Run too many programs on a laptop and it runs slower. There’s only so much a single chip can process. In the old days you could push your processor past a limit – “overclocking the processor,” a phrase that has seeped into my general understanding of anxiety.
My first months in Japan, I was overclocking the language processor, etiquette processor, and the work-responsibility processor; I was running English programs based on an incomplete Japanese processor. My brain was constantly scanning the onslaught of Japanese language for the 10 percent it understood.
Unfamiliar environments breed tiny stresses – first-world problems that turn into energy sinks: Daily meetings I can’t understand but am required to attend; filling out paperwork in Kanji, which I can’t write; going to a store and forgetting the word for the thing I need to buy; explaining the haircut I want; when I need something and can’t even imagine the store it might be found in, never knowing if someone said “3:15” or “3:50” but having to be on time. It is the constant presence of tiny uncertainties that make it feel like certainty about anything is close to impossible.
For a year I left work and went directly to my bathtub, soaking out the anxiety. My supervisor never understood how I could go home four hours before her and not be fluent in Japanese. What else could I possibly be doing? I tried, but I was mentally drained from processing ten times as much data as she did. She’d learned how to filter out useless information from the environment, she knew how to decide what was certain and what wasn’t. All I knew is that routine tasks took three times as much time and effort as they used to, like I was walking to the grocery store with a bag of rocks.
If I set an alarm for breakfast before that first day on the job it’s easier to do it for the span of a career. I have about three months to set up habits, after that, change takes a real effort.
I arrived in Japan with as much control over my life as a toilet-trained infant, so establishing good habits was hard. Even feeding myself was a challenge. I couldn’t read menus or communicate, or communicate that I couldn’t read the menus.
Eventually I worked up the nerve – and enough money for an iPhone – to take photographs of the plastic food replicas in the windows.
“Kore desu,” I’d say. “It’s this.”
Even ugly, stupid babies learn not to shit themselves, and expats in Japan are often just as capable. Things were easier by the end of a year, but it was too late – my habits were set.
Doing things alone – traveling, trying a new restaurant, or exploring a new neighborhood – just never crossed my mind. If I didn’t have a partner, I didn’t have a reason. In hindsight I see it as a clever engineering solution deployed in the design of computers: If one processor can’t handle all that data, add another processor to share the workload.
Rather than adapting to my environment, I’d adapted to my helplessness. I think that is the pernicious nature of the microstressor. Tracking their gradual disappearance is as difficult as recognizing their effect in the first place. By the time you know how to handle them, you’ve learned never to be certain about anything. You’ve learned that heightened anxiety has benefits.
Eventually, the frenzied static of microscopic uncertainties assembled into a clearer image. It just took time to see it. When I did, it took a while longer to realize that this ever-present anxiety had lost its purpose.
Psychologists like to talk about the internal and external locus of control. An external locus leads to passive reactions to life events, because you don’t feel you have any control over what happens. Fate is external, coming at you from outside.
The internal locus is the active faith in effort. You are the actor that makes things happen. Fate is the interaction between your will and your environment.
An external locus is “that test was too hard, so I failed,” an internal locus is, “I didn’t study enough, so I failed.”
Typically, the internal locus of control makes people happier, stressed-out overachievers. The external locus, however, sees failure as fate: You’re lucky or unlucky, but either way, we’re not in charge of changing it, excepting major acts of stupidity.
We all know people whose only success is successive failure, for whom effort doesn’t seem to matter. These unlucky external-types typically find themselves clinically depressed. After all, if it all comes down to innate ability and luck, and not perseverance and skill, why bother applying yourself?
Richard Wiseman researches the concept of luck. To Wiseman, luck is actually a skill. Lucky people pick up subtle cues in the environment, perhaps even unconsciously. Meanwhile, inwardly drawn neurotics are too busy gazing at their navels to notice details in the outside world.
This can lead to “unlucky” accidents. Imagine some sad-sack Joe shuffling his foot straight into a curb while thinking about some girl, or ramming into a car because he was daydreaming through a stop sign.
The Lucky Ones
Consider the lucky people: The guys who always seem to have a girlfriend, are always meeting interesting people or finding amazing career opportunities. Are they “lucky?” Has some divine fox bestowed them with a brighter fate? Wiseman would say it’s got nothing to do with foxes. The lucky ones are just more open to catching flirtations, suggestions and conversational doorways that lead to “lucky accidents,” that is, opportunities.
If luck really is, as Wiseman says, being tuned in to the world, expats in Japan are doomed. You can’t communicate, so you can’t get things going. You can’t read signs or understand your environment without a lot of extra internal processing. More fluent expats may not be unlucky on account of language, but may not see more subtle social cues: The way someone stands, or looks at you, the way you carry yourself in terms of appearing receptive to ideas, secrets, and opportunities.
It’s not always lack of attention, though. I’d argue that even when I am alert to my surroundings, trying to filter out irrelevant information and maximize certainties, I’m processing at such a higher capacity that I end up blind to my relationship to those things: figuring out the katakana on a building, I walk into oncoming traffic. Unlucky me.
I think a lot about Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto: How the hundreds of gates, at first, are overwhelming and beautiful; how after a half an hour of walking they become routine and you start paying more attention to your feet on the ground or the people you are with. Then something happens – a particular curve of the road or approach of the sunlight, and you notice the world again, you remember to pay attention and feel awed by the world. And then… you forget again.
This is kind of the attention cycle for everything.
I surrendered an enormous amount of control – and luck – as an illiterate expatriate in a foreign culture. At the worst points in my stay, I was depressed and anxious. I began to focus on survival, and not thinking about how to thrive. It was all I could do to keep up my sanity, rather than trying to find happiness.
It gets clearer when I leave and come back. Traveling is the search for a newness that, in Japan, has started getting old for me: Taking the wrong train to a random neighborhood is a crazy travel experience when I’m in Thailand, but feels like a devastating affirmation of my helplessness in Japan. Reframing my “daily life” as “traveling in slow motion” is one way to consciously address my thinking. I just had to change the story, and do it without sweeping the hassles away under a rug lumpy with denial.
When I embrace that train ride and remember that my daily life will eventually be a crazy story when I go home, I remember to take in everything. Because it’s all fleeting – not just life in Japan, but every aspect of my life. It comes and it goes, so I’d better pay attention to the details.
Fushimi-Inari is, after all, a shrine for good luck.
If you aren’t convinced that observation and effort is enough, you can like This Japanese Life on Facebook for good luck, too.