Jan 9, 2008


When I returned to Japan last week, one of my Japanese coworkers said "Welcome home!" to me as I walked into work. She meant well, and was sincerely glad to see me, but nevertheless, it felt somewhat wrong. I'd just been home, my real home, and was wishing I was still there even as I got off the plane.

I'd briefly been back to the States in the summer, but that was only for a few days. I saw people for maybe an hour each at the most, didn't have much time to take anything in, and was soon back in Japan. This time, though, I was stateside for over two weeks, ample enough time to fool myself into thinking that I still lived there.

It was good, and also disorienting. Two weeks back brought to light how much Japan has changed me, if anything because I felt like I had a bowling ball in my gut from suddenly eating so much heavy American Christmas food. My innards, which have become used to rice and fish, were suddenly lugging around cheese, turkey, and meat, a gastronomic signal that I was somewhere else. Make no mistake, though- I loved every cheesy hors d'ouvres that I scarfed down there.

It was also bit odd to use English so much in the outside world. I use English all the time here- I teach it, I speak it with my coworkers and girlfriend, and I read English material all of the time. But the outside world is obviously different. It's as if there's a sort of barrier between my English world and Japanese world. I spend lots of time on little islands of English-ness that are surrounded by Japanese. The Japanese world is something that needs to be solved and negotiated, a place where I need to be conscious, listen, think, etc. This is not a bad thing at all- the heightened sense of awareness and such that I have being surrounded by a foreign language and culture is an incredible sensation.

So, it was strange to not have that sensation about me anymore. In the States, everything was suddenly familiar, banal, and comforting all at once. I'd stopped being conscious of always being in "Japan-mode." I'd gotten so accustomed to having to puzzle out what signs mean, make do with approximate meanings, and generally guess as to what was going on, that I had forgotten, a bit, the precision and sharpness that a native language can offer.

Everything was sharp and navigable- absurd as it may sound, "hello" is still more readily understandable to me than "konichiwa." This is wholly irrational, as "konichiwa" was one of the few Japanese words I knew before I got here, and it's a simple word that I use every single day. I even say it to my American coworker, just to be eccentric. And yet, to hear a clear, native speaker "hello," from strangers, one with rising and falling intonation, one with a perfectly shaped "l" sound, was jarringly wonderful.

What's more, much of the English that I use on a day to day basis is for the benefit of people who have a fairly low level when it comes to speaking. When I meet someone new, I have to feel out over the course of the first few minutes of the meeting how good their English is, and even with the most advanced speakers I can't whip out the advanced stuff. Even my most advanced students would have no idea what I meant if I said "Orwellian," "snobbish," or "verbose," for example. Knowing that I could say those things to someone I just met was a liberating feeling.

But of course, the best part of my trip back was seeing my family and friends. With my friends in particular, I was impressed that I'd been gone for a year and that hanging out was remarkably normal. I'd been gone, we'd been out of contact, and that didn't matter- I was at home among awesome people whom I know will still be there when I come back at some future point. The knowledge that I have such wonderful friendships back home put my mind at ease far more than being able to use my native language. You guys rock, I love you all, and I miss you.

Now, I'm back in Kanto, here for another year, and I'm wondering what I'll learn.


Joseph said...

Hey, you stole my heartfelt coda! 'Cause it's, you know, impossible that you felt the same way I do. 'Cause that never happens.

SonicLlama said...

All your heartfelt coda are belong to us.