A month ago, I sat down with my partner and drew up a plan for my house search. The plan included a fancy rubric with sliders and scores, so we could weigh the things that were most important for us: a central neighborhood, a large living room, and a big backyard (crucial for our energetic dog). We could then tally up our assessments and the rubric would spit out a neat score, our hopes and dreams and fears nimbly represented by a simple number. I was very proud of how comprehensive my plan was, as if the rows and formulas—the product of hours of research on how to buy a home—could construct my perfect house on their own.
Then COVID-19 came to Austin. And as Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
I went from an eager first-time homebuyer, worried about what title fees are, to a frightened, half-shell of a person constantly refreshing the news, my house research now more about medical science than mortgage rates, my fear spiking as exponentially as the infection rates I was seeing. In an effort to grasp how quickly things had changed, I went through all the texts I had sent to my real estate agent over the past two weeks. On March 3, I asked her: “Do you think that Chinese factories closing down might somehow affect the Austin tech industry?”
By March 19: “We’re wondering if there’s any contingency that can be put into the contract if we’re in the ICU, or [if] there are riots?”
I didn’t actually think there would be riots, but I was already realizing how quickly things were charging toward unknown territory, and that I had to be ready for any possibility.
As a homebuyer, I had already been afraid of COVID-19 for months. At first, it wasn’t about getting sick. Back in February, I was reading fewer stories about ICU capacity and more reports of Asian Americans being attacked by people afraid that they carried the virus. A friend of mine shared an email he’d received from the school district promising that they’d disinfected surfaces after hosting a Lunar New Year celebration. In moments, my community had gone from sharing dumpling recipes for the Year of the Rat to being treated like plague rats instead.
Chinatowns began to hemorrhage customers so terribly that I asked my real estate agent—a friend and former coworker of mine—to kick off our home search by meeting me at a Chinese restaurant. Within weeks. I’d find the idea of going to any restaurant unthinkable.
That may be the hardest part of this situation: the mental whiplash as things change from one day to the next, the feeling of looking back on who you were a month ago and being unable to recognize that person. It’s hard not to feel embarrassed by my optimism in February, how confidently I made charts and rubrics of things I wanted in a house, how simple some of our desired features seemed.
For example, the backyard. Central Austin is quickly being redeveloped with condos, and single-family units with ample backyards are rare. My partner and I used to argue over the necessity of a yard—he wanted the biggest one possible for his sweet baby Lex to run around in; I thought we’d have to settle for something smaller. But recently my feelings about a yard have become much more complicated.
Our current backyard has become a small oasis in this time of social distancing. But more than offering a bit of fresh air, the yard has become a strange portal to the past for me. My mom recently told me that she bought vegetable seeds at the market in case our lockdown went deep into the summer months and supply lines were disrupted. I imagined her, 56, crouching in her Dallas backyard under the spring sun, tilling the earth. She’d grown up in abject poverty in China, in a farming hamlet called Always Boiling Pot. My dad grew up in similar circumstances, living in a cave for part of his childhood. I visited that cave when I was 11 years old, pressing my hands against the cool rock surface, marveling in the relief from the summer heat. My dad didn’t share my wonder; he looked at the cave and saw how far he’d come from it. Both my parents had worked hard at school to escape rural farm labor and eventually move to America, to give their children a better life.
Now here they were, close to retirement age, picking up the tools from the childhood they’d fought to escape. And here was their yard—a lifeline in an uncertain future, a resource they didn’t think they’d have to use again. In this short time, the yard has become so much more than my dog’s potential playground: It’s become a respite, an opportunity, sustenance. When I start looking for houses again, I’ll be going to the yard and wondering what advice my mother will have for me about breaking the earth.
I moved to Austin for college in 2010 and fell in love with the city. It seemed like the perfect place for someone who’d grown up in the sterile suburbs of Dallas—creative, outdoorsy, and even queer, but without the overwhelming hustle and bustle of a densely populated city like San Francisco. Ten years later, I love it even more, especially my neighborhood, with its market and dog park and kooky houses. To my delight, my brother was just accepted to UT, so that cemented my choice to stay.
Still, I know why some of my friends—especially my Asian-American friends—are concerned for me. It doesn’t help that I’ve also experienced several painful incidents in the midst of my house search. In February, while standing in line at Torchy’s Tacos, I sneezed into my elbow. An innocent allergic reaction. But the man in front of us suddenly dashed away and hid behind a woman in his group. I saw him whisper to her, and they both turned back to look at me. I looked back as defiantly as I could, no clever retort coming to mind. This was the first time I noticed someone noticing me—possibly fearing me—in reaction to the new coronavirus pandemic.
