24 August 2023

An Unreachable Dream

On Monday, the magical world of Japan disappeared beyond the horizon of an airplane map, and in a twenty-two-hour moment, we were back in the house on Victoria Road. The week before, sitting on the ground in Shin-Osaka station as we waited for the train with thousands of people around us, I remember thinking that the experience would soon be over, but the memory of the experience would last in a way that everyone on that platform would use as a kind of anchor for some story about something. The thing would pass, but the story about it would live for years and years, like the older Japanese woman behind us in the queue said, she had never seen something like this in her lifetime. The narrativising of the event had already happened as it occurred and immediately took over, about who was being polite and who wasn't, about how the foreign tourists did the pushing, not the Japanese. I knew that coming back to Birmingham, I would remember that feeling of sitting there, of feeling helpless and worried and wanting for it to end, but I wouldn't be able to feel that same way. There's no way to feel it without being there. 

In England, whatever it is I feel, it's not the feeling of a foreigner. I buy a vegan protein bar and walk through town eating it and I don't wonder if someone will see me and think, Look at that foreigner eating on the street. In Japan, someone will think that. That thought might be a thought without judgment, but it's a thought people will have, and you know they will have it because they will tell you they have it, or they will tell you other people will have it. You are, as you are in any collectivist community, governed by the thoughts of others, or rather what you're told the thoughts of others might be. I'm a foreigner in England of course, I know that, but I am not governed by the thoughts of others in the same way. I am sometimes aware of my foreignness, when I'm speaking and my American accent feels like it could become relevant, but when I buy a bottle of water, a large one, too large really to drink out of, and I walk down the road drinking out of it, and I worry that I look ridiculous, that worry is because the act itself might be ridiculous, not because everything I do is, by its very nature, ridiculous. 

My office, my second office, at the newly renamed Birmingham Newman University, is almost bare now. I'm packing each shelf into a blue tub to move home and then into a suitcase which I will, sometime early next month, wheel into a new office across town into Aston University. Now that I am leaving, the move feels like it has always been inevitable, that if in 2020 you were putting money on where I would be in five years, Aston would be an obvious answer, but academia is never obvious and the inevitable rarely happens now. When I first applied and interviewed for jobs as I was completing my PhD, it became immediately clear that this was the case. There were always so many factors. I walked out of one of my first interviews at Sheffield Hallam in 2012 thinking I had aced it, that I would have a call in hours offering me the job, only for the call to come later in the evening that they'd chosen someone else. That has happened again and again over the years, with different stories following each job, someone better placed took the job, or my visa caused a problem, or sometimes, nothing, no news, and only my own internal narrative to fill it in, about my own inadequacies or a thing I said that I should not have said.

When I did finally get my first real job, the one in Malaysia, it felt like a consolation prize, a job that people may have wanted to do, but not enough people were really willing to move halfway around the world for it. Moving was quite an ask for me as well, but I imagined a few years by the pool for me and Yoko and the kids, where we would have money and be taken care of, something that we hadn't had while I was doing my PhD and the pressure of a low salary and a growing family and my PhD-driven anxiety would stop for a while, some impossible dream that I realised quickly would not come true. Then, when we moved back to Birmingham, for me to take this position at Newman, the small Catholic university I knew nothing about, when we passed through immigration on New Year's Eve, I had been given an actual second chance, because even if we wouldn't be taken care of, at least I would know what to do. We moved into the house on Victoria Road in a day and the girls started school at Woodhouse Primary, a mile away, and we slowly reacquired all the things we had sold to move to the other side of the world just a year before. I made a mistake, I wanted to say, it wasn't really a mistake, I promise it will make sense at some point.

Things did, more-or-less, work out then, although I'm not sure I've ever felt that way. I didn't mean for as much unhappiness to creep in. On this trip to Japan, I wondered what alternate universes there were in Tokyo and Nishinomiya, and indeed in other countries, in Malaysia: the alternate universe where in November of 2013 I had given up on the idea of returning to the UK and our family took a trip to the Cameron Highlands outside of Kuala Lumpur. For the first time in a year, it was cool and dry, and I put on a jumper because you couldn't go outside without feeling a chill in the morning. In my retelling of this experience, I understand it as a time when our Malaysian adventure was coming to a close, walking through tea fields with the girls and talking to goats on the mountainside. I didn't, however, think any of those things when they were happening. When they were happening, I felt resigned to a reality that never actually materialised. Then later that month, I had a job interview at Newman over Skype, and suddenly, I was standing at a service station, thirty minutes until the new year, smoking a cigar, and thinking that 2013 had just been a dream. The story only changed because everything else also changed. 

