Every trip is a new look into yourself.
It’s been a year since I’ve set foot on American soil. In that time, I’ve had some of my family and friends come over here to visit and I’ve video chatted with others. I’ve kept up as best I can, doing my best to bridge the Pacific Ocean. The disconnect with my previous American life was in some ways small.
Additionally, even though this stay is my longest continuous stay outside of my birth country, I have been on a short 40-ish day trip to Japan previously as well as having lived a half year in southern China. I experienced real culture shock after that first Japan trip, coming back with a strange hatred of America that lasted a month or so.
This time, however, there wasn’t any real culture shock. Not the psychological mind-affecting sort that changes your personality and makes you hate a country you previously adored.
What had changed were my habits.
Since coming to Japan, I’ve developed a solid routine. Maybe it’s the fact that starting a new job coincided with a new life abroad. I do much the same thing day-in, day-out. Learning that success is not about what you do consciously—it’s what you do habitually (it’s why it’s the “Seven Habits of Highly Successful People” and not the “Seven Things Highly Successful People Do”)—has really influenced my life here. Making sure the things I do every day are productive and consistent is important. Once I do it for a few weeks, the psychology seeps in.
I wrote about my daily schedule before, and it’s changed little since then. I make sure to pick up some game or manga before bed. Arbitrarily I’ll have some idea of a goal in mind. Or perhaps a minimum. One new word. Something like that. If I haven’t hit it, I can’t sleep. And as someone who likes their 8+ hours of sleep every night, that’s a big deal.
These are my study habits, and my life-style ideals fall into a similar category. Be productive above all else. I’ll be social—I don’t have to worry about that. I’ll eat food—that’s a guarantee. But productivity isn’t a sure thing, and it’s only my odd habits that prop it up.
Conscious habits. I’m aware of them partly because I’m in the process of making them permanent and partly because I’m writing about them, forcing awareness. But before long, I won’t even see these as “habits”. They’ll just be some nebulous thing that this human being called Jōchō does. A part of who I am. Something that friends joke about. It’ll feel like I have no control over it—like it’s written into my genes. Like speaking our native language or walking, they started as learned habits that progressed into just a part of who we are.
In adapting to a new culture, we role play. We observe and adopt those mannerisms that we recognize as important. The first hundred times we point to our nose instead of our chest when referring to ourselves, we’re acting. But somewhere along the way, our mind takes over. Before long, instinct tells us that saying 「わたし？」 is accompanied by a pointing to our nose. No thinking—that’s a waste of effort if it’s unneeded, after all. Just doing.
In coming back to America, even for a short stay, there were habits I needed to overcome:
- Constant affirmations while talking. I had to stop myself from grunting and saying “yeah” and “uh-huh” while people were speaking.
- Not worrying about stuff being stolen. I’d had to get back into the habit of having my backpack strap wrapped around my leg, for instance, and not leaving my phone and wallet on the table when I went to the bathroom.
- Saying something before a meal. At home in Japan, I don’t often say 「いただきます」 before a meal if I’m eating alone. Sometimes, I will, but not often. But whenever someone makes me food, I always say it, 100% of the time. When my mother made me breakfast the first day I’d returned, I had to stop myself.
- Not so much bowing to a cop, but simply lowering my head whenever I was in someone’s way and putting my hand before myself if I’d been in error.
- Mixing up the blinkers and the windshield wipers in the car. Because Japan drives on the opposite side from America, the levers in a car do the opposite things. When I came to Japan, I’d often flick my left side for my blinkers and be rewarded with windshield wipers obnoxiously running around. Now I had to deal with that again.
- Waiting for cheers before drinking. What is this? You can just drink once your beers come around?
I had to role play being an American, essentially. The American Role Playing Game? What’s funny about these habits that I had to reconfigure for my stay in the states is that they’d be things I’d complain about life in Japan. I hate the formality of waiting for cheers and the needed structure and schedule for a party. But here I was in the states confused at when there was none. Even if I didn’t like it, it’d become a part of me in its own way.
The Nature of Vacations
Being on vacation meant that my life had no consistency. My plans were different every day. I had a bed to go to every night, but I slept in other places just as often. In spite of having a plan, I wasn’t really sure what each day was going to bring.
I wanted to be productive. Going to countries like Japan and China, and even my decision to go to college in a city instead of a small town were based around the notion of broadening my own borders. Improving myself, in some sense. Since coming to Japan, the notion of productivity has since been the new focus, but they’re all sides of the same coin. When I’d finished a day only hanging out with friends I hadn’t seen in a year and going to old, nostalgic places and eating great food, I’d basically wasted it. That’s what that strange voice in my head kept saying.
Friends would say “it’s a vacation” and “just relax”. But now I understand why my father would bring his computer with him to the beach or hotel. If there’s free time and you like being productive, then who cares if it’s a vacation. If you like your job, then every day is a vacation, or so some saying goes. What some people might perceive as “work” is fun to others. In the same sense, getting something done made me feel good. Why shouldn’t I do it on vacation?
Both the lack of productivity and the lack of consistency made me really think about life in America. I couldn’t live this way. But then again, this wouldn’t be my daily routine if I were living in America either. In the end, I wasn’t sure what to make of it.
The Simple Life
One of my friends I’d met along the way was from China. During our talk over coffee, I asked her what her plans were once she’d finished college. She was decidedly against staying in America for a funny reason: life was too consistent here. If you started working for a company you’d go and progress up a ladder. Things made sense. There was more uncertainty in China and that was appealing. I couldn’t disagree.
When I came back from Japan the first time, I was greeted by an asshole at customs in JFK international airport, obese individuals all around me as I waited for a pick up from Logan, and a general loudness that I didn’t care for. Coming from an airport where the staff tried as best they could to be friendly and get our stuff home without spending extra money (even going out of their way to tape something that wouldn’t fit in a bag to the outside of the suitcase so it wouldn’t be counted as an extra piece of luggage), it was a real reversal. I’m sure coming off a long flight didn’t help anything.
(Just so we’re clear, I don’t hate fat people. It was just a culture-shock-kind-of-experience coming from Japan, land of do-they-even-have-obesity?.)
But the other thing that bothered me was that I was surrounded by white people. 40 days in Japan where the only other white people by-and-large were members of my group had suddenly made the presence of them odd for me. Like something was wrong with the universe.
This time, the presence of white people didn’t bother me. What did “bother” me was that I blended in. What had been a struggle in Japan—acceptance in spite of my differences—was nonexistent here.
Life was easy. Too easy.
Not that my life in Japan is difficult. On the contrary, while not everything is easy, I don’t really struggle. What I do do, however, is learn without fail. And learn a lot, daily. My vacation in America had been fun, but easy, and without learning. And that was problematic for me at some level. Everything had been a bittersweet fun, tainted by what felt like purposelessness. What was there to learn about life at home? I could appreciate it, but it wasn’t fulfilling.
That isn’t to say I didn’t have a good time. On the contrary, I’d had a blast while I was back. It was great seeing so many friends and I wish I’d had more time to catch up with them. So little time.
But I came away with one important feeling: Boston was not the place for me right now.
Stepping back on Japanese soil was comforting. Japan is where I should be. For now, anyways. Not forever. I have few intentions to be here forever. But at this moment, I’m doing the right thing.
. . .
Just thought, uh, that you guys should know that. And that this blog isn’t going away anytime soon. 😛