Wednesday, March 13, 2013

What it means to be a Japanese expat today

As I grow older, the question of my national identity or where I belong, is coming into question.  Where do I feel the most at home?  In Japanese we have a saying, "Where you live, is the capital" (or THE place, meaning you are comfortable anywhere you live).   「住めば都」

By now, I have lived outside of my 'native' Japan longer than the years I spent in Japan.  I live in NYC,  undoubtedly where I feel the most comfortable.  The Japanese saying above however, isn't true for me; I grew up in Japan always feeling like an outsider.  I never liked the conformism.  As a child, having to come back to Japan after spending two years in Ottawa, Canada (my father, a solar energy specialist, worked at the Canadian National Research Council) probably didn't help either.  I remember my Japanese grammar was funny and I got teased by my classmates.  I grew up thinking all my teen years, that I cannot wait to leave Japan.  This week, I'm visiting Japan, feeling nostalgic about my childhood in my house and having to miss the later years of my parents.  It seems they got old all of the sudden, which makes me sad.   The question seems more immediate; where do I belong, or do I even have a country?  I'm married to a Frenchman, having two children of mixed nationalities.   What does it mean to 'belong' to a country?  Is that where you live and pay taxes? Do I feel any 'allegiance' to any particular country?

There is something else now.  Since March 11, 2011 Fukushima nuclear incident, I hear from other Japanese expats in NYC that their sensibilities became quite different from their families back home in Japan.  We see things and think about things differently, looking in from outside.  And once you are back inside, you are confused.   It is very strange.  Now that I am back inside the country, seeing the streets and people seemingly well going about their business, despite the continuing leakage of nuclear radiation, my feeling is complex.

Japanese media seems to keep threatening the population with the inevitable great earthquake that could destroy Japan.  Recently there was another report of a huge earth-plate, which could mean the 'end of Japan' or could swallow the entire Pacific coast of Japan, if it moves.  There is the ominous threat of North Korea, that they are now getting ready for war (with South Korea, or Japan, or what...).   In Japan, journalism, in the true sense of the word, doesn't seem to quite exist except in the fringes of internet where majority of older generations, the voting public, don't access.  Mainstream media occupies daily lives of many people, and they seem to be told what to say.

I would go crazy with all the threats; who would want to live thinking that your world is about to collapse any minute, your children are being contaminated with radiation doomed for cancerous future, an earthquake of magnitude 8 or 9 can happen any minute, or Chinese or Koreans are going to bomb any minute?  That's what the media - or the government- seems to telling people.  Then the strange thing is, the infrastructures - at least some that's visible -  are steadily getting improved, progresses are being made, foods getting more and more sophisticated, and even the government wants to invite 2020 Olympic games to Tokyo.  There is the threat of the catastrophic demise of the country, and the promise of progress and bright future, co-existing side by side in people's psyche.  In the meantime, they marry, have babies, graduate: life goes on.

Japan has the cleanest and the most high-tech toilets in the world, if that's any indication of a sophisticated civilization.  Their recycling system is fierce; they separate plastic bottles and normal plastic, each assigned different days to put out.  And of course the food, although somehow clouded in the fear of contamination, is superb.  When you live here inside, it's a self-contained, seemingly almost-perfect world.  When you go outside looking back in though, there is something strange; there is a disconnect.  And it is quite impossible to explain this to Japanese people inside, when you are outside.  My Japanese / New Yorker expat friends all say, they stopped talking about their concerns, since they would get into a fight, or their families end up feeling insulted.

Japan is strategically, geographically the front-line for the USA between China.  Japan's fate very much depends on the whims of the superpowers = 'super-money'.  I am not sure what to do, only to hope that no one (on all side) does or says stupid things, ending up fueling war mongers and merchants of death.

And now back to my identity; when I lived as a housewife, a newly-wed in the beautiful southern France, I was miserable.  I was so isolated and the French countryside was too homogenous; I got tired of getting looked at as an 'asiatique', an asian, which I was accustomed to forget in NYC.  When I would come back to NYC occasionally, I would catch a snippet of a song a hispanic delivery guy on a bicycle was singing, "....Corazón..." (heart), which made me cry.  I think I am very certain now, that I feel at home in diversity, not homogeneity.

When I was a student at Juilliard, John Cage visited a class I was in, taught by Pia Gilbert about "music and dance".  That day he was in a talkative mood; I was told sometimes he didn't feel like talking at all, even at a speaking engagement.   He talked about 'living inside glass walls', where you can see everywhere.   He said, almost as a prophecy, "There will be three things that will disappear from the world eventually:  politics, borders and money." He went on to describe how his world was all over the map and borders between countries don't matter.  This was in the early 1990s and since then we have seen so many wars and killings between borders, and money and politics have no signs of disappearing.

But I still like to believe in John.

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