Quarantine Diaries



Jane Z. Li takes us inside the Li household, where each family member has a floor to themself to practice social distancing and explains how her family is staying cautious in light of COVID-19.



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I didn’t realize just how seriously my parents would take the quarantine.

In hindsight, that was pretty foolish of me. Whenever I’m sick, they demand that I eat raw ginger or garlic and drink cup after cup of hot water. My dad is a physician and my mom used to work as a nurse, but their consistent enthusiasm for home remedies still surprises me.

No matter what the season, if I’m caught wearing short sleeves in my room, I’m bound to get reprimanded. In the summertime, donning a sweater is supposed to prevent the cold I might get from the air conditioning. I dread admitting a sore throat or runny nose to my mom; all I can expect is a glare, a mug of hot water, and a reminder that it’s because “你没穿好衣服” — you didn’t wear warm enough clothing.

After Harvard’s announcement that we had to leave campus for the rest of the semester, my parents drove 12 hours from Ohio to Boston so that I could avoid going through the crowded airport. They were exhausted when they finally arrived to pick me up. I started to take a step toward them — maybe for a hug, maybe just to help take their coats. But I stopped when I realized my movement wasn’t reciprocated. There it was: the six feet of space between us that our two months of separation wouldn’t bridge.

We had plans to leave the next morning, and I asked if I could come into my parents’ room to say good night. My mother, less worried, invited me in. My dad, who has asthma, took a couple steps back.

The next morning, after loading my suitcases into the trunk of my parents’ car and climbing into the cramped backseat, my dad’s first words were, “Where are the face masks?” I rolled my eyes and dug through his backpack, finally extracting a Ziploc bag with five or six surgical masks inside.

I strapped the mask to my face, molding the aluminum wire over the flat bridge of my nose. I leaned back, ready to sleep through as much of the 12-hour ride as I could. But before I closed my eyes, my dad’s voice cut through the air — “Wear the gloves too!”

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***

The best word I can use for my quarantine is bizarre. For two weeks, my mom delivered my meals to me on a tray. After she left, I could emerge to grab the food before slinking back into my room. If I ever left my room (which was rare), I had to wear a face mask.

My dad was even more careful. He quarantined himself in the basement, only emerging for meals and to occasionally walk outside. My family split ourselves between the floors of our house — my dad in the basement, my mom on the ground floor, and me huddled in my bedroom in the corner of the second floor. At one point, I didn’t see my dad for two full days.

I didn’t realize that my situation could be considered unusual until I explained my house’s setup to a friend. He laughed and compared my dad to Oh Geun-sae, the husband of the housekeeper in “Parasite.” Maybe it wouldn’t have been so surprising if the lights suddenly started flashing messages in Morse Code.

My ventures outside were few and far between. Occasionally over the first week, one of my parents would agree to walk with me briefly, and I would get to trail six feet behind them on the sidewalk, mask and gloves on as usual. But after about a week, my chances to soak in my daily dose of vitamin D got even slimmer — my dad asked that I stay inside as the pandemic grew more severe nationwide.

Eventually, I was allowed back downstairs to use my usual desk for schoolwork, but I had to wipe down every surface I touched before heading back to my room.

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One afternoon, my mom colluded with me so that I could sneak outside without my dad’s knowledge. I dashed around the block twice and headed home. When I returned to our front door, panting, I saw my mom standing with her finger to her lips. She pointed to her left, and I realized that my dad had migrated to the room right next to the front door.

I held my breath, slipped off my shoes, and tiptoed back upstairs before allowing myself to catch my breath.

***

Even now, a week after my 14-day quarantine has ended, parts of my life remain on hold. Though I can move freely between the floors of my house, I haven’t been able to unpack my things from school; last week, I found my suitcases lined up in the garage basking in the sunlight. When I asked my mom why, she answered half-jokingly, “to disinfect them.”

The other day, I went to stand on our back porch to enjoy the unusually warm afternoon sun. When I notified my dad of my plan, his head jerked up: “Are you going to wear a mask?”

I’ve realized that I’m not the only one experiencing added layers of precaution at home. One friend’s parents installed a UV light in their laundry room to disinfect coats; anytime someone comes home after going out, they place their coat in the laundry room to allow the light to work its magic.

My other friend was also quarantined from her family for a full two weeks. A week and a half into her sentence, she texted me: “Today [it] was raining and I wanted to get fresh air so I just stuck my head outside my bedroom window.”

I understand why my parents enforced my quarantine. If anything, I felt guilty for the extra strain I caused. I felt like I was introducing anxiety that wasn’t present before — there’s no telling what I could have picked up at school, especially since plenty of cases have been asymptomatic.

For those first two uncertain weeks, I’m sure that my dad, a member of a higher-risk population, was even more on edge than he is now. During dinner earlier this week, he offered me one of the four raw garlic cloves he was munching on. I declined his offer.

While my parents’ tactics have added some inconvenience to my day-to-day life, it’s hard to know whether or not they’re going overboard. I’m not sure how much the sun baths for my luggage or the respiratory protection from my backyard have supplemented the social distancing recommendations from public health officials. But the three of us are healthy and safe right now, so I guess it doesn’t really matter.

— Staff writer Jane Z. Li can be reached at jane.li@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @JaneZLi.