This is not normal

It’s almost two weeks since my last post on here. There were many reasons: a bit of laziness, some trying out new things but most of all, I’ve been pretty busy doing work. In fact, I’ve been crossing things off my list of work to be done that this must have been the most productive 15 days I’ve had in a long time.

By now, I’ve set a general routine in my life. I try to sleep before midnight so I get a full night’s sleep and have an early start. After my daily mindfulness exercises, I’ll sort my breakfast out, take a shower and then get on to work. I’ll break for lunch then chat with some friends in the evening or go for a walk before I make dinner. Then I plonk myself in front of the TV before bed again. I have a different set of clothes I wear during my “work time” and in the evenings/weekend.

Things are starting to feel … normal.

While I sit by the window working, I can see that the pub across from me is still shut and the buses mostly empty. There are a bit more cars on the road than in the early days of the lockdown but still not that many. When I go to do my shopping every seven to 10 days, its still one-in-one-out. Sometimes the lines are really long. During my evening walks, people are being really respectful of staying apart from each other – crossing the road when there are people coming from the opposite direction or making space for each other.

In short, many people – myself included – have seem to have adapted to this “new” life. I’m one of the privileged few of course: I can afford rent and my shopping, I live on my own so I don’t have to deal with being cooped up with other people, and I have a great support network of family and friends who I can turn to when I’m feeling a bit isolated.

But things are not normal though, no matter how it all feels. The reality is that a high number of people are still getting infected by the virus on a daily basis around the world, and so many are still dying. Amazing healthcare professionals and other key workers are still out there risking their lives to keep us as safe as possible. People are still losing their justs all the time because of this, many are starving.

We don’t know yet how long this will go on for (I can’t even remember how long it’s been), and how it will look like after.

So, in the comfort of my home, where I seem to have adapted well to the circumstance, I constantly need to remind myself that nothing about this is normal. I’m not even thinking about this from the philosophical perspective of what is normal anyway?

The world has changed, at least for now, although things may well revert to how it was before at some point in the future. When we get to wherever that is, we’ll need to adjust and adapt again.

Because this is not normal.

Beeston so busy

I have just returned home from doing my grocery run. It’s hard work; I’m trying not to take public transport so I walk about 30 minutes into the town centre and then lug all my things back for 30 minutes. In between, I make stops at the Asian supermarket to get some specialty items before heading to Fred Hallams (a local independent grocer). I then head into Tesco to get everything else I need.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been doing my shopping weekly, just to practice physical distancing as I best can. This week, I found that I had enough to last me over 10 days (even the junk food!) so I waited until today to head out.

What a mistake! Beeston, the town centre I usually head to for shopping, was so busy.

I just hope it’s an anomaly as people are navigating reduced hours over the next few days with Easter weekend, and not people just getting tired of staying in. This week, I have noticed that there seemed to be more cars on the road (I work right by my window facing a main road) and there’s definitely been more people out on the streets ‘exercising’ because the weather’s been really lovely.

Myself included, of course.

At any one point today, I noticed that there were queues of about 10 people all along the high street, either waiting to get into supermarkets, butchers, banks or pharmacies. At one point, it was not possible to walk down the street and keep to the advised distance (2 metres) from people because there were queues and just people walking everywhere.

Plus, that person behind me in the queue to get into Tesco just kept coming closer and closer for that 30 minutes we were waiting for!

I can appreciate that cabin fever must surely have hit for some people, but I hope people are still staying in and being as careful as possible. I’d really like to see less people next week when I head out to stock up my fridge again.

Taking the weekend off

Friends who know me well will tell you that I’m someone who finds it hard to relax. I think it comes from just years and years of always keeping myself busy. It hasn’t always been work (in the career sense) but certainly projects that takes up a lot of time. I try not to complain because in most cases, I do enjoy working on them but it can get pretty tiring and overwhelming sometimes.

