There and Back Again
“THIS WAY, SIR,” an airport agent calls to me as I stand jet lagged in the US citizens line. I approach a booth and am prompted to print out a photo of my face, which is a completely new process to me. I then bring all of the required papers to the customs officer, and had an odd sense of worry about what he might ask me.
“So, what are you bringing home, son?”
“Uh, treats, candy and other stuff like that.”
Then he waves me off with a most halfhearted, “See ya.”
I decided a while ago to head home for two weeks for the holidays, but was unsure of how to cover it here. Sure, I could talk about my expectations, worries or other pre-trip emotions, but I could never really decide on anything. I even thought about writing in-the-moment material when I was home, but quickly found my schedule packed with dinners and late-night drinking. Even a second, longer version of a sleepless post was in order, however with last-minute packing was put to the wayside. After all of that, I now find myself writing a post-mortem of sorts, as I’ve let the emotions and thoughts settle.
I found many Japanese and American people alike surprised that I was going back after a year and a half, as if being apart for that long was unfathomable. Honestly, the amount of time I’ve been here has flown by incredibly fast, and 2014 is close to being a complete blur. Of course, many things have happened to help that feeling, but the time away has not felt as lengthy to me. Who knows at what speed 2015 will decide to go, but I can only hope it won’t be in such a damn rush like last year.
Before I left, I kept anticipating an impactful amount of reverse culture-shock, with all of the big plates, cars and (frankly) people. However, all of this anticipation was unfounded once I arrived. Commonplace aspects of America were weird for about five seconds, and then my brain would quickly remind me “oh, right, that’s the way it is here.”
The small talk, however, still kept getting to me wherever I went.
NO, YOU CANNOT HELP ME LOOK FOR SOMETHING, RANDOM SHOE STORE EMPLOYEE. LET ME JUST LOOK AT THESE THINGS I PROBABLY WON’T BUY.
I’ve already had friends back in Japan ask how my trip was, and I’ve found myself telling them the exact same thing: The trip was exciting, enlightening, refreshing, nostalgic and a little wistful. But if you’ve read this far, you probably wouldn’t like me to be so subtle and brief.
Perhaps it’s just my Midwest background, but every dish at my family’s Christmas celebration had some sort of cheese infused into the food. It’s not as if cheese is unobtainable in Japan, but I have certainly cut back my intake here. As I would finish a plate, I quickly felt as if I had just eaten a serving of stones. Delicious, delicious stones.
I have also come to greatly appreciate the ratio of portions:pricing of American food, which will give you a half plate of hash-browns and two large Eggs Benedict for just under $10. I found myself not eating the full servings of many of my orders, where a younger, fattier version of Kyle would consume it all and ask for seconds. This restraint, at times, saved me quite a bit of money; As if I wasn’t saving enough already. Anyone unfamiliar with Japanese portions:pricing need to realize that we need to pay the equal price of six beers for a six-pack.
I was also able to get my craft beer fix and drink enough to dry out a small bar. Japan is starting to get better with craft beer selections, as small restaurant/bars pop up which serve craft brews, but being able to go to the supermarket and find a wide selection of brewers and styles, which only parallel the variety of frogs in the rain forest, was a godsend. I absolutely made sure to drink all the delicious frog beers while I could.
I apologize for getting a little more raw here for a second, so feel free to jump down to the next, more inspiring, section if you wish.
There was a period around when the Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Ferguson protests and multiple other cases were happening where I seriously wanted to throw up my hands and delete all of my social media accounts. The idiotic banter, “debates” and selfish accusations I found some people making made me wish Al Gore had never invented the internet*. After some time, people seemed to be slowly putting away their torches and pitchforks, only then to have another incident happen, and the same vitriol reappear.
At dinners, car rides or bar tables, I found in one way or another these topics and cases frequently come up in conversation. Granted, I did happen to come home the day of another incident, but something would be said which would then lead to a heavier conversation about any one of the incidents.
