IN THE ERA OF THE PANDEMIC, WE LEARN WHO WE TRULY ARE
Feature photo courtesy of Athena Tan
“What do you mean, you’re not scared?”
Looking outside the window of my apartment, I feel that nearly everyone could pass off as the same person. Masks on, carrying bags of necessities with the familiar grocery store logo splashed over plastic bags, all focused on getting back into the safety of our homes.
This is life during the Circuit Breaker on my sunny island, Singapore. Singaporeans are advised not to go out unless it’s for essential goods and services, masks are to be worn outside unless people are on an evening run, and students currently take online classes or tuition lessons.
Life during a pandemic still goes on, but in a different shade of Singapore living. Weekend trips to our famous ‘shopping paradise’ -- the Orchard Road stretch -- are replaced by Friday rush-hour grocery runs and a drawn-out sag on the couch as families tuck into television, shopping for stories of the outside world instead of material goods. Morning trips to school on packed trains and buses are now walks to the sectioned-off part of our homes for work and school, rubbing the bleariness out of our eyes as lecturers turn on their web-cameras and begin for the day.
It’s a new life in our modern metropolis, and we’re living in it.
On June 1st, when the circuit breaker is supposed to end, life will supposedly return to normal -- but for now, everyone’s version of normal places them in the same plight of work-from-home, struggle-with-naps kind of days that seem to roll into one another.
My brother and I are no different, having been living within the same walls of the same house ever since we were born. And as the population’s lives rolled into one, so did my brother’s and mine -- which is pretty big news for us, since we’ve seemed to be living in the same house but in completely different worlds for all of our lives.
So while we’re no different from everyone else, we’re as different as can be from one another -- and these differences could not be more apparent now that we’ve had to confront them, confined to our four walls.
Metta and I were born in California, in the suburbs -- tucked in a fairly Asian neighbourhood, two hours’ drive from San Francisco. Our parents leaned more into the stereotypes of Asian parents, while maintaining that we explored American culture. My brother and I played basketball, roller-bladed, went to school fairs, the Farmer’s Market, and spoke in accents indistinguishable from our American friends. This was expected, because we didn’t actually have to adapt to any culture or the society here; we were born directly in Cali sunshine.
On Sundays, we sat at the dining table of our house to do math assessment books. This would usually come after a breakfast of pancakes, so our hands would still be sticky with maple syrup as we grabbed pencils to do fractions and algebra. Every year we went back to Singapore for a month during the summer holidays, our workbooks in tow. The pair of us American-born-Chinese siblings also attempted to fill up composition books with Mandarin practises and phrases, copying over basic words and simple syntax to brush up on our mother tongue. I think the sight of us doing math assessment books together, ahead of our grade, comforted my parents greatly.
Apart from these books and these moments though, we would go on to share little else.
We were clearly different people before even moving to Singapore -- so before you jump to the conclusion that Singapore’s high-stakes and competitive atmosphere changed our sibling bond -- our relationship really had little to do with the environment.
Rather, it was the two month limbo of us preparing to move that highlighted the differences in our personalities.
I loved living in California. I had friends who made daisy-chain friendship bracelets with me, and we’d already mapped our specific walking route to middle school together. I won competitions and made friends with the school district superintendent, almost cementing my desire to work as a teacher who taught ‘Language Arts’ or creative writing in the American public school system.
On the other hand, my brother wasn’t in love with what our elementary school and neighbourhood had to offer. He enjoyed some parts of school - like the break times -- but not the times he spent with his class very much. He would rather come home and watch television while I wanted to have after-school pizza with my friends from a grade above.
When my parents announced that we were going to move to Singapore, we were eating dinner as a family, enjoying chow mien and si chuan chicken from this place called ‘Golden Chef by Aunty Linda.’ My brother and I were using forks while my parents deftly used their chopsticks. I dropped my fork, while my brother continued to dig into his chow mien.
“Aren’t you shocked? Aren’t you scared?” I remember asking him later that night. I was helping him complete one of his last homework assignments to be handed in -- ever -- to our school. He didn’t look up from the paper we were examining. “Why would I be scared?”
“We’re leaving! We’re leaving and we won’t ever come back.” I was tearing up at this point. He remained stoic, but his eyebrows showed slight discomfort. “Okay,” he said, squinting, “I actually feel a little bit sad.”
“I’m so scared. It’s going to be scary there,” I said, recalling what mom had said about rigorous examinations. “It’ll be okay”, my brother supplied, not-so-helpfully.
The next few weeks in limbo was spent with me meandering around our house, watching nearly-mournfully as our life was packed into boxes. My brother continued to live normally, kicking a soccer ball around our backyard, foraying into the small garden my neighbour maintained tucked in an alley between our houses. I couldn’t go back there after being aware of the fact that we were leaving; for me, every sign of our life in California would bring me to tears.
“He’s too young to understand that we’re leaving”, my mom said. She poked my nose. “You, on the other hand, are a little bit too emotional.”
But we were one year apart, merely a year -- and consumed the same culture, saw the same things, shared part of the same circle of friends, did the same math books at the same dining table.
Looking back, my parents said that they saw the distinctiveness in our personalities emerge from our move across the ocean.
