My brother looks like a little beanpole. He’s riding his skateboard into an infinite sky. There are no mountains here, just small paved hills that nevertheless provide a challenge for willowy 10 year old legs. I ride by him on my bike. We pass by all the small silent suburban castles, each window reflecting the changing sky, from bright blue to shimmering purple and pink, and finally to resolute navy.
It’s been one month since I left Japan, and I’m transitioning back home. Moments like these reconnect me to life in Texas. A lot of people might share they’ve moved back in with their family with some shame. A year ago you could count me among them. I think there’s something a little American in the struggle for independence no matter the cost. A Japanese friend of mine once said, “My impression of Americans is everyone’s a hero of their own story”.
This struggle is partially the reason why I left for Japan. After leaving college and holding odd jobs for about a year, living paycheck-to-paycheck with my then-partner, I felt lost and needed to be independent. Since middle school I had a little dream of living in Japan, so I decided, it was time.
“Our insistence on raw individuality at all times leads to neglect of our communities and loss of sense of belonging” -Tanaka, Ocean
Now here’s a disclaimer, I am not a mystical, magical window into Japan. Live somewhere for a year and you’ll be lucky to call it home. Awaji Island became that. Language barriers, borders, politics, preconceptions lead us through a place with only a voyeur’s understanding. I experienced plenty of that surface gaze in some of my travels. But stay somewhere for a decent length of time, learn the language, have conversations, challenge your assumptions, and the curtain is pulled back.
It’s this pulling back that I sought by living in Japan. I left a year ago with plenty of preconceived notions, perhaps that I can write about later. What I didn’t expect to learn, however, and the most valuable teaching Japan could give me, was a lesson on interdependence.
My first day at work I rode my bike to school. Picture something hipster but rusty, with no gears and razor thin tires. A few wrong turns down some rice paddies later, I got to school late. I went about my day as well as I could, with too many “sumimasen”s (I’m sorry, or excuse me) and finding out the meaning of “atsui” (hot).
At the end of that August day I left school to find my back bike tire completely flattened. I walked my bike toward home, and it started raining. Of course, this being the first time I’ve come home from school, I got lost. What should have been a 20 minute walk turned into wandering around in the rain for an hour. My work clothes soaked, I imagined the silent passengers in all the little cars looked at me with pity. Eventually I ran into an elderly man working inside a warehouse garage. Inside I could hear a little Shiba dog barking. I uttered a “doko” (where) and the name of my apartment. He pointed to where my apartment was and said a lot of Japanese directions I didn’t understand. He handed me an umbrella. He crossed his arms, pointed to the umbrella, and said, “No Back”. I went on my way and found my apartment just down the road.
From that small kindness I was carried through my time on Awaji. That’s not to say that such kindness can’t be found anywhere in the world. It can. It’s just, the magnitude of my reliance on people was so great I couldn’t avoid noticing it any longer. For all the people who interpreted, translated, and taught me Japanese, for the ladies who cooked me hot meals in exchange for English lessons, for the kids who wrote me thank you notes, for the friends who made me laugh and made Awaji my second home, I couldn’t be more thankful. Yes, there’s a lot accomplished, but with these multiple hands I became a better teacher, welcomed art-making back into my life, and peeled back some of those notorious layers around the heart.
Back at home it’s a little like being in Rivendell. There’s delicious beer and tall elven people and everyone seems to know my language, some people even know my second language. I can also get to know my blended family a bit better (now 8 when everyone’s under one roof, which is its own kind of culture shock). For now this interdependence is a welcome respite and a chance to design the next chapter of the journey. I am no longer fighting dependence or clawing at independence. Instead, I visit my hometown, not just to eat the most delicious Mexican food this side of the border, but also to visit my grandfather and fully comprehend my grandmother’s passing. I’ve seen old friends and new, and listened to some of the awesome things they’ve been up to since I’ve been away.
If I could give anyone advice on coming back home it would be to greet all changes with open arms, and meet your loved ones where they are at instead of how you remember them. It’s gonna be uncomfortable sometimes. Maybe friends have moved on, family members have formed new or different relationships. Your journey is your own and theirs is theirs.
In the meantime, I seek threads back to fond memories of the past year. My brother and I watch Doraemon, my sis and I watch Attack on Titan. I read the Japanese characters on the miso soup label, and heave a sigh of relief walking into the Asian supa. Little trinkets and photos unpacked from my suitcase remind me of memories still fresh. The love’s still felt, and these little threads cherished. I rely on my family and my friends near and far to carry me through this transition.
It’s dark, so my brother takes his skateboard and returns inside. I stay out and continue my ride. People are walking their dogs and streetlights shine orange. The sky is dark enough, and I remember what the silhouette of the mountains looked like, black, dormant, sleepy, against a gray hazy sky.