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The Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics

ISSN: 2472-7318

Remembering 2020-2021: A Reflection on Care and Love

Chen Chen

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Keywords: anti-Asian racism; citizenship/migration; nationalism

Categories: Homeland and Belonging in the Face of Anti-AAPI Hate; Transnationalism and Inhabiting Borderlands During the Pandemic; BIPOC Perspectives on Labor and Love during COVID

Content warning: anti-Asian racism

While many in the U.S., especially in higher education, will remember the beginning of the “pandemic year” as starting in March 2020 when schools closed down and we went to remote learning, the pandemic year started much earlier for me, a Chinese citizen living in the U.S. with lots of family members and friends back home. This story is about care and love, what I want to remember of 2020-2021 that we are so eager to move past. I invite you to dwell in this moment, in my memory of my own increasing political and cultural consciousness born out of care.

I don’t remember when I began obsessively “doom-scrolling” Weibo (a Chinese Twitter-like platform) for updates on a new “coronavirus,” fully aware of the strong possibility of misinformation and disinformation often rampant on the platform. Flashbacks of SARS came back in my head.

But I remember April 23, 2003, when at my boarding school in Beijing, students were discussing rumors about whether we would all be locked down in the school or get sent home. No one was studying during the usual study hall evening period. Then we were told we’d all be leaving the next day.

Why do I remember details from 17 years ago but not from last year? Memory is weird.

There were no tears in the dorm as we started packing. If anything, we were happy to get to go home. No more school! But we joked bitterly that who knew if we’d see each other again or when. Thinking back, how naive we were as teenagers and how oblivious of our own mortalities! It’s not something I’d joke about now.

The rest of my SARS memory includes spending time at home watching TV, sneaking out with friends on our bikes to empty shopping malls. There were no lockdowns back then, but it was broadly understood that we should avoid public transportation and any crowded places. Then we returned to school, to more socially-distanced classroom and dorm arrangements.

If my memory of SARS was a strange sense of obliviousness and aloofness, my early COVID-19 memory was full of anger, sadness, a feeling of helplessness and increasing frustrations.



Video Transcript

我不明白, I don’t understand, what Dr. Li Wenliang said when he was arrested for “spreading the rumor about a new coronavirus.”

深蓝财经记者现场确认李医生去世时间为零点四分左右, journalist from Deep Blue Finance confirmed live that Dr. Li passed away at around 4 minutes after midnight.

武汉中心医院:我院眼科医生李文亮。。。。于2020年2月7日凌晨2点58分去世,对此我们表示深痛哀悼。Wuhan Central hospital posted on Weibo: ophthalmologist Dr. Li Wenliang passed away at 2:58am on Feb 7th. We express our deepest condolences.

[image: breakfast food from my hometown Tianjin; music:]

On Feb 8, I broke down crying at breakfast, before I had to leave for work. I had brought the outbreak into my technical communication class to talk about ethics and social justice. I had decided to research about it. But it was during my first breakdown that I realized the emotional weight I began to carry.

[A fast-paced video of my typing sentences from my research journal highlighting my working process in the spring of 2020: keyboard sound effect from free sound effects at]

Monday, 2/17/2020
I had already decided to research this epidemic in some capacity.
I had been collecting things I saw that could be interesting and useful for my research, saving them in my WeChat and/or as screenshots. At this moment, I realized that this was going to affect me in some ways that other research had not.

Wednesday, 3/4/2020
The U.S. has seen a rapid increase in new cases and death numbers. People begin to panic in the U.S. But no one is wearing masks.
I ordered masks on Amazon which should arrive next week. 4C20 trip is still happening. I just planned a trip to Texas as an invited speaker, but now cases in Texas are increasing.
It’s very possible still that none of these trips may eventually happen.
Information overload has not helped with my research directions.
At the same time, the sporadic and erratic censoring methods are making my research quite frustrating.

Tuesday, 3/24/2020
A lot has happened since I wrote in this journal last time. All conferences have been canceled in the spring: no 4Cs, no CWCON. School is closed and we are doing remote learning for the rest of the semester. I’ve been trying to figure out a schedule and maintain some routine at home but I’m not finding it really successful.
I try to work for 6-7 hours a day and feel that it may be all I can handle.
I’m trying to resist the pressure that I should be working more.

[image: hand sanitizer, alcohol, a box of masks, a box of gloves; sound:]

Later in February I started buying hand sanitizer and alcohol, when people really started panicking in the U.S. But masks were already hard to find, so I ordered masks from Amazon. The masks came in a box with Spanish on it, but apparently were made in Xian Tao, Hubei province, the town best known for its gymnastics school that produced many Olympic champions but also its face mask production, only 69 miles away from Wuhan.

