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one world

Already an Element of Social Distancing

Lindsay Cowher Kelly ’09 Navigates a New Culture — and the Pandemic — in Japan

By David Klein | Back to Table of Contents


The family navigates city life at “the busiest crosswalk in the world,” located in Shibuya near Ryan’s gym.


In early January, Lindsay Cowher Kelly ’09 was living in Tokyo with her family when she began hearing about a deadly virus in China. Soon, she observed changes taking effect in the city around her: hand sanitizer was distributed in every store she visited, and masks were being worn widely, albeit in a culture where mask-wearing is commonplace.

It was a stressful and uncertain time. After initially dismissing the trend, she and her young children began wearing masks in public. There were rumors that toilet paper could run out because it would be used for masks. As the family soon realized, the novel coronavirus was leapfrogging across continents at an alarming rate. Their stay in Japan would ultimately be cut short.

“It wasn’t beautiful,” Lindsay said of the family’s hurried return to the U.S. amid the growing outbreak. “But we got here safely.”


“Emphasis on mindfulness”

The family had moved to Japan in 2018 when Lindsay’s husband, Ryan ’09, who has played for the Los Angeles Lakers and Atlanta Hawks, joined the Hitachi Sun-Rockers basketball team.

An eager world explorer, Lindsay had traveled with Ryan and his Lakers teammates to Shanghai and Beijing to promote the NBA. “It was a really cool and surreal experience,” she said, “especially to travel and dine out with Kobe Bryant and see just how much of an impact his presence had on the fans there.”

Now in Japan, Lindsay was struck by the differences in the two cultures. “In China, I had many people ask for pictures or just take them, because of my height and blonde hair. In Japan, even if you’re out at a tourist site, nobody is likely to approach you. The environment there tends to be more reserved than what I experienced during my weeks in China.”

But the Kellys soon came to embrace many aspects of Japanese culture.

Without access to a car, the family did a lot of walking and traveling by train. Taking Nile (5) and Tess (3) to their international school entailed a mile-long walk, a train ride, another walk and then a bus.

“The train system is fantastic,” Lindsay said. “Everything is very clean, clear and always on time. It can be hard to navigate when you’re having to match unfamiliar Japanese characters to what your phone says. Add toddlers and wearing a baby to the mix and it’s certainly a circus! But once we got it down, our school commute was something we all grew to enjoy.”


Tess (at top) and Nile participate in a Christmas concert and play at their international preschool.


“A lot of good practice”

With all of the uncertainty surrounding the outbreak, the Kellys faced additional upheaval with the potential cancellation of the rest of Ryan’s basketball season.

Fearing that their return home could be delayed if international conditions deteriorated, Lindsay and the children flew back to Raleigh in early March, roughly a week after community spread of COVID-19 was confirmed in the United States. Ryan followed in April, on the heels of a ban on European travelers entering the country.

America presented a stark contrast to conditions the family had experienced in Tokyo. When they got off the plane, Lindsay told her children to throw their masks in the trash “because people here [will] think it’s weird.”

“In Japan, there’s already an element of social distancing,” she added. “People there aren’t shaking hands. You’re not hugging people. You’re not high-fiving with them. So we always joke that we had a lot of good practice with social distancing, just living there.”

The family self-quarantined after returning, and, in the absence of any official guidance, Lindsay took the initiative to contact the state health department to ask about protocols. The government’s surprisingly hands-off approach, she soon learned, was not unique to her family: none of their friends returning from Japan reported having their health status confirmed by officials.

Now back in a routine at home, Lindsay expressed appreciation for the unique perspective on both life and parenting provided by an international lifestyle — despite the stresses of her last few months in Tokyo.

“I love that both I and my kids are able to have friends from all different cultures. There are certainly things I’ve learned that I will hold onto and cherish for life.”


Lindsay and the children visit Ueno Station, which she called “one of our favorite close-by places to roam and visit with the kids.”

Lindsay Cowher Kelly ’09

Ryan Kelly ’09 walks with Nile, Tess and Ruth (in carrier) near the family’s apartment near Kashiwa, in northern Tokyo.