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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

At Home in Japan: A Foreign Woman's Journey of Discovery

"The question "Who am I?" really asks, "Where do I belong or fit?" We get the sense of that "direction" -- the sense of moving toward the place where we fit, or of shaping the place toward which we are moving so that it will fit us -- from hearing how others have handled or are attempting to handle similar (but never exactly the same) situations. We learn by listening to their stories, by hearing how they came (or failed) to belong or fit.”

Ernest Kuntz

Underlying my search for good expat/migrant autobiographies are my own identity issues which come up at the most inconvenient moments.  20 years of living outside my home country has not silenced the committee in my head that seems to want to provoke me into a constant examination of identity. 

There is no such thing as the unchanging self. If I had never left Seattle, USA I would still be a very different person today - a person bearing little or no resemblance to the callow youth I was at 20.

That is the road never travelled. The path I took instead led me a distant shore - across the ocean to a world with a new language and culture, and a life that is very different (but not better) than the one I might have lived if I had stayed in the world where I was born.

I am hardly the first woman to do this and that is important to acknowledge. On the darkest days when we (the foreigners) feel alone, lost, or depressed it's tempting to think that one's personal expat/migration experience is unique and special and no one could possibly understand how we feel. Granted, it is unique in the sense that we are individuals and live out our life experiences differently in different places.

However, there are commonalities and I think one of them is that we have all gone through the process of integration/assimilation which leads us to some uncomfortable questions about who we are and how we fit (or don't) where we have landed.  Culture is a powerful force and when we walk into a new one we are changed in ways that can both exhilarate and terrify us.  We often grieve for what we were and for what we might have been, even as we are expressing to the people around us our deep contentment and happiness at being in this country at this time.

There is no sure-fire method for working through those feelings which can linger for a lifetime, but in a good, honest examination of a life lived abroad we do find things we can identify with, things that resonate with us.

I found a lot to identify with in At Home in Japan: A Foreign Woman's Journey of Discovery by Rebecca Otowa.  Yes, there are many differences:  she went to Japan, I went to France;  I was graduating from high school when she was having her first child in Kyoto;  she lives in a rural area and I ended up in a big city;  she came to Japan via Australia and I went straight from Seattle to Suresnes.

But there was so much in her experience that sounded familiar:  struggling with the language, fitting in with the community, coping with the very different status of women in the new culture, and working out the relationship with the mother-in-law:
My mother-in-law's teaching task was formidable:  I was not only from another family, but from another country across the world, my ignorance seemingly bottomless.
This description of her wedding brought forth feelings about my own ceremony that I have not examined for over 20 years.  I, too, did what I was told for very similar reasons:
Most of the preparation, except for personal details of hair and costume, went ahead without me, and I did whatever I was told.  Did I really feel that I was getting married?  It was a huge inscrutable Event Extraordinaire, which carried me along on its own momentum, dazed by all the tiny details which formed a hypnotic kaleidoscope of otherness. 
And this passage which perfectly captures that sense I had in the first years in France that I was losing myself and feeling cowed by what I felt was constant criticism:
My own sense of self sank without a trace;  in those early years, the few times I dared to voice my true feelings or opinions, I was scolded as though for some unpardonable rudeness.
After finding so much that I could personally identify with, it was a bit startling to come across something that made me stop and reflect because my first reaction was one of strong disagreement. 
As I was evolving in my expat life, the Japanese people around me looked at me and saw a gaijin - an outsider, one who could never belong.  This is the heartache of the foreigner in Japan, and it makes it a wholly different experience from that of the expat in, say, parts of Europe, or Australia. 
This is one to discuss because while I cannot speak for expats in Australia or other parts of Europe, I do know quite a few in France and I cannot count the number of foreigners I've talked to who feel (rightly or wrongly) that they will never be French no matter how long they live there.  Yes, living in Japan is a very different experience from living in France, and a foreigner of, say, European origin is easy to spot.  However, my sense is that there are other markers of difference besides physical appearance that are just as important (perhaps even more important) in other contexts.  

Otawa is a good writer and her book is organized as a series of well-crafted essays.  Nevertheless, I almost gave up on the book after I had read for about an hour because the first half contained lovely descriptive chapters about her house and life in Japan and that was not at all what I was looking for. 

It was the second half of the book where I found that honest exploration of what happens to an individual's identity when it is transplanted into an unfamiliar culture that made the book a powerful read for me.   And I felt this electric shock of recognition toward the end of the book when I flipped the page and read, "How am I different from what I would have been had I never come here, never elected to spend my life in this foreign land?"

I would not think of depriving you of the pleasure of discovering for yourself her answer to that question.  This is a "mind worth exploring" and I highly recommend this book to you.


DL NELSON said...

As a person who has lived outside her birth country and become a Swiss and given up my US citizenship, I know I will never belong 100% anywhere. I will have to accept me as me, a hodgepodge of experiences. But it has been a fascinating journey. Your blog also helps me when I write my TCK mystery series to understand Annie better. After five books I almost think of her as real as I do myself. Thanks to your blog, you've triggered an idea for a new scene. Thank you.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Donna, Good to hear from you! I like the idea of stopping the struggle to belong and just being. I'm going to think about that one. I am tickled pink that the Flophouse has something to contribute to your writing. And here is the amazing thing - much of this post was a result of some ideas I was bouncing around with a Canadian woman I met the other day. So from her to me and from me to you and from you to...

Is that not an amazing thing?