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In secular spaces within the United States and Australia, the idea of Christmas evokes festivity, gift giving, music, and family. For some, the end-of-year holidays are a rejuvenating, rejoiceful time for reuniting with those we love. Maybe not all of us are thrilled to meet distant relatives, especially during polarized political times, but we nonetheless (hopefully) can tolerate those we see rarely. If the holidays don’t remind you of pleasant memories of family, Christmas surely brings to mind glorious mental images of people singing Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas is You, especially for young people. Whether you hate or love this song, or whether you are with or without a beau this holiday season, you definitely know the lyrics or have belted out this song in karaoke. (I mean, even if you hate Christmas, if you haven’t at least smiled at this pop sensation’s catchy forever-number-one-holiday-hit single playing, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you might just be heartless.)
Naturally, we reflect on our lives as we approach the year’s end and the beginning of another, many of us doing so in the still-festive-but-awkward period between Christmas and New Year’s day. How have we endured this year? How do we even begin to make sense of this year? Words fail to fully characterize 2020. We feel bombarded by clichés describing unprecedented times. But, I did encounter one profound statement about this year that may very well be a universal truth: 2020 is “like looking both ways before crossing the street and then getting hit by a submarine.” For digital natives, we perhaps can understand it as the ultimate meme of the hyperbole of 2?2? constantly outdoing itself. Or Ryan Reynolds’s short films “Match Made In Hell” and “When Satan Met 2020”, an interpretation of 2020 as the personified soul mate of Satan, might offer some much-needed laughs this holiday season.
This year, we felt exhausted, anxious, hopeful, depressed, and numb. No wonder people are looking forward to 2021 and hoping for better. Every month this year brought on disasters that outperformed the previous in either scale or shock factor. What’s next? Aliens? Asteroids? Firenadoes? Acknowledging the reality of this year, however, is not the same as pessimism. Despite the increasingly hyperbolical excesses of 2020, we can hope for a more predictable and stable path ahead.
Understanding the suffering of human beings is crucial in remaining hopeful and for me, my end-of-year contemplation involves unpacking how this holiday season differs from those in other years. Unlike in the past, many of us may this month only be able to reach families through a phone line or video call, be it through FaceTime or (sigh) Zoom. The coronavirus continues to change the way we interact, displacing much of our social world to a floating, digital world-wide web where we just feel a little lost and stuck. Here, we can only hope others’ presence to become more tangible as we crave human touch. Do you remember what it’s like to hug another person? To squeeze them a little tighter as your cheeks press against theirs because you haven’t seen them for so long? If you forgot, here’s an unironic guide that in any other year would have been fodder for The Onion. In all honesty though, please avoid human touch a little longer if you’re living in a country (ehem, like the United States or the United Kingdom) where cases are rising and if you care about public health, or at least the health of the people around you.
COVID-19 has exacerbated “touch deprivation” in 2020, with a majority of people across the world being unable to hug their loved ones or even shake another person’s hand comfortably and freely. Yet, even without physical contact, the quality of being in the physical presence of another person feels like someone has lifted a heavy box off your chest. I remember first seeing my best friends in the flesh after the strict 112-day lockdown period in Victoria, Australia: six feet apart and armored with masks, we gave each other big and awkward, but nonetheless heartwarming, “air hugs”. Gradually, though, in subsequent “reunions” we subconsciously inched closer towards each other with every positive report we heard about decreasing coronavirus cases in Melbourne. Following social distancing guidelines, we prioritized our safety until coronavirus cases hit zero and then we asked each other “should we hug?” right before saying hello and goodbye as we went back into our quarantine pods, I mean bedrooms.
On Christmas morning, I ate and laughed with dear friends and later, I dedicated the late afternoon to speaking with my grandparents and sending warm wishes to my parents and other relatives through Kakao Talk, a messaging app in South Korea. Having lived outside of Korea most of my life, I’ve never been particularly close with my grandparents. Phone calls with them would always elicit affirmations, like the word “네”, from me and my sister, as if responding with a “yes” to every “respect your parents” and “study hard” would convince them that we are dutiful grandchildren. While this ritualistic exchange of expressions connotes genuine respect, among some Korean diaspora, it occasionally elicits a running gag: do we really mean “Yes, I will” or are we just on autopilot? In 2020, this distance and artifice feels only greater.
Family reunions are qualitatively different (dare I say, inferior) this year. For those with access to a phone or computer, we can perhaps try to recreate the feeling of being in the same room as each other, especially as we share meals with faces on a screen. But, we lose so much. What do you miss? I miss my grandmother’s cooking. I miss setting the table for dinner with my cousins—an opportunity to bond with them as the previously socially anxious child me tried to make conversation by asking about dining arrangements.
