I have always been an outsider. Even back in my country of origin I was always left of center, on the outskirts looking in at everyone else who knew how to interact with others, how to be popular and not weird. I was always a strange one. When I left in my early 20s and headed out for other places, my trusty ‘teaching English as a foreign language’ certificate in hand, I was glad to be gone. There is a lot to say about others accepting you as ‘not from there’, as ‘different’, as somehow disadvantaged culturally and at a loss socially. It is an easier sell being strange for being foreign, instead of just being fucking odd.
I have looked at America as an outside. Tokyo got lost in translation, until I learnt how to speak enough and read enough to know what mundanity was going on around me, and all those illusions of interesting and mystical happenings turned into ordinary, everyday lives, albeit lived somewhat differently and with different expectations to the ones I had been raised with. When I first had children the most difficult thing to accept was not being able to find solid children’s shoes, and pushing their feet into unfitted sneakers. I felt like a bad mother, I felt at a loss. I felt as if I was doing something reckless with their feet. It kept me awake at night dreaming of leather mary janes, and solid little kickers. Hopeless. The same went for the impenetrable drug stores. I wanted a good old fashioned chemist. I wanted products that looked familiar, instead of ‘kampo’ traditional medicine that smelt like death and tigers tails, mandrake roots and bear bile, while the snakes in alcohol sat picking dustily in the window.
It felt somewhat easier seeing things as they were as it was all so new and fresh to me, so out of the ordinary and different. A little like how we can never smell our own homes, nose blindness overtakes our senses and we can’t distinguish (thankfully) the smell of damp or musk, or the taint of cat pee soaked into a corner rug. It is difficult to see and feel and hear the good and the bad once you get used to it.
I came to the conclusion that the ‘wa’ was everything. The harmony and pulling together for team nippon was more important than the individual, and the reality of existing as non-japanese within that paradigm was enough to upset the balance of life. When I was first there I rankled at signs outside restaurants and bars saying ‘no foreigners’. Why should I be banned simply for not being Japanese? It made me antsy. Gave me a huge chip on my shoulder. Made me growly and irritated. The people who took photos of me and my mixed babies without our permission, making me feel like a minder for some famous star incited me to loud rants in rude Japanese. I felt objectified. I felt in exile. I felt apart. I was turned away from hospitals even though I had health insurance, told that they couldn’t treat foreigners. I cried at the spotlight being on me. I cried at the knowledge that I could not be accepted. I soon bucked my ideas up, came to terms with the rules of life and engagement, and started to smell the cherry blossoms.
People generally were simply interested, even if it was in a vaguely unpleasant way. I started to be able to feel more comfortable in society, and as the years passed I became less of an unusual sight and more of a fixture. I always felt as if I was in exile, but not necessarily as if that was a bad thing. Any brief visits back to the country of my origin, which was never my ‘home’, even if others labelled it that way, left me feeling cast adrift.
Slang had moved on, culture had left me in the dust wondering what on earth was happening. People and the world, their interests and their societal happenings had gone on without me and left me feeling discombobulated. I was no longer acclimatized. I no longer had blind to the faults. Conversely, feeling like a tourist can give a whole new sense of wonder at something that was once mundane. I was a stranger in the place I allegedly belonged, yet have never felt at home in, and that suited me just fine.
It has now been over two decades, an overwhelmingly large portion of my adult life that has passed since I lived there full time. I have not even seen it for over 12 years. I have no desire to. In fact I hate the country of my birth with a passion. I consider them to have let me down horribly. I simply let em go by and hold onto San Francisco with both hands.
America was a different matter. Tokyo remained opaque as long as I could not speak or read. America allegedly speaks the same language…except it doesn’t. America does not speak the same kind of English, doesn’t speak the same cultural lingo, doesn’t exist within the same parameters. Like ‘ false friends’ when learning a language, the words might be the same, but the intent is not. The culture shock when I first went to NYC was no less than pulling into Tokyo for the first time. America speaks English, and yet it is a very different beast. For someone who is forever ‘foreign’ and will always be so, I certainly have developed a strong loyalty for my adopted home.
It is hard to explain to my friends who know the America of the movies, the America they like to sneer at and look down upon as being ‘dumb’ or ‘overly patriotic’, the America that exists only in their imaginations and prejudices. It is hard to explain that we are not all hollywierds, nor are we all ducking bullets every time we go out for our overpriced avocados and bubble tea. It is almost impossible to get through to some people that we are not living in a state of constant warzone terror. I suppose I am almost inured to the pops and buzzes and sometimes downright mortar firework explosions that punctuate my nights. I count my evenings in ones where no one is drunkenly vomiting and shouting outside my window, and ones where I fear for the combatants against booze, drugs, and life itself. I have come to the conclusion that sometimes our own worst enemy is ourselves.
I admit to feeling a flutter of emotion at seeing the stars and stripes fluttering in the breeze, a small swell of pride at freedom. Sometimes, when I see the flag turned into a banner for hatred, racism and ill intent I am more American than I care to admit: that shit makes me furious. Since when has ‘freedom’ been a dirty word? Since when has freedom’s pretty face been tarnished by the patina of hatred? Since when has wearing a teeshirt with the word ‘freedom’ on it been a sign that one is ‘up to no good’ like a map to a fabled school in the hands of a freedom fighting nerd in glasses with a lightening scar on his forehead? I don’t much like it. Freedom’s good name has been slurred.
I might be forever an outsider, never accepted as part of the furniture, as one of ‘you’. I lose hope of ever being able to sit here in the knowledge that I am a free and accepted and legal member of society in the country I love so dearly. Like the late and great Leonard Cohen once sang, “like a bird on a wire…I have tried in my way to be free….” Now that is not something that we are encouraged to be. We are encouraged, nay forced, to toe the line, to obey the edicts, to believe the doctrine as it is presented to us, no questions asked, or else be labelled an enemy, unfit to survive or thrive. We all like, I suppose, to have the rest of the herd say that we are good members of it. After all, our survival depends on others approval, now in this age of upvotes and cancelling, more than ever. I was never much good at doing that. I go my own way. I suppose, I cannot then be surprised when the herd turns on me, woolly minded and vicious, and rips my throat out.
I love America. I love you dearly. I love it from coast to coast. I love the independence and the sheer strength of will. I love the struggles that have a chance of winning. I love America despite not being blind to her faults due to familiarity with her from childhood. My love for America and its freedom is a more grown up proposition. I am scrappy. I am a fighter. I am a survivor, and so are the rest of you out there who share the land on which I live. What can I see….keep surviving….sensibly.