Stepping On Ants

posted in: Uncategorized | 18

It’s been exactly two weeks since I left Switzerland and returned to Japan. It’s hard to believe that I was actually out of the country. Like a dream I stepped onto the plane back at the end of July and headed west. Then a month followed as if passing through a curtain, glimpsing a wider world that I had almost forgotten went on every day outside the borders of my awareness. Europe manifested itself as a walk-in memory; so much like my childhood in Germany, and interactions with people so much closer to how I naturally expressing myself. Travelers actually made an effort to lean across tables to talk, women flirted with me (unlike in Japan where no one ever makes eye contact with you… you’d think no one was ever interested in others), the food was fresh and healthy even in the smallest, out-of-the-way towns, life moved at a manageable pace, everywhere travelers and townsfolk alike taking the time to sit and talk. And while the pretty towns and green slopes and millions of sheep and cows got monotonous after a while, there was something about the way the populace valued what they had and insisted on remembering what is important about a community that stayed with me throughout the trip.

I promised myself on the last night in Zürich that I would remember the revitalized spirit I had started feeling throughout the trip and would do my best to keep the momentum rolling, but the moment I landed in Narita Airport and felt myself get drawn right back into all the predictable weight of the culture… all the girls on the trains preening themselves in front of mirrors and putting on makeup, the boy staring at me whose mother just laughed when she noticed and encouraged his feelings by telling him that I was “strange foreigner” and “he’s funny-looking isn’t he?”, the endless “salary” men in their ubiquitous suits no matter how hot it was, the glaring pachinko parlors and cheap roadside car dealers with their flourescent flags and flashing neon lights, the mass-produced, developer houses at arms-breadth from one another that tried so hard to be western and all like mind-numbingly the same… a huge anger blossomed inside me and a deep resentment at having to return, plopped right back into everything that I want so much to extricate myself from.

Hardest was returning home to this apartment. I unlocked the front door, stepped inside into its tiny confines and the muffled stillness of its humid air, turned on a flourescent light that made all my sad belongings jump out starkly, reminding me in their silence of the months and years of stagnation and just how much unneeded junk I was weighing myself down with. The door thumped closed behind me and there I was, alone again, with no one to talk to, no family, no friends, no one to even have the possibility of meeting if I decided to take a walk around town. It wasn’t that I didn’t have people who cared about me, but that there was no possibility of getting together with any of them. The contrast to a month of meeting people every day in Europe hit me hard. No one even called to say hello.

Except for four days when I had to spend time teaching junior high school students in the south of the prefecture the next two weeks found me holed up in my apartment, growing ever more down and losing motivation even to get up and go to the store to buy food. Just the sight of yet more processed Japanese food left me with no appetite. Turning on the TV depressed me with its childishness and constant, unhealthy focus on young girls and the same, self-satisfied celebrities. Walking on the streets and constantly standing out, never, ever being able to get away from the label of being a foreigner, had me cursing under my breath at strangers. Being in Europe allowed me for a while to blend in and remember what it is like to feel part of a group. And then opening my eyes to the apartment reminded me of what I had still to do and hadn’t done. Sleeping swept it all away and I could forget for a while, so I slept in until noon and ate cereal and scanned the internet for word of release. The lack of exercise, after a month of constant, hard walking, slowly began to raise my blood sugar again and reawaken the problems with diabetes, the sluggishness of my blood physically bringing me even more down.

I knew I couldn’t continue like this. I had to buck up and overcome the sense of dislocation. But to what? I realized in Europe, strongly, that Japan is not my culture, that no matter how long I live here, how well I know it, how fluently I speak the language, how much I try to soften my criticisms, the Japanese will never count me as one of them, as they don’t count themselves as part of the rest of the world. I can struggle till I die from hypertension and am incapacitated from depression and yet Japan will never let me be one of its children. I fit right in in Europe. I’ve struggled to fit in here in Japan since I was a boy, even wanted to become a Japanese before I left to study in the States, and therefore the idea of leaving it behind hurts, deeply. It’s like giving up on my identity. The humility and frustration of never being accepted by the culture in which I grew up, which has gone so far as to shape the way I think and act, makes the ground feel unstable. Where is it that I can go to feel that I am finally “home”?

