Hirakata, Osaka | Winter, 2005 | 20 years old
There is a saying: “You can’t go home again.” Of course, on the very basic, very literal level, it is clearly untrue: I write this from my bedroom at my permanent address in the United States, for example. However, there is more to the concept of “home” than mere physical location. Rather, a certain degree of mental and emotional comfort is expected, and therein can lie the problem.
The America I returned to is different from the one I left, but that will always be the case whenever returning to somewhere you’d left. Sprint’s logo is different. Stephen Colbert has his own television show. An American puzzle with a Japanese name (Sudoku) is sweeping the nation, and providing a nice counterbalance to all the English names all over Japan. Certainly, most things have stayed the same, and I’m simply noticing the differences, but that’s what always stands out anyway.
Rather, the biggest surprise has been how quickly I managed to get back into the same old routine with minimal retention of what had happened to my thought processes: a dollar is suddenly a significant value, now that it is paper, and $7.00 for a foot-long sandwich is horrifically unreasonable while at the same time, 700 yen for a bowl of ramen is merely a tad pricey. To be fair, they aren’t wholly equivalent prices ($7.00 was, at last check, actually about 840 yen), but the lack of a decimal point and the ability to pay exact change with only coins does something to the brain to short-circuit the thought process that dictates value.
Similarly, the old routine of driving everywhere returned faster than I ever could have expected it to. I rather miss the ability to walk anywhere I’d need to go, and I will admit that seeing cars on the right and vertically-oriented stoplights in The Blues Brothers seemed rather odd while I was still in Japan, but returned to being second nature the moment I sat down behind the wheel. The metric system was the same way, too: I put a little bit of conscious thought into intentionally getting used to it for measurements while I lived there, and for a little while had difficulty thinking in terms of pounds, miles, and degrees Fahrenheit.
None of this is inherently bad in any way, merely curious, and, to some extent, to be expected.
What I didn’t expect, however, was to find myself thinking in Japanese from time to time, completely unintentionally, and able to understand written Japanese if I bothered to try. Indeed, for a few days I found myself mentally steeling myself for conversation in a foreign language when it came to talking to anyone at a store, not realizing for a moment that the “normal” people here speak English too, and not just my friends and me.
Now, I will certainly admit that there are benefits to living in each country, and that I missed such silly things as Reese’s cups and the Daily Show while living abroad, but at the same time, I also missed things like being allowed to have a social life not centered around getting drunk (though, being a college student, that does still make me somewhat uncommon). Likewise, there are silly little things I miss about Japan, like the ramen shop downtown, but at the same time I wish I could still walk everywhere I need to get to and have access to a reasonably cheap and very clean train system for the other locations. That, and there is a certain charm to living in a country, at least temporarily, where one can get away with making jokes like “Why is there so little crime? Because it’s against the law.”
All that said, though, I will say that all of the girls at the Japanese university I attended who had spent any extended length of time outside of their home country (and many of the guys as well) had every intention of moving out, because, while there have been such improvements in Japanese corporate culture as the “No Overtime Day” at certain smaller companies, all of the stereotypes of Japanese men spending about twenty-five hours per day at work, and then going out drinking with coworkers in order to be allowed to express opinions, returning home only to sleep before going back to work appear to be true, at least according to the Japanese students, and of course the girls expect to see little beyond a few quick cursory promotions before being forced to marry, resign, and have children.
In other words, the time I spent there confirmed what I had expected would be the case: the best time to live in Japan is as a college student, regardless of whether you’re Japanese or not. Despite all my cynicism about the country, I still highly recommend it for anyone who has any interest in it, even if it would involve some crushing disappointments when it comes time to find out what Japan really is like. Certainly, it helps to know enough of the language to be able to hold conversations and read signs, but at the very least it’s difficult to spend four months as a tourist and not learn at least something.
Was Japan all that I had expected? On some levels, happily, yes. On other levels, unfortunately, yes. And, on others, of course not. Any guidebook written about Japanese culture is inaccurate within no more than about two years, and I don’t doubt that my own will be similar. Younger Japanese no longer have any hangups about eating while walking, and many Japanese women are deciding that they would like to be able to develop their own identities the way that Western women are allowed to. They often have to move to other countries to do so, but it’s still a start.
All in all, it’s been interesting reflecting upon the culture shock I’ve experienced having returned from Japan: perhaps it’s merely indicative of the difference in how the countries perceive foreigners, but the real difficulty seems to have come in trying not to be disappointed upon returning to the United States to find that I’m no longer special by simple virtue of being exotic and foreign, and am now just some largely insignificant guy who happens to wear a cool hat.