By Mui Poopoksakul
I found it on May 19, I told the detective.
Coming home from the post office and waiting for the elevator, I checked our mail as usual. Nothing but a vial with blue liquid. I couldn’t be bothered with whatever free sample someone had dropped in our mailbox and chose to ignore it.
The next day, again grabbing our mail on my way in, I decided to pick up the blue vial because I wasn’t going to leave junk in our letterbox forever. It was a test tube in form—round-bottomed and made of clear glass, just like the ones from high-school chemistry, except it was almost as skinny as a pencil and nearly as long, and had a cap, the specifics of which I now can’t recall. The liquid it contained had the color and clarity of blue Listerine. As I stared at the label taped neatly around the tube, without yet having had time to develop any particular reaction, I heard the building’s front door swing open. I looked up—my husband was stopping home after a court hearing.
“Look at this. It says ‘Sars 19’ with some Chinese characters,” I said to him.
He blinked and walked over.
“Should we call the police?” It seemed something one would say, and the words felt recited as they came out of my mouth.
“Yes, I think so.”
Climbing the stairs to our apartment, we discussed the possibility of bioterrorism—that was the first thought that came to mind. I remembered the period immediately after 9/11 when, in New York City, where I was living at the time, opening your mail was a fraught exercise: white powder had been turning up in envelopes sent to offices around the city. But more likely, this blue substance was harmless, and what we were faced with was a prank. Still, legally speaking, a reasonable person ought to be able foresee that the vial, labeled as it was, would have the effect of creating fear in the recipient. The sending of it, therefore, constituted a threat, a crime, so yes, we would call the police. It would be a good hour before the thought crossed my mind that this could be a racist act, but as soon as I verbalized it, I could no longer shake the idea, and neither could my husband.
I messaged a Singaporean friend, a fellow translator, attaching a close-up of the blue vial. “Help! Someone put this in our mailbox. Is this Chinese? If so, what does it say?” I was still Panglossian enough at that point not to write off the possibility that the characters might spell out “prevention against” or something equally benign, even benevolent; the blue liquid did remind me of my over-fragranced hand sanitizer, also blue, though paler. “Very strange,” my friend wrote back, “It says ‘stellar corona’—is this some kind of weird wordplay?” I didn’t understand. The character used for “corona,” she explained, was not the one for corona the virus but corona as in the gaseous outer layer of the sun. Was this a punning racist or a Google Translate job? I opened up Google Translate, typed in “corona” and tried translating from English and German into both traditional and simplified Chinese. The right-hand box showed two characters each time, none of the language pairs producing the one I was expecting. Only weeks later, upon a college roommate’s suggestion that I try an “off-brand” online translator, would I figure out that the text on the vial was indeed in all likelihood a machine-generated translation: the German program DeepL, popular among professionals, spat out a match.
When my husband called the Mitte precinct, the officer on the phone sounded blasé until my husband told him, “My wife’s Asian.” Still, nothing would be done unless we filed a report online, something in writing. Within an hour after we pressed “submit,” two police officers rang our buzzer. As we led them to the mailboxes, the handcuffs dangling from their belts clacked together and I felt as if I were on a crime TV show—I had never been in such close proximity to real handcuffs. On the scene, there was not much to investigate. I told the officers about the circumstances of my discovery of the blue vial and relayed to them the information from my friend about the Chinese characters, and the police took the evidence away in a Ziploc bag. I sorely regretted handling the tube with several fingers and turning it in my hands: I had probably smudged whatever fingerprints the culprit had left.
Earlier that month, we had finally ordered curtains. When we moved into our new home last August, there had been so much to do to make the place livable that I simply let the sun singe my skin or avoided the street side of the apartment altogether. Then fall came, and then winter, and curtains became simply a matter of privacy and not urgency. Now May was a quarter over and we had been inside the apartment twenty-three and a half hours a day because of the stay-at-home order, and as summer approached, I was determined to acquire curtains, at least for my home office.
They arrived, but much to my frustration, the package had been brought to the post office. It was nearly five feet long because of the rods, but I didn’t realize this until the postal worker had already scanned the package. One look at her face and I knew asking the post office to hang onto it wasn’t going to be an option. So I was determined to get it home—a twelve-minute walk away—somehow. The sight of me struggling with a package almost as large as my frame, though in fact it probably didn’t weigh more than ten kilos, must have been laughable, pitiable. Strangers smiled, made faces with widened eyes; several volunteered to lend a hand. Halfway back, sweating and red-faced, I finally accepted the help of a woman who offered to roll the box atop her bike to my destination.
In front of my building, I thanked the generous woman profusely and kicked my box inside. “My faith in humanity is restored. Like, ten people offered to help me on my way home,” I texted my husband. I praised humanity but felt a boost to my own sense of self: I appeared to strangers like someone worthy their kindness. I felt good and worn out when the front door clamped shut behind me. And then I opened my letterbox and noted something blue.
Since the start of the pandemic, much has been made about how Covid-19 would change the way we live for a long time to come. I was skeptical about whether it would rewire me, especially as my husband and I were already reverting to our old ways in the meal department, cooking less and less as the weeks passed by. But one instance of collateral damage from the virus would end up altering my perception of how I moved about in the world. In the days following my discovery of the blue vial, I kept picturing myself walking down the block, my face not a face, but reduced to a label. I was on guard taking the S-Bahn in broad daylight.
