• Shanti Chu

One Year Pandemic Reflection

Updated: Apr 8, 2021

For a truncated version, please watch/listen to my video.


The Asymptomatic Period


I’ve been holding off on writing this blog post because it can be quite painful remembering how I felt about everything at this time last year. The pandemic was completely new and no one had time to adapt. Things were rapidly changing and out of control. No one knew what they were talking about, and people were forced to make decisions based on tenuous information--not to mention the angst of being forced to depend on an extremely incompetent and unethical presidential administration that denied reality and science at the expense of people’s lives.


But I do think it’s worthwhile to reflect on this time so I can continue to learn and improve as a human being. I also wanted to share the life changes and shifts I have made as a consequence of the pandemic because they have helped me grow closer to fulfillment and authenticity, which could potentially be helpful for others grappling with similar issues.


Covid-19 has impacted every area of our lives--work, family, social, and emotional--for better or for worse. The shock of everything changing so rapidly was dismantling and no one was ready for it, not even those of us who obsessively read every New York Times piece on Covid-19 starting in January of 2020. No one was prepared for the emotional trauma and aftermath of it all.





On a wintry evening at the end of February after I just had a birthday party, I remember how I felt when I first heard former New York Times reporter, Donald G. McNeil Jr. on The Daily podcast report on what was to come. I was driving home from an incredibly moving event at the Illinois Holocaust Museum so my emotional state was shaky to begin with. His prediction for what was to come of the pandemic and comparisons to the 1918 pandemic were bone-chilling. Lots of people were going to die, and this was going to last for years. It was going to be another case of history repeating itself, which was salient to me after participating in a discussion on how genocide happens. I was slowly realizing that this would be one of the last birthday parties for a long time.



Back when we could blow out birthday candles.
Back when we could blow out birthday candles.

McNeil Jr. illustrated that life would be radically different until we had a vaccine and even after, we would still have to live with the risk of contracting Covid-19 though the vaccine drastically reduces the risk. When asked about what he was doing to prepare for the pandemic, he said he bought a few face masks, stocked up (not hoarded) on essential food items/toiletries and bought hand sanitizer. At the end of February, I followed this expert’s lead, stopped shaking people’s hands, stopped going to my gym, stocked up on beans, tofu, other essentials, bought a few masks and hand sanitizer.


As a philosophy professor who teaches around 60-80 students a day and comes into contact with at least 100 people on campus, I lived with anxiety not knowing whether I’d have to choose between my job or risk my health/life. Fortunately, after other colleges decided to close, my campus finally closed on March 13 for the lives and safety of the students and employees. Of course at that point, they only estimated that the closure would be for one month not knowing that we’d be teaching live via Zoom for at least one year.


 

The Symptomatic Period


After everything shut down in Chicago on March 16th, I made the decision to not see anyone outside of my household indoors until we knew what the heck was going on. I was in fear of accidentally giving Covid-19 to a family member or a friend, and I knew I could never live with the guilt of making someone I love intensely sick. I also didn't want to get Covid-19 given how little was known about it. Abstaining from seeing family/friends felt like the more challenging option and while there were spirited debates about pandemic protocol, I knew I had to follow my instincts. I was going to listen to the scientists and experts over other people’s feelings.


The first few months were a rollercoaster of crying, anxiety, throwing myself into baking and cooking, and excessively wiping grocery and takeout items. I would religiously read restaurant takeout menus because it just made me feel better knowing that my favorite restaurants were still doing what they could do, and it gave me something to look forward to on weekends.



I even made my own non-dairy cinnamon rolls!
I even made my own non-dairy cinnamon rolls!

Leaving my apartment to just even walk outside felt risky because I live in an apartment complex with other people walking in the hallways, the stairwell, the elevator, and there are always people walking around outside in the city. You can’t really avoid it. Zoom hangouts were a way to safely connect with loved ones even though they were unsatisfying and draining.


Teaching on Zoom felt otherworldly even though I did NOT miss my commute driving in traffic, having to look super presentable from top to bottom, waking up early, and performing as extraverted. I wanted to tell my students that everything was going to be better, but I could not lie to them--how could I be strong for them when I was secretly falling apart?


But what did feel satisfying? The pandemic brought me closer to my partner--we never got sick of hanging out. We started djing together and worked through our opposing responses to the pandemic (he was pretty relaxed about it at first whereas I was going into survival mode). Those early pandemic months strengthened our communication with one another.



Learning how to DJ in my kitchen.
Learning how to DJ in my kitchen.

