For many many years my life was lived between two countries: the United States and France. All other places lived at the periphery of my vision; they existed but they were not immediately relevant. I was not interested or curious about how one might live or land a job in South America, or what it might be like to be married to a Russian a Chinese or even a fellow American. Some choices, once made, are irreversible. I can no longer be a person who never left her home country to live elsewhere. I also cannot go back in time and choose another country as my first destination. For me it will always be France.
With the addition of a Third Place, Japan, and the breaking of the limited and binary US and/or France perspective, how has that changed the way I think about my past and present experience?
Three-point perspective: With a move to France I learned that the world is much larger than just the North American continent. With the move to Japan I see that the world is much much larger than Europe and North America. At any time I can take a look at present and past experience from any point on the triangle: American, long-term resident of France and short-term resident of Japan. What does Japan look like from a French perspective? From an American one? In this way I can contrast and compare; see convergences, see differences.
From an American standpoint France and Japan appear to be high-context (versus low-context) cultures. An awful lot of what goes on in daily life in both countries has a hidden context that has to be learned over years of exposure and trial and error. Learning the language is a necessary, but not sufficient condition to be able to function in society since what is said does not necessarily correlate with what one is meant to hear or understand. I read an argument to that effect many years ago in a book by E.T. Hall and mentally shelved it at the time as an interesting, but not terribly pertinent, proposition. Dusting it off and looking at it again after 6 months in Osaka, I think Hall was definitely on to something.
The act of mentally moving from one point to another on the triangle yields insights that simply can't be perceived from just one, or even two, perspectives. I wonder what would happen to the triangle if it became a square with the addition of a Fourth Place?
Myth of uniqueness: This, I am finding, is a very common ailment among long-term residents who come from developed countries and call themselves "expatriates." I suffered from it for years in France and it was a huge shock to my ego when I finally met other Americans. Brits, Mexicans and other nationalities who came to France 20 years or more before I did, were also married to Frenchmen and women, and were well-integrated, worked and spoke excellent French. It shattered my personal myth of uniqueness that held that my Hero's Journey was somehow different and that I was on the road less-traveled.
I came to Japan with some vestiges of that (which I am not proud of). While I was willing to concede in France that I was in no way superior or inferior to my fellow migrants/expatriates, I did start mentally positioning myself as different in relation to expatriates/migrants in Japan. The process might have come to a hubristic conclusion if I had stayed in splendid isolation and not bothered to try and make contact with other migrants/expatriates. It took just a few meetings and conversations with long-term expats married to Japanese nationals to rightsize me. Different countries and cultures? Absolutely. But very similar concerns, problems, and satisfactions. Like learning a new language, raising multi-lingual/multi-cultural children, deskilling, cross-cultural marriages, life as the foreign spouse, immigration formalities, citizenship versus residency, the different status of men versus women in the host country.
I was stunned by how much we had in common and how much I learned from the differences we exposed to each other. And ever since I have this fantasy where members of the Association of American Wives of Europeans fly in to Tokyo to meet the members of the Association of Foreign Wives of Japanese; or folks from the Society of Writers, Editors and Translators in Japan flying into Paris to meet their counterparts in the Hexagon.
The limits of knowledge and experience: A life now split between three countries and yet I realize how little I know about any of them. Though I spent my formative years in the US, I hardly know that country at all. I know exactly two cities (Olympia and Seattle) and one region. As for the rest of the country, I know next to nothing about the major cities like New York or San Francisco. People who live in the South, the Midwest, the East Coast are foreign to me. Even if I had never left the US and decided to migrate from one region to another there is no way I would have experienced every place or met every different kind of American.
Exactly the same is true of France after 20 years living there. I have not seen every city or every region. I know well only a very tiny percentage of the total population. I will never know even a fraction of the 65 million people there, nor will I ever have the chance to live and integrate into every corner and sub-culture of the Hexagon. It is simply not possible in one lifetime. Not even for the native citizens themselves, which is a reason among others that the notion of "Imagined Communities" is still as relevant (and troubling) today as it was back in 1983 (the year I graduated from high school).
So I approach Japan with the recognition that however long I stay here, be it 3 or 30 years, I will never know everything there is to know about this country just as I don't know everything there is to know about France or the United States. There will always be blanks and blind spots behind me wherever I go; places I could have gone and people I might have met.
It took arriving in a Third Place for me to come to the rather humbling realization that if the world is a library, then I will only ever read a limited number of volumes. I don't necessarily find that discouraging. In my middle years I have learned that progress is all that is required, not perfection; and that life is always manageable and deeply satisfying if I just take it one book and one country at a time.