Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Reflections after a year in Japan

We’ve been here for over a year now. It’s funny because we’re at the point where we feel really comfortable here. We’re used to our Japanese life. Sure we still get mail we can’t read. Yes, we basically just figured out our phone. No we can’t read food labels yet. Overall though, it feels normal to be the only foreigner at the grocery store (or school or anywhere really), hear the shrine bells toll every night and pay bills at 7-11.

I guess we’re at the point where we’ve got everything figured out about as much as we’re going to given that we’re not really trying too hard to learn Japanese. (Although lately our teachers have been commenting that we're speaking more these days...) This is the point I reached when I lived in Madrid and Buenos Aires (except there I was learning the language). I usually move on at this point. Once you’ve worked through the cultural differences and language barriers, you start to figure out how to incorporate things from your culture that you need to thrive in a place long term. Then it feels almost too easy and it seems like time to challenge yourself again.

For instance, we’ve sorted out how to make our favorite non-Japanese foods, how to order English books online, how to watch the Twins ( package), how to watch shows from home, etc. (Do you notice how important the internet is for us?) Maybe we’ve been doing too much of this. We should probably be doing more Japanese cooking, for instance. However, in order to live abroad for a longer period I think you have to balance immersing yourself in the culture and staying sane by retaining aspects of your culture. Some days Japan is just too much and we find refuge in our house full of ENGLISH books, music, shows, friends. You have to balance comforting and challenging yourself. Sometimes just being away from home this long is a challenge and sometimes Japan just makes us crazy. Though sometimes I think it's the starting over and striving to create balance in a new environment that makes me so addicted to traveling/living abroad.
“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.” – Cesare Pavese

We find some things about Japan amazing. Like the quiet spaces in shrines, temples and nature power spots. We love walking up into the mountains around our house and walking around the big lake. We love our students, both youth and adults. Some things about Japan just seem stifling or depressing though, like the formality, protocols and impenetrable language.

I bet once we go home for a visit we’ll notice how living here has affected us in ways we haven’t even noticed. How we’ve over-adopted the gestures and mannerisms since we don’t speak the language. The politeness (can't wait to accidentally bow at some one). Sometimes I think their self-discipline is rubbing off on me. We’ll see.

Maybe part of this is a matter of being a bit older, as we are. I remember studying and traveling abroad when I was younger. I was willing to give up more of myself then. Now I feel a little more set in my ways. I know what’s good for me and I want to figure out how to give it to myself. Maybe that’s why I’m still practicing yoga and haven’t taken up judo. Or why I’m baking breads and not eating fish.

Now that we’ve created a platform of normalcy here, I hope we can continue to challenge ourselves to learn about Japan and really experience it to the fullest. Having more visitors come in the next few months should help.
“Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” – Miriam Beard

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