As the COVID-19 pandemic gains momentum, various forms and scales of lockdown and self-quarantine are being imposed across the world to halt the spread of the virus. With physical proximity strongly discouraged, people are finding alternative ways to “stay in touch” – playing music, dancing, and applauding the health services from their balconies, hanging out banners inscribed with messages of hope and solidarity from their windows, and holding meetings and catch-up sessions over Skype, Facebook Messenger, and the now (in)famous Zoom. COVID-19’s global movements are mobilizing new and intensified forms of social proximity that in many ways speak to the heightened need for emotional connection in times of crisis.[i]
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought me to reflect from a personal standpoint on the globalized nature of diasporic or expatriate living and the mobility demands of anthropological fieldwork. For someone of French and Chinese descent who has lived away from home since the age of eighteen, whose family is spread out across Australia, France, Italy, Taiwan, and China, and who has spent the better half of the last five years in a rural field site in Indonesia, these questions hit close to home (so to speak). How, I wondered, is the COVID-19 crisis being experienced by people for whom physical distance from loved ones is alreadythe norm?
The reflections that follow draw from my personal experiences over the last month or so, and those generously imparted to me by expatriate friends and fellow anthropologists living across Australia. Many of us live away from where we grew up – if not entirely by choice, then at least because of work, study, and funding opportunities afforded elsewhere. Mobility is increasingly demanded of us and encouraged in the context of an increasingly precarious academic job market.[ii] As anthropologists, many of us are also committed to long-term ethnographic research in field sites geographically far removed from whatever place we might call “home.” As fieldworkers, then, we spend a lot of time with families other than our own, studying kinships other than our own.
For many among us, the global COVID-19 pandemic has multiplied the rhythms and pace of our own lives as we come to inhabit those of our parents and siblings who live in parts of the world where the crisis is (for now) hitting harder than Australia. We come to act and behave in line with the restrictions imposed in the countries we reside – but we also track continuously the latest statistics, updates, and regulations from the places parents and siblings call home. This experience is much like living several simultaneous lives at once – across space, time differences, and degrees of pandemic gravity. Many of us are making much more frequent and regular use of social media to communicate with our faraway kin – through daily Skype calls, evening debrief videos, meme-sharing, and more.
We are also finding ourselves asking questions that we commonly ask of our interlocutors in our field sites as part of our ethnographic research, but that we don’t usually ask of our families. Suddenly, every day, mundane events like shopping, going for a jog, or taking the dog out, come to matter, because they are things that, for now, we can still do. Some of us are finding themes central to our anthropological research emerge through the words and experiences of our close ones, in ways that we did not previously expect or anticipate. The racist treatment that my father suffers as a Chinese immigrant in northern Italy. The vulnerability of the elderly and disabled in the face of supermarket panic-hoarding. The importance of being in nature and being able to exercise when time outdoors is limited to one hour and a one-kilometer radius. At the same time, some of us have noticed a certain fatigue that comes with talking only about, or in terms of, the COVID-19 crisis. Ask me about the roses I just planted in the garden, my father implores. Tell me about the book you’re writing, my mother invites. I want to talk about anything else, my brother sighs.
Perhaps the most prevalent feeling among many of us who live far from “home” is that of guilt. Facing the impossibility of traveling to be close to loved ones under the pandemic conditions is making us reflect on the choices we make to be far away from family in the first place – the priority we place on our work and studies, the long periods of time we spend in the field, and the worry and stress we cause to our parents when these field sites are dangerous, violent, or otherwise precarious. My own fieldwork in the Indonesian-controlled region of West Papua, for instance, entailed lengthy periods of time without signal or wifi, in a place where corporate and state intimidation and harassment were rife, and where grassroots land rights activism campaigns I was involved with had taken the lives of several community members. This research allowed me to gain invaluable insights into how Indigenous Papuans struggle to make do in the context of radical ecological degradation, racial discrimination, and political oppression. But it also represented months of silence for my parents, who waited anxiously for news, knowing that I was silencing a lot of what was really going on. Often, for instance, I chose not to reveal the full scale of the dangers I faced in the field, or the emotional and psychological toll of fieldwork in sites of violence, or even sometimes the location of the field sites themselves. These erasures come from a place of care – a desire to attenuate the stress our work can create for distant loved ones. And yet they are never comfortable decisions. They sit with me uneasily – particularly now that those I sought to protect through my silences I can no longer protect through my presence.
