Kicking off my first blog of 2021, I delve into how nothing is ever fully as it seems. Even the most discerning humans may not comprehend a) the complexity of a situation, b) the true mental state of a peer, or c) the emotions that they themselves are feeling. I’ll write mostly on this third point — on various emotions including loneliness — as part-self-assessment and part-microcosm of how we each embody much more than we knowingly project.
Loneliness is a particularly bamboozling emotion, but I didn’t dwell much on it until small talking with coworkers last month. We were each sharing our December holiday plans and mine would be low-key, staying in the city. I’d have a four-bedroom apartment to myself as the other housemates would celebrate at their boyfriend’s or parents’ Bay Area homes. In response to this, one Hawaii-bound teammate asked “Isn’t that lonely?” I don’t recall my retort verbatim, yet the notion that my plans were lonely — moreso a questioning if I was lonely — stuck with me throughout the long Christmas weekend. …Because was I?
Typified by someone feeling it in a room full of people, loneliness reflects a state of mind rather than physical proximity to others; even so, my experience is that an empty room can trigger this state. The following is a whirl at capturing my thought process across three days when loneliness ebbed and flowed in me:
I started off content despite the reality that — unlike a scene from the majority of Netflix’s teen-approved movies — I was not headed to an airport and no man would wield bypass-TSA-checkpoint magic to profess their love for me. Instead I was FaceTiming my family throughout the day as a proxy to our usual in-person banter. My sister enjoyed her gift (spoiler alert: an acupressure mat) and my parents were heating up various entrees I had ordered for them (a Chef Chloe-Whole Foods collaboration that I 10/10 would recommend). This was my first winter holiday physically distant from family — same for many other households in 2020 that also canceled or withheld from booking flights — and my homesickness flooded in around dinner time.
I should clarify that dinner spanned a few hours due to our bicoastal-ness: my sister and parents’ east coast meal was simultaneous to my laundry folding in Pacific Time. At one point my sister even quipped “Yo I don’t want to see your underwear!”, prompting me to adjust the phone camera’s angle. A couple hours later, we video-called again so they were in turn a part of my dinner — now with my phone propped against the kitchen table’s salt and pepper shakers, my family could see my left hand with spoon, right hand with chopsticks, and face chowing down spicy noodle soup. Only after writing this paragraph did I realize I’ve just described an intimate mukbang — translated from a Korean portmanteau as “eating broadcast”, or the trend of live-streamed, individual feasting for others to watch.
No, I wasn’t a YouTuber monetizing views and food sponsorships — but I was doing it for primarily the same reason that’s driven the popularity of mukbangers: staving off the social isolation of eating alone. In “The Psychology of Mukbang Watching: A Scoping Review of the Academic and Non-academic Literature”, the potential negative consequences include binge eating and addictive watching habits. Neither apply to my experience but I would add deepened loneliness — the very feeling mukbang purports to mitigate — to this list. For from my family’s perspective, I was smiling from 2,800 miles away; and I was truly happy to see/hear them and know they were doing well. However, my mind felt a strong dissonance between all that I had to be thankful for and not having the one thing I wanted the most in that moment: to be with family in person. Here I sat in my apartment with a full stomach, fuzzy pig slippers, and full window view of the SF skyline; I had health, wealth, and loving family/friends even if momentarily afar. What more could I ask for? Yet somehow I felt empty.
The next day, I decided to follow a banana bread recipe that reminds me of home — from mashing bananas with my mom and sister on the yellow kitchen countertop, to learning the hard way that sneak taste-testing even vegan batter can make you sick (thanks raw flour), to gifting the baked good to teachers and friends up until high school. Maybe this could distract me from the fact that nearly all once-local friends were either entirely moved out of the city or at home with family for the holidays.
The entire building — including the three-bedroom unit above mine — was also vacant, save me about to mash bananas. So I put on some music to help fill the space. Singing along to an auto-generated playlist of early 2000s hip hop and R&B (think: Fat Joe “What’s Luv?” featuring Ashanti and Mario’s “Let Me Love You”), my mood felt somewhat improved versus the previous night. Then as if a test from some divine power, Akon’s “Lonely” played and I lol’ed thinking back to my coworker’s innocuous wondering whether I’d be lonely this weekend. Yesterday my mind was so attuned to connecting with loved ones that I nearly forgot the thrill of being my own companion too. I thought this as I slid the loaf pan into the oven set to an hour of 350 degrees.
