Are you glad you came back?

Imagine you just made one of the biggest decisions of your life. You have no idea if it’s going to work out. You decided to go for it anyway. Once you’ve taken the leap, how do you know if it was a good choice? When I went bungee jumping for the first time the measure of success was pretty simple. I didn’t end up plunging head first into a raging river.

Not all decisions are going to come with such instant feedback, unfortunately.

When I left Japan, I imagined a life that would fall into place with relative ease. Perhaps that was naïve of me. I figured I would be able to find some sort of job that would let me live a modest lifestyle in or around Raleigh, where I went to college. That’s where the friends I have from before my time in Japan still live. I would then pursue a computer science certificate and perhaps after that a Masters. Not asking too much I think.

A job did not materialize immediately. I was fortunate enough to be able to spend my first summer focusing on my studies without any financial strain. Which was a good thing. If you’ve ever taken a college level course in Java or Discrete Math you already have some idea. Now, take all that academic pain and suffering, mix it together, and squeeze it out into half the time. I don’t think I’ll ever take two summer courses again if I can help it.

I did well though! Better than I ever did in school to be honest. It turns out if you actually study and do the work good grades aren’t as mythological as I once believed.

Then came the campaign. I tried for…like a week to do both the job as a field organizer and the next course in my program. Every one of my coworkers I mentioned my class to were shocked to hear I was attempting such a feat. The general consensus after I withdrew sometime later was “Yeah, that’s definitely a smart move.”

And it was. After a twelve-hour day, the last thing I wanted to do was bang my head against a wall of code salad. I lost about half the cost of the class when I withdrew so NCSU got a few hours of their new basketball coach’s salary on me. I’ll consider it money well spent if the team doesn’t completely suck next year. (I’d settle for beating UNC once.)

After finishing the campaign, I didn’t want to jump back into class without knowing what my working life would be like. I got started with the job search and have continued at a steady pace right up until now. Still no job. Hopefully it’s not because when you Google me the first thing that pops up is someone with my name who stole $50,000 to go to Hooters.

I haven’t answered the question yet. Can you blame me? There can be some heavy stuff wrapped up in such a question. When people hear that you made a major life change they want to know if you’re doing well. Decent people at least. If that’s not the case for you, what are you doing talking to jerks in the first place?

As for me, it’s hard to give a solid answer. I’m 34 years old and I live with my mother. Couple that with a strong interest in Japanese culture and that’s a dangerous combination on paper. I should just buy a Trilby and a body pillow. Lean into the skid so to speak.

But, I’m technically still a Millennial so the mainstream tells me I have some lee-way about my living situation. So that’s lucky.

Am I happy though? Well that’s honestly something I can’t answer. I’m certainly happy at certain moments of the day. Other parts not so much. Is that any different than anyone else? Have I achieved what I wanted when I left Japan? Not really. Are those things indefinitely out of reach? Probably not. Hopefully not. Am I better off today than I was a year ago? Again, hard to say. I’m pretty much in the same place I was a year ago. Except now Drumpf is President.

Not looking too good on the old “better off” scale. Sorry. I didn’t vote for him.

Anyway, if you came by for unending positivity, I’m not sure you really “get” the vibe I’m trying to cultivate here.

Why did you come back?

No one has said this to me in an accusatory tone…yet. It sounds similar to the other question, “Why did you leave Japan”. However, someone pointed out to me that it’s not the same at all. I could have gone anywhere in the world after Japan. I chose to go back to North Carolina. Why?

Before I came back I took a long trip across the country on the train. Partly because it was a little cheaper than a direct flight back and mostly because it seemed romantic. The truth is it was a little like riding in business class of an airplane for about 60 hours. It gave me time to decompress. I felt this would be a good idea since I had no idea what I would be doing with my life once I got back. Still don’t by the way.

