The airplane is parked at the far end of a runway, the airport clear outside the portal, the name of my city, Fukuoka, in clear red letters. The mountains are clear in the distance, lush green trees reaching toward blue skies like a painted dome over the planet. We start accelerating and I feel the pressure in my body pulling me back towards it: My home for three years. The people I knew, the places I stayed, the feelings I muddled my way through. Some people, when they leave, seem to know that they’ll be back. I knew that I would not.
When the wheels break from the asphalt, I know that the world I am leaving is going to shrink outside that window and in my consciousness. Gravity pulls harder. The weight of this experience fights with the great open expanse of the future, that terrifying unknown.
Entertainment systems, American and Korean sitcoms, Hunger Games and 500 Days of Summer: No sleep, and then I’m on the ground in Hawaii for 12 hours. If Japan is a dream formed by personal stories and invented meanings, then Hawaii is a liminal state between dreaming and morning: You hear the alarm clock, but it sounds like sirens.
Japanese is written on the buses and the shopping malls. I walk to a beach on an island that looks like Kyushu. There is sushi everywhere. A shirtless guy smashes a stick into a shopping cart, nobody minds it. I don’t know if I’m supposed to know why. Further on, I hear music from a convenience store, a woman starts dancing toward me, clapping her hands and whooping. It’s been 1,000 days since I’ve seen anyone rhythmically gyrate in public.
I order a hamburger and it’s bigger than my mouth. I don’t understand how I’m supposed to eat it, so I start cutting it with a knife and fork. I know it’s wrong but I can’t figure out what the right thing is. The shopping mall is sprawling and incomprehensible, I get lost on my way to the ocean.
I’m back on a plane. It’s a domestic flight, so there is no entertainment, just reading and podcasts until the sunrises on the ground in Utah, where 40 teenagers in suits are lining up to borrow cell phones to call their parents one last time before leaving for mission. Mission in Boston.
It’s the summertime and I’m home. I fall asleep at 5:30 in the morning every night. I spend a lot of time on the beach. I go to a grocery store and I fear that I will never understand how to eat food in America. The grocery store feels too big, it’s the size of my high school’s gymnasium. The rice looks like shit, but I don’t say so because I know that’s an insane reaction to being in a grocery store.
America’s Liminal Superstore
When I arrived in Japan, people always seemed fine until their first grocery trip. The grocer was a threshold guardian, standing between your old life and a life of foreign normalcy. I heard so many stories of newcomers to Japan having breakdowns in the grocery stores, panic attacks from cramped spaces and the true vulnerability that comes from an irrational fear that obtaining food had become impossible. It is a primal place, the grocery store, despite its illusion of order. We are hunting and gathering here, and we have learned to read these aisles the way our ancestors could read flora and fauna. The labels are our environment, the brands and colors marking which mushrooms we can eat, which plants are poisonous. In the grocery store, I was a Canadian Goose set loose on a tropical island. I knew that this was all food, but I had no idea what I could really eat.
I panicked in an airplane-hangar-sized grocery store. My favorite restaurants at home had closed, or didn’t taste the same. I had to drive everywhere, and I felt stagnant from not walking. I instinctively tried to book a train to see my friends, but there are no real trains, nothing I could afford.
And then I left. Without sinking back into the place, I left it again, and now I have been living in London for longer than I have been back in America. We all build personal maps of places, based on how they connect to the places we have been. London has subways and a fetish for food I can eat with chopsticks. And it is an international city: Everyone here, it seems, came from somewhere else. London is in-between a hundred cultures, but all of them are steered toward Britishness. You can cross many bridges, but most of them cross the Thames.
People ask where I’m from, and I don’t know what to tell them. America is the honest answer, but I don’t feel like it gives them the information they are looking for. They’re really asking, “what’s your astrological sign, by way of national stereotypes?” and my answer is, “I’m a cusp year.”
Gentrifying the Moon
People used to ask me why I went to Japan in the first place, and I told them, with an unintentional but revealing dash of self-aggrandizement, that I did it because I knew it would be difficult. Yes, that was also Kennedy’s reason for putting a man on the moon. I, too, went to my private moon, not because it was easy, but because it was hard, because that goal served to organize and measure the best of my energies and skills, because that challenge was one that I was willing to accept, unwilling to postpone, and one which I intended to win.
I am supposed to move to China in October, essentially putting myself on Mars. And that once seemed like another stop in a broadening understanding of the world, but now feels vaguely like I am extending a four-year pattern of psychological homelessness. I dread going back to a life constrained by infantile communication skills, constant fear of offense, and perpetual confusion.
We go to the moon because it is hard, we climb the mountain because it is there. Perhaps this is something from the American side of my cultural zodiac: That constant, undying need for self-improvement, bordering on Puritanical austerity, a fear of living a life of comfort and enjoyment.
The moon is an incredible place to visit, but quite a shit place to live. Full of boredom and confusion. Spacesuits are awkward – no idea where to put your hands. And now, in a city girded by the comforts of cosmopolitanism, the English language, free-museums and free public lectures, I’m starting to think maybe “because it is difficult” is a silly reason for doing things. Maybe, sometimes, it’s nice to do things because they are easy, and not because they will make me stronger for having endured them.
