As COVID-19 spread rapidly around the globe, countries responded with border restrictions, travel bans and quarantines, a sudden shock to those of us who fancy ourselves as citizens of the world.
Like many of my non-Japanese friends who are raising kids in Japan, I’ve always looked upon my children’s bicultural status as a positive thing that could open many doors for them. For various reasons, my Japanese husband and I chose to send all three of our kids to high school in my native New Zealand. My two daughters are still there, attending university, while their older brother is back living and working here in Japan.
Despite some homesickness and more than a few pricey plane fares, I always felt I was extremely lucky to be able to raise my children in this fashion. Bilingualism and an expanded worldview are, in my eyes, useful additions to any young person’s skill set. Amid a global pandemic, however, I’ve started to see the drawbacks of this particular way of life.
We are fortunate. New Zealand has been widely praised for its efforts to contain the coronavirus, and has had greater success than a majority of the world — including Japan, which has also fared comparatively well. Even so, as a parent I have felt a consistent unease since March. Until then, at any given moment it was possible to jump on a plane and land in New Zealand within 24 hours, with money being the only hurdle. Now, it feels like all the money in the world couldn’t make a trip there likely, and even if it were, there would be quarantines, protocols and, of course, the worry over possibly catching COVID-19 en route.
I have been negotiating with my daughters about coming home to Japan for their respective (summer) vacations at the end of the year. As dual nationals, they can travel freely between New Zealand and Japan, but we have to factor in two weeks of self-isolation at home here, and then two weeks of mandatory quarantine in a hotel upon re-entry to New Zealand. With some exceptions, the hotel stays will cost 3,100 New Zealand dollars per person (roughly ¥210,000) — more than the cost of a normal return fare between the two countries. Since 1 in 6 Kiwis live abroad, a diaspora numbering close to 1 million, the government concluded that it could not continue to subsidize quarantines and began charging people from August.
As much as I long to see my daughters safely back in the family nest — even temporarily — I also want to see my elderly mother. Fortunately, she is in good health. However, anyone with elderly parents in another country will always have that niggling thought parked in the back of their mind: “What if?” How long can my mother stay healthy with all the restrictions in place, and myself overseas? My father died just over a year ago from cancer. I traveled back and forth to New Zealand on three separate occasions last year in order to support my parents, and then to attend my father’s funeral, along with my husband and our son. This seems impossible in 2020.
This sense of futility is bolstered by stories I’ve heard on social media and from friends. A few months ago, one friend, Kate, told me her mother was entering the final weeks of her life in the United States, and so she made an attempt to see her. When the Japanese government stunned a chunk of its population by barring entry and re-entry to Japan by non-Japanese citizens from most countries back in April, it left room for exceptions due to “humanitarian” measures. Kate thought she could be eligible for such an exception.
When she called to see if she was eligible for the humanitarian waver, an immigration officer casually quipped, “Oh, so your mother isn’t dead yet?” Just days after burying her mother, Kate returned to Japan and showed the death certificate upon request, but was then subjected to 45 minutes of grilling over the need to “prove your relationship.” She reported that not one official displayed any empathy for her loss.
It’s stories like those that have me worried for my own mother. Sure, we all take a chance when moving overseas, but often we end up putting down roots in a country because we fall in love with it. Recent events have me thinking, however, that perhaps this love is unrequited. Even though the Japanese government has begun lifting border restrictions, many expats, myself included, have started to reassess our relationship with this country. It’s strange to say, but the pandemic has made the unthinkable plausible, affecting me in a way that not even the Great East Japan Earthquake did. “The best of both worlds” lifestyle may no longer be the ideal scenario, replaced instead with a case of “make your choice and live with it.”
Where does that leave us, so-called citizens of the world? The end-of-year holidays are approaching and that’s a time to be with family, so if you have to skip this year’s trip home, then make sure to take care of your mental well-being. Reach out to people you know are alone and avail yourself of services such as those offered by TELL Japan, who can lend a sympathetic ear when times are tough. If we’re going to make it through this pandemic, then we’re going to have to do it together.
For more information on TELL Japan, visit telljp.com or call the Lifeline between 9 a.m. and 11 p.m.