WeChats From The Future Of The Coronavirus She felt the urgency before her husband did. A story about the time lag between the arrival of the coronavirus in two different nations, and how that played out in a marriage
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WeChats From The Future

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WeChats From The Future

WeChats From The Future

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GREGORY WARNER, HOST:

You're listening to ROUGH TRANSLATION from NPR slash my closet. I am working from home, as you might be as well. And in our last episode, we asked you to tell us, how is the coronavirus affecting your family relationships?

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE BEEP)

LIYING: Hello?

WARNER: Hey.

We heard from a listener in Connecticut.

LIYING: Good morning. This is Liying.

WARNER: Liying was born in Wuhan, China. She's been living in the U.S. since college. She told us about this one Saturday afternoon in the forever ago that was early February. She was out with her husband Federico. They'd left the kids with her parents, and they were out taking a stroll.

LIYING: It was a fairly cold day.

WARNER: And they were approached by some college students raising money for the Australian wildfires. That, if you remember, was the big news story at the time.

LIYING: And then my husband stops me, and he turns to the group of students, takes out his wallet and hands them a $10 bill. And the boy holding the donation box - he turned to my husband and said, thank you so much, you know, have a great day.

WARNER: Ten bucks and a thank-you. Liying felt her whole body seize up in rage.

LIYING: Like, I couldn't wait to just turn away from the group of students and just start walking.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LIYING: And then, as they turned the corner, I just lashed out at him. You know, how could you do that? Or it might have been, how could you do that to me? If I didn't say the to me, I definitely meant, how could you do that to me?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: Every night for the past few weeks, she had been on WeChat getting updates from her family in Wuhan about a citywide lockdown, death rates climbing, hospitals overwhelmed. And this distance between her life here and her family's life in China made her feel terrible. She'd started fundraising for medical supplies to send back to Wuhan. It struck her, really for the first time on this street corner, that her husband might not feel the urgency that she felt, which would mean that he'd somehow failed to notice her.

LIYING: And I felt almost betrayed.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: I'm Gregory Warner. And this is ROUGH TRANSLATION from NPR. Today, a story about two people in the same home separated by 5,000 miles. We've heard a lot lately about how hard it is to convey the urgency of the coronavirus, especially to those who have not been affected yet. In this story, we dive deep into that yet - that time lag between when the virus hit two different nations, and how those weeks played out in the lives of one couple, what it taught them about their marriage, about themselves, and about how hard it is for all of us to measure the distance between ourselves and danger. ROUGH TRANSLATION, back after this break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: We are back with ROUGH TRANSLATION from NPR. Liying and Federico met at a party her senior year of college. He was an exchange student from Italy. She liked his feline face and how he could quote "The Odyssey" in the original Greek. And she'd always felt some pressure from extended family to marry Chinese, but her parents liked Federico. He seemed open, adaptable.

LIYING: He learned how to use chopsticks very quickly. You know, he learned to eat food that he'd never tasted before, and that's enough of a comfort for my parents, I think.

WARNER: The two got married, got jobs in finance, had two kids, moved out to the suburbs. They shared a love of cooking and opera. Then, in January, Liying's normal life seemed to split. She'd be in Connecticut arranging play dates while her uncle in Wuhan was making surreal choices. Like, in the few hours when the government allowed him outside his house every few days, should he use that time to buy food, or to bring his mom her blood pressure medication?

LIYING: He was offering to help pick up medicine for my grandma using the precious time that he was allowed to leave his subdivision.

WARNER: Liying felt helpless, and she confessed these feelings to a friend, who added her to a local WeChat group of Chinese Americans from her neighborhood. They would exchange video clips from health workers in Wuhan appealing for more supplies.

LIYING: Doctors and nurses saying, hi, my name is so-and-so, and I just want to share with you the kind of environment that we're working under. We don't have enough medical supplies to keep up with the surge of patients. So that kind of rallied Chinese people abroad.

WARNER: This WeChat group is just one of many grassroots groups across the United States that started buying up medical supplies in the private market and shipping them to Wuhan. And medical resellers were cluing into this trend and jacking up their prices. So late at night, after the kids were in bed, Liying would start scanning her phone for deals.

LIYING: I was using my eBay app a lot. On the dining table, sometimes just on the kitchen counter, doing searches of N95 masks and trying to coordinate with the community here so that they could be on the cargo flight.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: As the hours passed, she'd sink, exhausted, from the kitchen counter to the kitchen floor - the only light, the one from her phone screen - with messages from her local WeChat group. They, too, were awake at this hour. Meanwhile, her husband was upstairs in bed.

