the cost of Japan
I’m in Japan. For most of my life I have not been able to say that. When sitting at home, the prospect of being in a foreign country felt kind of otherworldly, or perhaps scary, even though I had been across the oceans before. As of now, most of my chronological life exists in the United States of America, and from that perspective it is a statistically rare condition for me to be anywhere else. Japan is where I am, but the U.S. is what I know.
Yet my situation looks different from over here, just like a blade of grass looks more like Burj al-Arab from an ant’s point of view than like vague, green fuzziness that we’re used to seeing. My change in perspective is terribly close to the very grass that I randomly brought up, actually—by way of the “grass is greener” expression that we often speak into life with our English. I don’t see being in Japan as that rare, fanciful experience as I used to. It’s not a dream anymore, but hard, unforgiving reality.
Humans are generally fickle beings in my bluntly stated opinion, and as such I know that my perspective and feelings can change more quickly than an ice cube abandoned on a hot, concrete driveway. What excites me for five minutes can bore me two seconds later if I get used to it. I’m equipped with a stunningly efficient ability to adapt to new things, finding them no longer extraordinary, but regular ordinary, in just a short time. All of the money in the world could buy me a lot of excitement, and with it I’d come to see excitement as a pretty mundane piece of daily luggage.
That is how my view of Japan has changed, I think. It comes as no surprise, but the excitement has faded. If I were to return to the U.S. right now, then the prospect of being far away in Japan would seem enticing once more, I’m sure. But as I sit on the left side of the Pacific Ocean, that feeling just isn’t present with me.
Being in Japan is an incredible opportunity and yet very frustrating at the same time. I have worked to get to this point for four years, am finally here in a way that most foreigners don’t get to be, and now I feel uncertain about the whole thing. I need to make the most of the experience while I’m here, taking in as much as I can—this opportunity won’t repeat itself. But convincing myself to actually do that on a daily basis is not so easy, despite the obvious deficits in my knowledge of this land.
My language ability is still modest—it takes very little for me to be humbled, realizing that I can’t speak anything like a Japanese person—but being in Japan feels normal, anyway. Even if I look around and see things that I don’t understand, I don’t feel out-of-place at all. In fact, being in Japan has shown me how impossible it is for me to master this language. My brain simply doesn’t accept and handle it like native speakers’, and sometimes it gives me the impressions that I’m attempting bore into the side of a mountain with a wooden shovel. Why bother?
I don’t know why, but the piece of wood is still in my hands. Or, well, it’s kind of resting on my shoulder a lot of the time because I’m too preoccupied to use it. The main detractor from my cultural and lingual assimilation—and a huge catalyst in making Japan nothing special—is my job. It’s called an “internship,” but it’s a job. Except that I’m a foreigner and have a handicap with the language, I’m being trained and worked like a regular employee. If you had asked me when I was still in the U.S., then I might have told you that I’d prefer being a regular employee over an intern, so the closer the better. I don’t fully know what the difference is, but the driving point behind my thinking is this: Like most Japanese (men, at least), my life is overseen by my work. Rather than work being necessary to earn money for living, the purpose of living is to serve work more effectively—and then maybe to do a few other things on the side. And honestly speaking, I’m getting this impression from a job that I believe is easier than the lot most people here end up with.
It’s ironic that my job centers around weddings. Why on Earth would someone want to get married if he or she doesn’t really have time for a spouse or family? In this situation, I just don’t see the point of it. It seems useless, helpless: a lost cause.
My reactions are those of a naïve college student who has abruptly entered the working world at a pace of 65 hours per week. Despite my knack for adapting to excitement, I’m much slower to get used to difficulty. 65 hours per week feels like a lot to me, whether or not it ultimately is, so I get drained by it. Only 40 of those hours are technically work—the rest composed of commuting, taking mandatory breaks, arriving early and leaving late—but the complete package is a sizable chunk of my life that I can’t use for my life. Even studying Japanese must fit somewhere in the little personal time that’s left.
Some Americans work 80 hours per week, so I recognize that my distress is founded only in loose dirt, not in ice-melting concrete. But today I happened to be outside the hotel taking a letter to a posuto (pronounced posto, meaning “mailbox”) for my boss, and I realized that I’ve never taken a clear look at my hotel’s building from behind before. In over a month I haven’t gone to the other, much prettier side of the building and had a look around. All I’ve known is the employee entrance on the side-front corner. It’s just work, after all. Exploring, enjoying the sights, taking pictures—that’s for tourists. It’s as if I knew this unspoken understanding all along without really knowing it. So even though I haven’t reached the lofty goal of 80 hours at the beloved job each week, there are signs of my excess that I cannot ignore.
A disheartening result of my time constraint is that my level of fitness has withered. Although I managed to secure a membership at a gym, I have hardly been able to use it so far. My regular exercise of gym workouts and commuting by bicycle in Seattle stopped when I left, and my body has responded normally: muscle tissue subletting my body to fat tissue, leaving my overall weight as it was. The change is subtle so far, such that probably only I would notice it, but that makes it no less alarming to me. Now I’m sacrificing my health to my work.
But I am not willing to accept that. I would rather be fit than bilingual. Going to the gym has been hard because I have to go straight there after work, skipping dinner, in order to get there with enough time before closing. It’s a somewhat awkward situation, but I simply need to be grateful that it isn’t impossible. What it means, though, is that the tiny bit of free time I have each day will often be going with me to the gym. This blaug might suffer the consequences of that.
Health over Japanese. Health over blaug. It’s just too simple for me to raise any kind of an argument. I don’t know what will happen, but I hope that it’s for the best.
I regret that these words haven’t been the most encouraging for you to read, but I hold no remorse for their honesty. Such things must follow a title warning of a “cost.” That can be a powerfully negative word.
Tuesday, 2007 August 7