Connecting in new, innovative ways is one of the slogans of this year by overly myopic optimists. In a socially distanced world, we can no longer meet as readily. 2020 has been a devastating year for many of us. As worldwide coronavirus deaths approach two million, we don’t need more productivity talk about what we’ve accomplished during quarantine or what new hobby we’ve picked up. What use is continuing on a pre-COVID timeline when time feels warped now more than ever? Prioritizing the relationships in our lives and our own mental health does not require constant creativity in trying to emulate in-person experiences. In college classes, for instance, several lecturers have been driven and innovative in restructuring their subjects for the later half of 2020 to facilitate compassionate learning. However, the truth is, the physical presence of people cannot be replicated online. Zoom University is a poor simulacrum. Even recreational events involving music and socialization do not take place as naturally anymore. Imagine Coachella online, for instance. Would you actually go? Have you tried organizing a jam session with a friend through a video call? I tried and seriously, don’t even bother: the perpetual voice lag and internet disruptions will drive you bonkers!
As we continue to reconnect with people during the holidays, I hope we can keep in mind that a simple letter and a voice call might often be sufficient too, at least for now. Listening to the voice of another may well be what we sometimes need. Asking ourselves to do our very best is not equivalent to achieving what we wanted to this year or constantly trying to make situations better, without being present and feeling the pain of the moment. It is probably enough to be doing what we can to take care of ourselves and continue reaching out to those we care about—trying to connect, as best we can, with each other during difficult times.
Feelings of sadness and guilt cast a shadow on me when I pick up the phone every Christmas and New Year’s Day, particularly because I see my relatives in person once every two years, if I’m lucky. Do other immigrants feel this way too? Regardless, “네”—the Korean word for “yes”—brings me closer to my grandparents. Even when I sometimes struggle to express myself as fully in my “mother tongue” as in English, even when I articulate my ideas well until I stumble on a syllable or two, my grandparents try to listen to me, without any judgment or questioning of my Koreanness (or at least I hope). Reciprocating respectfully, I consider their words and respond with “네”, not to mean “I agree wholeheartedly”, but “yes”, “I understand”, and “thank you” for caring and for having my best interests at heart, despite living so far away all my life.
In Melbourne, we are fortunate that coronavirus case numbers are extremely low, with currently only seven active cases in the state of Victoria, Australia. Everyone is still required to practice social distancing, but we are free to spend the holidays in the physical company of others. During Christmas afternoon, I walked to one of my favorite gardens near my apartment. I lay on a small hill with a view of the city and watched the sunset as I chuckled at my grandpa cracking a joke about the perks of being in the countryside, as opposed to the urban sprawl in Korea. Looking behind me, I saw an older couple, both with beautiful grey hair, sitting on a bench, smiling at their dog that slowly approached me, almost teasing me, as if he knew I am both infatuated with and seriously terrified of dogs. (I’ve never had a dog or cat growing up, okay. Plus, it’s so hard when you’re doubly socialized in different cultural contexts to love and fear animals!) The woman was leaning on the chest of the man as they snuggled and looked at the skyline. I immediately felt a little awkward. Displays of affection among older South Koreans, in my experience, are never this overt and public, but this couple reminded me of my relatives, whose concern and care I deeply feel, even and especially within the phrases, “Have you eaten today?”, “How is college?”, and “Please call your parents more often.”
Whether we experience nostalgia, grief, loneliness, displacement, or joy during this time, I do hope we all remember that these holidays can be especially difficult for many. We’re allowed to feel whatever we feel on any given day, even on days we’re expected to be happy. Upon seeing an advertisement a few days ago by a suicide-prevention organization, I want to echo their message of sending love to those physically apart; those grieving a loved one; those struggling with their mental health; those whose family relationships are strained; essential workers who are continuously, tirelessly working; those separated from loved ones due to illness; volunteers giving their time to help others; those struggling to afford a celebration; and anyone else who needs more warmth in their lives. The holiday season can be especially challenging for vulnerable people, including those who are homeless and poor. Completed suicides have decreased in 2020 by five percent across the state of New South Wales in Australia, particularly as people are seeking help through calls to helplines (which increased by twenty percent this year). However, we are also seeing elevated levels of depression and anxiety during the pandemic. In Victoria, as people are returning to a post-lockdown reality, financial pressures and family stresses are increasing, which are particularly worrying for the evermore pressing issue of domestic violence.
Here is a lesson I glean from William Shakpeseare’s King Lear: “And worse I may be yet: the worst is not / So long as we can say ‘This is the worst.’” No matter how horrible life feels this year, it is not “the worst” while we are still able to reflect upon it. Emerging from the lockdown into public spaces, where Victorians fear less about getting ill and can walk around gardens and laneways again, gives me more hope. A combination of weariness and cautiousness in a pandemic is understandable and I refuse to believe that the act of accepting the reality of this year is pessimistic. Negativity, I firmly maintain, is the giving up of any hope that things can get better.
May the holidays and approaching new year not bring just cheer, but some solace and warmth. Reach out, please, to those you care about and if you need help yourselves.