Now, I am not faulting anyone for talking about any of these current events. Frankly, I think it’s important that people do! And most of these discussions were tame or had an overlying sense of melancholy, accompanied by plenty of sighs. However, there were other times were I found people who would, as my friend put it, “really show their true colors.” People who I thought were on one side of the spectrum would state things completely contrary to where I thought they stood, while I sat there just trying to process it.
And as much as I wanted to join in, counter, or say something, I felt a certain sense of disconnect to it all. As with many other current events that happened in the states, I usually heard about the reaction to an event before hearing about what the actual event was. But once at home, all I could add in was a “oh, I heard about that,” and ask for some follow-up, only to then soak in the other party’s views. At times I felt incredibly small and detached to things I know are affecting my friends or family members. Yet, there I sat.
There’s a certain feeling when you’re younger that things are always going to stay the same. For me it was imagining people’s appearance would stay the same, more than anything else. Plenty of people I hadn’t seen for a while got skinnier, fattier or taller (I have yet to meet someone who has gotten shorter), but it was the more subtle changes which struck me the most.
It started with my sister’s dog, who is at least seven years old by now. Certainly not old, but she’s getting there in some respects. That dog is a little shit, and I left remembering her as an energetic little pup who’s bark was far worse than her nonexistent bite. While I was gone she had lost all of her front teeth, and had severely injured her one of her back legs, leaving her with a serious limp. She now needed help up to her favorite spot on the couch or to any places higher than a small jump. I frequently saw her slowly waddle to her new preferred spot: a little bed right in front of the fireplace.
My Grandfather, as well, has been suffering more with his dementia. While evidence of the symptom was apparent in my earlier college years, now frequent bouts of forgetfulness and confusion were commonplace. He would ask my Grandmother if she was ready to go home, even though we all would be sitting in their living room together. Once he said he needed to go and pick up his mom, although my aunt had to explain to him she had died in the ’50s. Although no greater disease has been diagnosed, there’s an unfortunate likelihood it could be something far more worse.
But other times, you wouldn’t even be able to tell he was being affected, and that these bouts seemed to be nothing more than a one-off joke. But it was for real, and I had only just come to really learn about it.
Other people I knew appeared with canes or other accessories. Others had passed on all together. Other’s situations were not as serious, but were still “aged” in some sense: they now had children, were married, getting married, had new partners, or now none at all. Many people, as it seemed to be the case, were in some world-wide pact which agreed everyone would get engaged this Christmas.
At a lunch with my uncle, who’s also familiar with moving away for some time, I asked him if he ever felt the same sense of being out of the loop. Or that if he ever felt like he wanted to be more in the said loop, despite his distance.
“Of course,” he said. “But sometimes there are plenty of loops you want to be out of in the first place.”
But I would be unfair if I didn’t mention one instance that went completely against this feeling of disconnect. As I arrived at my old roommates’ house for New Year’s, I was quickly welcomed with tight hugs. I was then told immediately to grab a controller and play the new Smash Bros. with them, which turned into 100+ matches throughout the four days I stayed there. It was almost like I never left, and I cherish that feeling more than anything else. Some loops you’re never really left out of.
Although my Grandfather may be getting worse in regards to his memory, there were still times I found myself having genuine conversations with him. While I would entertain him when he asked how school or my grades were, he would always, and I mean always, ask the same question.
“Are you enjoying it?”
It’s there I could have told him about the bureaucratic bullshit I have to deal with at work. It’s there I could talk about the cultural isolation and disconnect I feel at times. It’s there I could talk about the feeling that I’m missing out on key moments in my friend’s or family member’s lives. I could go on and complain to him about all of the things that seem to be stacking up, how it feels like something will happen, and everything will crumble and crush me alive. There are so many negative and petty things I could have told him right then and there.
But I found myself always telling him “yes.”
And he would always reply with the same thing.
“Well, that’s the most important part, sonny. You’re seeing things that other people will never see and doing things other people will never do. As long as you’re enjoying it, that’s all that matters.”
*I know Al Gore did not invent the internet. Please do not contact me about further corrections.