Rethinking Normal

7 April 2020 / By Zhang Ruihe


It rained yesterday evening – one of those tropical thunderstorms that leave the air feeling fresh and cool and the entire landscape looking washed clean, ready to start anew. The windows of my Stay-Home-Notice hotel room right in the heart of the city look out towards a balcony adorned with lavender-pink bougainvillea; in the distance, ancient trees rise into the skies, stately and serene. I’m not sure if these trees belong to the Istana grounds – but whatever the case, they are beautiful. Once in a while, I spot some bird of prey with outstretched wings coasting in the air, a dark speck against the steel-blue skies.


Looking at this peaceful scene, it’s hard to believe that the world is now experiencing what UN Secretary General António Guterres has called the world’s “most challenging crisis” since World War Two. The Covid-19 situation has now become a global pandemic; all projections predict that things are only going to get worse; several countries have gone into lockdown mode to try to contain the spread of the virus; people everywhere are struggling to adjust to this new reality which has blindsided all of us – experts and laypeople alike.

It’s safe to say that we are living through extraordinary times. Who would have thought – even a month ago – that the world would come to this? I can’t really think of anything comforting to say. If the head of the UN is saying that the world as a whole has not encountered anything more challenging than this since 1945, I think that we really need to adjust to the fact that hoping for things to be ‘normal’ is probably not a very helpful response. For those of us lucky enough to be financially secure and living in Singapore and other first-world societies, clinging to ideals of ‘normal’ – eating out at restaurants or our favourite hawker stalls, meeting up with friends to watch a movie, hanging out in shopping malls and checking out the latest fashion and tech gadgets, going to school or sending our kids for music lessons or tuition – will only lead to greater frustration and disappointment. The fact is, this virus is going to be devastating for the world as a whole – for some countries and some people more than others, no doubt, but no one will be spared the impact. The sooner we accept this reality, the better we will cope. Our everyday lives will be turned upside down, if they haven’t been already. Even if we emerge unscathed health-wise, none of us will escape the economic consequences of the lockdowns and cancelled transport routes, and who knows what currently-unthinkable else may descend on us in the days to come.


The Chinese phrase for ‘crisis’ – 危机 (weiji) – is composed of two characters. The first, ‘wei’, means ‘danger’. The second, ‘ji’, has a slightly more ambiguous etymology – but it’s been translated to mean either something akin to ‘opportunity’, or maybe ‘critical juncture’ or ‘potential turning point’. Perhaps one way of responding to the way the Covid-19 crisis is turning all our normal routines upside-down is to see it as an opportunity or a critical juncture, a moment of choice. A time for us to take stock of our lives and the values that we hold dear, and see if the priorities upon which we build our sense of ‘normal’ are indeed as important as we make them out to be. Perhaps we will find – after the initial period of loss and discomfort – that we can make adjustments to some of these ideas of ‘normal’: adjustments that may even turn out to be positive and life-giving in the deepest, most fundamental and most human sense. For a start, maybe all that staying at home will force us to confront and repair hairline cracks in family relationships that have hitherto been concealed or even exacerbated by our everyday routines of work and school. On a wider societal level, the virus crisis is revealing the flaws and inadequacies in many systems of governance – problems that have been allowed to fester unaddressed but are now contributing to the spread of the virus or getting in the way of containment efforts. Any macro-level changes will require much time, effort, and sacrifice – but this could be an opportunity to start work.

I have long thought that our first-world lifestyles and aspirations are fundamentally unsustainable. The world as it is simply is not able to support our current levels of consumption and production; our psychological make-up is not up to the stresses and strains of modern life as we have made it out to be. If anything, perhaps those of us who can afford it can use our stay-home time to reflect on our priorities and think deeply about which aspects of ‘normal’ life are worth keeping and holding on to. Extraordinary times require extraordinary responses, and business as usual, whether now, or afterwards when all this is over (and one wonders what things will look like when all this is over …) is not a viable response. If we emerge from this crisis better and stronger, it will be because we have dared to look ourselves in the eye, dared to examine our lives – and dared to make things new by changing the things that need to be changed.

About Zhang Ruihe

An educator, writer, and long-time fan of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides Now’, Ruihe is currently pursuing an MFA in Writing (Nonfiction) at the University of Pittsburgh on an NAC scholarship. She is also the recipient of the 2013 Golden Point Award for English poetry, and co-editor of In Transit: An Anthology from Singapore on Airports and Air Travel.