I’m going to save a true description of my trip for another article, but it was a positive experience for sure. I got to experience four of my county’s most famous cities. L.A, New York, Washington DC, and Boston. I had only ever been to NYC before and that was back when I was a child. Well, Long Island doesn’t count, does it?

L.A was my favorite but that might be a little unfair since I spent the most time in that city. I don’t know if I would have the patience to settle down there. I wouldn’t get the hang of the “make a U-turn just where ever” driving culture. The weather was tops though. Chicago was nice if cold but the current President tells me it’s a war zone so I probably shouldn’t stay there. NYC is just the American Tokyo which was nice for nostalgic reasons. Boston has a nice small town feeling but I don’t like seafood enough to make the best of it.

Jokes aside, any one of those places I could have been comfortable, job permitting. That turns out to be easier said than done. A lot of people make this jump with an employment plan already lined up. That’s the sensible thing. Not me though. I was sure I’d find something so why worry?

It turned out to be harder than I expected.

Maybe I could have gone to Europe, blend in better. I might want to keep that option open depending on how things go over here.

But nope, North Carolina for me. Why though?

There’s something to the call of the familiar. I talked about feeling disconnected from the culture, in Japan. For all its faults, I like being from North Carolina. It makes up a big part of who I am. People who knew me over in Japan know well my fierce opinion that there is only one true kind of BBQ. Pulled pork with a vinegar based sauce. We can respectfully disagree over the style of meat, brisket and the like. If we’re talking pork though, there can be no compromise.

It’s those kind of baked in ideas, even if they’re over something as silly as a meat sandwich, that I missed. I preferred tonkotsu ramen as any right-thinking individual would. However, I could never feel for it on the level of someone from Fukuoka where it is a specialty.

The feeling goes beyond food of course. What it boils down to is a sense of place and reputation. We humans are quite good at wrapping up our self-worth in what other people might identify us by. I want people to like vinegar sauced pork BBQ because it is delicious. It also represents where I’m from and my own identity. I searched long and hard for a quality pork sandwich in Tokyo not only because I wanted to eat one. I wanted to show my friends something that speaks to who I am.

I’m sticking with the food metaphor because it is a clever way to frame the real reason I came home. I have been troubled with the way my state has been acting politically. Being part of the South means you could hardly call us “progressive” but we were once doing well compared to our neighbors. That changed in only the last few years. Now, however, one party is taking out their frustrations at having been in the minority for so long on the other.

I’ll let you guess who.

What gets me upset is that these folks are doing massive damage to our reputation without any real gain. They do it to spite people they hate for reasons that often seem to hinge on “you did it to us too.” The worst part the bending of the rules and rigging the system to stay in power. When these folks fall out of power they try to strip away what they can. It’s depressing that people can act this way in a place that’s supposed to be known for “hospitality”.

We’ve made some gains. It’s going to be a long hard fight from here on out. When I moved back I hadn’t planned on it being like this. But I’m glad I’m here if only to add my own weak voice to the swell of resistance. Finding a reason for being somewhere is never easy. At least here in my home I have roots to trace.

Do you miss Japan?

My first instinct is to hate you.

Again, this is one of those questions that seems like a good idea. It is easy to come up with and most folks think it’s simple to answer. Do you miss your dead cat? Or whatever might be the proper emotional equivalent, say playing football in high school or attending college in a trendy city. Why do we ask people all the time this sort of thing?

Oh, you really enjoyed something? Do you regret not having it anymore? Come on.

That’s my first instinct because I enjoy lashing out at strawmen of my own creation. The reality is this is a hard question to answer. People want to hear it I think, because it represents something all humans must experience.

Loss. Even if we’re not consciously thinking about it we want to know how other people handle this painful fact of life. I’m by no means an expert on the subject, I have had to cope with relatively little loss on the grand scale. Won’t stop me from trying.

Of course, I miss things about Japan. For example, not having to drive anywhere. At least once a month I’m caught behind a massive accident on the idiotically planned road that gets me from town to my home. People drive like idiots. I’m frankly shocked at just how blasé people can be about these multi-ton death machines they’ve been given control over.

