The Truth About Silence: A Self-Portrait

Written and illustrated by Lionel Rakai

When the life of quarantine and social distancing becomes an unnatural norm, we tend to find comfort in new or existing hobbies. Putting my headphones on with some soft coffee house piano music, my reprieve has always been in painting but rarely of my own face. If you are someone like me, to forcefully look at your own reflection can be unnerving. I noticed my own reflection had changed both inside and out. With cheeks filled out from lack of exercise, skin pale from the forgotten feeling of sunlight and eyes weary, it was actually internally – the lessons I had learnt and what I had grown into that concerned me the most.
Before I arrived in Xi’an (coming on five years now), I would consistently affirm “I’m adaptable anywhere and I could always make the situations I’m faced with work”. However, that was the pre-pandemic era. Now going three days into my fifth lockdown, it still doesn’t feel easier, though after each lockdown I feel like I’ve changed (evolved or regressed, I’m not sure). My previous pursuit of being outgoing was re-educated to being the quiet good boy everyone expected me to be, following the escalation of redesigned rules in silence like a trained house elf quivering back into a small cupboard.
Living in a single dorm alone and enforced not to pass the barriers of your own door, a person only has one’s self to talk to unless on the phone with a family member or friend showering you with the same questions like “How have you been doing?” and “How are you coping?”. Eventually the repetitive answers to these conversations become tiresome, the longing for physical human interaction grows and if it lasts long enough, you hit a wall. You romanticise the silence and come to this dangerous comfortability of peace with the quietness while unfortunately slowly losing the empathy for others (at least in my case).
While most of work or school activities move online, personal and professional situations still moving forward, I found myself arguing two sides of a problem in my head when deciding on certain judgement calls. I assumed it was allowing my mental state to grow emotionally stronger and more mature. It’s well defined that if you can understand all perspectives of a problem or situation, if you can speak only after thoughtfully considering the right words to say in order to avoid conflict; this would be called maturity. But there’s a dark side to it as well. One cannot know every solution to a situation and even multiple perspectives are still considered personal and therefore remain with some level of bias. This is why we have close friends, family or colleagues who we bounce ideas off of, who we ask for different points of view and keep our prejudices at bay.
It was this realization where I found my mind was somehow growing closed, similar to the four white walls of my dormitory that’s encapsulated myself physically, only shrinking smaller each day. In retrospect, as I thought about my catalyst to moving into a bigger country and city, it was to open my mind to new opportunities and to a bigger world in general. Instead, it has done the opposite. The sand I used to sit on to dig my feet into the silk white grains beneath them, at the time, felt like my type of glass box; knowing there was something more beyond but never truly understanding it. It was this inquisitiveness that prompted me to change my life so drastically by trading in the salt ocean air for what eventually became barricades and brick walls.
My experience with the lift of a lockdown has been similar every time. Understanding that the freedom could never be absolute, I found myself memorizing the colour of the atmosphere, the feeling of the cold dry air brushing against my pale sun thirsty skin, the feeling I could breathe in slightly longer after a momentary seizure of suffocation. It may sound dramatic but it was all real and I’d relinquish the fact of returning to solitude. There’s this constant bickering voice at the back of my head echoing “it’s not going to last”. This freedom is not going to last.
The constant public broadcasted text messages and notices about staying away from crowds, keeping your distance, reminding you that even though its permissible to go outside, it can still be untrusting. A strong-willed mind would use this circumstance to say “we must face reality armed with our reveries”, so that’s what I did. But rather than feeling the enjoyment and comfort of being around familiar faces again, sitting amongst my closest friends felt more like a sin than a sanctuary with my thoughts drowning in those virtual megaphone announcements repeating “keep one meter apart”.
Eventually I came to understand that even if my life freezes, the world keeps spinning madly on and others face experiences that may not have been as severe as my own. During the past few lucid months of the new year, close friends have formed new acquaintances, new bonds of friendship were forged, new interests identified and everyone changed in their own way while I slowly became a stranger to it all.
However, to keep my own sanity intact I’ve made my own resolutions; to take every opportunity when I meet it immediately, to not be a slave to fear (even when thrust upon you) and to not always live inside my head. While the silence can sometimes offer a state of peace from the constant negativity of others, we shouldn’t live in it long enough to become just another version of imprisonment. Realize that’s its perfectly normal to have certain feelings of negativity and be resolute in the fact that it can be overcome, that there is always some hope to hold on to, then talk to people. Professionally or personally, conversation (small talk or deep discussions) can make a difference all the while understanding the belief that nothing is harder to live with than false hope.