Sumimasen, je ne parle pas Français.
I was recently in Paris, where I don’t speak a word of what they’re talkin’. I didn’t understand why I had to pay 18 euros for a ham sandwich (and not even get the top slice of bread). It was a beautiful city but it was also impenetrably dense with a culture and customs I couldn’t grasp. I knew how to eat brie and baguettes, and did so until I was sick. I spent one day walking around refusing to eat until I found a place that made sense to me, my blood sugar contributing to an internal monologue that would have had me banned from most online forums.
I ended up walking into a Japanese restaurant, where I was greeted with irrashaimase, and I could order the food in a language I understood in a manner I understood and could make small talk with a waitress from Hakodate. I ate a plate of yaki soba in Paris, and made everyone smile when I said gochisou sama deshita.
C’est la vie.
For updates from the moon colony, you can follow This Japanese Life on Facebook. Also, you can get my collected thoughts in a binded paper form or an unbinded electronic form.
Thank you for the post, yes you write beatiful.
Sugoi ne! I’m going to Japan in two weeks for a 3-year job contract. I dread for something that’s far more difficult than the field I used to work before. Something for a change slash challenge. I know this will better me in one way or another.
Yes: “Perhaps this is something from the American side of my cultural zodiac: That constant, undying need for self-improvement, bordering on Puritanical austerity, a fear of living a life of comfort and enjoyment.”
Don’t worry dude, I bet that once you get to China, it’ll be easier just to find the comfort and enjoyment that you want there, instead of getting as wrapped up in “the challenge” as we did in Japan. Don’t you think?
Well, unofficially, China may not be the destination after all. I think the culture shock in my new setting may be even more profound, because It looks like I’ll be in L.A. :)
Once again, an excellent piece.
As a Londoner, I’ve enjoyed your albeit brief sketches of the city (I like ‘stodgy’ as an adjective to describe the city as used in one of your previous articles, so much more evocative than the usual ‘dynamic’ or ‘cosmopolitan’ that tends to be attached the place), and would like to request more of your thoughts on it, please.
As someone who’s lived in Korea, China, and now Japan, I can only wish you the best of luck with China, as out of the three it’s the only place I’ve actively disliked living in. I enjoyed my holidays there immensely, and made the mistake of conflating this with the reality of day-to-day living (as so many do with Thailand, for example). I found the reality to be aggressive, overcrowded, dirty, and remarkably culture-free (which sounds ridiculous, I know, but what I mean is there was little to actually do). The incessant staring got old very, very quickly.
Having said all of the above, it’s far less ambiguous than Japan, that’s for sure, and don’t be worried about giving offense, you’ll be told straight up – though you’re more likely to be the offended party – and because of this, it’s far easy to ‘crack’ than Japan. Meeting people is much easier, and there’s far less ‘defenders’ nonsense from expats (though you do encounter the more sinister dubious predatory male type with far greater frequency). The standard of English speaking (depending upon where you are obviously) is much higher than Japan. The perpetual confusion levels are quite low, actually, but corresponding irritation levels are quite high. All of which is good, but for me, the former points outweighed the latter.
Still, what do I know? I enjoyed living in Korea the most, and every expat in Japan will tell you how much better Japan is. Good luck!
This was beautifully written. I came back to the states last summer and it’s amazing how well you captured what it feels like. The hamburgers, the enormous grocery stores, the people, I can relate to all of it. This is such a great illustration of how it feels to be caught in between cultures. Thank you for writing it.
Having read much of ‘This Japanese Life’ and now this too brief summary there is only one grounding observation. You could live in Utah.
If it’s all too much to get used to, stay home, buy a bumper stick about gun rights and patriotism. ‘This American Life’ has abundance and shallowness topped with a too sweet insularity.
What we really end up examining in our travels is how little we know of ourselves and how much there is to know. Some people are so incurious they are afraid that others aren’t satisfied with the unchanging taunts of new snack foods. Anything they find different is just another reminder of how little they know and how little they care to know and who needs to know that?
On my first trip to Osaka I slept in a tiny unfamiliar hotel, half train compartment, half air lock and I slept the sleep of a deep near death experience. Everything I knew fell away and everything I needed I found and I can’t wait to have that falling away again. Not too oddly, you are one of my heroes. Thanks for your honesty and anxiety, it always reminds me why I don’t want to know everything as much as I’d like to learn more.
You manage to nail the experience so well that it’s like it was straight out of my own brain, only far more eloquently stated. Thanks for another great piece.
I love reading your pieces because they feel like they came out of my own brain, if only I could write as honestly and eloquently. Will be sharing this, as many of your others before with friends, thanks for the great writing.
It seems like you don’t have any issues with changing “homes”. You’re walking smoothly between different cultures. I’m sure not everybody could do it.
I guess it’s also because you never really stay that long in one place. 3 years in Japan isn’t very long. In my experience it gets harder the longer your stay in one place.
