COVID-19, the Black Live Matter protests, a presidential election, the Capitol insurrection, the Atlanta spa shootings, and much more. A lot has happened during my two years studying abroad at HKS. As I lived through these experiences, they changed how I view the U.S. and myself.
On June 27, 2019, my husband and parents came to see me off at Tokyo Narita Airport before my flight to Boston. I knew we would be apart for a long while, but I never expected it to be this long. The scholarship program that I am enrolled in does not allow government officials to go back to Japan during our two years, so that we immerse ourselves fully in U.S. culture.
As the flight took off, I was filled with both anxiety and anticipation. I gradually got used to living alone and to the patterns of my new life in the U.S. and at Harvard and I enjoyed exploring the country in addition to studying.
Then COVID-19 began to spread around the world. From there, the world, and mine especially, turned upside down. A year of isolation and online instruction changed all our lives.
In July 2020, President Trump issued a directive ordering F1 visa international students to leave the country unless they could attend in-person classes. I was very distressed. I worried that if I lost my visa, I would not be able to return to the U.S. Although the Harvard community supported their international students, I was shocked when I read comments on conservative U.S. news sites calling for international students to leave the U.S. since they could take classes online. Over time, I was frequently surprised by the sharply divided opinions in the country.
As an Asian woman living in the U.S., COVID-19 came with an extra weight. In the early days of the pandemic, a friend suggested that I avoid wearing a face mask. He warned that people here might suspect any Asian person wearing a face mask of having COVID-19. In Japan, wearing a mask is normal. People usually wear masks when they feel a slight cold or to prevent the flu. Women sometimes put on masks when they don’t feel like wearing make-up. I did not hesitate to wear a mask when COVID-19 hit the U.S. borders. However, the simple act of wearing a mask was unnecessarily complicated. Anxious about anti-Asian harassment associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, I took my friend’s advice. I did not wear a face mask until Harvard and the U.S. government told us to do so and everyone else started to wear masks. However, I was frustrated that wearing a mask could invite harassment at the expense of my own and others’ safety.
I have not encountered race-based violence in Japan. But in the U.S., I saw racial hatred play out in the murder of George Floyd and the Atlanta spa shootings. Racial hate crimes are not news to me, but living in the U.S. powerfully brought it home to me. As the pandemic saw a surge in anti-Asian hate, I came together with a group of my HKS friends, Devika Balachandran, Lily Cheng Zedler, William Jung, and Nhat Nguyen to organize a vigil installation highlighting the magnitude of hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. The vigil was a way of exercising leadership and building important spaces for the community.
Last semester, I took Public Narrative by Professor Marshall Ganz. One of our assignments in the course was to prepare a speech in which students shared their own story and values to mobilize an audience to take action towards shared goals. As HKS deliberated whether students could return to campus in the spring, I made my speech to call for a hybrid model of both in-person and online classes. I voiced my belief that all HKS students should be able to study in Cambridge so they could immerse themselves in the intellectual culture of Harvard and better understand American culture and higher education. Other students also voiced this demand. Some made a “Hybrid Spring” zoom background to visually support their arguments and a video which showed the fatigue and isolation of international students working online at odd hours in their home countries.
Had I been in Japan, I might not have believed I could take this kind of action or bring about change. At home I was comfortable with the way things were. Being in the U.S. at this point in time awakened my desire to stand up, speak out and act. I was apprehensive, but by taking risks, I was able to practice the leadership skills I learned at HKS. The ‘hybrid spring’ movement became bigger and the school listened to us. In the spring semester, HKS reopened partial in-person classes so that international students were able to come to Cambridge. Now, as COVID-19 vaccinations are being widely administered, HKS is planning to return to normal life in the fall.
In June, I will step on Japanese soil for the first time in two years. But as I return home, I know I have gained a newfound citizenship – of the diverse, international and outspoken community that is HKS. I will miss living in Cambridge and being a student at Harvard, but as I leave, I know I have gained so much. As I enter the next phase of my life, I feel enriched and empowered by this culture which has shaped me these past two years.