On Cliques, Coronavirus, and Closure

Thoughts

Somehow, in the span of just a month, I feel like I’ve lived another year’s worth of thoughts and emotions. I came to Singapore and to INSEAD on a personal high after an upwards climb during 2019, capped by a rejuvenating volunteer trip in Kenya, treasured time with family in China, and of course an irreplaceable last few months with my community in Chicago. I felt secure in my relationships, confident in my identity, and proud of my growth over the last year.

That lasted for about a week into my business school journey. The first thing that shook me was the emergence of cliques: their general existence at INSEAD, whether or not I was part of one, whether or not I would or could or should be a part of one. For the first few days, I reassured myself by remembering the people I love back home: my own tribe of mentors, my “personal board of directors” – friends who had have seen me at my best and my worst, who oftentimes know me better than I know myself. And yet even this anchor I knew I had wasn’t heavy enough to keep me steady as waves of insecurity washed over me in these first few weeks. Every time I heard about a hangout I wasn’t invited to or a Telegram group I wasn’t a part of, I wondered whether people liked me – even though I knew, cognitively, that it was impossible to become friends with everyone. Now, a month in, I’ve become more comfortable with my individual relationships here; I still get bouts of feeling left out but I’m also feeling much more myself again. I designed my social life around my specific needs – finding like-minded individuals who are excited about self-development, world impact, and everything in between; holding personal conversations over 1:1 chats to supplement the huge group hangouts; getting off campus to play hockey, see non-INSEAD friends, and remember that life very much exists outside this business school bubble.

The second thing that shook me was the arrival of Coronavirus – not of the virus itself, but of the social and political conversations that came with it. The last time I lived in Asia, I had a renewed sense of confidence in my identity as simultaneously Chinese, American, and even a little bit Japanese. So when news of the virus spread and general fear began to straddle Sinophobia, I felt angry and defensive. We received surveys asking us to self-report if we’d been in “close proximity” with anyone who had traveled to China recently. The question was worded in a way where the entire student body began questioning whether to self-quarantine, recalling their recent interactions: after all, hadn’t we been interacting with the Chinese students who had just moved here for school, like the rest of us? As the virus spread across the world, I read more articles and heard more conversations – many of them blaming “the Chinese” as an entity, implicating a population that includes citizens who by no fault of their own had caught the illness. China isn’t perfect, but it’s important to recognize that not all of its citizens are eating “exotic,” “weird,” or “disgusting” meats; that its tourists are not all infected with Coronavirus and out to bring it to other countries; that its government, while flawed, is not as malicious as Western media often makes it out to be. I’m really lucky to be in a diverse student body that’s made up of nearly 70 nationalities with many, many different perspectives, and I hope that this year pushes me and my classmates to continue having difficult conversations while challenging the stereotypes we hold – especially during times like these. On the one hand, being both Chinese and American is a privilege I could leverage into having more open conversations, and yet I’m struggling to channel my emotions into productive actions that might help broaden perspectives and deepen empathy.

Finally, I’ve had to face the hard truth that starting a new chapter doesn’t mean closing the old. Life here is stupidly stimulating; there is no shortage of socializing, schooling, and schmoozing – all excellent distractions. But I worked really hard last year to lean into everything I felt: the grief, the pain, the loss, the uncertainty, the hope, the joy – and the guilt of leaving it all behind. So it’s honestly been a real piece of work to somehow reconcile the two: allowing myself to fully live in the moment here while stopping to catch my breath when I need it. The hardest moments here in Singapore have been those moments when I just miss Meghana, or I think about the breakup, wishing that the heart would just heal faster and wondering if it ever fully will. These are the moments when I feel most alone, not because I don’t have anyone to talk to – on the contrary, friends here have been an absolute dream in offering listening ears – but because those memories are so deeply personal. I don’t really want to admit this, but a maybe-subconscious part of me wanted to just leave it all behind in Chicago and gain closure of sorts on that part of my life. Unsurprisingly, that’s really not how life works, and, knowing me, that’s not really how I work either. If anything, closure feels artificial and arbitrary, and these memories of people I loved are a part of my story, whether I’m in Chicago or in Singapore. And when I think of it that way…I think of this quote by A.A. Milne, the author of Winnie the Pooh: “How lucky am I to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”

It’s only the start of 2020, and I know there will be many, many more learnings to come. In the meantime, I’m trying to be brave, vulnerable, and authentic, fully aware that I’m in an environment where I’ll be challenged constantly on all three fronts. I can’t wait to look back at this in December of this year and reflect on all that will happen between now and then. Here’s to the rest of my time at INSEAD, the rest of my time in Singapore (who knows how long that will be), and the rest of 2020!

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