Out of Touch documents the unique experiences of Western Australians during the COVID-19 pandemic that hit Australia in early 2020.
‘Zee’ Zunnur Zhafirah, is a professional dancer from Singapore. She recently moved to Perth with her partner during the pandemic. Zee shares her experience of quarantining in a new country and the impact COVID-19 had on her career, on making friends, and her artistic trajectory.
Copyright © 2020 ‘Zee’ Zunnur Zhafirah
This story and corresponding images have been licensed to the Centre for Stories and the State Library of Western Australia by the Storyteller. For reproduction and distribution of this story/image please contact the Centre for Stories.
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I’m Zunnur Zhafirah, but I go by the name Zee. I’ve had that nickname since I was little and then it was pretty convenient when I moved to the UK nobody could pronounce my name. I am a dancer, choreographer, and also a movement artist. When I came here in March, I didn’t quite know that I was going to be here for the long run. I came here thinking “Alright I’m going to be here temporarily”, COVID just broke out, and “I’m going to go back to work at some point this year”, but turns out that’s not going to happen anytime soon. I think there’s a lot of people in my situation where they’re seeing that their migration is going to be temporary, but things change, and you just have to go with the flow and realise that “Oh, crap, I’m going to be here for long”. I think it’s nice to share these stories and know that there’s other people that’s kind of in the same boat and know that you’re not alone.
I’ve been living in the UK for the past six years, I’ve been dancing with this company for about, nearly two years. The nature of my job is: we’re based in the UK, but we travel around the world to perform, so that’s been what I’ve been doing. In March, whilst we were rehearsing in London, the choreographer that I work for, he just came in at the end of the week and was like: “Alright, all our tours have been cancelled for pretty much, nearly the rest of the year, and there is no job”, and for a touring company that is very bad news because when there’s no tours, there’s no income, there’s no money for us, really, so he said “OK we need to go on a pause, and we’ll cover your costs wherever you need to go back to”. So I was like, “OK, where do I want to be now, do I want to be with my partner in Perth, or do I want to go back to family that’s in Singapore”, and it was hard to decide then because my relationship with him is also quite fresh, but then I feel deep down inside that I knew it was something worth it to invest in and I said “OK I’m going to go to Perth”, even though at that point I didn’t know that it’s going to be long term. I just made that decision, it was very last minute.
I think, at that point of time in March, you feel this strong sense of anxiety, everyone was feeling that feeling of overwhelmed, and I just decided to come here on a whim. Two days later, it was like a total shutdown in Australia, so I was pretty lucky, and I was the batch of people that came into Perth that didn’t need to be checked in by the police, because I heard there was a few people that came after I came, and the police would come in every day and, maybe not every day, maybe a few times a week to check in that they’re actually at home, quarantining and doing their responsibility for their two weeks to be away from everyone. But I was pretty lucky.
My partner still lives with his parents. I quarantined at home, in his place, you know they kind of set up the room just for myself, and put everything that I need there to occupy myself, like the television, I love working out and I love doing Pilates so they put all the equipment and stuff in my room, just to occupy myself. Yeah it was nice, but obviously two weeks on your own is not fun, so I’m very thankful for that, but I think people who have been independent and lived on their own can agree with me that it is tough when you have to live with, like, parent figure. It is tricky because you can’t do what you usually do and it’s someone’s space, so there’s that level of guilt as well, like “OK I kind of need to watch myself constantly” kind of feeling.
I’ve met them twice: I came last year November and then I came again in February this year, so I have met them in glimpses, but I’ve never really lived with them so that was very interesting. I love them so much, they’re so welcoming, they’re so open to allowing me to stay there for however long I need. I think I’ve kind of found a rhythm to it as well, and I’ve realised along the way that I need to get some kind of independence on my own, and one of the things I did for myself was to get my own car. I just got a second-hand car and I think that’s a big deal when you live in Perth; yes, there’s public transport, but I, coming from Singapore and living in London, I kind of get used to the efficiency of things, and being able to get from A to B, like, quickly, and I cannot deny that I’m like “OK I can be patient but I also need to get somewhere”, when I want to go to places on my own, so getting a car was a game changer.
A quick tip: my friend Martha told me to find your own social circles in somewhere new, like a new city or a new place that you’re living in, apart from your loved ones, apart from your partner or whoever that you know, so then you find that independence for yourself, and I think that’s really important, to find your social circles. Because when I moved here, obviously I knew him, I knew his family, I have my group of dance friends here, but they are also my partner’s friends, so it’s kind of like, “OK how do I… I need to have my own circle outside of his life”, and I think that was, I knew that but I just needed someone to say that to me; go find your own social circle and that will make a big difference.
My partner he’s a white Australian, so he comes from a very Western-centric upbringing, and I don’t, even though I have lived in London, I have been travelling these past years with my job and stuff like that, but I find it tricky to, in some sense be myself, or some conversations has been quite challenging to have with him or even with his social circle or his family, it’s almost as if, sometimes I feel we can get by, but then we don’t really truly understand each other and I find that quite frustrating because, just like little things at home as well, some things my family do or don’t do, it’s different here, and the depths of conversation we go into talking about culture or tradition or, I can’t really have it here, so it’s slightly frustrating.
The thing is my parents, both of them are teachers in Singapore and they are Malay teachers so I’ve always had this very strong upbringing of culture, and my dad’s really articulate when it comes to literary stuff and I love having conversations with him about, I don’t know he just comes up with his own random words that, you know he’s just got that mind, and that kind of excitement about language and culture, and I’ve always had that in me, so it’s tricky sometimes not being able to share that with people who don’t quite understand it.
In some ways I felt Perth was quite a cliquey city and I feel like anyone who moves somewhere new would feel that, you look at everyone and you’re like “Wow, they’ve known each other for most of their lives, they’ve been friends, they’ve been family since the get-go”, and I just feel it’s kind of hard to get into these circles, and I also, I’m very sensitive with not intruding people’s space, but that’s been a big shift recently, I think, with the efforts that I’ve put in, to kind of be a bit more open with what’s around and the people around. I’ve met new friends, that I’ve got strong connections with.
That’s been a big shift and I’m very thankful for that, I don’t really feel as much like the other, but then, at the same time, being a brown person living in a world like this, you only see life as a person of colour, and you wouldn’t, that’s all you know, and that’s all you’ll ever know your whole life cause that’s what you are. So at times you can’t really help but see the difference, and how people are treated differently and, you’re very sensitive with these eyes. With the BLM marching and the COVID, I felt that when the marches were happening, at that point of time, we were pretty safe, with COVID.
I think the main thing I would remember from this time is being able to slow down and take time to really truly learn and understand what was already in front of you. I think we take advantage of a lot of things about our loved ones, our family. With the dance industry, a lot of it is put online now, you do online classes, you do online dance company classes. It goes against the essence of dance itself because it is a social activity, and you do it with people, you interact, you touch, it’s very hard for a lot of dancers not being able to be in the same studio, being in the same space as other people.
At this point I really feel we’re suffering big-time, y’know, we are non-essentials, we’re always at the bottom of the tier when it comes to funding in general, even without COVID, but at the same time I’m really thankful that COVID happened because that’s allowed me to do my other love of writing as well, being able to invest in things that you’ve always wanted to do, and being able to get a certification in Pilates which has been on my to-do list for like, quite some time, life gives you something and then you’ve got this opportunity to just make the most out of it.