It’s been almost 7 months since I returned from my year in Japan. If you’re reading this, chances are you are close to me and have heard me go on about the experience ad nauseum. All throughout this blog you can see remnants of my time there. Adjusting to life in Japan was difficult, but exciting. Readjusting has been more lopsided on the difficult end of the spectrum, but now that I’ve stabilized I want to offer my perspective to anyone else making a big move.
I spent one year in Japan, that’s not long. A lot of people become situated and stay for up to 5 years, or longer if they marry a Nihonjin, etc. One year is just long enough to establish yourself: make friends, learn some of the language, and figure out the nuances of your job/placement. It’s a decent amount of time, but it also makes for some awkward transitions. Here are some troubles with that transition.
Returning is Surreal, with a capital S
Landing back in the states I expected fanfare. I thought all of my friends would be ecstatic that they could finally, once again, be graced by my presence. Instead, things were just regular. Everything was the same pretty much, just one year older. It felt like I never left.
That was the weirdest part, and I’m still not really comfortable with how surreal it feels to be back in America. Our social network, experiences, job, routine, dreams, memories, and mental framework are all tightly tied together. I was surprised by how this system of orientation is deeply rooted in our physical location. After I established all these very meaningful relationships in Japan, tied in with wonderful and painful memories, and new cultural/social frameworks for understanding the world, I had to cut them all off. It was a sharp cut, and I wasn’t ready.
Back in the states I am left with all of the memories of Japan, but they aren’t linked to anything physical. This is kind of hard for me to explain, but it feels a lot like I’m in the twilight zone; questioning whether some things ever really happened or if they were just part of my dreams.
Japan for me now, is a totally excluded and sectioned off experience in my life. It holds no presence in any of my current personal relationships, daily routine, or physical world.
The girls don’t care
You know that Eef Barzelay song? I had heard before returning that no one would be interested in my “Japan stories”, but I still wasn’t prepared for just how little people gave a shit. Most of my reunions with friends contained conversations like this:
“Hey Mike, how was Japan?!”
“It was wonderful, but also kind of difficult because you know they have this really interesting set of values of there…”
“That’s great! What do you want to eat?”
“Uhh… Let’s go to McDonalds.”
People don’t care. It’s hard to stay interested in stories to which you can’t relate.
So, I’ve searched for places to satisfy my craving to talk about Japan. I’ve gone to Japan meetups, and lessons, and Japanese gardens. I nearly assault anyone on the street I hear speaking Japanese. That usually ends up pretty awkward, because I get so excited to speak Japanese that I look borderline pathetic. Otaku, definitely. I usually say something along these lines:
“I WAS LIVING IN OKAYAMA LAST YEAR”
The only reason I don’t feel bad about how rude I am when I do this, is the fact that while in Japan I was consistently assaulted by people saying:
“HELLO, I SPEAK ENGLISH” or “OH MY GOD”
Ahhh, social skills.
I remember before I left the states how much effort it took to maintain even the closest friendships. I’m an introverted person too, and a misanthrope, so friendship has never been my forte. When you physically separate yourself from your friends for a year, they forget about you. No big deal, it just takes some rebuilding, but it is surprising.
People have their own lives, and they are built to adapt, so they will move on. That’s a quick note for any of you who are looking to reignite relationships you foolhardily thought would hold a strong spark while you were gone. It’s not that the sparks are weak, but there is a strong wind.
That’s all I can think of for now. In reality I could talk about this forever. Beyond complaining, these changes are interesting to me because they reveal important aspects of routinized living that I for one took for granted.
I will always be extremely grateful for my time in Japan, both for the people that made it happen, and the amazing things I got to see and do. Even though it is sectioned off, I can’t forget the wonderful time I had.
If you are thinking about doing something similar, do it.
This is nothing compared to returning from another country, but my office just returned back to the original building we used to work in, which is on-campus. For the last 10 months we were sharing an office with the development staff semi-off-campus and now that we’re back I feel oddly familiar and strangely displaced like I don’t belong. I imagine you feel this way times ten (or one hundred). It’s an odd feeling to feel both at home and like a stranger…almost like your body and soul are in two different places at once.