I have passed 200 days in Austria due to the coronavirus travel bans. It feels surreal looking back: I rushed back to Austria thinking that after six weeks at most, I would be on a plane back to Asia again.
200 days, over six months. They somehow flew by. And yet it feels like yesterday that I arrived in Vienna on that morning in March, shortly before the lockdown was announced. Half of the passengers on the plane wore masks at that time. This was long before global air travel came to a standstill, borders were closed and the majority has not been reopened until today.
These 200 days have taught me a lot. I had my fair share of ups and downs. From a megapolis like Bangkok to a little town in the Austrian countryside, the contrasts could not be bigger. Like it did to so many people, it also affected my private and professional life.
Keeping in Touch, Reconnecting, Reassessing
I am used to keeping in touch online and with calls as my friends and family are scattered all over the world. It has become normal for me to invest in relationship with video calls and catch up via a phone screen. Hence, it was not too different.
But this crisis showed me again that the important or “real” relationships are strengthened in difficult times while it may be time to distance ourselves from others. The latter is not an easy task. But I have applied the following approach already long before corona: if somebody meets me halfway, I meet them there as well. If not, it is a sign for me that that person is not as committed as I am.
I guess my choices in life are not always easy to understand – I have not followed the approach of settling down in one place, having a job where I head to the same office every day and travelling once a year during the summer holidays. But I have always respected the life choices of my friends and family – even if I would never choose them myself. It is their life, they need to be happy with them.
Similarly, I ask that certain boundaries are respected when it comes to my choices as well – whether my counterpart understands them or not. It is nobody else’s business what I do why and why I made different choices. And no, I will not let anyone tell me that “we all have to make sacrifices and that means that borders have to stay closed” while the very same people have returned to your almost normal life without any real sacrifices and while disrespecting most of the corona measures.
Despite being called a “unique case”, I am not the only one separated from their loved ones. Over the past months, I have connected with so many of you who are in the same boat. I keep my fingers crossed for all of you, that you can soon reunite. Don’t give up!
Anything can and will be instrumentalised by politics – even pandemics are turned into crucial parts of election campaigns or used as pretense to implement a political agenda (which is sometimes not related at all to fighting a virus).
The strategy of polarisation has become a mainstream political trend. It has also heavily impacted the way we discuss things. In a democracy, there are – and should be – different opinions. We may not necessarily share the same point of view but it should be possible to listen, discuss and eventually reassess if necessary. However, topics such as the closing of borders or wearing masks have become so emotionally loaded that I stopped sharing my view in some cases. I sometimes just went silent and withdrew from the discussion when blatant racism was the answer to the borders or when somebody told me that the masks are “useless”. (I still am amazed that such a simple thing as wearing a mask which can potentially protect someone, has become such a hot conversation topic.)
At the same time, I see many parallels to what is called the “2015 migrant crisis” in Europe. While the first weeks were marked by commitment and a positive attitude, it changed to a critical and often hostile atmosphere at a later stage. Similarly, many people were positive towards the coronavirus measures initially, but after some time, they forgot about them. It seemed that in summer, corona was over, at least in Austria. There were parties, holidays, soccer matches. Infections were rising again. And it came as a big surprise when countries like Germany issued a travel warning for certain parts of Austria. Only then did things change again.
Even though the world went into lockdowns and most countries closed their borders, I think this crisis has shown us how interconnected our world has become. While protectionism may have worked in the 1930s (where it was not successful either), it is even more unlikely to work out today. It is impossible to produce a car in one country only. Not even a third of Austria’s food consumption can be met with local supplies. And most of the pharmaceutical products are produced in China or India. I do think that global supply chains have to be reconsidered. Nevertheless, I guess that autarky is pure utopia.
There Really Is a Reverse Culture Shock
When I first moved abroad as an expat, I read many studies about the so-called reverse culture shock. This means that expats suffer from a culture shock when they eventually return to their home country. I am telling you that shock is real. I found myself getting annoyed and complaining about the many things I missed when I was abroad. I realised that I had to get used to many things again – the preference for cash payments or, the constant complaining about the weather and. (I still cannot get used to the speed at which the cashiers at the supermarkets throw the products off the conveyor belt and make you collect them like there is no tomorrow). Unfortunately, my reverse-culture shock was paired with the campaign by the government to promote tourism in Austria, which in my opinion was borderline propaganda that “Austria is the best country in the world, why would you leave it.”
Focus on the Positive and Be Flexible
I think we all agree that these challenging times. But since the start of this crisis I have tried to stay positive. (I have been more or less successful but I am trying.) This time definitely helped me to reconnect with where I come from and especially with nature. The lockdowns have illustrated what us human beings do to our planet. Suddenly, the skies were blue again, wildlife was seen in places we would have never expected them (otters in Singapore, dolphins and sharks near Thailand’s beaches and the many rabbits and deer I spotted during my morning walks). I recently listened to a podcast that if we want to meet the climate goals for 2030, we would need to reduce our yearly CO2 levels at the same extent as during this year’s lockdown…
Walking helped me stay sane. I have started to walk between six to 13 kilometres. It is the time where I let my thoughts go wild, calm down and evaluate. I do see a direct correlation between those walks (or exercising) and my performance at work.
This brings me to the next point: The past 200 days showed again that flexibility is key. At the start of the pandemic, many of my products for Pelagona were stuck at airports or in customs. Some could not be produced due to the lockdowns and curfews. But we did not give up. My partners all over the world and I found creative ways to still bring them to our customers. Sometimes plans have changed, sometimes more investment (effort-wise and financially) had to be made. But it definitely showed me which partnerships have evolved into long-lasting relationships of trust. Similarly, it was challenging to meet demands and ship products to clients. It is a no-brainer: customer relationship management is important. But, once again, I realised how much honesty and direct communication are appreciated.
Overall, I still have my ups and downs. My life is far from being what it used to be 200 days ago. But I hope it will be soon. And I still remind myself – and would like to remind you – of our privileges. I appreciate the good times I have been having, the support I am getting and that I can spend more time with the people I mostly see on screens.
Do not let this get you down. One day we will all look back and say it made us stronger – and maybe even joke about it. “Can you remember when we were all in lockdown?”. Have a good week ahead!