So I went back to the states a few weeks ago and if there is one thing I took away from the whole experience, it is this: your identity stands still while everyone else who was once around you continue on. I don’t think this is told to new JETs (or rather JETs who don’t visit home often in general) but I think it is very important to tell my story in the hopes that it helps others who plan to go back home for the holidays.
I went to Chicago for a conference that I was once heavily involved in. This conference gathers many big and new names in my field of study to present new research and discusses future directions. This was my third year going to this conference and my first time actually presenting, so it was quite exciting. I was all that was stoked to be presenting at this conference, considering it was also the 100th year. So needless to say, I had to be here. I had to pull a few strings to leave work during another conference to go to this one but presenting at this conference was important to me…at least at the time it was. It wasn’t the conference itself that made the trip somewhat lackluster but what happened in between.
First off, I was sick with a cold before I went so that already put me in a shitty mood. I was looking forward to eating so many things but I couldn’t until the last couple days (if that). It sounds a little odd to be sad over food when I was going to see my family and friends whom I love and missed very much, but my heart also lies with great tasting food (especially from Chicago) so to be cut off from that portion made me sad. Plus 10 hours in a plane while sick…sucked! I already thought that oh great, this trip isn’t going to be what I was hoping for but maybe I could make the best of it.
When I finally got to Chicago, it was snowing (something I am not used to but whatever, can’t do anything about that). But I was able to meet with my boyfriend whom I haven’t seen since I left and missed dearly. But I couldn’t really kiss him because of my cold. Yeah…that sucked too. Waiting four months to see him and I couldn’t even kiss him. Normally we wouldn’t have cared because we hadn’t seen each other in four months, but he cannot go home sick because he cannot spread his sickness to others back home. The next day I was able to meet up with my parents and that gave me all sorts of happy feelings because I haven’t seen them just as long if not longer because I video call the boyfriend more than my parents. I was happy to see all of them again, even if the weather was below freezing and I was sick.
But that isn’t the point of this story. Yes, I was happy to finally hug and kiss my boyfriend and see my parents after so long and stuff but it was the interactions with others that really showed me where we were in our lives and where I stood with my identity in the states. It was an academic conference, so of course research and schools would be discussed. It’s not that I am not interested in that stuff anymore, but it is just not on the forefront of my mind. It’s not that it won’t happen again; it will just be a few years. I still do plan on getting my Ph.D. and continue research, but my life is in Japan at the moment so all of that is on hold. And again, totally understand that it would be a point of discussion for some because that is the path they are going through at that very moment. But for it to be the ONLY point of discussion…yeah, it gets a little irritating because you can’t contribute.
People are interested in your job, but not to the full extent of the details you can give. I got “how’s Japan?” constantly and it took me a while to navigate how much I should tell without the other person being bored out of their mind. Some people were legitimately interested to know and others were just being friendly. Towards the end of the trip, when someone asked “how’s Japan?”, I responded with “it’s warmer than here” (because Chicago was still colder). Not many people care about the job or the intercultural experiences or the travels or adventures you have while in Japan because they cannot relate or experience it themselves. It may be different the opposite because we are the ones that left them behind so we would want to know what is going on with our folks back home. But that isn’t necessarily reflected back, and I realized that very early in my trip.
Not much of an effort was made to try to see me or spend time with me but I can completely understand why. And I could have made more of an effort or kept with an original plan of gathering people together that I wanted to see instead of just a hodge podge of people I sorta knew and really knew. It made for a very confusing and ironically miscommunicated visit back to the states (heh go figure, miscommunication at a communication conference). There were many times where time was free to see people, but neither party took the initiative, probably because the other was expecting the other to do it (I was the one with limited time vs. I didn’t know what my friends’ plans were/didn’t ask). I will say that a couple old friends did make an effort and they were the ones I ultimately ended my trip with at a fantastic blues club and great food, so the trip wasn’t a total loss when it came to spending time with people other than family and the boyfriend.
