It’s been exactly two weeks since I left Switzerland and returned to Japan. It’s hard to believe that I was actually out of the country. Like a dream I stepped onto the plane back at the end of July and headed west. Then a month followed as if passing through a curtain, glimpsing a wider world that I had almost forgotten went on every day outside the borders of my awareness. Europe manifested itself as a walk-in memory; so much like my childhood in Germany, and interactions with people so much closer to how I naturally expressing myself. Travelers actually made an effort to lean across tables to talk, women flirted with me (unlike in Japan where no one ever makes eye contact with you… you’d think no one was ever interested in others), the food was fresh and healthy even in the smallest, out-of-the-way towns, life moved at a manageable pace, everywhere travelers and townsfolk alike taking the time to sit and talk. And while the pretty towns and green slopes and millions of sheep and cows got monotonous after a while, there was something about the way the populace valued what they had and insisted on remembering what is important about a community that stayed with me throughout the trip.
I promised myself on the last night in ZÃ¼rich that I would remember the revitalized spirit I had started feeling throughout the trip and would do my best to keep the momentum rolling, but the moment I landed in Narita Airport and felt myself get drawn right back into all the predictable weight of the culture… all the girls on the trains preening themselves in front of mirrors and putting on makeup, the boy staring at me whose mother just laughed when she noticed and encouraged his feelings by telling him that I was “strange foreigner” and “he’s funny-looking isn’t he?”, the endless “salary” men in their ubiquitous suits no matter how hot it was, the glaring pachinko parlors and cheap roadside car dealers with their flourescent flags and flashing neon lights, the mass-produced, developer houses at arms-breadth from one another that tried so hard to be western and all like mind-numbingly the same… a huge anger blossomed inside me and a deep resentment at having to return, plopped right back into everything that I want so much to extricate myself from.
Hardest was returning home to this apartment. I unlocked the front door, stepped inside into its tiny confines and the muffled stillness of its humid air, turned on a flourescent light that made all my sad belongings jump out starkly, reminding me in their silence of the months and years of stagnation and just how much unneeded junk I was weighing myself down with. The door thumped closed behind me and there I was, alone again, with no one to talk to, no family, no friends, no one to even have the possibility of meeting if I decided to take a walk around town. It wasn’t that I didn’t have people who cared about me, but that there was no possibility of getting together with any of them. The contrast to a month of meeting people every day in Europe hit me hard. No one even called to say hello.
Except for four days when I had to spend time teaching junior high school students in the south of the prefecture the next two weeks found me holed up in my apartment, growing ever more down and losing motivation even to get up and go to the store to buy food. Just the sight of yet more processed Japanese food left me with no appetite. Turning on the TV depressed me with its childishness and constant, unhealthy focus on young girls and the same, self-satisfied celebrities. Walking on the streets and constantly standing out, never, ever being able to get away from the label of being a foreigner, had me cursing under my breath at strangers. Being in Europe allowed me for a while to blend in and remember what it is like to feel part of a group. And then opening my eyes to the apartment reminded me of what I had still to do and hadn’t done. Sleeping swept it all away and I could forget for a while, so I slept in until noon and ate cereal and scanned the internet for word of release. The lack of exercise, after a month of constant, hard walking, slowly began to raise my blood sugar again and reawaken the problems with diabetes, the sluggishness of my blood physically bringing me even more down.
I knew I couldn’t continue like this. I had to buck up and overcome the sense of dislocation. But to what? I realized in Europe, strongly, that Japan is not my culture, that no matter how long I live here, how well I know it, how fluently I speak the language, how much I try to soften my criticisms, the Japanese will never count me as one of them, as they don’t count themselves as part of the rest of the world. I can struggle till I die from hypertension and am incapacitated from depression and yet Japan will never let me be one of its children. I fit right in in Europe. I’ve struggled to fit in here in Japan since I was a boy, even wanted to become a Japanese before I left to study in the States, and therefore the idea of leaving it behind hurts, deeply. It’s like giving up on my identity. The humility and frustration of never being accepted by the culture in which I grew up, which has gone so far as to shape the way I think and act, makes the ground feel unstable. Where is it that I can go to feel that I am finally “home”?
I’m sure other people also feel this way and that most people spend their lives wondering what their place is. But when someone can’t even claim a certain culture as their own, as the template for their sense of belonging and for how they act and see the world, what do they turn to? When people ask me, constantly ask me, “Where are you from?”, what should I answer? Is it important? It feels important. Or at least the sense of safety and kinship feel as if they could relieve this fight-or-flight tension that reisdes in me. I watch other people so comfortable in their clothes as “Japanese” or “American” or “Chinese”, never really questioning it, and listen to their self-assured proclamations, “I am Japanese! We are different from you!” and wonder what they are referring to. Does it have something to do with the bonds of a moeity? Does the identification protect you from the bad spirits of the world? Does it make you bigger than you are as an individual?
The trip to Europe planted seeds for a lot to think about. And to consider what my next step is. The connection between places became apparent the other day when I was walking back from the supermarket. I glanced down at my feet and realized that I was about to step on a colony of ants at the side of the road. In a flash I saw myself at the side of a road in France, avoiding another colony of ants there. I am neither here nor there, and yet in both places at the same time.
I think my next step must take courage, a willingness to pull up roots once again and seek better ground. And perhaps that is the fuel of my own flame. I don’t really know yet. But I know this, though. I want the next step to be light and simple, without unnecessary burdens. Travel light. And that I am willing to take the chance to live more on my own terms.
I have about 850 photographs to go through so the Europe photos will be a little while before I can get them cleaned up and uploaded. I’m designing a gallery to go alng with them, so hopefully they will be worth the effort.