The Spiral of Time by Tianyu Jiang

I flew back to Shanghai from Stockholm on New Year’s Eve of 2019. One day before, 30th of December, “news” about a virus started circulating on Douban, and we took it seriously. The next day, I grabbed one pack of masks at the Apotek close to the bus stop before heading to Bromma Airport. The two-and-a-half year in Stockholm was packed into three suitcases. It felt like that moment before landing was yesterday, when the Capitan said, “thank you all for flying with us in this special flight, we wish you a happy new year.” Dad, mom, and my cousin picked me up at the airport. We hugged reluctantly. I didn’t visit home once during the two-and-half-year period. It was an escape for me. On our way to get some food, I told them I saw screenshots about a virus that might be going on. They said, oh no, it was already proven to be a rumor on the news. “It’s better to believe it than not. I got some masks already.” I looked out the car window and somewhat had that disturbing feeling of uncertainty.

1st of December 2019

Around the mid of January, the “news” of the virus had been fermented for some time. The topic was like a black hole; most people had not yet paid much attention, but those who believed it were already very alert. S flew back on the 18th of January. I picked her up at the airport. We went for some night walks. Shanghai was noisy as it always has been. Lights in neon colors flashed along elevated roads. The next day, I accompanied her to the train station. She would travel back to Hankou, Wuhan, and I would take the bus to my hometown tomorrow. The station was crowded, but it was always like this before the Chinese New Year holidays. The few people wearing masks standing in the queue (including us) must look strange. Soon would we know that, if S had booked her travel date one day later, she wouldn’t be able to go home, as Wuhan—where the outbreak first started, shortly announced lockdown and closed Hankou station.

2nd of January 2020

I was planning to stay home for only two weeks and then return to Shanghai. It ended up being more than three months. The news broadcast at seven o’clock every evening would tell the newest infection numbers out loud. At some point, the increasing number just didn’t mean that much anymore. Most of the time, I was isolated in my room and working on phd applications. It was an excellent excuse to avoid conversations with the family. I accidentally came out to my dad when I was still in Stockholm, and I could sense that he wanted to talk to me. He would knock on my door and ask if I wanted to go with him for a walk, or he could drive me to the riverbank and have some quiet and moments of air, or we could go to some tea places, and I could read books. I turned down all the offers even though I was dying for some air in between the dire application processes. I was just not ready for the talk. Looking back now, those selfish decisions of keeping my door closed are still among the most regrettable moments during the entire Covid years. One afternoon, dad returned home to get some stuff he had forgotten. He stayed home for lunch. Unexpectedly, we had the conversation that was bound to happen. He said, “whatever you do, whoever you are, I won’t interfere, it’s your life. But you have to compromise and don’t let other family members know.” It was already the best response I could imagine at the time. But at the same time, I had the painful realization that he was, and will be, facing all the pressure and talk coming from all directions, which should be aimed at me. We just didn’t know how to handle this better. That strong sense of powerlessness overtook the guilt. I thought it should only be left for the almighty “time” to smoothen the wrinkles on our hearts.  

3rd of April 2020

The domestic covid situation seemed to be under control, and the prices paid were unmeasurable. I went back to Shanghai in May 2020; my suitcases were still unpacked. Rejection letters arrived one after another. Text messages started to come from the family, stop trying and go find a job in Shanghai, why can’t you just be like anybody else and get settled. Throughout the months, S was also trapped at home and looking for jobs. We argued over a phone call about a job offer that wasn’t so ideal—it became her accidental came-out moment when her family questioned who was on the other side of the phone. When the offer from Vienna came, desperate as I was, my only thought was I would take it simply because it was a way “out.” S also made her way out with an offer in Shanghai. Just like that, we met again in June after months of lockdowns in that draining emotional state. It was a summer of joy and freedom. Although we both knew the future ahead could be even more uncertain. So we decided, before long-distance hit again, we should enjoy the most out of what we had. We went to almost all major queer clubbing nights during that precious three-month summertime.  

4th of September 2020


5th of September 2020

I flew to Vienna on the 19th of September 2020. S was with me at the airport. We were surrounded by students in their early 20s with three or four big suitcases. Masks at that point were already the normality. We hugged and said goodbye. It was almost identical to the day she saw me off at Bromma Airport, except that we had no idea when or where we would see each other again this time. We only knew, no way it could be more than one year. Contents of Covid were everywhere when I landed in Europe. I remember nothing was opening at Helsinki airport. It felt unreal, mainly because the contrast was so visible, or even absurd, with the “normal” summertime I had just left behind in Shanghai. When travel restrictions eased between Austria and Sweden at the end of September 2020 but still facing an absolutely uncertain situation in Europe, I went to Stockholm for a special edition of Cinema Queer—among the very few cultural activities that were not canceled at that time. It felt amazing to see friends at the festival again, but also unreal. The density of what happened in the first half of 2020 was still not fully processed.

6th of October 2020

Vienna was not much fun during the pandemic. Rounds of lockdown were announced. There weren’t many alternatives for socializing. Zoom meetings, moving, furnishing, German courses, and FaceTime calls were stuffed in the remaining months of 2020. At the end of the year, we always hope for the next one to be better, don’t we?

7th of November 2020

But what happened afterward is that I could easily summarize my 2021 just in a few sentences. The continuous lockdowns in Vienna, the continuous demonstrations against lockdown regulations, the seen and unseen xenophobic attitudes, the ridiculously enhanced travel restrictions between China and Europe, and the whopping flight ticket prices. My project is about the underground queer and feminist club culture in China, and the impossibility of doing offline fieldwork in China almost killed my motivation to continue. But I got no alternatives. It simply cost too much to ditch everything I had at that point, in the middle of a pandemic.

