In the 2015 movie “Room”, based on the novel by Emma Donoghue, a mother and her son Jack are held captive in a single-room outbuilding for nearly seven years. During this time, “Ma” works to keep her son healthy and happy by structuring their days with physical and mental exercises, keeping a healthy diet, limiting TV-watching time, and a strict regime of body and oral hygiene. Because it is all he has ever known, Jack believes that only the things in his immediate world are “real.” Ma, unwilling to disappoint Jack with a life she cannot give him, allows him to believe that the rest of the world exists only on television. When they eventually escape, Ma must begin the process of relearning how to interact with the larger world, and Jack, who is overwhelmed by new experiences and people (and the realisation that the world actually exists beyond TV), wants only to return to the safety of the world he knows – the world of his Room.
I recently ventured out of Hong Kong for the first time in two years. My husband and I planned the trip in order to bring our son home – he’d been delayed in Australia because of Hong Kong’s ban on flights from “high risk” countries. We intended to meet him in Thailand, do a 14-day “wash out”, and then fly back to Hong Kong together. The trip was functional in nature, with the goal of getting him back to Hong Kong and regular school. It took weeks of organising, securing various approvals, passes, and certificates, and an off-the-charts level of patience.
About a week before we were set to travel, the HK government rescinded the flight ban, which meant we could potentially fly our son straight back to the city. This prompted a debate: Should we still go? Was it necessary? Should we spend the money? Would we rather wait and take an actual holiday later? What if we got Covid while overseas? Would we be able to get proper medical attention? Would we be able to get back into Hong Kong? And on, and on.
Eventually, having reminded ourselves that we both loved Thailand and we hadn’t been outside of Hong Kong for what felt like ages, we decided to go. Being effectively ‘grounded’ (or as some of our friends described it, “imprisoned”) for the last two years had taught us two things: first, that life is short, and it is richer with travel; second, that we’d taken for granted our ability to see friends and family whenever we wanted. Like most Hong Kong people, we were used to hopping on a plane at a moment’s notice, and living away from our families had not precluded us from seeing them. We saw an opportunity to reconnect through this trip. We decided to turn it into a long-awaited holiday, and invited the rest of our family and some friends to join us. With the decision made, we felt a surge of joy and anticipation. We had something to look forward to.
While we fully expected that travel in a post-Covid world would be a logistical hassle, what we didn’t anticipate was how it would feel to be out in the world again. We experienced walking mask-free down public streets and entering restaurants without checking in. We went to bars that were packed wall-to-wall with people (again, no masks). We saw people shaking hands and hugging again. We made plans and reservations for meals and activities, without having to check whether venues were open. We were able to go out without carrying our phones.
How did it feel? Honestly, it was a strange sensation, which led us to reflect on how we’d coped with the last two years. We felt happy, sad, frustrated, regretful, guilty, optimistic, and resigned all at the same time. The joy and appreciation of rejoining the outside world sat very uncomfortably against a sense of grief at having missed two years with people we love. Had we done the right thing in avoiding travelling to see our family and friends, simply because of government restrictions? Should we have pushed ourselves harder to just cope with multiple periods (and the expense) of hotel quarantine, for the reward of spending precious time with loved ones? What if something had happened to them (as it did for so many families) and we weren’t there? This was an experience of simultaneous celebration and self-flagellation. Being with our family and friends again filled our hearts, and also reminded us of how much we’d missed. In addition, it highlighted how much we’d gotten used to life with Covid – mask-wearing, contact tracing, vaccination discussions, rapid antigen testing, and avoiding coughing in public all felt normal to us. The absence of these things felt uncomfortable and foreign.
There is something in this for me that connects back to Ma’s experience of escaping the Room. She’s been isolated for so long, and the narrow world she’s inhabited for the last seven years has suddenly widened beyond comprehension. She does not remember how to exist in that world. What was an effective coping mechanism – creating structure, routine, and stories for herself and Jack to deal with a lack of freedom – is no longer needed. The prison no longer exists. But she also feels guilt at not preparing Jack for the real world. Anger for being imprisoned for so long and missing out on life. Uncertainty about how to relate to people other than her son. Regret at not having been able to escape sooner. Grief at the loss of time and the experiences she and Jack have missed. Fear and discomfort at re-entering a world that has been lost to her for seven years.
The tight restrictions in Hong Kong were nothing compared to what Ma and Jack had to endure. I am not suggesting for a second that travel restrictions are anywhere close to being imprisoned and traumatised on a daily basis for seven years. What does strike me is the wide range and similarity of feelings that bubble up once a fuller amount of freedom is available to us, whether that freedom comes in the form of post-Covid travel or a release from captivity.
Our ability to adapt to our surroundings has ensured our survival over time. Covid led governments around the world to implement restrictions on daily living which none of us could have imagined. And we’ve coped with those restrictions by getting used to not travelling, by learning to be more still, and by adapting our daily routines to fill the void. Ma coped with her lack of freedom much in the same way – by creating routines to foster a sense of normalcy for her and her son. We humans have the capacity for profound resilience in the face of adversity.
As our world begins to open up, a new range of choices becomes available to us. What will we do with that freedom? We can stay home, avoid the complexity of travel and the risk of getting sick, and remain comfortable in the routines we’ve built for ourselves. The trade-off is, perhaps, a greater richness in life. Alternatively, we can start travelling and stepping back out into the world, accepting that we don’t know what will happen when we do, and we don’t know how it’ll affect us.
Regardless of whether you stay put, or step back into travel, you can expect to “feel all of the feels”. The challenge is to stay in the present and allow the full range of emotions to wash through us. Nothing can be done to change the past or to control the future.
What choice will you make?
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