F.J., 19, a student in San Jose, CA

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I remember the last day of instruction on campus. It was a Friday and I had to go to my morning office hours. Except, there was no one there like there usually was to open the door. After weeks of hushed hallway whispers of the “virus from China,” cautious news headlines, and word from friends on other campuses moving back home for “online education,” the inevitable order from the top finally came down: all campus facilities shut down and online education only until further notice.

It was the second to last week before the end of Winter Quarter, and it was like any other day before the quarantine; I laughed with my friends about the latest TikTok trends; I spoke to my professors about something I didn’t understand from the lecture; I popped into my favorite tteok shop in Santa Clara to grab some yummy rice cakes for my family. But there was an eerie emptiness that permeated throughout the campus and an ominous, almost foreboding, atmosphere that penetrated the space. Even while going through these simple, everyday actions, in the back of my mind I knew that it would be a while before I could do these things again so I tried to savor these last “normal moments” at the same time downplay it to preserve the normality of it all. We were going to come back, I just didn’t know how or when, just that everything would be different.

That day, I wasn’t thinking about the world or my community at large. I didn’t know then, couldn’t have even imagined, that the impact of coronavirus would ripple all over the world and trickle into the smallest, most mundane facets of everyday life. I didn’t know then that the world would be turned upside down. All I was thinking about that day was how happy I was to finish classes early so I didn’t have to interact with the creepy guy that always tried to talk to me and I could go home and eat some tteok without having to wait until 8pm for traffic to die down. (At this point, I pause to laugh ruefully at myself).

Someone on the internet said that March was the longest year ever, and I laughed at that. I still had hope and in conversations with friends I would always grow nostalgic and say “when this is all over…” but as the year dragged on and the country erupted over race protests and the deaths of African Americans lives in the hands of police officers, I grew increasingly aware and frightened that that was a lie. There would be “when this is all over,” there would be no burst of celebration in the streets to commemorate the end of quarantine, there would be no end-all to this madness because “over” will be gradual, spaced out, diminishing slowly but not all at once over time. Our way of life was fundamentally changed and could never go back to that normal way of life…at least not for a very long time.

So I sat at home, zooming from one Zoom lecture to another. Faced with the desperate pleas of professors calling into the void of the class asking for participation and receiving turned off mics and videos; nothing but emptiness and an occasional request to repeat the info. I grew desperate, angry, depressed, unmotivated. I could feel myself wasting away even as I started walking around the neighborhood in an effort to fight my growing waistband. I dreaded working out and I had somehow lived with a skewed sense of dieting and an unhealthy relationship with my body and food. But during quarantine, I started exercising regularly, eating healthy, and sleeping in routine because when the world seems less real and more like a simulation, you focus on what you can control and for me that was my health.

I also started going to the grocery stores for fun and cross-referencing all the ones in my neighborhood. Whole Foods has greater selection of unique, curated items (not so much diverse) and overpriced produce. Trader Joe’s has some outstanding products like their Alaskan salmon and interesting wacky snacks but the price of the produce is also more expensive than Sprouts and it’s unclear where they source their food from. There’s a Vietnamese market but parking is iffy and while their produce is unbelievably inexpensive, the quality is also questionable. Sprouts has the best quality and price for locally grown produce and a pretty good selection of healthy other stuff. Dad started making more food during his work from home since Mom had to go out and work at the dental care office. His cooking improved so much that 96% of what we eat is homemade, including the banchan. Doing the groceries, I found it’s a lot cheaper to buy whole foods and the cost of snacks/other pleasurable food items can stack up. My family rarely craves sugar anymore. We buy 1 or 2 bags of crackers or a bar of chocolate whenever we’re hit with a craving but it’s not the landslide amount that we used to buy. Now we eat what we need.

Another revelation I had in quarantine was how the most vulnerable people, the most marginalized populations, are the first to be under attack and the most at risk during a crisis. Other countries that took the virus seriously and put in governmental measures to protect themselves were able to preserve their everyday way of life since everyone took the virus seriously. But in the US, the administration denied the danger of the virus which delayed help and support. Hospitals were seriously under-funded and under-staffed. Social services were slowed down to snail speeds so people who were in need could not get help. Black and brown people are disproportionately being massacred by the virus, losing jobs and means of income, losing homes, unable to support families. It’s not only by race but also by sexuality, gender, and age that people are seemingly being persecuted. Gay people, Native Americans, homeless people, the people in nursing homes, people in prisons. As an individual coming into my own in society, it’s atrocious and disgusting and terrible and all the other bad words ever invented, but that’s all the more reason to be motivated to change that, to pull myself up by the boot straps and get down to work. One thing I will never forget and will always hold on to for the rest of my life is my desire to help build a society that protects those who cannot protect themselves and respects all life.

So at the moment, it feels as if the world is unraveling and it’s all so surreal it’s laughable. California just caught on fire and now we have presidential elections coming up. It’s burdensome and difficult having to navigate the world as it is right now. But I’m one of the luckier ones because everyone I know is safe and healthy, I have a means of survival, and I’m able to go to school.

It’s hard to believe I’m only 19 and this has only been 5 months into quarantine. If I was as old as I feel, I’d be a dry, bony fossil.

I don’t mean to discourage you, dear reader, because there have been silver linings in this shitty cloud. I started focusing on my health and finding new hiking trails, exercising and building my body. I spent more time with my family (before, sometimes days would go by when I hadn’t seen anyone because we all worked and had different schedules) and we would have movie nights and cook together. I called my friends or did socially distanced meetups (before the California fires 😉) we would get food to-go and eat on lawn chairs 6 feet from each other and laugh. I started new programs at my school and met new people who were working towards connecting with other students and raising engagement to build a supportive community because we were all online and distant. I became more confident in myself. I learned to listen to myself and learned to weed out the lies that I sometimes told myself in moments of anxiety or despair that skewed my view of reality. I learned that there are things in life more important than money and my own success. I learned that I cherish my relationships with other people. I value helping others. I learned that it’s not about where you start, but about how far you can get. I learned that you are not as alone (thoughts that are really lies) as you think you are and that there are communities out there who are waiting for you to find them and when you do find them they will embrace you and accept you and you will feel like you are home.

So if I, as a 19 year old fossil, can give you any words of wisdom from quarantined, it would be to look up once in a while and stare at the clouds, be attentive to yourself and to your loved ones, live for yourself in the present and value the now, and focus on the things you can change. Life will bonk you on the head and do all sorts of contortionism, but focus on the things you have control over and you will be ok. That’s not a promise but we’re working on it, ok?

[submitted on 8/25/2020]

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Life in Quarantine: Witnessing Global Pandemic is an initiative sponsored by the Poetic Media Lab and the Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis at Stanford University.

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