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.