Friends out of convenience
I have thrown this term around lately: friends out of convenience, the relationships we develop for the reasons that we live close to each other, work together, or are sharing a similar life experience at that moment together. Sometimes, those relationships develop into something more and continue on and others just accept their expiration date and move on. I would consider a relationship a true friendship if it continues past the expiration date and both parties make an effort at working at the relationship past that. Can I say that happened with this group of friends? Not everyone but most, yes. There is definitely a change in lives and interests and experiences and it is up to both parties to involve themselves in the other to understand them. I could only hear about research or Ph.D. programs or teaching at community colleges so much before I tune out and be apathetic, especially if that is not reciprocated and I am asked about teaching in Japan. But again, people don’t care if they can’t relate (and it went both ways).
What did I miss from the states (besides the obvious family and friends):
- I couldn’t taste anything until Friday and the first thing I wanted was deep dish pizza. And damn…it was goooood. Definitely one of the highlights of the trip.
- Reading things. It was nice to be able to order and understand and ask for things without having to worry about if I am saying the right thing. Not having to think was nice.
- The donuts in America are just better because they have so much icing on it and it is so delicious! Not any cheaper, but tastes better in my opinion.
What did I miss from Japan:
- The people. People here are generally way nicer than the states and none was more true than coming back. In Chicago, this one rude guy was basically playing chicken with me on the sidewalk and wouldn’t move from his path of walking when I was clearly walking side by side with my boyfriend. If I didn’t move last minute, he would have slammed into me and probably say some rude ass thing (because people there were pretty rude). And yet one of the first things that happened to me when coming back to Japan was a guy helped me take my luggage down a small set of stairs. He didn’t ask and he didn’t need to do that. But he saw that I was carrying a lot so this little gesture was what I missed about Japan; the thoughtfulness of people. Also people bothered and talked to me on the street in the states. Here, even though I am a foreigner and I am easily spotted in a crowd sometimes, no one bothers me here and I like that.
- Not reading things. Leaving a foreign country and then coming back to it to go home, you notice the little charms that became mundane after a while. Like not being able to read things. For some reason, I was happy that I was back to being somewhat illiterate and staring at signs and wondering what they mean. It felt like I was brought back to the first few days I was here where everything was so new and so fresh and exciting. Going from one extreme culture back to the other, it was nice and comforting.
- Being safe. I did not feel safe walking the streets of Chicago at night, even with a group of men. We walked through some pretty dark places that if placed in Japan, I would not have even thought twice over. But it was only 6pm and I was already like oh god please don’t kill me. That’s not to say that all of Chicago made me feel uneasy, but also seeing a sign on our hotel door window that says “please no guns” was a culture shock. I was like wait…people carry guns here?! Oh god oh god oh god. Not an issue in Japan and I am grateful for that. I went from getting used to a culture where people don’t have guns to my “home” culture where I see a sign on a hotel door no less that says “please no guns”.
If I had to do it all differently, what would I do?
Overall, I would not have gotten sick (so skipped out on the wine festival because that is most likely where I got sick). Then many things would have changed.
- Do the hangouts with friends early. We were getting crunched for time towards the end so I would have done the going out, eating, drinking, and having fun with friends either on the Wednesday or Thursday I got there. It would have made for a better conference and put me in a less bitter mood.
- Spend more time with my parents. They came in on Thursday and I didn’t see them that often so I wish I did. I was with the boyfriend almost 24/7 so time with him wasn’t an issue. After this trip, I do not know when I will see them again physically. I plan to visit during the holidays next year so any time before that is iffy. That is one whole year. I miss them.
- Eaten all the food. So I could taste it all and be happy.
Life continues on while your home identity stands still. Who you were back home is gone and what you bring back after this experience is the new you. It is up to others to accept this change and adjust to it and it is up to you to be patient and not to take anything personally. I am certain that my friends didn’t mean to leave me out and make me feel excluded, but I was. There were so many things that could have been said or done about it, but it’s in the past now and all we can do is continue forward.
To all you guys going home for the holidays, have a safe trip! 🙂