Brian Lee Huynh shares a story about his experience finishing the 2020 academic year at home, due to social distance measures in place in Wisconsin. Brian reflects on how being at home with his family has helped them reconnect and become closer at this time.This story was recorded for the Madison podcast, Inside Stories. To hear the full episode and to subscribe to the podcast, click here: https://inside-stories.simplecast.com/episodes/inside-stories-covid-19-6
Narrator Name: Brian Lee Huynh
Interviewer Name: N/A
Date of Interview: Spring 2020
Brian Lee Huynh: What was once mundane is now exciting to me, was once normal is now a distant memory from a time I might never return to. Since the start of spring break, I’ve been at home in Milwaukee, roughly eighty miles away from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where I expected to finish off the remainder of my sophomore year. Of course, that didn’t happen (sighs).
Instead of roaming around campus trying to find a quiet place to cram for finals, inevitably ending up in either Memorial Library or some hidden cove in one of the unions, I struggled to find the motivation to study for open-book online exams in my parents’ basement. Finals week didn’t feel like finals week. Clicking “Submit” on my last exam wasn’t as satisfying or as stressful as scrambling to jot down my final thoughts in a lecture hall packed with people who I’d seen all semester, and those who only showed up when their grades depended on it.
I’ve come to find that it’s these little details that have made my college experience memorable thus far. And though I was reluctant to admit it at first, the more I think about it, my memories of Madison always bring me back to people, for better or worse. And it’s funny in its way, because I’ll be the first one to tell you that I’m an introvert with enough social anxiety to make large crowds feel like war zones where it’s me against the world. And yet, the thing I miss the most about school and the way things used to be is the people.
Now don’t get me wrong—the first week or so of online learning was great. I could sleep at 4 a.m. and wake up at one in the afternoon without being late. I could learn at my own pace without dealing with obnoxious people interrupting class. But after a while, the monotony kicked in, and I would have given anything to have someone enter halfway through a lecture and choose the most inconvenient seat possible, just to remind me that I wasn’t alone, sitting behind the screen during a pandemic.
I never thought I would say this, but social distancing is hard, even for introverts. For me, being on the periphery of campus life was mostly a choice, and I enjoyed people watching, looking from afar at strangers I might meet someday and those with paths that would never intersect with mine. It made me feel like I was a part of something, that I wasn’t the only small fish in a gigantic pond of other college students trying to figure out what it all means. The greatest realization that I’ve come to in this time away from others is that technology is not advanced enough, nor will it ever be, to replace human interaction.
My most memorable learning experiences involve people in one way or another. Even an introvert like myself is forced to admit that I miss the hustle and bustle of campus life. I miss laughing with people in crowded spaces, I miss trying to stay awake in lecture halls that are always either too hot or too cold, regardless of the time of year. I miss the communal feeling of exhaustion that fills the air during finals season, as well as the shared feeling of relief upon turning in semester-long projects. Isn’t it horrible how we learn to miss things only when they’re gone? I heard somewhere that you can’t miss someone if they won’t go away, and I think I had to learn that one the hard way.
My older sister, Linda, graduated from Madison this year, and she also came home to isolate with our parents. You can imagine how little time we’ve spent with them in the last few years, with us both going to college in a different city. I was there when my mom unsuccessfully fought back tears in the long car ride home after leaving Linda in her dorm four years ago. I remember her calling me every day during my freshman year to make sure I was taking my vitamins and wasn’t being too stupid. I owe my mom and dad an apology for every call I never picked up, every message I left unread for weeks. Out of all of the foolish decisions I’ve made in the last two years, the dumbest thing I’ve done in my college career is think I was too busy for my family. We drifted apart. Even back then, technology was not enough to replace human interaction.
This time at home has given us a chance to rediscover who we are and to rebuild the bonds that were wearing thin. So, while the coronavirus may have distanced the world, it’s also brought my family back together. We don’t argue as much as we used to. We laugh more often than not, and it kind of feels like we’re kids again. I bother my sister until she punches me while my mom and dad tell jokes and make sure we never go hungry.
And while technology is still an incredibly fickle thing, I have to give it credit. It’s also brought the rest of my family closer together. Every day the silence is broken by group calls with family from across the globe, so the house is always buzzing with laughter and new family gossip. Even family we rarely hear from are calling to see how we’re doing.
My mom always seems to be the one orchestrating these video calls, which is rather fitting, seeing as she’s always been the one trying to hold things together. She’s always been the type to shoulder every burden without complaining, to go to work before the sun rises and come back just before midnight and still find a way to make dinner. It never occurred to me that my mother is just a human being. Her face is finally starting to show the wrinkles of time that mark the passing of countless birthdays. Bags under her eyes tell the story of her restlessness, most likely from worrying about Linda and me over the years. When she smiles, I can see the creases from the decades of laughter and struggle that have come before. I had to acknowledge for the first time that she’s not getting any younger, and neither are we. Linda’s twenty-three. I’m turning twenty in June. My dad’s hair count is nearing the single digits.
The pandemic has made me address truths that I’ve been too afraid or too oblivious to face. In this time away from the countless distractions of the world, I’ve been forced to stand at the periphery of my own life and look inward, at the past, present, and what it means for the future. And I can’t help but worry. When this eventually ends and we start to reclaim bits and pieces of what once was our normal lives, will I fall back into my old ways? Will we drift apart once more? And will it take another earth-shattering loss for me to appreciate what I have? (Sighs.) As with everything these days, I don’t know.