The incongruity of gathering during the COVID-19 pandemic

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Addison Briggs/Staff

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I start my day in Berkeley. I close my eyes, and I can imagine my apartment on top of that infernal hill. The walk to school is a downhill stroll, passing an amazing view of the Golden Gate Bridge twice (once on Channing and Prospect, the second on Piedmont and Bancroft), looping into Strada for a morning coffee, and crossing the seemingly endless stream of students and teachers and tourists and regular fixtures around Sather Gate. It’s 9:40 a.m., and I’m finally next to RSF. We’re 10 or more minutes late, or on Berkeley time, whatever makes you feel better.

I click my calendar. I open, the same Zoom call for nearly 30 days, and I wait for the Shred Squad to appear. We comment on our nights and on our plans for the day, we sweat and laugh to Chloe Ting’s workout videos and we disappear to our showers and our homes away from college.

It’s midday. I’m traveling through China with my study abroad best friend. We’re finishing our midterm papers in the sticky heat of Yunnan at a coffee shop by the river — it smells like freshly squeezed orange juice, tiramisu and the familiar odor of her cigarette (the one she only smokes when stressed or drunk). As we chat, we’ve pushed our work to the side, and we discuss politics, morality, living, loving, being.

I click on our Facebook chat. I open It’s a different Zoom call each time, because we both haven’t saved the link. She joins at the same time I do. We giggle and cry and analyze and debate as we watch the Hillary Clinton documentary on Hulu. And later, we disappear to our respective family dinners.

It’s a warm evening with mediocre wine but wonderful company. We’re sitting on the grass by Lake Merritt, sharing three boxes of pizza from Arizmendi Bakery, reveling in each other’s company, remembering our adventures together during our semester of bonding, i.e., pledging. Familiar faces tell unfamiliar stories from the semesters apart, abroad or graduated, of love lost and gained, of new friends and new lives.

I click on our fraternity Slack channel. I open, and I join these people who have become brothers and sisters. It’s our yearly memorial for a brother who passed, a friend from my pledge class; we share memories and we play games (normally, Ultimate Frisbee, because it was his favorite). Today, we play Secret Hitler and Kahoot!, and afterward, we disappear to our living rooms, thousands of miles away from each other.

Familiar faces tell unfamiliar stories from the semesters apart, abroad or graduated, of love lost and gained, of new friends and new lives.

It’s any break from college. We’re drinking Philz coffee and carpooling unreasonably, eating random snacks and treats made by our friend group’s chill mom, watching “Jeopardy!” while sprawling on top of each other.

I click on our book club iMessage group and I open An institutional Zoom call with a logo from Stanford or Yale or CMU or NYU appears before me. I’m the last to join, and they’re embroiled in a discussion about old friends. Quickly, we transition to an analysis of “Educated,” our book club pick of these past two weeks. We sip on wine, we argue and we disappear to the separate lives we lead and institutions from which we learn.

It’s Tuesday and Thursday, sometime between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. We might be making dinner in my apartment, or perhaps we’re on the fifth floor of McCone Hall watching the sunset from the balcony, or we’re drinking boba from U Cha on Bancroft and Fulton. I’m getting to know my new friend from a serendipitous group project pairing.

I click on the “Zoom Fun Giant Group Chat.” I open and I join our biweekly lecture series. One of our friends gives a presentation on city planning, another leads a portraiture workshop, one more lectures about kink, another talks about sleep psychology and I discuss “Asian History You Don’t Know” with my new friend (we present on the relationship between tea and colonialism, and on the secret history of the Mongol queens). We learn, we ask questions and we disappear to our musings alone.

It’s Saturday night. We’re all huddled on my childhood bed, or perhaps we’re all huddled on the floor of my high school best friend’s house or maybe we’re all huddled on couches of another best friend’s living room. We’re snacking on sunflower seeds, or we’re munching on freshly cut fruit or we’re sipping good tea. Often, we’re making a decision — will we play cards the whole night or will we save time for serious discussion about our futures?

We learn, we ask questions and we disappear to our musings alone.

I click on our iMessage chat. I open; this time it’s one from MIT. The two MIT friends are already there and they berate me for my tardiness. Our friend with the couches joins a few moments later, and the friend with the floor and freshly cut fruit is conspicuously absent. We play Codenames, or we play Down for a Cross, or we play Spyfall, or we play, we talk about our friend’s recent breakup and we disappear to sleep in our childhood beds.

It’s Cal Day. A journey of erratic energy, a celebration of new Bears, a euphoric release before the deluge of finals and of endings. Do you remember the confusion of your first Cal Day (the one during senior year of high school when you asked for directions on how to get to Dwinelle)? Do you remember the turmoil of your first real Cal Day (the one during freshman year of college when you went to a frat party, hated it, and left, thinking “Is this all there is to college?”)? Do you remember the hopeful exhilaration of your last Cal Day (the one in senior year, of planned debauchery, of wild explorations of a campus you have fully lived and loved)?

I click on our Facebook event titled, “Cal Day Roof Rager but make it Zoom.” I open, one started from the premium account my friend bought for the purpose of organizing parties. We start our day together by each making a Blue-and-Gold brunch: crepes with blueberries and a Framosa (a Frat Mimosa i.e., orange juice with any alcohol). My study abroad best friend joins, and so does my high school best friend with the couches and the tea. Later in the afternoon, we host a blind date bingo, and two of my friends from my fraternity join in, meeting people from these other parts of my life. We drink, we chat, we do mildly stupid things and we disappear to sleep off the tipsy in our individual rooms.

It’s once in a blue moon. My friends are all around me, and people from all walks of my life are meeting each other. We pop in and pop out of these disparate calls. We’re all heads and shoulders without knees and toes.

I’m grateful, but I’m also anxious. “When can I see you again?” “Tomorrow,” I say! In another few months, I hope.

Contact Shannon Hong at [email protected].