I hope you were joking about the grocery panic, because I’ve never seen anybody who actually freaked out. It’s so easy to buy food here in Japan. I can’t imagine anybody would really have a REAL issue.
Plenty of people I knew, myself included, had difficulty in grocery stores when they first arrived. I don’t think it’s “easy” at all for new people, and for myself and many of my colleagues it was the first task we were left to do completely on our own: show up at an apartment, go to get food, realize you are alone in a country where you can’t comprehend anything being said to you. It is a pretty ripe setting for culture shock to set in. Perhaps you don’t remember what it was like to be new in the country?
I remember well enough. I’ve only been 6 years here in Japan after all.
I think it all depends on how well-prepared you are. I’m sure that most people weren’t foreced to come to Japan, but chose to come here. If so, then one should at least prepare and learn as much as possible about the country, the culture and the language prior to coming.
Even then, I admit, it’s not easy, but no reason to panic.
Of course, if one has a food allergy, it’s a different story.
But you won’t have to starve here – even if you can’t read a single word. I’m sure everybody can recognize bananas, cucumber and rice. ;)
Well we will agree to disagree I guess, but it feels like you are belittling my experience, so I’ll leave it at that. I’m guessing from the other comments that I’m not the only person who found picking up and moving to a new country to be a stressful experience.
Sorry, that was not my intention.
Moving to a country like Japan that is so different from your own culture IS difficult. EVERYBODY will struggle in the beginning. Some more than others.
I was just surprised to see that shopping for food seemed to be such a big issue for many people. I would have thought there are tougher challenges.
If that’s your experience, I won’t doubt what you say. I know that everybody experiences life in Japan in a different way.
I realy just wanted to know whether you were joking or if that really was your experience.
Yup. Grocery shopping wasn’t something I realized I would need to be prepared for, and yet…. When my supervisor took me there on day 1, I bought about 8 cans of corn, as it was the only recognizable food.
“I dread going back to a life constrained by infantile communication skills, constant fear of offense, and perpetual confusion.” I couldn’t have said it better. All three of these constraints happened to me daily, as well. But for some reason, I don’t think I would dread going back to them for a year to two. Maybe it’s because along with these “constraints” comes an element of the unknown that captivates my curiosity. Thanks for sharing your writing!
“[…]an incredible place to visit, but quite a shit place to live.”
Amen. This is, with some paraphrasing, what I say whenever someone asks me how Japan was. JNTO should pay me a commission!
We live in the US now and go back for short visits – family obligations and all that. It’s actually…not bad. I’ll be curious to hear your impressions if you ever visit again as a tourist.
I remember food being a shock both coming to, and then leaving, Japan. Initially I thought the portions in Japan were small, not just at restaurants, but in the supermarket as well. Once when I was feeling a bit homesick, I cooked a Filipino stew that my mom makes called “sinigang”. I bought 3 bags of baby spinach for 298 yen per bag, as that was all they had in stock. (Ideally, I would’ve liked to have 4 bags.) Nearly 1,000 yen in spinach, plus the other ingredients I needed to make the dish, and it became a very expensive dinner. Then eventually though I got used to the portions, and even found myself asking to take food home from restaurants as I couldn’t finish my meals. Back in America two years later: I’m at my in-law’s for dinner, and my mother in law has prepared steak for dinner. A gigantic steak sits on my plate, along with salad, soup, and side dishes. I can’t possible even think about eating half of the food on my plate. It took me months to get used to American portions again. Another time, we ate burgers at Red Robin. My husband was so excited to see something called the “Monster Burger” on the menu, with double patties. I looked at him and shook my head, urging him to order something “regular” sized. He couldn’t even finish his burger, and thanked me for stopping him from getting something twice as big.
I am nearing the end of my 2 years in Japan, and know that my own inner monologue upon returning to the US will feel just like this. I thought the same things when I moved back to the US from France, and that moment when the plane takes off and you know that the life you had in that place will never exist again (because even if you return as a tourist everything is different) the weight of the experience really hits you hard. It takes a long time to settle back into something and come to terms with who you were in another country, and its even harder to do once you’ve added more than 2 to your list. I fully understand the reasoning behind “it’s difficult” but I still have hope that eventually I will be satisfied with the challenges I have overcome and will be happy staying in one place long enough to know what comfortable feels like.
I couldn’t go back to NZ after Japan, and found myself in Sydney where I’m confused all the time. Being here was meant to be easy – I speak the language, have family nearby, blend in with the people around me… Somehow though it’s harder. You’re right, doing things because they’re difficult may be a ridiculous reason, but doing things because they’re easy somehow makes it more difficult when they aren’t easy. I can’t go back to Japan, but I don’t fit in here anymore. This gets better, right?
Jeez, I was going to say: DONT GO TO CHINA. JUST DONT DO IT. I lived there for 2 years, and I would not recommend it to anyone, especially not since you recently left Japan (where I now reside), you would feel cheated.
Although I never live in China I would recommend China for you because many expats really love China (some hate it), and even after go back to their home they still want to be in China. Several Blogs about China that I like (Most of the blogger are woman anyway)
and many more !
If you really move to China, congrats of being 老外 (Laowai) !
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