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 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.