Returning “Home”

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It’s been over two months since my last blog post but perhaps you’ve ascertained my blogs are inspired rather than regular. I would be remiss if I didn’t reflect on my recent two week trip back to Japan, my twice former home of seven years.

I couldn’t contain my excitement getting on the plane to Tokyo. I thought back to my return to England last February, six months after moving away. I was chuffed and eager to be back in a place where people knew how to queue up, were often annoyingly polite, and I could have all the English Breakfast tea and scones I wanted. And pubs! (Of course, it’s easy to remember the positives!) However, the giddiness I felt boarding my Alitalia flight last month hit a whole new level. Couple that with traveling with a friend who’d never been to Asia before, let alone Japan, and well, you get it. The food. The lights. The people. The shopping. The kindness. The neverending vending machines. I was ready. When I finally touched down at Narita, I would have a minimal language barrier, know exactly what to do, instantly know where to go, imagine what food to order. I’d be back in my old stomping grounds: the familiar, the comfortable. Once I got a Japanese data SIM card at the airport to more easily communicate with friends there, I felt completely back to “normal”. Or what was my normal.

Later that day, as my plane landed in Fukuoka, I saw the bright neon-lit signs and a huge wave of relief rushed over me. The pressure I’d been feeling over the past year and a half retreated and I almost cried tears of joy just being able to chat with the taxi driver who chauffeured me to my friend’s apartment in Yoshizuka. (Even typing those last words made me teary-eyed!) Despite all of the contemplation and reflection with regards to my time in Japan, clearly, I’d still underestimated its influence – its lasting impact. I was and am thankful.

I spent the first week back in Japan, revisiting favorite places in the south, specifically Kitakyushu (my old city), Fukuoka (another nearby bigger city I know well), and Yamaguchi, and of course, connecting with old friends over nomihoudai (all you can drink), izakaya (Japanese-style taverns with tapas), and that famous tonkotsu (pork bone-based) ramen. A major highlight was seeing some of my old genki (energetic) students and warm former coworkers at my old school. It’s a weird feeling going around a place you used to live, doing things as if you still actually live there, when you really don’t. Things like grabbing a can of beer from a convenience store on the way home, using an IC chip card on public transport, getting pumped when paying with exact change just so you can hear the cashier say “chodo” (“exact change” in Japanese). Weaving through the underground shopping arcades packed with holiday shoppers was a breeze and navigating those back alley streets of Fukuoka’s Tenjin were once again liberating. My heart wanted to burst at every reunion I had with great friends who became my extended family there, but it was moments like staring up at the “skyline” of Shibuya Crossing, noticing what things had changed about Nishitetsu buses, and seeing Mt. Fuji at sunset over Shinjuku on my last day that gave pause for the most learning, reflection, and gratitude for my relationship with Japan.

I really could not have predicted the feelings, emotions, and thoughts that overwhelmed me throughout the entire trip. In the middle of my time down in my old area, I experienced a striking realization. I’d spent more time living in Japan than I had living in the Seattle area, where my family and I moved in 2002. Post-move from Virginia, I finished the last two years of high school and a couple summers there with intermittent trips for the holidays. Nevertheless, I continue to call it home because my parents, dogs, and best friends from high school are there. The people are class, the community is close, and I finally have professional sports teams to cheer for! And I do love the fresh air, the coffeehouses, the Puget Sound. While the amount of time spent living in a place doesn’t always matter, it finally hit me that in the case of my time in Japan, it did. I felt torn, wondering, “Do I feel more comfortable, at ease, here than I would back in the Pacific Northwest now after living abroad for eight years?” That feeling itself is uncomfortable and comes with a certain amount of guilt.

I recall a quote from the legendary traveler and author, Pico Iyer. “Home is not just the place where you happen to be born. It’s the place where you become yourself.” It serves as a reminder that my home has morphed into a collection of my experiences both still and alone – and also with some of the best people on the planet. As an adult, it is a rare, perplexing thing to have an increasingly difficult time answering the question, “Where are you from?” Someday I hope to be able to give an exceptional, honest answer that encompasses it all, but until then, either a long-winded explanation or a whimsical quip will have to do.

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