Covid Summer 2020

Food in the Time of Circuit Breaker

Most of us are staying home more than we normally would, and basic activities have become almost regimental. Ianna reflects on the central role of food in her life and how it has changed during this period.

by Ianna Chia


Content Warning: disordered eating/vomit


My family isn’t the most adventurous with food. We cook at home a lot, frequent the same few places. Normally we eat together three or four times a week. But the circuit breaker meant eating together almost all the time. 

Our meals are now the central structure of our days, marking the hours that pass. I’ve thought more about how our relationship with food has changed over the past two months. 

Most lunches, my family eats in silence. My parents use their phones, my brother props his Kindle up against his bottle to read. The bites are punctuated by chopsticks against bowls. Dinners tend to hold more conversation, but our meals are almost never longer than twenty minutes.

Meals become a small source of excitement. Every now and then we order more elaborate meals, like dinner sets or food from pricier establishments. With more food, we spend more time together.

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Tomyum Mama dinner set, about $15 per person.

I’ve become acutely aware of how my family talks as I spend more time at the dining table. My dad never says full sentences, every phrase an instruction or a thought forming itself. My mum asks “you know why?” then answers her own question, and gives comments on her standards for food. My brother speaks with efficiency, a vernacular I know well because of our similarity in age.

My family is by no means a broken one, but there are cracks. Each person is largely independent of each other. I wonder if dinners are meant to be noisy apart from the percussion of cutlery. Do other families see meals the way we do? What are you supposed to feel when eating with family, what should you feel after? 

My brother and I drove out to get McDonald’s one night. One of our stranger dinners, since my parents aren’t fans of fast food. We were more talkative, mum telling us about McDonald’s back in the day, dad comparing different fast food joints. My brother and I talking about how we miss eating out with friends.

McDonald’s the night before their shutdown. Yes, we ate our fries with chopsticks.

It was odd seeing my family in conversation. No small conflicts, some laughter. It is a privilege to eat in peace. Maybe it was the atypical meal or the sharing of sauce packets. Family meals aren’t something that make me happy. They are lukewarm at best. 

An alarming number of my friends have happy families. My family of four will sit in a car together because there is a family gathering or a meal, a larger obligation. I am confused by families that spend time together as a choice.

An alarming number of my friends also have issues that run deep in their families. For them, staying at home is a threat. These days I can only hope their meals are uneventful.

My family is doing alright. I’m spending my last free summer at home, waiting. It feels like my time has been robbed from me: no internship, no work, no celebrating the end of another semester. The best thing I can do is nothing. 

At home, eating is a function. My meals are time stamps that I don’t always control. With friends, dinner is catching up, laughter, impromptu desserts or drinks. We almost never watch the time. I miss the feeling of eating out, the sound of a crowd, checking for early MRT closures and complaining about surge pricing. Will I know this feeling again?

Eating used to be a happy experience. I loved food and the feeling of being full, but for a large part of 2019 my relationship with food took a turn. I would throw up my meals regularly and I treated exercise as punishment for eating. I’ve gotten better, but almost a year later, the guilt hasn’t gone away completely.

I ordered delivery for my family once, and I couldn’t bring myself to order a full meal like they did. Some dinners still find themselves at the bottom of my toilet bowl. I forget that eating is a social activity as much as it is one for sustenance. Eating out with friends helped me keep my meals down. I don’t know when I can eat with them again.

Some things have helped with the lack of social eating. In a Telegram group, I fought it out with a circle of friends to determine the best mala ingredient (the winner was pork belly). My boyfriend and I would order desserts for each other (which our families greatly appreciated). Nothing can replace a meal with people I love, but we’ll make do.

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Terrarium cupcakes from Creme Maison with a terrible pun.

There are moments of hope, deliveries to look forward to. But food comes with a different guilt now. I once tipped a delivery man $5, and my mum said I’m not on exchange in the US anymore, there’s no need to tip so much. I told her these people need all the help they can get. An essential worker risks infection for me to take pictures of my food. 

The circuit breaker has ended, but life will stay the same for most of us. I’m not hopeful or optimistic. I’m still waiting for things to go back to normal, but that feels selfish when I now know the countless issues plaguing that very norm. When I think about how everyone is affected by this pandemic, it feels like there’s no end in sight. Not being able to see the people we care for, feeling like our time has been robbed. Restaurants closing for good, families getting tired of each other. 

I’m still waiting, but I’m not sure what I’m waiting for anymore.

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