“I dream of when I can once again experience America in the light of day.”
By Chonnipha Piriyalertsak
I am 11 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time. Ever since I came back home to Thailand, every interaction that tethers me to Penn— Zoom classes, FaceTime catch-ups, text messages—has taken place at night. When the sun goes down in Bangkok, my college experience in America comes back to life. During the daytime, I wait.
Everyone I see back home—friends, family, acquaintances—asks me how long I’ll have to wait.
“When do you think you’ll be able to go back to college?”
“I don’t know. At least not for another six months.”
“I should hope so, America looks terrifying right now. Most COVID-19 cases in the world! Do you think you can go back for spring?”
I wish I could turn back the clock to pre-pandemic times, when the standard greetings consisted of questions that were easier and more pleasant to answer. For example: “What are you going to do with your major?” and “Did you gain weight?”
At least with those questions, I was the most qualified person to answer them. But as one of the lucky few attending an American university, I have somehow become the local authority for predicting America’s future and explaining its COVID-19 response.
As a sophomore social sciences major, I have grown weary of dealing with questions that challenge even the most renowned global health experts. To be fair, I understand why the people around me are so fascinated. Thailand’s first wave of COVID-19 transmission ended on May 25, after which the nation went 100 days without a single recorded local transmission. I’m not sure which is more difficult to believe: the fact that my so-called “Third World” country managed this feat, or that the all-powerful United States has failed so miserably by comparison.
I’m still amazed that Thailand did so well in handling the virus. Every day I expect hundreds of new cases to pop up out of nowhere, revealing that our low numbers were a result of cases being kept in the dark. Maybe it’s because this pandemic has made me a cynic, or maybe I’m just used to thinking of my home as a “developing nation,” forever plagued by poverty and peril. Granted, our economic outlook is now predicted to be the worst in Asia, but it seems like a worthwhile sacrifice to save as many lives as Thailand appears to have done. The factors behind our success are obvious to the point of almost being too easy: a strict lockdown was strongly enforced, everyone returning from at-risk countries is required to remain in state quarantine for 14 days, and mask-wearing is a social norm. It just all seems so breathtakingly simple.
Another question that people keep asking me: “Why can’t they all just wear masks?”
The anti-mask movement seems particularly ludicrous in my part of the world. Until I went to the US for college, I never realized that “mask culture” existed, because in Thailand it’s just called “common sense.” Even before the pandemic, masks were a common sight in Bangkok—we wear them for mild colds, allergies, or even just to fend against smog. The thought of doing something that could protect yourself and your community, and with so little personal inconvenience to boot, is a no-brainer. When states in America started implementing mask mandates, everyone around me was shocked—that they weren’t already in place to begin with. Like the time difference with my country, the US’s COVID-19 response seems to be perpetually lagging behind, but by more than 11 hours.
I think it would be unfair to say that American policymakers have been slow to act in every stage of this pandemic. In fact, many areas in the United States have reopened with lightning speed. I’m still grappling to come to terms with how absurdly small my threshold for a “low” number of cases is in comparison with American standards. In July, the Thai government sent an entire province back into lockdown to contain the mere possibility of one new case in the area. From where I’m sitting, any number above single digits is cause for concern. The fact that Philadelphia began to reopen with more than 100 cases per day (and that this is considered relatively low in the US context) is completely confounding to those around me.
Whenever I read about demands to reopen, I feel as if the US is not only in my opposite time zone, but that it also appears to exist in an alternate reality. I’m reminded of a line from A Streetcar Named Desire: “I don’t want realism. I want magic!”
Like Blanche DuBois, so many plans appear to hinge on a continued denial of stark reality. The dark is comforting, or at any rate some people seem to prefer it. Yet ignoring reality only exacerbates the inevitable, and relying on the kindness of strangers hasn’t worked.
Nevertheless, I can’t entirely blame people for wanting to get back to normal as quickly as possible. In fact, when Penn was still contemplating a hybrid model for this fall semester, I was tempted to return, desperate to salvage the college experience that I had barely begun. For months, I exhausted my mind, jumping through countless mental hoops to rationalize this decision. The risks kept piling up: returning to a country with so many infections, possibly not seeing my family for a full year due to the lack of return flights, being faced with the consequences of fellow students failing to social-distance. I kept trying to delude myself into justifying a return, scraping the bottom of the barrel for arguments: the time zone difference (many classes were already asynchronous), seeing friends (many of whom weren’t returning), and wanting my independence as a young adult (my cooking skills are dismal).
“I feel like I’m sending you off to war,” my mother said, scouring the internet for a hazmat suit, as we tried to strategize how I could minimize potential exposure on a 26-hour connecting flight.
Fortunately I came to my senses a month before Penn backtracked on its fall plans at the 11th hour. Despite my best efforts, I just couldn’t see how it would be possible to enforce effective social distancing within a college environment. To say my family was relieved would be an understatement; every news update looked like a new red flag. Viruses, violence, vote-rigging: international media now portray the US as having fallen into nihilistic anarchy (or what I can’t help thinking of as a State of Nietzsche). I imagine the entire world is watching America in the same way, observing its moment of darkness through blue-light screens.
There are days when I want to block out the pandemic pandemonium, muting the never-ending noise of notifications. As we must so often remind ourselves, social distancing is a privilege. Social-media distancing? Even more so. Like Odysseus stranded on Ogygia, I could live in my tropical paradise, untouched by news from the outside world. If ignorance is bliss, my phone is the only obstacle to true happiness. With the press of a button, I could shut off my 2020 vision, and remain on my island in the sun. Despite this enticing option, I keep my phone switched on, unwilling to lose my one connection to the world I left behind.
In total, I’ve only spent seven months in the United States; the first time I set foot in the country was three days before New Student Orientation. When I reflect on my freshman year, I remember how excited I was by the shiny novelties of going to college in the US: electrifying discussions enabled by freedom of speech, the sheer wealth of educational resources, the melting pot of cultures. As I look back, I’m finding it near impossible to reconcile the golden nostalgia of my memories with the darkness that envelops the America I see today.
I view my time at Penn through rose-tinted lenses, but in the time of COVID-19, my glasses are clouded with mask-induced fog, and everything in front of me looks hazy. The questions don’t go away, and the answers don’t get any easier. Forget five-year plans—I don’t even know which country I’ll be in come January. As I return to Zoom University, all I can do is keep adjusting my mindset to fit a place that is 11 hours behind, continuously calculating and comparing the difference.
I dream of when I can once again experience America in the light of day. Until then, I’ll just have to keep watching it in the dark.
Chonnipha Piriyalertsak is a College sophomore majoring in Philosophy, Politics & Economics.