I’m sure other people also feel this way and that most people spend their lives wondering what their place is. But when someone can’t even claim a certain culture as their own, as the template for their sense of belonging and for how they act and see the world, what do they turn to? When people ask me, constantly ask me, “Where are you from?”, what should I answer? Is it important? It feels important. Or at least the sense of safety and kinship feel as if they could relieve this fight-or-flight tension that reisdes in me. I watch other people so comfortable in their clothes as “Japanese” or “American” or “Chinese”, never really questioning it, and listen to their self-assured proclamations, “I am Japanese! We are different from you!” and wonder what they are referring to. Does it have something to do with the bonds of a moeity? Does the identification protect you from the bad spirits of the world? Does it make you bigger than you are as an individual?

The trip to Europe planted seeds for a lot to think about. And to consider what my next step is. The connection between places became apparent the other day when I was walking back from the supermarket. I glanced down at my feet and realized that I was about to step on a colony of ants at the side of the road. In a flash I saw myself at the side of a road in France, avoiding another colony of ants there. I am neither here nor there, and yet in both places at the same time.

I think my next step must take courage, a willingness to pull up roots once again and seek better ground. And perhaps that is the fuel of my own flame. I don’t really know yet. But I know this, though. I want the next step to be light and simple, without unnecessary burdens. Travel light. And that I am willing to take the chance to live more on my own terms.
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I have about 850 photographs to go through so the Europe photos will be a little while before I can get them cleaned up and uploaded. I’m designing a gallery to go alng with them, so hopefully they will be worth the effort.

18 Responses

  1. Oh friend, you must be in nurturing soil! Your roots are withering where you are…

    At one time I almost decided to live in Japan, but I left in part because I knew I’d never truly be part of the society (even as an outsider/eccentric).

    The search for one’s true home is hard. I will keep you in my thoughts.

  2. Just do it, man. Sell all your stuff, get on a plane, and go.

  3. yes YES YES!!!
    from everything you said
    it seems imperative you leave Japan

  4. I can’t imagine how many times people have said to you “Oh you speak Japanese very well” to which you’d love to shout “I’ve been here my whole life!”

    I agree with you about a bunch of things — mainly the assinine culture. After 2 years I’ve found the people to be polite but distant and unwilling to form friendships. The vast majority of long term residents here are in the same situation: doing jobs they aren’t interested in, marginalized by society, a bit lost and lonely. But look at it this way — how many happy Japanese do you know?

    Japan has a lot to offer, but I think it is time for you to go.

  5. Once again I’ve taken to whining, haven’t I? It seems that is all I can do so much of the time. I resisted writing anything here since I came back because I didn’t want to give in to the negative feelings and making it seem as if I can’t take control of my own situation. And maybe I would get myself together a lot more easily if there were close friends to talk to and open up to. Friends really make a place seem different.

    Everyone, thanks for being there. If I could meet you and just propose that we go out for a drink or a good walk that would make such a big difference. I really appreciate that you chime in and put up with my constant, heavy outlook. BUt that’s exactly what is bothering me since I returned: the inability to see people I care about. It’s like walking in the woods and hearing someone’s voice, but not being able to locate them.

    Perrin, I think you know what I am going through. I, personally, have always avoided getting too involved in the ex-patriot communities because I wanted to fit into Japan and not further marginalize myself. But that, at the same time, alienated me from people with whom I could share so much. It’s a vicious circle, growing up somewhere that you cannot become part of and yet feeling at the same time unrelated to people from outside. During the first few days in Europe I felt really strange among all these non-Japanese people and it took some time for me to feel comfortable saying hello to people. On the fourth day when a woman at the Lucern Tourist office ignored all the other people waiting on line and took half an hour to talk about the history of Lucern with me, and then shared her own complex international background the sense of being welcome and one of the people sank in. That evening I met two Korean university students and we spent the entire evening wandering the city and absorbing the moments, and I realized just how much Asian was in me, but mixed with a long connection to being European as I easily explained a lot of background of Europe to the two students and easily switched to speaking German in the restaurants and stores and buses. It was so nice to feel connected like that.