The pandemic also afforded me the opportunity to reflect on my life since I wasn’t spreading myself as thinly as before. I set goals for myself such as creating this philosophy website/blog, decided to put myself out there more by delving into posting more IGTV videos, YouTube videos, cooking demos, and our DJ mixes. The biggest step for me was to put myself out there and start freelancing for publications like Chicago Eater that I figured would ignore me since I am not a journalist in the traditional sense. Given how bad the pandemic felt, rejections from strangers would not feel as heartbreaking because I was living through a pandemic, which was far more tragic than any possible rejection. I also gained the strength to say no and stop engaging in activities that were no longer fulfilling to me, but I did purely out of duty. The simultaneous mixture of putting myself out there and saying no was liberating.


Once I had adapted to the pandemic a few months in, I decided to ponder what was working for me in my life and what wasn’t working for me. Then I made a list of what I needed to change, start, and stop and then I acted on my list!


What happened when I decided to put myself out there? I received really positive responses from people who watched my videos, cooking demos, listened to our DJ mixes, and have two published pieces in Eater Chicago now. Did any of my videos go viral, did my instagram followers rapidly grow, did my vegetarian blog become super popular? NO. None of these things happened, but they increased my exposure, I gained more experience, and I was grateful to the people who watched and read my work.



Me post cooking demo!
Me post cooking demo!

What happened when I said no or quit doing things I no longer wanted to do? Nothing really happened--people understood (at least on the surface) and moved on. Shifting my time and my priorities enabled me to grow as a person and pivot closer to living a more authentic life. I really felt like I was living through my existentialist principles and had more opportunities to act on my free will because my life and schedule were radically disrupted due to the pandemic.


I also felt that the pandemic afforded me the space to be more selfish with my time. Since I do not have children, only live with my partner, and was not seeing friends or family indoors (and it was too cold to see anyone outside until the end of May), I had more space for myself. I was in greater control of my time since my non-work duties had pretty much dissipated. While it was sad, it was also freeing. I finally took the time to watch YouTube make-up video tutorials, read up on facial skincare, thoroughly read through my favorite cookbooks, and made vegan cheese from scratch. When you read nonfiction--specifically philosophy and grade endless philosophy papers--you need some lightness in your life. This is especially true when you’re living through a pandemic.





While my plans to learn how to french braid never came to fruition, I was so grateful for the opportunity to explore activities that I never felt were “important” enough compared to my work and other duties. I felt less drained as an introvert because I was only hanging out with my partner. I didn’t have to walk around and smile all day at work, I could just be myself dressed in leggings without makeup, while presenting an illusion of looking put together on Zoom with a 10-minute make-up job and nice button down shirt. Instead of scurrying from one class to another, I had time to go to the bathroom, make myself tea, eat a snack, and truly take a small break in between my classes.


 

A Brief Interlude


When the summer finally came, it presented me with opportunities to see my loved ones outside in a safer way. We enjoyed picnics in the park, which were accompanied by the inevitable anxiety of needing to use the bathroom but having to choose between ending a social gathering or fulfilling nature’s calling. It was a strange summer, but at least we had parks and patios.


While the summer of 2020 was a turbulent time for many reasons, I felt overwhelmed and needed to take social media breaks for my sanity (the discussion of race in America is its own blog post). The best thing that happened in my personal life was adopting my best friend! Like many others, we adopted a dog after putting it off because we love traveling. But given how much we adore dogs, wanted the companionship, and yearned to take care of one, we adopted Amélie Belle Lakshmi on July 1st from One Tail at a Time after trying to adopt for 1.5 months. She keeps us busy, fit, and endlessly amused while falling in love with her. I am incredibly grateful that the pandemic brought this amazing being into our lives.



Amelie Belle Lakshmi is a burst of joy!
Amelie Belle Lakshmi is a burst of joy!

Just when I got used to seeing friends and family again, it became too cold to see them outside. I had to choose again between our health/safety and seeing people I love. We were forced to be isolated again in the depth of fall with another surge to make things even worse. The late fall/early winter was extremely painful because the novelty of being home all the time wore off, there was no end in sight, and the long nights and short days made everything harder. Chicago can be an incredible city to live in, but when it’s brutally cold and many of the city’s assets are practically eliminated because they’re mainly indoors (e.g. restaurants, bars, art galleries, music venues, etc.), Chicago is not an ideal city to be in during the pandemic.


