Tuesday, June 18, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

OP-ED: Two boats, my sanity, and the pandemic

The pandemic has made achievable future plans seem outlandish

Update : 11 Jun 2020, 07:10 PM

Emotionally, I feel drained. Mentally, I am fatigued. I have been cooking up this piece in my mind since April, and took almost two weeks to finish it since starting. Admittedly, I have always been a pro-active procrastinator but this is new even for me.

I think I have been avoiding writing down my thoughts because it means I’ll need to face certain insecurities and failures on my part which I’d rather not face or discuss with anyone. Before I can really delve into this piece, I feel like I need to preface it with some of the highs and lows I have faced in the past couple years.

September 2018 -- I started my Master of Architecture program from McGill University. April 2019 -- I went back home to visit my parents and family. October 2019 -- one of my research essays got published in a peer-reviewed student publication at the School of Architecture at the University of Waterloo. I also walked the stage to receive my MArch degree the same month. 

November 2019 -- I received my postgraduate work permit. January 2020 -- I started working at a call centre to support myself while looking for a proper job. April 2020 -- I got an honorary mention in the Avery Review: Critical Essays on Architecture Essay Prize 2020 published by the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation at Columbia University. 

All things to be extremely proud of and grateful for, which I am. So let’s move on to the lows, shall we? 

May 2019 -- my father, who had a history of cardiovascular issues, had a major heart attack which set off his Parkinson’s to a point of no return. June 2019 -- I travelled back to Canada to finish my graduation on time despite my father’s ill health. July 2019 -- I travelled back home because my father passed away.

September 2019 -- My fuppa, who never had any history of cardiovascular issues, had a major heart attack and passed away. October 2019 -- my mama, who played a major role in my life, passed away due to health complications and old age. March 2020 -- the effects of the pandemic hit Canada and the threat of losing a job loomed like a very probable reality.

Suffice to say, my sanity was in shambles since before the pandemic. I was already depressed about all the losses I had faced, about my inability/failure to find a respectable job in my field of education, and having to work a minimum wage job just to stay afloat despite having two respectable degrees from two reputed institutions added frustration as fodder to my misery.

The past few months of having to live through the pandemic has definitely made me notice the privileges I have had all my life, and rethink my current situation. All this, while constantly having a gnawing worry at the back of my head as to whether my future may or may not fulfill the professional dreams I have nurtured in my adult life.

One of the main reasons it has been hard for me to find a job anywhere else but a call center is because I live in Montreal, the cosmopolitan city of French Canada. Despite being a multicultural city, most jobs in Montreal require working knowledge of French, be it working at a restaurant in the food court of a mall or a clerical job at an office.

My lack of French communication skills definitely has been putting me at a disadvantage. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I haven’t tried to change my situation. Before the pandemic hit, I did enroll in French classes, but of course, once the shutdown was enforced, classes stopped and, only very recently, resumed online.

The irony here is almost comedic if you ask me. The prerogatives that allowed me to come to Canada have become impediments for me. The family I was born into bore me the privilege to afford the education that I received. An education that makes me fluent and articulate enough to write this, the same education that got me accepted in an esteemed Canadian university, and a financial backup that facilitated securing a higher education of my dreams.

Despite all those benefits, I am still stuck at a job I absolutely hate. Granted, the job circuits have a particular cycle of activity-inactivity that I assumed they follow, being mostly inactive in winter. As winter was bidding adieu, I started knocking more doors, looking for opportunities. 

However, the “beloved” pandemic hit. Anywhere I knocked since, the responses I received were “it’s a bad time” and “we’re going to be inactive until the unforeseeable future.”

Upon joining the call centre, the management assigned me to a sales campaign for a Canadian bank. The campaign shut down late March when Covid-19 started taking a toll on people’s lives and people started prioritizing spending only on necessities. However, the beauty of an outsourcing company is that they serve a diverse clientele. Management reassigned my whole group to a different campaign, a collections campaign for an American bank.

I still had a job even though I had been inches away from being jobless. It still worried me, if one campaign could shut down, what was the guarantee that this current one wouldn’t?

