Jung Chang: My Chinese family at the time of coronavirus

On the challenges and sadness of being separated from family during the Covid-19 crisis, including the author's 89-year-old mother.

Penguin Perspective Jung Chang
Tim Lane / Penguin

On 4 May this year, my mother, who lives in Chengdu, China, will be 89. She is increasingly frail, and I long to be with her. Because of the books I have written, which are all banned in China, I have only been allowed 15 days a year to visit her, a ‘privilege’ I gained thanks to the help of the British Foreign Office. These visits are far from guaranteed, and each year I have to make a fresh request and wait for it to be granted, a process that is always enormously time-consuming and emotionally draining. Last year, as the political climate in China was worrying, I decided not to apply. One of the many considerations was that my visa application could be turned down, and that would set a precedent for future rejections, in which case I might never see my mother again. My mother also urged me not to come and, perhaps to make me feel better, she told me to look at the bright side: in another year’s time, the fact that I had not seen her for two years could make a stronger case. We looked forward to this May. Now, thanks to coronavirus, I will not be able to see my mother.

I am of course sad. But thinking of all those people who have died or lost their loved ones, my troubles are minor. My mother is in fact in a fortunate position. She had been rushed to hospital in an emergency just before the New Year, and while she was still there, in January, the pandemic broke out, and the hospital was locked down, with her ‘locked in’. She is still there, and safe. And I am hugely relieved.

The hospital does not allow visitors, so even my sister, who lives in the same city, is unable to see our mother. The whole of Chengdu has been in lockdown, and my sister has been cooped up in her small fourth floor flat for well over two months. In that confined indoor space and on her own, she has shown what seems to me amazing resourcefulness. Instead of feeling depressed or restless, she is unfailingly upbeat, busy with her many interests and friendships. And she has enlivened my own life in self-isolation here in London by supplying me every day with amusing titbits. She is a fountain of such crucial information as how to make sanitisers or what type of face masks to use.

My brother in London, Xiao-hei, and his wife, Rong, give me much valuable support. At one point during the pandemic, they thought Jon, my husband, and I might run low on food and so stayed up into the small hours queuing at Ocado online (with more than 100,000 shoppers ahead of them), to try to secure some essentials for us.

Their only child, Joe, is a nephew of whom I feel immensely proud – more so today than ever because he is a front-line NHS doctor, working at the ICU (Intensive Care Unit) of London’s St Thomas’ Hospital, right at the heart of Britain’s fight against coronavirus. Brilliant, charming and totally dedicated to his job, Joe is working round the clock saving lives. Even on his rare days off, he is frequently called upon to do extra shifts when his colleagues are struck down by the disease. He goes to the battleground of heavy bombardment, to face daily close shaves, with understated resolve and good humour. To his family, he makes light of the danger he is in.

Around this time of the year in the past, in April, I was often woken in the middle of the night by a sense of dread, anticipating some new hurdle turning up in the morning that would threaten my visit to my mother. This year, I wake up feeling anxious about whether Joe has adequate personal protective equipment. ‘Protect the NHS’ has a very personal meaning for me.

When the pandemic is over, when families can get together again, Jon and I will meet up with my brother and sister-in-law, and we will raise a glass to Joe and his lovely wife Jo, a fellow NHS doctor. Then, I hope I will be able to visit my mother for her 90th birthday.

My mother thinks this is an excellent idea and has already begun to plan what treats she will give me. Although our meeting is more than a year away, and in the meantime a multitude of plights are hovering over us – her health problems that have sent her into intensive care several times recently, my uncertainty about obtaining a visa, and the coronavirus pandemic whose outcome is still unknown – my mother regards them all as mere obstacles to be overcome, and is determined to see them as passing hazards like all the trials and tribulations in her long and eventful life.

Perspectives is a series of essays from Penguin authors offering their response to the Covid-19 crisis. A donation of £10,000 towards booksellers affected by Covid-19 has been made on behalf of the participants. Read more of the essays here.


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