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Ebert Fellows in Quarantine: Better Days

Editor’s note: The 2019-2020 Roger Ebert Fellows at the University of Illinois College of Media, working with advisor/mentor Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune, are finishing up their fellowship with a most unusual spring quarter. After a school year including Ebert Fellowship workshops in writing, criticism, podcasting and on-camera work in Champaign, Urbana and Chicago, they’re waiting out the pandemic in different ways and different parts of the world. Their dispatches follow.

After the coronavirus outbreak, buying an overseas plane ticket home was never easy. According to the news, China's aviation regulator asked airlines to cut international flights to curb the spread of COVID-19. Every time after I purchased a ticket, beginning in March, the email of the flight’s cancellation came within a week. The third time was different; for that one, the flight’s cancellation notice took nearly a month. Until recently I’ve been much calmer than I expected. I thought maybe it was time for me to be that lucky one. But after all my friends began posting their own flight cancellation emails on social media, I realized the truth: For now, we are trapped.

As days go by here in Champaign, Ill., quarantine life has been acceptable. From campus closures to online classes, the changes in coursework keep everyone busy. There are times in our online classes I noticed some classmates sat on their bed with their dog or kitty. This is not easy. It reminds me I’m still living alone in the U.S.A. for now.

After the third flight cancellation I called my mom. She asked me if it was only 18 days more before I would be home in China. When I heard that, my throat tightened, because I could not respond with an affirmative “yes.” I told her my flight was canceled again. After the silence, she said we could buy another one. I nodded as my tears rolled down my face, hoping she did not notice.

The View From Xinyi's Apartment

Like many people my roommate and I began to pour a lot of energy into cooking and baking. On YouTube and Instagram, there are many bloggers sharing their recipes. The happiest thing for us to consider every night is decide what to make the next day.

In my spare time, I began to watch an old TV series “Person of Interest” after a friend’s recommendation. Compared to the breathtaking lives of the main characters, my own life now seems like an ocean without waves.

Yet it’s what I need at this time. In the show, a machine detects acts of terrorism and sees everything, including violent crimes involving ordinary people. The government considers these people irrelevant, but the show’s main characters do not. Some nights after finishing my homework, I’d binge-watch five episodes until daybreak. Sometimes I could hear TV voices coming from my neighbors on the other side of the wall. I knew from the theme song he was also watching “Person of Interest.” In quarantine, I have seen him once in the hallway, but I didn’t ask him about it. I prefer to keep my curiosity intact every night before I sleep.

Relating the show to what we have been through these days, I realize no one is irrelevant. In this world, everyone is relevant to someone. Nowadays, when some racists call the coronavirus “the Chinese virus,” they ignore the fact that every virus is a human virus.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, so many concerts worldwide have been canceled. However, many well-known artists like Coldplay, John Legend and OneRepublic have live-streamed concerts on Instagram from their homes. OneRepublic has been my favorite band since high school. Their song “I Lived” has been a great inspiration for me in the bad days, when I was lost in the expectations of my parents. When I was down, their songs bounced me back. When I first left my country to study in America, that year didn’t go as well as I hoped and expected. The language obstacle broke my dream of easily fitting into American culture. Sitting in an O’Hare airport terminal, I listened to their song “Come Home” and told myself it was just a beginning, don’t give up. Thanks to the quarantine I got the chance to watch a live version of that song March 22nd. Hearing it again, I no longer felt like the helpless girl who sat in the O’Hare terminal building.

A few days later, OneRepublic released a new song, “Better Days,” about what was happening in the world right now. They donated a portion of the profits to musicians affected by COVID-19.

I am writing this now in my apartment in The Tower at Third, in Champaign, Ill., when dawn is about to break. Are better days on the way? Can’t wait to see.

Bio: Xinyi Li is a 2019-2020 U of I College of Media Roger Ebert Fellow who majors in advertising. Currently she is a senior and a member of the American Advertising Federation in Illinois. Also she is a member of the Chinese Student and Scholars Association, working on intercultural communication between Chinese and American students. After graduation she is pursuing the path of a visuals editor as well as film production. Watching films, she says, “helps me find the answer in others' lives.”

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