Henry Kohn: Visions of war – how the pandemic shaped my perspective of America’s place in the world

Thursday, March 12, 2020: Île-de-France, France:

(Translated from French)

  • Um, Henry, don’t you have to leave before midnight on Friday?
  • No, actually, he didn’t even say the right thing. He said anyone coming from

Europe wouldn’t be able to enter the U.S., but I think citizens can still go back

  • What are you going to do?
  • Well, I think I’m going to stay in France! At least here we can follow more what’s going on; it just seems a little chaotic there.

That was the last conversation I’d have with the teachers with whom I worked, the last time I’d be eating in the cafeteria. (When I first arrived to France, another language assistant remarked that I ate a lot.) Beeen, il faut gouter – you gotta try it! One simply does not have multiple plates representing multiple courses on his tray in middle or high school in America. Those were simpler times.

I was in France when l’État announced we were at war with the coronavirus. I stood socially-distanced in line outside of a boulangerie (bakery) waiting to take home some bread minutes before lockdown the following Tuesday. With five people waiting ahead of me, a customer – a man – walked out, raised his arms and exclaimed, “there is no more bread.”. A sense of dread spread through me. How could we – in this country – be out of bread? Then the bread maker – a woman – announced from inside the store that more bread was baking and would be ready before the clock struck twelve – as in twelve noon. Strange that such an historic moment – le premier confinement – would pass so unceremoniously in the middle of the day.

Though in confinement, and alone in my apartment, I was determined to wait out the lockdown. I wanted to stay in France, wanted to finally experience Paris in the spring. I did not want to go back to the U.S. Why – after I was finally back in France and living outside of the U.S. – would I fall back and retreat? No, I would stay and show solidarity with the French people by clapping every night at 8 p.m., which, to be fair, did instill a fleeting sense of on est ensemble.

But as one week wore into another, my defenses began to crumble. Everyday my friends and I would share information and trade speculation on the pathway of the virus and the plans for ending the lockdown. It was apparent, as Italy made clear, that this was not ending any time soon. Plus, arriving daily from the home front was a strong argument against staying. For wanting so badly to experience more of the world beyond the U.S., it actually made sense to return home to my family.

Henry Kohn 
Henry Kohn

On my last day a school administrator asked me about my future plans. I said I would look for work and hope to return to Europe, that maybe I’d take up Spanish. “You should learn German, that’s an important language in Europe,” was the response. I had heard as much in Togo two years prior.

There I was, dressed in le style parisien, when I boarded a flight back to the U.S. It was surreal, to be welcomed at the airport by my parents who were physically avoiding me. I was driven to a separate location where I would quarantine alone for two weeks. There, as time seemingly stood still, as if in some sort of purgatory, I would read. I read about Native Americans being robbed of their oil wealth in a story that stretched across the American southwest; I read about the first female United States Secretary of State who herself crisscrossed the world; I found a French book about a detective sent to Chicago to solve the case of “le Français” and read that, too.

My first time outside (three days later), I was struck by how unfamiliar a place I had grown up experiencing was to me. Some of this was purposeful – I didn’t want to let go of my sense of worldliness – but I couldn’t help but perceive my surroundings as foreign: the space, the size of the houses, the land – the vastness of it, especially when compared to Europe. The books I had read only reinforced this. “This is America, THE United States of America,” I mused, “50 states that spanned a continent, each one making its own decisions about how it would respond to the novel virus. It looks bad but the federal system – the American system – will work itself out.”

I thought back to what my French high school students had said about this country.

I had asked them what they thought of the U.S. “It’s big”. I asked them if the U.S. deserved to be considered the greatest nation of rap and hip hop when there was so much to be celebrated in France. “Well, it’s the U.S. so, it’s going to be the best”. Finally, I drew my former high school on a wall-sized dry erase board and labeled all the sports fields and facilities. “Ah that’s so cliché – it’slike Riverdale!”.

These were all perfectly natural things for high school students in a foreign language class to say, but they also revealed a certain sense of awe of the U.S – of both the good and the bad.

One morning, they asked me if the U.S. was going to go to war with Iran. They asked about the Muslim bans, whether I liked the current president – the seniors spent a third of the year learning about whether the American Dream still existed. They asked if everyone in the U.S. owned a gun. They asked about obesity. Why had we left the Paris Agreement, of all agreements?

I realized that although I had left the U.S., it hadn’t left me – or rather, I had not entirely left the U.S. Its presence, both culturally and politically, in France was something I hadn’t expected. I hadn’t expected it because I hadn’t understood it. When people – not just high school students – peppered me with questions about the U.S., about its politics and current events, I thought they just were making conversation, or simply curious – and most of the time, that was the case. I hadn’t, however, grasped how people and countries, particularly other governments, not only experienced the U.S. but how out of necessity they interpreted, reacted, and responded to it.

Going to France, the idea that I had left the U.S. was an afterthought; since what I had wanted to do was experience life abroad. On the flip side, however, was a nagging feeling of – at least for me – what I wouldn’t learn or experience if I stayed in the U.S. What then worried me about my return home was how easy it would be to ease back into my American lifestyle, let my foreign language skills atrophy, my experiences abroad fade into obscurity, and be consumed – more or less – by issues and events happening in the U.S.

Enter a global pandemic. Try as it might, the U.S. could not seal itself off from Covid-19 – not even a faux ban of all travelers from Europe – could prevent it from reaching its shores. Nor could it expect to vanquish the disease – since it was global – by itself. Now back in the U.S., I watched these failures, saw how they were affecting people in the U.S., and kept in mind the people outside it.

The pandemic made it easy to understand how my actions could have consequences for people around the world. More fundamentally, I could not hope that without systemic change, this crisis and many other problems – both in the U.S. and globally – could not be adequately addressed or constructively resolved. That’s why I eventually decided to support the work of U.S. government leaders, knowing that the impact we made here would reverberate abroad.

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