Thursday, May 7, 2020

Coronavirus Missives from Japan and the US

As published at Unz Review, TruthSeeker and LewRockwell, 5/8/20:

Five months into the coronavirus crisis, there is no consensus about anything.

When this virus was mostly limited to China, I tried to get as close as possible, so for two weeks, I stayed in Lao Cai, Vietnam. Nearly each day, I walked along the Red River to look into Yunnan, and what I saw were shutted stores, empty streets and almost no pedestrians. Each night, though, the highrises were lit up as usual. Seeing such desolation, I never imagined it would soon spread across much of the world.

In Hekou, there’s a large red banner showing Xi Jinping standing at a podium, with this message in Chinese, Vietnamese and English, “Adhere to the Road of Peaceful Development / Promoting the Construction of a Community of Shared Destiny.”

In Lao Cai, there’s a Trump Kids Kindergarten, by the way, and it’s run by the local Communist Party.

Leaving Lao Cai, I went to Si Ma Cai. Inhabited mostly by tribal peoples, this extremely remote district of 26,000 people blurs right into China, with plenty of smuggling going each way. One fine morning, I decided to just trek into the mountains. (I have a cousin whose estranged wife became a drug mule to China, by the way. This quiet, sweet and stoic woman was caught and executed.)

As I’ve stated elsewhere, I once crossed into Mexico from Candelaria, TX, because there was no border check, only a universally ignored sign saying it was illegal to do so.

My vague plan to absentmindedly mosey into the Middle Kingdom didn’t succeed. Here’s my caption to a photo from February 21st, “One of the last houses before the border. Couldn’t go any further. A soldier ran out of that house right there to stop me, and he was courteous about it. It took me three hours to walk here from Si Ma Cai. Mountain roads, up and down, a real pain in the ass. Almost no one has heard of this village, Na Cáng, and it’s not on any map. Two narrow lanes, too small for a car, lead to it. There is an elementary school, so kudos to that teacher.”

Leaving the Chinese border, I took a bus to Hanoi, but instead of going further south to eternally warm Vung Tau, where a room by the beach could be had for just $128 a month, a Tiger Beer cost 64 cents, and deeply satisfying conversations with close friends awaited me, I decided to fly to Seoul.

I emailed my buddy Rudy List in Michigan, “I’m flying to South Korea tomorrow night. Something this crazy, only you or I would do. I want to see how an advanced society deal with this coronavirus crisis...”

Rudy, “I have never received a more meaningful compliment. Thank you!!!” Actually, Rudy is much battier than I am. In 1975, he walked alone into Iraq from Iran, as machine guns on either side were trained on each other, “It was the loneliest two hundred yards I’ve ever walked. Either side could have shot me and blamed it on the other.”

Fact is, no one knows entirely why he does anything. What may appear as courage is actually pant-soiling cowardice, and sadism is dressed up as empathy, or vice versa. Maybe I’m just in love with Corona-Chan? As Anatoly Karlin will tell you, she’s one hot babe.

Outside Busan Station, I saw this on the back of a woman’s coat, “It’s either the flu or love… the symptoms are the same.” Seeing my photo of it, Ian Keenan comments, “Precisely the most commonly cited subtext of Garcia Marquez’ Love in the Time of Cholera.” If any plague is love, it must be the earth falling in love with itself.

As luck would have it, I’m in the freest country on earth right now, where stores, restaurants and bars are all open, and subways, buses and trains run on regular schedules. I must have emerged from over half of Busan’s 150 subway stations. There are a dozen beaches here, each with its own character, and even the countryside can be reached by public transportation. As someone who walks compulsively for miles nearly each day, I’d be in a cranky mess if forced to be sheltered in place.

With its unmatched coronavirus coverage, Unz Review has become a vital symposium on this global catastrophe. Brilliant analyses and key statements abound.

Gilad Atzmon, “Since we do not know its provenance, we should treat the current epidemic as a potentially criminal act as well as a medical event. We must begin the search for the perpetrators who may be at the centre of this possible crime of global genocidal proportions,” and he calls on whistle blowers to come forward.

Citing a list of circumstantial evidences, including the fact that America’s intelligence agencies “were aware of the deadly viral outbreak in Wuhan more than a month before any officials in the Chinese government itself,” Ron Unz is convinced this pandemic is an American biowarfare attack on China.

