Recently, The Michigan Daily’s Instagram took a tour down memory lane, posting the paper’s front pages from when COVID-19 first hit our campus about one year ago. Its final post was perfectly timed as it coincided with the University of Michigan announcing that classes will be mostly in-person again next semester. The Instagram posts and next semester’s news incited personal introspection about the lessons I’ve learned during my year-long “quarantine”, which was an experience of relative loneliness. I was never truly alone as I had my family with me, but I was far from the company of people with whom I had built a world of shared experiences: my friends. I still remember the Wednesday on which campus quickly became what felt like an empty void, and, though I didn’t want to leave campus, the realization soon set in that it wasn’t the same place I had come to adore. It stung, but I had to leave.
I found myself somberly returning to my childhood home only to realize that things weren’t quite the same. I was back in the small city that I grew up in and then almost immediately outgrew. At some point, Ann Arbor had unwittingly become home. Missing my friends was chipping away at me for a long time. I tried to convince myself it was some much-needed solitude that would be good for me. But the truth is that solitude is constructive for me whereas loneliness is corrosive, and so it kept chipping away at me. COVID-19 was an enigma whose best solution was to isolate oneself from most of the people who — being unapologetically Indian here — added spice to our life. Group chats couldn’t quite capture the group dynamic and group calls on Zoom dissolved stimulating conversations into “So, what’s going on?” “Nothing. What about you?” It was incredibly disheartening to hear these replies from people who had previously possessed an endless zest for life and stories for days. The nostalgia that dominated the group calls was often too much for my liking, and consistently centering reunions around this historic event’s ability to dissolve our future plans nurtured a melancholy environment.
I remember coming to campus as a wide-eyed freshman, spellbound and intimidated by Ann Arbor’s incomprehensible vastness. It was certainly the biggest ecosystem I had ever been a part of, and even with my Maps app open, I would get lost traveling between classes. Even still, in this tremendous expanse I was able to create a small world with people, classes, food and sports that fit me like a snug blanket on a cold day. I remember sharing this sentiment with one of my closest friends from high school, a notorious extrovert, who in contrast told me that college was the first time he felt lonely in his life. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It turns out at his small university, there weren’t many people who looked like him and therefore he felt “uninvited.” Throughout the pandemic, a time in which I have been acutely aware of the strains placed on my relationships, I’ve been thinking about his experience and sentiments a lot.
The group of people that I have the privilege of feeling “invited” with are all Indians who lived outside of India in various continents for most of their lives. In other words, we’re Indian if anyone asks us –– but at the same time there’s a disconnect between us and India in terms of what we watch, eat, listen to, etc. During the pandemic I had often pondered why, out of hundreds of possible people, I had formed a deeper connection with this particular group. Maybe it was our tenuous link to our motherland that made us close? Perhaps. What I did know for a fact was that we were missing out on experiences that would have enabled us to make deeper connections. Looking back, I’ve realized that though a big part of me missed what was, a sizable part of me was mourning what could have been. Now I realize that there is a possibility that our isolation could make us closer than we were ever going to be.
COVID-19 is now part of the narrative for an entire generation of people who grew up on social media, often neglecting the need for human connection until it was taken from us. I know that even if it means sacrificing a few decimal points on my GPA, I’ll be there when plans are made to go to a bad movie. I’ll be there when we go to a restaurant a few miles away from where we stay even though I don’t feel like walking. I’ll be there at those football games whose fates we know in advance. I’ll be there in the cold of Michigan when we’ve made plans to go somewhere but the destination keeps changing as we go. And, I’ll definitely be there at MoJo when we’ve all got things to do but are procrastinating by talking about nothing worth remembering. The pandemic differs from the usual things that make us close in the first place, but I’m hoping that this experience propels us to make more meaningful and deeper connections. At least it’s something worth looking forward to.
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