By Meredith Stephens
Adelaide is half an hour ahead of Japan, and today while in lockdown in Adelaide I keep an eye on the clock so I can join a meeting over 7000 kilometres away in Japan. Ten years ago this would have been a scene in a science fiction novel (at least for me), but now I just have to click a link and I can participate in meeting in a distant place and in a different language. Until now my worlds of Australia and Japan have been hermetically sealed. It has been impossible to be simultaneously present in both, but this crisis has brought them together for the first time. I can sit in front of the screen and attend a meeting in Japan, with the comforting presence of my ageing Labrador snoozing at my feet in Adelaide.
Until now my worlds have been separated by distance, language, culture, friends, acquaintances, food, pets, seasons, flora and fauna. Despite these innumerable differences we share one important commonality — the time zone. Adelaide shares its longitude with Japan and is only thirty minutes ahead in the Australian winter, and ninety minutes ahead in the Australian summer. Few have shared my two worlds other than family, a few friends, and a few students. When I go to check in at the airport in Adelaide the ground staff have never heard of the Japanese city where I live. I am the sole person regularly making this particular commute. I rarely tire of having parallel lives in locations which don’t intersect. My work is in Japan, and when I am there, I commute to the workplace, visit the shops and go to the doctor by bicycle. In spring I can enjoy plum blossoms, cherry blossoms, azaleas, irises and hydrangeas. What’s more, nothing rivals the stark beauty and symbolism of Japanese gardens.
I have Japanese friends, so I can enjoy daily conversations in their beautiful language. I can exchange emails in a language which is flexible enough that it can be written both horizontally or vertically. I also have English-speaking friends, mainly Americans and Canadians. It’s very exciting to make North American friends from such distant places as Arkansas, South Carolina, Philadelphia, New York and Spokane in the US, and Quebec, Ontario and Vancouver in Canada. I could never hope to meet such friends in Adelaide, which is in the southern hemisphere and faces the Southern Ocean. So my world has expanded not just because I am in Japan but also because of my ex-patriate friends.
In Adelaide my world is characterized by immediate and extended family, my doggie, and native birds with distinctive birdsong that you will not hear anywhere else. It is always a great pleasure to arrive in Adelaide back from Japan and be woken early in the morning to a family of cackling kookaburras, magpies, and lorikeets.
In the older suburbs, the spaces between houses are wide enough that you can forget that you have neighbours and imagine you are living in the country. Japan has taught me to be alert to seasonal change, and has enhanced my enjoyment of the Australian spring, when I can enjoy golden wattle, bottle brushes, eucalyptus flowers, jacaranda and roses.
It’s gratifying to participate in two different cultures and landscapes as I commute between Japan and Australia. However, each side is pulling my allegiance in a different direction. My colleagues in Japan think that I take off to Australia too often, and my family in Australia tell me it is time to come home. Each side seems to be unaware of how important the other side is to me. I feel guilty that I cannot please both parties, but I can give up neither. I hope the decision will be taken out of my hands. There is a word in Japanese to indicate the struggle between two children when they fight for a toy and neither will let go- toriai – and I feel like that toy which is being pulled in two directions.
It has taken a global pandemic for these two worlds to converge. Protecting people’s health has led to Australia’s international and state borders being closed. International flights have been cancelled. My lifestyle of commuting to Japan has come to an abrupt halt. Social distancing has been imposed. Shops, other than supermarkets and pharmacies, are closed. Most medical appointments are now by telehealth. Meanwhile my employer has entreated me to return to Japan and I feel guilty for refusing, but I am frightened of both the trip and being marooned in a country where I have no family.
A hurried solution to this has been online participation in meetings. This has been facilitated because of sharing a common time zone. If I were in America or Europe I might find myself participating in meetings during the night. My hitherto mutually irreconcilable worlds are finally converging. I have been able to click on a link and hear the familiar voices of Japanese-speaking colleagues from the comfort of my Adelaide sofa, with my faithful doggie at my feet. Never has participation in a meeting been so pleasurable. I can listen to my sweet Labrador’s regular deep breathing, progressing to gentle snoring as she rests, oblivious to this international communication. When I rest my eyes on the computer screen during the meeting I see the familiar Japanese writing, and watch the movement of the mouse as the moderator indicates the progression of the agenda. Meanwhile the intense Australian sunshine forces its way through the slats in the blinds. For the first time I might be able to hear kookaburras competing for my attention during a meeting which is being held in Japan. The hermetic seal between these two worlds over 7000 kilometres apart has been punctured, and I feel a sense of relief that the familiar voices of Japanese colleagues can reach me not only in the southern hemisphere, but also on the southern coast of this Antipodean continent.
Meredith Stephens is an applied linguist in Japan. Her work has appeared in Transnational Literature, The Blue Nib, The Font – A Literary Journal for Language Teachers, The Journal of Literature in Language Teaching, The Writers’ and Readers’ Magazine, Reading in a Foreign Language, and in chapters in anthologies entitled What’s Cooking Mom? Narratives about Food and Family, The Migrant Maternal: “Birthing” New Lives Abroad, and Twenty-First Century Friendship, all published by Demeter Press, Canada.