April 9, 2020

LIM | Four Questions

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A couple of years ago, a friend introduced me to a series of four MBTI-style questions meant to analyze personality traits and preferences. They ask about our choices regarding the following: Favorite color, favorite animal, favorite body of water and reaction to being placed in a doorless, windowless room. This last one came up in a recent conversation with renewed meaning in this time of Coronavirus. Identical as our circumstances of self-isolation might seem, everybody’s experience has differed vastly – in ways that location, socioeconomic status or other concrete factors don’t seem to fully capture.

As an international student studying abroad, there was a point where I felt like I had more doors, windows of opportunities than I knew how to responsibly choose between. While abroad programs in countries like South Korea and Italy were suspended early on, and others (like my friend’s in Tanzania) were cancelled by the local university, both Cornell and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem had offered us the freedom to stay. Some self-imposed haze of personal and social responsibility drew me to constantly, dizzyingly track developments across all four administrations: Singapore, where I’m from, where my loved ones live, where I would have returned to; Israel, whose policies I’m daily, directly affected by; Palestine, for fear of being morally forgetful in the midst of havoc directly surrounding me; America, to keep up with my college friends’ concerns.

Eventually I chose to stay. A lot of my initial concerns in doing so — such as growing anti-Chinese sentiments I received along the streets — no longer feel pressing in present conditions of self-isolation. Some secondary draws to returning home — relative policy stability, proximity to old friends — feel dimmed, with sudden and harsh penalties recently set on visitations and more. Now, unexpectedly, I find myself, though 7,930 kilometers away, the same Skype-call distance apart from my Singaporean friends as they are to each other.

One of the more idealistic reasons I stayed was some belief that there was a lot I could learn about this universal health crisis from an unfamiliar location, and a lot I could learn about this unfamiliar location as a universal health crisis afflicted it. Earlier this week, I tried making my first-ever bird feeder, a project which came to be only because I can’t read Arabic. I learnt only later that the label on my bag of mystery grain, packaged identically to previous purchases of chickpeas and lentils, translated to ‘Bird Food.’ Yet, as I hung my chopstick-skewered bottle by my window, I caught in the same glance the distant glimmer of the Dome of the Rock, and was reminded of a reality that feels further away than it geographically is.

I’d since been turning over in my mind whether staying truly offers a greater volume of insight, or makes my day-to-day consciousness that much different from being home. I’m probably less likely to buy bird seed on accident in Singapore, but many of the differences between my self-isolation in East Jerusalem versus Singapore or Upstate New York feel less and less consequential as the days go by.

And so I’m never sure what to include when acquaintances ask, alongside updates on kitchen experiments or what our sleep schedules have become, what the situation is in Israel, Singapore or Palestine. From inside my four walls, and besides relaying some sentiments from parents and friends, is there anything I could possibly say that they don’t themselves have access to? Someone living in Tel Aviv asked me how things were in Jerusalem — someone who’s lived in Israel multiple years and speaks much better Hebrew than I ever will. Wary of mansplaining anything already on news I can barely read, my response was: “Uhm, well, from my window…”

Yet perhaps getting to encounter difference-in-itself, without needing to parrot the media’s role of packaging it societally, nationally or even temporally, is the insight. I responded to a community center’s recent call for volunteers to pack and deliver Passover meals for neighboring elderly: Partly for said elderly, partly just to safely (both in terms of law and health) flout the ban against public gatherings of over two people, but mostly selfishly to get some unmediated sense of “what had been going on.” I didn’t want to scare any elderly who still had racialized conceptions of the epidemic, so I held back on helping with deliveries. Yet, in place of whatever I missed encountering individuals in a generalized way, I got a peek into lives affected very differently from my own. I learned that since the epidemic, the event’s photographer’s freelance work had dwindled and now centers around covering Corona-related events, that he’s since been publishing online illustrations to fill his time. I learned, too, that a fellow volunteer is a footballer from Nigeria who once played for the renowned Maccabi Tel Aviv, and that even professionals play FIFA in self-isolation.

My initial consistent focus on this pandemic, from angles as formal as national policy and culture, socio-economic status and pre-existing physical or psychological conditions, had led me to forget the subtler differences in which this time of Coronavirus is experienced by different individuals, on account of being individuals. The inequalities in the former dimensions are far from trivial, but neither are unlabelled inequalities and advantages, like how my natural introversion and well-trained long-distance friendships make this time easier for me than extroverted friends with tighter physical communities. Inequalities that are otherwise neutral personal differences: like the way we view ourselves, our ideal partners, our ideal relationships or the way we’d react to our own deaths (the answers to the questions first posed).

Kristi Lim is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at klim@cornellsun.com. Riskit Kristi runs every other Monday this semester.