Jenniffer Meng is an 18-year-old grade-12 student living in Toronto.
Once a week, my three closest friends and I set aside time for a lunch date. We get some snacks, change out of our sweats into something nicer, and we video call for hours, chatting about how the quarantine is going, what we do and don’t understand about schoolwork, what we’ve recently purchased online, and how many snacks we’ve eaten in the past week.
Inevitably, during a moment of silence, someone will say, “I miss you.”
Thirty-five days ago, we couldn’t have been happier to be free from the constraints of classrooms. So many of us were stressed about post-secondary applications, summer jobs and internship searches that a quarantine was felt like a gift sent from the heavens. Once March break began, this “freedom high” was everywhere. I saw Instagram posts of people baking cakes, writing songs and new learning languages. Those like me, who are on the cusp of graduation, began celebrating—We did it! This is it!
Then the news got bleaker. Over video call, I showed my friends a dress I would never get to wear because my grade-12 prom wasn’t happening anymore. Graduation was postponed, summer trips to Europe were cancelled, as were summer jobs and internships. Videos of Sinophobia surfaced online, one of which featured two girls around my age—18—screaming profanities at a Korean woman in a subway station in Toronto. Most of my friends and I are Asian. We thought, “that could happen to us.”
Then my mom lost her job at a hotel, and my sister, who is in Australia for work, began self-isolating too.
No one had said it, but it was clear that by April, school was officially over. For those who had already received offers of admission to post-secondary institutions, including myself, it was now just a matter of sitting around long enough to see June roll around. The biggest worry which surfaced was the potential of September university classes being hosted on Zoom calls rather than in lecture halls. But for others who haven’t received offers, who can’t grasp the content without the teacher present, or who need to boost their GPA with mid-term marks, the worry is that they may not be able to get into post-secondary at all.
Our lunch dates which used to be filled with questions about physics, vacation hotspots, or prom attire were now filled with questions like: “Are you okay?” And “have you seen the news?” Our information comes from a combination of social media like Facebook and Twitter, news outlets like CBC, CTV, and the WHO, as well as our parents who watch press briefings. We find it difficult to trust any single news source, so we consume it all while trying to steer clear of bias misinformation. We’re beginning to feel burnt out having to keep up with the volume of news on COVID-19. I worry that this will never end, and things will never go back to normal.
Being on the cusp of legal and literal freedom, we are missing out on a lot of the things that define the transition into young adulthood. Eighteen is known as the time of moving out, going to college, starting a romantic relationship, hanging out with friends, and getting a job. But instead, I’m stuck at home. I can’t go out and explore the city (I can barely explore the park down the street). Even with our complaints about being “trapped” at school, there were still feelings of liberty that came with taking the bus, going out to eat and working a part-time job after school. It’s the feeling of being able to take care of yourself and provide for yourself; it’s knowing that you aren’t burdening anyone with your needs or wants.
Being confined at home has reminded me of how dependent I still am on my parents. I live under their roof, I eat their groceries and use the technology they pay for. Now that I’m 18, I’m supposed to be independent, yet I feel completely useless and unable to contribute to our household in any meaningful way. I resent having to ask my parents for their credit cards when I buy something online, being unable to go to the grocery store because I don’t have a license and burdening them with my wavering mental health. Yet at the same time, this refined dependency has given me a sharper awareness of my privilege. During these times, I am lucky to be surrounded by the luxuries provided by them; I am lucky to be surrounded by family and friends.
School, clubs, athletics, places of employment were homes away from home, and they gave my generation purpose. They were distractions from academic pressures, mental health issues and family crises. I could draw in the art room and take my mind off schoolwork and deadlines, or I could sit with my friends at lunch and talk about skateboarding and books.
I feel like I’ve lost these places of safety and intimacy. I’m expected to pursue all aspects of my life—school, hobbies, relationships—from my room, and it’s overwhelming. One of my friends can no longer go to school to seek counselling and avoid her toxic household. We can no longer speak with teachers about schoolwork and learning strategies, or seek guidance as we approach post-secondary. I feel a pure lack of agency over my life and my situation.
Over video call, my friends and I ask questions like: Can we go to university next year? Will things ever be the same again? No one knows the answer. Amid the uncertainty, there is one aspect of our conversation that remains constant: our ability to view the world with the glass half-full.
My classmate found a birthday package at her doorstep. A close friend started delivering snack bundles to classmates who lived close by. I celebrate my friends getting offers from dream schools through social media and text messages. I play mahjong with my family and catch up digitally with my sister. In the face of overwhelming uncertainty, I choose to ground myself in these small moments of humanity, familiarity and empathy.