Over the past few years, however, chasing the PhD has been different. I tried to keep it up at the start – still working on my storytelling projects and even published a book in the first year or so – but soon realised that it was just not sustainable.

For one, working towards a massive four-year deadline means that it’s so easy to lose sense of the idea of time. Then, there were other aspects of academia to navigate to make sure that I finished the PhD ready for the world – working on research projects, publishing in journals, attending and organising conferences, and more. I’m slowly learning how all-consuming academia can be.

The fact is, even though I completed the whole PhD process late last year, it’s all been a blur since with teaching, marking and catching up on academic-related commitments that took a backseat as I attempted to finish up my thesis.

But it took a bloody pandemic to make me force a proper weekend on myself. I went to bed on Friday telling myself that I should sleep in (I even added blankets over my curtains to block out the morning light) and not do any work for two days.

I woke up at my usual time on Saturday – body clock and all that – but decided to make myself a massive English breakfast to mark the distinction between a weekend and a week day. Then, I spent a couple of hours cleaning my flat – being indoors ALL the time makes it dustier than usual – and catching up with some friends and family on video chats. I settled down for the night by watching Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Coat, which was showing on YouTube for 48 hours as part of Universal and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Show Must Go On where they release one musical each Friday.

NIki pouring the drizzle into his cake
I could hear the sizzling still when I drizzled the lemon juice onto the cake.

Today, I lazed in bed quite a bit in the morning before baking the most amazing Lemon Drizzle (if I do say so myself), and sharing my adventures on my Instagram account. Then I decided to take advantage of the lovely T-shirst and shorts weather by going for a walk to the nearby nature reserve (it was less busy than two weeks ago so that’s promising!). Hence the GIF (which isn’t working!) at the top of this post. I’ve since had a shower, joined a community Zoom social chat and then had some leftover fried rice from Friday for dinner.

As I write this post, I’m just finishing glass of white wine and about to lie on the sofa and catch up on some TV. Hmm … maybe pour myself a nice Gin and Tonic first.

I’ll be ready for the upcoming week in the morning. I hope.

A shot I took along my walk today.

Easter break is here!

I’m feeling quite tired today, so I thought I’d save the blogging I had meant to do earlier this week for the weekend. It’s already been a few days, so what’s another day or two, right?

Then, as I was cooking fried rice for dinner, I realised that today is Friday – it’s not just the end of the working week, but also the last day before the university breaks up for a month for Easter. So I thought I’d mark it with a post.

I don’t usually teach on Fridays but because we’ve moved teaching online using mostly asynchronous methods, I check in on the student forum discussions and respond to teaching-related emails on a daily basis so that no one gets ignored or left out. I have students who are still in government-imposed quarantine in some countries, so they are alone and struggling a bit so I want to be accessible where possible.

Teaching aside, this week has been pretty full-on now that I think about it. Midweek, I managed to scratch the last item on the “urgent” to do list I had put up on my living room wall over a week ago. Yesterday, I made a new list and happy to announce that I have scratched-off another half by this evening!

I hope that this means that I’m more adjusted to not just working from home, but also less stressed and anxious about the circumstances we’re all in. I suspect having three video calls this week alone with my family (which was what I wanted to blog about earlier in the week) and several with my close friend Steve helped.

Speaking of working from home, my neck and back has been killing me the past two weeks because I don’t actually have a proper table and chair for long-term working. So a couple of days ago, I set up a standing desk using all the different boxes from kitchenware I had purchased in 2015 when I moved in but for some reason, never threw out.

My dad was a hoarder, so clearly, I’m my father’s son! Good use of boxes from the microwave oven, bread toaster, electric grill and knife set for the standing desk (I’m using the box for the kettle to prop up my laptop for sitting down on a different table)!

It’s not very stable, but I hope it’ll last!

Anyway, I’m going to try to take the weekend off as much as possible just to unwind and to make the days different from work days at home. The weather is meant to be lovely on Sunday (19 degrees!) so I’m going to try to get outside for some exercise.