For many of us, the guilt surrounding the risks we take in the field and the choices we make in living abroad has never been entirely absent. Rather, it has clung on to us constantly and uncomfortably as we have moved around the world to grasp opportunities that can advance our careers or strived to better understand the world we inhabit through long-term fieldwork. Few of us regret these moves. If anything, our families have been among our strongest supporters throughout these endeavors, and our anthropological fieldwork has enabled us to shed precious light on life under conditions of structural violence – be it in terms of health, race, environment, or other intersecting vectors. But we also are aware that the pandemic is enabling sentiments of guilt and accountability to resurface in an intensified and more urgent form. We are discovering aspects of the lives of our faraway families that we never previously inquired about, and yet that are precisely the kinds of things that anthropologists are interested in: human desires, social fears, emotional longings, and divergent speculations about the uncertain future. The crisis is foregrounding the things that matter to people we sometimes take for granted – human contact, sharing, laughing, catching up. It is bringing some of us emotionally closer to loved ones, despite and because of physical distance.
For expatriate or diasporic communities, the COVID-19 experience is thus somewhat akin to what Edward Said has described as the strange pleasures of exile – where not fully belonging anywhere enables one to see “the entire world as a foreign land” and therefore makes possible a certain originality of vision.[iii] At the same time, this experience tells us something troubling about globalized lives and kinships in the present day. Specifically, the increasing social contact many of us have with our families since the start of the pandemic brings up the unsettling question of whether we need a crisis to better connect, and where our sense of “home” truly lies. If, as many are now arguing, COVID-19 might radically change the order of things – the global economic system,[iv] the environment,[v] our relations to the non-human world[vi] – then it might also invite us to rethink our multi-sited kinships, the diverse meanings that “home” can hold, and the ways in which our faraway families hold us despite distance.
The rapid and global spread of COVID-19 has in many ways been enabled by human movement. Mobility itself is a key marker of the globalized era that we inhabit– one characterized by the increasing pace and scope of interconnections and movements of people, technologies, ideas, things, and media across the world.[vii] I am not saying that mobility is inherently bad, or that we should drop everything and move back home. I’m sure many would agree that sometimes, a degree of physical distance is precisely what we need to maintain social proximity. I am also deeply aware in writing that there are millions of people, who will – and already are – suffering the livelihood and health impacts of the pandemic in ways that cannot even begin to be compared to what I and fellow colleagues are experiencing. What I am drawing attention to is how the immobility imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic speaks to some of the costs of a globalized way of life and of the mobility afforded and demanded by the modern habitus and the anthropological endeavor. Even when they are not acknowledged, families hold us emotionally and psychologically no matter where we are or what we do. Times of crisis remind us that there are different ways in which we can hold them back, even in the absence of physical proximity.
Sophie Chao is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Sydney’s School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry and the Charles Perkins Centre. Her research explores the nutritional and cultural impacts of agribusiness expansion on indigenous food-based socialities, identities, and ecologies in Indonesia. For more information, please visit www.morethanhumanworlds.com.
[i]Holmes, Seth. 2020. “Against Social Distancing: A Call for Social Solidarity in this Time of Physical Distancing.” Somatosphere. 25 March. Available at http://somatosphere.net/2020/against-social-distancing-a-call-for-social-solidarity-in-this-time-of-physical-distancing.html/. Last accessed 29 March 2020.
[iii]Said, Edward. W. 2012. Reflections on Exile: And Other Literary and Cultural Essays. London: GRANTA Books. P. 191.
[iv]Politico Magazine. 2020. “Coronavirus Will Change the World Permanently. Here’s How. 19 March. Available at https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2020/03/19/coronavirus-effect-economy-life-society-analysis-covid-135579. Last accessed 28 March 2020.
[v]Cockburn, Harry. 2020. “Coronavirus: Greener, More Equal Economy Must Emerge after Covid-19, Experts Say.” The Independent. 29 March. Available at https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/coronavirus-economy-green-equality-climate-change-covid-19-a9430616.html. Last accessed 29 March 2020.
[vi]Van Dooren, Thom. 2020. Pangolins and Pandemics: The Real Source of this Crisis is Human, Not Animal. 22 March. Available at https://newmatilda.com/2020/03/22/pangolins-and-pandemics-the-real-source-of-this-crisis-is-human-not-animal/. Last accessed 23 March 2020.
[vii]Appadurai, Arjun. 1996. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalisation. Minneapolis, M.N.: University of Minnesota Press.