Wednesday, October 5, 2011

A Serious Interlude: On Leaving Japan. (真剣な合間: 日本から帰国について。)

Every now and again, perhaps after seeing a facebook post from a friend living overseas or when remembering a particularly good cup of milk tea, I find that my chest tightens a little over the loss of a life in Japan.

And then I begin to wonder--did I make the right choice, giving up my visa and returning to the land of my birth, especially when I, like so many of my friends, have a difficult time remembering anything but the positive from my ultimately temporary Japanese lifestyle?

Worse still, I return to wondering: am I a coward for boarding that plane at KIX (albeit with a distinct feeling of melancholy, and perhaps even a few tears blurring my vision--this time not for a boyfriend, but for a beloved country, culture, and best friend that I was leaving behind for an indeterminate period of time) instead of sticking it out, as have so many of my friends  with (apparently) nothing but happy results?

Though it is sometimes difficult to come to terms with, especially when I am feeling nostalgic and Japan-sick, the answers to these questions, for me at least, are yes and no, respectively. Mentally, I have come to grips with the fact that Japan, at least long term Japan, is not for me.

I'm actually quite a sensitive person (in the easily offended way, not the touchy-feely way; I mean, come on, blech), despite my common declarations  to the contrary and insistence otherwise, and I take social isolation quite hard when it's forced upon me. Self-induced isolation is another story entirely, as it often is with those of us who fall into the "introverted loner" box so commonly prescribed for us. Being apart from people at your own choosing is one thing--you are in control, and can decide when and where you will end your isolation and refill your social interaction quota. Humans are, after all, social animals, no matter what those novels about lone wolf types say. Sure, those on the fringe with no need for outside human contact exist--hermits are a reality, after all--but they're certainly not in the majority. It would make for very crowded forests, after all.

What I mean to say in my long, drawn-out and rambling way is that, unlike many friends and acquaintances who have better capacities  than I for not taking things too personally, I find it difficult, after long periods of time, to not get angry or upset when greeted by the common reactions to a foreigner and general xenophobic attitude which Japan still finds it necessary to cling. People staring as though I'm some sort of giant, hairy beast (which, I suppose, from certain points of view, I am) at every turn gets old; refusal to trust in my linguistic and cultural knowledge because I am so clearly foreign grates on my psyche. Failure to be recognized as a fellow human being capable of, say, a nice dinner or night on the town due to my failure to conform to local beauty standards (again, the giant hairy beast thing comes into play) eats away at my self-confidence until, eventually, I believe that everyone else has the right of it and I am some sort of repulsive sub-human creature that is best avoided.

Now, like I said, a lot of people learn (or know intuitively, I suppose) how not to take things so personally. A lot of people can laugh things off, and I respect them for it as it belies a deep and profound sense of inner security that I, unfortunately, still lack outside of my intellectual pursuits (and even there, sometimes, I falter.) A lot of people, therefore,  live in Japan long-term, even indefinitely--they don't get my severe pangs of homesickness and self-loathing brought on by life as a foreigner in Japan. Even if they do, they are short-lived and manageable.

I am not aiming to garner sympathy here, though I understand that it may seem that way. To the contrary, I am hoping to demonstrate my own empathy, to anyone in a position similar to mine. As wide as the internet is, I cannot help but feel that there are a number of you out there who, like me, find themselves rapidly leaving the "honeymoon phase" with Japan, despite having sworn to live there forever. I also know that, like me, some of you probably are having doubts, and wondering what it means about you, personally, that you are suddenly having such an intellectual and emotional reversal about something so major in your life.

What it means is that you've grown. This does not mean that growth necessarily leads homeward--for many it is exactly the opposite, and even in our case, returning to one's native soil is not equivalent to running home, despite what some people may tell you. It means that you have, in the general human way, absorbed a number of experiences and, surprise surprise, changed your mind based on those experiences and what they mean to you personally. Some people grow towards Japan, some people grow away. Some people grow towards Azerbaijan, I'm sure, and all of that is perfectly acceptable. None of these paths are inherently better than any other--you are not failing for returning to your home country, nor indeed are your friends or colleagues necessarily succeeding by staying in Japan. Both you and they are doing what feels right at that particular time, and what's "right" differs from time to time, person to person, situation to situation. Think about it: would you want what you thought was "right" at, say, sixteen? I certainly wouldn't--I was pretty stupid back then. But then again, I was pretty stupid at eighteen, nineteen, twenty... Honestly? Sometimes, I think one of the best things to do is to aim everyday to be a little less stupid than you were the day before. But that's a post for another day, when you're not already sick of my cheap philosophizing on some other subject.

If you feel that leaving Japan is right for you, don't worry about what others think (though I suppose that rather invalidates this entire post.) Don't worry about not meeting expectations, or not measuring up--anyone who cares about you will support you no matter where you live, and they'll want to see you happy above all else. Ignore anyone who gives you a hard time, or questions your reasons for leaving (outside of a constructive discussion which you may have instigated to help sort out your thoughts, of course). Unfortunately, the world is full of insecure people who feel the need to belittle those around them, using any and all ammunition they find. The people who scoff at or mock your decision, or indeed you for making it, are not worth your time.

