Saturday, September 7, 2013

Life in Stage 2

Almost exactly one month ago I moved to Japan.

For reasons which are difficult to express, I uprooted my urban life from the west coast of the United States, and moved my reference point to the mountains of rural Japan.

In Japan I work for the prefectural government, and I am attempting to finish my novel. Much like Thoreau in Walden Pond, I wanted to get out of the city, cloister myself away in a secluded yet scenic space, and finish the novel I started writing five years ago in a donut shop  during Portland’s most extreme snow storm.

Now the scene has changed, and so has the writer.

The first night in my new house, I undoubtedly entered what some would call the “negotiation phase” of Stage 2 in the culture shock spectrum.
green-tea flavored Kellogg’s cereal and Lipton ice tea
 Basically, nearly everyone experiences some level of culture shock when relocating abroad, and it can be broken down into stages. Stage 1 is when everything is new and exciting. You write home about finding things like green-tea flavored Kellogg’s cereal and Lipton ice tea, and everything in the new culture is a source of wonder. Stage 2 is when you go from loving everything to hating everything. The differences in the new culture seem more pronounced, and become a source of anxiety and frustration.

I hit Stage 2 on August 7th, at around 11:30 pm when my enormous, old, Japanese house in the mountains began to creek and groan in that thickness of night that only places without streetlights can produce. As I lay awake that night with  the lights and TV on, I wondered why I ever left my beautiful condo in Portland, just to come all this way to a scary house in the rural mountains. I told myself that I would drive to the airport in the morning and go home. I had just arrived, and still hadn’t unpacked after all.

Well, one month later, I’m still here, and no longer wishing to get on a plane every second of the day.

Looking back on this last month, I can reflect on some very real grievances. 

Apart from having to adjust to this new culture,  and the challenges that come with navigating Japanese language and society, I have had serious frustrations with the mechanics of my new life. I live in an enormous, old, traditional Japanese house, which requires a lot of maintenance and has some structural problems which prevent me from living in complete comfort.  I imaged my rustic life would be peaceful, like Thoreau's "Walden," but it has been just the opposite.

Loneliness  is a very real companion to life out here in the country. One may imagine that I would feel lonely in my large, rustic, Japanese home, but rather I am learning that I have enough of a presence to fill an entire house, so the loneliness instead finds me on the dark roads leading to my house. At night I am often the only car on the road, the only person on the street. That is when the loneliness feels unbearable, when the darkness feel suffocating. In a city even if I were the only person on a train, I would take comfort in knowing that there was someone operating the train, someone keeping the stations lit, someone working at the all-night convenience stores. 

Here it is just me, a long dark stretch of road, the sound of rain hitting my windshield, and two headlights piercing the darkness...

Many times I wonder, what am I doing here?
When I round the bend of the mountain, driving on the left  (opposite) side of the road,
When I get a bill in the mail and realize I can’t understand it,
When the fog hangs low around the mountains, in a space between dreams and reality,
When Japanese monkeys linger on the sidewalks around my house,
When I realize that absolutely no one here has known me longer than a few weeks….

Slowly, slowly, slowly I am carving out a place for myself in this scene, and the more of myself I see in my new life, the more validation I have that I am living it. Bills are getting paid, people are learning my name, and monkeys are still lingering on the sidewalks around town.

From the Izumo Sunrise
Life in Stage 2 is not easy and it takes some time and effort to pass. I have managed thus far by inserting myself into the space around me, taking a long look at the image, and trying to make sense of it. In other words: decorating my house, forcing myself to attend every social event that I am invited to, and developing a Facebook addiction. 

 I also keep rereading excerpts from past writings, before the dream became a reality:

“Outside the train window waves of luscious forests flowed past us. Occasionally, an old Japanese house would appear in the frame, only to be swept away by rice fields, rolling hills, and smoke. I wonder what it would be like to live in one of those old houses, consumed by the mountains.”
-       - Except from my Diary on the Izumo Sunrise, when describing scenes from the prefecture where I now live, written on  October, 2010

I hope you are enjoying life in your quiet, Japanese mountain village. It sounds like a dream to me.”
- Excerpt from a letter to a friend in Mashiko, Japan on  April, 2013

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