Last night, I went down to the 1st floor of my building to visit Sean, who I found sprawled on his bed next to a large open box of decadent Swiss chocolates. Before he noticed me lingering at his door, his face was a mixture of beatific contentment and chocolate lust.
“What?” he asked. “They were a Christmas present from my mum.”
“Hold on,” I said. I ferreted my camera out of my bag and clicked.
“Grand, just grand,” he groused. “Would you put that away now, please?”
“Yes.” I agreed amicably – after all, I had my proof of his greediness.
It wasn’t until around 5 pm this afternoon that I realized I’d left my camera in Sean’s apartment. It wouldn’t matter except that I want the camera because I am sure that today is Coming of Age Day. I would have liked to head out to the streets and take pictures of what surprised me my first night in Japan, a year ago today. As I dragged my two enormous and oppressively heavy suitcases through the airport and train stations, I’d noticed what seemed like a rather large number of young girls wearing kimono. As far as I knew then, kimono were only worn these days on special occasions like weddings and festivals. Being ignorant then of Japanese festivals beyond Girls’ Day, which I knew to be in March, I was curious. After my landlord picked me up at Otako Station, I asked him why so many girls were wearing kimono. He told me it was Coming of Age Day, a day to celebrate young women and men who will turn 20 (legal age) in the present year. I thanked him for the information, coughing and sniffling due to the wretched case of American Human Flu that had descended upon me in a sickening swoop the night of my Going Away party and tortured me through what could only be a hellish 14 hour flight.
My landlord eyed me warily as I hacked into my wadded tissues.
“You’re sick,” he noted flatly.
“Yes, I am.” I said. “I got sick right before my flight and have felt terrible ever since. I’m so glad you picked me up in your car when you did because after 14 miserable hours on a plane and then dragging my suitcases through the airport and train stations, I don’t think I could have made it.”
I continued to cough as my landlord showed me my impossibly tiny apartment. I picked up on his unmistakable discomfort and then his palpable relief when he bid me goodnight and good luck in Japan. I thought it strange until much later, when I realized that after 11 years in Japan my Canadian landlord has been Japanified. In Japan, Sick Days do not exist; it is unacceptable to miss a day of work for a common flu. This is why there are about 50 varieties of Vitamin C drinks available at convenience stores and why, anywhere you go, at least a handful of people will be wearing dental masks in public as soon as the weather drops. It’s not a horrible idea.
Sean’s at work now, rendering my camera scheme hopeless. It’s dark. The girls will still be out and about, I’m sure, tip toeing into izakayas and artfully arranging their obi behind them as they sit down to order edamame and, if they are already 20, Nama Biru. I wonder, how many years must an expat live in Japan before they can celebrate their own Coming of Age? I’ve been here a year. I’ve got a cheap Uniqlo yukata, which isn’t anywhere near suitable but kind of looks like a kimono from a distance.
Among the top questions I was asked last month back home in New York City – my first time visiting since I’d moved – was “How’s Japan?” It’s a catch-all question that, depending on the asker’s intention, could mean anything from, “What is it like living abroad?” to, “How are you?” I usually replied in analogies, particularly for the “What’s it like living abroad?” crowd. As the 9 days of my trip went on and I was asked the question multiple times by multiple people, my analogy evolved.
“Moving abroad,” I would begin in bars, at friends’ homes, on walks to old favorite restaurants, “is like being reborn.”
You begin completely in the dark, thrust forth into someplace brand new. Like an infant, you crawl, wide-eyed, and slowly you begin to walk. You touch everything. You put everything in your mouth; or maybe you are a picky child and won’t eat anything. You learn to speak. You say, first, “Hello,” “Goodbye,” “How are you?” “Cat,” “Dog,” “I’m hungry” and “I’m sleepy.” Eventually, you learn to tell people how you are feeling and what you want. Maybe some day you will learn to discuss politics and the weather. You observe everything and try a little more each day. You make friends. You become increasingly confident in your surroundings. You can walk home by yourself. You can tell the new people where to buy snacks or how to use the soda machines. The world, as you know it, has begun to make sense. You have likewise begun to understand the people in it. You like the world. You might even love the world, for it is new, different and, above all, untainted in its newness.
And then you are 13. You are 13 and everything that once seemed lovely – people, order, politics, customs, food – has begun to seem ridiculous, pathetic, and wrong. The people you thought were so fantastic? They’re actually not that great; and worse, they’re all alike. The order you thought made sense? It actually makes no sense. You are irritable and maybe your body is changing, too. Clueless, you blame the delicious new food; how many calories are in this dish again? Animals are farmed illegally to make it, you say? And what was that you said about the war crimes? Why do people do the things they do? What’s the sense of this, what’s the sense of that? Why are certain things allowed to happen? Whales should not be killed, people should break out of the box, haphazardly stealing other cultures’ customs without understanding anything about them just because you think they’re cool is really annoying, women should stand up to men, and that comedian is not funny; anyone who thinks so is a moron. What a place. What a world. What a sham. Why did you have to learn the sad truth?
And then, finally, you are an adult. The people you thought were idiots are suddenly very wise. The food you avoided for its fat content is suddenly nourishing and because you are now wise, too, you know that life is far too short to avoid tonkatsu. The customs that seemed appalling now make sense. You learn to see beneath what made you angry as a teenager, and how to rise above the things you still believe are wrong. Learning to love; not just puppy love for new, beautiful things but a mature love for life grown out of a true understanding. There is acceptance. There is Coming of Age.
