Little Moments of Humanity, in a Pandemic

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Yesterday, I ventured outside my home for the first time in awhile (excluding grocery shopping) to attempt to work in a new location.

I wasn’t the only one who had that brilliant idea. Turns out, after yet another lockdown was recently lifted, the whole city seemed to be trying to get somewhere.

After being stuck for 45 minutes trying to get to a place just 15 minutes away, I gave up and went home, grumbling to myself about Malaysian traffic, and dreading things going back to “normal”.

Living in a pandemic for the past year has been difficult, yes. More so for some people than others. Businesses closed down, lives were lost, and many are struggling to just survive.

So it seems a bit self-centered to admit that I’m not looking forward to some things going back to normal. Crowded malls, terrible traffic, and people not standing in queues, for example.

As people in the Klang Valley make their way back into offices this week, I have been feeling anxious about the change in routines that this will mean. Part of me is looking forward to seeing colleagues in person. And yet another part of me recognizes that if I have to battle traffic jams and other unpredictabilities, that’s going to put a strain on emotional reserves that (for many of us) have already been running low for a long time now.

Unpredictability is a lot like thunderstorms.

They’re alright from afar, especially if you have the luxury of being indoors and cozily tucked in bed, sleeping. Feeling thrown and tossed around as unexpected claps of thunder and flashes of lighting surround you is less pleasant.

I sighed a lot yesterday. And after logging out from work, I took a nap before dinner because — well, life. Even for a person like me who normally thrives on novelty, the number of times we’ve had to change and pivot our routines — both on work and personal levels for the past one year — it’s been exhausting.

This morning, I got up early and went for a hair appointment I’d been looking forward to the whole week. The last time I stepped into a hair salon was half a year ago. The salon was luxuriously appointed. The service was fantastic. I felt myself relax as I sunk into a comfortable chair to get my hair washed.

Then I had lunch. The food was steaming hot, and delicious. I bought some wine at a discount. The salesperson was chatty, happily explaining the different wines to me and that they had an Italian fair with discounts till the end of the month.

After lunch, I drove home through Chinatown. I felt the warm sun kissing my skin, as the aircon blew cool, crisp air through the car. People were out and about — a line was formed outside one of the city’s most iconic beef noodle stalls. Traditional, old-school bakeries had cases filled with baked goods, next to brand new, artisanal cafes I had never seen before.

I drove past a plant shop and a traditional old Chinese kopitiam. Except for the presence of face masks, the world seemed normal for awhile. I found myself filled with emotion as I drove.

After minimal human interaction for so long, I sometimes worry it’s easy to lose sight of reality. Normal, daily interactions have been replaced with hours of scrolling on social media and binge-watching Netflix. Hours of seemingly trivial, every day human interactions are replaced by an artificial reality.

After this morning, I was reminded of yesterday’s turbulent emotions. Like thunderstorms, unpredictability is unpleasant to go through. But like with thunderstorms, change usually brings new seasons, and new growth.

And I recognized that although there will likely be angsty moments when I am unable to predict traffic, or I leave something important at home just because I’m not used to carrying a Mary Poppins bag with all my makeup and moisturizers around anymore, or when being in office clothes just feels icky after being in comfy wear all year, there is a calm after the storm that I’m very much looking forward to.

Our humanity is in the ordinary and imperfect.

Today reminded me that it’s in the small, seemingly trivial moments that we find our humanity.

In micro-interactions with honest, hard working people trying their best to make a living despite so many disruptions to business, like:

A hand resting briefly on my shoulder as a towel is wrapped around me before I get my hair washed;

A cleaner’s chuckle when I couldn’t find the hand soap dispenser that was hidden under the mirrors in the ladies’ room;

Observing a hunched, elderly man, shuffling over to bring a plate of wan tan mee to a customer, still hard at work making a living, despite his age;

Driving past a couple buying a potted plant from a garden shop;

Meeting someone’s eyes and seeing them “smile” with their eyes to say “Thank you”, because they’re wearing a mask.

In these moments, I see in another person, for a split second, the same humanity as my own. The reality of sagging skin, dark eye circles, animated eyes, laughter that’s not filtered through a computer. I see what I don’t get to see as I swipe through Instagram and flick through Netflix: Life. Reality. And beauty, in all of its imperfections.

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In search of what it means to live, love, and learn well.

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