My street clapped for the NHS

A post that was circulating across the the various internet platforms.

Blimey, that was emotional. I had set my alarm for 7.55pm, and stood by my window a bit hesitant, not knowing if I was going to be the only person clapping. But just as it was coming up to 8pm, I heard the first claps come down my street, and then more and more joined in. It was beautiful.

I also live across from a pub, and the people who live there were out at the front with their kids who were really clapping really loud. You could see from the sound they made that other people were coming to their windows and joining in.

Many thanks to whoever came out with this idea – presumably those behind this site – and I hope that many of the people at the front-lines in the NHS, and also so many other key workers who are putting themselves out there on our behalf, down my street heard it. My friend Gareth, who lives just down the road, said that one of his neighbours works in the NHS. I hope they heard the loud appreciation from us – it’s all we can do in this helpless of times.

Personally, I salute them all.

I was a bit pleased with myself today for having a day where I didn’t feel emotional (it’s been going up and down every few minutes for the past couple of weeks) but this got to me. Oh well, it’s a good emotion at least.

I was actually going to sit down and blog about something else today – this has become a bit of a routine for me ending my work day with dinner and then blogging before some trashy TV to zone out – but I wanted to capture the fullness of my heart.

If you want to see how people on other streets participated – my WhatsApp is going off right now with messages from friends and colleagues reporting back – then do a search on your platform of choice for the #clapforourcarers hashtag for some really heartwarming videos there, such as this one.


Meanwhile, I’ve been enjoying using this blog as therapy so much (and rediscovering my love for crafting out my writing) that I’m going to resurrect my The NC Irregularly project – an irregular “letter” from me in your inbox. Click here to subscribe to it. First letter out on Monday (thereabouts, it’s irregular after all!).

Missing my Bangsar

I woke up this morning to news reports (and WhatsApp messages) about the extension of the Movement Control Order in Malaysia for an additional two weeks. It was originally meant to end on March 31. Thinking about it reminded me of this video that my friend Jason – you might remember him as the prolific food blogger of the past JasonMumbles – had sent to me over the weekend that he took while out getting some essentials.

Video credit: Jason Lioh

This video really got to me – I’ve been an emotional wreck the past few weeks anyway – because it was so strange to see the Bangsar I knew and loved look this way so early in the evening. It’s not completely unfamiliar; that’s how it looks like in the middle of the night when I used to head home after being out late with friends. But those days are far behind me.

But I think why it was so shocking is that this is a far cry from the vibrant and buzzing Bangsar that I grew up in. On top of that, it also brought home the reality of what is going on in Malaysia (and the rest of the world now) considering that it is where my mother still lives. Ee che – what I call my second sister – who until a few days ago was stuck with her family abroad due to flight cancellations and shut downs, live nearby too.

That little bubble called Bangsar is where I’ve always felt most familiar, comfortable and safe.

So, I thought I’d dig out some of my former articles in my The Bangsar Boy column about the neighbourhood for those of you who want to reminiscence along with me about how things were before, or those of you who might be wondering what the hell is this Bangsar thing!

Or if you prefer something more visual, here is a video of the Bangsar I remember (except that it usually has less of me in it, especially over the last few years!). This was a trailer my friend Yuen directed to promote my book in 2017.

Enough is enough. You must stay at home #dudukrumahdiamdiam

Not many can say they didn’t see it coming but just about an hour ago, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson went on national television with one simple instruction:

You must stay at home.

Boris Johnson

As of tonight, like in many other parts of the world currently, people are not allowed to leave their homes. The Prime Minister offered four exceptions: essentials (but with a plea to get things delivered or stretched out as much as possible), medical need or to care for vulnerable persons, work that cannot be done at home and one form of exercise a day.

At this point, it seems like the restrictions in the UK and Malaysia are almost on par which will hopefully ease a little this bit of dissonance in my head trying to keep up with different policies, as I blogged about yesterday. The difference is that in Malaysia, you’re not allowed to go out even for exercise although I’ve been seeing posts of friends on social media ‘creatively’ navigating that.

