There was a long line of people outside of Trader Joe’s on 14th Street. It took me a moment to realize that was just to get in. Once they were inside the store, they would soon realize that all the meat was gone, only a few bags of frozen vegetables were left, and there was no sign of toilet paper. The toilet paper shelf in Target across the street was empty as well, and so was that in any CVS and Walgreens on the island. It was supposed to be a normal Friday morning, even adorned by the nicest weather since Fall — warm, sunny and lightly breezy, but apparently nothing was normal anymore. The anxiety was so tangible you could feel it thicken in the air. That was a handful of days after Cuomo declared a state of emergency in New York, and a few hours before Trump declared a state of emergency in all of America. The crisis is real.
Different people react differently to crises, reflecting a broad spectrum of perspectives on the matter. Some panic-buy and stockpile, out of all things, toilet paper, leaving none for others who actually need them. I grew up and lived in a “Third World” country for 18 years and had never seen an empty shelf of toilet paper in a supermarket! Some people lock themselves indoors and promote this seemingly novel concept of “social distancing.” Some, on the other end of the spectrum, fear no fear and carry on with their lives in crowded spaces. Some even draw humor out of the situation and make jokes. Am I worried? A little. Do I panic? Not at all. It’s hard not to worry when life is uprooted and so many things are up in the air (including literally the virus, which can likely remain airborne), but I’m trying to keep a clear mind. I see this as neither an apocalypse that calls for mass hysteria, nor a joking matter that one should make light of.
I believe every crisis is a test.
Everybody has taken tests, right? We have tests in school. We have tests at work. We have to pass a test to get a driver’s license. Every job interview, immigration interview, visa interview, apartment interview is essentially a test. It’s not the most pleasurable experience to look forward to, but it’s part of life. It evaluates how much you have learned in your life up until that point, and how prepared you are to move forward in whatever process you’re pursuing. In other words, every test opens the door to a new path, to continue an endeavor. This coronavirus crisis is just another test that we, as individuals and as a community, have to pass.
It tests our personal strength and flexibility, to see how well we react to sudden changes and how resilient we are in order to overcome them. The only constant in life is change; thus the ability to deal with an unexpected turn on the road is powerful.
It tests self-maintenance: how well we take care of our own bodies, develop good hygiene and boost our immune system. For a culture that champions the idea of “self love,” sometimes we get lost in chasing money and creating relationships that we forget our own well-being. We neglect oiling the machine that allows all those activities to happen in the first place.
It tests our patience. Growing up in a Buddhist household, I was taught patience is a virtue. We are now recommended to wash our hands for at least 20 seconds, which I believe is longer than most people usually do. (Singing “Happy Birthday” twice helps!) Everyone is in waiting mode, hoping for the crisis to pass while not knowing when life will return to a state of normalcy. We feel tangled in angst, but patience is the only option out.
It tests our composure, the ability to remain calm in the face of potential chaos. “Keep calm and carry on” is on thousands of Instagram bios, bedroom posters, wood blocks on kitchen counters, the back of people’s shirts, doormats, stickers and tattoos. It’s time to actually practice it. If the last few years in New York have taught me one thing, that is calmness makes every vision clearer.
It tests our compassion for the community, how much we actually care for other people. Social distancing means sacrificing your social life and yes, that is dreadful as hell, but it helps save the lives of the most vulnerable. To go out or not, every person has to make a choice of action that either benefits themselves or others, and the stakes are especially high in an individual-centric society like the U.S. This applies to smart consumption as well: buy only what you need. I went to five different stores just to find one pack of toilet paper and I’m still mad.
It tests our vigilance as an information consumer. We’re facing not just a pandemic, but an “infodemic” as well. Fake news thrives more than ever in times of crisis and misinformation is as dangerous as a deadly virus. The abundance of information puts our critical reading skills to test. We must distill facts from noise. Question everything. Look for signs of fabrication. Cross-check between sources.
It tests our efficiency as a worker. Working from home is not easy. It is my second day and everything still feels novel and strange. However, working in a challenging condition is also an opportunity to thrive, create great work, and prove that you’re resourceful, that your skills and talent transcend physical hardship. Since my very first day in the entertainment industry, I’ve learned that sometimes the best art comes from resource scarcity, because you have to totally rely on your creativity and the most brilliant ideas stem from exploring the unknown. For my job more than ever, this is the time to connect people through art and keep their spirits up, so if I’m able to produce good work after good work in the next few weeks, I consider that a success. We Vietnamese have a saying, “Cái khó ló cái khôn,” meaning you get smarter in difficult times.
This crisis is not only a test for the individual, but societies as well. Having lived two-thirds of my life in Vietnam and the last 7 years in the U.S., I have been following the news in both countries and seeing how differently the two are handling the pandemic. Vietnam took it seriously from day one, closed all schools, has been testing everyone who shows the mildest symptoms and quarantining all travelers coming from highly infected areas. Meanwhile, the U.S. originally relied on an argument comparing the coronavirus to the flu to dismiss its severity, just to act in a hurry over the past couple of days to shut down bars, restaurants, events and crowded spaces. It also refuses to test people who do not show all the symptoms, leaving many uncertain of their status, citing that most people can recover by themselves. This comes down to how different the medical philosophies between the two countries are. It’s too early to tell which one is more effective.
This difference also sheds light on a bigger clash in ideology. As a country who embraces individualism, privacy is everything in the U.S. Officials do not disclose any patient’s name and inform others who might be infected in a discreet manner. Vietnam, on the other hand, puts the safety of the collective first and publicizes every patient’s name, street address, travel itinerary and flight numbers on mass media so that potentially infected folks can get themselves to a clinic. It takes a crisis to see this contrast so clearly. Which approach is better? Which ideology will triumph in the era of a pandemic? Only time will tell.
I have been in self-quarantine for four days now. I nearly went insane after the first day from the lack of human interaction and came to terms with the fact that I’m actually an extrovert, after years of proclaiming myself as the opposite. I guess this crisis also serves as an authentic personality test in a way. It forces me to look inward and strengthen the bond I have with myself. In isolation, I started feeling very grateful for my relationships with people. I learned to appreciate the touch of a hand, the kiss on someone’s lips, the little moments I have to hang out with friends, hug my parents, cook with my grandmother, build blanket forts with my sister, or have lunch with my best work friends. It tests me, but also teaches me to be appreciative of those interactions and never take them for granted.
A crisis brings out the best and the worst in people. When we are forced out of our comfort zone, we have no armor, no choreographed personality, no rehearsed feelings, just ourselves. This is the time to reconnect with yourself, learn about yourself and really find that inner strength to overcome this crisis. Look at the list above. When all of this is over, and it will be over, we will gain so many precious skills. We will start caring more about our health. We will be more patient, calm and empathetic. We will become resourceful, flexible, and vigilant. We will be better equipped to face changes and overcome bigger obstacles, as individuals and as nations. Nobody wants to find themselves in a crisis, but a crisis can teach us a thing or two. I believe all that matters is our attitude. In this current situation, I choose not to panic. I choose not to ignore. I choose to make use of everything I’ve learned in the past 24 years and hope to pass this test because after all, life is just a classroom and we’re all learning to be human together.