I’m not from around here
As to marriage to an Asian woman I have nothing at all to say because race doesn’t register with me as anything important.
When I tell Canadians I have lived in Japan for twenty years they say, “Oh, you must love it,” followed by “Your Japanese must be good.” When I tell Japanese people the same, they ask, “Why did you come to Japan?” People’s comments/questions, my answers, and their comprehension of their comments/questions in the first place and of my answers in the second place are never wholly satisfying or even adequate, because the reality is a more complex creature. Things are not as they appear. Such is life. Such is the experience of an emigrant, and an immigrant. How we feel about ourselves, our families, the places we live and the places we came from is a complicated thing. I have one foot in Japan, the other in Canadaand I don’t really belong anywhere, breeding the common chronic angst of the expatriate. Many expatriates are people with no real home, kind of loose in the world, suffering a chronic identity challenge. Maybe I am not from this world, and when I die I will just be going home.
Canadians usually define themselves more by “where” we are - the Great White North - than by “who” we are, I think. Americans are more the opposite. They focus on their “who” more than on their“where.” The notion of the melting pot lends itself more to the former and excludes the latter. So American life is more a cacophony of “Me, me, me. We, we, we. Them. Them,” whereas Canadian life sounds more like an aboriginal powwow of rhythmic chanting “Here we are, together. Together here we are.” But as a Canadian cooling his heels in TokyoI tend to give more regard to my sense of “who” I am than my “where.” That panders both to my need to be comfortable with myself and the need of Japanese to comfortably place me in their world view. But it also presents me with the danger of inaccurately idealizing my Canadian memories and maybe embellishing them a little, as well. Not to worry too much, though, because I think our brains are naturally wired to forget the bad and remember the good.
First of all, I do not “love” Japan. Neither do I “love” Canada, although living outside Canadamakes it easier to like - more than I remember when I was growing up in rural Ontario. I like Japan just fine, but describe my feeling as “Love and hate” if people press the point. I complain a lot, as many foreigners here are prone to do, and I get away with it not just because my complaints and commentary are spot-on right but because as an outsider I am largely ignored, providing me with leeway to be deviant which most Japanese do not enjoy. But then, returning to Ontario for annual visits home provides food for similar complaints about home. (Quality of service being a major weakness in Canada.)
I find Tokyo to be pretty much exactly the same as Guelph, only more so - about one hundred and forty times more, I estimate. People think I am joking because I don’t synchronize with their expectations. My explanation is also taken as a joke, for the same reason. Here it is: I think every place in the world is basically the same as every other place. If you have gravity and air that is 99% of the comparison right there. For me, language, race, culture, religion, politics, geography, climate, cuisine, customs, fashion, wildlife, architecture, etc. are mostly cosmetic and therefore unimportant. That mitigates the lure and virtues of travel. The older I get, the longer I live abroad, the more people look the same, sound the same and feel the same to me. For that reason, living in Tokyois pretty much like living in Guelph, or Vancouver, or Winnipeg. And, as to marriage to an Asian woman I have nothing at all to say because race doesn’t register with me as anything important. I don’t see race.
Second, contrary to the expectation of friends and family in Canada, I do not speak fluent Japanese even after all this time. I know. For shame! I am still learning, and I can usually get by well enough, aided by the fact that as a major international hub and a cosmopolitan city there is a lot of English available in Tokyo But it still remains true that many times I don’t know what is being said and my ability to express myself is sometimes limited. I always have to step softly to avoid mistakes with Japanese people. Repetition helps. But you know, the same is true in Canada. Even in English I often don’t know what the heck many people are talking about! I began to realize this in childhood. The feeling grew in an adolescence simmered in the stew of Punk Rock anti-establishment disillusion - even if it was feigned. Now at age 48 I admit that I am still learning English, and some day I might even master it. But that remains to be seen. It’s true that I use language differently than how many others do. Information transfer is just one small function of language, but most people don’t get that. They have different expectations than me and I think they think I am being deliberately exacerbating. Our ability to communicate depends to some degree on our expectations. We hear pretty much what we expect to hear, see what we expect to see. Frankly, I have pretty much given up expecting to be properly understood by anyone, in any language. Not being understood is normal for me, hence Japan is just like Canada.
Third, I tell Japanese variously that I came to Japanto see more of the world, to teach English, to flee the source of my broken heart, to run away from home and go as far as I could without approaching it again from the opposite direction, and more. “But what is the truth?” Well, they are all true. Or not. Do you want truth or do you want facts? Personally, I think the facts are no one’s business but my own, period. They are also less important than people think. But I hesitate to be rude enough to say so. Life is a story, and I just like telling the best story I can. For that reason, I affirm that language is more a decoration for our lives than a medium of information exchange. Communal life is a grand marketplace for exchanging and bartering in stories, and there are many oddities in this world of trade.
Oftentimes on vacation in Canada people have asked me, “Why are you speaking so slowly? Why are you saying that again?” Speaking slowly and repeating myself - as well as simplifying my vocabulary - are affectations I picked up here, and
they will probably stay with me forever. I talk a lot less than people in Canadaseem to do, my brothers especially. If I have nothing to say, then I say nothing. That seems wise. And, knowing that people will probably mis-take me anyway motivates me to minimize my contributions to family conversations over the summertime barbecue. Visiting my brothers and their children in Ontario is a shock because they are a typhoon of verbal thunder the likes of which would blow away my Japanese wife and children. It blows me away, and I am still one of them. I cannot represent myself in family talk by saying more about life in Japan because, frankly, they lost interest in hearing about it after three years or so.
Finally, when I shop in Canada, store clerks think I am a tourist - maybe an American - because my responses to their verbal cues are all wrong. Maybe my body language, too. I could slink away saying, “I’m not from around here.” I could be up front and mesmerize them with the factual explanation that “I grew up here, but I live in Tokyo.” Or, more and more common these days I just say “I’m from Japan,”and they stare at me because I don’t look it.