Homeland Insecurity

After six productive years in Japan, Rob Volansky made the reluctantly inevitable move back to the States. That was more than a year ago. Wonder how he’s doing? Let him tell you.

A fellow American who had been living in Japan for several years left the country a few months before I scheduled to return to the States myself. We threw him a sayonara party, and off he went. Two days later, a handful of us received an e-mail from him. It was one line.

“What have I done?”
So it was with much apprehension and perhaps a small amount of self-flagellation that I cleaned out my cozy Sapporo apartment and packed up my things after six years of onsen and sushi, matsuri and Asahi Super Dry. And powder snow; that sweet Hokkaido powder.

That is the stuff I knew I would miss. I had a suspicion there would be more acutely Japanese things that would float in my memory once I returned to the U.S. Of course, I was right. I could fill these pages listing all the tidbits of Japan I have thought about in the year since I have been home.

But I won’t. That would probably be unproductive, not to mention detrimental to my mental health (which is pretty good, actually; thanks for asking).

Hanging on
What I can do is think about the positive ways living in Japan enriched my life. An easy example is ordering at Japanese restaurants. It feels entirely comfortable taking suggestions from friends in English and then asking for special extras from the obaa-san at the local izakaya-style restaurant here in Philadelphia. I wouldn’t be able to pull that off without some Nihongo.

Beyond that, I have come to value things I never would have appreciated had I not lived in Japan: cherry blossoms, vending machines and, sort of embarrassingly, small dogs and stuffed animals. Along the same lines, I have become a sucker for a person dressed up as the company mascot in some big furry costume.

(True story: I nearly crashed my car the other day because there was a guy standing out on the highway dressed in the cow suit associated with a chain fast-food restaurant called Chik-fil-A. The ad campaign involves said cow urging customers to “Eat moor chikin.” Who knew bovine survival instincts involved a keen understanding of concept marketing?)
I began to wonder if a deeper esteem for all things cute and pretty is really the most significant way Japan affected my life. It can’t be.

To be honest, though, I had to spend a fair bit of time thinking about this. So what I did was e-mail a few former ex-pats to see what they had been thinking about since they left Japan. Many of the answers, like mine, were predictable. Onsen, sushi, nomihodai, Niseko powder.

The long sayonara
There was one answer, though, that struck me. A friend of mine wrote at length about an awful scene at the airport as he said goodbye to his soon-to-be ex-girlfriend. Parts of that e-mail were difficult to read.

Yet it got me thinking about goodbyes, a much bigger part of the ex-pat experience than some of us realize.

Ex-pats are constantly coming and going. English teachers spend a year or two in a junior high school and then move on to another gig. Ski instructors do a hard six-month season and then follow the snow south. Corporate-types get transferred in and out of Tokyo or Osaka at will. Living overseas, you get used to forming fast, deep relationships, and then letting go just as quickly. It becomes second nature.

I like that I have the capacity to make friends quickly and to say goodbye to them without a great deal of fanfare. I attribute those skills to living overseas.

Knowing somebody may be leaving the country after a year or two allowed me to get past initial periods of apprehension or judgment. I speak English, you speak English, let’s be friends. We all have our unpleasant qualities. But I soon learned to streamline the process of acknowledging and accepting those things in the hope of finding the good in people.

This skill was especially helpful in forming relationships with Japanese people who are often more guarded about letting in newcomers. I found that persistent openness allowed me to form lasting friendships with Japanese people much more quickly than I had first thought possible.

See ya later, never goodbye
On the flip side, for many, goodbyes can be devastating. Like anything else, though, it gets easier the more you do it. This is not to say I take them lightly. But I have learned to appreciate the time I have had with people, to cherish the memories and to let go.

It’s also comforting to know that, in this day and age, the world is small, travel is (relatively) affordable and communication, in its many forms, is easy. In many ways, sayonara doesn’t always mean goodbye anymore.
You form unique friendships in Japan, for a variety of reasons, the most notable of which is aside from doing all the usual “friend” things, getting to know someone always comes with a unique cultural backdrop. If your friend is a fellow foreigner, you get to experience Japan together. If they are Japanese, exchanges often come naturally as you learn about each other.

And let’s not forget that if you spend enough time with someone in Japan, you are likely to see them naked. (Long live onsen!) This adds a depth hard to find in other places.

Some of the friendships I made in Japan remain. Some have evaporated, leaving only vague memories of wild nights of karaoke or a few brief conversations on a ski lift. But I value them all and know they could not have happened anywhere else in the world.