I don’t know how many times I’ve crossed the border at Surrey-Blaine; I do know that by the time I was in my early 20s, it was enough that when I drove north up Interstate 5, I could tell I was getting close when the texture of the pavement shifted under my wheels, from smooth to corrugated, as though some long-ago highway budget hadn’t stretched all the way and I was driving off the country’s edge. My frequent crossings there shaped my attitude to borders generally, and I entered adult life presuming it was my right to go anywhere. In the following decades, the world did nothing but encourage this notion, as technology made travel ever more frictionless for those of us with lucky papers.
First money changed. Cash faded, electronic banking expanded, and travelers’ checks became obsolete. The peseta, the franc, and the escudo disappeared. Mobile phones arrived, but the early ones functioned only at home; travelers hacked the problem by swapping out SIM cards as their transoceanic flights touched down. We got smartphones, Wi-Fi, and the electronic boarding pass, one less thing to pack. Our money and our phones converged into mobile payments.
Seven years ago, Joe and I submitted our biometric data—fingerprints and iris scans—to the US and Canadian governments so we could get our Nexus passes, to make entering either country even faster. In principle, I don’t like governments storing those details; in practice, I jumped at the chance to shave hours off of airport waits. Whenever I step forward to have my eyeball photographed, I feel like I’m a few steps into the future.
This headlong rush toward easier travel nurtured a world-is-my-oyster attitude among a growing segment of the global population. For some, it even encouraged heady ideas about the withering of the nation-state. That Britons voted for Brexit, that the current US president pulled out of at least 10 treaties, that Beijing tried to assert dominance over Hong Kong—these were harbingers that the march toward globalization was stalling out. But it took the pandemic to make borders feel real again.
The science fiction writer William Gibson, a US immigrant to Canada, is typically credited with the observation that “the future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.” As the pandemic sent different countries off in different directions, that uneven distribution felt increasingly acute. In February, my brother related all the changes to his daily life in Seoul. Masks on every face. Men spent more time washing hands. His gym closed, then his kid’s daycare. His employer staggered schedules to reduce crowding during commutes, and he had his temperature checked every time he entered a building. Once, his wife received a mass text message from her office building, informing her that the family member of a worker in the same building had had a Covid-19 test. The result was negative.
Under Korean law, the health ministry can collect private data from both confirmed and potential patients, while phone companies and the police share patients’ location with health authorities on request. I asked Gregory if any of this data collection bothered him. “Absolutely not,” he said. I asked why not, and he said he trusts the government.
The changes he described seemed exotic and far away. But then, as American cities descended into bedlam, my brother’s life normalized. It’s not the same as before, of course. Masks and sanitizer are ubiquitous, and he vacationed in the Korean countryside to avoid having to quarantine abroad. But the daycare reopened, now taking a morning log of every family member’s temperature. People go out to restaurants and to work. The country held a successful national election in April. There is dissent, to be sure, and the pandemic is still present. But relatively speaking, it feels as though my brother’s world calmly got on with the business of not dying, while in most of my interactions at home, someone is at their wit’s end over closed schools, loneliness, job loss, or the sheer sadness of more than 200,000 US coronavirus deaths. I’d gotten used to my brother and I living in different countries. Now we’re even farther apart.