Rutgers Center for Chinese Studies (RCCS) hosted a truly global workshop on Chinese-English Keywords on Saturday, September 19, 2020. Co-hosted by Louisa Schein of Rutgers and Fan Yang of University of Maryland Baltimore County, the event was titled “Pandemic Technologies in Two Social Registers: A Chinese-English Keywords Project Workshop.” The event was the 19th in a series of international workshops and conference panels convened by the Chinese-English Keywords Project directed by Louisa Schein and now four years old. This intensive brainstorming gathering was designed to use keywords in Chinese and English respectively to map out the differences and comparisons of the COVID-19 experience in the U.S., China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. 

Scheduled from 10am-12pm – the only hours that work for both sides of the Pacific – the workshop brought longtime members of the Chinese-English Keywords Project together with some new interlocutors. Seventeen participants converged from fourteen locations in Shanghai, Hainan, Shanxi, Hong Kong, Taipei, Virginia, California, New York, New Jersey, North Carolina, Maryland, Michigan, Massachusetts and Berlin. Once everyone relayed their stories of the pandemic outbreak, places such as Guangzhou, Guizhou, Amsterdam and Southern California were added to the map of differing stories. The group was about half-and-half native speakers of Chinese and English, but all work in both languages. The translocal conversation was super-generative, revealing how variegated COVID stories and languages could be. 

In collecting keywords, much of the collaborative conversation revealed the important distinctions between official discourse and what pops up in vernacular usage. The way that math, science and medical terminology has entered mainstream parlance was also of interest. Questions of “surveillance” and the health code app on cell phones in China came in for consideration. How humans were situated in relation to nature – as part of biology and the eco-system versus at war with the virus – proved provocative. 

The chat thread moved so fast that participants had to scroll constantly to keep up with the multiple conversations happening in parallel. Here Chinese characters were input, as well as sources, links, references and excerpts from Fang Fang’s Wuhan Diary entries. 

Quarantined lives and lockdowns in China and America revealed themselves to converge and diverge in significant ways, particularly with regard to the use of technological platforms such as WeChat and locative tracking. Beyond high tech, the role of China’s time-honored neighborhood communities emerged as facilitating everyday logistics. Throughout, issues of the respective states’ action or neglect were weighed against popular takes on truth, whistleblowing, science and national pride.