going home

1 11 2007

This will be long. And that is an actual prediction, not one of my usual tack-on-a-disclaimer-after-I-finish-writing introductions (although with the amount of time this ended up taking me to write and edit, it doesn’t really matter). I suppose it makes sense to be lengthy given the weight of my first trip home, but it still surprises me the extent to which spending only five days in America so radically changed my thoughts on my experiences abroad.

Before I actually write anything substantial, I want to note that I’m sitting at JFK and there’s a woman plucking and shaving her face in the waiting area. I thought it was awkward when my bosses cut their toenails in the office, but this really takes the cake.

the facts
Anyway. Here’s my itinerary. I left Japan last Wednesday for my sister’s wedding in New York. About the only easy part of leaving was getting in my car after work. I enjoy traveling—rather, I enjoy getting to the locations, but I’m terribly anxious when it comes to the actual moving part, and with good reason this time. I cruised most of the way to Chitose, but some short segment of the highway was closed causing traffic backups, so I ended up running late, and lost (hey Japan, ever heard of detour signs?), and then rolling into the airport with barely any time to spare. I took a 90-minute flight to Haneda, then sprinted to the train station to catch the last train to my hotel: another 90-minute ride. The next morning I hopped on a bus to Narita and because JAL couldn’t find my reservation, I was sent from line to line for over an hour and a half. Then the payoff: a short 12-hour flight. Then a 1-hour taxi ride. Then a 3-hour drive upstate. So, the grand total of travel time was 22 hours plus 6 hours waiting time for a whopping 28 hours of pure fun. And by fun I mean anxiety, because one slight problem would have had huge cascading repercussions.

My sister’s wedding was absolutely wonderful: an entire weekend surrounded by family, her and my brother-in-law’s friends (who are all awesome), trees, cows, rolling hills and a massive amount of general merriment. To be around so many people who were so happy was completely infectious. There’s no way to describe in non-mushy, non-cheesy terms how happy being there made me. So I’ll just leave it at that, because I’m not into mushy cheese.

Sunday, after helping clean up at the resort, I came back to the city and spent a little time with some friends from home (one of whom wins the award for coolest person ever, having traveled all the way from Chicago). I did my best to absorb the multi-culturalism of New York: we had Mexican food. We drank at an Irish Pub. I ate falafel. I saw non-Japanese people. (note that three out of my four cultural experiences were about food.) Ironically, amidst the swarm of different races and ethnicities, the only Japanese person I saw outside of JFK was one begging on the street. I wanted him to offer my spare yen, but I don’t think that’d fly over too well (I actually didn’t have any American change at that point).

And after the brief sojourn, at 7:30 am, I began my 28-hour journey home (is it home?).

my thoughts
So how would having such a great time in the motherland reshape my perception of Japan? I suppose mainly because of the whole wedding thing; you introduce yourself and then you talk about what you’re doing with your life. And after having done that maybe five times I began to actually think about what I was saying. Was I having a good time? Am I making friends? Do I fit in? Am I learning the language? And the honest answer to all of them was not actually yes as I was accustomed to saying, but rather something like, “Yes, but….” And upon further reflection, that answer seems to fit well with the recurring theme of trying not to judge situations before giving my thoughts/feelings enough time to gestate (which is hard, I’m an ENFJ at heart).

When the offer to recontract landed on my desk a few weeks ago, I was thinking with 100% assurance that I would sign it. Now, I have some doubt, but not because I’m not enjoying myself; it’d be hard for me to look back at the last three months and say I was having a bad time. Of course amidst enjoyment there are always pepperings of dislike, but the bad times here are the exception to the rule. More recently, though, there seem to be more and more exceptions (see the last post about being past the point of acclimation), which is why I’m wavering about my plans for next year. Now that I no longer am doing something wild and new and crazy every minute of my day—the more negative aspects are able to creep into my thoughts.

My sister’s good friend, and one of my childhood role models, has a knack for asking things bluntly that cut right at the heart of problems. This weekend: are you lonely? For some reason, between the timing of it and the bluntness of it, it snapped me out of my “yes, I’m having a great time” answering spree. After much thought (much! I’m still now, a week later, hammering it out), I realized that yes, I am often alone (which is different than being lonely, mind you). I have made friends here, but the majority of my time is spent by myself or among people with whom I can barely communicate. While I certainly don’t feel desperate for human contact, it’s not the same as at home; I’m not literally surrounded by people I’ve known for years.

