Haruka Sakaguchi

Quarantine Diary

March 20, 2020

New York City is officially on lockdown.

I feel guilty for being able to work from home during this time of crisis. I think about the essential workers who are risking their lives while I’m at home staring into this vast stretch of time and availability, pondering how I’m going to fill it.

I also worry that I won’t be able to get out of bed.

March 21, 2020

An old man called me a chink today.

Even worse, I didn’t say anything back.

I don’t know why it still affects me to this day. All of those years I’d spent defending myself out on the playground. All of those years I’d waxed poetic about Asian American empowerment and media representation and showing up for each other.

You’d think I’d have something to say. You’d think I’d be able to show up for myself.

Instead, I shifted my gaze down and continued to stand in line as if nothing happened. I walked home with arms full of grocery bags, of canned goods and toilet paper. I sat on the toilet and cried.

March 22, 2020

I woke up and put on eye makeup for some reason.

March 23, 2020

Got my first coronavirus assignment today. Some people say I am an idiot for taking the job, but my photographer friends understand – if not for the money, for the reminder that I can still be of use in this world.

March 24, 2020

Woke up to news that a friend died from COVID-19. He died alone in the hospital – that’s all we know. I think about his partner and five-year-old daughter. Has mom broken the news yet? What was the last thing they all did together?

Shot the assignment later in the afternoon. I walked around a deserted Soho feeling slightly overdressed in my blue mask and rubber gloves. At the corner of Broadway and Prince, a lone carpenter sawed off plywood panels to board up the Coach store.

Here’s a snap I took on my way home.

March 25, 2020

Woke up to news that my Chinese friend got jumped on the subway last night. He was on his way back from the hospital, caring for his brother who was recently admitted for a non-COVID-related illness. He is okay physically, but his partner fears that it may have triggered his PTSD.

I spent the rest of the day trying to stay busy and productive, so my mind doesn’t wander off to dark places.

I'm scared to go outside.

March 26, 2020

My clothes were starting to stink, so I went to the laundromat. A paper sign read: CLOSED. I hope the owners are okay. I remember the owner’s wife mentioning that they live with their elderly parents, a few blocks down off 18th Ave. I wonder if they have everything they need.

Shit. Does this mean I'm going to have to wash my clothes in the bath tub?

March 27, 2020

The only way I know today is Friday is because the streets are lined with garbage bags.

I can feel my mind start to unravel in the mornings, so I plan a strict regimen.

7:00am: Get out of bed and brush teeth.
7:05am: Drink water.
7:10am: Clean a section of the apartment (designated by day).
7:20am: Do morning stretches.

Once I get to 7:20am, I feel like I can get through the rest of the day.

March 28, 2020

I went to the store again today. On the way there I tried to rehearse clever comebacks in case someone decided to call me a chink again. I couldn’t come up with any good ones besides “go fuck yourself.”

Thankfully, I only had to wait in line for 40 minutes this time, and I didn’t have to tell anyone to go fuck themselves.

March 29, 2020

I was starting to overthink things again, so I went for a walk. There were more pigeons than there were people out on the streets.

I hope to god that this is just general anxiety. I replay the last panic attack I had – on the goddamn train back in January – over and over in my head. What if that happens again while I’m alone in my apartment?

Then I remember how mortified I was when everyone on the train saw me white-knuckling the pole covered in flop sweat, and I remind myself that I am better off alone. 

Then I remember that I have another assignment coming up tomorrow, and start to panic. What if I’d unknowingly reached a threshold, and can’t get out of bed tomorrow? What if I have a panic attack during my 2.5-hour drive up? What if I get infected while I’m out there? How did my friend contract the disease?

There’s a good chance I won’t get any sleep tonight.

March 30, 2020

Back from the assignment. Shooting while social distancing is hard. Robert Capa was right: If your pictures aren't good enough, you aren't close enough. I got a lot of uninspiring shots during the short one hour I had with the subject.

I’d driven all the way out to Pennsylvania for this job, so I didn’t feel like turning around so soon. I walked around town aimlessly, yearning for a poetic encounter. I attracted a lot of attention from the homeless, who seemed to be the only people out on the streets.

