Home is a powerful place for all of us, and its presence feels particularly acute right now. But how do quarantine and isolation affect our perception of the space? Homebound: Dispatches on COVID-19 & How We Live asks this of three writers currently negotiating this reality in different parts of the world—Hong Kong, Seattle, and Florence. We hope their explorations can help us better understand our changing sense of home.
A March spring day is preciously brisk in Hong Kong. But I have no intention of going outside. With my morning coffee still hot to the touch, I’m standing in my kitchen amidst a mental confrontation with the raw chicken before me.
I feel solemn and focused, planning and scrutinizing my dedication of the next nine hours to a single, all-important mission—the roasting of this holy bird. It’s a simple dish that, over the years, I have turned into a whole-day endeavor.
But it’s quite alright, you see, there’s a countrywide lockdown. I am no stranger to this way of living—in fact, I’m somewhat of an expert on it.
I spent six years in Beijing as a reluctant expat wife. Under the emotional agony of living here, surrounded by insufferable air pollution, I began the life of what I call an “escapist” cook. I started a blog, which later on became a book, documenting my retreat from being a social participant into a solitary kitchen fanatic. Cooking, once a harmless hobby, became an accomplice in my self-imposed social detachment. It has been four years since I left Beijing. Never did I imagine that, starting a month ago, I would find myself reliving that version of my life under an entirely different circumstance.
This time, it has a name. COVID-19.
The novel coronavirus has created an unusual crisis with all the usual effects on society: confusion, panic, economic uncertainty. But what is unique about it, and unprecedented in our time, is a strange reality it has brought into our lives—forced social isolation.
Ironically, I am well-equipped. Long ago I had grown an agility in maneuvering through hours of the day alone in my apartment. The idea of a home not being just a resting stop, but a refuge—a fortress from the toxicity of external reality—has for years been entrenched in how I conduct my life.
It was only recently that I began to see, alarmingly, that as others are combating cabin fever, I've found myself cool and comfortable—preferring, even, to stay home in the familiarity of my routines. Cultivating yeasts, laminating doughs, roasting chickens.
Pondering, I rub sea salt into a buffer zone I’ve cleared between the chicken’s skin and its flesh, all the way to the backbone, eradicating blandness throughout. Using two toothpicks, I further lock down the chicken’s chest and cavity openings, sealing the moisture inside in a containment suit of its own skin.
The chicken will now sit inside the fridge in isolation, uncovered. For the next six hours, I'll count on the cool and dry circulation of air to eliminate unwanted moisture, the mortal enemy of all things crispy, from the skin. Though I’ve never been a practitioner of patience, sometimes things just have to run its course.
I sink and exhale into my couch. This snugness with being alone was once an indispensable gear in my long suspension, hovering one inch above the cracks into depression. But now I’m starting to wonder, at what point does a remedy become the driver of the disease itself? After all, we humans, a hopelessly herd-minded species, can develop an array of mental health issues after a prolonged unsocial existence—severing our sense of belonging, exacerbating apathy and indifference. It’s a process that we, also creatures of habit, could grow dangerously comfortable with in a self-feeding cycle as this one.
I go back to flip the chicken in the fridge when I recall the first couple years after moving to Hong Kong, a drastically different environment from Beijing. In my new home, I unexpectedly found myself having to make considerable efforts to leave the house. For the record, once I was out with people, I felt normal and at ease. But it was the invisible boundary between staying and leaving the apartment—more specifically, the absence of need to leave—that I finally recognized in myself. And it surprised me.
As an eternal extrovert, I had trapped myself in a comfortable mental prison of my own making. To be perfectly honest, till this day, I’m not certain whether I have made parole. Could this be an emotional epidemic, post-pandemic?
I still can’t answer this as I take the now-dehydrated chicken out of the fridge. I place a piece of foil along the ridge of the chest bone, where the chicken’s most vulnerable to overcooking, and nestle it, untrussed, inside a large, shallow skillet. The direct contact of the backbone with the skillet guarantees crispy treats out of this typically overlooked area.
One thing that’s for certain is that this too shall pass. Hong Kong, preceding the rest of the world when the outbreak came to a head six weeks ago, is now slowly but surely returning from a stagnant lockdown to its usual bustling pulsation.
I sit in front of the oven, watching, fixated, at the contraction of the chicken that happens almost immediately under 450 degrees Fahrenheit. I notice the blistering and occasional micro-burstings of fat mists unfolding like beautifully choreographed fireworks, until the golden-browned transformation of a bird into crispy succulence is complete.
As my husband, who has returned from work, and I gather around this marvelous fruit of patience and labor, the news proclaims that the protests that had once inflamed the public conversation about democracy and liberty (thereafter forcefully subdued, although unrelated to COVID-19) are searching for an opportunity to reignite. Hong Kong is still here, after a spin and a pause, exactly where it was left.
Yes, the world stopped, but it's all starting again—finding itself elated, once more, with the devil it's known.