knees and closed his eyes, and Ming felt like maybe he should do the same. He closed his eyes but opened them every now and then while Darius prayed.
“Father in Heaven, I know You are God, and I am not. There’s a lot of things I wish I could control–a lot of things. But I trust You. I know You’re in control of all this craziness in the world right now. I don’t know what You’re doing this year, but it’s honestly getting hard on Ming and me. Thank you for giving us this time to connect and talk about it today, and I pray that You are with Ming in these dark moments. Help him know that he’s not alone, and please help me to be here for him too, Father. Thank You, God, and in the name of Jesus I ask for these things, amen.”
They looked at each other, and Ming did feel a sense of relief. It felt good to know that someone did care about what he thought.
“All right, well, I’m gonna go. Just clean up a bit and maybe get an air freshener or something. I can smell your old chips through my mask,” he chuckled. “And seriously, come see me at the desk if you need anything. You’ve got my number too. I’ll check on you every now and then, okay?”
“Okay. Thanks, Darius. Thanks a lot.”
“You’re welcome, man. I can’t do much right now, but I do what I can.” Darius stood up and shuffled his way to the door. “And listen, we can still stay socially distanced and shoot some hoops at the rec center, you know. Maybe I can help you understand some of what your grandmother believed.”
“Yeah, that would be fun. Thank you.”
“You know, how about Friday? Weather should be great then. You got classes?”
Ming wanted to say he was busy. He would’ve normally made up an excuse. But being outside sounded good. “I’ve got a morning class on Zoom, but then I’m free.”
“Awesome. See ya then, man.”
“Yeah, see you.” Ming closed the door behind him, took off his mask, and sighed. His room did stink. He looked at the light-canceling curtains on the window. He climbed over his bed and squinted as he opened up the curtains and let the sunlight in. He tied the curtains in a knot at the side of the window, pulled up the blinds, and opened the window. He felt the breeze pull through his shirt, and for the first time in months, he felt a sense of hope.