“Go back to China!” I heard someone yell as they drove by. A Ford pickup. Typical. I decided that I had had enough of endangering myself with my face. I drove back home.

March 31, 2020

I couldn’t get out of bed today. I have no photos.

April 1, 2020

I woke up at 5am this morning to catch up on the editing that I was supposed to do yesterday. I noticed the light change in my room as the sun rose, so I felt inspired to take time-lapse shots of my bed throughout the day. I feel like I am coming back into my body again.

After yesterday, I’m not sure how long I can keep up with this project. I question the logic behind it. How can I be so in my feelings during a global pandemic? I should be volunteering, joining mutual aid projects, checking up on friends who are undoubtedly going through similar experiences. 

One annoying thing about depression is that it tricks you into thinking that your fears are unprecedented and that you’re so. Damn. Unique.

April 2, 2020

I turned in my assignment today and thought, now what? So I took a selfie.

Let’s be honest – selfies are self-indulgent. I feel selfies make me less credible as a photographer. But it’s strangely therapeutic during times like these. It’s self-distancing. It’s self-contextualizing. I see my puffy eyes and gangly arms and think, “you’re just a 5’4” human, and you’ve made it this far.”

April 3, 2020

Woke up to news that a few more friends are infected with COVID-19. Another friend also shared with me that she was recently diagnosed with Stage IV uterine cancer. Is this just the beginning?

I have used up every variation of the stock phrases “I’m so sorry to hear that”/“praying for you”/“please stay safe” and cringe at my painful lack of vocabulary and general inability to make people feel loved and reassured. I feel dumb.

In other news, this pigeon has been coming to my window every morning for the past few days. I want to think it’s the same one.

April 4, 2020

Remember all those feel-good activities that I wanted to do before – like cooking, taking an online course, reading for an entire afternoon? Well, I’ve done exactly none of those things. Instead I just do this:

April 5, 2020

Woke up to news that a few more acquaintances got infected. One was taking care of the other. The older one passed away, and the younger one is in critical condition.

I called my dad to remind him to washing his fucking hands.

Later in the day, I dusted off the keyboard and recorded myself singing and playing the piano for my friends. I spent hours trying to find a song that wasn’t too upbeat – I am far from an upbeat person, in case you couldn’t tell – but wanted to make sure that it wasn’t too depressing either. I settled on Plastic by Moses Sumney. 

You guessed it. Still depressing. 

My friends liked it, anyhow.

April 6, 2020

I was supposed to be teaching a photography workshop in Japan today. I marinate on this fact while taking a bath at 2pm.

April 7, 2020

Remembering 2016, when I spent nearly four months driving around the US in a van. I was curious about other people but introverted and shy – an annoying paradox that I still struggle with to this day. Making myself mobile was a way for me to force myself to connect with others. Those four months changed my life.

Cut to: today, four weeks into isolation. Fixed, confined – the opposite of mobile. And yet, I’m in a similar headspace as I was back then, writing in my tattered journal in the back of the van. Soft, vulnerable, imaginative. I spent a lot of time today pouring over other photographers’ work, and finding patterns and trajectories within their narratives. I also looked at my own measly four years worth of work, and wondered if there is any sort of trajectory to speak of.

I realize that in recent years – in an effort to turn this photography thing into a career and not be broke all the time – I have been confining myself socially, mentally and geographically to achieve a specific visual consistency. I have chosen facts over stories, certainty over openness. I lament how rigid and flat my work has become, but also realize that this too will be a notable phase when I look back at my work, 10 years from now.

Note to self: photograph a little more freely – and joyfully – when this crisis is over.

April 8, 2020

Wuhan’s lockdown is officially lifted, but life is far from normal. I read about this resident today who spent 15 days fighting the virus and said that it had reshuffled her priorities: 

"Health and family first. Work, career, success – all of that second.”

These days, I’m becoming painfully aware of how much I’ve relied on work to define me. I’ve sidelined everything else – friends, family, hobbies, everything. Why? Because New York City is a place where you come to work, work, work until you’re too jaded and tired to deal with the MTA and hopefully have enough money saved up by then to relocate to a quiet fishing town in Maine.

