16th July: Quarantining in Hong Kong

Upon flying back from London to our home city of Hong Kong, my brother and I fulfilled our 14-day government-mandated quarantine in a hotel room to ensure we were COVID-negative before we could venture out into the wider world. Here is a standard day that was relatively more eventful than the others.

7.30 AM – Not waking up for lectures or training, but for a COVID deep-throat saliva test

The alarm sounded. It drew my bleary eyelids open at a time my body felt unfamiliar with – after all, the last time we woke up before 10 AM was the first few days of jetlag nearly two weeks ago. My sleep-wake schedule had seen better days, even compared to university term-time, when sleep was a luxury to deprive. The routine-less existence of being stuck in a single room warps your sense of temporality. It seems that time is all you have, readily malleable at your hands; yet, time is simultaneously transcendent, untrappable, you glance at the clock and with both shock and defeated resignation, you realise it is already dinnertime.  

Instead of heading straight to the bathroom or looking at my phone like I usually do, I opened an official-looking brown envelope given to us by the Hong Kong Department of Health. I took out two plastic bags marked “Warning! Biohazard” and a plastic vial. This was our second deep-throat saliva test, to be done two days before the end of our 14-day quarantine period. The first one was conducted upon our arrival from London. After our 12-hour flight and the eight-hour wait for test results, I breathed a big sigh of relief to know that my entire flight was COVID-free, and I didn’t have the virus after all.

After formulating enough spit to fill the vial, encasing it in both plastic bags (and praying that this vial would produce conclusively negative results), I sealed the labelled bags to be ready for collection later on in the day. Straight away, I fell back into the bed and my heavy eyelids shut. Finally, we were one step closer to freedom…

10.30 AM – Not a well-adjusted sleep-wake pattern, but plenty of stress dreams

… and I overslept! Again. I need to stop lying to myself and accept that currently, I am not cut out to be a morning person like all those aspirational YouTubers who make quaint productivity videos, who wake up at the crack of dawn with carefully placed still frames of their perfect cup of coffee and/or smoothie and go for a workout where they emerge, not sweaty, but glowing and eager to kickstart their ideal schedule. 

My head was swimming in the uncannily realistic emotions from my dream. Ever since the pandemic hurled itself into our lives, my dreams have been even more animated and vivid than usual, drawing themselves out into long saga-like screenplays. Underlying stress and anxiety maybe? This time, I dreamed that I was embarking on another training camp abroad with my friends from the Cambridge Water Polo team. However, when I was preparing to board a coach to Stansted from Victoria Coach Station in London, it started flooding and I couldn’t find my coach terminal. Panicking, I climbed up to an iron watchtower to escape the murky waters encasing the station’s surroundings. There, I saw a strange lollipop man standing above in his neon jacket directing the coach station’s non-existent traffic, but not giving me directions when I cried out.

Maybe these bizarre dreams are a subconscious manifestation of living through “these strange times”, but they’re more entertaining than what happens on the day-to-day, so I’m not complaining. 

Getting out of bed is made slightly more difficult when you have nowhere else to be. Nonetheless, I tried to “dress up” (i.e. – outfits other than athleisure or pyjamas), not because I had somewhere else to go, but because it was something to do. 

11 AM – Not reading for the sake of your degree 

After my mindset was slightly reset (at least that’s what I like to believe) by donning a pair of trousers and a passable top, I started my first “productive” task of the day: reading. 

After final year exams, it’s a wonder that we have willingly returned to books when they were the source of grief for many of us during the last few months of our university life amidst a global pandemic. Contrarily, I looked forward to being able to read out of choice. To simply read, and not make a mental note or a physical one in one of the copious amounts of revision documents opened on my laptop. 

COVID-19, with the destruction and havoc it has wreaked, has also brought with it extra time and quiet. These, for me at least, were two things that did not seem to feature much within the buzz of everyday normalcy, when schedules were packed to the brim and moments for reflection were rare. When everything came to a standstill, we were forced to confront the cracks in our systems that ‘suddenly’ emerged, to listen to the voices and noises that we didn’t hear when times were ‘normal’. Or had we simply chosen not to see nor hear? The fact is, they were always there. Only when we had no choice but to look below the surface and realise the true extent of how far and deep these problematic roots have spread; only when we had no choice except listen to the voices of the oppressed, the experiences of those we have failed, did we collectively decide that we needed to act. Urgently.

That was what the most recent upsurge of the Black Lives Matter movement triggered. Racism never left; it only became less visible to those of us who have the privilege of unseeing. Equally, the COVID-19 pandemic exposed the faults in our healthcare systems, our food supply chains, education inequality, employment and hiring, banks’ loan processes, to name just a few. 

The time and quiet the pandemic gave me allowed for uncovering, un-learning and re-learning. Today’s reading was Chimamanda Adichie Ngozi’s 2013 novel Americanah. Her storytelling can transport me far away from the room I’m stuck in, leading me to walk with her protagonist and frequently provoking wry laughter from her subtle humour. On the other hand, it simultaneously forces me to ground myself and take a good hard look at the world’s issues. 

