By Wendy Jones Nakanishi
It’s a commonplace that Covid-19 has shrunk our world. To limit the spread of the disease, the borders of many countries throughout the world were closed in March 2020 to all non-residents, and returning residents were required to spend two weeks on re-entry in supervised quarantine hotels.
Many nations have followed China’s lead in enforcing national lockdowns of varying degrees of stringency, with citizens urged to observe social distancing, avoid public transportation, and refrain from non-essential journeys. In the year and a half that has elapsed since reports of a deadly virus in Wuhan first made news around the world, global passenger air travel soon plunged 90% from pre-pandemic levels.
Mass gatherings have been banned and the use of face masks made mandatory. Meanwhile, as millions across the globe have been confined to their homes, with offices and businesses shut, many economies are on the verge of collapse. Only a few countries have rejected the imposition of lockdowns on its citizens, including Sweden, South Korea, and Tajikistan. The UK, where I have been living since late 2020, chose to adopt severe restrictions to contain the disease, including three lockdowns and the closure of schools, restaurants and bars and non-essential shops. Unfortunately, despite all these precautions and measures, it has one of the highest Covid death rates in the world.
I imagine many people share my longing for a return to the days when we were free: when we could travel where we liked, when we liked, and as we liked, whether by car or train or plane. The adage ‘What once were luxuries now have become necessities’ comes to mind. Perhaps we didn’t sufficiently appreciate our luck as inhabitants of the global society of the twenty-first century.
When I compare the present-day to life in the sixties, seventies and eighties, I think it is as though technological advances have made us like gods. Computers are largely responsible, and the invention of the internet. We have grown accustomed to being able to find any information we might seek or to buy any item we might want just by tapping a few keys on a laptop or by scrolling the screen of a mobile phone. Should I nurture curiosity about the Russian Revolution— seeking its causes, wondering when it began and when it ended, keen for details of the figures who played a significant role in this historic event— I can ‘Google’ the topic and possess all this knowledge literally in a matter of minutes. Should I require furniture, caviar, or a plane ticket to Bali coupled with hotel accommodation, I can buy any of these with ease and speed. Modern-day technology means that the acquisition of information and the means to gratify desires are now literally at our fingertips. Our lives are easy and luxurious in ways I could scarcely have dreamt of when I was young.
I spent my childhood in a tiny town in the American Midwest. The population of Rolling Prairie, Indiana, numbered less than five hundred in the late 1950s—and it isn’t much larger now.
The main street was two blocks long and, ironically, a dead-end, terminating in the entrance to a grain elevator by railway tracks. The town was tiny, yet it held all that we needed. There were two churches and two bars, a post office, a hardware store, a five-and-dime, a barber’s shop, a grocery, a tiny restaurant, and a small clinic. Best of all was a general goods store called Bozek’s. It had a soda fountain, a pinball machine, booths with juke boxes, and a long counter where the town’s farmers congregated to drink coffee and smoke cigarettes. We children loved Bozek’s. It’s where we lingered on weekends and met our friends. Walking home from school, we could stop to buy ice cream or candy.
I both loved and hated Rolling Prairie as a child. On the plus side were the long idyllic summer holidays lasting from the end of May till the end of August. One hot bright morning would dawn after another, and we would be free to play outside all day, every day, without supervision or constraint. There were tall trees everywhere, and my friends and I would dare each other to climb those with low-hanging branches. We’d have games of badminton in my front yard and play baseball in a vacant lot next door. I could ride my bike up and down streets so deserted I never needed worry about traffic. Rolling Prairie was a quiet, peaceful place bounded by flat cornfields stretching to a horizon dotted by farmhouses, barns, and silos.
On the minus side was the fact that our town was so small everyone knew everyone else’s business. Gossiping was a popular pastime. My parents quarreled and divorced, and suddenly I was a child in the only single-parent household in town. I had to get used to being looked at and talked about.
I was also surprised that nobody seemed to share my boredom, my restlessness: feelings that grew stronger as I got older. My friends at school and their parents who were, by and large employed as farmers and factory workers or as the proprietors of the small shops in town, were apparently content to stay put while I dreamed of escape. The tales of adventure I borrowed from the tiny library next to the grocery store— books like Treasure Island and The Count of Monte Cristo— fueled an urge to see the wider world.
Borders in the sense of spaces marked out and enclosed can be geographical and political, but they can also be metaphysical and psychological. That a sense of confinement can be a matter of perspective rather than actual physical limits became apparent to me when I went to university. I enrolled at a campus of Indiana University that was two hundred miles from my hometown and, with its student body of over thirty thousand, was a far more cosmopolitan and diverse environment than anything I had encountered before. I thought I’d left Rolling Prairie but, in retrospect, I realized I carried it with me, that I was confined by my background. I felt intimidated by my new friends. I was the small-town girl consorting with big city types. I was suddenly confronted by the depths of my ignorance of the wider world.
