By Mia Wu
Self-discovery in a Shanghai Covid-19 state quarantine facility.
The room is small, and there are no windows. I sit on my hospital bed, my back resting against the wall, in the corner which is furthest from the door. The four caster wheels on the bottom of the bed do not lock, so I have tucked little bits of paper under them to anchor the bed in place. It feels as if I have been sitting on this bed, frozen, for a lifetime.
I am in a facility for positive Covid-19 patients in Shanghai, China. I flew back home from Oxford in order to spend two weeks with my family, but tested positive upon landing in the city. Once you are brought to this hospital, you are not allowed to leave until you receive three negative PCR test results, which are extraordinarily sensitive. There is no way of knowing how long it will take to test negative, and most people remain in these rooms for around 50 days.
Although the room is meant for one person, I share it with two strangers. I never learn my roommates’ names, but I lose all sense of privacy from them, together as we are in the same room for weeks on end: I sleep with someone else’s clean underwear drying on the railing which separates our two beds, and wear earplugs during the day to drown out their coughing and their phone calls. But they are kind, and I feel an inexplicable affection for them. I will test negative before they do, and when I leave the room, I give them the things which I can now spare: a few apples, a clean towel, an extra bar of soap.
For most of my life, I have had a room of my own. I do not have any siblings, and even when I was very young, I had my own space, with my name spelled out in magnet letters on a whiteboard stuck to the door. But I was a timid child, and when my mother kissed me goodnight and turned the light off, I would imagine that there were monsters in my room, crouching next to my bed. In the middle of the night, I would run out of my room and beg to be allowed to sleep in hers.
In this hospital, I would give anything to have my own room again. Virginia Woolf — who has guided me through many of the difficult moments of my life and remains by my side during this one — writes, in A Room of One’s Own, about how our rooms can be symbols of freedom: a woman can only write fiction when she has a space in which she can be alone. To an extent, Woolf suggests that these rooms are the only way in which we can confirm that we have control over our own lives.
I do my best to make this hospital room mine. I stack my books on my bedside table, fold my clothes neatly into the drawers, and hang my mother’s necklace on the edge of the bed. Still, when I leave, it will look like I was never here. Hospital rooms are similar to hotel rooms in that sense: they are only ever ours for a while, and when we leave, they become someone else’s. For a moment, I feel like Peter Walsh in Mrs Dalloway, musing on all the lives which have been lived inside one room: ‘These hotels are not consoling places. Far from it. Any number of people had hung up their hats on those pegs. Even the flies, if you thought of it, had settled on other people’s noses.’
The thought of a nurse disinfecting my hospital bed when I leave is eerie to me — I feel there needs to be some record of my time here, or else it is as if it never happened. The room already has an overwhelming sterility about it, with its bare walls and stark white lights. It makes me feel like my very presence here is a contamination. The job of these nurses is to remove any traces of me: I imagine them as Jacob’s mother at the end of Jacob’s Room, standing in his empty room after he has died, unsure of what to do with a pair of his old shoes. Does this room still hold my history if I cannot leave anything of myself behind?
The thing that haunts me the most during my time in quarantine — that brings me furthest away from myself — is the CCTV camera which hangs from the ceiling, flashing its red light. That camera means that it is not just a room of my own which I lose: I also lose my privacy, my control, my freedom, and by extension, in a way, I lose myself. I choose to go into our bathroom to change, but my elderly roommate changes right here in the room, looking straight at the camera as she strips naked. It seems to me that her choice is a way of reasserting ownership over her own body. She makes me think of Woolf’s eponymous Lady in the Looking-Glass, a woman whose physical appearance is described in extraordinary detail, but who remains utterly unknowable despite her exposure — invisible even as she is seen.
In the end, I leave quarantine after 31 days. I am definitely one of the lucky ones — this is a relatively short amount of time to spend in quarantine in China. As I sit on the bus which will bring me home, I still feel as frozen as I did sitting on that hospital bed. Somehow, in this moment, I am convinced that I exist somewhere outside of myself, displaced from my own body. I am able to face her, this other version of me — she is incomprehensible to me.
I suppose there are good and bad things that come with feeling like we are losing ourselves. For much of her life, Woolf grappled with the incompleteness of her own selfhood, struggling to find the boundaries between her individual identity and the outside world. Nevertheless, she remained steadfast in her belief that we do have a kind of inner life, something which is perhaps impossible to define. Even though in much of her writing she is living other people’s lives, ‘street-haunting’ in London, I think she may always have ended up at her own doorstep, forced to ‘shelter and enclose the self which has been blown about at so many street corners’.
Woolf believed that we spend our entire lives living in rooms of our room. She asserted that, ‘There is a dignity in people, a solitude; even between husband and wife a gulf’. There is something very lonely about this idea: despite our wish to understand the inner lives of other people, they will never be as accessible as we would like them to be. Our parents, friends and lovers are the sum of their own experiences, relationships, beliefs, fears and desires — complex and incomprehensible to us. But, after my time in quarantine, I have come to terms with the fact that life may just be a matter of give and take. When we understand that we are unable to enter other people’s rooms, we in turn confirm that they cannot enter ours — maybe loneliness is part of the sacrifice we make to have a room of our own.
After Woolf’s father died, her family moved out of their home in Kensington, and her childhood bedroom became just another ‘hotel room’. I can see her sitting in that room, finding a kind of safety in her inability to escape her own four walls. In ‘A Sketch of the Past’, she explains that she left her ghosts there, and that if any of her readers were to see them, we might say: ‘This room explains a great deal’.
I left my ghosts behind in that hospital room too. A part of me is still there, frozen. The room is small, and there are no windows. I am sitting on my hospital bed, my back resting against the wall, in the corner which is furthest from the door. But as I sit, and watch the camera flash red, I find safety in the knowledge that I still harbour something secret, something which is entirely mine. There is a place that only I can go to where the rest of the world stops — I begin there.
MIA WU reads English at St John's College. She loves Byron and Biggie in equal measure.
Art by Autumn Clarke