With this period of newfound idleness, more people around me are pushed to confront systemic racism, identify and reflect on our complicity, and implement tangible changes to better mould our future. With more time to read as well as more lax time on social media, it has been encouraging to see increased sharing of resources on digital platforms to educate ourselves and have the time to critically digest it. Some notable examples on my reading list, mostly recommended by friends, include The Intimacies of Four Continents (Lisa Lowe), White Fragility (Robin DiAngelo), An Orchestra of Minorities (Chigozie Obioma), The Colour Purple (Alice Walker) and Girl, Woman, Other (Bernardine Evaristo). 

Quiet, idleness and time- surprising silver linings of this period of upheaval and uncertainty. 

12 PM – Not cooking  

Lunch. Luckily, the hotel we are quarantined at allows food deliveries. We have it much better than some other friends, who had to pay unreasonable amounts for room-service food at their quarantine hotels, which banned external food deliveries for health and safety reasons. 

At the beginning of lockdown in the UK, the novelty of cooking and baking gave us a buzz whenever mealtimes arrived (besides, there was nothing else happening to look forward to). Now, I look forward to not cooking, paying my Deliveroo fees (with some guilt) and contently waited for the takeaway to arrive- ordering both lunch and dinner to save on delivery fees. Unfortunately, the novelty of being a Domestic Goddess has worn off and my wallet pays the price. 

Afternoon – Not working from a library, café or an office 

WFH aka Work from Home. 

Instead of walking to the nearest library in university or visiting a café to settle down for an afternoon of (attempted) productivity, I sat on the couch bending over my laptop perched on the low coffee table, while my brother took the single desk. At least the pandemic has saved a substantial amount of my bank balance from draining into coffees and snacks bought at random cafés where I would work. 

Inevitably, during my best efforts at remaining productive throughout the lull of the afternoon, I wound up falling asleep. Several times. Admittedly, this happened all the time beforehand. However, without the public shame of dozing off in a library under the full observation of high-achieving, usually highly efficient Cambridge students, or in a café surrounded by judgmental customers, your body seems to think it’s now socially acceptable to do so in the privacy of working in your room. The pandemic has delivered a stuffy air of lethargy into the daily life of this “new normal”.

Towards the late afternoon when people usually finished work, I video-called my boyfriend living in Malaysia. Our relationship was long-distance even before this pandemic, so unlike the majority of non-LDR couples, we were relatively well-adjusted to the challenges of separation and distance that COVID-19 brought. The only difference was that this time, the time we remained apart is indefinite. Who knows when travel restrictions will ease? We better all be praying for a successful vaccine. 

7 PM – Not going to the gym  

With some gyms being temporarily closed and the fact that we are confined to a room, we have resorted to no-equipment home workouts. (For those wondering, no, we cannot just leave. We have a bracelet tracking our movement during quarantine and the Department of Health will be alerted if we do leave and I don’t want a hefty fine. In this case, it isn’t so much a matter of personal freedoms being encroached upon; it is a community effort to alleviate the pandemic’s overwhelming pressures on our health care workers and hospitals. If that means I need to temporarily sacrifice my freedom of movement and inconvenience myself, then so be it.) 

A few months ago, in the UK, I would join my water polo team on our daily virtual workouts using Google Hangouts. Now that we’re back in Hong Kong, to keep ourselves sane despite minimal movement throughout the day, my brother and I have tried to keep a daily exercise streak going. Not always successful, but we cut ourselves slack and keep trooping the following day. 

8 PM– Not socialising in person 

Over my late dinner, I video-called an old friend who is currently in Singapore. We relished the nostalgia from memories we harked back to while encouraging one another to remain hopeful for the future. 

Nowadays, most social interactions are limited to being through a screen. Surprisingly, COVID-19 has pushed many of us to reconnect with certain friends whom we don’t set aside enough time to catch up with regularly. Now with extra time on our hands and minimal in-person commitments, we’ve been given more opportunity to seek people out.  

9 PM (aka 2 PM British Summer Time) – Not graduating in Cambridge 

The Class of Zoom University 2020. 

Today, my college hosted an online graduation ceremony via Zoom. It was sentimental and equally amusing to see everyone reunited on my laptop screen. It featured a live mock-graduation ceremony in the centuries-old court of our college, in front of the familiar shape of our chapel that we passed by hundreds of times over the past three years. After the usual Latin incantations, a roll call of the graduating class, and a pre-prepared video starring significant staff members, there was an unexpected clip of a cat Animoji singing a rendition of “We are the Champions”, which many of us couldn’t resist but pull out our phones to record. An A* for effort. 

This wasn’t the ceremony and exuberant celebrations we had hoped for, and we probably never imagined it to end this way. But something to celebrate, nonetheless. May our make-up graduation ceremony in 2021 be all the more spectacular and memorable. 

Rest of the evening – Timepass 

An Indian colloquialism for an aimless or unproductive activity done to kill time. This perfectly sums up the endless scrolling of social media, YouTube videos and a poor effort to get on with work that occupied the next few hours. 

With less in-person human contact than my pre-pandemic life, I’ve found that my mind compensates for this by spending excessive time on social media. A portal that links you to the outside world, it enables interaction with friends and loved ones at a perfectly safe distance. Although, it isn’t exactly doing any favours to my endeavours in reducing my screen time.

1.45 AM – Not sleeping at sensible times  

And finally, my brain’s inability to shut off gave in to my body, whose eyes were parched dry from staring hours on end at the blue light glare of my screens, whose head felt too woozy to concentrate. 

Don’t worry, you’ll get the chance to do this all again tomorrow.  

Yung Lo