Since I absolutely HATE winter--no I am not one of those individuals who enjoys the first snowfall and never thought snow looked pretty--and my partner and I were both working remotely for an indefinite amount of time, we wanted to take advantage of the unusual freedom we had. We knew for our sanity that we needed to leave Chicago temporarily during a pandemic winter and took advantage of this extremely unique opportunity to live somewhere warmer where we could at least enjoy being outdoors and not be cooped up in our small apartment. We don’t have children tying us down, nor do we have a mortgage so we sublet our apartment and put our lives in storage.


Driving through Colorado/Utah.
Driving through Colorado/Utah.

We drove 30 hours to Southern California in the middle of winter and have been enamored with West coast life. We traveled as safely as we could by staying in hotels and private airbnbs with our own entrance, never eating indoors nor seeing anyone indoor and always walking around in masks.


Goodbye snow!!
Goodbye snow!!

The endless beach sunsets, mountains, and palm trees never get old. The diversity of geography in the West coast is mesmerizing, and I am so appreciative of this opportunity to enjoy temporarily living somewhere relatively different from Chicago. I know coming back will be challenging in many ways, but I am elated that I was able to do this for a limited period of time.


The pandemic has given me the flexibility to live where I want to live within reason and enjoy elements of life I had not previously enjoyed before. I’ve never been an outdoorsy nature person who lives hiking, but I just enjoy walking with my dog outside on trails, seeing her reaction to all of nature’s stimulation, looking at the mountains, the lagoons, and watching the sunsets at the beach together. Getting way more sunlight has done wonders for my mental health, and I hope that workplaces (including colleges) can be more flexible post-pandemic because Chicago winters are long, dark, and brutal. No one should have to live through it every year.

I've always been enamored with palm trees.
I've always been enamored with palm trees.
These beach sunsets never get old.
These beach sunsets never get old.
 

Pandemic Recovery


Now with there being three vaccines that have been rapidly made, a return to something closer to “normal” is on the horizon. I remember listening to an episode of The Daily podcast in mid-December where they were interviewing healthcare workers who were the first Americans to receive the vaccine. It was so moving to hear these individuals who have been forced to sacrifice their lives and health, get vaccinated, and receive the protection they deserve. It didn’t have to be this way, but finally there was a light at the end of the tunnel.


Fast forward to a sunny spring morning when I parked my car in the CVS lot eager to get my first vaccine dose. I felt nervous--were they going to turn me away for some reason even though I am technically eligible as higher education faculty? Was there going to be an insanely long line? Was I missing some crucial document? I had so much anxiety and excitement built around getting my first vaccine dose. As I approached CVS, there was a clearly labeled table outside for vaccine appointments. The people staffing the table were incredibly cheerful and helpful, told me where to go in the pharmacy area, and 30 minutes later I was vaccinated.


I was elated!!
I was elated!!

I kept thinking something was going to go wrong, and I wouldn’t be able to get it, but after I got my first dose and was waiting for 15 minutes after to make sure I was okay, I felt euphoric. One year into the pandemic, and I already received my first dose! Activities that I haven’t done in the past year such as teaching in person, dining indoors, hanging out with loved ones indoors, going to art museums, and going to bars and shows flashed in my mind. I felt quite emotional. Of course I will wait till service industry employees are fully vaccinated before I start to partake in indoor, public activities, but the possibility of doing these things again is an incredibly exhilarating thought. Spontaneous indoor hangouts with vaccinated family and friends is amazing to fathom doing again. I will never take any of these activities for granted.


 

Going Back to “Normal” Life?


I hate to admit it but after a year of working remotely without a painful commute, having very limited social interactions, and having more time to myself, my partner, and my dog, I am nervous about how I will adjust back to “normal life” again. Of course, I am extremely excited to see the people I am close to indoors again and make connections with my students in the classroom. Oh and stay out till 4am to hear my favorite techno dj on an occasional Saturday night. But I am sure I will miss the perks of working remotely with its flexibility and fluidity. I will also miss being in more control and more selfish with my time.


The lessons I have learned from the pandemic have enabled me to say “no” more when I am uncomfortable, not spread myself thin to please other people, and take the time to rest at home on a Saturday night instead of FOMOing and exhausting myself. I have also become much more appreciative of the great outdoors even though I still don’t like camping. While the city shut down, we still had the lake, the ocean, the mountains, and the parks as our companions.


The pandemic taught me that it’s okay to spend time on activities such as researching skincare even if it feels selfish, and I don’t need to justify how I spend my time outside of work. I hope that workplaces, college campuses, family, and friends can also learn to be more flexible with expectations in a post-pandemic world. It’s the compassion we all deserve to give one another institutionally and individually.




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