My hope is that this post helps at least one person--that at least one person can avoid the internal turmoil that I suffered (and occasionally still do) regarding my decision to leave Japan, knowing that someone, somewhere, supports and backs their own decision wholeheartedly. I suppose it may seem like we must be few and far between, but I can't help but feel there must be one person out there going through what I did.

I feel like those of us foreigners who live in Japan for any significant length of time share some sort of understanding--tenuous as it may be in some cases--and have, to an extent, developed our own very specialized subculture. With that subculture, of course, comes pressures. Outside expectations weigh down upon us from all sides, and a lot of us constantly troll the internet for personal advice regarding our difficult situations, and then support for decisions that may go against the cultural norm. The subculture itself is divided, encompassing those who understand, those who are ambivalent, and those who absolutely oppose our decisions, no matter what they may be. In some ways it is a cutthroat subculture, like so many are, and often not the kindest to be a part of.

So, know that someone supports you, no matter what you decide in regards to your Japan-life. Whether your decide to stay or leave, pursue a job as an English teacher, translator or hostess, know that someone thinks that you need to do what makes you happy.

As a final note, I want to point out that I still love Japan. I don't regret any of my time there, as a student or otherwise--not a day of it. While I may have gone through some, for me, rough times, and tangled with bouts of depression, I've also had some of the greatest times of my life in Japan, and I will always remember them. I also know that, had I not returned to Japan after graduation, and instead remained in the US from the get-go, I would have always been discontent, wondering whether or not I had made the right choice. Furthermore, Japan and I are not finished--not by a long shot. I am planning on pursuing my PhD in Japanese literature, and spending a number of years research and perhaps teaching in Japan on my path to becoming a professor.

What I mean to say is, just because you're leaving Japan now, it doesn't mean that you can never go back. It doesn't mean that your career won't in fact stick you right back on that plane in a number of years, and possibly even on a funded ticket to boot. If you love Japan, don't worry too much about leaving now. They won't be able to keep you away, and you'll feel much better about it in general once some of the anger/hurt/depression/whatever has melted away.

So, here's to you, kid--whether you're staying or going, as long as it makes you happy? You're making the right choice. As a number of very intelligent people have said to me: nothing is permanent, and you can change your mind later. Be happy, and don't worry so much.

This is Edo, signing off, still a little wistful but ultimately happier and better off for it.


Anonymous said...

Well written. A lot of what you said here resonates with me and the experiences I gained interacting with Japanese people during my first year on JET.

Although my adventure here has just begun, I couldn't help but notice how Japanese society is so group-centric and governed by a myriad of unspoken rules. Being the American I am, it was difficult at first to express any disagreements directly to a Japanese person without being seen as 自分勝手 and as someone who takes matters into his/her own hands. Also, as you alluded upon, Japanese people like to develop preconceived notions of others and develop biases and talk behind someone's back. 噂話as they call it and it reflects on their culture where most communicative intents are implicit and direct contact is often considered out of line and confrontational.

There is an even greater degree of the concept of 本音と建前 in Japanese culture than other societies and it can lead to someone not familiar with this to feel betrayed. Now, returning back to the topic of Japan and group conscience, the subject of gossip becomes compounded by the fact that a lot of Japanese people do not like to stick out. Thus, even when something untrue is being spread around (that foreigner is a yankee! for example) like wildfire and an individual recognizes that untruth/or an act of wrongdoing (if the group intentionally taunts , or even worse shuns, a foreigner), he or she is even less willing to speak out or act out against that said act. Recently, a teacher at my workplace stood up and invited the foreigner at the last minute to a 飲み会 even though everyone else refused to mention anything about it to said foreigner. I was deeply moved by this teacher's "courage", if you will, since not only did he recognize a wrong, but he acted upon it in face of everyone around him. He broke a Japanese societal norm and in my opinion, for the better.

This could definitely provide fuel for another discussion but the group conscience of Japanese people runs pretty deep. In some cases, I can see some individuals can be "peer pressured" into committing terrible acts (murders, etc.)

Sorry for this dark comment on your relatively positive post. As an Asian American who has in many ways become accepted into Japanese society, I don't face the ostracism or attention that many western foreigners face, but as an American who was raised in a culture of diversity (and for me) acceptance, it pains me to see some Japanese people still like this. Sorry, I have to go now but hope this comment was somewhat cohesive and not too tangential!

Louise said...

Thank you so much for posting this entry. I've been in Japan since August and I'm slowly realising it isnt for me. I'm tired of feeling like a novelty all the time and I can feel myself getting more and more miserable, so I've decided to hand in my notice for the sake of my mental health.

Edo said...

Louise--I'm glad I could help. :) Nothing is worth your mental well-being.