When the news broke that our country was officially entering the “circuit breaker,” my brother slunk off to his room and I remained at my chair, furiously typing away to wrap up work. The newsroom was absolutely buzzing with updates right now, and after half an hour I decided to take a break -- and oddly enough, I found myself in my brother’s room.
It was quiet, because he wore headphones all the time, and he played games on his computer, engaging with CGI and fantastical worlds -- not the real one, which my own words had to be used for.
“I’m not that scared”, my brother, eighteen this year, mumbled, eyes on his large monitor screen. I, nineteen, was mildly amused by his keyboard, which had streaks of light running through it in all colours of the rainbow, and was gently prodding the keys.
“What do you mean, you’re not scared?”
He shrugged off his earphones. “I mean, it’s going to pass. It’ll be fine soon. As long as we cooperate.”
I remained still. “The situation is pretty bad, man,” I began. I was scared.
He nudged my hand with an elbow, one hand on his mouse still. “That’s ‘cause you work in the news,” he said. He kept up with softer news through gaming channel chats from friends in Spain and Malaysia, who were also logged into the server.
As I left to go back to my desk, I realized that perhaps this circuit breaker period would bring us together -- forcing us to log into the same server of our own.
In Singapore, to cope with the difference in environment and catch up with the extreme cultural shock, both my brother and I began to create stories. I’d always been a lover of words and awarded for it in America, winning school-wide and district-wide competitions. So I continued writing, working for a small magazine until I was about twelve years old and needed to fully focus on my studies.
My brother didn’t use words. Rather, he illustrated comic books that filled shelves and shelves of our new home, depicting a young boy going through various adventures with friends.
My parents thought that we would bond over the move and our similar coping-mechanism of story-creation, but we ended up drifting apart. He asked me why I had to use all “those big words”; I asked him why his characters didn’t speak more. He asked me why I had no illustrations in my writing; I asked him why his comics didn’t have complex conversations.
My parents pegged my brother as the creative, quirky student, while I was seen as the formal and typical student.
These unconscious mental categories nearly solidified when I went to junior college, which provided an academic-oriented experience, while my brother went to polytechnic, which focused more on real-life application and skills.
My brother and I drifted further in interests at -- ironically -- the same time we both started to develop vested interest in technology. He would game long hours into the night, while I would work social media or try to teach myself how to do digital design.
Our lives couldn’t be more different, although we may have had the same base set of interests -- to communicate (him through Discord, me through Twitter) or even to to cultivate an online presence (him on Steam, mine in the creative community).
I was a leader in different communities in secondary school and outspoken in junior college; he was more reserved, preferring to be a vibrant conversationalist only among a select group of people -- his close friends.
As a polytechnic student, he had different school terms and holidays from me, different experiences of examinations and co-curricular activities (CCAs) than I had. For the past two years, I’ve only seen him between the hours of seven in the evening and one in the morning. Our schedules practically didn’t clash, so whenever I was in the house he was out and vice-versa.
As someone who really treasures the connections I have with people, I felt a drawn-out sense of shame as the older sibling. Did I even talk to my brother on weekdays? Does he know what my favourite colour is?
On second thought: Did I even know what his favourite colour is?
Once the very demanding years of junior college was over, my mind was clear from the stress that the rigorous academic syllabus demanded, and I had the mental capacity to think of ways to reconnect with my younger brother who had been my fellow pancake-breakfast buddy, backyard-basketball teammate -- and perhaps more strikingly, the one person I thought would understand the most about the pain that I felt ever since my whole life was uprooted and rewritten from California to Singapore.
I bought him a shirt from Champion, a popular brand that I knew he liked. When I received my A-Level results, while I was busy comforting a lot of friends on the phone, he picked up on the fact that I felt slightly unsettled about my own and gave me a hug for getting over my anxiety.
But it was the coronavirus pandemic that gently nudged both of us to remain at home and reconnect over the same youthful woes: Why were our parents now always in our face, why wouldn’t we go and bowl with our friends, when could we play pool again in Ang Mo Kio or Bugis?
On the topic of being unable to go out and meet our friends anymore, we find ourselves swapping ‘Quaranteen’ playlists, funny memes, or rolling our eyes at chain messages our mom occasionally sends in the family WhatsApp group.
While he still games long into the night and I still have Zoom meetings with my creative team in the day, we always find time at dinner or lunch to eat fruit together or talk about eating the spiciest noodles. With days rolling into one another as the coronavirus continues to tour around the world in the most devastating of ways, I find any time of the day a safe pocket of time to vent my stresses, and he does too. We even accommodate each other’s Netflix-related rants about trashy teenage shows. Now, our conversations may sometimes even feature school-related anxieties, about deadlines and assignments completed online for him, and for me, university applications.
I used to think that there was no common plane of understanding between us once we both walked down different educational paths, that served to highlight our very different ways of expressing sadness or speaking our minds. In Singapore, there are stereotypes that students from different educational institutions are pressed into, and while there is often little intent to circulate or perpetuate these stereotypes, I have to say that I felt that our lifestyles as a humanities student and a computer science student were very different, down to activities we did and the time we saw each other in the same house.
We’ve always been living in the same house, from one country to another, but now I’m certain that we’re trodding along the plane of the same world.
My brother and I, we’re going to have vastly different career paths, different favourite foods and different favourite colours -- but I know that if one of us never needs a pick-me-up, Sunday pancake breakfasts will always be open at mine -- and his.