A young woman sneezed into my coffee on a Tokyo train yesterday morning. I wanted to scream and throw the steaming cup in her face as the faint droplets touched my hand. Instead, I smiled and chose to laugh at the absurdity of it all.
Yes, I’m still occasionally out and about during the coronavirus pandemic. The virus wasn’t going to stop my Japanese visa from expiring so I had to renew it. Besides, social distancing is a term that really rubs me the wrong way. This buzzword has been thrown around a lot lately, especially by my friends back home in the U.S. who aren’t supposed to gather in groups larger than ten or leave the house if it isn’t essential.
If all else fails, remember the cherry blossoms.
In my hometown of Detroit, Michigan, most bars and restaurants are closed after 3 p.m. Business owners, service workers, and entertainers are suffering not because they are sick, but because their means of income has been stripped away from them. Others are taking furlough days, while blue-collar workers push through their jobs with low morale.
As an extremely introverted person, “social distancing” shouldn’t bother me, but it did. After working remotely off and on for about a month in my cramped Tokyo apartment, the isolation started to eat away at me. The sun gracing my skin when I actually did go outside was an almost euphoric feeling.
Living in Japan as a foreigner is isolating enough with cultural differences and societal pressures constantly hindering you from making deep connections. Global panic and a barrage of frenzied posts on social media make you feel even more like the world is closing in on you.
Passengers who were quarantined on the coronavirus-infested Diamond Princess cruise ship in Yokohama Bay were released. The country went into a state of emergency. Thousands of cases confirmed in Japan. Masks are sold out.
Toilet paper can’t be imported from China, so stock up while you can. Schools are closed. Don’t go outside. Thousands dying in the United States, and around the world in countries like Iran and Italy. The news cycle is COVID-19 and the apocalypse, and online it’s a government conspiracy.
Don’t think. Just panic.
“Stay indoors. Avoid large groups. Don’t take the train. Don’t cough. Don’t breathe. Don’t live.”
My mother’s sick friend, whom she brought food and water to, has now been diagnosed with COVID-19. A Japanese friend of mine was planning to start a new life in France, but her flight was scheduled to go through Seoul before landing in Paris. Her flight has been canceled.
And the cherry blossoms?
Through all of this, Japan’s cherry blossoms start to peek out from the tree branches in small buds. The fleeting spring flora normally brings hoards of crowds to Japan, but this time they sprout rather peacefully. No one told them to stay inside away from the other flowers. Instead, they bloom alongside each other, soft petals brushing against their neighbors, and life goes on.
While people are suffering and wallowing in despair, the flowers continue to bloom, just as life ultimately does. I told my friend who had her dreams of Paris crushed that there’s no point in stressing about things you can’t control. The cycle of life will go on whether you worry yourself into oblivion or not.
The very nature of cherry blossoms is temporary, a blip in time before they ultimately fade. People in Japan clamor together to snap selfies under the floral breeze while it lasts. The frenzy around these flowers flares up like a bad fever, they bloom, the hysteria comes to a head, and then they’re gone. Everyone goes back to life as normal.
The same can be said for this pandemic. Things have come to a head, but instead of panicking, take solace in knowing that nothing lasts forever and while you may not be able to change what is happening, you can change how you react.
Don’t react. Breathe.
Frustrated and angry, I originally set out to write a scathing satirical article about how people blame the media for creating mass hysteria when it’s ultimately up to you, the reader, to practice critical thinking and form your own course of action. Instead, here we are on this page.
With mounting pressures and a workload that has reached full capacity, I came extremely close to saying, “f*** it all,” flipping my desk and walking out. Instead, I laughed about it and took a long bike ride. As I basked in the moonlight, the crisp air pulled my stress away from me and carried my burdens into the wind.
I’m not preaching “peace, love and Kumbaya” here. Au contraire, peace along with chaos, turmoil, hatred and love are pieces of the human experience. We as individuals cannot do much to change the current situation of the world, but panicking doesn’t help. It only creates more hysteria.
Turn off the news for a moment if you have to. Call your family and friends and check on them. Take advantage of a free meditation series, YouTube fitness routines, read manga made available free online and visit art museums offering virtual galleries.
Of course, you should be washing your hands and exercising due diligence in not spreading the virus further. But don’t forget to protect your mental health. If all else fails, remember the cherry blossoms.
They will still bloom during this time of global uncertainty. So should you.
How are you holding up out there? If you need someone to talk to, give us a shout in the comments.
If you’re in Japan and need medical assistance or consultation regarding COVID-19, call the JNTO multilingual hotline at 050-3816-2787.