[end of video transcript]


At some point I realized that my research about the pandemic was motivated by care, a kind of responsibility for my people, for my field, for myself, so that we don’t forget. It was my responsibility to care, to engage in some doom-scrolling of the terrifying and enraging social media feeds. While I had many material privileges that made my pandemic “stay-at-home” life fairly comfortable, I found myself caught in the crossfire between my two home countries as politicians continued to disappoint; violence continued to happen domestically and transnationally; and people continued to suffer.

Every word I wrote carried the weight of a responsibility to care. Every second I spent reading, watching, and participating carried the weight of that responsibility.

This care was born out of and continues to be motivated by a sustaining reflection of love: what love means and what national love means, which I’ve been learning about from Sara Ahmed. On national love, Ahmed argues that “the nation is an effect of how bodies move towards it. . . as an ideal or loved object [produced] as an effect of the movement of bodies and the direction of that movement” (p. 133). As someone living “beyond” borders and “in-between” countries, my sense of citizenship or national identity is often reduced to and becomes deeply connected to “sense of belonging,” which I’ve begun to learn to unpack in and of itself as a problematic concept. If the sense of national belonging is also premised on this “national love,” which it often does in mainstream discourse and what I was taught growing up in China and later have experienced as an immigrant living in the U.S., then I must interrogate what this belonging really means and what I am meant to belong to.

As I read and researched and wrote about Chinese people across the globe coming together to support the response to the pandemic and as I watched activists in the U.S. protest for Black Lives Matter and the global activism against hate and violence toward people of Asian descent, I took the care to learn. To interrogate what “love” I felt either as a citizen of China or as an immigrant in the U.S. and what that love meant for my personal life and professional life. 

I felt a kind of shame, shame that I was so oblivious of my own racial identity for a long time and brushing it under the table as due to my not growing up in this country. There’s no excuse for this kind of ignorance. But I couldn’t explain the shame I felt in its full complexity that I might not even recognize. Cathy Park Hong did it for me when she says: “My shame is not cultural but political. It is being painfully aware of the power dynamics that pulls at the levers of social interactions and the cringing indignity of where I am in that order either as the afflicted—or as the afflicter” (p. 75).

I want to care.

To care means to reject being subdued to the sense of belonging that meant performing a kind of love toward an ideal of “being American,” an ever-elusive immigrant or citizenship status embodying an assimilation to white culture, to recognize the “cruel optimism” a la Berlant that I had inadvertently fallen into.
To care means to reject performing the love for homeland toward a country that “raised and nurtured” 养育了 me, an ideal constructed by familial metaphors that subjected me to repaying some kind of debt which somehow required I must always champion China and Chinese values in any transnational context.
To care means to refuse to submit to the kind of “multicultural nation” Ahmed critiques that erases differences among minority communities (p. 138).
To care means to refuse to embrace the blind national ideal that would embolden any attacks on people or ideologies in the name of love for one’s home country.

One day in May 2003 during SARS, I was biking home in the evening after a day of outing with friends. It was dark already and the street was deserted, so I rode fast, feeling both a bit scared being alone on the street as a girl and also a bit free being alone on the street with no traffic. When I got closer to home, I passed a factory that made this famous domestic brand of cosmetics. Then I heard it. A loud shrieking sound piercing the darkness. It took me a second to realize it was from the peacocks on the factory’s campus.

Apparently peacocks cry to attract the attention from the peahens, so it’s a cry of love. The right kind of love, in Ahmed’s sense, a relation to each other that “gives life meaning and direction” (p. 139). But it also can sound painful to human ears, as if there’s unspeakable pain in that love. If only I could shriek like peacocks, but for moments when I wrestle with how to better love, better care.

Shriek when Dr. Li was arrested, died, and then became a martyr for a nauseating national pride.
Shriek when my mom said she only had a few masks at home, an ocean away.
Shriek when an Asian grandma was hit at a bus stop in San Francisco.
Shriek when checking Blackboard waiting to see student work that might not ever arrive.
Shriek when our neighbor’s Trump sign remained in their yard for months after the election.
Shriek when I didn’t want to work but worked and felt lazy for all the hours I spent not working.
Shriek when watching the news, reading stories one after another about deaths, losses, denials.
If only I could shriek like the peacocks.



Ahmed, S. (2015). The cultural politics of emotion. Routledge.

Park Hong, C. (2020). Minor feelings: An Asian American reckoning. One World.



Dr. Chen Chen (she/her) is an assistant professor of technical communication and rhetoric in the department of English at Utah State University. She received her Ph.D. in Communication, Rhetoric, & Digital Media from North Carolina State University. Her research focuses on advocacy and resistant rhetorical practices by marginalized communities as civic and tactical technical communication in transnational contexts. In particular, she has been working on disaster response communications in Chinese and Chinese diasporic communities during COVID-19 and other natural crises as well as the feminist activism of transnational Chinese communities. Her work has been published in Enculturation, Technical Communication, SIGDOC Proceedings, and several edited collections. She has also published on pedagogical research and has done work examining professionalization processes of graduate students and early career faculty in extra-institutional disciplinary spaces.

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