Now that work has dried up, I have no idea who I am. I am just a barely functioning 30-year-old who lives alone in New York City.

April 9, 2020

My brother called from Japan. Osaka is on day two of lockdown. He may have to delay his graduation due to COVID-19 and suspend all the job opportunities he’s worked all year to get.

“I know this is so dumb and trivial in the grand scheme of things,” he kept saying. But it isn’t. So many of us have had to forfeit careers and businesses that they’ve worked years to cultivate. What makes pandemics unique is that not only are we dealing with loss in multitudes but we are also denied the opportunity to properly mourn for them.

April 10, 2020

I was inspired by Jiayang Fan’s interview this morning, where she eloquently described the “probational nature” of her Chinese-Americanness during this pandemic and the stark differences between an adult immigrant and child immigrant’s interpretation of racism in this country.

Like Jiayang, I have also been wary of calling out racism against Asian Americans because my instincts as an immigrant would snap back, “Well, were you physically hurt? Did they mug/attack/steal from you? Is this how you want to be remembered – a victim?” Then I would juxtapose my problems with the struggles of other communities, and decide that it’s trivial, unimportant, unremarkable – I mean, at the end of the day, they’re just words, right?

But listening to her recount the terror that she felt when a neighbor repeated racial slurs as she walked by brought tears to my eyes. It validated the fear that I felt when that man called me what he did or when that passing truck told me to go back to a country that I had never been to. The interview reminded me that my experiences as an Asian American do matter.

April 11, 2020

Another friend was diagnosed with COVID-19 today. The walls are closing in.

April 12, 2020

I couldn’t get out of bed again. My phone keeps ringing. Friends checking up on me. I’m too chicken shit to answer. I let it go to voicemail. Rinse and repeat.

Leave it to me to be 30 years old and still unable to get out of bed.
Leave it to me to be well into adulthood and still unable to manage friendships.
Leave it to me to be here feeling sorry for myself during a global pandemic.

I try to take myself out of my body. I close my eyes and picture a bird’s eye view of me lying in bed. Matted hair, unshaven legs, twisted sheets. Just someone going through a rough time. This is only temporary. It only feels permanent. You should be used to this by now. You feel better afterwards, remember?

Here's a photo I took of my ceiling.

April 13, 2020

I woke up feeling a little better, but I’m still too embarrassed to call people back.

This poem by Mary Oliver feels relevant right now.

April 14, 2020

I stepped outside for the first time in three days and took a night walk to the bodega. I smelled butter chicken and heard laughter from one of the windows. All is not lost.

April 15, 2020

Five more days left of this project. I wonder if documenting the past month has accomplished anything. Has it held me accountable in any way? Or has it exacerbated my fear that I would, in fact, lose my mind during quarantine?

All that matters is, I have yet to spend an entire week in bed.

April 16, 2020

The shelter-in-place order was extended until May 15 today. I try not to think about the days that I couldn’t get out of bed, and try to focus more on the days that I made photos and told someone I loved them.

April 17, 2020

A friend’s nephew committed suicide last night. I wonder if he lived alone, too. I went to the post office to take my mind off it. Here’s a snap I took on the way home.

April 18, 2020

I started another project today. A busy mind is a happy mind.

April 19, 2020

I think this is the point in the quarantine when I start to wonder how I’m going to come out of this. I’ve become accustomed – and dare I say it, comfortable – with the routine of waking up to a vast stretch of time not yet compartmentalized into tidy schedules. 

I worry that I won’t be able to go back to how things were.

April 20, 2020

Here’s to the last day of compulsive picture-taking and unbridled navel-gazing. I might even miss it.

Five days ago I asked myself: will this project accomplish anything, or is it just ritualized self indulgence? I’ve concluded that although it wasn’t the cure-all for my restless mind – nothing ever is, really – documenting the last month has allowed me to cohabitate with my thoughts. Not evade through self medication, or amplify through questionable life choices.

And you know what? I'm still here.

For the past month, I feared losing my mind. But days like today, I feel like I am finding it.

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