This piece was originally published on Medium on 25 May 2020.
Can you really be family if you need to spend time apart? I know that, at least from the reactions from the general public in the UK, and the exact points of indignation regarding the Cummings fiasco* in terms of rule breaking versus public endangerment and government-allowed mass death, the sticking point seems to be the idea of “the rule.” The idea of “not being allowed’’ to see family that has become ill or being able to mourn those who have passed, while he “got to” seems to be more of an issue than the fact that so many have needlessly become ill or died as a point of government neglect. In essence, the biggest impediment to feeling “normal” here seems to be being told to not see family, in a society that seems to have put a particular emphasis on physically seeing family, even if it is the best course of action to keep everyone – especially at risk family members safe. There is an entitlement to seeing who you want when you want at play here, something I think that is very much reflective of how insular some sections of society can be, not only here, with no true scale of what life is like for so many people in the world as a matter of normalcy.
I remember when I knew that we were different growing up. It wasn’t because some other child said something about the way I looked or asked if I was really an American (though those things, of course, both happened more than once). It was when every year around major holidays and school breaks, kids would come back from school, and they would talk about not just vacations, but vacations with aunts and uncles, seeing their cousins, and spending time with grandparents – and how much that access to face-to-face time with extended family was taken for granted. Learning to counter questions like “is your grandma dead” because that was the only rational some people could settle on for why we weren’t off to the grandparents’ house at Christmas or Easter was an early lesson. But like many other students whose parents might have chosen to live in the US from somewhere else, seeing grandparents and cousins and aunts and uncles every year simply was not a given. But that never meant we weren’t close to them.
Every birthday, every holiday, meant calls from relatives around the globe – they would be very quick, especially before Reliance and other global services were a thing – but nevertheless, it is how I met and developed relationships with aunts and uncles and cousins, with my grandparents and their generation of siblings. I met my grandfather once in my life, but I nevertheless felt incredibly close to him. That in-person meeting was reinforced by conversations, the interest he took in me from afar. When I was able to see my grandmother in person again a couple winters ago, well, it had been 23 years apart. And yet, the familial closeness remains. My family is far from unique; we’re simply global, like many other families who find themselves in that position by either choice or circumstances. We span continents; we have learned that there is no distance that cannot be bridged. We know that sometimes when you leave, you end up being gone far longer than you meant to; it doesn’t change the fact that the family bonds are still there. And also, as much as wants might play into anything – wanting to go home, wanting to see and hug the people who mean most to you – well, want has nothing to do with what is right for all.
My biggest fear is that, in pursuing a degree in another country and getting married there too, I’ll have left my home for longer than I intended simply because it is not so simple to just fly back and forth between the US and the UK right now. Forgetting the logistics of it – the ethics of it are far too much to bear. There has been no question since January, as our wedding RSVPs started arriving, that our wants and our plans would be completely secondary to the global situation. Our lives and our families are global. It was no longer a balancing act of easiest places for the most people to fly into taking into account various levels of xenophobia versus approval to enter the country. It was a deadly calculus; do we wait and risk old age and circumstance meaning that some of our most dear cannot be part of the celebration, or do we risk holding a global super-spreader event that would likely cost our loved ones their health, if not their lives. Framed that way, there was not even a question, or even multiple courses of actions. Personal wants, whatever we think our ‘freedoms’ might be or what we feel entitled to as a ‘normal’ course of action, need to be put aside when such wants and entitlements put other people at risk, no matter how odd the times or how disruptive they might feel. To do anything to try to rush past this fact, for the sake of personal wants, is nothing short of selfish, nothing short of lacking awareness of what kind of hells so many others have gone through and what they have sacrificed.
Unprecedented is a word that gets thrown around a lot right now. And it is not really accurate – its not accurate at all actually. It simply is the easy way of sidestepping the phrase “things like this aren’t meant to happen to people like ‘us.’” Despite SARS, MERS, H1N1, and Ebola all happening in recent memory, despite refugee crisis upon crisis, natural disasters, worsening impacts from climate change, and so many other ills, on top of the ‘normal’ postcolonial phenomenon of people risking everything and moving across countries with no idea of when they might see their families again in search of a better chance, some people have no concept of separation, of the difference between a ‘want’ and an entitlement. It gets wrapped up in what multiple experts in recent weeks have referred to as a ‘childish’ conceptualization of freedom, to be sure, but also, in a very odd cultural construction where rule following is about the image of following the rules, while also internalizing a feeling that this is done out of one’s good graces, but really, they don’t have to do what they are doing.
Entitlements are all about exceptions – all the reasons why draconian rules should not apply to an individual. It’s not about what someone is allowed to do but rather, the ways in which they have the the ‘right’ or ‘freedom’ to be above the rules, because of who they are inherently. When something that seems like an intrinsic part of life is suddenly limited, of course it is difficult to bear. But in those moments there is a choice: we can either dig our heels in and challenge the forces that we see as impeding our ‘rights’, or we can embrace the opportunity to consider what other peoples’ lives might be like. The bitter truth is that in this modern world, more people have to leave their loved ones behind – live, love, die and mourn without being ever able to be near them – than get to hold both their futures and their pasts. This is a chance to reflect on the fact that what is normal for some, is not really, the ‘normal’ for all. This is not to say that isolation is easy, or that the new world of pandemics that probably could have been prepared for is something that doesn’t require significant adjustment. It is to say, however, that the obsession with rule following versus a personal understanding of a duty to communities in difficult time is something, quite frankly, that a lot of people need to grapple a little harder with before bemoaning the length of current lockdowns in envy of those who are openly breaking them.
Isolation is hard; I merely struggle with the situation I have known my entire life, worrying if I have accidentally left another branch of my family in a way that I will not be with them for many more years than planned. But I’m a third-culture kid who grew up in a global family before internet-tech made these relationships easier to bear: I have the tools to survive that. It is downright painful for so many friends and acquaintances who are in epicenters, who are without other humans in their households, who are without their friends and found-families and have been without them for months. And I watch as these friends and acquaintances screech their anguish into various voids, and then in the same breath reiterate their same commitment to bearing the loneliness for the good of their societies. I have the tools to handle prolonged isolation from family, like every immigrant does, like every child of immigrants does. And this is not specific to immigrants; this is a skill that can be developed with acceptance that the world you live in is different from the way you might think it should have been. Entitlement, however, is insisting that you don’t have to learn to use the skill, because you’re not like those people who do have to, who have to build different networks, and get by with different, made and found families – and then without them too – every day. Entitlement is focusing on the rules, and who broke them, and who gets to do so with impunity, who gets to lie about it, and how unfair that is, without looking at the bigger picture. One day I’ll hug my family again. One day I’ll go home, and friends will no longer be completely alone in their spaces and we’ll feel a little better about breathing fresh air together. But until then, there will be phone calls and video chats, texts and snail mail, and I will also keep thinking about the next country I might just be calling myself an immigrant in, and continuing the pattern of distant closeness without the entitlement to being family-in-person, but being a family nonetheless.
* the breaking lockdown multiple times fiasco, not any of the other ones — I know, it is hard to keep track