    But I actually think more Japanese are “happy” than, let’s say, Americans or Germans. When I say “happy” it is the Japanese idea of the word, which is closer to “content”. I know very few Japanese who harbor a lot of resentment about high school or about living in Tokyo. And it isn’t that they go through less hardship or disappointments, they are human after all. They just don’t expect as much and seem to accept much more easily that life is full of hardship and that that is nothing to get bitter about. So I would say that I’ve met few Japanese who are deeply, openly bitter about everything. In that way I guess I am not Japanese at all!

    Dave, Suzanne, Pascale, yes, it being time to leave is topmost in my mind. And selling my stuff is a priority. But… maybe because of the Japanese part of me, I don’t know… I also feel responsible for a few people here and for my job, so I can’t just up and leave without thinking about them. But the change is closer than it has been for a long time. The trick is figuring out where to up and leave to. I don’t want to end up in the same situation that I am in now and I also want to be sure that I have a proper job and medical coverage. And, strangely, something in me clings to Japan. I don’t want to lose my connection to this place. And since I have a permanent residency here it would be foolish to lose that without thinking really hard about what I am doing.

  6. Miguel,

    I would say worry about the people you have responsibility to, but only a short time. They are also business people/managers. They have a responsibility to plan contingensy plans. You have a responsibility to give reasonable notice, but as long as you live to satisfy them you can never satisfy yourself.

    I would, however, ask you to come to Sakae to visit us (and help fix the house!) before you take off. I think you will find a different atmosphere here, and it may add a new complexity to your decision… the dream you had of moving to Iyama (nearby Sakae) may or maynot resurface. Granted, you will not be a “full-fledged local”, but people here are more open than I expected at least in terms of talking to and meeting with new people. It would be impossible to spend two weeks with no contact.

    Or it may not. Either way, do what you feel is right. Take the path that scares the shit out of you the most. Or, if you wan the least scary situation, think about how scary it is to stay in your current situation for longer or forever. If you really think about it, moving to Europe is a piece of cake.

  7. Take your time, do not rush decisions. Leave things behind only when you cannot stand your life any longer. I think that only if one reaches the point of saturation he won’t repent about choosing a different path.

  8. It sounds as though this is never going to be easy, whether you do it quickly or take your time. Kind of like waiting for the “right” time to have children — there isn’t one. Or it’s now.

    What happened to the idea of the Antipodes, or is Europe more attractive now?

    Either way, I hope this is a decision you can come to mindfully and with not too much pain involved.

  9. Take the path that scares the shit out of you the most.

    Those words probably struck a stronger note than any other. And that’s exactly it; I’ve always known basically what direction I have to go in, but taking that scared-shitless step is, well, scary shit! Funny how when you know inside yourself that there is something you em, no matter what, can scare you so much more than just giving in to drifting along.

    Kevin, you have been a real inspiration both to watch and to talk to and meet. You actually went ahead and did something I’ve only let myself dream about. And each time I get so jealous because I know I can do it, too. If you guys wouldn’t mind my presence (and probably incessant questions) for a few days, I’d love to go and see you in Sakae. It might very well change everything I’m feeling about Japan right now. If nothing else it would give me a glimpse of what it is like to live in a part of Japan I’ve loved ever since I can remember.

    Pica, May… I guess it’s like deciding to make a big job change… you never have all the details that can completely help you see how something is going to be like. So waiting or doing it now really are up to closing your eyes and taking a leap. Thing is, as I get older I get more and more careful. I know too much what can happen. But then, I also know that every time I have taken a leap I always found a way to survive. There’s that knowledge, too. The trick is to take the steps, right?

