“Every experience you have with someone else is like a drop of water falling into a pool,” Tina Seelig writes in What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20. I think about this quote from time to time, grateful for its characterization of experiences, both positive and negative, as transient—a drop of tainted water isn’t the end of the world.
I picked up this book over the summer, partly because it was on the lowest section of my sister’s bookshelf, partly because I had begun engaging in a ritual of self–doubt in the weeks leading up to my flight from Hong Kong to America. I remember suddenly being engulfed by fear at the thought of traveling to a foreign country—one that I had never stepped foot in, let alone lived in for a considerable period of time—and feeling like my heart was going to leap out of my chest. It was an incredibly ironic moment; I had spent a good chunk of high school craving the independence afforded by geographical distance, and now my appetite for autonomy seemed inexplicably satiated.
I was uncertain, and that made me uncomfortable. Granted, I was no stranger to uncertainties. When news of the COVID–19 outbreak hit during Chinese New Year, I was in my hometown of Hefei, Anhui—a landlocked province in East China—wondering when I would be able to return to school in Hong Kong and worrying that the sheer number of people in my grandparents’ house was putting them at great risk.
My teachers assured me of many things over Zoom: that the exam board would update us soon about the status of our exams, that we would have our questions answered soon, that school would open again. How soon was soon? Little did I know, it would be half a year before I would set foot in those hallways with fluorescent lights again. I would quarantine a total of five times over the next year and a half, each quarantine period lasting two to three weeks, as I traveled back and forth between Hong Kong and Shenzhen to see my dad.
The pandemic has taken away lives and livelihoods. Many people have sacrificed a lot more than I did. I recognize that the transformative experiences I underwent during the rollercoaster that was 2020 exist only from a position of privilege. I do not wish to invalidate or trivialize the extent of others’ suffering with my own story. Maybe it'll resonate with you on multiple levels, or maybe you experienced a variation of it—I like to think that we are held together by a fine thread of shared experiences, and that's what makes it worth telling. Rather than lamenting my stress—ridden year, I want to sincerely thank my COVID–19 bubble: the friends and family who chose to share my emotional burden and whose words of wisdom kept me sane. Your unconditional love and support was the one constant during this tumultuous time and I can only hope that I was able to reciprocate that.
The solitude that I initially savored during the beginning of the pandemic rapidly deteriorated into loneliness. Enthusiastic life updates dwindled into half hearted check–ins and the new designated medium for conversations—Zoom breakout rooms—introduced a new dimension of awkwardness. Genuine emotional connection was harder to locate than ever; I was met with radio silence from people who apparently viewed our friendship as more transactional than I thought. I sought comfort in baking, meditating, and two a.m. journaling, and spent way too much time in the hypothetical realm of what–ifs. I developed a newfound appreciation for vulnerability—which meant being honest with myself too—and became acutely aware of the fragility of friendships. Like flowers, they needed to be regularly tended to. I’m thankful for those who pushed me to maintain that line of communication.
When I was stuck in Shenzhen, unable to cross the border without enduring yet another three weeks of quarantine, you updated me on the antics of our friends, swooned over your favorite gym teacher and injected a dose of normality in a period of lethargy and stagnation for me.
When I was unmotivated, distracted, and absent minded, you pushed me to work on my physical health, cultivate a healthy lifestyle and in turn, improve my mental health. You’d offer to do yoga with me at any given time of day. You’d scroll through hours of TikTok videos to find the perfect recipe and then dedicate hours preparing and cooking dishes (even now, my mouth waters at the thought of that savory starch jelly dish). When I stayed up working on my coursework for my English Lit class, you’d refuse to go to sleep in order to provide moral support, even when I protested.
There’s this Chinese phrase that I get told a lot: 舍得 (shě dé). The first character means to leave or abandon, while the second indicates the act of gaining something. The closest English translation would be “to be willing to part with,” but it lacks the sense of conflict expressed by its oxymoronic Chinese counterpart. When I struggled to prioritize my mental wellbeing, unable to see beyond short term deadlines, you reminded me of the need for balance. You patiently listened to me rant and took walks with me to help clear my mind.
Yet sometimes the confidence my friends and family had in me and tried to instill in me felt overwhelming—to me, their encouragement translated into implicit expectations that I couldn’t consistently meet. I condensed the thoughts swirling around in my head into journal entries and for the first time in my life, set some goals for myself when the clock struck 12 a.m. on January 1st, 2021. I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions (pardon my general aversion to grand statements of commitment), but one of my goals for 2021 was to “write and publish an article of some sort,” accompanied by a note to search for suitable platforms. The moment of realization that I have done exactly that fills me with mixed feelings of pride and strangeness as well as a lasting certainty that I couldn’t have done it without the people who impacted me in unimaginable ways.
Love (from the other side of the world),