Home Of Nowhere

We’re told to work from home and to stay at home, but the restriction to domestic boundaries don’t seem to suit that many people. No reason to get dressed nicely, perhaps?


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By Gordon Goh

I am staying home. I am listening to music played on my Rega, with Barbara Streisand (who not long ago praised the PM on Twitter for acing the Fareed Zakaria interview on CNN’s GPS show), singing the directed-at-Trump Don’t Lie to Me; reading the books that have been stacking up—higher and higher—by the side of my desk and bed; and laundering clothes I have not worn in the past two years to keep them fresh. Outside is no lure, not when so many, contrary to what we’ve been told, continue to go about their daily lives in groups and in close proximity—contiguous with you, without a care in the world. Social distancing should really be called by the less euphemistic safe distancing or better still, as CNN’s Sanjay Gupta suggested, “physical distancing”. Or, as one middle-aged fellow was heard telling a fellow shopper at Sheng Siong, “Stay away from me!” Say it like what it must be. The world is full of barmpots.

The COVID-19 pandemic really opened my eyes to what we are like as a people. Humanity is on full show—well-dressed or not, it’s warts and all in public view. You still meet people who take things so lightly, it’s as if the Year of the Rat has not already arrived, and they can go about as they well please. Manners, thoughtfulness, and prudence are used up as quickly as toilet paper. No matter how frequently Gurmit Singh-as-Phua Chu Kang bleat-pleads on telly, how loudly he squawk-sings for all to do otherwise, the reality on the ground is quite the opposite of what the higher-ups would have us believe.

The order now is for us to remain indoors, within the confines of what we call home. But I’ve heard people say it’s “inconvenient” to stay in one’s own residence. Why are people so uncomfortable in their own domesticity? Are their resistance to life circumscribed by the four walls of home the same as that of students who hog tables in cafés to do their school work because home is inexpedient to study? Even with the drip-feed of doomsday-like news daily, many cannot find their home a secure refuge, preferring instead to gather in groups outside to better serve as a mobile Petri dish. Way before any daunting amount of time is spent indoors, some are already saying how enervating it has been. Only Netflix, it seems, is the tonic to revive stay-at-home fatigue. How many e-mags are now recommending “The Best Shows to Watch on Netflix While You’re Social Distancing and Staying Home”?

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It’s all rather curious if you consider that we have not been given the order for an actual lockdown, nor what our northern neighbour has in place—the Movement Control Order (MCO). Yet, lassitude has already set in. Many people are so fearful that shopping and browsing shall be no more and they would be so lacking in the essentials of life that they started thronging (and ending up queuing sans any sense of social distancing) stores that will close for the rest of the month, such as Swedish meatball giant Ikea. Or were they out to buy those items that will, as the mega-retailer urges, “Make Home Count”? Because, until now, it has not? It is mind boggling what home is like for most people. We don’t know how lacking our dwellings are (or how insufficiently stocked with toilet rolls) until a virus of unimaginable virulence strikes.

In places already with strict stay-at-home orders, some experts think that, as a result of the reluctance to abide with oneself or family, “anxiety is rampant”. I am starting to see and hear phrases I rarely encountered pre-COVID-19: cabin fever, which I thought was a condition confined to Pulau Ubin; prison pallor, which I thought was limited to the penitentiary in Changi; and stir crazy, which I thought was restricted to coffee cups at Yakun (although some of you may remember it as a 1980 Gene Wilder/Richard Pryor comedy). A confining existence is punishing, just as it could be when one is marooned on an island, as Tom Hanks has shown in Castaway. Outside is the circulation of the temptation of entertainment, gastronomy, and the material, as well as a novel and not completely understood virus that is getting more pervasive. News constantly feeding into our mobile devices amplify both. How, then, do people reconcile the two, equally unnerving in scale? I really don’t know.

You’d think that since so many people are distancing themselves socially or working from home, the situation could become a social leveller of sort. Or what the media has been calling, the “great equaliser”. Yet, public behaviour hitherto witnessed shows that some people are more equal than you and I. Selfishness, to name one enduring—not, to be certain, endearing—trait, has become the un-equaliser. You want the over-packaged and overpriced beverages of Chi Cha San Chen (吃茶三千), you join a body-to-body queue, never mind that some of us are trying to get past this obstacle to the supermarket for next week’s sustenance. You bring your entire family out for a meal because soon dining in won’t be an option, never mind if the five of you mean more people would have to wait to enter a mall that already maxed out the allowable capacity. You go to the food court for lunch with your colleagues, and as you came in a group, “it is ridiculous” to sit a metre apart, even if an assemblage engaged in the aerosolising acts of slurping noodles and laughing hysterically is enhanced threat to the sole, socially-distanced diner.

