It was quiet at this end of the world.
Sinh stomped her way through the semi-deserted market. It was an overcast afternoon and the stall holders huddled together, leaving their vegetables open to the elements. Their produce was crisp and fresh, cheaper than the supermarket, even more healthy than at the organic store.
She bought her vegetables, eavesdropping on Turkish and German conversations, mostly about the virus, some scoffing at mother Merkel’s rulings of the day. She was a strict mother, telling her children to stay indoors, to not spread the virus and not to congregate. The stall holders gathered in groups of threes and fours conscious of the edict to only meet in small groups and practise social distancing. They were bending the rules already, still tending their stalls in the open air, as they always did, every day no matter what. They had to keep their stalls open to survive. How else were they supposed to earn money for their families?
She bought a cup of hot glühwein from the old man who had sold glühwein in these markets since she was a child, and always would until he died, she thought. The sweet mulled red wine tasted of cinnamon and warmed her up. She had taken off her mask to drink it. She crossed the small bridge over the canal and headed to the main road.
Walking back to her apartment she was conscious of keeping her distance from other passers-by. It was like being in an invisible bubble, like repelling magnets. An older man gave her a dirty look as she went past, and she could not help but notice people avoiding her path, more than they would with white appearing Germans.
She wasn’t Chinese, but to many white Germans, she looked the same.
She wondered whether there was a conspiracy against Chinese people in Germany. They called the virus the Chinese virus, scapegoating them. Isolating people in quarantine, mostly Asians and other minorities who had the virus. No one would see them or notice if they were gone. The virus was lethal and there seemed to be no cure.
It could be a quiet genocide…
Lost in thought, she was taken by surprise when a German man brushed too close to her passing by.
“Fucking Chinese. Go back to where you came from you sick bitch,” he hissed at her before striding away. He smelt of sweat and beer.
A chill went down her spine. The last time she had been called names was at school. She became conscious that she was all alone on the street.
The rest of the walk home seemed way too long.
When Sinh reached her apartment, she coughed. Doubly conscious of symptoms, she noticed her sore throat that evening and in the morning. When she began to feel unsettled and hot she reluctantly arranged a test. The doctor wore a mask and gloves and treated her at arm’s length.
She had a mild case of COVID 19. She would have to self-quarantine for two weeks. It felt like a mild case of the flu, and she felt dizzy when she stood up, with a runny nose and stuffy throat.
Two weeks on her own with only the internet for company. She could continue studying at university, attending lectures over the internet. Her family varied in their internet fluency, contacting her by phone instead.
Sinh lived alone. She realised she could go missing and no one would notice for days.
So she was surprised when on the second day of her isolation there was a knock on the door. She looked through the peephole and saw a uniformed policewoman wearing a mask and carrying a clipboard.
“Yes?” Sinh was intimidated. What did she want?
Sinh opened the door a fraction.
“Sinh Nguyen?” The policewoman stayed on the outside of the door.
“We’re just checking people in quarantine,” the policewoman said. “Is there anyone there with you?”
“Good. How are you feeling?”
“Physically? Any symptoms?”
“Headache mostly. A blocked nose.”
The policewoman ticked her clipboard and left.
At first Sinh thought it was a nice gesture, the police checking up on sick people in quarantine. Then she read in the news that people were dobbing in their neighbours to the police for flouting the rules. She realised the police were enforcing quarantine, making sure people were self-isolating. Germany was becoming more and more like a police state, a throwback to East Germany and the Stasi.
Sinh rarely saw her own neighbours, and when she did, they were wearing masks.
She went to the supermarket, where people were queuing 1.5 metres apart. People were panic buying and she could not get pasta, bread or cereal. The empty shelves a testament to greed. She kept wearing a mask and was doubly aware of the sidelong glances she attracted.
There was a sense of unreality to it all. The streets were bare, void of their usual life, like the quiet before the storm. The U-Bahn had few passengers, and they spaced themselves out on the seats, all masked as directed by the authorities, a rare sight.
Her father broke the rules by bringing her home-cooked food to eat. The quarantine was oppressive, and the internet was her only outlet. All around the world the numbers were stacking up; many countries were in far worse shape than Germany – she put this down to Germans being more compliant and Merkel being a scientist and following the advice of health experts.
She was as good as Chinese to the neighbours on either side of her apartment, and they wouldn’t talk to her or look her in the eye. She noticed this now and didn’t dare think about having visitors to her apartment.
She had to be bigger than this. She had to reach out to the world to find a safe place in it, a place that was more than her local neighbourhood.
Somewhere bigger than Berlin.