Agreeing with Unz, Kevin Barrett expands, “Independent historians have convincingly argued that such history-changing crises as World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, the 1971 birth of the petrodollar, 9/11, and the 2008 collapse were all engineered by the Zionist-dominated usury banking cartel that rules the West. In every case, the bankster cartel has profited from the destruction of real economies and real value. When smaller competitors go broke, the big banksters buy up hard assets at pennies on the dollar, further consolidating wealth in the hands of the few. And crises and wars force governments to go ever-deeper into debt, borrowing from the banksters at compound interest that will enslave future generations.”

As led by China and Russia, the economic integration of Eurasia leaves the US out in the cold, so it has no choice but to demonize and attack both relentlessly, on several fronts. If the coronavirus pandemic is indeed the work of Uncle Sam, then he may have shot himself in the foot, or even worse, in the head. Banksters can’t benefit from hard assets if the polity itself has been shredded. Sure, the coming unrest will give the state a pretext to mow down discontents and browbeat the rest, but perhaps our rulers have, finally, underestimated our collective rage.

Meanwhile, let’s hear how three individuals are dealing with this madness in Japan and Idaho:

Renzo, an Italian in his 40’s who’s been living in Japan for 17 years

The hotel I am employed at was temporarily closed from April 7th following this situation, with reopening just now rescheduled for June 1st.

Fortunately, my salary has been guaranteed these two months, and also there will be a cash handout of about 1,000USD per person from the government.

We still can go out; everyone here wears a mask but aside from that really not much else happening to prevent things getting worse.

Shops are bustling with people, the real number of COVID-19 infections likely several times higher than government reports are indicating daily.
Back in Tuscany, in Castelfiorentino, regretfully one of my closest uncles (already 87) died in hospital a week after he was admitted with Covid-19 symptoms.

Max von Schuler-Kobayashi is an American who has lived in Japan for 45 years. Writing in Japanese and English, he is the author of six books on military history and present society.

We in Japan are much better off than the US or Great Britain. I put this to the extreme cleanliness of Japanese people in general.

For example, Japanese people always remove their shoes when returning home. And bathe every day. A Japanese home is always kept very clean.

Also Japan has a very competent health care system. We have National Health insurance, based on income.

It means that all people have access to the same general care. I checked this morning, some 11,200 active cases.

A good number of these are foreigners, such as from cruise ships. But the number of recovered people per day is beginning to outnumber the number of new cases per day. Perhaps we have reached plateau.

Personally, since my work involves speaking in front of many people, so I am unemployed.

In Japan, we have a unique situation. Our constitution was written and forced upon us post WWII by Americans. So it severely limits Executive powers. Our Prime Minister cannot simply order a lockdown.

What has happened is the political leadership has asked for voluntary lockdown, well a partial one.

Bars and restaurants can be open until 8pm. Last order is at 7pm. Schools are closed. Movie theaters closed.

But this is all voluntary. If a bar wants to remain open until late at night, the government cannot send police.

My guess is that some 80% of the Japanese population is complying with these guidelines. For a while, pinball gambling establishments would not comply, but public shaming did the trick. There is a vibrant sex industry in Japan. Since most cases of Corona virus are male, it is estimated that some 40% of new cases in Japan come from the sex industry. However, they are now closed also.

The Japanese government has to decided finally to send relief payments of ¥100,000 yen per person to people unemployed by Corona, sex workers will be included. I think I qualify. In the future, I think world trade will shrink. I think the Global economy is over. The future Japanese economy will be much more local.

I don’t think Corona will disappear, but will be with us for a long time, as a seasonal epidemic.

I think Japan is better prepared to handle the transition to a more local economy.

This is not from any prescient government planning. The government is mostly 2nd and 3rd generation idiots who grew up with a silver spoon.

I don’t think the present Japanese government will remain.

Rather, it is the native ability of the Japanese people to persevere and weather a crisis. It will be hard, and there will be some people who simply will not survive, say someone from an elite university, being involved in foreign trade, suddenly moving to the countryside to become a farmer. But most people will adapt.

I think war on the Korean peninsula very possible, and perhaps in China. The Chinese have been very dishonest about the state of Corona Virus in their country. They never did get it under any kind of control, they just pretended to for business reasons. Now it is in Beijing. They too are facing collapse of present society.

