As 2021 draws to an end…

“Wait what, it’s 2022 soon? But COVID is still here to stay…” Remember last year when the vaccines first came out and we were like, “life is going to be back to normal soon!” Unfortunately with the emergence of Delta and Omicron variants, having the two jabs were no longer the golden tickets that we imagined.*

Coping with COVID

Indeed, the pandemic itself has blown our mind repeatedly ever since we were finally convinced that we had to limit in-person activities and switch things online. In hindsight, we should be proud of ourselves for the drastic changes we’ve adapted to — the new normal, if you like to call it (it still amazed me on how I collaborated with people while interning at Cockroach Labs without meeting anyone in person). We should be proud to have maintained the resilience amid the difficult times (e.g. missing my family and convocation ceremony). And we took comfort on the work-from-home and study-from-home (and even exam-from-home for the case of TOEFL and GRE) coziness that saves us from commuting and moving into a new city altogether.

But have we fully coped with this new normal? I don’t know. Other than the times when we could finally please the lazy self of not going anywhere, there are other parts of us that we fail to satisfy. Did we perform / learn as well under the work-from-home environment? Do we truly enjoy them? Are our mental / physical health still the same under lockdowns? Are we still finding the balance in minimizing exposure risk vs doing whatever’s natural for us? These worries may sound abstract, but the COVID weight I gained was tangible (only managed to get rid of them after sustained morning runs at MIT). There’s also the awkwardness of attending office hours via Zoom that I still couldn’t fully get used to! (can you still show your code privately to a TA for debugging)?

“If lockdown sustains for 5 years I could very well get depression,” I once told my dad. This is probably an exaggeration, but still underscores the anxiety I had over the future uncertainties.

Making things worse was when the COVID situation went dire in Malaysia amid the surge of Delta variant when the vaccination program just started to ramp up, which made me worry about the well-being of my family. I’m glad that they ended up fine (they practically stayed home except for weekly grocery trip), but not everyone was that lucky — one distant relative passed away from this virus (I hope his family is doing okay now).

One silver lining that I could get out of is that there are a select set of people that I got closer to: my housemates over the pandemic (Andrew and Jay, the two Malaysians who also graduated from Waterloo around the same time as I did). Our primary interaction was simple: cook together, grocery hauling, and repeat for a good 16 months. Owing to the variety of dishes we made, every single meal with them was enjoyable. Spicing these things up were the board games session (Hanabi), eating out to satiate our cravings, Genshin Impact monster fights together (including embarrassing myself before them by repeatedly spelling f-bomb when fighting aybss mages in a domain), and the occasional Toronto trip after getting our vaccines. Looking at these memories makes me feel that my credits to them in a single section of a video wasn’t enough.

The housemate farewell pic

The PhD Dream

2021 is also a turning point (as planned) — I finished my undergrad and transitioned myself into a graduate student. This means saying goodbye to my Canadian friends, and continuing my path in academics while they started building their careers. I’m still fortunate enough to get to know enough people in my first four months of MIT, but these newly built friendship can’t replace the kinship I built with my peers in Canada over the past 4-5 years (yes I friggin missed them). This reminds me of my one recent grocery trip to a Chinese store somewhere in Boston that invoked the memories of the weekly T&T trip with housemates at Waterloo — the good times that were now behind us!

Finally, starting a graduate program means introducing research into as a core part of my life. A friend once joked about how we could package ourselves professionally as a “researcher”, while still enjoying student perks (like Apple Education or Amazon Prime). In reality handling two roles at the same time posed some challenges for me as a newbie. Like others, I want to power up on my research since Day 1, but realized that coursework took out significant amount of time from me. And perhaps my familiarity as being a student rather than a researcher, and that classes are easier than research (in terms of content), inevitably made it harder for me to have the same level of enthusiasm for my research as compared to classes. I’m aware, however, that this is something I need to overcome as an aspiring independent researcher — one who’s capable of having his own research agenda (also a goal of PhD). All these are something I need to work on continuously, anyway. (An analogy would be one of my favourite classical pianists of the new generation, Kate Liu, who said during an interview that performing at the Chopin competition was when she felt that she was a pianist, instead of a student).

Like everyone else, I do hope that the pandemic will subside sooner than later. But the pandemic itself brought some new discovery: remote work and learning, for example. While I’m not a big fan of having every single interaction through the computer screen, I do hope that remote mode could become an option when travel becomes prohibitive (e.g. attending conferences, where travel could sometimes be a hassle!).

As for 2022 and beyond…it’s still some time, and I remain excited to see where the PhD journey would lead me to!

* Disclaimer: I still trust vaccines’ efficacy in minimizing our chance of getting bad infection outcome (e.g. hospitalized). But it’s still a tad disappointing that we can’t live like COVID is no longer a thing even with the vaccines.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s