So friends and family may already know this: I’m going back to Philadelphia. Foreva, eva?? No! Just for a week. But in those seven days I don’t plan on sleeping until my return flight to Japan.
These past 9-10 months have only felt like a few months to me. I still feel like I just left, just hopped on that plane to Japan a few weeks ago. Time hasn’t slowed down as much as I’d like to think it has. Philly is probably a lot different than I remember. Just about all of my friends have graduated from college now, and are out in the world doing their thing. My younger brother just finished his first year of college. My twin sisters just went on prom. And biggest of all, my cousin is getting married.
So my cousin’s marriage is really the main reason why I decided to go home in June instead of August, the summer vacation for schools in Japan. I thought a lot about it since his engagement party last September. I knew that being an expat meant that I couldn’t hop on a plane home for every major family event. I would have to pick and choose, and hope that any big events would fall around my spring, summer, or winter vacation time.
Well, it didn’t turn out as expected. Yet this was something I couldn’t miss. The first wedding of my generation! Who knows when the next person in my family would get married. Who knows when all of my family would gather again in one place. The likelihood of either of these happening anytime soon was improbable. I had to go, even if it meant taking days off during the school year.
My homie Bey once told me that I’m currently experiencing something that very few people get to experience. That I would return from Japan as an entirely different person, and be better because of it. I’ve always appreciated those words, even my paraphrase can’t do any justice to what he actually said in that moment. I wonder if I really have changed since living here. I would be lying if I didn’t believe that this environment partly shaped my identity. As Paulo Coelho said, “‘No one is a prophet in their own land.’ We always tend to value what comes from afar, never recognizing the beauty around us.” I’ve noticed and learned things about life, society, and myself. Things that I might have not picked up on if I was still living back in Philly. These are the things Japan has taught me, and how I have grown because of them.
Let me first start off by saying no city, state, or country is perfect. Whenever I share an article on my social media networks showing how Japan is, “doing it right,” I often receive passive-aggressive comments from people who have never visited or even lived in Japan for an extended period. There are things I love about Japan, as well as things I despise about the nation. I can say the same about America. I’m only speaking from my own experiences; both nations can learn a lot from each other.
One of the biggest things I realized from living in Japan is that individualism is complicated. Big cities in Japan like Tokyo and Yokohama are often the inspiration behind cyberpunk films and books. Everyone in black suits and straight faces. Entire masses flooding the streets doing their 9 to 5 job everyday. Remember that scene in the Matrix? Everyone apart of the system. Yet, Tokyo, the city of black suits, is simultaneously one of the fashion capitals of the world. When I came here I couldn’t help but be confused by the intense order and conformity of daily life juxtaposed with the “anything goes” nightlife. Or the juxtaposition of salarymen sitting right next to Harajuku girls on the Yamanote line. For every instance I could find the Japanese culture operating with a group mentality, I could find individuals defying that role. As I would talk to Japanese friends and coworkers, I came to realize that they had some very interesting hobbies. In fact, just about everyone I know here has a group hobby that they do outside of work, friends, and family. One of my friends, for example, loves to sing. She comes to the local bar every other weekend to sing karaoke. I have never met her husband. I’ve never met the close friends she has outside of the bar. Her husband goes to his spot and she goes to her own. The same goes for one of my male friends I play basketball with. There’s nothing wrong with their marriages (from their frank point of view). It’s just that people in Japan tend to keep their social circles separate from each other. Work time is for coworkers. Family time is for after work and weekends. Hobby time is for whenever you do you hobby, with that group of people. Maybe I find this interesting because of my parents. They were always working so much when I was young, that it seemed like they really didn’t have much time for hobbies or friends outside of family. They didn’t “hang out” like that. They were always just trying to take care of me and my siblings.
Due to the fact that all of these groups never really mix in Japan, someone could very well be an entirely different person depending on the situation. I’ve seen this happen, on the rare occasions I’ve been allowed to enter into an acquaintance’s circle. One which I wasn’t already apart of.
Now you can say that the individual is fake; changing their self-presentation for every situation. But how can you prove that? Up until this time I had developed a mentality that I had to assert and be true to my identity. I am who I am. This is what I like, and so on. I wore clothes and accessories that reflected my own interests. And did my best not to change who I was to make others feel more comfortable (the latter proved to be very difficult). To make a long story short, Japan has shown me that I don’t have to assert my identity 24/7. That individualism does not mean flamboyant expression. I could wear a suit and tie to work and still be myself. What makes me different from everyone else is not the clothes I wear, or the way I conduct myself among social circles. It’s my own thoughts, ideas, dreams, and aspirations.
The Land of the Rising Sun has also showed me that a society without violent crime is a possible reality. Coming from a city where it is sometimes depressing to turn the news on, it was hard for me to envision what a practically crime-free society would be like. Of course, there is plenty of corruption in the Japanese government. As well as the Yakuza, operating behind the scenes throughout the country. But as a whole, no one has to fear being robbed (at gunpoint or any other means), physically assaulted, or harmed in any way. I don’t know if it’s the laws here that keeps crime at a low, or the mentality of the Japanese people themselves. Stealing a bike, for example, holds the same legal weight as stealing a car. If arrested for any kind of offense, one can be detained for an indeterminate amount of time. On the other hand, I have countless stories of people (including myself) who have lost wallets, cell phones, and other expensive things, only to find out that it was returned to a local police box. These acts of kindness rarely happen in Philadelphia.
Living here has given me a newfound hope for my own hometown. Police who don’t carry guns? I can see it happening one day in America. Or maybe the combination of living here and watching The Next Generation episodes has me overly optimistic. It may be a very long, long time from now before we see a more peaceful America. But if one country could do it, I’m sure the USA will eventually figure it out as well.
Lastly I’ve learned that, you’ve gotta try something new every once in a while. Upon arriving here, I didn’t expect the menus of restaurants to change almost monthly. McDonald’s Japan, for example, introduces a new burger (along with a chicken version of it) every month. The basic menu doesn’t change too often. But there have been many a day when I showed up to a restaurant and my favorite dish was no longer available. Same goes for supermarkets, convenience stores, and other shops. What’s in stock one day could be gone the next; and may not be back again for months or longer.
So, not really by choice, I started to try new things. Often. I was a very picky eater so this proved to be quite a challenge. But now I’ve gotten into trying new stuff almost monthly. Another good habit I’ll take back with me to America.
These are just a few of the many things I have gotten out of this experience. The longer I stay, the more I discover about Japan, its relations with America, and more importantly, my own self. I’m looking forward to seeing everyone in a few weeks!