Sheltering in Place with Asian Studies

Warm greetings from Honolulu! Our pandemic lives filled with numbers define us and the places in which we live. Hawai`i: 643 cases confirmed, 589 recovered, 17 deaths. Sheltering in place and keeping tourists out have produced these optimistic results. Nevertheless, the pandemic globally has brought with it much pain, misery, loss of life, loss of resources. It has brought hunger, sickness, death, and heartbreak. It has highlighted the inequities in our society, so that those with the least are suffering the most. Our individual experiences differ greatly, from those active daily on the front lines, whom we thank mightily, to others of us privileged enough to shelter in place. We cannot predict how it will ultimately and fully impact us, but know that we all have rarely experienced a disaster on such a global scale. Importantly, part of the recipe for resilience lies in recognizing unforeseen opportunities, amidst a backdrop of widespread disaster. Let us consider just a few of these, with a focus on Asian Studies.

The pause in our lives imposed by the pandemic has given some of us expansive breathing room, thinking room, connecting room—paradoxically, as we cloister. We learn the point of the cloister itself, even as our four walls can feel claustrophobic with partners, children, and other obligations now around us constantly. Our close spaces have been defined by worries and fears. Many of us normally engaged in the breakneck speed of juggling careers, families, and communities have discovered a life centered upon the home. In the past we zoomed around with abandon and now we zoom in place with caution and concern. What has it meant to stay put, sometimes for days, weeks on end? How do public and private intersect when we rarely step outside? And how do these issues change daily and weekly as our governments engage in the processes of re-opening and rebuilding? There is no easy normal in this heavily laden world.

Pajamas — Drawing by David Ring, Europeana Fashion, via Wikimedia

What have become meaningful, surprisingly, are mundane things, like pajamas. Yes, pajamas—PJ’s, the soft, comfortable, loose-flowing stuff (pants and shirt) you are supposed to wear indoors, lounging or not. Pandemic pajamas, our daily uniforms. The word is actually of South Asian origin, derived from Hindustani (borrowed from Persian), and adopted throughout the Western world by way of the British empire. Men wore them first, then the rest of the family followed suit. In the word and concept of pajamas we invoke empire, public/private distinctions, and globalization. Pajamas in this empire view represent the privileges of home, and the luxury of differentiation (separate outfits for different times of day). The central feature of pajamas is unrestrictive comfort and ease (not a zipper in sight), private nighttime garb, designating its wearer as at home and in place, maybe even asleep. Pajamas assume there is a home to be had, including a sleeping place and special clothing to be worn there.

The distinctions (night/day, indoors/outdoors, leisure/work) are built into the empire concept of pajamas. Pajamas suggest informality, relaxation, and intimacy, only afforded as part of our at-home selves. Pajamas clad supposedly unguarded selves, sheltered and sheltering. They symbolize refuge and safety, whether alone or among consociates. Although there may have been exotic associations in their introduction to British home lives over two centuries ago, they are now thoroughly domesticated in the west, and by a kind of reverse globalization, back to “the east.” Pajamas, in their travels, take on local meanings and values: on a visit to China in 1980, a colleague witnessed indoor and outdoor pajama fashions in a department store and on the street: especially nice ones for street wear, but still with pastel ducks and bunnies, and more modest ones for home and bed. At the same time, fashion runways in global capitals have at various times trended pajamas as glamorous evening wear—shantung silk and designer jewels.

Our pandemic-bound lives are pajama lives of the frumpy sort—borrowing sartorial idioms of comfort and ease, even as our minds race through real and possible dis-comfort and dis-ease. We forego the normal distinctions made by their soft cotton. We can no longer tell the time of day by their presence. We jump into pajamas at night and sometimes rarely emerge from them throughout the day, ensconced in cocoons of comfort that home is supposed to represent. (The softness of pajamas extends to hair. As our hair gets increasingly shaggier—and for some, grayer—our reflected images become accustomed to that newfound fuzziness—shutting in, shutting out. Crispness has succumbed to wooliness. We shelter in our soft shagginess.)

By no means am I suggesting that the pandemic is one big pajama party. Far from it. The mounting death tolls, sheer exhaustion of health care workers, increased domestic violence, and staggering unemployment preclude such celebration. But pajamas—with their Asian histories and connections to empire, as well as their very cosmopolitan array today—remind us of the complications of our garbed lives. In this pandemic era, we mourn in pajamas, as we lament their daily wearing. We rejoice in pajamas, as we check in with friends to ask just how they are doing. The answers are never simple. We express our care in pajamas that expose our vulnerabilities one to another. And in these various pajama-infused processes, we recognize that Asia (and Asian Studies) has played a part in defining us, no matter how we are clad. These pandemic days and nights remind us of the core of who we are, with long-term commitments that define our professional and personal lives. Sheltering in pajamas, we embrace the concerns that take us across the Pacific and within our Chinatowns, knowing that our loosely-clad selves swaddle deep ties and values. Our connections to Asia and Asian Studies may be intellectual, but padding about in our pajamas, isolated in our own spaces, we retrieve personal connection, even intimacy, with the people and emotions that define the global perspective of this field we take as home. What is the value of Asian Studies in our pandemic world? The value lies in its capaciousness, in the hominess of its global and historical perspectives it offers, and in its grasp of pajamas as a means of drawing far-flung peoples—our friends, our kin, our community—in close. The value of Asian Studies lies in embracing and being embraced by our extended global homes, warts and all. Perhaps a pajama party is not such a bad thing after all.

The AAS Secretariat is closed on Monday, May 29 in observance of the Memorial Day holiday