My routine back in Abeokuta was simple and rarely divergent. During week days, I focused on going to work during my shifts, recovering from the shifts, preparing for the next shifts and ensuring I eat. My active weekday social life was mostly zero. The most of my social life was lived through social media and this blog. Weekends were a bit better but not significantly different. Well, that is if going on dates with the KnighT and church services counted. The divergent days were stepping out with IbiBaby, Debby (when she was around), Abisola (before NYSC) and the one time outing with The Ayodeles. There were those trips to Ibadan where I’d meet up with Ope. But, summary is, pre-Covid, my social life was running on low power, low data, limited to just background applications needed to not go cuckoo.
Thus, on my way here (the United States), how to socialize was not top priority for me. Actually, still isn’t.
But, if you check up research publications on the challenges most international students have, mental health is top and one reason for that is the need to adjust to a new environment without the support of familiar support structures. There is no next door neighbor like IbiBaby whose room I can barge into, jump on her bed, start some long gist with and then end up making cornrows for. There is no by the junction woman selling fruits, groundnut and with whom you have formed some kind of rapport and friendship with. Or the small store madam who greets you on your way back from work but was likely not open when you were leaving to work, else, would have greeted and prayed for you.
Despite the fact that the official language in Nigeria is English and all of your education was in the very same language, you are getting statements like, “Oh… but… nice… your English is so good.” Not once. Not twice. You don’t know whether they actually are saying that as a genuine compliment, or as a relief that you exceeded their expectations or just gratitude that they can hear you properly and not have to ask you to repeat yourself a million times. Then, if you are like me, you are mid conversation and deep down, you know the next statement would be better off said in your mother-tongue but, nope, you give an English translated version.
After a while, you realize you need to make friends.
But, here comes COVID-19. Here comes the monster that has made independent living, social isolation and loneliness worse than they have been in years. People who lived each day looking forward to the social interactions they would have with friends, strangers and even foes are left to seek for that behind locked doors and blue-filter demanding gadget-screens. No matter how much people complain of not wanting to get out of their beds to get to work, it would be insincere to deny the longing we have for the tiny, sometimes inconsequential exchanges with our colleagues at work. The school campuses are empty and it would take a miracle of some sort to come across a human being if you do venture to step out. This is not normal. It does not matter that when things were not normal, you barely said a word to passers-by when walking on campus, your ears plugged and some fast paced song hitting your eardrums. What was normal was the mix of voices, happy, angry, excited and subdued voices, different languages and intonations, men and women of diverse ages shuffling their feet, riding their bicycles and driving their cars as they made their way to different locations across the campus. That was the norm.
Now, you would be lucky even if the squirrels that scurry across the trees pay you any mind.
For most domestic students, it is easy to some extent. They only have to pack up their stuff and go home. Of course, things would not be the same with their friends gone, usual hangout spots closed, shops and stores limiting entry and contact. Still, they have family around. People with whom they can hold physical conversations, spend cold nights huddled with and share their fears and doubts with. For international students, that is a luxury highly unaffordable.
First, most of us cannot up and travel back home. No way. The financial implications aside, what becomes of us if the border rules suddenly change? What happens if we get stuck? There is little or no assurance that the international country would fight tooth and nail to get us back. So, we remain. We stay. We embrace the inertia brought upon the world by the virus and see how far we can hold out.
Our families are miles away, hours behind or ahead of the time. We have to work round class and work schedules to ensure we get to speak with them as regularly as possible. When we feel sad and down, we hug our pillows (you can get those cheap at Walmart). Our diaries and journals are the recipient of most of our outbursts and rants. For some of us, online journals like blogs and social media accounts are what we use. For the times we crave food from home, we pray that the stores that sell our spices and ingredients are open and accessible and have what we need. If that does not happen, we bury ourselves in junk and shut our minds to whatever extra calories those would amount to.
When things were okay, societies on campus would have meetings, dinners, outings and celebrations. Being international students, we likely had preference for those societies that acknowledged and respected diversity without making a fuss about it. We had our own societies specifically for us all from the same continent, country or even previous college. We complained and whined about the efforts needed to pull off gatherings but deep inside, we would not have it any other way. And the pandemic confirmed that in loud notes. We needed those meetings. We needed those house-to-house parties where everyone brought something edible, played and danced to music and reminisced on the lives we had back at home.
The international office of some schools tried their best but for some, their best went no way beyond the repeated, weekly emails reminding international students to wear their facemasks and not seek employment off campus. These were students whose on-campus employments had ben truncated thanks to the virus, who still had rent to pay, books to buy and lives to keep alive. Could they have done better? Definitely. Did they?
This period was worse for those international students who had only just arrived and were yet to properly find their bearings. These ones who were yet to be integrated into the international community in diaspora and were unlikely to have any friends in the short time of arrival. Maybe they were high on the exhilaration of being in a new environment and still psyched about the vastness of the campus. Maybe they were still pleased with the empty sidewalks and hallways as that would shield them from the scrutiny their spoken English and accents would bring their way. Maybe they just were not yet enlightened on how alone they would get to be in the subsequent months. Then, when it finally hits them, it takes everything to stop themselves from losing it.
Personally, I cannot relate to these things I have described. Fortunately. Or maybe I can but not to a high degree. I came to the US when the heat of the pandemic had considerably lessened. Classes were still online and the campus was still deserted but the squirrels were definitely friendly and paid me much mind when I walked from my dorm to the cafeteria. The cafeteria being the one place on campus it was guaranteed to meet other students. Of course, I sat alone at a table on most days and honestly, I did not mind. And on other days when my Nigerian friends came along, we sat together. Other tables often had friends eating and talking despite the social distancing signs around the cafeteria. Some tables had some diversity in terms of gender and race. But, more often than not, these tables were cliques.
I did not mind not speaking with anyone on my floor at the dorm. Minus the phrases and replies used while getting my food at the cafeteria, I did not mind not having to speak with others. And I was thankful for the interactions I had at church on Sundays. I talk a lot… with close friends. When I type here or on other online platforms, I could give off the vibe that I am all extrovertedly bubbly and social. But, I have come to realize that my social battery is not meant for too many activities. And no matter how much I want to acculturate in this new environment I have found myself in, I may not go out of my way to be the social person I am imagined to be. Oh, sometimes, a part of me is able to push aside the other part of me that just wants to huddle under blankets and watch movies or listen to songs. But, social acculturation may not be mine for a while.
But, that is me.
What happens to the others who need to be social? Whose mental health is at the brink of tilting overboard if they are unable to interact, mingle and meet others? How would they cope? How would they survive? Will they be fine? Who would stand in as family for them? What would it take to be more inclusive of their needs and attentive to their silent cries?
PS: I started this draft about three months ago. Things have definitely gotten better especially with the Mississippi state removing all covid-19 restrictions and the USM announcing resumption of in-person classes.