[Dialing ringtone playing in the background]
Cameron Hello, how are you?
Samantha I’m good, I’m good.
Cameron Mmm, how was your evening?
Samantha Evening was fine. I had a D&D session just now which was… you know, very eventful.
Cameron Mmmm, right right, yes you mean, you are looking pretty excited about what happened.
Samantha [Laughs] Yeap, I’ll tell you about it, but how’s your evening?
Cameron Ah, my evening, it was alright, alright, not too bad.
Chris That’s the sound of Samantha on a video call with her partner, Cameron. Cameron’s living in Perth about 4,000 kilometers away. Such calls are part of the daily ritual in their long-distance relationship. In this wild year of 2020, Covid has erected new boundaries for couples like Samantha and Cam around the world placing their relationships in a permanent holding pattern minus any physical holding.
I’m Chris McMorran and this is Home on the Dot, the podcast about the meaning of home in Singapore told through the lives of my students at the National University of Singapore. As regular listeners of Home on the Dot know, we’ve devoted our shows in 2020 to covering the impact of Covid-19. In our Covid series, we’ve heard a range of stories from students whose exchange programs were abruptly canceled, to how Covid restrictions altered family and religious festivities surrounding Hari Raya Puasa.
When Singapore went into lockdown in April, interactions with people outside one’s household were severely limited to curb the spread of the virus. Visits to your grandparents’ place, dinner with friends and dating were all impacted. Many people struggled with the isolation of not physically seeing their loved ones during that period.
Lockdown measures have since eased bit by bit over the months. Now, family visits and meeting up with friends are possible with safe-distancing regulations. However, there are many people who remain separated from their loved ones, couples and long-distance relationships. With many international borders closed and most international flights being grounded indefinitely, maintaining a long-distance relationship seems harder than ever.
Before the pandemic, the problem of distance could be solved with time. Couples could travel for hours and meet and they could enjoy the time between visits planning their next trip. But with Covid-19, there is no solution to the problem of distance and there is only the uncertainty of not knowing when couples will meet again.
When will the borders open? When will flights resume? When will they be able to hold each other and restart planning for a future together? My wife and I know this feeling well. We both work and live in Singapore, but we have families in Japan and the United States. I haven’t seen my mother in nearly a year and a half.
When will I be able to hug her again? This year has made her feel farther away than ever.
In this episode, I chat with Samantha, a recent NUS graduate from the Department of English Language and a producer on the Home of the Dot team. You might remember her from our Home School episode from season 1 when she interviewed some young international students in Singapore about where home is for them.
In this episode, I asked Samantha how Covid-19 has impacted her and her long-distance relationship with Cameron. Thanks to the convenience of air travel and online messaging and video chat platforms, their long-distance relationship was manageable up to now and they could think seriously about the possibility of one day making a home together. But following the outbreak of the pandemic with overseas travel on hold indefinitely, that possible shared future is now stuck. How has Covid-19 impacted couples and long-distance relationships? How do they cope and what plans do they have once borders open and flights start up again? Stay tuned.
Chris Samantha, it’s great to see you today. To see your face through Zoom and to hear your voice. We haven’t spoken in months. I know last time we spoke was around May when you first brought me this story about long-distance relationships. Can you explain to me why you’re interested in that story and tell me a little bit about your Covid experience?
Samantha First of all, it’s my own personal experience going through it and I thought it was an interesting story to talk about just because over the course of the past six months since we started talking about this. I’ve begun to realize that my case isn’t as unique as I thought it was, in the sense that there are many people out there in Singapore and all around the world that’s going through the same frustrations, of the added difficulties in maintaining a long-distance relationship during Covid-19. On top of long-distance relationships being difficult enough as they are already.
Chris Right, they’re difficult enough. Because you don’t know, you know, you know you’re gonna see each other in a few months, but you’re not quite sure when or you have to wait for those few months, but now with Covid, it’s kind of unknown when you will see each other next.
Chris Is that still the case for you?
Samantha Definitely. I mean, I think with most long-distance relationships it’s already kind of expected that you wouldn’t get to see each other for long periods of time but you can always kind of still look forward, still plan ahead like well, we can fly to each other at this time, at this state and with the current situation now of all the flights being grounded in the international borders, you know closed. Not knowing when the next time you can see your partner can be very unnerving.
Samantha Definitely very frustrating because it can feel for some people including myself that there’s a fear of your relationships stagnating. When you’re in a relationship, there’s always kind of like, expectations to progress and maybe like with time that passes, you are reaching close and closer to perhaps the next stage of life.