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Staying home, for some reason, makes people hungrier and, especially, thirstier than they would normally be when out and about with remunerated work. Cafés are busier than usual (one CBTL manager told me with amazement that their branch had yet to see a decline in business. In fact, sales until last weekend, have been above average, so much so that her bosses were baffled) and bubble tea stalls are still attracting unbelievably long lines (not taking into account orders received via Grab Food and similar services). Caffeinated drinks, it appears, are the affordable panacea to the dreaded anxiety that comes with staying at home. And the perfect excuse to leave one’s abode to get an essential

Going round and round (not quite appropriate to use that ‘V’ word these days) is the online demo of the ridiculous dalgona affogato—instant coffee granules whipped with water and sugar until mouse-like, and served on top of milk. People do have too much time on their hands, and instant coffee and sugar (which is necessary in unhealthy amounts for the coffee to foam up). Instagrammable coffee aside, the “quickest and easiest cakes to make” are also widely shared for those partial to “isolation baking”, with eater.com proudly promoting “Quarantine Baking in Times of Crisis”, which, frankly, sounds to me like a relief inmates at certain facilities might appreciate. It isn’t surprising then that the popular—and, consequently, clichéd—memes are built around Marie Antoinette’s leading-to-death, alleged quip, “let them eat cake” (more accurate and historical would be “let them eat brioche”) should emerge and spread.

Food, as always, can keep people busy or, better still, indoors. Even Unicef is offering “easy, affordable and healthy eating tips during the coronavirus outbreak”. If so many people are “sad” (as reported on CNA) that they can’t go drinking and partying with their friends now that bars and entertainment spots have been ordered to close, maybe they can “enjoy virtual happy hours” that some establishments in Hong Kong are reportedly asking those now-not-visiting patrons to do. Seriously! Might the devastated Boat Quay or Clarke Quay bars consider that one? Or would that encourage friends to gather at a chosen home to the blight of social-distancing measures and, for certain, the chagrin of the the Multi-Ministry Taskforce on COVID-19? Drinking and partying is probably still rife. Last Saturday, at the checkout of a Fairprice near my flat, a millennial couple in the adjacent line was paying for largely canned food and drinks. What struck me most were the four 12-can cartons of Carlsberg in their loot. When the receipt was handed to one of them, I spied a total spending of S$56 on beer alone. Since there is no purchase limit on alcoholic beverage, the two youngsters happily avoided restraint, but what were they going to do with that many cans of beer? Panic buy or party mood, I could not tell.

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The thing about staying at home, even to work, is to not bother with what one wears. A ragged T-shirt is as good as any office-worthy shirt or client-ready dress. On the MRT train a week ago, I heard, even with a good two metres between us, a makeup-free woman tell her Felicia Chin-looking friend that the joy of working from home is that she does “not need to do” her face. She explained, “I wake up in the morning—late, usually; brush my teeth after breakfast; and that is it. I don’t wash my face till before I go to bed. So senang,” Such ease that saves on grooming is probably more welcome than we think. Yet, people are urged to dress nicely for teleconferencing or even writing a report without the semblance of a shadow of a colleague nearby, which naturally becomes divisive among both the established remote workers and the newly inducted. People can wear whatever they want, was the strident mantra. What really got Netizens in this region into a tizzy was the news report that in Malaysia last week, the Women and Family Ministry published an online advisory, counselling MCO-affected women, in particular “wives and mothers working from home” to “groom as usual”, including wearing make-up. That was not the end of the recommendation. If conversation is to be conducted at home, women should “talk like Doraemon”!

As long as looking spiffy is de rigueur, many brands are hopeful that long-time home-stayers would want to buy new clothes or even home-appropriate togs that have been, for years, sold as ‘loungewear’. Surely, marketing departments must have been working overtime to come up with ideas to tempt this novel consumer group. One of the earliest on the spin wagon is British knitwear label Sunspel. Their online curation is an “Edit for Working from Home”. Uniqlo, a purveyor of pyjamas-nice-enough-to-wear-out, through Facebook, persuaded followers to “relax in comfort at home, with our wide-ranging loungewear options.” And timely, too, “the first-ever launch of Airism bedding goods in Southeast Asia”, welcome news for those whose idea of staying at home is staying in bed. Even The Guardian is into it, instructing readers on “How to Build a Loungewear Collection”. Singapore’s go-to indie store, Surrender, sent out e-mails telling its customers that, at 30% off, it was “the last chance to get your stay-home-fits”. Getting a fit or not (likely, if staying at home is loathsome), another new phrase to remember.

While browsing CNN news feed a few days back, a video-ad from a brand I have never heard of suddenly appeared. Malaysian label Thousand Miles touting their Omniflex All Day Shorts, as it were. “These are designed to withstand the toughest obstacle course imaginable—the feeling like you’re sitting on a cloud at home with a cup of coffee on a Sunday afternoon.” Huh? Okay, despite the scene-setting, the pitch many not be convincing, so the promoter went on: “These shorts dry five times quicker, and three times more stretcher (sic) than your average pair of shorts, made possible by our proprietary bi-component material, designed to be fifty percent more breathable.” The affable guy concluded, “So these pairs right here are our love child.” Well, at least some people are productive!

Stay safe. Don’t let anyone tell you the end is nigh. I believe we will prevail.

Photo illustrations: Jim Sim