Individual narratives in a collective struggle

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Author: David Saad Per Asplund, B.A. Anthropology, University of California, Riverside

Fieldsite: Riverside, located in Southern California. While sitting in my apartment, I interviewed my participants by using the call feature in the Facebook chat. I was able to reach out to one participant in Athens (Greece), one in Minnesota, one in Wisconsin, and lastly one in California.

Two of my housemates had already left to return home. My third housemate and I sat down at the dinner table. He was telling me how frustrated he was, saying: “this stupid virus is ruining everything for me.” Social isolation was disrupting the life that he has struggled to build over the past seven months: the girl he liked had to move, income was an issue due to unemployment, and resources were scarce. Now that online classes had taken the place of his in-person classes, his motivation was at an all-time low. On the other hand, I was angry at him for not washing his hands as often as the government was recommending. I was also much more afraid of contracting something since I was planning on returning to Sweden to be closer to family. My mom has a very weak immune system, so my main focus was on keeping her safe.

The difference between what was important to my housemate and what was important to me was so significant, it felt like day and night. This piqued my curiosity about why social distancing revolves around certain issues more than others for different people. I contacted people that I knew and asked them if they wanted to be a part of a small project where they shared how their lives had changed because of isolation. I asked questions to find out what their lives had been like before and how they changed after the lockdown was imposed, as well as what the most frustrating thing about being self-isolated was. The purpose of this fieldwork was to let personal narratives of each participant be shared in a relatable way so that others going through the same things can find some comfort in knowing that they are not alone. Furthermore, I was also interested in knowing why we have different priorities when we are all facing the same pandemic.

Participants’ Frustrations

One of the participants that I interviewed shared with me how frustrating it was that she had spent so much time trying to recreate herself and forming a new identity. “I put a lot of effort into ‘recreating’ myself as the person I wanted to be [because] my family has held me back from being that person…the hardest part about quarantine for me is being trapped in my house with the people I have been trying to escape for so long and I can no longer go somewhere else to escape”, she says.

Another one of the participants shared with me how he misses going to the gym and seeing his friend, which made him depressed and frustrated. Going to the gym is a liberating feeling that makes him feel free, it is a part of who he is that cannot be substituted with anything else. He explained this by saying (I am paraphrasing here) “if 50% of me revolves around the gym, 25% around family, and 25% around friends, then if you take the gym away from him then half of me is gone”.

Another participant was frustrated because the routine and life that she had built for herself had been taken away from her. She no longer had a structured life of going to class, work, cooking, free time, and seeing friends. I asked her to walk me through her life during isolation.“My sleep schedule has gone totally off, so I sleep at like 5 or like 6 am in the morning, and then I wake up in the afternoon which is terrible, ’cause it not only just throws off my sleep it also throws off my eating habits completely, and home workouts are not just as fun.”


After asking around and talking to people about what they were frustrated about and asking them to describe why what they said was a frustration, I realized that there was no one objective “thing” that is most important. My housemate comes from a very strict and conservative household where dating was not allowed until marriage, so it makes sense why not being able to see the girl he liked was important.

The first participant, who is also my Zumba instructor, misses going back to teach classes because her identity as an instructor was taken away from her, and she is now stuck with the people who try to identify her as someone else. Going to the gym might seem like a minor thing for someone to have as their number one priority, but for some, lifting weights is more than just about building muscles and staying healthy, it is a part of their character. As for myself, my mother was diagnosed with cancer at the end of 2016, and her body took a huge blow after chemotherapy. My dad called me a Thursday night and said, “David, you need to fly back to Sweden because mom might not survive the weekend.” My urge to return healthy and safe became my number one priority, but that does not give me the right to pass judgement onto others’ struggle and where their priorities should lie.

My best friend taught me a saying many years ago as a tool to practice understanding others: “you have got to be bigger than your own emotions.” This resonated with me, and in times like this, I want to be bigger than what I feel today because each individual struggle stems from individual experience and mine was valuable and unique as everyone else’s.

What now?

I would encourage everyone to find out about what they are frustrated and worried about when being isolated. Ask your friends, family, and people that you care about what they are frustrated about, and avoid trying to justify to yourself why they should feel/think differently. When you are watching the news, you will see that people will have different priorities that are unlike yours, and that is okay.

Whether you miss going to the gym or it feels like your liberty was taken away from you for some other reason (maybe you are scared of contracting the virus because people you care about are in a high-risk demographic, or maybe you just struggle to build a routine and a new sleeping and eating schedule), just know that you are not alone.

The illustration is an original illustration by Lia Yue