Chris And with the eventual goal of being together.
Chris In one place.
Chris I mean this is what home means for a lot of people right. It’s the creation of a family. It’s the spending time with loved ones. I mean, I know for me, my definition of home is the place where my wife is, where my partner is, right and I don’t know if you know this but I had a long-distance relationship with her for several years before we finally married and she was living in London first and I was in the US and that she was in Japan and I was in the US.
But we had that fun, exciting planning of when will we see each other next and we could buy the tickets and talk about the itinerary and talk about what we would do and so you, Sam and I have other friends going through this as well. There is this sense right now because of Coronavirus, they don’t know when that next meeting will be and so I’m sure it can put strain on the relationship and that kind of stealing the potential of home in the future.
Samantha Definitely. I totally agree with this sentiment that when you’re with, you know, a partner that you’re serious with. Being next to them, especially during a pandemic, a global pandemic like this would definitely feel more reassuring. Yeah so definitely I think the start of it all, when you know, we were still in the whole lockdown situation, there was a lot more tension, frustration because there was a lot more uncertainty as compared to now.
Samantha And so with that uncertainty, there’s a lot more hoping as well and with the hoping can come more disappointment when you realize that you know, there’s really no end in sight.
Chris Can you tell me about your partner?
Samantha [Laughs] So… Cameron and I have been together… We’ve actually reached three years of being together on Tuesday.
Chris Oh, congratulations! Just a few days ago in December. Wonderful.
Samantha Yeap, so Cameron is actually from Australia. Perth, Western Australia and we met more than three years ago in Japan.
Samantha So, we’ve started this long-distance relationship from the very beginning. For a lot of couples, it can be you know, they started out in the same place and then they were separated but then they’re also couples like me who started off long-distance. He was here in Singapore to join me for Chinese New Year, and I was before that…
Chris In early 2020?
Samantha In early 2020, and now we are at the end of it so it’s been close to a year already since I last saw him in person and so… I think we’ve been quite fortunate as compared to a lot of long-distance couples, in that Perth and Singapore are in the same time-zone so…
Chris I see…
Samantha There’s no…
Chris I would have thought that there’s nothing fortunate about your situation at all.
Chris And yet…
Samantha Well, relative…
Chris Relative, same time zone means at least you can be on each other’s clocks.
Chris And be in each other’s lives in a comfortable way.
Samantha Definitely, and you know, we get more time to do things together and you know…
Chris So what do you do together?
Samantha So… The other nice thing that we share is a lot of our common interests so we enjoy watching anime and things like that. We also play games together, in fact we have like a group of friends, mutual friends that we have that play games online, so on top of being able to spend time with Cameron, I also get to spend time with his friends, virtually.
Chris Oh, ok.
Samantha Yeap, so that’s like, I mean, that’s the other thing about long-distance relationships in this current time that a lot of it has been supported with technology and I don’t know how it was in… You know, when you were going through long-distance relationship in your time, I don’t know how is it for you.
Chris Oh my gosh, it was so inconvenient. I mean, the first long-distance relationship I ever had I actually had to find like an international telephone booth, a special kind of booth in Japan, in order to make calls.
Samantha They had that?
Chris Yeah they had that. Like there was a normal green telephone booth and then there was a gray one which was only for international calls and you had to buy like a little telephone card and then you had to, you know, punch in the numbers and wait and just stand there out in a public park talking to your significant other in the middle of the night sometimes. That was the original. Later, you know, a lot of letters, eventually email but yeah, it’s been you know, it’s an evolving thing, so I’m very jealous that you get to play games simultaneously, synchronously and share those kinds of… Share entertainment or share other kinds of moments together. That’s wonderful. There was certainly no video chat in my day. [Laughter]
So tell me how… I mean, you have some positives and some negatives of this long-distance relationship, how it’s changed because of Covid, I mean the impact, can you tell me a little bit about positives and negatives?
Samantha At least for me and Cameron like we do have… sometimes different views on what’s going on. For example, like he would be a bit more positive about the outlook of things whereas for me I tend to be a bit more negative though I like to think I’m being realistic – with my expectations [laughter].
When we were in May he was saying, oh it should be before the end of the year we should be able to fly to each other and here we are [laughter], still nothing has changed. So – well it’s nice to be positive about things I guess but for me, I guess when you get your hopes up it gets more disappointing when you are reminded over and over again how – no it’s not, you know, going to change so quickly – the current circumstances.
So then like that could lead to some tensions where he would be like well, “why do you have to be so negative about such things” and I’ll be like “well you I, I think you’re just being quite unrealistic with your expectations” – those are tiny things.
