COVID Companions is a series of creative pieces featuring snippets of life during COVID-19, with a special focus on the other individuals or creatures who are keeping us company during quarantine, lockdown, ‘circuit breaker’, or whatever your equivalent might be.
For as long as I can remember, my father has been religiously following his daily regimen of early morning walks, followed by yoga and then breakfast. He takes immense pride in his fitness. He’s also the typical Asian father, the patriarch of the family with a penchant for tough love who commands unquestioning respect. Amid Singapore’s circuit breaker period, there were days when I reluctantly dragged myself out of bed at 6 am to join him and the rest of the family on these walks.
Initial inertia aside, this time spent in nature has been invigorating, a brief respite from being indoors for long periods during this partial lockdown. Each dawn brings a new surprise – the blue hour just before sunrise, paddle pop pink skies, the drama of orange and red clouds set ablaze. The colours seem more vivid than usual.
My father revels in the now-wide spaces, suddenly free of crowds. Together, we explore the different pathways in the sprawling expanse of gardens, keeping a lookout for wildlife. So far we’ve spotted red junglefowl, monitor lizards, monkeys fighting in the trees, and the celebrity otter family feasting in the fish ponds. He cheerily greets his other walking buddies from a safe distance. My siblings and I race down the empty car parks.
Most of the time we end up walking/ running at different paces (my father leading mostly), in silence. Through these walks, it feels like I’m gaining a tiny measure of silent approval from him, a way of closing the distance, somehow.
LEARNING AND WORKING FROM HOME WITH THE SIBLINGS
Funnily enough, the circuit breaker hasn’t brought a huge change to our homebody lifestyle. But the monotony of being cooped up for too long, coupled with the onslaught of negative Covid-19 news, has occasionally led to fraying tensions and interesting navigations of different spaces that we inhabit.
As schools and workplaces closed across Singapore in April, the boundaries between school, work and social life collapsed into a single space – the domestic sphere, with digital mediations. It has provided a rare window to observe how my primary-school going siblings interact with their schoolmates and teachers, a sight previously inaccessible to me. I’m especially fascinated by the various innovative strategies used to bring the classroom into homes. I spied on my 11-year-old brother intently watching videos about dinosaurs and Roman architecture and ASEAN on the laptop, taking part in Kahoot quizzes in Math class and even creating his own video to share how the circuit breaker period had been a challenge for them.
Things were more chaotic on my 8-year-old sister’s end. One time, an eager classmate hijacked the chat before the lesson and gave the rest a tour of her house, even showing off her pet hamster. Another was dressed in full uniform, while concerned grandparents and parents hovered at the periphery of the frame. The girls incessantly asked for permission to go to the toilet. One time, I overheard her form teacher emphatically stressing to the other girls, in the wake of a hacking incident on video conferencing platform Zoom. I don’t want any intruders… You girls are all very precious to me. Do not share your password to anyone. Use your real name, no funny nicknames, so I know who you are. Now everyone give me a thumbs up so I know you understand. The teachers organised Google Meet-ups to pray and even a lunch party where the kids could eat together and show off their stuffed toys, which ranged from Elsa dolls and enormous pandas. Their enrichment classes like ballet, piano and kungfu are all conducted virtually too. How technology bridges the gap never fails to amaze me.
Over the course of the period, the two of them have mastered the art of toggling between various Google Meet sessions, Zoom, Gmail, Skype, Telegram, WhatsApp and their Singapore Student Learning Space (SLS) platforms and utilising its various functions (virtual backgrounds!). They’ve also taken to peering into my Zoom meetings and sending me an assortment of GIFS and stickers specifically designed to annoy or amuse me.
As for myself, I’m used to working remotely. But Zoom webinars have been truly revolutionary during this time. From the comfort of my room, I’ve immersed myself in countless webinars and meetings, from attending Covid-19 related forums by international experts and business leaders for work, volunteering with a non-profit to champion for refugee rights, playing Scribble with my volunteer group at Rainbow Centre and picking up practical tips on photography, podcasting, data tools (things I would normally not have time for). It truly feels like the world is at my fingertips.
DOMESTIC LIFE WITH MUM
During this time, my mum, a culinary whiz, has been busy whipping up meals across different cuisines – Chinese, Japanese, Italian, Mediterranean, Vietnamese, French – perhaps a subconscious attempt to circumvent not being able to travel.
May is an especially significant month as we have three May babies in the household. Perhaps it’s stress eating, but we’ve embarked on a frenzied baking/buying spree and stuffed ourselves with lava cakes and sinfully rich brownies, cookies, vanilla ice cream, cream puffs, and an array of cakes in the flavours of hojicha, green tea, yuzu, cheesecake, chocolate and pistachio strawberry, blackforest among others.
To me, the kitchen is unfamiliar terrain, so my cooking repertoire is restricted to no-frills, painfully basic dishes. But with some extra time on my hands (and sudden dashes of inspiration), I’ve surprised myself by making matcha cake, kimchi pancakes, pineapple fried rice, pad thai, Vietnamese spring rolls, sushi, aglio olio spaghetti, prawn tacos, falafel and okonomiyaki. My mum watches on with hawk-eye precision to correct my technique.
Food and family meals have always been a big affair in my household and it feels nice to finally be able to overcome that lack of confidence to contribute. In my parents’ eyes, it seems like it’s the act of trying, not perfection, that matters.
SIMPLE PLEASURES IN MY SAFE SPACE
With the world at a standstill, we’ve returned to simpler, slower times. Connections feel more heartfelt, sincere and my friends periodically drop in to do ‘sanity checks’ via voice messages and calls.
I’ve discovered the simple pleasure of receiving things in the mail, from snail mail to surprise food deliveries by friends. Keith, a teenage boy with autism and my buddy from Rainbow Centre, responded to my watercolour painting of birds with a delightful self-portrait of his own. It made my day.
Books and films have been lifesavers during this time. I’ve returned to my old secondary school habit of reading my entire stack of library books borrowed just before circuit breaker (though I finished them all in the first three weeks), and one travel magazine centred on the theme of Mexico which I bought on a whim online. “The world is struggling – things are fast changing, difficult and unpredictable. Right now – as always – escape, support, appreciation and joy are vital; and I hope in some small way the issue provides these. Be kind to one another and find reasons to smile, for despite all that is happening, we are astoundingly connected,” says the editor in the preface. I think that just about sums it up.
Most notably, I’ve rediscovered my love for cycling. My long-ignored bicycle has become my lifeline and companion, taking me around on moonlit rides in sleeping Singapore, a space I carve out for myself. I guess I’ve learnt to appreciate things a lot more now, with my family and in nature. Each trip out feels extra precious, which I’m learning to savour.
No doubt, the pandemic has upended the world as we know it. But it’s also a time for collective introspection, a re-evaluation of our current state of being. Writing this essay, I mused over what companionship means to me. Can it be found in people, in the things we love and occupy ourselves with? Within our own homes, we’re finding new ways of connecting, interacting, inhabiting and crossing over to each other’s spaces that we used to guard, which can at times be uncomfortable and surprising.
All images and text by Toh Ee Ming.
Toh Ee Ming is an independent Singaporean journalist with a fascination with people and places, covering issues of social justice, culture and the environment for the Associated Press, Southeast Asia Globe, South China Morning Post, and more. Find her at: https://toheeming.squarespace.com/