For me, I think it was somewhere between mid-summer break and the beginning of the past 2021-22 school year. When I try to remember what it was like now, both for me and for everyone else around me going through something similar, I have image-like recollections of a flawlessly smooth transition — we all banged the front door open and marched into public. Mask-clad, sure, but besides that, with everything virtually the same as pre-pandemic life.
It was only recently that I realized that my memories are flawed. Perhaps voluntarily, perhaps involuntarily, I’d forgotten all the nitty gritty details of coming back into our new “normal,” which, in reality and in reflection, was tense, anxiety-driven, and sometimes even icky.
Maybe it was for most others too, or maybe it wasn’t. Everyone had a different experience coming out of quarantine, and sometimes I don’t think we give ourselves enough credit for having gone through such a huge transition. I hope that sharing some of my own uncomfortable — but in some ways, natural — moments in the process can help bring some empathy regarding our parts in the historic pandemic.
1. Public dining
The biggest source of anxiety and need for re-adaptation for me was public dining. I remember distinctly when I ate in public for the first time in over a year in March 2021 at a Vietnamese restaurant. I was eyeing my cup, trying to (vainly) scan for any visible viruses, the whole time before my family and I ordered. When my turn to order came, I got a little over-excited and asked for a large size beef pho. Which I could not finish. At all.
This was a constant theme in my family’s gradually increasing dinner outings during the summer. I felt an unexplainable need to finish what I ordered and a simultaneous fear of becoming sick from the food. This resulted in an extremely slow eating pace while my stomach fluttered with nervous butterflies. It took me a couple of months to get over it and come back to my pre-pandemic eating habits.
2. Daily Conversation
Another thing I found really difficult once I started attending more in-person events and finding my routines again was (no joke) daily conversation with others.
When I was helping with student registration at the beginning of the school year, I was drawn into a short conversation with my school’s principal. I think it went something like this:
Me: “I heard that you worked a lot with my friend summer!”
Him: “Oh, well, I hope you only heard good things. Thanks for helping out today, by the way.”
Me: “Thank you. I mean- thank- you’re welc- no- um- you’re welcome?”
I hope the awkwardness seeps through the words. Because it was most definitely screaming at my face at the time.
But really. It was a struggle for me during my adjusting period. My brain froze sometimes in situations like the above conversation when I couldn’t think of the right words to say and I found myself exhaustingly overthinking some of the most minor details in passing dialogue.
3. Simple Actions
This might be one that is a little more obvious and also something that many others may have experienced, but simple actions in daily routines also were no longer “simple” actions anymore. Anytime I got remotely close to eating anything or having finger contact with my mouth, I scrambled for the mini hand sanitizer in my bag. I repeatedly cleaned my phone, AirPods, and laptop with wipes after school (sometimes I still do!) and changed clothes often, differentiating between “outside” clothes and “inside” clothes.
I was frustrated often, annoyed with all the extra steps I’d have to take just to use my phone or eat a quick snack between classes. But, I’d still do them every time. The fear of COVID was far, far greater for me at the time when I was still getting used to seeing classmates in person and entering public spaces.
I share all these details not to solely bring up reminders of a strained time, but to possibly give someone else the same experience that I had to gradually go through — really taking the time to reflect on quarantine and understand the difficulties of its end. In this time when we are still living with the aftermath of a prolonged quarantine, it is important to understand the depths of the impacts it has had in our lives and to be kind to ourselves in the process. That one really took me a long time to get used to!