Circuit breaking with my family

By Wong Shiying

The author (right) and her family.


I had always considered myself somewhat of a homebody. While my friends partied the weekend away in clubs and had brunch at beautiful cafes, I was more content to stay home, read a book and catch up on sleep.

So when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced the start of even tighter circuit breaker measures that made it illegal to leave the house for non-essential purposes, I wasn’t too despondent. A month of staying home was none too different from the December school break, save for the occasional meal with friends.  

But three weeks in and with five left to go (after the circuit breaker was extended to June 1), I’m not sure I have the same conviction as before. 

Like 91.8 per cent of respondents in our survey of 52 first-time voters who indicated that the circuit breaker measures were necessary to curb the spread of the virus, I do not deny the effectiveness of the partial lockdown, and even thought it should have been implemented earlier. But staying home hasn’t been easy. 

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The most challenging aspect has been spending the whole day at home with all five members of my family — my parents, my grandmother and my sister. We are usually a pretty easy-going bunch, but the squeeze in a four-room apartment has driven us all a little over the edge. 

My relationship with my 21-year-old sister has been tested the most. We’ve always been close, having grown up applying Zam-Buk ointment on each other after getting caned by my mother. We also shared a bedroom and a study room, which fostered a sense of tolerance and understanding towards each other’s habits. 

But now, the littlest things like leaving the lights on, clashing bathroom schedules, and even breathing too loudly have bred angst and frustration. Unable to find a way to coexist in the same space for long hours without lashing out at each other, my sister decisively shifted her bed to the study room while I carved out a work space for myself in the bedroom. We each have our own rooms now, thanks to the circuit breaker. 

Mounting tensions at home made me wonder if I should have stayed in my college dorm instead of coming home. But the thought was less inviting when I realised how lonely it would have been, being cooped up in an even smaller space with most of my friends gone. 

The circuit breaker might have exacerbated tensions between my sister and I, but the “split” in our living arrangements was probably inevitable. We had both grown accustomed to having our own dorm rooms in university so much so that when the time came for both of us to return home, it felt like our individual boundaries were not being respected. I recognise that I’m speaking from a privileged position, having enough room at home to make adjustments to our living space.

While my dad has been working from home for the past month, my mom still goes to work every morning. As a clinical assistant working in a Public Health Preparedness Clinic (PHPC), my mother has seen around 30 potential Covid-19 cases, of which two — a pilot and a diplomat — have tested positive. 

To protect herself (and us) against the virus, she wears protective gear — mask, goggles and a personal protective equipment (PPE) suit — for at least 10 hours a day. The mask leaves deep imprints on her face, stretching down from the corners of her eyes to the edge of her ears, traced with the characteristic purple-blue tint of a bruise. She winces everytime she washes her face.

My mother takes great precaution not to put my family at risk. She makes a beeline for the washroom to take a shower the moment she enters the house, a solemn change from her usual loud and boisterous greetings. When we eat, she sets her food aside first and sits slightly apart from all of us at the dining table. As we talk about how our days went, she would smile and laugh, but wouldn’t say much. She spends the rest of the night in her bedroom, usually passed out on the armchair with her hands still cradling her phone. 

I’m sure family members of healthcare workers share the same fears. We fear they will catch the virus and are afraid that, in a state of fatigue, their compromised immune system might not be able to fight it. 

But my mother is more tired than afraid. She laments how her wrists are sore from disinfecting the room, which takes half an hour each time a potential Covid-19 patient walks into the clinic. I feel for her but there is not much I can do to make things easier. In the little interaction we have, I remind her to be careful and assure her that the storm will eventually pass.

My grandma, 76, is perhaps the most positive one in the family. She owns a flat across the road from where we live and has moved in with us for the time being so we can take care of her. To stave off boredom, she experiments with new recipes when she cooks; her pumpkin soup was a family favourite but we weren’t too sure what to make of the kimchi pancake. 

With some assistance from us, she has got on the Zoom platform to watch weekly sermons by her Buddhist organisation. They hold discussions afterwards and she is able to stay connected with members of her faith that way. 

The English classes she attends at the community centre have been put on hold indefinitely but she continues to practise daily on her own. She comes to me and my sister to check on her pronunciation and spelling, which usually leaves us in heaps of giggles as we try to make out what she is trying to say. I was surprised when she recently told me not to “take (my life) for granted” when I said I had been feeling unmotivated. My grandma, who usually speaks in Cantonese, is now a user of idioms despite picking up the English language just a couple of months ago. 

She worries about her other friends who are not doing as well as she is. She tells me many of them live alone with their spouses and have nothing to do now that they can’t fetch their grandchildren from kindergarten or supervise their swim lessons. For many of them who enjoy cooking for their families, the joy has diminished now that there are fewer pairs of chopsticks on the table.

Those who are savvy enough to navigate their way through the online sphere are luckier. My grandma showed me how some of her friends stay entertained by sharing funny videos on Facebook and updating their feed with new recipes or books that they’re reading. 

As I hunker down to complete my final few university assignments, I hear the Mandarin radio station Capital 95.8 FM playing in the background as my grandma fries fish for dinner, my sister passionately singing the latest Dua Lipa album in the shower and the pouring rain washing our streets clean of the virus. 

Usually, I’d close the door and plug in my earpiece, but today these sounds remind me that I’m at least lucky enough to have a home that keeps me safe from the virus. Unlike migrant workers who live in fear of getting infected as they are kept in their dormitories, I still have the option of heading down for a run when I feel closed-in at home. And it’s these little things, my grandma would say, that we shouldn’t take for granted. 

That said, I’m still not sharing a bedroom with my sister. 

By NUS Communications and New Media

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