In the rereading of your life, the inevitability of certain paths is something that comes only when you look back and can see the path against the landscape. You can never know what the story is as it's happening. The what-if potential worlds, the ability to simulate the possibility of taking a road that you didn't take, must just be something we do as animals to train ourselves for decision-making. To train ourselves to think about different factors that we didn't think about at the time. But of course, the factors that become relevant to you as you think about your life and how you want to live in the future are always changing. The reason you made one decision at one point was the result of the factors of that context. Who's to say any different experience would have led to a better outcome. What even is a better outcome. I fill one blue tub with books that I've written in the last ten years. I pack away a coin that was given to me by the city of Birmingham when I took my pledge of allegiance to the Queen at my citizenship ceremony, the pledge people ask me if I really meant or not. I pack up a race number for a marathon, name tags from dozens of conferences I've saved. I take down a card I posted near the desk from 2019 that Yoko gave me and where she had written, I love you. Everything goes in a box for now, to be unpacked sometime in September, in a new place, in a new story, with new and different factors that I can't yet consider.

22 August 2023

Reconcilable Differences


It's been hot in Japan, in the same way it's been hot everywhere. It's hard to not think the truth about this situation, that it will continue to be hot everywhere for the rest of our lives. This sounds pessimistic when I say it out loud, but I am training myself to accept the world as it is and to try, when I can, to stop leaning on magical thinking. It is hot and it will be hot — you go out and you are sweating until you can make your way back into some air-conditioned shop along the way. I've been stubborn about the heat with my magical thinking still clinging on, still trying to fight to walk everywhere, but this is stupid with the children in tow because eventually it gets to be too hot and everyone gets tired and annoyed, or more seriously starting to get ill, like what happened as we got closer to Kiyomizu-dera on the hill having walked for almost forty minutes. We had tea and recovered and when we made it inside, I stood in the hot darkness, with candles flickering, praying to gods there, and later getting my fortune: the second best one, which said that the bad times were ending and soon, the good times would begin.  

A couple of typhoons have come through on this trip, the first coming through while we were up at Yoko's dad's house and then the second while we were in Osaka. The one in Osaka led to a series of unfortunate events wherein we waited for a Shinkansen in Shin-Osaka Station, sitting on the floor for five hours while hope that the trains would eventually run kept everyone motivated until, it seemed, someone finally called it and we quit and got a hotel. I didn't want to give up for most of the day, but at some point it couldn't be helped and the collective trauma of being told you will leave and then not leaving, of not being able to properly eat, and of sitting on a suitcase for three hours, became something to remember as a shared hardship, rather than something that was a minor annoyance in a story of getting to Tokyo today. I stood in a line at Osaka Station to get a refund after checking the girls into the hotel and the next day we headed to the station just after 4:30 in the morning to get in the queue for the first train at six. As we walked from the hotel up to the station a downpour of rain came and as we struggled with our umbrellas, a woman came out of the 24-hour bento shop we were standing in the eaves of, and gave us umbrellas to keep. And then as we stood outside a door, waiting diligently for it to open at 5:30 like we were told it would, a man came up and told us that the other side of the station was open, like Yoko had said and I had said couldn't be right because we had been told by a man from the rail company yesterday that this wasn't the case.

We waited in the queue on the platform for an hour and again the trains were delayed and more and more people kept coming until it appeared that the queues for the particular carriages were obscured by so many people waiting. At 8:30, when the train finally came, there was a crush of people, and the queues disintegrated as people cut to the front and rushed onto the train. We got caught waiting and as I stood in disbelief that this was happening in Japan, where these things are not supposed to happen, an announcement came that the whole train would be opened to passengers with unreserved tickets, and Yoko said we should go to the reserved car of the next train. We ran down the platform to the other side where the 6:02 train was waiting and after a very short wait got into the cabin we weren't supposed to get into and waited for the train to leave. We waited and indeed it finally left and we cautiously sat in reserved seats, thinking we would move if people came. You do this in the UK, but you don't do this in Japan. No one came and after we moved seats a few times as people got on at Kyoto and then Nagoya, magically, we were in Tokyo.

When I first came to Japan and learned Japanese, the freedom I felt was something of a freedom from myself. In Japanese, I was reinventing myself, not because it was something that I necessarily wanted, but because it was something the language was doing to me. I was changing because the language was changing me and as I fought through the polite forms of whatever I was learning, I was experiencing a transformation of the way I saw myself, something I desperately wanted when I was in my early twenties and struggling with all the failure of my evangelical past, my failure to keep my first love, my failure to be a missionary, my failure to believe the hard things you needed to believe. Suddenly I too was Japanese, because I too could say whatever a Japanese person was saying. I could bow my way through whatever I needed to bow myself through and I could feel, or I could think I could feel like I fit in. This lie that you tell yourself as a foreigner in Japan is a lie that you mostly don't know that you're telling yourself, and it's a lie that you would never admit to actually believing. You know, of course, that you don't belong here, and that you could never belong here. That's the point, the whole thing is that people like you, the more people like you that are here, the less this place is the place you want it to be. You see another foreigner and it reminds you suddenly that you too are a foreigner and that when you are walking down the street, everyone else thinks the same thing that you think when you see another foreigner: you notice they are a foreigner, you cannot not notice it because they are so obviously different and you think to yourself that you want to ask that dreaded question that you hate being asked, about where you're from.