8th of March 2021

I was asked millions of times if I could change a topic and do something on European scenes. But I just couldn’t, and I couldn’t explain why exactly, and I was tired of explaining things. All the things (not) happening around me only reassured me that it would be worth it to document the scenes in China. 2021 was a year when life kept going on in Shanghai. S and I called rather frequently. That contrast of seeing things happening and simultaneously realizing the body was involuntarily stuck in a situation/locality consumed my mental state. What made it worse was that it seemed like a dead end. But, in companion with the bureaucratic procedures at the university, a fieldwork trip next year was going to happen. Until winter was approaching, things began to feel at ease. I felt alive to revisit Stockholm for another year’s Cinema Queer, like it was the annual reunion of queer kinship. But other than that, 2021 for me almost felt like an abyss. I couldn’t remember much, as if I wasn’t feeling anything for most of the time.

9th of October 2021

The pandemic weaved its way into 2022. Except for some final rounds of drinks before leaving and some visits to some exhibitions, I wasn’t out in the crowd much. It was when the regulations to enter China were the tightest. For those who haven’t tested positive before, the green code granting entry required two negative PCR tests in two different test centers, conducted 48 hours before departure. After landing, one had to go through a 14+7 days quarantine in designated hotels. Plus, there was the flight cancellation policy that if one flight got more than (including) five positive cases after landing, the next two would be canceled. Also, one had to take the direct flight as long as there was one. I wasn’t left with many flight options, and that option eventually was gone when a cancellation email arrived in my inbox in March. After numerous chats and calls and another two rounds of cancellations (it was the most intense period I’ve ever experienced), I secured a ticket in April.

10th of January 2022

Around the beginning of 2022, covid was no longer a topic in most European countries. Regulations were still around, but most people no longer cared. I flew back to Shanghai on the 15th of April. There were less than fifty people on the plane. Meanwhile, the increasing number of positive cases related to the Omicron variant led to a strict two-month lockdown (April and May) in Shanghai. It was a bizarre, stressful, anxious, frustrating, and desperate time that nobody had foreseen coming. People had to group-buy food and supplies. Endless PCR tests in each neighborhood. Messages of acquaintances transported to quarantine centers, and the fear and anxiety that one themselves might be transported. The quarantine days at the hotel were not that unbearable though. I got loads of sleep because of the jet lag, temperature checks, meals, work, going to some digital queer parties, and digital drag shows. S was 1.8km away from my quarantine hotel. We joked that if she screamed, I might even hear because the city was deadly quiet and empty. I still got to be asked why I would go back during that most challenging time. I just couldn’t wait any longer in that stillness; it consumed me so much that I just had to get out before I fell again into the void. I didn’t say a word to my family about my trip, except for my aunt, who was in Shanghai, to exchange information concerning the lockdown situation. I texted Dad only until I safely arrived in the hotel room; he was clearly surprised and delighted. He said, “take care of yourself, it is a strange time.”

11th of April 2022

The city was still in lockdown when my quarantine ended. It was a very sunny day. I remember calling a car through some social media page to get from the hotel to S’s place—there were no taxis or buses, almost no cars, mostly were the delivery riders on the streets. I will never forget how dystopian the scenery was. And then, after nearly two years of counting and waiting, we met again. The cat I thought would live inside FaceTime forever jumped out and sat curiously in front of me.

12th of May 2022

The lockdown ended on the 1st of June, 2022. On the 31st of May, we got out and biked around for a long time. There were confetti on the ground, strangers were shouting and cheering. Things slowly opened after the 1st of June. Tests were still required to take the metro and to enter shops, bars, and clubs. We still heard from time to time that some compounds were again in lockdown, and some people were still transported to quarantine centers. But life carried on. After two and half years, we again walked on the same overpass.

13th of July 2022

It seemed for a second nothing really changed compared to that carefree summer in 2020, but tacitly we all know that everything has changed. Time engraved tiredness among almost everyone. I traveled home for some weekends when train connections between Shanghai and my hometown were reopened. I was nervous to see my family again. But apparently, what was going on with the world overwhelmed everyone, and what we were chatting about mostly was our own happiness matters the most, though we might disagree on the definition of being happy. In Shanghai, PCR tests, scans of QR codes, green codes—the endless loop happened simultaneously with eating, drinking, dancing, buying, fearing, dreaming, desiring. Notifications from news apps kept coming, saying most countries had lifted all Covid-related restrictions by then. I had to travel back to Vienna in September to renew my residence permit. It was until at the airport, when seeing that only three outbound flights were scheduled for the day, that I realized once again how fragmented the reality is. S saw me off, again, at the airport. We were, again, surrounded by groups of excited and anxious students, perhaps leaving home far away for the first time. We hugged, “there should be an end to this soon,” and said goodbye.

14th of September 2022

Rumors were going around for a while after I came back to Vienna, about the lift of all covid-related restrictions in China. On the 26th of December 2022, right after landing in Stockholm for the winter holiday, the first notification on my phone was that there would be no more PCR tests and quarantine requirements for traveling to China. It’s over. 31st Dec 2019 to 26th Dec 2022. I thought about everything that happened over the past three years. Families around me were dragging their suitcases, hurrying to the exit. I was frozen and just stood there for tens of seconds. And now, when I am typing the last lines, it’s almost like I finally put a personal closure to all that’s been experienced in the weirdest times—written and unwritten, speakable and non-speakable, they are now archived. They have to. That’s how experiencing an ending feels like. The spiral of time electrifies your body in an instant.

15th of December 2022

Tianyu Jiang, currently lives and works in Vienna.