On Circuit Breaker

Thoughts

A few days before Circuit Breaker was going to end (well, technically enter Phase 2, but let’s face it, Phase 1 still felt like a CB-extension), I had a strange realization: I kind of didn’t want it to end.

I started testing my thoughts with a few of my friends here: “Is it crazy…that I already miss CB?” I mostly got replies of horror, mixed with immediate shushing: “Don’t you even SAY those words,” they admonished. It’s now been five whole days in Singapore of relative normality; we can legally gather in groups of up to 5 at restaurants and host up to 5 guests in our homes. While it has of course been lovely to see people again freely and start eating out at restaurants, I’m also determined to retain some of the things I learned during Circuit Breaker – both about myself and about the world around me.

My roommates and I used to discuss how we’d sum up our Circuit Breaker experience in three words. To celebrate the Easter holiday, we’d ordered a cake from a local baker that I’d found in a Facebook group for supporting local businesses during COVID-19. This was the start of one of our words – “cake” – because we began a ritual of sharing cake and tea, sitting around our large dining table, the three of us voicing thoughts and jokes and opinions and memories. In honor of this tradition, I’m going to sum up my CB experience using some words:

1. Steps. For 71 days – from April 7th through this past Sunday, June 21st – I made it a goal to get at least 10,000 steps every single day. Some days, this involved doing YouTube videos inside or walking in circles around a living room; other days, I went on runs (read: long walks), even in the rain, to hit that 10,000 minimum. Over those 71 days, I walked a total of 989,532 steps – an average of 13,927 per day. My obsession with steps culminated this past weekend in a 33 km / 20 mile walk from one end of Singapore to another (this took over 50,000 steps); after getting home at 3AM from this 10-hour walk, I finally allowed myself to rest up on Monday without hitting the minimum 10,000. It felt fitting to wrap up my step streak with the end of CB; I credit this random goal with keeping me accountable for not becoming a potato and giving me something small to ‘accomplish’ every day. This also helped me to stave off calories, which leads me to…

2. Kopi. On Instagram, I’ve been posting about the beverage stall uncle at our local hawker center. We were allowed to go out for essentials during CB, which included getting food and drinks, so I would visit this stall quite frequently. As he started to recognize me, the uncle began to joke around whenever I came: if I arrived late in the day, he’d tease me that I was sleeping in too late, and if I ordered more than one kopi – sometimes I’d get an additional one or two for my roommates – he’d wonder aloud whether I could drink all three. Occasionally, he’d wistfully tell me that soon, we’d be able to sit down in the hawker center to enjoy kopi. Visiting this beverage uncle became something I genuinely looked forward to between Zoom classes; this was as close to being a ‘regular’ as I could become in such a strange period of time. Asking the uncle for my kopi-c kosong or a kopi siew dai (always bing!) made me feel more intimately immersed in local Singapore life, which leads me to…

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kopi uncle called me ‘granddaughter!’ when we took this photo

3. Culture. I have to say that there is nothing quite like deep-diving into another country’s culture than living abroad during a global pandemic. While opinions differ wildly among my peers about the way Singapore’s government handled COVID-19, I felt like I lived through a crash course in better understanding the way Singaporean society functions. There’s a high sense of collective responsibility and accountability; it was fascinating to hear the opinions of my classmates, who come from all over the world. Some felt that it was unnecessary, stifling, even Big-Brother-ish, to have this degree of vigilance (and sometimes social shaming), while others admired the government’s actions as efficient and thorough, praising the obedient society. I felt my views constantly challenged as I attempted to reconcile the tensions between Western and Eastern perspectives. Talking about this happened in many different forms, which leads me to…

4. Conversations. I’m so thankful for the conversations I had with people throughout this Circuit Breaker period. I had long, get-to-know-you Zoom chats with peers I hadn’t gotten to talk to in person. Acquaintances and classmates turned into friends via chatting on Telegram throughout class (much to the detriment of my grades, but definitely worth it). I grew through meaningful conversations with good friends about many, many, different topics; I even had several disagreements – which forced me to practice holding crucial conversations. I noticed myself being increasingly judgmental through my chats and am actively trying to improve on this growth area. I loved sitting around the dinner table with my positive, drama-free, kindhearted roommates, ordering in food together and congregating after our days spent ‘apart’ on our respective laptops. I’m so deeply thankful to the people in my life over the last three months for keeping me sane and grounded. And I had weekly Google Hangouts with my family – something I didn’t make the time to do when we were at school in-person. In fact, CB forced me to redesign how I was spending my time, which leads me to…

5. Purpose. So many things occurred during CB that pushed me to think about how I wanted to live my life. There was the obvious fact that I am so lucky to be healthy, safe, and well, living off of savings in a relatively stress-free environment; I became acutely aware of my privilege and hope I continue to remember this frequently. The BLM movement back home also pushed me to hold myself accountable for taking real action on matters that matter, no longer using “being abroad” as an excuse for inaction. During CB, I got involved in several courses and activities – taking leadership positions in the education and social impact clubs, starting an internship and a project with two different edtechs, winning our SDG bootcamp with an idea for a socioemotional-development tool, and entering a global social innovation competition (which we recently received some good news on!). These activities reinforced my desire to have a long-term career in social impact and education. I found myself spending nearly 20 hours on making a music video that included as many people as possible from our INSEAD 20D class, and I remembered how important it is to me to build communities and enable inclusivity. Finally, I reflected a lot (through conversations, Instagram, and of course, blog posts) – and hope to always make time in my life to do this.

When COVID-19 first started changing our lives, there were many attempts to reframe the situation to be ‘positive’ – about learning new skills, finding peace and quality time, being thankful for our loved ones who were safe from the disease. And yet by reframing – or even just seeing the positives – we risk losing sight of the nature of this tragedy, the myriad lives gone, the jobs lost, the people affected. In fact, early on, I made a tone-deaf comment to some friends back home, asking whether anyone was maybe ‘enjoying’ this lockdown period. And now, post-CB, I’m already quickly getting sucked back into the world of spending too much time socializing and not enough time getting important work done.

In writing this post, I’m hoping to document my experience so that, when I refer back to it in a post-COVID world, I can recall my individual experience – remembering that I must stay disciplined, listen to locals, understand the culture, hold conversations, and remain focused on purpose – to be empathetic, ultimately to wield my privilege and resulting power to make the world a slightly better place.

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