I had a good knowledge of history and geography and especially of American and English literature, but I didn’t know which cutlery to use at a formal dinner or how to pronounce words I’d come across in books but never heard uttered. I lacked the assurance to summon a waiter at a restaurant. I lacked my friends’ confidence and easy fluency in social situations. I’ve struggled ever since to overcome this handicap and, admittedly, whenever I feel weak or vulnerable, I can still be overwhelmed by that old sense of inferiority. I continue to address shop staff as a supplicant rather than as a customer and, even now, can be crushed by a sudden rush of shyness when I find myself in a large group of strangers.
On graduating from Indiana University, I had to decide what to do with my life. Two paths presented themselves: studying to become a lawyer or venturing to Paris to spend a year working as an au pair. I’d taken pre-law classes and enjoyed and excelled at them. On the other hand, I longed for adventure. It was the proverbial fork in the roads. The first was the sensible option, but I decided to take the road less traveled.
I got a job with a wealthy family living in a charming village on the outskirts of Paris. I learned to speak conversational French. My au pair Madame taught me, on our daily morning shopping excursions, how to ‘faire les courses’ – how to choose a perfectly ripe Camembert or the freshest of fruit and vegetables – while Monsieur, from an aristocratic family, owner of his own vineyard, instructed me in how to appreciate the finest of wines. I was required to take French classes every morning at a nearby city and, in the process, acquired the knack of navigating a moped through crowded French city streets.
I was often terrified, sometimes confused, occasionally perplexed. I was both laughed at and encouraged. It wasn’t easy, but I was delighted my horizons were expanding. Growing up in the States meant that I knew life only as an American. The States is so vast, so sufficient unto itself as well as self-regarding that, although it borders Mexico and Canada and is a nation of immigrants, life there can be sheltered, even provincial. I’ve always found, for example, that people living in the American Midwest tend to have little knowledge of and less interest in the outside world.
In France, on the other hand, I had access to a much wider view of life’s possibilities. The other European countries as well as the UK were within easy striking distance. I tried to take advantage of every opportunity for adventure. I lived in a squat in Holland, hitchhiked through Germany and France, enjoyed a very alcoholic cheese fondue in Zurich, ate pizza on the Spanish steps in Rome, rode on a gondola in Venice, and camped on the pure white sandy beaches of Spain’s Balearic Islands.
I subsequently spent four years doing postgraduate study in the UK. On earning my doctorate in eighteenth-century English literature, I was hired as an English professor by a newly opened university in a sleepy fishing village in western Japan. Shido, in Kagawa prefecture, was reminiscent somehow of Rolling Prairie, but instead of corn and soybean fields cultivated by farmers, it had fishermen cultivating the ocean. Shido faced Sanuki Bay, an inlet of the Seto Inland Sea. I remember my first sight of the sea stretching beyond the hill housing the university campus. Its calm surface was marked out in neat lines of sticks. I learned they demarcated beds for oyster farming: the sticks are used to suspend trays or cages of oysters just beneath the surface for two or even three years as the oysters mature and become fat and tasty. Shido is also a producer of amberjack fish and laver seaweed.
I had intended to stay in Japan for two or three years. I ended up living and working there for thirty-six, having met a Japanese farmer and married him, becoming the mother of three boys. My husband designed a log house that was put up by builders who came over from North Carolina accompanied by all the materials that would be used in its construction, sent from the States to a port in Kobe. Once the building was habitable, my husband went on to plant trees and flowers and bushes in our large yard, and so many I came to feel I was living in an idyllic garden.
It all seemed like home until I reached the mandatory retirement age at my university. With one of my sons in New York City, another in Vienna, the third living in his own apartment thirty miles from our home and my husband occupied with projects and hobbies, I felt I needed to embark on yet one more adventure. I knew I would be lonely and bored and depressed without the structure to my life—and sociable companionship— full-time employment had offered me since I first arrived in Japan in the spring of 1984.
I now live in Lancaster, in the northwest corner of England. I go back to Japan around twice a year to spend a month with family and friends and probably will eventually return there ‘for good’. The old saying goes that ‘a change is as good as a rest,’ and while life in England isn’t particularly restful, I’m glad of a new focus for my energy. I think constant challenges keep us on our toes, keep us young. While my professional life in Japan was devoted to mental activities— teaching university classes, conducting research, attending conferences, publishing academic papers and creative non-fiction— my life in the UK as a retiree is often surprisingly physical. As a volunteer at a nature reserve in Lancaster, I find myself weeding, digging, cutting hedges and planting trees, and I’ve even assisted in the construction of several fences. I swim twice a week and attend yoga classes on Sundays and Thursdays. Lancaster has a wonderful system of cycle paths and foot paths, and I go for long bike rides and long walks in stunning scenery. I also belong to a choir and to a speech club.