I won’t be surprised if the UK follows suit soon – even with advice to spend as much time indoors as possible, the nature reserve walk I did with my friends yesterday was too busy for our liking and we said we’d have to look for an alternative option. Not anymore, I suppose, at least for now.

What has been fascinating for me however is observing reaction on Twitter from some people I know lamenting (I’m being generous here with this choice of term – some of them are livid) that the UK is now essentially a police state. There are obviously a lot of disagreements; many are responding to them saying that these are unusual times and surely that these are necessary measures.

It did make me wonder about my reaction to this news, and how I’ve been anticipating it. I wonder if it’s because I have a very different relationship with freedom and individualism as some of my friends, in that I grew up in what was essentially a quasi-democractic state and as such, I’m more used to restrictions being imposed on me. Something to talk to the therapist about!

In any case, Boris’ choice of words were interesting to me because they made me think of the call by Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin a couple of days after the announcement of the Movement Control Order, when he told people to “duduklah diam-diam di rumah” (sit quietly at home). I thought the use of the “lah” made his call less stern, and the whole “diam-diam” bit evoked memories of primary school teachers chastising their students for talking in class.

Naturally, that line made its rounds on Twitterjaya as part of many jokes. But the message was clear: people are not following the rules. People I know in Malaysia have been very vocal about abusing and shaming others who are still out frolicking and gallivanting at the expense of others.

The number of people who didn’t seem to care was so significant that healthcare workers started sharing pictures on Instagram of themselves holding signs which read: “I stay here for you. You stay home for us.” As usual, many Malaysians were also quick to use the common refrain: Only in Malaysia! to refer to people who just didn’t want to follow instructions that could save their lives and that of other peoples.

Well, if the latest restrictions in the UK are anything to go by, the Brits (and those who live here) aren’t much better either. I mean, if even Piers Morgan thinks you should stay home then … #awkward

The Guardian today ran a response to someone who asked: “Is it okay to shout at strangers who aren’t social distancing?” Then there are the Italians too. And Canada. A clearly upset Prime Minister Justin Trudeau today, in a much more forceful tone than Boris or Muhyiddin, said:

Enough is enough. Go home, and stay home!

Justin Trudeau

If that’s not firm enough for some people, I hope this guy (supposedly a mayor in Italy) convinces you:

Covid-19: Staying in or Going out

Attenborough Nature Reserve: 22 March 2020/3.08pm

I took the picture above when I went out for a walk this afternoon with my friends Rob and Lauren. I had messaged them yesterday asking if they might be up for a ‘social-distancing’ walk at the nature reserve which is within walking distance to both our homes. It was a chance to get out for a bit of fresh air and some exercise while we all practice our self-isolation.

In the UK, there is no restrictions yet on our movements. People are encouraged to stay home and head out only if they really need to be (get essentials, front-line and key workers etc.). It’s probably one of the most lenient approaches in terms of regulating movement in the major European countries. In fact, it was only as of yesterday that pubs, restaurants and gyms were closed (midnight Friday, to be exact).

As I started walking over to meet my friends, I remember feeling a bit awkward and uncomfortable. Or perhaps naughty is a more appropriate term. It’s almost like when I was grounded by my parents as punishment as a kid, but found loopholes around it because they weren’t home watching me.

I had to shake that feeling off – eventually I really enjoyed that walk – by reminding myself that the UK is not in any form of lock-down. Whether or not the guidance by the government is the right one will remain to be seen, but as it stands, the science as I understand it is that going outdoors for some exercise is fine as long as you keep your distance from others.

The reason why I had this internal conflict really is because I’m starting to get my news about what is allowed (and happening) around the world mixed up. Obviously, I’ve been monitoring the Malaysian situation closely, if for no other reasons than the fact that my mum and the rest of the family are all there. But as a news junkie, I’ve read easily hundreds of articles about how different countries around the world are responding to the pandemic.

