The final of Floating Teatime editor Linda Lai’s quarantine diary series. What are days ahead going to be like for her? 黎肖嫻「隔離手記」告一段落。往後的日子會是怎樣的?

**feature image by Linda Lai


It will never end and there is no complete closure. The loose thoughts brewing in my mind are the becomings that hark back onto what could be remembered and what I chose to remember.

1. The dinosaur returns

When he woke up, the dinosaur was still there.
[original language Spanish: Cuando despertó, el dinosaurio todavía estaba allí.]
— “The Dinosaur” [El Dinosaurio], Augusto Monterroso (1921-2003)

This is not a quote, but a complete short story … the shortest in the history of literature so it was said: a complete narrative, a complete short story. And yet it is the thickest narrative I have ever encountered in terms of temporal experiences inhabiting negative space.

For the flush of a moment, I only feel right to suspend all philosophical exegesis of time I’ve learned in my education. An infinite absence, a big patch of time and thick events unaccounted for, and the spatial expansiveness that stood before me.  … Should I enter? Should I just ponder? Is stillness my only response?

What a different world it would be if I changed it to:

When she woke up, the coffee was still there…

I remember playing this narrative game some years ago in class with my students. We made all kinds of proposals to replace “dinosaur” with something else. Nothing seemed more right, strangely. There is something about it being a dinosaur, I suppose…

Dinosaurs… extinct 66 million years ago, before homo sapiens were active about 300,000 years ago, before homo habillis were active about 2 million years ago. [Smithsonian…].

Yes, if approached scientifically, the magic of time and space will disappear altogether. Literature is literature. Trajectories stand but are not always to be point-to-point dissected. If the horizontal (flow, plot) is an abstraction, the vertical (the concrete, the perceptual) of the narrative is what embodies affect and where knowledge springs. Monterroso’s short story is vertically rich and layered… It qualifies for a time-image (Deleuze) that absorbs all movements.

I have no energy to work out the connection between this short story that has always fascinated me and the light, almost surreal, event of leaving the quarantine hotel. But that dinosaur returns. … …

As we emerged into direct contact with sunlight, Hong Kong was still there.

We were quiet during our taxi trip to our apartment. We have crossed a threshold, or, we were right in the middle of crossing it. We did talk, but everything we gently said was to fill up an unnameable void to ensure our presence and togetherness sustained. A fine line of continuity that could so easily be shredded by silence … .

And what kind of threshold have we crossed? It is the “border” between Hong Kong and the rest of the world — I mean the actual border. The shockingly empty Airport Express platform and scarcely populated airport we walked through in July was a concrete border. It was not like you were leaving anything behind, but more that you were not sure what this place would become upon return… The moment of arriving back in the airport was experience of a different level: the strict rules and ritualistic proceduralism was solid segregation. Then quarantine, then close monitoring of our threat potentials, then stepping back to “normal” life… Only those who have walked through those steps understood the unspeakable. The threshold is a concrete border filled with things you do and things done to you. Crossing a threshold is connected with change. The threshold I speak of is concrete and no abstraction; the change we feel is fundamental, has become our interiority, and no words could sufficiently speak it. It is a different kind of alienation — being inside and having being outside — that, Marx never spoke about… .

I was welcomed back, and I embrace the generous kindness that comes with it. “Hong Kong is so safe, and we are so proud of Hong Kong people. …” I was walking on the street in my neighbourhood that night after quarantine. I knew I bore a wound that most people would not notice.

from Linda Lai’s image diaries


2. They also walked through…

More kind individuals walked through my room during my quarantine.

A long online conversation with a student who wants to turn his experience of stagnancy into a work with a dilapidated shopping mall. Another long conversation with a student on her sorting out her own obsession with reincarnation and how to channel her energy into a creative work for her graduation thesis. Yet another conversation with a student whose concern for child abuse turned out to be how social interaction could stifle genuine concern. …

Death also paid a soft visit and left.

Zach mentioned the passing away of his grandma without the chance of saying good-bye to her, and the unexpected calm afterwards. “I had never thought that death could feel right or a coming closer, but that is what it was.”

That triggers a stream of braided thoughts. I wrote back:

I understand the calm you have experienced. I felt the same when my father passed away 8 years ago, and I have not been freely sharing that sentiment with people.

Only my Mom was there to say the final good-bye. None of us siblings nor their spouses were there. But then we had been saying good-bye to him for ten days at the hospital. I remembered one of my “last” good-byes to him, almost uttering my thought in words, and again when I arrived quietly studying the sheer shell of him on his death-bed, “Dad, you’re now totally free, and you can walk as fast and swiftly as you like, and you may even be flying, without being imprisoned inside your crippled body.”

I supposed my Mom and my family members all felt the same? (I couldn’t ask.) Did we cry? No. Eyes wet, yes. It is after all his final departure to his finitude. There was so much calm and quietness, but not much sorrow…

I supposed I should have put these thoughts in words back in the year of grief in 2013-14. Now I did, finally. A second closure.


3. Take-aways

My friend and colleague Tamas Waliczky wrote in response to my quarantine diaries. He was subject to a 14-day quarantine back in August:

“As I remember my experience was different: I hated to be locked in that small hotel room. The food was good, the hotel service too, but still, after day 10 I wanted to escape. Perhaps I had not so many activities as you have. Semester did not start yet; I did not have to teach. I made preparations for the courses, but after a while it was boring. In the first week I took part in a jury of an animation festival, that was great.”

Later on, Tamas wrote again, when I told him that we were still subject to a week-long restriction from social gathering, and that also meant I had to stay away from the university campus yet for another week. He spoke my mind:

“When I left the hotel after 2 weeks’ quarantine, I still had to make 2 more PCR tests. I thought it is nonsense: I had 2 PCR tests in Europe, then 6 PCR tests in Hong Kong, all together 8 PCR tests within one month. All negative. Plus, I had the 2 vaccinations. Still, people acted like I would be a dangerous, infecting, sick person. I guess on the streets of Hong Kong there can be anybody without a single test or vaccination.”

… …

I had a person-to-person conversation with the hotel staff-member who came to check us out at the end of the quarantine. Couldn’t wait to strike a conversation even with my mask on and him with additionally a transparent protection shield on his eyes. I wanted to verify if my observation was correct… He confirmed 90+% occupancy of the hotel we stayed, which is 900+ rooms… It is true that quarantine hotel staff is on short-term, renewable contracts mainly, without additional (the normal) benefits of full-time employment…

“During our stay, we heard the alarm went off twice and stopped. Was it someone stepping out of his room or making attempts to leave?” I asked.

“Most likely,” he said, then emphasized they took precautions. All the lifts were locked and would only work with hotel staff operating them; and the Health Department will send people once a day to check their security camera footage to ensure there is no oddity.

Government SMS on our phone:

“… Besides, please install the LeaveHomeSafe mobile app to record your visit history to different venues. In case any such venues has been ….”

Without announcing it to the public, all residents returning to Hong Kong are automatically turned LeaveHomeSafe (安心出行) users. Without LHS we wouldn’t be allowed into any community clinic to complete the final post-quarantine PCR test, the lack of which will result in fines of HK5000. Failure to comply with additional compulsory testing will result in level-4 fines of HKD25,000 plus 6 months of imprisonment. [end of quarantine diaries]


To read the full journal series: Linda Lai’s quarantine journal […]