The Year I Lived in Two Different Realities

Tom Matsuda

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No pamphlet or brochure can adequately prepare you for the experience of studying abroad I was told. In preparation for our class to head off to Japan to have a taste of life in the land of the rising sun, our professors made sure this was hammered into our brains.

They warned us it would be tough, that we would be confronted with aspects of ourselves we were previously unaware of and that we may not assimilate as much as we expect ourselves to as language students. They also said that in amongst this, we’ll experience breakthrough moments in our language ability, devour food that tingles the tongue and travel to places that our textbooks made vain attempts at depicting.

My first six months were glittered with such experiences. I was forced to confront my identity as a mixed English and Japanese person and the issues of assimilation that came with that. I made friends from Japan and across the world and my confidence in Japanese saw a significant leap. So far, a typical year abroad.

The Most Memorable March

And then March hit.

Whilst Japan remained comfortably and perhaps ignorantly calm, my home country of the UK and much of the western world went into lockdown as COVID-19 unfurled its talons onto an unsuspecting globe. Memes of Japan’s keep calm and carry on attitude spread amongst my social group with questions of why Japan did not go the way of the western world.

However, Japan soon followed scuppering plans of an on-campus experience for second term. Dorm rooms went unfilled, classes were no longer packed with wide-eyed exchange students and societies and their events went unattended as Japan went into a state of national emergency.

These were unprecedented events, one that no study abroad tutor could have prepared us for. Yet in early April when the UK and the US were still in the throes of their lockdown, life began to creep back into Tokyo. From late April onwards, Tokyo was as it had been before the state of emergency albeit with added universal mask wearing no matter the occasion, time or place. Japan was not hit hard with deaths just shy of 1500 at the time of publication.

Yet the UK did not fare so well. The country experienced just above 41,000 deaths which is close to the total number of cases Japan had. The UK lockdown also lumbered on a lot longer than Japan’s one-month affair with restrictions only easing up in July. Current events, however, suggest that the UK may see itself back in the same predicament it was in March.

The New Normal

The result meant that after a one month spent inside my dorm, my year abroad continued in a relative normal fashion albeit with online classes. Whilst I shied away from enclosed crowded environments such as clubs and bars, eating out, traveling domestically in Japan and meeting friends suddenly became an option. I felt blessed and privileged to experience the onset of the pandemic in a country that seemed more-or-less adept at handling extreme situations with Japan’s history of natural disasters.

Whilst the pace of my second half of my year abroad was slower, I enjoyed some beautiful days exploring lesser known parts of Tokyo, spending sun kissed days in the coastal areas in the blistering summer heat and solidifying my Japanese language skills.

My time in Tokyo already feels like a dream, a place where society was able to live alongside the virus and not be commandeered by it.

I recognise that I was shielded from the worse aspects through my location yet all the warnings that my professors offered up seemed like a walk in the park compared to comprehending a pandemic. Moreover, this feeling of experiencing and understanding this cataclysmic event along with the rest of the population of Japan meant that the issues that had littered my experience in first term melted away.

It no longer felt like a study abroad, it felt instead that I was living in Japan as a young adult. This meant that living in Japan no longer felt too different to enjoy — in fact, it began to feel like home. My identity issues were also given the space to come full circle with my time spent idly gobbling up everything Tokyo has to offer making me feel comfortable in my Japanese identity as much as my British one. My proficiency in the language meant that I started being asked if I was a Tokyo native. Against all odds, I had assimilated and reached the level that I had aspired to be in my father’s first language. I was happy.

In early September, Japan was as normal as it comes albeit with no tourists. Apart from a brief scare in early August, Tokyo emerged relatively unscathed despite experts predicting the worst. This reality will likely remain as the pandemic stretches on.

It was this time when I had to leave. After tearful goodbyes, flights delays and a long transfer in Turkey, I finally made it back home to London. I’ve been here for two weeks now and the difference is quite staggering.

The wounds that corona clawed itself into can still be felt in the streets of London. The local businesses that never re-opened after the pandemic and the clear increase in the homeless mean that there is a sense of sadness running in London’s streets along with the lessened foot traffic and rumbling cars and buses. Friends of mine have come under tough times as the economy collapsed under the pandemic with the UK suffering the most economically among major economies.

Waking Up To A New Reality

Barely a week into my recovery from jet lag, a new rule was announced that gatherings outside or inside were limited to six people. Known as the rule of six, such restrictions are suggestive of an oncoming second wave expected to sweep the UK. Whispering of a second national lockdown are filling the news pages currently. This is in stark contrast to my experience of Tokyo.

On a surface level the pandemic didn’t put a dent in Tokyo life. In fact, a new futuristic shopping mall in the metropolitan centre of Tokyo opened up complete with a rooftop park, glitzy designer store and an underground alley filled with eateries. Although the pandemic was continually acknowledged by the requirements to wear face coverings, lack of wide scale public events and universally placed hand sanitiser, Tokyo made an effort to become business as usual pretty quickly.

I’ve only just got back but I’ve quickly had to acclimatise to the fact that 2020 will be a year of extremes for me. My time in Tokyo already feels like a dream, a place where society was able to live alongside the virus and not be commandeered by it.

I’ve woken up now to a new reality where the virus dictates my every move and my freedom. I’ve joined the new normal of the western world and the pandemic has started to take a hold of me too despite my best efforts to remain in normality.

I know that it’s a privilege to know a world that a pandemic couldn’t penetrate. This year will be the year that I lived in two worlds; it’s one that will likely remain imprinted onto my mind because of this.

Instead of allowing regret to tinge my time here, I’m hoping that my experience will serve as a source of comfort if the UK enters a national lockdown. My knowledge that it doesn’t have to be like this is going to get me through this time. That’s my secret weapon in this chaos.

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British-Japanese writer from London. Words in OneZero, Human Parts.

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