FEDERICO: I fully support these initiatives, right? But she was on calls, like, 2 a.m., 3 a.m, trying to charter flights. And I was just wondering, why do you think you have to do that?

WARNER: The way he saw it, his wife had a demanding job and two small kids. They needed her here.

FEDERICO: I just didn't understand, why would she need to get involved personally so much?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: Some nights, he'd resort to sending her a text from their bed to her on the kitchen floor as she made calls to suppliers.

LIYING: Saying, you know, come to bed. You still have to work tomorrow. Sleeping late is bad for your body, which is all true. But I felt it had to be done.

WARNER: While the people on her WeChat group - they never asked her why she was doing this.

LIYING: We would go around sharing why this is so hard for all of us, how much, you know, it feels like the end of the world seeing so many people in such pain. And we sympathized with that. We empathized with that. And we wanted to do something.

WARNER: Did you ever try to express some of these feelings to your husband? I mean, not just saying the need is very great, but saying that these people on this group, they kind of understand why this is so important to me in a way that you may not understand yet.

LIYING: I don't know if I tried hard enough. But I wished he would still feel that sense of urgency the way I do.

WARNER: While her husband saw this problem in Wuhan as thousands of miles away, she was thinking on the scale of time.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: How many weeks until those masks would arrive? How many days before the last cargo flight from the U.S. was cut off and there would be no chance to send back supplies? Though she and her husband were occupying the same house, they were measuring this crisis with two different yardsticks. But that was about to change.

FEDERICO: Yeah, actually, my region was the first hit. The region of Lombardy.

WARNER: He's from Lombardy. She's from Wuhan. What are the odds? Both husband and wife hail from the epicenters of the virus on their respective continents, the first and hardest-hit regions.

FEDERICO: Yeah (laughter). Yeah. Yeah. All our friends are laughing about us. Not that there is much to laugh about it, but yeah.

WARNER: He gets a call from his family. His father was just ordered to wear a mask to his job at the post office.

FEDERICO: And actually, my brother just graduated from medical school, and he's supposed to start working at the hospital on April 1. Yeah. Yeah.

WARNER: This changed the dynamic between husband and wife. There were no more late night texts from the upstairs bedroom to the kitchen floor.

LIYING: Yeah, no, he's spending as much time as me on the phone following, you know, the Italian news outlets.

WARNER: Now they could have a conversation and completely understand where the other was coming from.

LIYING: You know, little decisions. Like, early on, when the schools were open, you know, do we send our kids to school? Do we send our kids to childcare? We were able to easily agree.

FEDERICO: Yeah, I think I understood, like, more what she was going through.

WARNER: For Federico, he wasn't thinking, oh, this virus is 4,000 miles away. He immediately saw it as, how soon will it be here? The unit of measurement he was using flipped from miles to days. And he tried to explain to his kids why they could no longer use the playground in February, weeks before anyone around them did the same.

FEDERICO: So that's part of the loneliness or isolation feeling, going through something and not having the support or even understanding from people around you, right? They couldn't grasp - why are you doing that? I remember that my son's elementary school - they were organizing a large gathering with all the students and parents, which was supposed to happen a week after or two weeks after. I would think, like, guys, how can you be thinking about throwing large parties, right, under these conditions, right? You're really not getting what's going on.

WARNER: What makes you see a piece of news and think, this can happen to people, versus this can happen to me? It's a kind of cognitive leap that first she crossed and then he crossed after.

FEDERICO: You give more importance to facts and circumstances that touch you personally - right? - as compared to something that you might feel like distant and not affecting you at all.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: On some level, we all know this about ourselves. We pay more attention to things that affect us personally, less attention to things that seem far away. But is it possible that our brains are wired for a sense of distance that no longer applies to the world we live in? The model of the globe we have in our head is outmoded when we think of China or Italy as far away, when a virus there could arrive here in days.

And what if we don't have a family member abroad - a grandma or a brother - who can make it real for us? Then what do we do? Do we just sit here and wait until our minds wake up to the news that we've been hearing? Or might there be a way to short circuit our sense of distance, to see things closer to the way they're actually happening?

Did you push record?

DAVID ROCK: Yes, it's recording.

WARNER: I was thinking about that question, led me to someone who advises people on how to bridge a very different kind of technological distance.

ROCK: My name is Dr. David Rock. I'm the co-founder and CEO of the NeuroLeadership Institute.

WARNER: Neuroleadership might seem like a tangent in the story, but bear with me. It's going to make sense.

ROCK: You learn about the brain, you get very meta very quickly. Yeah.