    But you know, there is a big part of me that knows I will always regret it if I can’t find the best part of Japan and immerse myself in it. I don’t want to leave in anger. If I leave, it is because I want to feel that I have fulfilled my time here and gotten as much out of it as I can. I still love this place, and like with a lover with whom things didn’t work out, I’d like affection to remain no matter where we go.

  10. I am still catching up to your adventure. Which sounds grand. From listening to your spirit, it is time for a change.The visit to Sakae would be a good first step, as I think you are too close to the problem now in your current environment. Step back and look at it from more than one angle.
    The move to Europe may sound and feel great now. However do not act in haste, as no where is perfect, ( remember the life is suffering thing), and MOST places are wonderful when visiting.

  11. Zen, very sound advice. I really appreciate both the simple wisdom and sincerity in it. I haven’t forgotten the loneliness during my trip in Europe, a loneliness that has accompanied me throughout my life (and which I suspect a great many people feel), but which was bearable because of the people I met. It’s the same way I see all long-lasting relationships with people: the problems will occur, and the pain, but it is loving those people and their continuing presence which overcomes the hardships. Even fighting I can handle, as long as there is communication. However, I can’t handle prolonged isolation and an unwillingness to open up. That is what the present situation feels like. I separated from my wife last year and, as you said, distancing myself from the problems we were having has certainly opened my eyes. I think it is very true about Japan, too. I need to get a different perspective on it in order to be able to appreciate what it is that I have.

  12. I haven’t commented to your site for a long time. However, I followed your travels through Europe and thoroughly enjoyed your very descriptive writings about your venture. My feelings are that you have become extremely discouraged with your life in Japan. You seemed to be so happy in Europe. Perhaps you might look into employment and residence in a European country. Perhaps you might find happiness outside of Japan.

  13. Whoa.
    That so captures the spirit, esp
    1. The fluorescent light.
    2. Understanding what the mom on the train was saying to her kid.
    3. An endless urban parade of makeup and fashion but with no intent to make contact, even, as you pointed out, to flirt.

    Phew…

    On the other hand, I have grown to appreciate their commitment to parents and family.

  14. I haven’t commented in a long time. I have followed your travel to Europe and I have followed your increasingly displeasure with your life in Japan. You seemed so happy in your European adventure. Perhaps you may be happier living and working in one of the European countries you visited. Whatever your future plans might be, I wish you happiness, which is what I think you are looking for.

  15. Sorry I’ve not been round much lately, Miguel. Mostly stuck in my own negativity spirals and didn’t want to drag anyone else into them. Trouble is, doing that also distances oneself from the very people who might be able to help.

    Anyway, your words and your situation brought to mind a quote from a book which was recommended to me although I haven’t yet read it. In “Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life”, Gregg Levoy says:

    ‘people won’t pursue their callings until the fear of doing so is finally exceeded by the pain of not doing so.’

    In that short phrase, he makes explicit the paradox that what we most want may also be what we greatly fear. I’ve no explanation of that save to say that it is indeed a paradox, life is full of paradoxes, and this is one which will never go away. One can ignore it and never reach the place on the other side, or one can face it and as the author Susan Jeffers put it “feel the fear and do it anyway”. I wish I could do just that, but for me the pain has yet to become great enough; my rut is too well upholstered. But for you I get the feeling that the balance is shifting; fear and pain are both strong, indeed perhaps both are getting stronger as the possibility of change becomes more real – more than a dream, although not yet a plan.

    I hesitate to give advice; trite as it sounds, all I’d say is this: listen to your heart.

