Sunday, June 6, 2010

journey on

Sitting on the shinkansen (bullet train), staring out the window, as Fuji-san comes into view, trees, rivers and buildings blurring by in the foreground. I've witnessed foreigners jump up in excitement enough times, leaning over Japanese folks in the window seats, shoving their cameras against the glass. Strangely enough, Japanese people often do the same, although they are more subtle, and don't crawl into people's laps just to snap a photo - but I'll hear gasps and exclamations as they pull out their camera phones and snap away.

Fuji-san represents Japan, in all its glory. Even I, homegrown in the Pacific Northwest - home to some of the most majestic mountains in the world - feel a sense of awe when I see it. Mt. Rainier always captures me with its booming voice - a beast of a mountain that presides over everything around. Rainier feels wild and untamed, a mountain boasting its splendor. Mt. Baker is friendly - smiling over Whatcom County, shining on those few sunny days - inviting everyone to come out and play. Its presence is familiar, understandable, and trustworthy. The other volcanic mountains of Washington all have their own characteristics and feelings they provoke. Yet none capture the essence that Fuji-san offers, (likewise, Fuji will never be a beastly mountain like Rainier). Its song is subdued, melancholy, and humble, much like the traditional behavior and culture in Japan. The Japanese consider Fuji-san sacred. So I see Fuji, and I feel Japan - its heart. Those feelings sometimes become something I can't distinguish from what I feel - they are fast becoming ingrained in my understanding of Japan and the world.

History. Culture. Post-modernism. Japan was what it was and now is what it is, as it continues to change - holding onto parts of itself in the process, but allowing other parts to adapt, or being forced to simply because of the pace of this world. Japan is often accused of not keeping up, of not changing or adapting relations, or ways of thought. This is evident. Is it not understandable? When we are hit with change, with circumstances that force or require us to change, we often resist, hoping to hang on to the things that we think we are and define our identity. We don't always want to let go.

My time in Japan is fast approaching two years. My Japanese is improving, as it has suddenly taken hold as never before. My eyes and heart are seeing things even more clearly than those first days - taking in situations and events, looking at them through my Western eyes, but putting them through an Eastern view, a Japanese view, and adjusting, learning. I learn to distinguish, what equals culture and what equals humanity. What does it mean to be Japanese, or American. What does it mean to be human.

I never felt called to go overseas when I was young. There was never a pull or draw for me other than travel or perhaps school. Japan wasn't on my radar. Meeting my husband changed all of that, but coming to Japan changed even more. Meeting precious youth, learning their stories, feeling their pain. Realizing that my heart for children is the same no matter where I am, no matter what these darlings look like or act like - I still love them dearly. Seeing loneliness, heartache, and despair on a daily basis. Hopelessness. Helplessness. The feelings of people, of humans, who just want something meaningful -  want to be loved and appreciated. Want to know they can reveal who they are as humans, without fear of shame or rejection. People who feel the same feelings I have felt, even though we've grown up across an ocean, we connect over those very basic emotions and events that make us human.

I'm not Japanese. I didn't grow up in Japan, like my husband. Japan is part of who he is. Yet, my life here, though short, has influenced me in ways that every other place I've ever lived has. Parts of Japanese society have found their way into my psyche, causing me to look at things much more than simply my own Western lens, one in which I've always known. My most significant life events thus far have happened in Japan - becoming engaged and married. I've met wonderful people and made friends who mean as much to me as anyone in the States. Though I'm a foreigner, and though I often live in a bubble - in between the two - I feel that Japan is now part of me. It's part of who I am. If I ever were to leave, that would stay with me forever. I can't erase the changes. I've allowed myself to be open to Japan, allowing it to speak to me, listening to the voices of people - voices that aren't always audible or said, but voices I hear just the same. This is Japan, and this is my home. Just like Seattle, Bellingham and Montana before it. Places that are part of who I am and who I've become.

Sometimes, it's hard. It's hard to let go of the past - of those relationships that were once so dear. But so many fall away. This stage I'm in, I'm adjusting to Japan. My mind knows it's a place we'll be, at least for a little while. So I'm letting go of before. I'm letting go of the ties that bind me so closely to the U.S. - the ties that won't let me move much farther. The connections will always be there, they will always be a part of me and who I am. I know and realize more and more that being American is such a part of me, but I also realize more and more how I don't really belong, truly, to any one nationality. I know I'm American, but I know my identity is found in much more than that. In Japan I'm a foreigner, and that and being American go hand in hand here. So, a bubble - but to me that's a good place to be. I'm neither here nor there, but I'm in the place I need to be, in the moment I need to be in. Hanging on to the past has me tethered.

Not anymore. 

Cutting ropes is the only way to go forward, to live the life I'm meant to live, to change and become who I'm meant to be. Though I'm slowly becoming part of Japan, I also sense myself slowly becoming less a part of the U.S. I'm not who I was when I got on that plane almost two years ago, in fact, I'm surprised to remember her. Even from a year ago, I am different. Marriage has had a hand in that too. So much of who I am and was has been weeded out, changed, and adjusted - but for the better, or just differently. It wasn't surprising; I already knew it would happen.  I knew, as I strapped in and watched the Seattle skyline shrink and disappear, that I had left myself behind.

*all photos taken with my iPhone


  1. Nice article. I can understand your feeling as I also lived in Japan for 3 years. I would rather defined myself closer to the international culture than my own (grown up in France, studied in the US, worked in Singapore and Japan). From Paris12eric

  2. @Paris12Eric,

    Thank you for your kind words! Yes you do seem to have quite the international experience - I'm sure many others feel the same way, who've also been in your shoes (other expatriates).

    I didn't know you lived in Japan for three years, that's great!