I slid my feet into the old leather shoes one last time. I knew I would have to get rid of them, because the right one had a little hole in its toe that let the rain in, and the soles were worn so thin that I could almost feel the pavement directly on my feet. But I had grown attached to those shoes. People often complimented me on their unique style, and the wear on the leather almost made them look better, as if they’d been made with an intentional “worn” look. They looked like they had been some places. They’d seen some things, man.
But what had they seen, really? I found myself thinking about it as I stepped outside in them, feeling the now familiar bit of leather insole curling up against my toes on the right side. I walked down the drab gray stairwell of my apartment building, onto the sidewalk past vending machines and convenience stores in the artificial glow of neon signs, and I thought, what have I done in these shoes?
I did some more interesting things in them in their earliest days, before I came back to Japan two years ago. Among some other things that shall not be mentioned here, I made my first real attempt to record my original songs, saw a flamenco show in Madrid, got fired from a job in Taiwan, and lived in Honolulu for 3 months. A lot of those things were impulsive and some were downright stupid, but at least they were interesting.
But after that? Oh, I did some things that were worthwhile, of course. I even did some things that were pretty cool. I taught an amazing bunch of kindergarteners who inspired me and made me laugh and gave me love and affection in the unconditional way only children can. I made a couple of good friends who I hope will remain friends for a long time. I took a trip to Germany to spend a few memorable days with the biggest group of language nerds I’ve ever seen. I worked hard studying German and became conversationally fluent. I got a little better at playing the guitar. And perhaps most bizarrely of all, I once spent an afternoon hanging out with owls in Tokyo.
(In Japan, “owl cafes” are a thing. Seriously.)
And yet, as I walked the short distance to the supermarket in those old leather shoes on a dreary winter evening, I couldn’t help feeling like much of the time I’d spent in those shoes had been far too dull, far too unworthy of their stylish functionality now so sadly spent. It seemed a little ridiculous to be changing my mind yet again after having gone back and forth about it for so long, but now I was sure: I had to leave Japan. Again.
Despite my impulse to wander, Japan has long been the place I seem to keep coming back to. For a long time it was the place that felt like home, even more (actually much more) than my native country of the United States. In the United States I was raised like a typical American, and yet somehow I never felt like one. I felt fundamentally different from the people around me who seemed constantly bothered, almost offended even, by my quiet, reserved nature and lack of exaggeratedly expressed emotion. Americans seemed to think that if you weren’t smiling and talking all the time, there was something wrong with you. Since I had no other frame of reference, for a long time I thought there was something wrong with me. I seriously thought I had some sort of social disability. I had few friends in school, and mostly escaped from the reality around me by spending all my spare time drawing pictures, secretly writing songs I never shared with anyone, and studying foreign languages. I often fantasized about literally escaping to another place, but of course as a kid I had no way of doing that.
I began teaching myself Japanese when I was about 13, I think. At first it was just for fun and I didn’t take it seriously, but I quickly fell in love with the language and got it into my head that I wanted to move to Japan. I wasn’t sure why, but somehow I knew that was the place I wanted to escape to. So I kept studying all through high school and college, and when I eventually got the opportunity to actually visit Japan through an internship program at my college, I felt at home from the moment I set foot in the country. Every moment I spent there seemed to confirm this feeling, and before long I had an idea of the reason why: In Japan, quiet, introverted personalities are not considered “weird” at all, but are actually the norm. Typically noisy American tourists got disapproving looks from the locals, but I was graciously accepted as my normal quiet self. No one asked why I was so quiet or badgered me to smile more. Having stereotyped Americans as loud and extroverted, many Japanese people even expressed disbelief that I was actually American. They said things like, “But you act so Japanese!” Such comments made me feel oddly proud. After that brief first visit, I felt more sure than ever that Japan was my true home.