This negative feeling in my gut really I feel is the result of the anxieties I’ve had the past couple of weeks trying to advise my mum, and the people around her, to be really cautious about their routines. Then of course, the two-week movement restriction order by the Malaysian government (personally don’t think it’s wise to have put a time limit on this) came into force, and my frustration at the inability of so many Malaysians to follow that order.

I’ve spoken to so many friends and family members in Malaysia (and on the radio) about the movement control restrictions that I felt it also applied to me. But this is where the danger in, especially with the abundance of information and knowledge available out there. It is so easy to remove ourselves from contexts that do not apply to us. The repetitive nature of news, social media information and conversation topics often drills things into your mind.

Moving forward, I need to be careful now especially as more and more reports come in from around the world. Already, in some countries like the US, different states are going about things differently so we can’t even refer to the American response as a collective. Add to the fact that the situation is so fluid that even in a country like the UK, or Malaysia, policies, advice and regulation are changing by the day – if not hours – that it’s so easy to be relying on outdated information.

For me, I think I’ll just need to be a bit more aware of my thinking and emotions, and stay alert for any potential changes. How about you? Are you feeling as overwhelmed by all the information and getting your wires mixed up sometimes like me too?

The Bangsar Boy (kinda) returns

It’s been three years since my The Bangsar Boy column ended, and other than the occasional rant on social media, I haven’t really taken to doing much of this kind of writing.

But I am currently self-isolating in response to the Covid-19 pandemic – it’s so weird talking about something the whole world knows about that it doesn’t need explaining – and there are a lot of things going through my mind.

Don’t get me wrong … I am not short of things to do. I have so many deadlines and work owing to friends and colleagues (including an attempt to shift to online learning from Monday next week at the university I teach at) but the truth is, I’ve really been struggling over the past couple of weeks.

This week alone has been all about trying to adapt to working from home. I had to go on to campus on Monday because I had office hours to see my students. After I left uni, we started getting communication from the school and department I teach for that all face-to-face meetings would be cancelled and we should start doing things virtually instead. So, on Tuesday, my friend Rob and I went back in to grab all our things from the office to set up shop at home.

Except that it hasn’t been easy. Work wise, I tend to function best in the late afternoon and evenings. However, I’ve spent the months following my the completion of my PhD trying to build a more practical pattern to accommodate my need to sleep better. The past few years had wrecked my body and I’ve been feeling so much better with the adjustment. This week, all the old habits are returning and my sleep has been badly affected.

So today, I decided to hit the reset button. I woke up, had breakfast and spent the morning and early afternoon deep cleaning my flat. It was way overdue in terms of dustiness, but more importantly, I arranged all the things I brought home and made space to properly work from today on.

This post – and my attempt to start blogging again – is almost a bookmark for this moment, as we navigate the strange days of self-isolation and uncertainties that lie ahead. I actually had this blog set up a long time ago, but I just never did anything with it.

But I have been thinking that I should start writing a little bit to document these abnormal times after my friend Chris – a historian – posted on his Facebook to ask people to start journaling their experiences living in self-isolation or quarantine.

I cannot tell you how fascinating these sorts of documents are to future historians. Almost anything you observe or feel will be interesting in some way to some person in 25, 50, or 100+ years time. They’re so delightfully idiosyncratic, so intimate, so visceral.

Dr. Chris Parkes

Also, seeing how my personal mental health has been taking a beating due to events triggered by this pandemic (I wrote a post on Facebook a few days ago sharing some of the things I’m doing to cope better), writing – the one thing I love to do so much – might serve as therapy too.

I don’t know how regularly I’ll update, and if it’ll just be journaling or include some of the types of social commentary The Bangsar Boy used to write. Like everything else that’s happening in the world currently, it’ll be very fluid and instinctive.

That said, I’m keen on hearing from you so please share some of your feelings too in the comments as we navigate these crazy times together.