A co-worker, who came to Canada as an asylum seeker from a war-torn country, explained how the company was going into fight mode, how in a situation of crisis, consumption of luxury isn’t a necessity but keeping the economic cogs running by collecting money owed was. Did that make sense? Sure! Did it ease my worries? No.

My first response was a fight or flight one. I wanted to return to my safe sanctuary in Dhaka, without having to worry about potentially losing a job I hate and having to bear the cost of living in a city that isn’t even my own.

A month later, when I saw the lower income group flee to their villages from Dhaka after the government announced the lockdown, I could relate myself with them. It was a flight or fight reaction, similar to mine. 

Back in March, I had hardly worked long enough to qualify for Canada’s Employment Insurance benefits, and I hadn’t earned enough to qualify for the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), specifically introduced for Covid-19.

I had no option but to keep going to work, at a time when most people doing similar jobs had already shifted to working from home, because I didn’t have much savings and I needed the money. My workplace was hardly giving me any promises as to whether they’d shift to work from home since “we work for a bank and client information confidentiality needs to be maintained.”

I felt that, because I am a minimum wage worker, my life didn’t matter, my safety was prioritized under client information confidentiality. We were deemed an essential service since we worked for a bank. The management handed letters, printed on company letterhead, claiming we were essential workforce, to show to law enforcement officers in the event they stopped and questioned us.

The message was loud and clear: My life did not matter. Despite coming from a privileged background, I realized my situation here in Canada was nothing less than the RMG workers who couldn’t avoid work despite growing concerns of a pandemic.

The fact that I found myself in such a situation, despite the glorified education, made me feel imprisoned, made me question my worth. Unlike the RMG workers though, I was lucky enough to eventually work from home.

I have always been a fan of dark humour. It’s both dark and wry that at a time when many people at respectable companies with decent salaries are worried about holding onto their jobs, at a time when many people have already lost their jobs, the very job I hate now seems to stay loyal to me and be a boon. 

My plan was to come back to Canada, collect my work permit, find a job in my field, go back home after a year or two, and eventually secure a job in a university. Ultimately, I wanted to apply for a PhD. In case I didn’t get a job in my field after trying for a few months, I would have returned home sooner and followed the trajectory already mentioned.

I want to emphasize once more, that these plans sprung from the advantage and bravado of a good education that life afforded me, and I believed would be respected back home. Many people come to Canada, to escape a life of hardship in Bangladesh, but I came to Canada to etch out further conveniences for an already comfortable life back home.

However, those plans seem so far-fetched now, so outlandish. I feel that dream far removed from ever turning into reality. When all this ends, if I do go back home, given a lapse in my career timeline, how difficult will getting a job in an educational institution be? Even if the lapse is not emphasized, how soon until universities will be willing to hire new faculty post Covid-19?

The ultimate question is, when all this ends, what world are we going back to?

How are our dreams and aspirations going to adapt and change? What harsh realities are we going to face? Is that dream of becoming an educator going to matter? Is that dream of continuing my hunger for academia going to bring any difference? Will my ambitions, if fulfilled, hold any value anymore?

Fretting over all of it, while still healing from my previous grievances, feels like a massively impossible chore but also inescapable. 

I feel like I have my feet in two boats. In one boat, I have my knowledge, education, aspirations, and coincidental birthrights. In the other boat, I have my grievances, my helplessness, my agony, my minimum wage job, a bleak future, and a vicious cycle I am unable to escape.

The boats seem to move farther apart with each passing day and I feel myself stretched thin. I want to jump and land on the former and yet circumstances make me think I will land on the latter. As the boats stretch me afar, I can feel my sanity tearing farther apart every day.

Maybe the fact that I am even able to write this all down, whine about the inconveniences life has thrown at me and hope to have my bratty complaints published is also a privilege, at a time when many are experiencing a lives much harder than mine. Nevertheless, at a time when my prerogatives seem to afford so little, I’d rather take this chance and talk about my experience, in case it helps touch a nerve with someone and helps them find some camaraderie.

Here’s to us all slowly going insane with each passing day. 

Sarjana Sanam Islam is a recent graduate, slowly losing her mind while chasing her aspirations in the time of Covid-19.

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