At least for me, I tend to be a bit more of an overthinker and a bit more insecure. So then that would lead to like almost existential questions of like “am I – is this relationship going to be okay?”, “Can we really tide, you know, this pandemic through?”
Especially when you’re in a long-distance relationship, I think you know the goal is to settle together in the same place, right? So then with the current Covid situation making, you know, finding jobs difficult, traveling to each other’s difficult, then you start to worry about like, well when can we start planning to settle together in person.
Chris Right. I had a friend explain it as the saying like life is on hold, right now.
Samantha Yeah, that’s a good way of putting it.
Chris Because she doesn’t quite know where this relationship is going but she can’t even start to move in any kind of direction, because she’s just on hold. So, what’s the positives?
Samantha [Laughs] The positives. I think definitely, now that we do have more time on our hands with the current situation – also, I think I should explain about our situation. Cameron has just finished his Masters in teaching in Perth. So he’s a bit more free now and I also graduated this year, so we have a lot more time on our hands that would have gone to perhaps travelling to each other had it not been like Covid-19.
We have both, you know, started looking at picking up hobbies and interests and things like that. There’s more time for yourself, there’s more time to reflect on how you can improve on yourself. Because definitely in a relationship you want to do things together, but at the same time I feel it’s very important to always be improving yourself and inspiring your partner in the same way so that also kind of brings, you know, additional topics into our conversation, it makes it interesting as well.
For example, I picked up some crafts like embroidery, resin craft and I would show him my work and he would be like oh okay and then he gets inspired and he starts picking up his piano again and drawing, things like that.
Chris It’s funny – you say you game together, but you also do like 19th Century crafts [laughter].
Samantha But it can get exhausting, I think, if you spend too much time on like the internet, yeah.
Chris Can I ask – I can see through the Zoom that you are still in your childhood bedroom. Is that correct? How is this, how is it managing a long-distance relationship with your family in the background?
Samantha Oh. It can be quite funny sometimes [laughter], in that Cam and I would be having our conversation and my parents would barge in – you know it’s a typical Asian household, where your parents would probably just go in and talk to you, ask you do things – so they would barge in and they’ll be like “Oh, hi Cam!” and then they’ll wave and then they’ll awkwardly retreat as well after doing that [laughter]. But they’re very understanding, my parents.
I kind of – it’s interesting that you should point that out because I’ve had this feeling of slight bit of guilt at times when it comes to my interactions with my family after starting, you know, a long-distance relationship. I try to spend time with Cameron, every day if I can, to connect and to keep the communication going every day, so sometimes it could lead to – after having dinner with my family, spending a bit of time with them, I’ll go into my room and to get more peace and quiet I’ll close the door. From my parents’ point of view, I think it can seem a bit anti-social maybe, that I’m you know, like locking myself away in the room. Yeah, but I think my parents have been very understanding, and during dinnertime, they’ll ask about Cam, they’ll ask about his family and I’ll update them, they’ll ask to send their regards.
Chris So what is the future hold? I mean, I don’t want to ask big questions like – so has anyone popped the question or what happens next – right? Or are you in a holding pattern or what comes next?
Samantha I think. Well, okay, I think before I go into that, remember in our last conversation, we talked about how Cameron and I kind of were considering speeding up our plans to settle down in the same country.
Chris This was to enable one of you to travel to the other country using a kind of a special visa or something like that.
Samantha Something like that.
Chris It will be the only way, right. To be able to have to visit the other place.
Samantha Yeah, to make administrative matters like that a lot smoother and also I think, visa stuff aside, if we can settle in the same country as soon as possible, if another global issue, like, you know, Covid-19 hits again, we wouldn’t have to go through the separation again.
Chris Right. So the pandemic has rushed some decisions.
Chris And in an era where we used to have kind of unlimited mobile global mobility, you know, now you have to negotiate with the state in order to manage that mobility. In order to be mobile in ways that you can’t otherwise because of state restrictions, visas and things.
Samantha With the global situation starting to cool off, you know, bit by bit.
Chris We have a vaccine! Finally.
Samantha Yes! That’s really reassuring news. And also international borders are starting to open up bit by bit. So Singapore, for example, like has unilaterally opened up to a few countries which includes Australia.
And so when I saw the news, I was like really happy and quickly sent that the link to Cameron. I guess the only thing with that is having to wait for Australia to open up as well. Even then, I think like it’s probably not going to be the case that we can fly to each other immediately as soon as the borders open because airfares are going to shoot up so high.
