The upside of being an expat is it forces introspection. It gives you the time and space to process your experiences that short trips don’t. I learned how wonderful it is to live simply from living in the inaka. I realized I didn’t miss anything material I had left behind back “home.” But being an expat also means a steady stream of hellos and goodbyes, or in some fortuitous cases see-you-laters. After bidding farewell to my friends, my beloved mamachari, the farmlands and greenhouses, the 60km stretch of beach and its surfers, and all the proprietors of my favorite local establishments, I headed out west for the eastern capital.
I grew up in a small college town, but have lived half of my life in urban areas. I don’t know if I’m a city mouse or a country mouse. If I stay too long in one, I start to miss the other.
My first impression of living in Tokyo was how massive it was. I had never felt more anonymous. I spent several hours a day on a train just traversing the city. I was constantly moving in a sea of people, pressed in on all sides, but no one ever made eye contact.
Being an Asian expat in Asia is tricky. Because of your appearance, there are societal, as well as internal, pressures to know the language or the customs. There are things other non-Asian expats can get away with that you can’t. I think being a woman only compounds the issue. But by this time, my wardrobe had undergone a complete rehaul and Uniqlo makeover, so at least I had that going for me.
I purposely entered Japan without having studied the language. I wanted to see if it was true what linguists say about language acquisition: one learns to speak more naturally if they learn language the way a child does - through listening and repeating and context. That was definitely true as I learned to get by in the inaka through phrases and utterances I overhead other people making. I did eventually learn the two phonetic alphabets, but still never took a Japanese class. So, I could read, but had no clue what I was reading. Knowing the basic kanji characters was my only saving grace, thanks to the many years of Chinese school forced upon me as a child. Conversely, I couldn’t pronounce the kanji characters in Japanese.
Thankfully, I had a lot more support in Tokyo in the way of other expats and also bilingual Japanese. My biggest help came thru my mother’s friend. She had grown up in Taiwan, but had lived most of her adult life in Tokyo. She and I conversed in Mandarin and she was like an aunt to me. There were also bilingual/bicultural Japanese who were my windows into the Japanese language and culture. So, between these friends and all the English speakers in Tokyo, I didn’t feel the need to take language classes anymore.
After I got over the shininess and initial excitement of living in one of the most amazing cities in the world, I found myself constantly seeking out and spending time in one of Tokyo’s many parks. I needed space to breathe and room to move. I happened upon one of my favorite parks when I taught English at the Japan Post Bank: Hibiya Koen. I spent many a lunch hour there. Tokyo really does have some superb parks. I miss the parks.
It was the end. Maybe not the very end, but 'an' end.
Every city has their ups and downs. The longer you visit, the more downs you start to notice.
Mahler's Resurrection Symphony
The salad bed in our garden
A connection revisited