Reflecting on 2020, I spent some time with friends (including farewell walk-and-talks with ones moving away), more with coworkers (mainly video-less voices on conference calls), and the majority with myself. I was already accustomed to independent adventuring, though pre-2020 was selective (e.g. buying one ticket for Taylor Swift’s Reputation concert seated between strangers in MetLife Stadium) instead of now situational (e.g. ordering takeout and cooking for only myself since the ban of indoor/outdoor dining at restaurants).
I’ve kayaked in Richardson Bay, sunbathed at Ocean Beach, art-gazed at the MOMA, hiked San Bruno Mountain, biked what feels like all of San Francisco to each of said destinations; and, in true pandemic fashion, I’ve also frequented the local schoolyard with my headphone volume up while shooting free throws and playing tennis against the wall — welcome to my baller life. As if these last nine months of many solo excursions weren’t strong enough foundation, December 24th marked my self-esteem crumbling while the 25th was me tugging to lift my spirits (coincidentally paralleling a famous biblical birthday), i.e. to rebalance my brain chemicals. This was a firsthand reminder that moods swing like colors change in a mood ring — as soon as left unwarmed, its color darkens from pink to blue, green, brown. So on the middle day of Christmas weekend, I ate warm self-baked banana bread and felt a bit fuller.
The last day, I ventured beyond my usual bike-lane radius and rented a 2009 Toyota Corolla. My straightforward plan to drive southward then back up on CA State Route 1 became a road trip of many miles and emotions. Some tips from start to finish:
- When picking up a carshare parked on a steep hill, the emergency break will release only after the front wheels are straight
- Highway 1 has regularly splitting and merging lanes to allow cars to pass; but few actually will because they’re also admiring the coastal views from their window
- Carmel-by-the-Sea is a great place for people watching (picnic daters on the sand, beach volleyball players, tourist families) and art viewing (window gallery shopping); it’s also unlikely to spot anyone wearing heels because 1) NorCal and 2) permits are required for heels exceeding two inches
- Contrasting the many streets of seafood restaurants, Monterey is also home to El Cantaro, a Mexican restaurant with the best tacos I’ve eaten to date
- Highway 1 is a different experience driving after sunset without music, scenery, or high energy levels. Besides the grumble of an old car motor and occasional street noise, the quietude invites many thoughts
- Driving at 60 mph can be a distinct activity from thinking nice and slow. To be alone with my thoughts and emotions — on anything and everything as peripheral objects whizz by— it is okay.
Returning the car share and returning to my room that night, I felt a sense of relief from this day that doubled as a distraction from and magnifying glass on the loneliness from missing my family. My biggest daily takeaways, among a flurry of thoughts, was to: 1) double down on my gratitude for an otherwise very privileged life — foreseeably I would have countless opportunities to hug them again; 2) build upon my independence because the biggest guarantee of life is always having myself; and 3) further develop emotional intelligence.
Book sales on emotional intelligence probably have increased after a 2020 Bachelorette contestant chided another for being “deficient in three of the four components”:
- Self awareness
- Self management
- Social awareness
- Relationship management
Now writing more seriously, I do believe that society prioritizes IQ over EQ such that everyone is somewhat deficient in all four above; since, as the year 2020 emphasized, rationalizing our way through every problem is not humanly possible.
Last weekend, I de-stressed by blasting my headphones and bedroom dancing through a lengthy playlist of bass-heavy songs (which, in a previous decade, could have been my audition for iPod’s Silhouette ad campaign); this weekend I milled around the Presidio with no plan or end destination. Such emotion-driven behavior takes infinite forms but is seldom taught in any form — school-board-approved lifestyle curriculum teaches students to don’t do drugs, don’t drink and drive, don’t have unprotected sex; to eat a balanced food pyramid, exercise each week, sleep around 8 hours each night; yet this basic list of lifestyle do’s/don’ts overlooks perhaps the most human characteristic: having emotional highs/lows that sway our behaviors and decision-making.
Understandably, a standardized textbook cannot capture the extent of human emotion and mental health. I think though the same way we can recall mitochondria is “the powerhouse of the cell” from high school biology, we need to recall that everyone feels. Everyone expresses joy and pain differently — physically, such as by changes in weight, complexion, appearance; then less obviously with grief/loss, heartbreak, injury. People are smiling, crying, or neutral under their face [masks] but we cannot fully see; people are emoting even more internally that outsiders cannot feel. Some are smiling yet unhappy, others unsmiling yet happy. I offer no sounding conclusion but rather a bigger heart to really listen when asking myself and others “How are you?”