Whenever anyone asks me about my experience in Japan, I tell them one of two things:
If they ask me if I’m having a good time, I’ll answer, “Oh, I’m doing alright.” And if they ask me simply how it is, I’ll say, “Well, it ain’t the promised land.”
I wonder what exactly people expect when they think of living in a foreign country. Several of my fellow international-student acquaintances have had their dreams crushed, I think, by the reality of living around the world. Most people think of that far, unknown place as mysterious – and wonderous in its mystery. This isn’t a particularly bad impulse, until you actually get up and go to the place itself and find it to be just another corner of the same world. Cold is still cold, errands are still errands, human nature is still human nature. The scenery and actors may change, but the story remains the same.
It takes some time to see, of course; it takes our eyes some time to adjust to new lights just the same as it takes our brains some time to adjust to a new environment. But slowly the sheen wears off and what was wonderous and new becomes just another day, another thing to get in the way of what we want to do, another tool to get the thing we want. Tragedy strikes, and we grieve but life goes on. People move, but they make new friends and still talk to some old ones. Furniture wears out and is replaced, and we break the new stuff in and develop new favorites in only days. Life is always changing in some way or another, and we are always in the process of getting used to it when it changes yet again.
And so this is what life is like, halfway around the world. It is not amazing or exceptionally profound; in fact it is not exceptional. It is life, and life is life regardless of where it is. People struggle, triumph, do deeds both heroic and mundane wherever they are, and one corner of the world is no more an exception than any other. Yes, I might try homemade yakiniku here – but you may eat your coworker’s new recipe at the office party next week. I might learn how to get around without a car, but somewhere some 16-year-old is learning to drive for himself. Everything is the same; everything is different. Everything is the same because it is all different.
No experience is truly unique, and yet every experience is utterly unique. Because we are having them. You can no more be me than I can be you, and so my experience is solely my own just as yours is equally intimate. It is beautiful: for every person who lives there is an infinite set of experiences that only that person can have. It doesn’t matter where they are, whatever they are doing is something that only they can do, because only they can perceive it exactly as they are. So really, being in Japan changes almost nothing. I am me, and people are people, and living is living. It might be more or less difficult from time to time, but life goes on and I adjust, the same as anyone else.
Life goes on, that is what’s important. Wherever there is life, there is experience, and where there is experience there is living. There is no “promised land” except what we make it, how we choose to see it in our lives and our daily routines. “We live in prisons of our own making,” said every philosopher ever at some point in his wonderings; how will you shape yours?
As for me, I’m putting in a Ficus.