How I found silver linings in the chaos of 2020

In a year dominated by a pandemic, anti-Asian rhetoric, and racial injustice, there doesn’t seem to be any overarching narrative or lesson to be drawn from 2020. However, as she reflects on how this past year has gone, staff writer Kayla Zhu shares how she found moments of meaning and purpose in the chaos.

Every first of the month, my dad rips the previous month’s page off of our Year of the Rat calendar and all I can think is, “Already?” 

There is no way to summarize 2020 in a witty one-liner for me. This year has felt so long, but each month seemed to have passed by so quickly. One thing is certain though: the magnitude of tragedy and injustice the world has experienced this year has really been an unprecedented reckoning. 

As I reflect about what I’ve done and felt, as well as what the world has undergone, there doesn’t seem to be any overarching narrative or lesson to be drawn from the chaos of 2020. Still, there are some things I’ve come to learn and change about myself, as I navigated through the tumultuous highs and lows of this year. 

New year, new rules

My 20th birthday came earlier in the year, right before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic in March. 

Like all of my fellow 2000’s babies, turning 20 came with the typical self-reckoning of entering our second decade of life, feeling the weight of adulthood on our shoulders, questioning our path forward, and updating our Instagram stories. Your usual Gen Z stuff. 

I also came into 2020 with preconceived notions of how my life should look like at 20. Inadvertently, I strived for a certain degree of social, academic, and career success — the paradigm of Gen Z happiness. Happiness and fulfillment, at the time, seemed to be a byproduct of those successes. 

Photo Credit: Anne Nygard

Like everyone else in the world, though, all of these goals for 2020 were shattered by the pandemic. 

Instead of clearly hitting my expected milestones, I wrestled with a strange and almost shameful dichotomy as a young person this year. What seemed like trivialities, like not being able to go out, see friends, or play sports, hit me hard. My grades also took a hit, which was not a big deal in the grand scheme of things — as many people assured me — but as I confined myself to my Toronto apartment, my entire world seemed to shrink and revolve around these collections of pixels on my course dashboard. 

Coming from a financially stable middle class family, I also knew the economic impacts of COVID-19 didn’t hit my family as hard as others. As such, I constantly reminded myself of the privilege of my situation, compared to the ways the pandemic was destroying the lives of so many others.

Despite these reminders, a deep-seated depression still loomed over most of my 2020, which was only exacerbated by this guilt of even feeling sorry for myself in the first place. It was a weird and damaging cyclical relationship of uncertainty, sadness, and shame that persisted steadily throughout the year. 

Photo Credit: Alex Ivashenko

During these moments of unplanned solitude in 2020, however, I eventually learned to find contentment in the times I spent with only myself. I learned to allow myself to binge watch guilt-free, go for more runs, or just write aimlessly. I let myself sit with my thoughts, talk to myself (a habit I’ve picked up recently), and also laugh out loud more. Free from the observation of others, I felt like I really started to understand myself more this year — mostly the bad parts, but some good parts as well. 

I also found a lot of comfort in revisiting things I was obsessed with when I was younger, like K-pop. Watching BTS hit a number of accomplishments this year, from two #1 Billboard Hot 100 songs to a Grammy nomination, honestly brought some much-needed joy and comfort in my life, and I allowed myself to enjoy these delights without guilt or shame. Fandom brings a lot of comfort to many people, and 2020 really proved that.

It doesn’t seem like much, but these small moments of comfort, coping, and self-reflection defined this year more than any of the plans I made back during my birthday. 

Of course, there were still a lot of lows, like job opportunity rejections, 3 a.m breakdowns over assignments, constant lethargy, and, of course, loneliness. But while I might not be where I was before the pandemic, I think I found a way to be okay with where I’m at now. 

Reflecting on my Chinese Canadian identity

In the long, painful, and mostly unsuccessful process of piecing things back together this year, I’ve also come to reckon with my Chinese Canadian identity. 

Up until this point of my life, microaggressions and stereotypes were the most prevalent form of discrimination I had experienced — things I found mostly annoying, and could be brushed off after a good rant to friends. 

