Wherever you go, there you are.
Vacation, All I Ever Wanted
Bad luck and bureaucratic necessity sent me off on holiday early. I had planned to go home for the first time since leaving it, but as the paperwork brigade slowly completed the stamping rounds on my permission slip, plane ticket prices had doubled.
I made a last-minute trip to Hong Kong for Christmas. Then I settled into 7 days of broke boredom in a cold and empty jutaku.
Vacation, Had To Get Away
On day one of my exotic Japanese holiday, I slept until 3 p.m. and then scoured my apartment for coins, a holiday mission highly reminiscent of the last three years of my undergraduate career. Only this time my house is bursting with coins. On bookshelves, on the floor, literally flowing out of my bathroom sink.
My hunt yielded 2,500 yen. It was enough to finance a trip out of the house and a corresponding spending spree: 3,000 yen on a single hamburger (covered by the 2,500 yen). Then 4,000 yen on shoes (really, only 1,500 yen when you factor in that 2,500 yen I found) and 1,000 yen on a haircut that matched the shoes (hey, I still have 1,500 yen left!).
I came home, checked my bank book, noted stupidity’s triumph over magic and resigned myself to a month of boiled chicken and rice.
Vacation, Meant to be Spent Alone
Sometime during college I realized I was a workaholic. Without workahol, I devolved into a spectre surrounded with the fog of free-floating anxiety. My college days started at 7 a.m. and classes ended at 4 p.m.; I’d drive to the newspaper for the overnight copy editing shift and sleep at 2:30 in the morning.
On holidays, I would collapse from exhaustion, wake up at 5 in the afternoon and find that most of my friends had left the godforsaken Maine town we all lived in. I’d go to the bookstore, get a cup of coffee and read The Economist.
In Japan I was a wood elf fighting dragons and werewolves with a bow and arrow stolen from an orc.
My mother had sent a box of homemade Christmas cookies that had taken nine days to get to my apartment. The purple haze covering these cookies couldn’t have been intended, but the safety of these 14-day-old sweets was an open question I was determined to answer. For one day I literally did nothing but eat questionable cookies and hunt groups of lizard bandits.
For a moment I was overwhelmed by the idea that all the personal growth I had experienced in Japan was an illusion and that the last full evolution of my self took place when I was 15 years old. Because here I was, eating Twizzlers, drinking soda and trying to figure out if I should invest perk points into destruction or restoration magic.
(That isn’t me. But the feelings are universal).
A Week Without You, Thought I’d Forget
The next day I decided to invest in the pursuits of a physically and psychologically healthy man. I would run, no matter how cold it was, if for no reason other than to dissolve my guilt over sitting on a couch drinking Cassius-flavored Holiday Ginger Ale.
On the way to the park I had my first interaction with another human being in nearly three days – an NPC, in gaming parlance – with the local udon shop owner as he straddled a scooter at a stoplight.
“Eriku-san, country? Coming back? Back, country?”
I made the “I don’t understand” face.
“Country, back? You come back.” Then, sounding angry, “HOME COUNTRY!”
“I didn’t go,” I said. “Ikkimasen!”
“Oh. Oh. Oh. When? When… did… you… go?”
“Tuesday,” I said.
“Where, where where?”
“Hong Kong. I came back Tuesday. Tuesday. Hong Kong. Kara kimashita.”
He asked about my ex-girlfriend.
“I don’t know,” I said.
I finished 5k and considered going for 10k, when my face got hit with a blast of wind and I went home. 23 hours and 14 minutes to go.
Vacation, All I Ever Wanted
The day after New Year’s Day is a national holiday, and so is the day after that.
Japan’s schools have three kinds of “days off.” The holiday where teachers and students come in and have classes, the holiday where students stay home but teachers have to sleep in the staff room and the actual holiday, where nobody comes to school.
I walked to school, not knowing which of the “holidays” it was. Actually I wasn’t sure what day of the week it was or when I had last shaved. I reflexively scanned the sky for signs of dragons. Work was an empty parking lot and a locked door. I took note of an inexplicably large poster advertising Mission Impossible 3: Ghost Protocol hanging in the hallway.
Walking home, I thought back to the conversation I’d had with my supervisor before I’d left for Hong Kong.
“So I’ll come back on the third?” I asked.
“Oh, thank you so much, but the students may want to have a vacation,” she said.
“Oh, I see. Well, I can come in on the third, and if any of the club members want to meet me for extra practice, I’ll be in the office.”
“Oh, thank you so much, but maybe there will be very few teachers here on that day,” she replied. “Probably, I will take the day off to see my family. I’m so sorry!”
“I see, that’s OK, just tell the students to find me if they want to meet.”
“Oh, thank you so much! But maybe very few students will be here on that day.”
If you have lived in Japan you might actually understand, from my supervisor’s perspective, how confident she must have been that I would not come to school on Jan. 3.
You just have to replace every weasel-word with its more certain version: “may” means “will,” “few” means “none,” and “probably” means “it is absolutely certain.”
Had she said “oh there’s no school that day,” or something so direct, I’d have made an inconsequential conversational mistake. I’d have been slightly embarrassed, and she’d have been slightly embarrassed for slightly embarrassing me.
Thankfully that outcome was avoided.
When Here At Home There’s Nothing To Do
When you live abroad, it’s tempting to believe you have evolved into a person who can face uncertainty, challenge yourself every day and storm at your own fears and insecurities.
For everything around you that has changed, once you’ve mastered it, you feel like it’s changed you. But if you live abroad in search of deep, fundamental change, you can find yourself duped into believing that you are new just because the food is.
Superficial transformation can be a comforting level-10 illusion spell. But change isn’t a passive process. Every day is a chance to practice the things you want to be carrying out, every Scary Thing is a chance to practice how you react to Scary Things.
Alone in an apartment for 7 days with no outside interaction, you realize this practice depends on other people. Without them, you’re only ever fighting imaginary dragons.
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