The American Empire certainly over, I see civil war in America, and eventual breakup, into at least 5 entities. I don’t see massed armies like the Blue and Grey of 150 years ago, but rather a guerrilla war. I think the cities will depopulate, most city people will not survive rural life. The future transport system of the US will be by river, some rail, and horse. Most car and truck transport will disappear for lack of fuel. I don’t see a national electric grid as maintainable.

Western Europe will be similar.

The two countries that will still resemble present life the most will be Japan and Russia.

Paul Bonnell, a 47-year-old high school teacher and track coach, living in Bonners Ferry, Idaho

I have been reading your Coronavirus Missives and recent blog posts with fascination--curious about the different reactions, responses, and experiences around the world. Thanks for the opportunity to contribute a post to your collection.

I live in Bonners Ferry, Boundary County, the northernmost county in Idaho, U.S.A., bordering Montana, Washington, and British Columbia. Bonners Ferry has a population of about 3,000. Boundary County around 11,000. We have one stoplight; a dozen restaurants and churches; a few lumber mills, hair salons, and bars; a couple of hardware and building supply stores; a resort/spa/casino; some grocery stores; a bookstore; a bowling alley; a non-profit arts theater; some thrift stores, banks, and fabric shops; antique stores; a pawn shop; auto parts stores, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facilities, a community hospital, some dental offices and veterinarians; a U.S. Wildlife Refuge; a U.S. Forest Service ranger station; a sturgeon and burbot hatchery; the county library; a few gas stations and real estate offices; and various other businesses.

This is the Kootenai Valley, ancestral home of the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho. Three mountain ranges meet here—the Selkirks, Purcells, and Cabinets. Long ago the Purcell Lobe of the Cordilleran Ice Sheet covered everything here with thousands of feet of glacier. Now, it’s forests and farms, including one of the largest hops farms in the world, Elk Mountain Farms.

To date, Boundary County has no official cases of Covid 19, although we are proximal to places that do have cases, and people speculate--people who swear they’ve had it, people who know people who have it, people who say they called in, but were told there was no testing availability. Here, as elsewhere, the "numbers game" has been an ongoing conversation.

I am not really sure what to think of the various layers, except that early on I read about testing in places like South Korea and Vietnam, and from what I have heard, that has not been the case here. The current number of cases in Idaho is 2,158. Idaho was under a "Stay-Home" Order from mid-March through April; we just shifted to a "Stay Healthy" Order on May 1 and Stage One of the "Idaho Rebounds: Our Path to Prosperity" program.

From what I can tell, the whole situation raises compelling and thorny questions about jurisdiction, power, perceptions, (mis) trust of government, conspiracies, personal freedom, community responsibility, social class issues, urban-rural divides, culture, popular mythology, faith crises, the real estate market, etc. I wonder if these issues are always here, maybe just more exposed by all of this.

There's a sense of "remoteness" here--about 100 miles to Spokane, Washington and 500 miles to Boise, Idaho’s state capital--a geographical "tension" that the Covid 19 situation brings out. For all the apparent or inherent “isolation,” we also are more “connected” than we might let on. Ordinarily, I would be coaching high school and middle school track right now. We’ll bus kids over a 100 miles one way to Kellogg, Idaho for an afternoon track meet on a school day. We may live in communities that are far apart, but we also interact across those distances. People go touristing from here—Mexico, Costa Rica, Hawaii, Tempe. I had some friends who went to Palawan and Phú Quốc this winter. They came back (wearing masks) just as everything was ramping up in the U.S.

We're on a couple of major U.S. highway routes (U.S. 95 and U.S. 2) and the Great Northern railroad. Albertan cattle trucks roll through town every day, bound for feedlots and slaughterhouses--Spokane or maybe Yakima. On New Year’s Day this winter, a rock slide derailed a Burlington Northern diesel freight train into the Kootenai River. That one was bound for Pasco, coming from Minneapolis. At night, when I listen to the trains rumble through the valley, I think of all the trains--hauling oil from the Bakken in North Dakota, or Maersk and Yang Ming and Cosco shipping containers, or coal, or grain. Or passengers on the Amtrak’s Empire Builder. I think of our connection to the global system, even in this seemingly quiet corner of the world.

Will this whole thing make us think about complex realities? Political entities? Political unrest? Will we reflect on epidemiology, borders, regulations, public health, global travel, global trade, global war—or are we just reacting and/or moving on? Maybe we won’t have the time or energy or resources to do much else.