WARNER: David's specialty is how brain science intersects with workplace culture. So let's say you're working from home, and you call into a meeting, but your co-workers are there in the room, in the conference room.

ROCK: You know, you're virtual on the phone, and it just feels like they're not listening to you. The scary thing is A, they're not listening to you, probably, but B, what you don't know is that when you do speak, your ideas are kind of written off in their brains without them even knowing it.

WARNER: David calls this phenomenon distance bias.

ROCK: So distance bias is the way your brain makes decisions according to how distant things are from you.

WARNER: That co-worker on the phone - our brains perceive them as more distant, and their intelligence is judged as lower, their leadership qualities more lacking.

ROCK: They're not going to be promoted as quickly, and they're not going to be given as many opportunities to develop.

WARNER: And so that is why you might have heard the advice, if you are conferencing into a meeting, use your webcam. Because the thinking is, if you see someone's face on the screen, they seem closer. You pay them more attention.

ROCK: Your brain starts categorizing people as humans, not just sounds. And you make fewer, you know, perceptual errors about why people are saying things.

WARNER: And, by the way, David suggests going even further than that.

ROCK: Take your peers for a walk around your house. Like, show them your pets.

WARNER: And, OK, let's say you do all of this. You fire up the webcam, cue the dog, the kitchen tour.

ROCK: Let's get a funny background for Zoom or, you know, Skype, whatever you're using. Let's put something hysterically funny and random behind us.

WARNER: Do everything you can to prove that you are a flesh and blood human being, not just pixels on a screen. Even though that distance is an illusion, we can't quite shake it.

ROCK: We've had clients that have decided that when they have virtual meetings, everyone is on camera individually. This was before this crisis. If everyone's on their own camera in their own space, whether they're in the office or not, when you've got people in different offices, you've now completely leveled the playing field. And there is no distance bias anymore.

WARNER: These companies have decided that the only way to hack our brains - to try to see the world accurately - is to put everyone on the screen at the same time.

ROCK: You've got to take distance out of the equation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROCK: And, you know, make a decision as if there was no distance.

WARNER: The disconnect that Liying and Federico felt - it's playing out across the United States. More and more of us now are measuring this crisis in time, counting down the days until when it might end or when it might get worse. But there are those of us who are still measuring this in miles. If you live in a rural area or in some parts of the country, you could still say, I don't know anyone with this disease. There are so few in my state. This is a problem far from me.

When I talked to Federico about this period in his life, when first his wife and then he saw something that no one around him seemed to see, he keeps going back to this one phrase.

FEDERICO: We were out of sync for a couple of weeks, and now we're back in sync.

WARNER: Out of sync. It's almost reassuring to think of it that way, but also terrifying to think that it's just a matter of time before we're all on the same clock, before this pandemic gets personal for everyone.

FEDERICO: Now I feel more understood. I feel it's a shared worry. And I feel that we are all in it together.

WARNER: His neighbors come to them for advice on lockdown living. And Liying says her WeChat group that was buying up masks to send to Wuhan is now using their connections to Chinese factories to bring that equipment to local police departments and fire stations and hospitals. But Liying, unlike her husband, still does feel out of sync as China gradually awakens and stores in Wuhan start to reopen. And while her grandma, who's been resolute throughout, saying this disease is not going to be how she departs from this world, Liying is finally letting herself believe that.

LIYING: Yeah, I am optimistic, seeing how Wuhan went through the disease. But I also have seen - around my neighborhood right now, they're still climbing the mountain with no end in sight.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: Her optimism is unwelcome and out of step with where she lives, so she keeps quiet about how she feels. And that's still pretty lonely.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: If you want to learn more about this topic of why we heed some warnings and ignore others, there's a great episode of the podcast Hidden Brain. It's called The Cassandra Curse. We'll have a link to that in the show notes. This episode was produced by Autumn Barnes with help from Derek Arthur, Aviva DeKornfeld, Jess Jiang and me. Our editor was Lu Olkowski. Help from Shankar Vedantam and Sana Krasikov.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUNNING WATER)

WARNER: And there goes the toilet. So we're going to wait because this is a home studio. Oh, there it goes. OK. John Ellis composed our music. Isaac Rodriguez mastered the episode. Erin Register is our project manager. Neal Carruth, Chris Turpin and Anya Grundmann sit upon our high council. We always love to hear from you, especially now. Tell us how you are in your ROUGH TRANSLATION moments. You can send us an email at roughtranslation@npr.org or tweet us @roughly. I'm Gregory Warner, back again soon with more ROUGH TRANSLATION.

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