At the moment, in Japan, after one year, I might be 16. I hit 13 at around the 10-month mark and maybe 15 last week, after a turbulent 14th year spent back home, where I could read everything and my dearest loved ones were all within arms’ reach. Why even return to Japan? I sometimes thought over giant bottles of Newcastle in my old bar haunts. I hate teaching, I get stared at constantly, and even making a phone call to inquire about a missing suitcase can result in disaster. It’s so easy here at home. So incredibly easy – how could I not have seen it when I lived here?
Why return? Because if you’re smart, you don’t commit suicide in middle school, when the relief of adulthood is only several short years away. Because even though you can’t stand the sight of your parents, you love them underneath. Because even though the people around you worship a moron in a Speedo, they also invented sushi.
My Christmas trip back home was surprisingly emotional for me. In Japan, I felt content from the start, even as my cultural adolescence took hold. I almost felt as though going back home for such a short time and such high expense was unnecessary. I began to make plans to renew my contract and stick around for about another year; I was having too much fun learning Japanese and living abroad has become oxygen for me; it is now something I would not forsake for all of the sauerkraut and onion hot dogs at Gray’s Papaya. What I absolutely did not expect when I returned home was to be felled by how easy and beautiful it was to see my friends and my family and know exactly where I was at every turn.
Unexpectedly moved, I surprised myself by crying as I saw the city skyline blur into focus when I landed at JFK. I asked a series of unnecessary questions at each restaurant simply because I could. I abused phone privileges to leave my friends ridiculous and abusive voice mails – again, just because I could. I talked to homeless people, read every bottle in Diego’s shower, and fantasized about how easy it would be to get any job I wanted simply because I wouldn’t have to worry about updating my Visa. I browsed clothing stores with adult clothes actually suitable for adults and reveled in the fact that I didn’t have to dodge traffic on the sidewalk. I giggled with my friends and my brother and didn’t feel the need to take many photos because I didn’t feel as though I were on vacation. It felt as if it had always been.
I cried, again, as I sat down on the plane back to Japan when I realized that I no longer had the navy hat Erma had crocheted for me for Christmas of 2006. I hoped against hope that I had left it at Diego’s or inside my suitcase but as phone calls and – two days later – baggage checks proved, I had done neither. I must have left it in the cab on the way to the airport, in my sleep-deprived state. Slowly, upon realizing this, I began to sob like one of the children I teach, unconcerned that I was basically in public, surrounded by blabbing Americans and dental-masked Japanese. I dug through my purse and coat pockets over a dozen times but there was no denying it – the hat was gone. After cherishing it as loving symbol of my far away friend, after nearly losing it in a foreigner bar had spawned the title of this blog, I had somehow stupidly let it slip through my fingers. I cried like a fool for the better part of an hour.
I started back at school yesterday. The children were well-behaved and though I barely managed to conceal nearly nodding off through my adult classes due to lingering jet lag, my adult students told the principal that they had really enjoyed my class and asked what days I teach. I am slightly sick again; when I wake in the morning my throat is sore, my voice is hoarse and I cannot sing. But all in all I feel good; certainly better than I did on the plane ride back to Japan. Being home for 9 days after a year of struggling to make myself understood was, of course, sure to be deceptively easy. I lived in New York City for 8 years, I know all too well how difficult it can be to live there. I’ve worked 4 jobs at a time to pay exorbitant rent; hopping from Long Island City steno pools to 2nd Avenue Manhattan Irish bars, offices in 5-story Chinatown walk-ups and child-filled East Village homes … all in one day. I’ve been suddenly laid off and stonily ignored when I sent out hundreds of resumes, hence the waitressing, nannying, transcribing and extended stay in a dead end editorial job. I’ve commuted in blizzards, even. I’ve seen my city terrorized. I’ve been robbed and pick pocketed. I’ve dated strings of pompous city nitwits. I’ve shivered in the cold when landlords didn’t respond to my broken window call and languished in the heat when the 2003 blackout cut all the power to my apartment’s fan. I’ve had roommates disappear without paying bills. I’ve gone through the frustrating and time consuming apartment searches only to live in places with holey walls and loft bedrooms that were actually closets. How silly to think that simply because no legal issues would stand in my way that I could have any job I wanted; I, of all, people should know better. I mourn the distance between myself and my thriving social network in New York but that was a network I built up over 8 years. Looking back, my first year in the city was as insular as my first year has been in Japan.
In Japan I have few friends and face barriers daily, but I also have the dazzling opportunity to expand my mind by learning a completely foreign language and I foresee another series of voyages in 2008. Perhaps China. Or Vietnam – Vietnam on the brain these days. A prolonged stay here will also give me the chance to crack apart what was one year ago a completely impenetrable ostrich egg of a culture. Perhaps I’ve now wedged a fork into the shell, but what of the mysterious yolk inside?
I have found the camera. It was inside my purse – I did not leave it in Sean’s apartment last night after all. The entire introduction to this blog posting is now defunct. When I publish, I will pack my furoshiki and finally, after my dirty year, indulge in the public bath around the corner from my apartment. I will hopefully also catch a glimpse of some excited, fresh new 20 year old, tipsy red-faced in her kimono.
I look forward to the day I myself am 20 in Japan – when my elders suddenly seem wise after all and though I might not like something, at least I understand why it happens.