By Jenny Lin
Our last party was a hot pot celebration. My husband Euan and I both have birthdays in late January, and in 2020 they coincided with Lunar New Year. We went to Chinatown, near our home in Los Angeles, to buy butane canisters, fish balls, paper-thin meat, niangao (rice cakes whose phonetic pronunciation resembles a New Year’s wish for prosperity), and red envelopes for the kids. We made broth from beef bones and vegetables, half-mala (spicy and numbing), and mixed barbecue sauce from Hong Kong with raw eggs, sesame seeds, and cilantro for dipping. We set the table with hot pots of simmering broth, cold Tsing Taos, ceramic bowls, and chopsticks once used in my grandparents’ restaurant – the only place to get Chinese food in Gainesville, Florida in the late 1960s. We invited friends, who brought vegetables, noodles, seafood, and tofu to cook in the pots. I made cards for each guest, with illustrations of their lunar zodiac signs and fortunes inside. I adapted the fortunes from a website into Haiku, such as: Monkey stay safe now. The law may help you this year. By walking flourish.
Messages from family, friends, and colleagues in China about the coronavirus began trickling in shortly after that party, arriving with intensity by March. Liu Jianhua, the artist whose work graces Above sea’s cover, emailed from Shanghai: “I saw in the news that the new coronavirus epidemic in the US is constantly developing, while the epidemic in China is now relatively under control. This virus spreads very quickly, so please wear masks, wash hands frequently and do not go to places where people gather.”
How could it be that officials in my country weren’t receiving the same warnings, collecting advice, and disseminating it to the people? We would later learn that those in power indeed obtained urgent warnings, but had, maddeningly and with devastating results, suppressed information and horded supplies. By mid-March, the art school where I work received urgent pleas for eye shields from the university hospital (do artists have goggles in their studios they can donate?). A campus museum repurposed its parking lot into a drop-off center for personal protective equipment. Artists and designers across departments furiously sewed masks and 3-D printed face-shields. We were performing work that should have been organized by our government and carried out en masse through executive orders.
I pored over articles about the virus’s relative containment in Taiwan and South Korea, places that had learned from past tragedies of other highly contagious viruses. Personal accounts gave me chills, or provided much-needed humor. My dad sent me a video of a row of doctors in Wuhan taking off their masks one by one to reveal beaming smiles on the day the hardest hit city in China registered no new cases. Liu Yuanyuan, a photographer whose work I cite in Above sea, responded to my WeChat appeal for tips: “Stay at home for two months. Block the city,” accompanied by laughing/crying emojis and photos of models in motorcycle helmet-like face shields. I forwarded these messages to friends and family in North America and Europe, reassured by those who had already managed the virus.
At the time of our hot pot party, Euan, an artist, was included in an exhibition in Beijing that would swiftly close due to Covid-19. The exhibition’s curator, Carol Yinghua Lu, together with her husband and son, Liu Ding and Liu Qingshuo, wrote a beautiful and haunting piece about life in quarantine for e-flux that spring: “One should never underestimate the power of Nature and overestimate the power of man. It’s important to feel humble and to acknowledge danger and the limits of our knowledge and ability in the face of unknown circumstances. We have seen too many lives lost to ignorance and arrogance in the past few months. It’s also important to be patient with everything, with oneself, with one’s emotion, with one’s loved ones and with the unknown.”
The Lu-Liu family’s passage reminds me of what I cherish most about art: its abilities to share personal perspectives across cultures, require our patience, and humbly but resolutely resist the hyperbole of nationalist rhetoric and spectacularized media. My favorite artworks do this kind of work. Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, Felix Gonzalez Torres’ Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), Patty Chang’s Melons (At a Loss), Yang Fudong’s The First Intellectual, along with so many others, stand as intimate portraits of threatened bodies and dying loved ones. Art’s fragilities, and the artists who generously offer up their vulnerabilities, immerse us in life’s ephemerality.
In 2020, the lunar year of the rat, we have witnessed the horrific toll of the coronavirus and the dire consequences of not listening to one another within and beyond national borders. We have seen rising anti-Asian sentiment in the United States, fueled by the president’s racist remarks about the virus, and a perilous breakdown of US-Chinese relations. In this time, I have come to consider cross-cultural exchange as more crucial than ever to our collective understanding and well-being. Why don’t we listen, pay attention, learn? By which channels can we do this productively? And if one day we’re able once more, let’s throw another hot pot party.
Jenny Lin is Associate Professor of Critical Studies at the University of Southern California. Above sea is available to buy now in paperback.