On Bubbles

Thoughts

On Sunday night, I flew back into Singapore from Myanmar – making it in 24 hours before the expanded Stay-at-Home requirement issued by the Singapore government went into effect (the expansion added ASEAN countries to the previous list of countries from which travelers were required to stay at home upon entering Singapore). I was dreading flying back: I hadn’t purchased a data plan while in Myanmar, and so it was so very easy to become fully immersed in the sights, experiences, and people – in effect, willfully and blissfully ignorant of the incessant coronavirus updates coming in from the INSEAD community and the Singapore government.

Since I love elephants, let me address the one in the room: I probably shouldn’t have been traveling in the first place. But here in Singapore, we’d already been taking precautionary measures for months; we’d booked this trip in anticipation of celebrating the end of our first set of final exams; and when we left for the airport on Wednesday of last week, the virus seemed under control here in Asia. I never, for a second, considered pulling out of the trip, and even as my dad expressed his disapproval upon finding out about it yesterday morning, I found myself justifying my actions, using the excuse that “everyone else” was traveling as well. Call it herd mentality, optimism bias, or even stupidity – in fact, as I reflect on what my actions say about my priorities and values, I can only conclude that it’s probably just plain old selfishness.

I’d love to claim that the selfishness is an act of self-preservation during these trying times, but I don’t think it is. I didn’t want to leave Myanmar because I felt so insulated from the corona-drama around me; I loved being in this peaceful bubble, surrounded by pagodas in Bagan and by water in Inle. When we were riding our electric bikes through the dirt backroads, I felt so carefree as the wind blew past me, as if coronavirus didn’t exist. As our boats floated through the houses-on-stilts of Inle Lake, I felt worlds away from the onset of urgency that awaited us back in Singapore, the debates around classes moving online and students arriving from France. And even after we learned that our dean was the first INSEADer to test positive for COVID-19, I was determined to stay in the bubble of colonial buildings and street art and one final temple during our last day in Yangon.

I briefly wondered if the people living in Inle Lake knew about coronavirus; the people we saw selling produce, weaving lotus stems, building boats and fishing the lake seemed to go about their daily business, entertaining us tourists from the moment our boat floated up to their homes until the moment we left (seldom making any purchases). I thought to myself, again, how it felt like we were in a bubble away from the rest of the world, and I worried about how the village would survive if one of us tourists somehow brought coronavirus to them, and I realized how easy it would be to burst that bubble of peace, of safety, of ignorance.

With all the resources I have – my network, education, technology – this ignorance can only be called willful, albeit blissful; I have no excuse. And I have a proclivity for bubbles: during my year in Shanghai, I distinctly remember taking full advantage of the hedonistic China bubble I lived in, thoroughly enjoying a break from thinking about race, politics, or anything that exerted pressure on my civic duty as an American citizen. While I’ve always been involved in some form of volunteering, it wasn’t until I started working at LEAP Innovations in Chicago that I cognitively began to appreciate and value the importance of pushing myself to live outside the bubble. Because how beautiful the world becomes, when each of us ventures outside of our bubbles, and we all come together to tackle collective challenges – of a relentless coronavirus, of undeniable climate change, of the vicious cycles of poverty, of access to quality education.

I firmly believe that getting outside of my bubble is something I’ll continuously struggle with for the rest of my life. It is not only easy to find myself in bubbles – of INSEAD, of MBAs, of the corporate world, of people who share my values and perspectives, of environments that allow me to disregard social responsibilities – it is not only easy, but oftentimes preferred because it’s also fun, usually pleasant. And yet I’m confident that a life like this would be utterly unfulfilling, although of course there will be times that it is necessary to take a break, to think of yourself, to be selfish with your time and energy and love in the name of self-preservation. So despite being reluctantly back from my bubble (by the way, I also essentially ignored the Ronhingya crisis during my ‘vacation’ in Myanmar, which is just another example of how even within my bubble, I filtered my experience), I now also feel prepared to engage in the crisis happening around me, making decisions that I believe is right – this time, not only for myself, but also for those around me. Above all, I’m thankful to have friends who are willing to push me outside of my bubble and challenge me when I’m being lazy or selfish, making this journey feel a lot less alone and a little more manageable.

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