Guest Editorial: The Presence of Love in the Form of Absence– Letter from A Fellow Senior of Wuhan, China

The global outbreak of COVID-19 is far, far more significant than us, and we should think collectively and behave responsibly.

Photo courtesy of Qisen Song

Qisen Song, Guest Writer

My dear fellow seniors,

Our senior year collapsed in 48 hours. Shock, disbelief, anguish and resentment immediately flooded our minds. All the fun we would have had, all the joy of achievement we would have experienced, and all the proper farewell and love we would have shared with families and friends have all of a sudden evaporated. 

This is the semester that I have looked forward to for all four years. I finally saved enough to visit Machu Picchu over beach week and eat all the Arroz Chaufa I could shovel into my mouth. I pictured myself dancing with friends at the Rites of Spring and taking graduation photos at the Wyatt Center half-drunk the next day. I imagined eventually finishing my honor thesis and bidding farewell to all the faculty members and staff for putting up with me for four years. I dreamt countless times of the beaming, proud smiles on my parents’ faces on Commencement day.

I know, my fellow seniors, that I’m not the only one to undergo such frustration and devastation. We’re all thoroughly entangled with the distinct misfortune of forever losing the finale of our senior year that was supposed to be filled with accomplishment and joy. Months for greeting the last spring on campus and saying goodbye to friends have been abruptly compressed into five days.

However, the ideal narrative of my senior year was already ruptured in early January as I found that my other home, Wuhan, the city where I was born and raised, soaked in its darkest hours. After hearing reports about an unexplained coronavirus outbreak in the seafood market a five minutes walk from my mom’s office, I could not stop worrying about my family for a second. The entire city subsequently went into full lockdown. My grandparents have not stepped outside of their apartment since New Year’s Eve. So many sleepless nights were hijacked by endless headlines of the immense tragedies and losses that eventually put my city and myself in utter insecurity and pain. People that are very close to me died. I wish that I would have been at home together with my family through all of this. As the dreadful consequences of the virus outbreak unfolded in mid-February, my very last hope for my parents’ attendance at commencement was shattered. The monstrous anxiety and emotional weight pushed me into a complete mental breakdown. But at this historical time, I worried about their safety and livelihood incomparably more than about my own degree, graduation, or myself.

As I write this, painful news arrived again: my host mom in Milan lost both her parents on Friday. Heartbroken and frustrated, I echoed a sense of déjà vu after witnessing how the virus has turned China — especially my hometown — upside down. Flustered and furious, I suffered from a sense of powerlessness and inevitability, not knowing what else could possibly be done to overthrow the bizarre indifference and ignorance towards the coronavirus in the US and, more so, on Vanderbilt campus. How many people must die before we finally stay at home? I have my critiques about Vanderbilt’s administrative actions, but in response to this humanitarian crisis, now might not be the right time to look back with premature hindsight.

I want to share such vulnerable moments of my dual-positionality as a Vanderbilt senior and a Wuhaner for one simple reason. The global outbreak of COVID-19 is far, far more significant than us. This catastrophic pandemic is our generation’s worldwide battle between humanity and natural disease. It is putting every aspect of our belief system, political establishments, and collective mindsets to the extreme test. Just like us, the graduating class of 2020 in China, Italy, Korea, and many other countries are facing the same, if not worse, unprecedented uncertainty about their future. With various travel and life restrictions enacted, the whole world would gradually devolve into a terrifying suspension in the next couple of weeks. Living in elapsing time with a despairing lack of trust, honesty and leadership, we must navigate ourselves and people around us with courage, knowledge, and compassion through the bleakest midst of deception, anger and hatred.

Our physical absence on campus should not result in the absence of love and dedication to our most treasured communities and values.

We graduating seniors, who are ambitious to leave campus and achieve great things, should show our true colors and define what we have really achieved in these four years. Our regular life habits may be obstructed, but let us think collectively and behave responsibly by maintaining physical distances and staying at home at all cost to help flatten the curve

This pandemic is rapidly exposing inequality in society. With such unnerving hardship and discomfort, it should be through compassion and unified actions that we connect with the more vulnerable members of the Vanderbilt community. Many of our professors have extended families and friends under substantial pressure in their native countries. Let us coordinate and communicate with each of our professors about how to make the most out of online classes. We should also keep in mind those who suffered significant damages in the tornado, university staff and employees making hourly wages, individuals with preexisting health risk factors or no medical insurance, students of international or inconvenient home backgrounds and all others who may face any form of precarity.

Beyond these anxieties of life for now and near future, we should look for solutions. Technology has enabled us to interact intimately in our physical distance, and our digital creativity has already dramatically reimagined this campus. This pandemic will reveal a virtual space as a shared emotional outlet for all seniors to join forces in diverse expressions: art, music, memes and, of course, Tiktok videos. Through this collective memory of courage and resilience, we, the Class of 2020, will undoubtedly unite closer and grow stronger.

Reflecting on my journey at Vanderbilt, I realized that my parents’ absence has always been the presence of their love for me. Their absence viscerally reminds me of what they sacrificed to care for me and support my dream. Their physical absence will never diminish their unconditional love for me. At the same time, like many other international students, I found another home here at Vanderbilt, with all my new friends — people I eventually call family. We support each other through so many difficult times and, surrounded by people we love and cherish, we consider Vanderbilt our home.

Home is not only a physical space but also the converging presence of love, even in its most unconventional form, absence, and to show this painful deep love now is to absent from the ones we love. But please be assured that we have cultivated friendships at Vanderbilt that will shine through this absence for many years to come.

The worst of the COVID-19 outbreak is yet to come, but our future awaits us at the other end of the tunnel. In the meantime, to quote John Oliver’s latest reporttake care of yourself, take care of each other, and we will be back together in some form, some time in the future. Until then, my dear class of 2020, stay safe, and good night.

 

Qisen Song is a graduating senior majoring in History of Art and European Studies, and can be reached at qisen.song@vanderbilt.edu.