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.
31 August, 2020
“So, Abby, who are you?”
I wait for the reaction that I know is coming. My housemate and dear friend Abby exhales with bemused exasperation. We are seated on cushions on a mat on our living room floor. Having lived with me in college and for 3 years since, Abby has learned to expect regular existential and intense questions. She has also kindly consented to being interviewed, so all the more she has been expecting it.
Daily conversations with my housemates are most often familial and mundane – a mosaic of banter, questions about what we’ve each eaten / will eat, complaints about work, stories, fawning over photos of nephews and puppies… But Circuit Breaker and working from home has given us the luxury of time – uninterrupted hours to speak more deeply about ourselves, our current lives, our histories, our hopes and fears. It has given us more time for more elaborate meals, for karaoke sessions and for another round of Bananagrams.
“I’ve found,” begins Abby, “that people are often really obsessed with questions like ‘Who am I?’ or ‘What are the moments in life that define my identity?’ There seems to be a lot of focus on the idea of ‘myself’ or my ‘individual identity’.”
“I personally find it very difficult to select these particular moments, because it feels like the most honest answer is that all of the moments in my life have defined me. I’m defined by the relations that I have to the people and places around me. I don’t really feel the need to label and define myself. I don’t need to ‘blaze my path’ and be different because that difference feels elusive to me.”
“Rather than labelling myself as a thing, I prefer to talk about what I do. I’m not a dancer, but I do like to dance. I like to cook. I go bouldering once in a while… I would never say I’m a strategy consultant. I work in a consulting firm, yes, but that’s enough. Tomorrow I’ll work somewhere else, I’ll be someone else. That is always more comfortable for me.”
“Is there anything that you would say that you are?” I press Abby.
Abby pauses. “I guess I would say I am Vietnamese.”
“I can see that a lot of the things that define me and my patterns come from growing up, and I associate growing up with being in Vietnam. I can see how many of the choices I make come from my mom, who taught me to do things in a certain way, and those are based on her beliefs and experiences as a Vietnamese woman.”
Abby pauses — momentary uncertainty.
“But I don’t know, maybe this tendency to not define myself is also me just being unambitious, lah. Because being a thing requires a honing of a craft or a skill, and I don’t think I really want to do that.”
I nod my head and smile to myself — I see you.
In my mind I think of the wonderful woman in front of me. The one who rises early each day and reads a novel for 10 minutes while drinking her coffee before going to work, because “a day should start with elegance, then it will be a good day.” This woman who is constantly doing ab workouts or watering her plants or scrubbing the shelves of our fridge or teaching herself graphic design or practicing Chinese… this woman who thinks she is ‘unambitious’.
But to love someone is to see them in all their glory, and then to see them seeing themselves as less than that… and to see that too.
Abby reflects on ambition within her childhood home. “When growing up,” she says, “we were not comfortable yet. Conversations at home surrounded more mundane things like the price of cherries and grapes and how – if we worked hard – we might be able to afford them.
“My mom did always want me to become the first female Prime Minister of Vietnam”, Abby laughs, “but besides that, our conversations tended to revolve less around ambition and what I would be / do, and more around simple things – like whether each meal had a vegetable, a soup, and a meat in it.”
Our conversation twists and turns from ambition to the recent national Home Singalong in honour of frontline healthcare workers. Our other housemate Natasha stumbles sleepily out of her room and collapses on the couch.
“Speaking of the Home Singalong,” I ask Abby, “I know you are generally quite moved by propaganda – can you tell me a bit more about that?”
“I remember the first time I felt it” says Abby, leaning forward in excitement, “it was during the South Africa World Cup. Shakira was singing It’s Time for Africa and everyone was getting so exuberant about a ball going into a net. I thought ‘Wow. There are so many horrible things in the world, but then there are these little things that bring so many people together… Whoa! Ball! Net! Happiness!’
“In Vietnam, there is a very strong notion of the collective. When our national football team wins, everyone storms the streets holding flags and wearing red. Parents pick their children up from school to go storming. It’s like ‘How can you still be studying? Don’t you know Vietnam just won?!’ Even during Covid we can see the narratives emerging of ‘Come on everyone, Let’s do this for Vietnam! Together, we can make it if everyone plays their part!’ – and they are very effective.
“When I moved to Singapore from Vietnam for JC, I noticed the contrast very starkly – there was very little sense of the collective. So I started following my friends to church, even though I’m not religious. Church was the first place I found in Singapore where people were not closed off at all. The pastor would tell everyone to say ‘Hello’ to their neighbour, and they would do it. It was as if everyone was united by this one thing that made them be just a bit more human… and I had missed that a lot.
“I’m happiest when I’m contributing to some collective effort or movement” says Abby. “In school my class would be shooting a class video, and I would be the one holding the lights or buying everyone banh mi so they wouldn’t be hungry. If you have a great idea, I will do everything that you need me to do to help make it happen. If I find a space where I can contribute in my own small way, I’m super happy and fulfilled.
“I feel moved when people recognise the people who are otherwise behind the scenes. That’s not to say that there aren’t of course people who are outstanding, but those outstanding people would not have outstandingly done something outstanding with their outstandingness without all of the people supporting them.
“Of course we should recognise the frontline healthcare workers,” says Abby, “but what about the prata makers, what about the bus drivers, or the people who are cleaning our streets and cutting our grass…. If not for them we’d all die of dengue instead of Covid.”
I remember the time when Abby spent an entire day helping me re-pack my bags because I had too much stuff, or when she accompanied me to the doctor at 3am, or the many meals she generously cooked for me after a busy day at work.
I laugh, gratitude for the many acts, gestures, choices, and verbs that make Abby Abby. Gratitude for her companionship amidst this collective conundrum.