“I’m not that worried about getting sick,” I vented to a friend after the incident. “I’m more afraid of racism.” It’s a text that’s frustrating for me to think about now, when I fear both equally. But at the moment, racism was the disease I was experiencing more directly. On a work flight a few days later, when there were still only a few cases in the United States, the people seated next to me tried to get reseated. One put a scarf on their face when I sat down. When I leaned over the aisle to pick up something I’d dropped, the man across from me leaned so far away, he bumped into his seatmate. I looked straight at him, refusing to let him think I hadn’t noticed. Whenever I noticed him staring at me for the rest of the three-hour flight, I looked right back.
Eye contact was the only thing I felt like I had, but I drew strength from meeting their gazes. In 2016, I’d seen a play in Austin that I’ve recently been thinking about again. Acted and produced all-Asian-American crew, it depicted a dystopia where the Japanese survivors of a plague, robbed of their voices in a police state, could only communicate by song.
Much of the acting took place through prolonged, significant gazes. I remember the power in that simple eye contact, wielded by people who looked just like me.
Back then, my friend and I loved the play for what it represented about Austin: the bursting creativity, the avant-garde theater scene, the talent of the Asian-American community here, carving out its space.
The play’s themes seem prescient now, as I watch people watching me. I wonder what they see, but because I don’t know, all I can do is meet their eyes, reflecting them right back.
I tried not to let these incidents get to me, even as people suddenly swerved out of my way at supermarkets or shut doors in my face. I tried to be grateful that they weren’t reacting by attacking me, which is a ludicrous thing to try to get yourself to feel grateful for.
Amid these experiences, finding out that sellers couldn’t be in a house while I was viewing it was a relief. But there was one house where the current tenants, friends of the owners, were present.
One of them let us take a look at his bedroom for a moment. While admiring the view from the window, I noticed the books on the shelf: one critiquing the concept of white guilt, another about liberal lies. Then he noticed me noticing his bookshelf. We made eye contact for a terrible second.
“So, what do you think of the bathrooms?” I said.
He awkwardly half-shuffled us out of the room and shut the door.
Despite that, I liked this house. It was in a rapidly growing neighborhood, and there’s even an Asian cultural center nearby. It seemed like a potentially good investment.
“I can send you the appreciation numbers later this evening after my next appointment,” my agent said, looking at her watch. She told me that it was a young couple putting their house on market earlier than they’d planned because of coronavirus. Within a few days, the home we’d just seen would have its open house canceled because of coronavirus as well, and suddenly all the open houses across town started to shut down.
Soon after, I found the house I’d eventually put an offer on: a cozy, cottage-like place in my favorite neighborhood, somehow under budget, with a lovely yard and natural lighting. My agent told me to send a love letter to convince them to take my offer.
“Add some pictures of you and your partner and Lex!” she encouraged.
I scoured my photo albums, feeling self-conscious. Several times I paused over a picture of me in sunglasses, wondering if they obscured the fact that I was Asian. Eventually, I decided on photos that showed my face completely and clearly. Despite the competitive market, I didn’t want to get a house if the seller was going to be bothered by who I am.
Within a day, my offer was accepted. I was immediately overwhelmed with excitement, shock, fear—everything I imagine a typical first-time homebuyer would feel, magnified by 100 with COVID-19 as the backdrop. I was at a game night with friends when I got the news, and we cheered and toasted with margaritas we’d mixed after all washing our hands. That was two weeks ago. I didn’t realize that it was going to be the last time I would hang out with anyone in person for a while.
The joy would turn into something else very quickly. My dad was upset with my decision, sending me text after text about the economy, the virus, the house itself. I had to leave my phone alone for a bit. My mom, who is usually considerably more compassionate about these things, texted me separately about how I was feeling. Her gentleness made everything more frightening.
Then came the house inspection. The inspector and I sat as far as was reasonable from each other, bowing instead of shaking hands. My partner reapplied sanitizer every 10 seconds, the scent of alcohol in the air like some tonic for anxiety. The inspection report was rougher than we thought it would be, requiring extensive repairs I wasn’t ready for. I left the house with tears stinging my eyes, feeling foolish for trying to go forward with a house purchase in all of this, no longer believing I had timed things perfectly.
“Where are the adults?” asked a friend of mine who was also searching for a house. “Nobody knows what to do.”
San Francisco locked down a day later. A coworker posted that she’d just closed on a house there and didn’t know what would happen. Another coworker was about to close in New York City and was experiencing serious delays. I saw that Austin’s mayor was preparing orders of some sort. Everything felt like it was closing in. I told my agent that I was going to stick with the house only if they took care of all the repairs we wanted and wrote in some contingency plan if a full COVID-19 lockdown happened. It felt absurd to type those words, or to ask for this much in Austin’s competitive market.