But things definitely seemed to change this year. With the rise of COVID-19 also came a rise in anti-Asian sentiment. As the media perpetuated anti-Asian racism with unnecessary images of East Asians on cover stories well past March, those spring months were probably one of the first times I felt apprehensive about going out in public. I vividly remember the moment a delivery food biker looked at me as I crossed the street in front of my condo, and uttered the word “chink” with so much disgust I felt like going back inside. 

Suddenly, being Asian in my typical environments — school, work, out in the city — seemed to carry a new degree of danger and unease. I read an unhealthy amount of hateful comments on news articles and wondered if the people I passed on the streets had ever authored any of them. The rhetoric coming from the states didn’t help either. 

See also: Navigating through the rise in Anti-Asian racism

Photo Credit: visuals on Unsplash

Thankfully, I eventually found a way to feel more positively connected to my Chinese Canadian identity. After moving back home to Vancouver and spending most of my waking hours with my family, I renegotiated what my Cantonese fluency meant to me. 

The language barrier between my kindergarten-level Cantonese self and my non-English speaking parents has always existed, and while I always tell myself I’ll work on my Canto, it never really manifested in much more than a few Duolingo lessons. It wasn’t until a few months at home where I really realized how much richer my relationship with my parents could be if only I could tell them what I was really thinking and doing. 

This year, in my bid to learn more Cantonese, I’ve continuously annoyed my mom by asking her to define any Cantonese words or sayings I didn’t understand during our walks or when watching Fairchild TV news over dinner. I explained to my dad what I learned in my data journalism class, somewhat successfully, while learning how to drive.

Although I’ve probably only graduated to a first grade level of Cantonese this year, reconnecting with my language after months of not using it while away from home has helped me understand and relate with my parents so much more. It has also created a positive experience related to my Chinese Canadian identity that helped push back against the anti-Asian rhetoric of 2020.

Contemplating activism and allyship 

2020 also brought activism and allyship to the forefront of my mind. This summer was both a global and personal reckoning, as the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others reignited the global Black Lives Matter movement.

Witnessing and participating in activism around racial justice in my own ways raised so many questions for me. While I’ve donated, fundraised, and otherwise been involved in social causes in the past, the events of 2020 definitely challenged my assumptions of activism and what my worldview actually was. 

I wondered if what I was doing was performative, how I should be educating myself, and what I could do. One of the most pressing topics I’ve mulled over about this year is what role Asians have as Black allies, and how so many young, East Asians appropriate Black culture while reaping the benefits of being the “model minority” in professional settings.

See also: Hip hop in China, its silence on Black Lives Matter, and Chinese Canadian allies

Photo Credit: Mike Von

This year, as a young person consuming so much online content every day, I also often thought about the role of gatekeeping in online activism, and the balance between relying on Instagram slideshows on anti-racism and academia to be the arbiters of what I considered credible and valuable information. 

I still have thoughts around performativity, gatekeeping, authenticity, cultural appropriation, and solidarity that I don’t have answers for, but I’m grateful for having people in my life that I can have these conversations with — including the Cold Tea Collective team, which I joined this year. Being a journalism student, I’m also grateful that I can explore these areas more through my writing. 

There’s still a lot to work on, and for me this year and beyond, that looks like educating myself more, reporting on underrepresented communities thoughtfully, challenging assumptions, and continuing to have hard conversations. 

See also: How to talk to your Asian immigrant parents about racism and Black Lives Matter

Life goes on

For the past few months, I’ve stared out my bedroom window in East Vancouver, watching contractors work away at a new house being built at the corner of the street. They’ve been toiling away at the house for what feels like forever. 

In the summer, I biked past the pit of dirt and wondered what would become of it. In the fall, as I zoned out of my Zoom lectures, I watched the crew of masked workers move two-by-fours from their trucks. Now, as the year winds down in December, I occasionally glance up from my K-dramas to notice the finished house, and wonder who its tenants will be.

That alleyway house has become both a comforting and sad reminder of the stagnancy of life this year. In 2020, the world did stop for me in many ways, but the alleyway home showed me that life does go on, and life will be more than just my room again. 

Until then, I’m grateful for these unexpected silver linings and moments of meaning that broke through in the uncertainty of 2020.

Featured Photo Credit: Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

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