7000 miles away

My first memory of COVID was late at night in December of 2019. I saw it on the news, looking at my phone in a pitch black room – a room in the apartment my family had just moved into. An apartment that was small, 11 stories high, and about 7,000 miles away from where I used to call home. When I was ten, my parents shifted the entirety of my life by moving us to Kyoto, Japan. What made me remember this moment - looking at my phone at the news in the midst of unpacking and struggling to live in this completely new culture - is that I told people. I told others about COVID and everyone shrugged it off; as did I, not realizing it would change the trajectory of our lives – everyone's life. A few months later: It's February, 2020. Light was streaming in through the thin brown curtains of my open-windowed classroom at school, all 20 students sleeping on chairs or squishing onto the one stained couch at the back of the room, all looking for a cushioned seat to sink into. Three teachers were jammed in the room. First they said we would be wearing masks. I didn't think anything of it, as did everyone else. The following week, my teacher, standing in the shadows of the light bleached room, said we would all be going into online classes. Everyone was silent. No one understood. Throughout the next three years the borders in Japan stayed closed. Traveling back home over the summer required 5 hours of paperwork after 20 hours of flying, plus quarantine. Only at the start of this year did the Japanese government finally release their grasp on the Mask Mandate. Even today about 85% of people still wear masks; it's like a regularity now, a parasite that people have learned to live with and don't know how to live without. I was in online school for over nine months in total, and staying home wasn't the worst part - it was being told I was going to be able to go to school in person, and then a few weeks after actually being able to see people, we would have to go back into online school. March 2021: The waves licked at my feet in beautiful Okinawa Japan in the late afternoon during spring break. We had been at in-person school for five months when I got the email –- we would be going into online classes for two weeks. That turned into over two months. In the US people sat outside their houses on lawn chairs, talking to their neighbors through their windows. Japan doesn't have front lawns, or back ones. They have windows that are only opened when clothes need to be baked in the sun because dryers take too much space in the house. I talked to almost no one for a year, and, having just moved to a polar opposite country to the one I had been previously living in, I felt trapped in a cage labeled “overwhelmed.” For the first couple months where we lived free of COVID in Japan, there were many foreigners visiting. Where we lived, we weren't surrounded by only Japanese, but also those from the west who somewhat made it feel like home. Then, the borders closed, and the land was quiet. My world felt silent for two years. As I was able to begin riding the train again each morning, not trapped in my home, I realized how being foreign and living in Japan was not pleasing to some. The stares. People crossing to the other side of the street when you are near. Moving to a different bus seat when you get too close. Though every country experiences these problems, living in a closed-off Japan, trapped from the rest of the world - trapped me too. But then I met a girl online, and she filled my life with light. And soon I met another, who lived close by and came over to my house often. Though there were days I felt alone, I knew that I had wonderful people around me - and I will never forget the hilarious Zoom calls with my friends from school… I miss them. I moved back to the US in June, and not wearing a mask felt odd, but freeing. I now live in Texas, and I see that everyone talks to everyone. They are kind – they say excuse me if they are in your way, and they smile at you more often than not. Being in Japan, not talking to many people for so long due to language barriers and the extensive shut down COVID inflicted on the country made me realize how deficient I was in the complex action that was being social. Despite all of this, Japan was a blessing, and COVID wasn't a curse. It was painful; but it also made me stronger. I understood the meaning of looking out for myself, and to simply enjoy life as it was. Sitting at home and typing at my laptop for a whole summer resulted in an entire book that has infusions of my life in it, something I never would have done if COVID didn't occur and I didn't have the time. COVID resulted in me learning about myself, even if it was a struggle to realize that. Those four and a half years were worth it, even through the hard times, and experiencing the entirety of COVID in Japan, though difficult, allowed me to see the goodness in a newfangled place halfway across the world.

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Krister Axel

Music Blogger and Memoirist at CHILLFILTR.com

Ogdensburg, United States