So on a weekend away, with negative thoughts accruing and questions flying at me left and right, the self-analysis and thinking about my time in Japan has turned more towards the lines of brooding and mooding. Ok, not a word, but I think it describes it well.

Mooding and brooding isn’t all bad. A wise teacher once taught me that enjoying life isn’t only about having good experiences. Having bad ones is essential to valuing the good. Good and bad are relative terms by definition, so without the ups and downs of everyday life, you might be “happy” but you wouldn’t know it. So, like I’ve done all along, I’m not making definitive answers to sum up my time anymore. Am I having a good time? Yes, but parts of it aren’t good. Am I learning Japanese? Yes, but I have room to learn more. Am I fitting in? Yes, but I’m still a foreigner (and always will be—this is particularly hard to deal with). I do, without a doubt, like the food. At least that’s clear.

And so what I’ve ended up settling on after all this thinking is that I don’t quite feel at home in Japan. I call it home, but I obviously don’t fit in 100%. So imagine my surprise when America didn’t feel like home either. I’m walking around and seeing familiar sights, able to read signs, using the currency I’ve used since birth, but it feels different. It feels foreign. And if you can think of something more jarring than your own country feeling foreign to you, leave a comment.

A couple of my friends and I talked about this at the Irish pub that put the loneliness/aloneness topic in a much more constructive light. The three of us came to realize the importance in having time to yourself (using Wall Street friends as the contrast). Granted that doesn’t mean needing to spend weeks in the middle of a forest by yourself, but the honest truth is that out of my aloneness (again it’s not loneliness) has come a lot of self-exploration if not self-discovery. What is it that I value in friendships? What do I want out of life? What sort of qualities do I enjoy in this job? What qualities don’t I enjoy? What keeps me going? What makes me tick?

Every so often I trim my facebook friend list. Go through it, figure out who the people are that I wouldn’t talk to if I saw them on the street and defriend them. It sounds heartless, but if we don’t even say hello to each other on the street, how can we be “friends?” It’s sort of the same way with the self-exploratory questions above. Except instead of a friends list, it’s an elements-of-my-life list.

Looking back at the wedding, specifically seeing families together and seeing my sister and her friends interact, leads to similar thoughts. She and her husband have really managed to surround themselves with a great group of people. Either they’re very lucky, or they’ve succeeded in figuring out what makes each of them happy, and maximized their happy potential by picking and choosing who and what remains close to them. I’ve got a lot to learn and a lot to do before I’m at that point. I once heard that the healthiest relationships don’t arise from two people who “complete each other,” but from two complete people who bring out more from the other person than he or she is capable of alone. So, I suppose all this introspection will pay off when I’m no longer all turmoil inside. Until then I’ll just keep flirting with 30-year old Japanese women.

reverse culture shock
On another subject, the reverse culture shock surprisingly began while I was in Tokyo. The difference between it and my town is honestly that vast. The city never sleeps. There are gaijin running about all over the place (somehow I ended up at the hotel bumping against a bustling bar chock-full of gaijin). There are no cows. It doesn’t smell like the ocean.

Once back in America, all the things that I expected to feel out of place didn’t. And all the things that did were unexpected. I expected the lack of Japanese and the lack of being stared at, and the lack of politeness, and the lack of feeling out of place to be the big differences. And rather than the negative things (as in things missing) it was the positive things: the presence of varied races, the presence of loud Americans, the presence of feelings of out-of-place-ness, the presence of seemingly rude store clerks. I had really taken that last part—the politeness of store clerks—for granted. Once I was out of New York and in the boonies, people were polite again, but that was well after I had been overwhelmed with all the changes.

When I arrived at JFK, to hear people loudly and openly talking about how they never want to go to Japan again, because the food was so bad was just odd. It’s certainly different than the Japanese “I don’t really like it, probably.” I was faced with the juxtaposition of expectations and reality yet again, which is always a bit disorienting but never to this degree. I literally felt weird the entire weekend. And I still don’t know for sure what caused that weirdness.

in sum
As I said, by the end of the weekend, I had settled on phrases relating to not quite feeling at home in America, and not quite feeling at home in Japan. But now that I’m back in Japan, I realize I do feel at home here. Even the things that I didn’t really like have grown on me, and the things I was taking for granted I now appreciate. So, ただいま。

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One response

12 11 2007
Scott

Wall Street friends, eh? ;) BTW – found this poking around music forums today.

http://ff7.ocremix.org/tracks/

“私はホーム?”

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