Shocking little oversite as well. All I had to do to renew my license after years of being away was a road sign identification test. Google cars can’t come fast enough for me to be honest.

I could go on forever about how much I hate driving. It would be easier to just point out when I enjoy it. During a sunny day on an empty straight road with good music playing. That’s it. Trains are their own type of drag but at least you can take a quick nap on your way somewhere. Try that while driving and see how well it works out for you.

The other day I watched a video of a train leaving the station just for the memories. Nothing interesting or special about it. Only the most basic arrival and departure imaginable.

I miss it. I miss the friends I made. The friendships I had and the ones I missed out on because they entered my life too near to my departure. I made friends in literal classes on how to be funny. Some of my best I met while seated in parks underneath a rain of flower petals. I also made friends in bars who invited me to their weddings after a few (hundred) drinks. Then I got to know their kids as they grew from a thought experiment into actual tiny humans.

Those people are 5000 miles away from me now.

I suppose this is a part of growing older. Life is fluid especially when it comes to human relationships. Even if you stay in one place for all of your life chances are a number of folks you grow close to will leave. Maybe they’ll be gone only a few years, maybe you’ll never see them again. Chances are good you’ll miss them.

Or maybe not. Maybe they were objectively terrible.

Plenty of people have written and will undoubtedly continue to write about all the things they miss about Japan. The food, how everything is designed to be cute, the earthquakes, trains. Just kidding, nobody likes that constant cuteness design aesthetic.

It’s easy to miss the things you can experience on a vacation. Like beer vending machines. The harder things are the ones that took years to build. Things you can’t see on a JR Rail Pass or experience thanks to a guidebook. And this isn’t just limited to Japan. However, the answer to your question is quite different depending on who you ask.

The vacationer can use it as an excuse to describe the wonders of their trip. For the lapsed expat, it just reminds them of everything they gave up for hope of a better life. The only consolation is it gets easier with time. You focus on your life and goals. Days, weeks, and years pass. You hold tight to the good memories. New people enter your orbit and the friendships can be just as strong.

Or maybe not. Such is life. Don’t worry about it.

Do you regret leaving?

Yes.

And no.

It’s complicated.

It’s too early to tell if I should regret leaving or not. Do I regret going to Japan in the first place? Not at all. I look back at all the good things in my life and they’re a result of my time in Japan. Even the things I gained here back at home are products of the person Japan molded me into.

This might come off as too simplistic but it’s impossible to know what my life would be like right now if I had stayed in Japan. The same goes for having stayed in North Carolina instead. What would my life be like if I had moved to California after college?

I think it’s important to ponder these questions. Dwelling too long on them is not likely to be healthy, however. In some ways, my time in Japan is more real than my life before leaving America. Is that strange to say? It’s hard to remember what I was like back then. I remember thinking I was too fat even though I weigh perhaps, thirty pounds more than when I was in college. I still think I’m too fat but at the same rate as before my time in Japan.

Drinking was a big part of college but it doesn’t come close to what I did in Japan. It’s been so long since I’ve had any alcohol it’s hard to remember what that was like. Not what it was like to be drunk mind you. I can still pull off a pretty decent imitation. Rather what it was like to be a drunk. Noun version instead of the adjective. I suppose the difference is just one of duration.

Often, I would look up at the skyline of Tokyo during sunset and pause. I would think “I’m in Japan” as if that was the greatest thing in the world and the culmination of all my ambitions. The problem was, that is exactly what it was. When I left, I had no other idea or plan except “Live in Japan” full stop. I think it’s similar for many foreigners who end up there. The expats who stay the longest can look up at that sky and think “I’m in Japan and…”

Finishing that thought is the hardest part of living there. I saw many of my friends pull it off. Many others couldn’t. Do I regret leaving? Still hard to say. I was missing that piece. I didn’t have anything solid I could point to as a life victory. Is failure simply the absence of success?

