Arlette’s living and working space at the quarantine camp for international returnees.
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Arlette Quỳnh-Anh Trần
“… Why not return?
Once the heart is enslaved to bodily form,
Why continue so downcast and, solitary, grieve?
Yet I feel I haven’t missed the road by all that much.
I sense that today’s right and yesterday was wrong.”
(Tao Yuanming, Returning Home, translated by Michael Nylan)
On March 20, 2020, I returned to Vietnam unexpectedly due to Covid-19 hitting the United States, where I’d been doing my graduate program. Landing in Saigon, I had not yet returned to my family but was sent immediately to live in a quarantine camp for international returnees for two weeks. On indeterminate days in the midst of my ‘home city’ yet not in my ‘family home’, I reread the above poem by Tao Yuanming that I had come upon during my Chinese critical discourse class at CalArts. Strangely, in the 21st century this Song poem from 1600 years ago aroused in me such strong nostalgia for home mixed together with both excitement and anxiety.
It was difficult to identify the emotion that describes the moment when homesickness is relieved during the current pandemic. At the airport, nobody knew with certainty whether the boarding pass in our hands could get us home. Indeed, in transit at Taoyuan airport in Taipei, I was shocked to realize that almost all international flights within the 30 minutes after mine were canceled. Moving through airports and sitting on flights with hundreds of other passengers for a total of more than twenty hours was like walking through invisible outbreak zones. Even after landing in Saigon, we went through a long dramatic process of health checks, being transported around, checking in and settling into the quarantine camp. It was only until the evening of March 22, when I laid on the stiff bunk bed in the camp room, that I could breathe with relief as in the verse by Tao:
“I see how a space barely broad enough for the knees is
Easy to feel secure in.
[…] I celebrate how well the many things follow the times”
Reading this poem while being locked up in a quarantine camp, I wondered: Does calmness in the midst of many upheavals and the pleasant acceptance of the temporary humble restricted life at the camp, even to go so far as consider it as ‘home’, come from my ‘sense of community’?
Under normal circumstances, close monitoring and restricted movement are violations of citizens’ rights. Such control is often found in cases of social activists or political dissidents in Vietnam. That also applies to us cultural workers, for example, when my collective Art Labor was organizing art festivals at one member’s hometown in minority ethnic villages in the Central Highlands and encountered skepticism from local authorities. The purpose of this control is to consolidate power for the ruling political group rather than for the common good. In this pandemic, the virus forces the individual’s need to survive, to avoid infection and to be cured to become vital to the broader community, at least in my observation of the Vietnamese population. People tend to accept the restrictions in their daily lives. This individual compliance to a temporary lifestyle aligns with the State’s epidemic control policy. It is different from the previously mentioned surveillance of movement because it does not strive for any freer future for the common good. Here we perceive the constraint as being towards the common good. It is a temporary control to enable a healing phase and the possibility of restoring the freedom of normal life:
“Lodging in form within the cosmos, turning to the little time I have left:
Why not entrust the heart to it, and let things go or stay as they will?
Why be so vexed about where I go?”
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About the Series:
Museum 2050 has always been about bringing people together through our community’s shared passion for museums and institutional development. As the world slowly and carefully starts reopening, we are checking in weekly with various members of our broader network to share personal reflections, anecdotes and musings about how they and their institutions have been operating in the face of this pandemic. In these incredibly difficult times for all, we hope that these brief vignettes from around the world bring us closer together, and remind us that even when the world stops and museum doors close, we still persevere.