Still, the blue vial was no random attack like the ones we’d read and heard about happening to people of Asian descent on trains and in other public spaces in various countries in the West. In a way, it was less frightening because I hadn’t been threatened with physical violence, but in another way, it was more sinister because I had been specifically targeted. The perpetrator knew who I was, knew my name and where I lived. Who would do this? Who could do this? The culprit had, or somehow had gained, access to our building’s mailboxes, which are inside the locked front door. This fact narrowed the likely pool of suspects: the neighbors, building-management employees, mail carriers, delivery workers, possibly someone from the block who had been observing me. While it wasn’t exactly difficult to ring up a resident in the building and make up some excuse to be buzzed in, this last group was less probable than the others because the culprit was able to match my face to my last name. I have a Thai name, but Thai names often aren’t obviously Asian to the uninitiated. What if the vial had never been meant for me? I did have a neighbor whose equally long last name contained similar letters, and on more than one occasion, his mail had wound up in our mailbox. But he was a white German, making the Chinese characters harder to explain. I was loath to point fingers at our neighbors in the building, and fearful of the consequences of going down that route whether it proved right or not, so I came up with theory after theory, only to dismiss them as too longshot.
A week or so after the local police’s visit, my husband and I received summonses to give witness statements at the Landeskriminalamt. The State Office of Criminal Investigation had taken up our case, likely because they believed it to be a potential hate crime. And they likely reacted so quickly because of the case of a Korean couple featured in a front-page spread of the Süddeutsche newspaper, published just days before and detailing the rise in anti-Asian racism in Germany in the wake of the virus. Met with police inaction after they had been harassed on the U-Bahn, the couple had sought the help of the South Korean Embassy, prompting investigative progress. My husband was convinced that we were direct beneficiaries of the Korean couple’s proactiveness.
I took pictures of the Süddeutsche article in six rectangular sections and sent it to two Asian friends in Berlin. “If something happens to you, you should report it to the police. We’d only be helping one another,” I wrote to them. I meant it, I was pursuing my case to the fullest extent of the law, but I knew it was a big ask. I, too, was weary of the process, of making the incident into a major, meaningful, consuming drama. How much easier was it to see the blue vial as a blip, as some little bad thing that happened and that required no more thought as long as nothing of the sort happened again? Optimism goes a long way toward making life livable, and what story did I want to tell myself I was living?
We put up a flyer in the entryway of our building, notifying the neighbors of the incident, asking them for any tips, and making known to any potential culprit that we had reported the matter to the police. We’d intended to leave the flyer up for exactly seven days, but before the week was up, our notice had been torn down. The sight of the four remaining corners, still taped to the wall, made me shudder, but upon reflection I suspected a real estate agent I’d spotted showing the apartment across the hall an hour before the flyer’s disappearance.
We weren’t holding our breaths for anyone to come forward with information. Everyone I told the story to said the perpetrator surely lived in the building. I ran through the units in my mind: five residential floors with two apartments each, and two commercial spaces on the ground level. Who did we know? Who appeared friendly and who not? Everyone in the building seemed to enjoy the anonymity of city living, so there was only so much detective work we could do before we entered awkward or insane territory. Funny how in our time of social distancing, I had never wanted to learn more about my neighbors than I did now. Eventually, I brought up the obvious, which was that our downstairs neighbor had complained, via a typed note, at the start of the lockdown that we “STOMPED”—yes, she used all caps—and it was giving her migraines. Naturally, we were annoyed. I found it hard to imagine that you could have a neighbor more pussyfooted than me—I’m small and prone to cracked, even bleeding heels that have trained me to land softly. But my husband quickly shut down the thought: her complaint, though aggravating, was within the range of normal gripes among neighbors, and to accuse someone of racism based on that letter was unfair and irresponsible. I agreed and felt guilty for having harbored despicable thoughts.
At the interview, the friendly, teddy-bear-of-a-man detective informed me the blue liquid had been analyzed, and it was innocuous—rubbing alcohol, ironically. No fingerprints had been lifted because the vial was still held up at the Robert Koch Institute, which had yet to test the blue dye. My hope deflated. How many people were the police going to allow to handle the tube before they tried to extract fingerprints? I began to feel that in pursuing the case, I was making a point only to myself and to this detective before me, who probably had homicide cases to solve.
“Anything else you’d like to add?” he asked me.
“Well—” I bit my tongue, reminding myself of the vow of silence I had taken on the downstairs neighbor.
The detective led me back to the lobby and swapped me for my husband. Mask on, I took out Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery and Other Stories, from which I’d been reading at random. As if fate itself wanted to offer a tip, I flipped to “Trial by Combat”: Emily Johnson, a young army wife staying in a rooming house, has her handkerchiefs and other trinkets stolen and suspects Mrs. Allen from the room immediately below hers. Emily takes matters into her own hands but finds herself powerless to confront the petty thief when she develops a creeping feeling that she is faced with the ghost of her own future who might be looking to reclaim mementos of her past—Mrs. Allen, whose late husband was also in the army, occupies a room strikingly similar to Emily’s own, giving the two women a sense of intimacy in each other’s personal space. My downstairs neighbor, too, probably lived in an apartment with the same layout as mine. Did she also work from home while her husband went out to the office each day? Did she go to sleep when I went to sleep? Did she wonder the same about me, or did she already know this from the sound of my footsteps at night, walking around to my side of the bed? Perhaps she could gather pieces of my life from the noises she heard, from every drop of an object, every drag of a chair. As for me, I had no such advantage—I’d never even laid eyes on this mysterious woman. Stop! I told myself and shut the book. Fate is just playing with me, that’s all.
A month has passed since our interviews at the Landeskriminalamt. There’s been no word from the detective. In the meantime, my husband has managed to lose my Shirley Jackson book and we’ve managed to install more curtains.
Last week, under the pretense of wanting to assess how our new curtains look from outside—a pretense I concocted only for my own sake—I went across the street and glanced up at my own windows, only to let my eyes wander to all the others. I saw no one.