The limitations we set on ourselves, or that we unconsciously accept, can and should be challenged. Most borders are surprisingly unstable. This is even true at the most basic level. Most of us tend to think of ourselves as discrete beings, separated from others and from our environment in some significant fashion. Our skin forms the boundary of separation.
But a constant process of give and take exists between us and our environment. We humans breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. We eat and drink and then excrete. We shed cells and hair. We copulate and produce more human beings. We were born of the flesh and blood of our mothers and with a genetic imprint of both our biological parents. We cannot meaningfully maintain the idea of ourselves as entities independent of other humans or our surroundings.
What is true on the personal level is equally true on the national or international, where boundaries are tenuous and easily dissolved or redrawn. The maps of Europe and Africa needed continually to be updated in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries because new countries were formed while some old ones simply disappeared—swallowed up by their neighbors. It was a febrile, dangerous time. With colonial expansion, territorial wars, and the rise of nationalism, some countries had their borders altered or were simply obliterated— assimilated by their neighbors. Some new nations also were created. Modern Italy came into being in 1861, while Germany was only unified as a politically and administratively integrated nation state ten years later, in 1871.
National borders are, of course, artificial constructs. They are created rather than natural or pre-ordained; they are man-made for convenience and expediency. Astronauts viewing the Earth from space have remarked on its beauty and fragility, saying that it looks like a blue marble orb with white swirls that is ‘hanging in the void’ or, as Buzz Aldrin described it in July 1969, ‘a brilliant jewel in the black velvet sky’. There are no signs of the terrible warfare that scars our planet and that are only too visible from a nearer perspective: barbed wire and bunkers, battle-ravaged landscapes, cities reduced to smoking ruins, and unexploded ordnance.
The pandemic has made us keenly aware of the existence of borders national and physical. It is not only that many of us have been confined to our own countries with travel to others proscribed. It has also focused our minds on our own personal limitations, both psychological and physical. Being forced to stay in our homes for long periods of time, deprived of the usual distractions offered by the outside world and by other people, we have been unable to escape our own company. I imagine these unprecedented circumstances have led to many of us embarking, often reluctantly, on journeys of self-discovery.
Britain’s first lockdown was mainly viewed in a positive light. It was a warm and pleasant spring. People were enchanted by the novelty of the situation, relieved not to have to commute to jobs, glad to be allowed to work from home. For many, it inspired a frenzy of creativity. Facebook and Twitter were deluged by individuals boasting of how they’d lost weight by following exercise classes on Zoom or how they’d begun learning German. There were countless postings of photographs of home-made loaves of sour dough bread and immaculately maintained gardens gleaming with flowers. With the weather unusually fine, the national mood was optimistic. When the cases decreased during the summer months, it seemed we had all turned a corner. We’d had an interesting experiment. Now the virus was in remission and normal life beckoned.
Our optimism was premature. There was a resurgence of Covid cases in the autumn. The weather worsened and, to general horror and consternation, a second and then a third lockdown were imposed in the UK. A lockdown became an ordeal to be endured rather than an experience that offered enjoyment. The good intentions we harbored during the first—to acquire a skill, to embark on attempts at self-improvement, to spend quality time with the family— by and large were abandoned. The national mood darkened. We increasingly came to realize that Covid had the Earth’s inhabitants in its tight grip and that we had to simply grin and bear it and hope for the best.
Fortunately, it seems human ingenuity knows no bounds. Contrary to expectations, several vaccinations were developed, and in record time and by various countries: America, Britain, China and Russia. As I write this, in May 2021, more than thirty-seven million people in the UK have received at least one jab of either the Pfizer or the AstraZeneca vaccine. Despite the recent appearance of the so-called Indian variant of the disease, the number of Covid cases and deaths has plunged dramatically.
Life often has been compared to a journey. Some argue that it is the journey itself, not the destination, that matters. It’s been a rough ride for all Earth’s inhabitants since January 2020.
I consider it a mixed blessing that we can never recover our pre-pandemic innocence. On the one hand, it has made us acutely aware of borders and limitations personal and global. A certain insouciance about life’s possibilities has been lost, perhaps forever. We have been confronted by the stark fact of our mortality. We have also become aware of the power of governments to restrict our civil liberties. On the other hand, perhaps we can take comfort in the opportunity we are granted to appreciate afresh and anew privileges once they are restored to us. It’s a chance for us to reassess our priorities and glory in whatever personal freedoms we are allowed in our post-Covid world.
I, for one, plan to spend the time remaining to me in urgent but joyous exploration both of my own self—through meditation and reflection—and the outside world, through travel. I hope I can preserve my keen sense of gratitude for having been spared Covid infection. I want to relish every opportunity, to jump at any adventure life might offer, knowing how everything can change, how quickly I can lose all the freedoms and pleasures I once thought my birthright.
Wendy Jones Nakanishi, an American by birth, spent thirty-six years in Japan, employed as a professor at a private Japanese university. She has published widely on Japanese and English literature.
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