I hope not. I don’t like to think of myself as a failure. That played a big role in my hesitation. The idea of failing this great life experiment of mine called living in Japan. I confessed as much to my closest friend when I was first thinking about leaving.

He told me to flip the script. It’s not running from failure but towards opportunity. Just because it hasn’t shown itself doesn’t mean it isn’t just over the horizon. The best thing to do is to keep running. Trouble is metaphorical running is the hardest kind.

And I’m still so fat and out of shape.

Metaphorically speaking.

Shit…

Why Did You Leave?

People ask me this question and likely think they’re doing me a favor. Maybe I’m being too harsh. I suspect most people believe that the easiest question for them to come up with is also the easiest question for me to answer. The transitive power of inquiry or something like that.

The real question they’re asking is “Why did you decide to upend your life and start over from scratch?”

Much more difficult to answer.

To be fair, I’ve asked a similar question of the many people I’ve known who’ve also left Japan. “Why are you leaving?” It’s a common experience when you’re living abroad. People enter your life and the bond is strong due to the fact you’re both outsiders. Eventually, people leave. Not all, but many. I remember how impressed I was whenever I met someone who’d lived there for more than five years. The general consensus at the time was five years was the point of no return. A signpost signaling your last chance to escape. A lot of people heeded the warning and left before then. Many waited until much later or not at all.

For me it took nine years.

That’s not to say I gave myself any kind of ultimatum. Nine is just the number of years it took. When I left the US in 2007 I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. Still don’t. I had a degree in English that I had barely scraped together from the remnants of a failed Chemistry career. The Great Recession happened right after I left and Japan seemed like a good place to wait it out. Nine years later I woke up and realized nothing much had changed. It’s not a fun thought.

Tokyo is an amazing city. Safe, fantastic food, best public transit in the world, top notch art and nightlife. Living there is truly a joy. For a time. Nothing comes without drawbacks and living in Tokyo is expensive. I’ve recently discovered that many cities in the US are even more expensive, which comes as a shock. Still, if I had been better off financially I probably would have never left. Admitting that makes me sound so mercenary, going wherever the coin is best.

There’s a difference between greed and wanting stability.

I wasn’t able to care about anything other than “am I going to have enough money to make it this month”. That’s draining. Had I stuck it out another year I might have been able to get to that point of financial comfort. Things seemed to be heading in a positive direction. Not quite fast enough but it didn’t seem impossible.

So why did I give up only a little bit from the finish line? That’s trickier to explain. The metaphor I’ve come up with for the foreigner experience Japan is this.

Imagine a snow globe.

Inside it’s quite pretty and interesting when you shake things up. If you’re inside the globe though, there’s an invisible wall surrounding you. There’s only so far that you can go in any direction. Some people build themselves a bigger globe or a prettier village on the inside but there will always be this hidden limitation on everything you do. If I’m being honest that was what wore on me the most. Another friend of mine who left years ahead of me said something along the lines of he was tired of “being treated like an unwelcome guest.”

The dark secret of living in Japan is, to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, “house guests are like fish, after three days they begin to smell.” It’s hard to shake a similar feeling from Japan in general if you are a foreigner. It’s just the Japanese are too polite to grab you off the street and kick your ass out the door.

Like we do now in America.

Don’t get me wrong, just like everywhere in the world, the Japanese on a person to person basis are fantastic. I made many lifelong friends while over there that would’ve done anything to help me out. I would do the same in return. It’s just the pervasive feeling of not belonging that wore me down. I thought I might have better opportunities back in America, a completely non-unique thought.

Little did I know that I might be worthless to just about any employer since I haven’t participated in the economy for nearly a decade. Yes, I swear those companies on my resume exist. Yes, that’s a real phone number. No, I don’t have two years of office experience, I was a teacher. How hard can it be though?