And every time I’ve returned to Japan, I’ve felt quite content to be here for a while. But yet some unstoppable force seems to prevent me from staying put. I think the force is a combination of wanderlust and disillusionment. At first it was mostly wanderlust, but every time it seems the scales tilt dangerously further in the direction of disillusionment, to the point that I now find myself afraid of turning into one of those Bitter Expats (™). You know, those miserable people who seem to spend all their spare time on Internet forums complaining about the backwardness of their adopted country.
There are still many things I love about Japan. I love the Japanese attention to detail and sense of aesthetics, and how convenient it is to live here, and how safe it is, and how the Japanese show such enthusiastic appreciation for good food, and how polite and hospitable they are, and of course, how they know that there’s nothing wrong with being quiet and keeping to yourself. But the longer I’ve lived here, the clearer it’s become that there are also some things about Japanese culture I find very difficult to accept. I am very Japanese in some ways, but oddly enough, living in Japan has helped me to see all the ways in which I’m actually much more American than I thought.
For one thing, I cannot adopt the Japanese mindset when it comes to work. The cultural norm here is to prioritize the company you work for above all else, even your family (unless you’re a woman with children, in which case you are expected to be the main caregiver while your husband is the provider). Throughout the years I’ve lived here, I’ve watched my Japanese friends and colleagues working long hours and never taking their vacation days. Many of them basically have no lives outside their jobs. Some of them seem to be just fine with this, but others seem to be quite unhappy and do it anyway out of a sense of obligation. Perhaps because I’m a foreigner, I’ve been lucky not to have been put under the same kind of pressure as my Japanese friends, but even so I have always gotten the impression that my Japanese employers expected me to put the good of their company above my own personal well-being and happiness, and that is something I simply cannot do. I cannot, nor do I want to, shake the Western mindset that insists although work is important, there are some things that are more important. Besides, how can I put my best effort in at work if I don’t take care of myself first?
And although I appreciate the Japanese acceptance of introversion, there is another aspect to this that I’ve come to see I don’t like so much. There is a sense that you shouldn’t say certain things, that you should censor yourself. Everyone generally avoids bringing up anything critical or controversial for the sake of saving face, and if they absolutely must bring up a touchy subject, they do so in such an obscure, roundabout way that an uninitiated foreigner may have no idea what they’re trying to say at all. It takes time to master this Japanese art of saying things without really saying them, and even when you start to get the hang of it, you’re still left with the suffocating feeling that you can never really speak your mind. Although it is sometimes helpful to be able to approach things in the Japanese way and avoid speaking too directly to avoid conflict, much of the time I find this atmosphere stifling. And it’s not just me– I’ve even heard from some rather Westernized Japanese people that they prefer to speak English instead of Japanese because they find it too limiting having to say things in the roundabout Japanese way.
All this disillusionment with Japan has left me in somewhat of an identity crisis. I still don’t feel like an American, but now I don’t feel Japanese either. I can’t accept American culture’s pressure to act like a happy-go-lucky extrovert, and I can’t accept Japanese culture’s pressure to bite my tongue on issues that matter and sacrifice myself to my work. Both cultures have some aspects that I love and values that I share, but their respective problems have been enough to eventually drive me out of both countries. Of course, there’s also the fact that I’m just plain restless and want to explore other countries anyway. But now I find myself wondering: Will I ever be able to find a place that feels like home?
I used to think that eventually, I would have to find a place to “settle down”, someplace I would be happy to spend most of my time for the rest of my life. But now I’m not so sure. What if every place and every culture has some fatal flaw I will ultimately find unacceptable? What if my true home is actually in perpetual motion, staying just long enough in a place to absorb the best of it and moving on before the worst of it jades me? Am I destined to keep wandering around without end? Or could it be that just maybe my perfect place is out there somewhere, and I just haven’t found it yet?
Or maybe it isn’t actually about places at all. What if “home” is really a person? What if it’s really a feeling, or an experience? What if it’s an attitude? Is it possible to be so secure in yourself that you feel at home wherever you go?
I don’t know where or what or who home might be, but in any case it doesn’t seem like I’m going to find it here. Just two more weeks now, and I’m gone. It’s time to move on– but sadly, in a new pair of shoes.