Shao ’23: “A Birth of Love in the Midst of the Pandemic”

The following essay was written by Mabel Shao ’23 as an assignment for the Spring 2021 semester course Topics in Journalism: The Art and Craft of Journalistic Nonfiction

“Goodnight, Leon,” Zara says, as she brings the microphone of her iPhone close to her mouth.

It is a little past noon in Ningbo, China. Zara has just finished lunch with her friend at a steamed bun restaurant and is walking home. Leon, Zara’s boyfriend, is preparing for bed in his single dorm room at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. Beside Leon’s XL twin bed, his Amazon Alexa glows and says “Goodnight, Leon.” Leon knows the message came from Zara, who occasionally prompts Alexa to bring little surprises to him and make both of them feel a little more connected.

Zara and Leon are Wesleyan students in the second semester of their sophomore year. One is remote; the other is on campus. One is coping with the hardships of distance learning; the other is dealing with the loneliness and homesickness of being more than 10,000 kilometers from home. One has a craving for the Mongolian stir-fry, the omelet brunch, and the pasta bar at Usdan, the main on-campus cafeteria; the other thinks of mom’s cooking whenever he bites into the cold sandwich that he buys from PiCafe, an on-campus eatery. One misses campus life; the other pines for the warm family life of home. Sometimes they wish they could swap lives. And they share a common hope: to see each other in person for the first time since their relationship began.

Zara and Leon were just friends when COVID-19 hit the nation in March 2020 and Wesleyan decided to close its campus. They faced a hard choice between returning home and staying in Middletown. Returning home might expose them to higher risks of contracting the virus, either during the multi-stop flight or the required 14-day quarantine in a government-controlled hotel room. They would starve through the 15-hour flight for fear of taking off the life-saving N95 mask. The trip might overwhelm them with significant fatigue and anxiety while online classes were still in session. Yet, staying on campus also meant isolation, uncertainty about the pandemic, and fear of being away from home during this difficult time.

In the end, they made different choices: Zara made the long and exhausting trip home to Ningbo, China, while Leon decided to stay on campus, one in a small colony of international students marooned in Middletown.

At the time, they only knew each other as classmates in Computer Science I and Multivariable Calculus. Inside and outside class, through face-to-face conversations and texting, they discussed the fundamental theorems of calculus, the derivatives, and the integrals. They coded and debugged together.

Zara thought Leon was a great classmate, kind, genuine, easy to talk to, and always willing to help. But she thought nothing beyond that. “Absolutely no affection at that point,” said Zara, quite firmly.

But when Zara grew interested in Hashcode, an international programming competition organized by Google, the first person who came into her mind was Leon. Leon agreed to team up with Zara, feeling ready to meet her outside of the classrooms for the first time.

Over the course of the competition, they met on the second floor of the Science Library, sitting across desks and quietly discussing codes while Zara sipped iced coffee from PiCafe downstairs. To students walking by, Zara and Leon might have looked like a couple out on a study date. In fact, Zara and Leon were a not-yet-couple. They didn’t yet know each other’s personality, family, likes, and dislikes nearly so well as they knew each other’s coding habits. But that would soon change.

Then, just as the temperature between Zara and Leon finally started heating up, COVID hit.

Everything went virtual. Every aspect of Zara’s and Leon’s and everybody else’s lives was disrupted and relocated. Discussions in the classrooms, laughter in the dining hall, cheering on the basketball court, alternately quiet and loud nights in the dorm — all of it went missing. Nearly everything on the Wesleyan campus came to feel unreal and disordered. But the connection between Zara and Leon moved in the other direction. It became more heartfelt, true, and close.

Before Zara noticed it, she was chatting with Leon on WeChat, a Chinese social media app, every day. It became so natural that she couldn’t even remember when they had started the routine. She wondered one day and checked the messaging history between her and Leon. It turns out that their daily chatting started in September 2020, approximately five months after she returned to China.

Zara wasn’t sure how the focus of their conversations transformed from “things in calculus and coding” to “things in life.” She found herself enjoying hearing Leon share his life on campus: how he went through quarantine, got tested for COVID twice a week, kept safe social distances during in-person classes, and how he worked as an IT assistant. Zara shared her life as a remote student: how she had to stay up until 5 a.m. to take her Politics class twice a week, how COVID restrictions were continually lifted in her city, and her internship at an advertising agency in Shanghai.

Time might have been a catalyst for their relationship, but Zara thinks distance and physical separation played a role, as well. “It’s only when two lovers are separated that they know if they actually love each other,” Zara said, after pausing to think. Zara had been keeping track of her own feelings toward Leon, but she decided to not tell anyone except her mother. She didn’t want to make the relationship public to her friends until she was sure exactly what sort of love bound this relationship — romantic love, or friendship love,

Zara had rehearsed in her mind how she would react if Leon one day asked her to be his girlfriend. When the moment came, on December 24, 2020, she was prepared.

On that day, just like every other day in the prior three months, Leon told Zara his plan for the day. He and a few other Chinese students planned to cook dinner together to celebrate Christmas Eve, a holiday that is untraditional for them but still provides a good excuse to enjoy themselves after a long semester.

They took an Uber to Trader Joe’s to buy ingredients. Zara made a list of Trader Joe’s products that she loves: the Kung Pao chicken, the blueberry and peach yogurt, the mochi ice cream, the sparkling wine. Leon took Zara’s list and found every item in the store. The exercise gave him a feeling of intimacy with Zara on this special day.

After dinner, his morale buoyed by a few glasses of Zara’s favorite wine, Leon opened the chat box between him and Zara, suddenly realizing how much they had shared and how their tone of voice changed from flat to upbeat to romantic over the last four months. It would have taken him the entire night to scroll up to the time when they had only talked about calculus and computer science. His heart pounding in his ear, Leon typed and sent his request to Zara.

Zara, surprised but also prepared, typed, “Sure, let’s give it a try.”

As Zara’s right thumb landed on the green “send” icon on the lower right corner of her screen, she felt a muddle of feelings: cheerfulness, excitement, nervousness, and an uncertainty of how their relationship would unfold under the new normal brought by the pandemic.

Zara was ready. Do what comes naturally, she reassured herself. Try by not trying. “I sometimes find it quite unbelievable that Leon and I are now in a relationship,” she said. “We didn’t try hard on anything. It all happened naturally.”

On Valentine’s Day 2021, almost two months into their romantic relationship, Leon bought Zara a HomePod, a speaker with AI functions from Apple, as a gift. Now, he can command this technology to say “Goodnight” to Zara, too.