Blank Space

CLAIRE: Having served as a news editor and producer for CNN International in Hong Kong from 2012 to 2020, Yuli Yang now works at the United Nations in New York. Yuli was born and raised in Wuhan, China, where COVID-19 was first reported. She crossed my radar in early 2020, when the virus had hit the city, and she was leading #GoWuhan, a social media awareness campaign calling for support and compassion for the people in her hometown. I was so inspired that I reached out to her and we became friends. Read on to discover why I admire this young writer with heart and smarts.

YULI: I did eight quarantines the past year and a half, in Singapore, Hong Kong and Shenzhen. I thought the universe was pretty much done with me, as far as solitary confinement goes. I was wrong. And it was a blessing to be wrong.

The Terminal

A sudden surge of Delta cases in Chinese cities, days before my flight to Hong Kong, means that travelers like me, coming in from mainland China, will now have to go through mandatory quarantines “at home.” This is assuming that they have a “home” in the SAR. I no longer have one.

I’ve been a digital nomad throughout this pandemic while waiting for a job relocation (to New York). And because this specific quarantine rule was so new, neither designated quarantine hotels nor non-quarantine hotels in Hong Kong would take me in, as they strictly (and rightly) stick to rules previously passed down.

A largely empty Hong Kong Airport under pandemic restrictions (photo credit Nightingale Ho).

“Where can I go?” Scenes of Tom Hanks, looking lost and in despair in The Terminal (2004), suddenly became all so vivid. Then an old friend came to the rescue.

Years ago, I rented and lived in one of his apartments. And that place is right now empty—as in “unfurnished and gathering dust” empty. Well, better than The Terminal, I thought!

So, quarantine in an empty flat? Challenge accepted!

Little did I know then, that the challenge comes with many gifts.

“Carpe Diem”

The last time I lived in this apartment, I was a news producer with CNN, traveling frequently between Beijing and Hong Kong. The life of a journalist is constantly in motion. And when it is not, she is cooking up plans to kickstart the next move. The beast of the 24-hour news cycle casts a spell of ADHD over its patrons and its warriors.

Staying active at all times was a given, and having a full calendar stacked with events in and outside work felt very much “carpe diem.” “Full” seemed like the right state to be in. This was also reflected in the layout of my apartment at the time—cosy and full!

A Real Treat

This time though, things couldn’t be more different. In quarantine, there is nowhere else for me to go, no weekend parties to plan, and the apartment completely empty.

And dusty.

I wiped all the floors with a small towel on the first afternoon. Exhausted, with no couch to drop into, no TV to switch on, no books, nor shelves to pull them off from, I simply sat on the only stool there is and stared at the mountains outside, as they slowly darkened and surrendered into the night.

It was like watching the mountains performing a long and complete exhale—quite a soothing view, really. And there, I realized that I had never taken a pause to watch a sunset like this for the two years I lived here!

“How come I was so busy?” I wondered. And I could almost hear the universe saying with a Cheshire grin, “Well, now you are in for a treat then, ’cos there is so much more to see!”

And there is.

Yuli’s quarantine apartment.

The next day, I opened up the large glass door to connect the flat with the outside, something (again) I very rarely did before—I preferred conditioned air over humidity. As the door slid open, the traffic noise and vibration from the ground level came flooding in, with them strings of gentle but persistent bird chirping sound too.

And now, I see so much more clearly the layers of mountains in the distance. Above them, enormous clouds dissolving and birthing simultaneously. An occasional plane gliding across. An urban eagle making its rounds … “Guys, I have honestly never noticed any of you before!” I quietly confessed.

Then without warning, the rain came down, the view blurred and temperature shifted. The mountains, though, stood unwavering, calm and at ease as always.

“It all really is quite majestic!” thought this Quarantinese.

Blank Space

In fairness to myself, of course I’ve seen the mountains before, and the clouds, the plane. I know the rumbling buses and the chirping birds. But was it the “seeing” like “I see you” in the movie Avatar (2009)? No, it wasn’t.

My world was full, so were my apartment, my calendar and my mind. I was charging ahead at full speed, like a horse with blinders. And it took a pandemic and the ninth quarantine for me to open up my eyes and see some of the beauty that had been around me all along.

So I guess that’s how light comes in—when there is an opening, space and stillness.

A photo of Huangshan 黄山 (Yellow Mountain) in China’s Anhui province 安徽省 captured by Chinese photographer Wang Wusheng 汪蕪生 (1945-). The simplicity and liu bai 留白 or blank space in the photo are reminiscent of traditional Chinese watercolor paintings.

There is an ancient technique in traditional Chinese paintings called liu bai 留白 (literally “keep blank”), in which the artist intentionally leaves out a ton of blank space on the paper, because right there, in the nothingness, lies the elegant playground of imagination for both artist and viewer.

Perhaps I should do more of that on my own canvas.

Dear quarantine, thank you for the stillness and the insight.