Going to Japan was my big brother's idea. It turned out to be a good one.
I was in my fifth and final year as a music major with a minor in French, and he was ending a year's study in China. The plan, concocted and refined through letters I wish I could find, was relatively simple. We'd meet up in Germany, stay with friends and acquaintances all over Europe, acquire a black market ticket for the Trans-Siberian from Berlin to Beijing, stay for a while in Nanjing and Beijing, then hop a ferry for Tokyo, find jobs, make a pile of money and go home. It made perfect early-20s, just-out-of-college sense to both of us. The day before I left, I cashed the savings bonds my dad had thoughtfully provided for my future, which had clearly just arrived.
The trip had its share of minor miracles, the most important of which was that then-secretary of state James Baker visited Ulan Bator, Mongolia, two weeks before we were stranded there (thanks to our black market ticket). Using the shiny new satellite phone Mr. Baker had had installed, we were able to call home for money for a flight to Beijing. On the plane, we met a man who gave us the number of a cheap place to stay in Tokyo: Yoshida House Number 3. It was a gaijin house, basically a dorm for foreigners with shared kitchen, bathrooms and living room. The rooms were small and affordable, and the residents were fonts of information about how to survive in Tokyo.
Most conversations at Yo House included tales of how to jimmy the phones (a safety pin was the key here), get the best deals on food (go to the market late in the day), obtain a Thanksgiving turkey (order it three months in advance and be prepared to spend a whole lotta yen), make heaps of money selling crappy trinkets on the street (make friends with the gangs and be sure to pay protection money on time) and travel affordably (avoid bullet and express trains; take a ferry when possible). A vast and ever-evolving pool of information was handed down and around in the best oral tradition, and the ongoing exchange served social as well as educational purposes. The knowledge that someone at the house would gladly lend an ear or a shoulder made difficult days easier to take.
Even with the sympathies of the expatriate community, rough days were made rougher by being far from home. Receiving bad news on the communal phone from my nearly unintelligible mother and knowing I couldn't go home to help made me wonder why I was in Japan at all. So did missing two grandparents' funerals and my best college pal's wedding. These were the times the consequences of the location I'd chosen for my extended adolescence became bitterly clear.
In a category of its own was the moment during a tranquil spring walk in my second Japanese home, a small fishing and mining town where I had taken a yearlong position because Tokyo was making me nuts. A small child who had probably never seen a non-Japanese person screamed and ran from me while his mother stood by, tittering impotently.
As hard as it was not to take it personally, this was simply a quick and brutal lesson in how lost Japanese people can be when faced with a situation that has no prescribed rules. Japanese society is ruled by rigidly followed regulations and codes, from what level of honorific language is appropriate to use with a teacher down to what kind of trash bags you can use. (Clear, so the rubbish police can inspect your garbage. Really.) For the natives, these rules provide a structure in which everything runs smoothly. But there was no rule to tell that boy how to respond to my presence, and apparently the rule for responding to a child's rudeness was to giggle. Initially, I was too shocked by all of it to respond, but once I was a fair distance away, I cried as I walked, staring at my blurry shoes and not caring much about the looks I was getting as I headed for the safe haven of my apartment. This response was as far outside Japanese codes as the boy's behavior had been, but part of the joy of being a foreigner in Japan is choosing which rules to follow.
At work, I was duty-bound to follow the rules, which eventually irked me. I was an English Instructor, but my title should have been Dictionary-Bearing Court Jester. I was expected to answer questions like, "Does everyone in America own a gun?" with a straight face and keep the conversation flowing along in a lively fashion no matter the level of the students. Outside of work, utter strangers would approach me on the street, on the subway, in bars pretty much everywhere with the assumption that I'd be thrilled to help them practice their English. The questions were pretty harmless "Hello, how are you?" "What is your name?" "Where is your hometown?" The first few times, I answered truthfully; later, I might make something up, pretend to be deaf, scowl silently or tell the person they were being incredibly rude in rapid-fire British-accented English. Complying with these gentle assaults was part of the Japanese code I wasn't willing to go along with.
In spite of the times I felt like an object of Western Culture, there were a lot of beneficial things about living in Japan. The sense of invincibility that sprouted in me the first time I communicated in Japanese, and understood the response, lives on. After negotiating the national health system and the Tokyo subways, nothing upsets, deters or throws me for long. And I will always remember the graciousness of the Japanese friends who included me in their plans, whether it was taking me to lunch to present me with a kimono or going out for a night of drunken karaoke and unidentifiable snacks.
One could argue that these experiences and lessons could have happened to me no matter where I was. But having them happen where everything is different the smells, the sounds, how people look, dress and act gave them the impact of a bellyflop. A sharp sting, a lasting pain, something you remember for a long time even if it never happens again.
A few months ago, I was standing in line in my local post office, a miserably inadequate hovel that is the frequent, fruitless subject of neighborhood meetings. At the counter, a man from another country was trying to send money home. The clerk was trying to make him understand that he could not say "cash" on the customs declaration, and that if he did, the money would be confiscated by customs agents. Several times, the man filled out a new declaration slip and put down "cash" as the contents. Several times, the clerk reiterated the problem and urged him, oddly, to lie to put down "photos" or "book." The man, pinned between wanting his package to be sent and not understanding why he couldn't be honest about what was in it, was lost at sea.
Standing there, irritated at having to wait, worried about being late to work, the former English teacher in me was annoyed with the clerk for not making her point clear by using simpler words. As a former expatriate, I knew what that man's shoes felt like I made student loan payments from Japanese post offices, using forms that I only partially understood and hating the sound of my kindergarten-pidgin Japanese. Living in Japan gave me the gift of being able to identify with both the clerk and the hapless man. St. Louis is where I grew up, and where I returned, but Japan is where I not only grew up a little more, but where, I think, I grew into myself.
Heidi Dean is a musician, writer and proofreader who has already begun to think about how to use next year's vacation time.