Sunday, April 22, 2012

Leaving Japan

How do you condense three and a half years into a few hundred words? I could fill a book with the highs and lows of my life in Japan. But I need time to digest the experience and time isn't something I've had a lot of recently.

My last few weeks in Japan were divided between the tedious task of packing up and moving out of my apartment and the painful task of saying goodbye to friends. And then, before I knew it, I was flying to Germany and reporting for duty at work the next day. No gentle transition. No buffer. No time to process the fact that Kyoto was no longer home. My life in Japan ended as abruptly as my life in Germany began.

Just to give you an idea of how quickly everything happened, I had a meeting with one of the HR assistants on my first day at work and she asked me to provide copies of various documents, including my master's degree from Kyoto University. I had to explain that I couldn't give her a copy of my master's degree because I hadn't actually graduated yet -- I had started working before the ink on my thesis was dry. (As happy as I am to be working at the UNFCCC, missing my graduation ceremony was a bitter pill to swallow.)

From the moment the plane touched down in Frankfurt, I was caught up in the general busyness that accompanies moving to a new country -- looking for an apartment, moving into an apartment, getting a cell phone, opening a bank account, buying a bike, figuring out where everything is, adjusting to the new job, and learning a few German phrases (this is a work in progress. I haven't moved beyond "good morning" and "thank you" yet). I've been in Bonn for a month now and this is the first weekend I've finally had time to reflect on my life in Japan.

The strange thing is that I don't miss Japan. Not yet. Everything here is still too new, too exciting, too time consuming. Maybe it will hit me in a few months when I've settled into a routine. Or maybe it won't hit me at all. I've already mourned the loss of living in Japan once before. The first time I left Japan, I cried every day for a month. I had only been there for a year and I regretted my decision to leave, which is why I went back. But it was a completely different experience the second time around.

The first time I lived in Japan, I was in a rural area and embedded in the local community. It was an incredible experience but it was also a lonely and isolating one. I would swing between extreme highs and lows. I felt like I was living in the proverbial fishbowl -- everyone knew what I was doing at all hours of the day, every day. There was no privacy. Kids from school would follow me home and press their faces against my kitchen window as I cooked dinner. Old ladies would follow me around the supermarket, muttering about the food I was putting into my basket.

Living in Kyoto was nothing like living in rural Japan. It was easy to slip into the crowd and live anonymously. I spent more time with foreigners than with Japanese people. By not fully integrating into the community the way I had done in Sakawa, I created a buffer that protected me from feeling lonely and isolated. I never experienced the high highs or low lows that I did in Sakawa, but I had deeper friendships in Kyoto and was much happier as a result. You learn a lot about yourself when you live in a foreign country and sometimes these things surprise you. I always thought of myself as an introverted person but I clearly need to feel a sense of belonging to be happy. If I have a group of good friends around me, I can feel at home anywhere. The importance of feeling connected seems obvious but it took a year of solitary confinement to drive the point home.

This time around, I was ready to leave Japan. The rigidity, the inflexibility, the blind adherence to the rules, the mindless consumerism, the conservatism, the conformity, the feeling of being treated like an outsider no matter how long you’ve lived there, the expectation that you will put everything and everyone ahead of yourself and that you will sweep the mental and physical effects of doing so under the rug was starting to wear me down. But, of course, that's all objective stuff. Emotionally speaking, I'm not sure I'll ever be able to detach myself from Japan. I see Japan with open eyes. I see the good things and I see the bad things and I still love it.

The first time I left Japan, I made a list of the things I would and wouldn't miss about living there. The list still holds true today but with a few additions.

I will miss Japanese food. Not the kind of Japanese food that immediately comes to mind, like sushi or ramen. But the simple things like a square of chilled tofu topped with grated ginger and green onions. Or thin slices of gobo dressed with sesame oil. Or miso soup with mountain vegetables. Or a little box of natto for breakfast. Or even just a cup of green tea.

I will miss traveling in Japan. I have yet to visit a country that is as easy, safe or comfortable to travel in as Japan. I will miss sitting on the train watching the ramshackle houses fly by. I will miss the deserted shrines and temples on misty mountain tops. I will miss the empty hiking trails. I will miss the way people worship cherry blossoms in the spring and maple leaves in the fall. I will miss the vibrant green colour of the rice fields in the summer. I will miss hearing the mating calls of frogs that call the rice fields home. I will miss seeing the fireflies along the river on hot summer nights. I will miss hearing the scream of the cicadas. I will miss hearing the wind rush through a forest of bamboo trees. I will miss Japan at its best -- a mystical, magical place where it sometimes feels like you're living in a dream.

I want to say that Japan is no better or worse than any other country. It has its good points and its bad points. And while this is true, there is something just a little bit extra special about Japan. And that's something I will keep with me forever, even as I let go of living in Japan and move forward in Germany.

Sayonara and arigatou.