The Japanese version of me, that man I was becoming in 2005 and 2006 when I met Yoko and fell in love reappears when I'm on the Yamanote line, headed up to a station I know well from some past trip to Tokyo. Or as I nod my way through a conversation, I become that person, the person who people talk about like he is not there: Stephen can eat sushi, or Stephen can speak some Japanese, or Stephen is American, as you, Stephen, are gestured at and you nod along, agreeing with the facts that are being stated about you. When you get a chance to talk, you say something, but all people hear is, I am a bear. I sit at the table politely like a polite bear, and everyone says, Oh, sugoi, he can speak. This is patronising, of course, but being praised for doing something is nice, even if it's something you should objectively be able to do. Impressing people feels good, to be the topic of conversation, to have people interested in what you have to say, even if it's just because of how you look and talk. 

When I left Japan for the UK, whatever it was, that thing that I had learned when I was here, the thing that made my life work, could not be replicated in England. That world, that version of me, the bowing, polite, Japanese me, disappeared, and although I thought by going to the UK, I was just recovering my English-speaking self. But something else happened, some third me emerged in this new place, where I became something different, a British me. Now, back in Japan, I know the whole thing must have been a mistake, that leaving cost me everything. I ride a bike through the morning heat in Tokyo and think that this could have been my life. I could have just been this person, the one who had accepted Japan as his home, as the place he had come to call home, and let the people around me stare and ask questions and pretend that I was just like one of them, that I was close enough. I also know that this feeling of regret will disappear, thankfully. I will return to the cold, wet reality of Great Britain and the desire to be in Japan will evaporate the way it evaporated when I first went to the UK and someone listened to me not because of how I looked, but because they thought I had something interesting to say. This success, if it is success and for whatever it cost in feeling some Japanese belonging, is real, at least, and it is mine, however small and inconsequential, it is mine.

04 August 2023

The Bear

Japan, even after fifteen years, feels the same as when I left it — I see it the same way I saw it when I was twenty-one. The Japan of my early twenties has also not changed its view of me, the big foreign bear lumbering gracelessly through a station, judging whether he can fit between two people on their phones. I find myself standing on the platform at Shinagawa and realise that I was standing here before at some point, when I was leaving the mission in 2004 and going to teach English in Niigata, when I was Jonah, running from the Lord, and consumed with thoughts that my judgement was coming, that it was inevitable, unable to communicate with anyone what was happening, not in English, not in Japanese. In the year that followed, my Japanese ability went from being something that people praised to something that people started to criticise, the way that it's incredible if you can get a bear to sit politely at a table, but you become concerned if starts to open doors. You don't want it to get the idea that it belongs indoors.

On the flight over, there was a Lebanese man sat next to Yoko, between her and the window, while I sat on the aisle. After a few starts and stops, we settled into speaking with each other in Japanese, Yoko between us and the conversation shifting as he talked to each of us at different times. He was coming back from Lebanon to his wife and kids, and his Japanese wife who was very strict, something he wanted me to endorse about all Japanese women as he leaned over Yoko and I was awkwardly put on the spot. He told us about his future plans to return to Lebanon and commented to Yoko about me, after we had been talking for a few hours, Wow, his Japanese is really polite. He speaks so politely, it's very cute, does he speak to you like this at home? Really?! That's amazing, Japanese people must really like speaking with a foreigner whose Japanese is as cute as his.

The pleasure I feel in Japan is the same as the pleasure you feel when you've cleverly solved a puzzle, but a vague cultural understanding of a large Asian country doesn't ever feel quite like something you should be proud of. First because, the sort of people that this groups me with, the people who would say they have solved the puzzle of Japan, are the sort of people that you might try to avoid at a party, your friend's brother-in-law from Florida who lives in Yokohama and wears a fedora in June and who your friend says speaks Japanese fluently and who tells you about some weird Japanese cultural oddity that sounds vaguely unbelievable, but probably is true. But more importantly, you should never trust a foreigner who tells you that they understand Japan because any actual Japanese person will tell you that it is impossible for any foreigner to understand Japan. No one has solved anything.

I feel this gaijin confident fear when I am back in Tokyo, like I am Jonah again, and like if I were to come back, to give into the pull of nostalgia, that I would immediately regret it. The world is full of these wormholes to the past. What is this feeling I want to feel again, is it just the desire to be young again? What is the thing we really want when we want when we want to go back to a place we have been. The doors of the train door open and close again with the sound of a carrousel. Everything in Japan feels magical in a way that things you don't understand feel magical. You think you've figured out some element of the trick, but the truth is you haven't. The music can never not be magical.