Something that always interests me when I go abroad is the way people in other countries view America.
I’ve had this post in my drafts since last September, when a student made a comment about having previously wanted to study abroad in the U.S. but eventually settling on Canada instead because “it’s safer.”
At the time, I started writing a post about the sensationalist media driving folks in other countries to see America, with varying degrees of accuracy, as a place where people of all races live together in a melting pot that is beautiful but messy and better in theory (like a chocolate fountain); where people are encouraged to speak their mind and ask for what they want, without needing to spare a thought for their neighbors; and where citizens are given the blessed freedom to do anything, including shoot at children with reckless abandon.
Recently, however, my students fear the USA for another reason: COVID-19. As I write this, Japan’s borders are closed to over 100 countries, and they have been for some time. But let’s focus on the one country I’m most familiar with.
By about June, it had gotten to the point that the questions were exhausting. Everyday, at least one person would say, in a questioning tone, as if they’d only just remembered and hadn’t been waiting all week to ask this, “You’re from America, right?”
“Yes, I am! Atlanta, Georgia.” As you know. As I know you know.
“How’s it going over there? Is your family okay?”
“Yeah, they’re fine— “
“Because I saw that people refuse to wear masks—“
“That’s right, but—“
“Even your president—“
“Yeah, well he—“
“So old and high-risk people—“
And so on.
To be fair, not everyone in Japan is wearing a mask at all times. I see people going for an uninhibited jog, and sometimes there’s the odd child who can’t leave their tiny mouth covering in place. And certainly there is a portion of the (younger) population that are ignoring all the rules and hitting the clubs. But on the whole, the people around me are pretty good about trying to protect others from COVID-19.
Safety precautions have become so normalized that I feel a little uncomfortable when I watch Hulu. Why are they sitting so close together? Oh god, did they just share a fork? WHY IS NO ONE WEARING MASKS?
That’s dramatic, but I really do hate to see that kind of behavior these days. Gross. Actually, a pair of my friends just went home to the UK last week, and they said it was jarring, and a little icky, to see so many unmasked individuals. They had been living in Nagoya, where cases are on the rise which means preventative measures are, too; and they had traveled home on a plane where there was one passenger per row, masks and gloves were provided, and everyone was sanitized every hour. I can see how getting off the plane and reentering the western world would be a surprise.
It’s out of place in this post but interesting to note—and I look forward to making a similar post about my own feelings whenever I return home—that while these friends never felt any kind of “homesickness” during their year abroad, they missed Japan immediately upon getting home.
Back to the mask conversation, it’s worth mentioning that Japan had a culture of using masks before COVID-19, which helps a lot.
These days, as we see cases surpass 4 and now 5 million, I’ve gotten fewer and fewer questions about my hometown.
For one, I’m sure people are sick of the Corona conversation. Second, Japan’s numbers are rising, so they have their own problems to worry about. Third, there’s nothing left to say.
“Cases are rising in Japan’s big cities again,” my student might say. “I’m worried.”
I, having previously thought I didn’t like nosy questions but in reality being unable to stop myself from making the conversation about me, reply, “It’s nothing compared to America.”
And the student just laughs.
Of course, I mentioned the media at the beginning of this post. While my students are watching the “Masks are oppression!” and “COVID is a hoax!” videos on TV, I’m able to talk to my friends and family who are being responsible and reasonable. I can’t speak for “most people,” because who knows? But I know my people are getting tested even when it’s expensive, avoiding crowds even when it’s boring, and wearing masks even when it’s hot. You’re cancelling weddings and postponing parties. Good luck to all of us!
P.S. Wow! Two posts in two days! It feels good, man.