Before the drip
Updated: Jul 11
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I have never lived independently anywhere but Tokyo. I was born in Edinburgh, in Scotland, but I know this place a thousand times better than the city of my birth: all of its interesting cracks and familiar crevices. I am ethnically completely Caucasian, but I am bicultural; my heart is now partially Japanese, whether I wanted it or not. I grew into myself in a place that is 99.9% ethnically Japanese, and which values ‘Japaneseness’ above all else. When I go back to the UK I feel like a foreigner.
I know where’s good on a Tuesday night (tip: don’t hold your breath, this isn’t Seoul); where the only decent Mexican restaurant in Tokyo, perhaps Japan, is; why Jiro is totally overrated and where’s better; where the best people-watching can be found. I’ve made the best friends of my life here and had some of the weirdest, most rarefied experiences here.
I realise every time I go abroad that living in a foreign country – and by ‘living’, I mean truly immersing yourself in the language and culture rather than floating on the easy, English-speaking top as an expat or an English teacher – fundamentally changes you. If you have had to navigate the trials of daily life in an unfamiliar language, you can’t help but gain confidence in your own capabilities; you’re less easily embarrassed; you’re more willing to ask for help. One of my greatest flaws used to be not being able to ask for help when I needed it, but now I ask for directions like a champ – watch me. I used to be very shy; Japan, ironically enough, the country of self-described ‘very shy’ people, made me bold.
This country has given me a lot, but it has taken a lot, too. While I would be the first to recommend it as a two-week holiday destination to anybody, it is not an easy place to live, and the Japanese are not easy people to live with. The country envelops you with one welcoming arm – clean, accessible, safe, convenient, helpful – while pushing you away with the other. No matter what you do, no matter how good your Japanese, no matter how long you live here or whether your spouse and offspring are wholly or part Japanese: you will never be one of them, and they never fail to remind you of it. ‘The Japanese are so friendly!’ is an oft-repeated phrase that never fails to draw a wry smile from me. Polite? Yes, very. Friendly? Not so much.
I’ve changed a lot since I first came here; Japan hasn’t, not really, and I’ve come to realise that this isn’t a country where I – the me I am now – could live forever. As someone who loves the company of others, loves chance meetings, loves getting to know someone new, loves human interaction in general, Japan has begun in the last few years to feel like a comfortable cage for me. I always refused to become ‘that foreigner’ – the bitter one propping up the bar, complaining about everything, to which my imagined response was always: ‘If you don’t like it, why don’t you leave?’
But I’ll say it here: I’m tired of being conspicuously foreign; I’m tired of the same conversations over and over; I’m tired of being talked about in front of me; I’m tired of so many things right now, even though there are just as many things I’ll miss, which will probably only truly hit home when I’m living in America and can’t cycle to the convenience store along the street at 2am for a sekihan onigiri and a box of green tea to drink with a straw.
And so I come to the point of this post. I am typing this at the Admiral’s Club Lounge at Narita Airport, half an hour before my flight is due to board. I have told a few close client friends already, but I made the decision a couple of months ago to leave Japan for good. I have a British passport and Japanese permanent residency, but being a contrary type, I have chosen the great US of A to be my new home for the time being. For one thing, I’ve always liked American men.
I have never lived in America before and have no idea if I’m going to stay there permanently, but I’m going to give it the old college try for a while at least (a year to begin with, with copious international travel planned: I can’t stay still for more than about three weeks in any one place). Americans, teach me your ways. I look forward to learning about your culture. I need to learn Spanish.
I will be starting in Austin, Texas, as I have friends there, but will be visiting New York, Washington DC, Chicago, and San Francisco in the next few months, as I have client friends in those places too. A Hong Kong trip is in the cards for February, as is perhaps Australia in March (you were so good to me last time, Australia!). A Vegas trip has to happen at some point, too: I’m currently accepting applications for travel partners. Those I have met before, I look forward to meeting you again Stateside; those I haven’t met yet who have so kindly sent notes, gifts, enquiries and encouragements to visit: I can’t wait to meet you.