Chris Yes, they will, yes they will.
Samantha Yeah. There will be definitely limited seating because they’ll probably still do limited flights and social-distanced seating so it also because if Australia does open up on their end, it will be next year probably, mid to third quarter of the year. And…
Chris Of 2021…
Samantha Of 2021, and that’s the speculation that they put forth. But by then, I would be working because I got a job offer to start next January. So then that’s the thing, like, this year would have been…
Chris So are you gonna start a new job here in Singapore?
Samantha In Singapore, so because it’s like starting a new job would probably require you to be at the job as much as you can for the first year, at least.
So if it were not for Covid-19, this year would have been the best time to be able to travel to Cam or vice versa. But I… First and foremost I’m very grateful to be able to get the job during such a time and second like I think it comes at a good time because as I said earlier, we probably wouldn’t get to fly to each other immediately. So yeah…
Chris Right. In a world where we would use to be able to, yeah – live in different countries and be fine with that and look forward to some kind of future together somewhere and suddenly Covid is put a real damper on those relationships or change them in different ways, yeah – not all negative.
Samantha Definitely, in reflection over the months like…
I guess, Covid-19 has helped me and perhaps also Cameron my partner, to really, probably grow a bit more in our relationship in some way. You know, it’s a lot of negatives I would say but… On a positive side like things like that can happen and now that this has happened, if something like that happens in the future again, I think we probably would be more mentally prepared if not like – if we’re not already in the same country together by that point.
Chris Yeah, right. Okay, well it’s very fascinating and it’s great to catch up after more than six months of not speaking to you, voice to voice. Last time we spoke, I was really taken aback by your story and it is interesting in the months since I have run into many more people who are in similar situations and I feel for you. As you say this is a time where you might grow together, grow closer because of that maturing factor, but also there’s that uncertainty that can hang over the relationship and I suppose there’s also the feeling like if you… If it doesn’t work out, you might think – well did I not try hard enough, did I not love enough – but if it does survive this then it can survive anything, right. It’s that this is a real breaking point or a decision point for a lot of people in their relationships, yeah.
Okay, well thank you very much for talking to me about this. I wish you all the best. I’ve met Cameron. He’s a great guy. I hope that you guys can see each other again, I guess in, within the year.
Samantha I hope so too.
Chris I think a year from now. Yeah, yeah… Good luck.
Samantha Thank you.
Chris Okay, thanks Samantha, bye-bye.
Chris The promise of any long-distance relationship is that one day it will become a close-distance relationship. About 20 years ago, my wife and I spent a year and a half engaged but living on different continents. Every time we met, we were already planning our next meeting with the knowledge that we would be together permanently at the end of that long tunnel.
In her fascinating study on family photos, Geographer Gillian Rose found that people used photographs to create a feeling of homeliness to turn a house into a home by personalizing the space with the faces and places dear to the family. But she also found that those family photos did some geographical magic.
They not only transformed the bare walls of a house into a home, but they stretched the walls of that home across international borders and into the distant locations shown in photographs. Home was both here and there. Now and in the past. For couples in long-distance relationships, home is often in the future.
And no amount of photographs or video messaging apps can shrink the painful distance in both time and space. Between now and the unknowable future when they will finally be at home together. As we near the end of this turbulent year of 2020, my heart goes out to everyone longing to hold a loved one but prevented that pleasure by the cruelty of distance. May you hold each other soon.
This episode was produced by Samantha Leong and me with sound engineering by Stanley Chow. Thanks to Cameron who shared his voice in the opening. I also want to send a big shout-out to all the faithful Home on the Dot listeners like Crystal and James, who have waited patiently for new episodes.
This has been a stressful time for me, teaching modules entirely online, worrying about family overseas and admittedly, becoming a little addicted to news about the U.S Presidential Election and its aftermath.
Thankfully, the past few months have also brought some good news. The completion of my first book called Ryokan: mobilizing hospitality in rural Japan. It’s an ethnography about the physical and emotional work that takes place behind the scenes at a ryokan, or Japanese inn. It’s based on a year of intensive research and work at an inn in Kurokawa Onsen, a hot springs village in Kumamoto, as well as nearly two decades of repeat visits. It should be out sometime in 2021 from the University of Hawaii Press, but I’ll be sharing some of the work at an online meeting of the Royal Geographical Society-Singapore in mid-January 2021. You can find more details about the event and my book, as well as transcripts for this episode on our Home on the Dot blog at tinyurl.com/homeonthedot. You can also find us on Facebook, just search for Home on the Dot. And as always, thanks for listening.