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Collage: VICE / Images: Courtesy of Frankie Lantican

In April, a nationwide partial lockdown was announced in Singapore as the city-state began to see a rise in locally transmitted COVID-19 cases.

As a homebody, the news didn’t exactly devastate me. As ashamed as I am to admit it, I barely got out of the house anyway, if not for school and occasional meet-ups with friends. Most of my socializing was done during breaks in between classes. School would leave me drained so I would head straight home afterwards. Over the weekends, I preferred to stay home and relax with family.

Even so, I started feeling lonely during quarantine. I easily got tired of having the same conversations with my parents and two siblings, who I was stuck at home with. I’m sure they felt the same way. Everything began to look bleak and gloomy.

One afternoon, I found myself in MakeNewFriendsHere, a subreddit where bored and lonely people post about their interests, passions, and hobbies, with the hopes of sparking conversations with strangers.

I had visited it a few times before and wasn’t expecting much this time around because none of the people I met previously actually turned into real friendships. We’d talk for a few days but I never really clicked with any of them. Conversations would fizzle out until it was radio silence. Whenever I sent a “Hi there! What are you up to? How are things?” I was met with a lackluster “Nothing much. WBU?”

Then, while scrolling through the rabbit hole and ignoring posts of people trying to make themselves sound way cooler than they actually are, I stumbled upon one about a new group on Discord. “I created an international group chat,” the post’s heading read. The idea of making friends from other countries appealed to me and I thought doing it as a group would make conversations more dynamic, so I joined. 

There, I met about 40 other people around the same age as me, 18 to 25-year-olds from places like India, Australia, and Argentina, just to name a few. 

We were all feeling the brunt of the pandemic, forced to stay home and spend most of our time within the four walls of our bedrooms. Even my introverted self who loved staying home had begun to feel restless. To cope, we would hold group calls that lasted for up to four hours. Depending on who was awake at the time, there could be up to 10 of us on a call. Conversations were totally random.

One day, at around 2 a.m., I learned that meat in jelly or nóżki w galarecie, is a traditional Polish dish and that Fairy Bread — sliced white bread covered with sprinkles — is a must at every Australian birthday party. 

All we had to do was pop in the group chat and say “hop on VC [voice call],” and we’d be talking to friends from across the world. Some choose to keep their cameras off, but most of us are comfortable with showing our faces. We even have a channel in the group chat called “Family Room” where people post selfies and introductions when they first join. 

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While the Europeans were up, I was asleep.

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What was a nice afternoon chat for me was a late night one for my American and Canadian pals.

Seven months on and the lockdown now lifted, I find myself treating these strangers as family. There’s Jose, the 22-year-old linguistics student from New York, and 19-year-old K-pop lover Mila from Argentina. Jamie, 21, is an aspiring metal vocalist from the United Kingdom. There’s so many of us, each with a different story to tell. To them, I’m Frankie from Singapore, the Filipino creative writing student who types in all caps way too much. 

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This is Jamie from the United Kingdom. He’s been trying to get me into ‘Doctor Who,’ which we would watch together on a voice call sometimes.

We now have our own inside jokes, play video games like Among Us, and have virtual sleepovers where we stream Netflix movies together. For Halloween, we watched A Haunted House.

We can share just about anything with each other, from embarrassing childhood anecdotes to the things that have been troubling us. When I was stressed from my final school project, taking a break to chat with them instantly put a smile on my face. Seeing their “Good luck!” and “You got this!” messages gave me the confidence boost I needed.

Before meeting the Discord group, I wasn’t sad or lonely. I had two really close friends I loved spending time with and that was enough. And then I felt a sudden longing for new conversations with new people.

What I saw as a way to kill boredom during quarantine has turned into a community I find comfort in.

My Discord friends have made me a happier person. Everyone in there has such a positive and loving energy that I’ve picked up myself. Now, I’m more optimistic and open to new things.

I find that making new friends is much easier online. When I meet someone IRL, I often feel awkward and afraid of embarrassing myself. Online, the pressure to make a good first impression disappears.

“I wish I could carry you guys in my pocket with me all the time,” I told one of my Discord friends during a late night call. I was venting about stress from school.

“You already do,” he said, reminding me that he was always just a call or text away if I ever needed anything.

When I woke up on my birthday in September, feeling a pang of loneliness because my school friends were not free to celebrate with me, my Discord friends were there. Six of us got on yet another group call and they sang “Happy Birthday” to me before I could even get in a “Hello!”

Jose and Lisa, both in the United States, were awake at 1 a.m., while Jamie in the U.K. never seems to sleep and was up at 5 a.m. We spent the rest of my birthday watching Superbad and cracking jokes for hours after. 

I still chat with them daily. Now talking off Discord, my virtual friends feel totally real. 

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