Friday, 30 January 2015

Peaks and Troughs on the Sea of Homesickness

At the start of the month I came back from a holiday in Malaysia. As much as I enjoyed going away to see my family, I was pleasantly surprised how good it felt returning to Joetsu. Before I left I'd been getting a little tired of the endless process of adapting to a new culture. Its fun and exciting to be greeted everyday by new challenges - today I had Shark for lunch, and yesterday I got in a snowball fight with 8 year olds while trying to leave school. However sometimes it gets a bit exhausting trying to fit in. Like cleaning time* at school, where my internal monologue runs something like this:

"Who is in charge here? And what is this useless cleaning utensil consisting entirely of a torn up silk handkerchief tied to the end of a stick? Maybe if I just hit things with it with purpose, no one will notice I've got no idea what's going on. Why cant I have a brush like everyone else?"

Or the eternal quandary of the ex-pat: Is everyone staring at me because I'm foreign and scary, or because I'm doing it wrong? Most of the time the answer is both.

The Peaks

Getting out of the day to day for a while makes you not only appreciate how much this new way of life has grown on you, but also how much you've changed in the process of adapting to it. From my time in Malaysia I discerned the following: My sister now knows the terms "Naru Hodo" (I see/understand) and "Daijobu" (no worries) because I say them instinctively without thinking now. I bumped into an American tourist, and rather than say "Oh, sorry", "Ah, sumimasen" escaped my lips, before I bowed and shuffled on my way. Sometimes I wear a mask when I've got a cough. Bile rises to my throat when I see rubbish in public places. I feel hungry if I haven't eaten rice that day. I wave at children I don't know. Seeing foreigners makes me feel nervous because they are scary and generally doing it wrong. Live in Japan long enough and it can't help but rub off on you.

The effect of the trip away can be summarized in the sage words of a wise, not so old, woman**: a place doesn't quite feel like home until you come back to it. And Joetsu was there waiting for me with open arms. Returning felt less like bracing myself for the rest of a cold and unforgiving winter, and more like sliding into a warm bath after a day of snowboarding. Which is excellent by the way. Even better if you do it with your friends and 20 Japanese people that you don't know. And then of course there is warm sake, watching Cowboy Bebop, Katsu-don, Karaoke and occasionally even teaching. I really have no right to complain.

The Troughs

Sometimes though (for lack of a better word) Homesickness strikes. You're loving the challenge, the culture, even the weird Gaijin you have to hang out with now, when suddenly something hits you out of the blue. An invite to a party you obviously cant travel 5,713 miles to go to reminds you of all your friends back home who are getting along with new things, building new memories together, still in relationship, still in a place they know and feel comfortable. I-tunes shuffle sticks on "Bridge over troubled water" and suddenly you're tearing up in the car and you don't know why. You miss your cue and mess up a Japanese conversation you thought you'd mastered. You see Britain mentioned in the news, or hear a song you don't know, and realise there's gonna be 2 years of shared pop culture references you will never quite understand.

And its not specifically sick for home in the sense that you want to go back to Britain right now, or even "I miss roast dinner and normal pizza". It isn't missing things or a place. I'm an adult (supposedly), so I can go without chocolate orange for a year. Its more like you miss the feeling of fitting in easily, almost subconsciously, without having to try. I used to know how to shop and talk and interact like people do. I swear I remember a time when I was normal.

Sometimes in Japan it can be difficult to feel comfortable in your own skin. No matter how hard you try, you aren't gonna do it right.

What gives homesickness it's bite is the possibility that the "home" you are missing is no longer there when you get back.*** And when you get there you can't fit back in. And everyone is staring at you because your foreign, scary, and doing it wrong.

Peaks > Troughs

It should of course be noted that 99% of the time I feel more like the first half of this post than the melancholy (and slightly melodramatic) second half. I really should have swapped the sections and ended on a happy note. Yes, I stick out like a sore thumb, but to be honest its kind of nice being special by default. I'm instantly more interesting than I've ever been before just by being me. All I have to say is "I like shishamo" or "We have chopsticks in the UK you know?" and minds are blown. In a small Japanese rice-growing inaka town called Itakura, I'm a famous celebrity and everyone knows me. For being that weird scary Gaijin that is doing it wrong, but a celebrity none the less.

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* In Japan, there is a grounds keeper, but no cleaning staff. It is the responsibility of the students to clean the school everyday. In theory this is an amazing example of how fundamental community and working together are to Japanese culture. In reality the students perfect the art of doing nothing while looking busy, and everything is dirty.

**My mother...

*** Which is why I think "homesick" is the wrong word. A better one is maybe the Portuguese word Saudade, which has no direct translation but roughly means a deep nostalgia or longing for something or someone that may never return. Or for the Philosophy buffs among you, Heidegger's moments of Angst where one no longer feels like he belongs to the world he finds around him.

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