I teach high school during the day and community college at night. Our school district has been on a remote learning/"soft closure" set up since the middle of March. My college classes are now online. It's been challenging trying to figure it all out, but honestly, I’ve been amazed at how adaptable and resilient families, students, and colleagues have been. I’m curious about where all of this will take “school.” One of my colleagues thinks we could be heading for significant changes. Who knows? It feels like this right now is the greatest “school” lesson.

It’s been interesting talking to students. I talked to a student yesterday who said he’s been working extra shifts at the grocery store and studying Norse mythology when he can. A couple who are working at the hops farm. Another who is working on a CDL. Another who is writing a “Coronavirus Diary.” A student who has been loading trees at one of nurseries and working on firefighter certifications, set to work the summer fire season with the Idaho Department of Lands. My son worked as an “essential laborer” the last couple of days putting shingles on a roof with my brother-in-law. Some students are flexing school and work around each other, some are buckling down on academics, preparing for the AP exams. Some are just working jobs, maybe 60 hours a week. Some are taking care of siblings. And there are some I haven’t heard from or been able to contact. One student who wrote, “Mr. Bonnell, if I wanted to go to school online I would have just left school freshman year to do it then. I need the motivation of the classroom.”

I am concerned for students who have limited internet and other infrastructure access, challenging or dangerous domestic situations, food insecurity, homelessness, etc. Students working one or two jobs to help out their families because their parents got laid off. Students who live in the woods and don’t have internet access. One student contacted me, worried about being late with an assignment because they had lost power in a wind storm and were having to keep their new chicks from freezing. There are so many stories like this here and everywhere across the globe. I read about all the people on the move in India, trying to outwalk starvation, even if it meant contracting the coronavirus.

Many of the details of my life have been altered—a truncated ski season at the local resort, where I work and recreate on the weekends; a canceled season of coaching track; different teaching methods; a daughter home early from college, finishing the semester at home and working in an "essential" industry at the grocery store; a son doing high school at home and figuring out several weeks of not seeing friends or working and playing at the ski resort; Rebecca navigating the challenges of working from home; a couple of months of not playing music out with friends at local bars or restaurants or church; a canceled trip to the American Literature Association conference in San Diego, where I was supposed to present a hybrid project with the Circle for Asian American Literature on transnational adoption and documents (including vaccination records, interestingly). But these are just inconveniences and disruptions, not tragedies.

Many details of life have been similar. We live close to town but in the middle of a beautiful stand of trees—western larch, cedar, Douglas fir, white fir, hemlock, Ponderosa pine, white pine, and birch. I go for morning and evening walks with lovely views of the valley and the surrounding mountains. Around school responsibilities, I continue to work on research projects about the Chăm, Bru, and Ê Đê. Some music. Some photography.

Mostly, I have been working and thinking. I think about the personal and collective social and psychological ramifications of all of this. I am thankful to have survived war and wartime orphaning/abandonment, malaria, and adoption--and I guess I find that personal history to be connected somehow to this present. Survival. Making the best of difficult times. I look around and see potential for good—kind deeds and art and storytelling/story listening—and also potential for various upheaval and fragmentation and destruction. We’ll see what happens.

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About Me

Born in Vietnam in 1963, I lived mostly in the US from 1975 until 2018, but have returned to Vietnam. I've also lived in Italy, England and Germany. I'm the author of a non-fiction book, Postcards from the End of America (2017), a novel, Love Like Hate (2010), two books of stories, Fake House (2000) and Blood and Soap (2004), and six collections of poems, with a Collected Poems apparently cancelled by Chax Press from external pressure. I've been anthologized in Best American Poetry 2000, 2004, 2007, Great American Prose Poems from Poe to the Present, Postmodern American Poetry: a Norton Anthology (vol. 2) and Flash Fiction International: Very Short Stories From Around the World, etc. I'm also editor of Night, Again: Contemporary Fiction from Vietnam (1996) and The Deluge: New Vietnamese Poetry (2013). My writing has been translated into Japanese, Italian, Spanish, French, Dutch, German, Portuguese, Korean, Arabic, Icelandic and Finnish, and I've been invited to read in Tokyo, London, Cambridge, Brighton, Paris, Berlin, Leipzig, Halle, Reykjavik, Toronto, Singapore and all over the US. I've also published widely in Vietnamese.