“No worries,” she said. Breezy and confident, she had become my buoy in these uncertain times. She explained that she was in a real estate group on Facebook, and agents from other states were sharing coronavirus contingencies they were writing into contracts.
This made me feel marginally better: The idea of the Realtor Avengers, gathering together, protecting houses.
My mom kept texting me. She asked me what I was making for dinner, if I might plan to make my own garden, if I’d remembered to wear a mask outside. And then, tentatively: “How’s the house coming along?” She would make her worries known about a housing crash and then quickly change the subject, as if concerned that she lectured me too much about it. The subject of the house became an awkward dance between the two of us, as I tried to explain what was happening in just enough detail to assuage her but not enough for things to make it back to my dad.
Meanwhile, we had other inspections scheduled. I waited for the reports to come, anxiously wondering what new bad news would arrive. But to my surprise, the reports returned very slowly. One person neglected to give me an invoice for several days, extending dangerously close to the end of our option period. I called and called and called, nervously eyeing the clock and wondering how much calling would be too rude. Finally, they texted me.
“Sorry, it’s going to take a moment,” they said. “My people all called out so I’m having to do checks myself. They’re afraid of going into people’s homes right now.”
Then I got a call from a friend who’d just moved from Texas to New York City. She was distraught because her dad had just sent her a very long email about the crisis. I don’t really know her father, but I’ve heard stories of his intensity, sometimes his temper.
While his email was mostly patient and empathetic, it began with the motherlode of Asian-American guilt trips: “He told me that when he had to escape Vietnam, he didn’t have much time to think about it.”
He wanted her to fly home immediately. Indeed, I was frightened for her as well, seeing the numbers from New York City, the makeshift morgue, how Gov. Andrew Cuomo seemed to age another year every day of the fight. Surely her dad, in Houston, was seeing the same news stories.
Something about his email really got to me. Maybe it was his calm, reasoning tone, when, like my father, he’s just as quick to brimstone. Maybe it was the fact that the crux of all Asian-American guilt trips you get growing up is how your spoiled American life cannot compare to life the way it was for them overseas. And now, here was my friend’s father, patient and beleaguered, opening his entreaty by comparing her plight to his escape from Vietnam.
It reminded me of my mom’s cautious, worried texts. She knows I’m stubborn with my dad, and that I get even more stubborn the angrier he becomes. But now she was texting me with a level of gentleness that didn’t match her emotions at all. I saw how my mom and my friend’s dad had put any impatience aside to try to be as convincing as possible: You need to leave New York. You need to pull out of the house, before you’re trapped financially and physically. It was a level of persuasion that we were not accustomed to, being instead used to invocations of filial piety. There was genuine desperation in what they were doing now.
My agent called me back with news. “They’re not going to do the repairs,” she said. Then she went over the numbers that they would acquiesce to. It was the kind of compromise that I would have been ready to deal with in a normal housing market. But this was the furthest thing from normal I’d ever experienced.
We ended up pulling out of the house. I don’t exactly feel upset, although there is some sense of sadness for missing out on what could have been a home. I still feel that I did the right thing. The entire time, I had wondered if I was like one of the people who bought houses right after 2008—impossibly lucky with my timing, sensing opportunity while others were panicking. But it seemed just as likely I was one of those people from right before the 2008 crash, in danger of falling underwater.
My partner and I are now socially isolating in our rental house in North Austin, filling our days with creative projects and dog walks and video games. Having no newly purchased house to dote on, I’ve begun cleaning and reorganizing my current place. It’s letting me appreciate what I have even more, in a time where I feel like so much is being lost every day.
And despite the things have happened to me and my community when fear of coronavirus first reared its head, I’m finding a lot of love and care, too. My Asian-American friends are reaching out to each other more. My friends who are allies in Austin are supportive and speak out against what’s happening.
I’m realizing now that I didn’t really need a house to feel rooted in my city. We’re a city made of people, not properties—people who are sewing masks en masse to donate to hospitals, tipping their delivery folks double, and finding safe ways to support businesses on the verge of shutting down. I’m amazed at how quickly people have put together public resources for those who have lost their jobs, and I’m touched by friends speaking out against xenophobia. I’ve taken savings meant for house fees and started donating to relief funds across town, thankful that I have the opportunity to do so. I don’t feel like I’m missing out on what house ownership would have offered me. Instead I’m finding it day by day, in the kindnesses we are offering each other.
Zen Ren lives in Austin with their partner and overly energetic dog. Their writing has been published in Asia Literary Review and Alcalde.