By Sunayana Basa
Before COVID-19, I never questioned my extroversion; it has always been my strength, both professionally and personally. I have always loved connecting with others. My parents would have to keep an eye on me at grocery stores because I would frequently talk to strangers without a care in the world. In school, I was eager to be in group projects and work with others, even getting in trouble a few times for talking when I wasn’t supposed to. Every personality test I’ve ever taken has indicated that I am a “people person”.
In my personal life, my extroversion has been a natural extension of my South Asian roots. In India, having a big community is not just part of the culture, it is the culture. India is a country built off of social interdependence; as Indians, we place so much value in maintaining relationships with others, regardless of how strained these relationships may be. And relationships take work – they mean meeting with extended family and answering nosy questions again and again and again.
Think about your multi-day weddings, your giant pujas, even just the hustle and bustle required to complete everyday tasks – they don’t seem nearly as daunting when you are excited to see everyone. These events are exhilarating – they are my chance to see everyone who is not a part of my day to day life. I mean, who doesn’t love soaking in the craziness of a get together? The overactive kids who run around full speed, the aunties gossiping in the kitchen, the uncles chatting about the news – you can feel the buzz in the air.
When COVID-19 hit California (#BayAreaYayArea) in March and the stay-at-home order was first announced, I truly thought I could handle it. I quickly became the champion of Zoom meetups, researching new and innovative ways of keeping up with my loved ones. I tried to pick up new hobbies (rest in peace to my two-day Ukulele career), telling myself that when things went back to “normal”, these hobbies could be ones I could share with others. I have always been an optimist; I was convinced that the restrictions were only temporary, and this “flu” couldn’t shut down the world longer than it already had.
But as the weeks turned into months and the total number of cases continued to go up, I soon realized blind optimism wasn’t going to work anymore. I started feeling exhausted, with each day dragging on longer than the last. Each socially distant meet-up left me feeling paranoid and drained, and it became harder to find the energy to do the things I once loved. I stopped scheduling Zoom calls, or attending the ones others set up. I started dropping the hobbies I was so excited to pursue and share with others, and even struggled to focus on my pre-pandemic hobbies.
I found myself constantly anxious in a COVID-19 world; I was not only nervous that I would get sick, or worse, spread the disease to someone else, but I was also worried about my friends and family and wanting a reassuring hug. My extroverted self had actually become a hindrance, and I was constantly fighting against my desire to just see other people.
I fully recognize why this social distance is necessary; I know that by maintaining six feet of space and wearing masks, I am keeping others and myself safe. But the isolation that comes with all of this – it is not just hard, it is painful. I am no longer in a world where I can travel to be there to show my support or use my body language to convey an idea or thought. Meetings with friends I saw each day have been reduced to scheduled phone calls and Zoom sessions. And while there is solace in the fact that we have the technology to meet virtually, it doesn’t make it any easier.
As social distancing continues, I can’t help but wonder how much the life we grew up in will change, and subsequently how we will have to change to accept that. There is no guidebook for a pandemic in a modern world; the unspoken rules I grew up with, from shaking hands with new people to grabbing drinks, have undoubtedly changed. The belief that people will do the right thing without being asked, and that we, as a nation will overcome COVID-19 with grace, seems laughable now. With each day, our collective strengths and weaknesses as a society are becoming more apparent; the options that seemed endless less than a year ago are so incredibly limited. What I once considered a huge part of my personality has been minimized in an environment that no longer supports it. That fact alone makes it harder to serve myself as well as others, and find a balance that keeps me both sane and safe.
I wish I could say I have found that balance, and that even in the midst of COVID-19, I have “cracked the code” for being extroverted in a socially distanced world. Truth is, I still have my days where I feel incredibly overwhelmed, where I miss the times when I could call friends and say I was coming over for a cup of chai without worrying about a mask or hand sanitizer. There are days I have to force myself into my hobbies or to join Zoom calls, even though all I want to do is lie in bed. But for each of the times I feel that way, I have to remind myself that even though I am alone physically, I am not alone in spirit. While this time has been incredibly challenging, it has also allowed me to pause and reflect on the fact that I can still make connections in quarantine.
I have been able to renew relationships in India, becoming closer with cousins and my grandpa and showing them more of my life than I ever have before. My phone calls with friends have become deeper and more honest, with each of us commiserating over 2020 being so unbelievable. Even the stories I have seen on social media have become much more relatable, with hundreds of comments on how COVID-19 has changed many lives in similar ways. There is beauty in that shared connection, that every person in the world today has lived through this time. And even though my extroversion isn’t serving me now, it will be my strength another day. I mean, in a post-COVID world, someone has to be the first to go out and spend time with others again, right?