  16. M-
    Despite fear, unknowns and obstacles that seem insurmountable, coming out the other side one wonders why the move wasn’t made sooner, freedom! (based on having been in my own extreme version of being incapacitated by my life) But only when you are ready. And when you are ready, you are ready…and you know it. Sounds like you know it.
    All strength and support to you! xoooxo-L

  17. butuki-san

    i am new to you site. i admire people like you who can wear their hearts on their sleeves and let the world judge you. i dont have that courage. i am too afraid that people will judge me for who i am not. on the other i don’t think you can survive without your loyal readers. you need the constant resonance of their words to fill the voids in your life. some of your loyal fans/readers/friends make sense; egging you to make changes in your life. go for it man! stop feeling sorry for yourself. stop feeling sorry that you have diabetes. stop feeling sorry that you are cooped up inside the 4 walls of the japanese apartment of yours. stop feeling sorry you have the job that you have now. don’t waste your life hating every minute doing things you do not want to do.

    you tasted the freedom of walking, nourished spiritually by every step that you took, enjoyed every moment of that trip as if it was the last drop of nectar on a hot summer day. why not make it the story of your life? it is strange to see the contrast of your postings. in bpl, i see you as the s.u.l. obe-wan-kenobe, passing down his technical wisdom to all who ask. your experiences during your tmb hike come through as precise and as-a-matter-of-fact. in laughing knees, you are this forlorn, lonely soul seeking an answer to your question of life. in it, your tmb hike showed kinks of vulnerability in its reasoning and in its execution. wonderfully diametric.

    by blogging your words, your thoughts, your art, you invite others to judge you. as a consequence, yes, i am judging you and i want you to help you.

    believe me, once you rid yourself of the fear of change, nothing can hold you back. the world is yours for the taking. the hardest step is the first step…or in kevin’s words “the path that scares the shit out of you most”.

    you have art in your veins. you have poetry in your words. you have angst in your heart, trust yourself that you can put it all together and make it work.

  18. Shah, first, welcome to the site. I appreciate your stopping by and taking the time to read what I write here. And just simply, it’s good to see you.

    Second, thank you for your words and your candor. Actually what you wrote came at a very timely hour; I woke to them on my birthday today. I made a promise to myself when I went to bed last night that I would try to wake today with a different attitude and the same feeling I followed when I decided to go to Europe this summer. Also, I appreciate when someone is honest with me, telling me as they really see it, instead of covering it in flowers. It may not always be exactly what I want to hear, but such words carry more weight in helping me to get up off my ass, than when someone speaks to me so softly that it allows me to continue to be pitiful or obnoxious.

    Of course, what you see here is only what you see here, and what you see at BPL is only what you see there. In real life I am much more than either of these two personalities online. I tend to come back to Laughing Knees when I am down, especially since I am not writing much here these days and not, as you put it, wearing my heart on my sleeve as much as I used to. Perhaps it has stretched in the polar opposite of the personality that I started the blog out with, one who was very angry and outraged, most especially about the war and America. It got so bad I couldn’t sleep at night or manage a day without some diatribe. Needless-to-say it began to eat me up, so I decided to stop watching the news and concentrate more on what was going on inside my heart. The trouble with that is, living where I live, I spend way too much time alone and the mind does funny things to you when you are isolated. I’ve slowly begun to get to know some of the people I work with and we’re becoming friends, at last, but this is Japan, where foreigners will always be ostracized and marginalized, so it is hard to get any kind of sense of community. Even Boston, which I really disliked and eventually had to leave, at least had the benefit of lots of friends. Those who know me from there will attest to the fact that I’m generally a very cheerful, positive, and active person, quite far from the gloomy grumbler of this blog. It could partly be, too, that, as someone who deeply needs to be outdoors a lot to be happy, this life here holed up in an office or in this cubicle of an apartment tends to stifle who I am, too. There just is no where to go around here.

    But, as you say, I have to get rid of the fear of change. And that is what I am working on. I may be “i see you as the s.u.l. obe-wan-kenobe, passing down his technical wisdom to all who ask.” to you at BPL (man, that made me laugh! Thanks!), but that is just because I do have the confidence there about what I want out of life. It is easy to be confident about inanimate things. Unfortunately I don’t yet quite have the life wisdom of Obi-Wan-Kenobi (isn’t that just a wonderful name? I’ve always loved the names in Star Wars). Maybe I have to live another hundred years to get that!

    Anyway, thanks Shah. I’ll be keeping your words in mind today, and hopefully for far longer.

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