The last time I set foot into my office was 70 days ago. 10 weeks. That was another lifetime. I, along with everyone else, did not know that my world was about to change when I packed up for the day.
Walking home, I noticed everyone was wearing face masks. Now, it is not uncommon to see people wearing face masks here in Hong Kong. I’ve come to realise that the face mask is used in a number of occasions — when you are feeling unwell, when you think someone near you is feeling unwell, when the pollution level in the air is bad. But it was still a surreal and haunting image of a sea of masks and just eyes. It scared me.
That weekend, we received news that the virus was still spreading rapidly in China. Given the fluidity of the situation and the proximity of Hong Kong to China, my employer encouraged us to work from home and to start practice social distancing. That was in January. I have not gone back to work since.
So much has happened. And yet, I have hardly moved from the confines of my shoebox apartment in Hong Kong.
No one tells you how lonely it is to be an expat living by yourself in isolation.
When people talk about social distancing, what they really mean is “them + their close family members” vs “you”. For someone living alone in a country I did not grow up in, social distancing makes it jarringly obvious that I do not belong in anyone’s “close family and loved ones” circle. I have somehow fallen through the cracks into loneliness.
I still had my Hong Kong best friend when all of this started. But he died on 1 February. I never got to say goodbye and did not even get to attend his funeral. I was planning his memorial but shelved it. That plan, along with my grief, was quietly tucked away. It was like he just disappeared and was buried under the world’s battle against the virus.
I was truly alone here. I was having limited contact with people, usually just a few grunts from the supermarket check-out staff, and I have hardly left my tiny apartment. After about 4 weeks of fumbling around and trying to make sense of my life, I realised that it was time to do something. My days were disappearing and moulding into a big lump of time. I had no idea what I had accomplished and more importantly, I was miserable. I had to take back my days.
6 weeks later …
There have been moments of frustration and what I call “social distancing fatigue”. But I had time to figure out what works for me and while it has been 10 weeks of social distancing, I am still here and I am still sane.
Does it get any better? I am not sure. But it sure does not have to get any worse, and here’s how:
1. You need a schedule
This is the most important tip.
When the world outside is chaotic, a schedule helps bring structure to your day. It gives you purpose for that day.
Identify what makes you happy.
The things that make you happy are your daily essentials. Self-happiness is underrated. People tend to forget that you need to make time to love yourself, and you do that by scheduling time to be happy.
For me — reading, exercising and writing make me happy. So I schedule these “daily essentials” into my day and I don’t compromise on these items. Everything else in my day will just have to work around these essentials. Sure, there will be days when something happens that throws my schedule out of whack but I take comfort in knowing that I will be back to my daily routine and essentials the next day.
Small but achievable tasks.
Fill your day with small tasks. I limit my tasks to 3 items that can be completed within the time allocated that day. These tasks can be part of a bigger project (more on that below). If a task a too big, then break it down into achievable goals. The idea is not to overwhelm but to give yourself some focus throughout the day. After all, small wins are still wins.
For example, when trying to tidy my wardrobe, I don’t have a single “Tidy wardrobe” task. I break it down into parts like “Sort through my sock drawer”. I know this is not in line with the teachings of Marie Kondo (who I adore) but the goal is to accomplish things while preserving your sanity. If making mountains of clothes and going through them is your thing and brings you great joy, please do that. For me, I like tapas-style tasks — small, bite-size but still satisfying.
Everyone’s schedule is going to be different.
A detailed schedule works for me. It keeps me accountable. I not only specify what time do a certain task, I allocate the time needed for that task. I even have my lunch marked into my daily schedule. But for some, it might be enough to have a list of to-do items marked for certain periods of the day.
Important to keep making adjustments.
Everyone’s schedule is going to be different. What is important is you keep making adjustments to your schedule until it fits your needs and your personality.
2. Start a New Project
Now is the time to tackle that huge project you’ve never had time for. This could be learning a new language, how to knit or stretching those green fingers and starting a herb garden.
I’ve started reading War and Peace with a group of bookish friends on Instagram. It’s a mammoth of a book (my version is about 1,200 pages) but it’s been on my list since forever and why not read it now. The goal is to read 12–15 pages a day (and yes, I do allocate time in schedule for my daily “War and Peace” pages). This will likely take 4 months to complete. No one can predict the future but I’m trying to be optimistic that by the time this book is done, the worst of the virus situation will hopefully be behind us.
Dissecting your project.
Whatever your new project may be, it is important to dissect it into modules that can be accomplished on a daily basis. If it means taking 4–6 months to complete a project, that is totally fine.
If you have always wanted to pick up a new hobby or start a new project but you are not sure if you will like it or if you will succeed, then tell yourself you are “experimenting”. I am a recovering perfectionist. I used to avoid tackling new things if I thought I wouldn’t do a perfect job or if I wouldn’t enjoy it (and I would only enjoy it if I did a perfect job). But now, we have time. Learn to experiment and enjoy the process, regardless of the outcome. The end product of an experiment is to have an outcome, any outcome, not necessarily the perfect outcome.
3. Treat Yourself to Indulgences
This is very important. Self-love. For some, this can be a bath, pizza night or binge-watching Netflix. For me, sitting on the couch with a big tub of ice cream and Netflix-ing is bliss. This is a ritual I indulge in every Sunday (and sometimes more frequently).
Just “me” is enough to be indulgent.
Other little indulgences include buying a small bundle of fresh flowers from the market when I do my grocery shopping and using scented candles even when it is just me. I’ve come to accept that sometimes “just me” is occasion enough for a nice candle.
When Erma Bombeck was asked if she had her life to live over, would she change anything, she said,
… I would have eaten popcorn in the “good” living room and worried less about the dirt when you lit the fireplace….
… I would have burnt the pink candle that was sculptured like a rose before it melted while being stored….
… I would have eaten less cottage cheese and more ice cream….
So there you go, I will be eating more ice cream while burning my scented candles.
4. Kindness Within Your Community
Messages and video calls with family and friends from across the world have increased. Right now, it is more important than ever to stay connected with family and friends. But in addition, it’s important to still remain connected with your community. Many charities here have put a stop to fundraising programmes and volunteering activities but kindness, even on a small scale, does not have to stop.
Practice physical distancing rather than social distancing.
I’ve always enjoyed cooking. A problem with living alone is that it is difficult to cook for just one person. I often end up keeping my leftovers for the next meal or even 2–3 meals. But there is such joy in sharing that I have started packing some leftovers for Hong, a homeless man on the street where I shop for groceries. In the spirit of social distancing, or rather, physical distancing, I keep about 2 meters or so from Hong, wave and leave a box of food for him. Sometimes I add a bottle of hand sanitiser if it is available at the supermarket. He nods and smiles. We have not yet managed to have any form of verbal communication. I will have to brush up on my Cantonese.
This act of kindness is for me as much as it is for Hong. Hong gets a hot meal that is hopefully to his tastes. I get to cook more frequently and more importantly, it allows me to feel connected to my community in some small way.
I know there are many out there who worry about the future, who are feeling a sense of isolation and loneliness and who are confused about all that is happening globally. I have been through this for 70 days and hopefully this brings some comfort to those who are worried about being at home alone. Everyone’s circumstances are different. I remind myself that I am extremely privileged to be able to be healthy and alive and to have a home while there are many out there who are suffering and dying, and many out there who are on the front line every single day battling the pandemic for the rest of us.