As an international student who lives in Tokyo, I’ve had my fair share of seeing the world from unique places and therefore unique perspectives. The pandemic proved to be no different. I experienced the impact of coronavirus through three main lenses and locations: Michigan, New York City, and Tokyo.
I was staying with my friends in Grand Haven, Michigan when my university announced that they were closing their doors and that all students needed to vacate the campus. One of my friends had been generous enough to offer me a place to stay while I coordinated with my family back in Japan what our next steps would be. Grand Haven has a mere population of 11,000 residents, a drop in the ocean compared to Tokyo’s bursting nine million. In that space, I learned the ins and outs of what quarantine was like in a place where almost everyone knew each other, yet the town was so sparse that self isolation meant that the nearest person could live kilometers away.
Now compare that to Tokyo, where I currently reside. During our quarantines, if you need help, the intimacy that urban life offers means that the nearest person is just a couple feet away. Here, isolation has proved to the easiest it could get under these current circumstances. Almost everything my family and I might need was just a phone call away. There are thousands of supermarkets and stores in Tokyo and the technology that my city offers, which comes with an influx of convenience and efficiency.
However, strangely enough, the most harrowing quarantine experience I endured was in another city: Manhattan. Manhattan was my second stop out of these three locations. After speaking with my parents in Michigan, they decided that I should fly from JFK and come back to Japan while the restrictions on air travel remained relatively light. The next available flight was in ten days, so I booked a hotel room near Times Square and decided to wait it out. I had been to Manhattan many times before, and I always remembered Times Square as a bustling, heart of life. There was never a dull moment there— the incessant glow of the pink neon signs and the pixelated images of models and movies on jumbo screens permeated the air.
In the days leading up to my flight, Manhattan became a ghost town. But the scariest part was that I had no resources or anybody to depend on in the city. I was stuck in a hotel room, in a hotel that had dwindled down to 20% capacity. Additionally, all the restaurants and bars (and therefore kitchens) in the hotel had closed down as per Governor Cuomo’s orders. Unlike other people in the city at the time, I had no access to a kitchen, so I was forced to go outside and scope the few stores and restaurants that remained open. For the last four or five days, I lived on take out and ready-made meals that didn’t need to be heated up because I didn’t even have access to a microwave. Every afternoon at 2pm, when the few hotel staff that were remaining would clean my room, I waited alone in the deserted lobby. The only thing that kept me company was the voice from the TV, regurgitating the devastating COVID statistics over and over again.
When I finally got onto my flight, every single seat was taken— so much for social distancing. Now that I am back in the safety and comfort of my home in Tokyo, I look back on these experiences as challenges I overcame. They made me appreciate the strength of familiarity and helped me understand the danger of the fear that comes with loneliness.
Written by: Debi Chakrabortti