Illustration by Zelalem Waritu.

In-Person Learning: Six Feet Between Us

When you listen to someone, looking into their mask, it is almost like looking into a void. That was when it hit me that the introverted side of me missed Zoom so much.

Oct 31, 2021

Zoom? Again? I shook my head when I heard my classes would not meet in-person until early October. I didn’t fly to Abu Dhabi for another semester of online classes.
I thought I had recovered from the pain Zoom brought me as most in-person classes in NYU Shanghai have been resumed for almost a year. However, in my first weeks at NYU Abu Dhabi as a study away student, it was back again, haunting me like a recurring nightmare.
I had my first semester of college right before the pandemic, so when Zoom was introduced the next semester, I was challenged to see all my college experience collapsed into a 13-inch screen. I often got sore eyes and backache from sitting at the same desk and staring at the same screen all day. I felt anxious when I saw everyone froze on the screen and lost connection with the rest of the class. Was I going through this again?
The answer is yes. Instead of starting a conversation with typical Chinese greetings, we greeted each other with the new catchphrase: Can you hear me? “Can you see my screen?
More than the actual learning, the first four weeks of online classes felt like four weeks of inquiry into the arbitrary nature of Zoom interactions. I felt this inquiry when three of us stared at each others’ faces in a breakout room, unable to hear any discussions from other groups at a distance or fill the sometimes awkward silence. I felt it during the camera workshop in film class when I found with disappointment that the camera set the Professor demonstrated to us was only as big as a thumbnail.
My friend described the daytime campus as a ghost city. You don’t see anyone running around campus for classes. There is no need — we simply leave the last Zoom meeting, stretch, get absorbed in yet another screen for a while, and then enter a new online class. From the background we see the same composition: big windows, sunlight, brick walls, and we know clearly where our professor and fellow students are, whether that is their office, marketplace, library cafe or their own rooms. Most of us were on campus; we just could not get to meet each other in-person.
I will not forget the day when I stepped into the classroom to have my first ever in-person philosophy class. As a NYU Shanghai student studying away in Abu Dhabi, this is the first time that I actually have a proper campus — at NYU Shanghai, we only get one building. Swiping my card, pushing the door open, picking a seat and putting down my bag, every moment was a refreshing sign of a new, normal life.
Halfway through the philosophy class, I started to realize that something was off. All 15 of us sat in three rows, with three feet of social distance and faced the Professor against a whiteboard like sunflowers facing the sun. I could not see any sunflowers behind me — I had to turn around when my peers spoke in class; nor did the sunflowers in front of me give me any identifiable features except their back. The only person who faced everyone was the Professor. And I could not name half of the class without their names displaying on the lower right hand corner of their faces in my first in-person class.
For my art class, I stepped into the design studio equipped with Macs with big screens, only to find that half of them were inaccessible due to social distancing restrictions. Every comment we made in class, rather than a public announcement, was more of a direct conversation to the professor. I often found myself waiting for the Professor to rephrase what the classmates sitting in the first row just said. When I heard a familiar word but did not know the meaning, I could no longer quietly take out my phone or laptop to look it up; when I got lost at some point, I could not go back to the recording afterwards nor text my friend and ask what the professor said.
That was when it hit me that the introverted side of me missed Zoom so much. I missed all the small talks and emojis. I remembered when I privately messaged my classmates on how great their insights were. I remembered when I subtly pressed the heart icon or the applause emoji to express my appreciation to the rest of the class. I remembered the day when classmates texted greetings like happy mid-autumn festival. It served as a casual conversation starter that led us to know each other better. But I lost all parts of these when we switched to in-person classes. I could not leave a little reaction with emoji, I could not clap my hands or shout out bravo in class. And there was no small talk. I could not just poke someone for a small chat or walk around in the middle of class.
This three feet distance extends to my experience on campus. You feel the distance when you bend down to talk to the cashier in the dining hall; you feel the distance when it hits you that you can no longer make sense of people’s speech by reading their lips. Masks seem to filter out part of our appearance, speech and emotion. When you listen to someone, looking into their mask, it is almost like looking into a void. Is that a warm, smiley face under the mask? With less facial expression revealed I get more emotionally insecure. I even got paranoid sometimes and wondered, were they judging me?
Even when we can finally take off the computer screen and gather in the same classroom, I still feel like we are dancing with shackles that we call Covid-19, that we can’t escape the three feet of physical distance between us. It is good to once in a while go back to Zoom in your own room, get some snacks and drinks, take your mask off and enjoy quality time with your classmates in a 15 inch area. To quote one of my professors, instead of social distancing we could say distanced socially. Don't let the three feet of physical distance stop you from getting closer in another dimension.
Yuhang Zheng is a Staff Writer. Email him at
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