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.