Somewhere Between Immigration and Customs
So, our last night in Brooklyn, amid a discussion that covered such crucial topics as my returning to Brooklyn, her moving abroad, living together vs marriage, and even children, my woman turns to me and says, “I like you better in New York!”
“Me too,” I replied, rather quickly.
Then a blanket of silence descended on our conversation for what seemed like an hour but was at most a solid 5 minutes or so, during which scenes from a decade of expatriation, and the impact on my psyche of these scenes, stampeded through my mind like a decade-worth of elephants, that exist in virtually every room in Japan, had collectively decided all of a sudden to relocate.
The first couple of years or so in Japan, I was blind, deaf and dumb.
I could read neither signs nor the atmosphere. Life was like that snow on channel 6, between ABC and UPN, that channel that picks up random signals occasionally but for the most part displays a steady stream of static noise. I spoke a lot with my hands and body, facial fustian, fluent in gibberish, like a deaf DJ. I was an undefeated punch drunk boxer stumbling around in a stupor, acting and reacting on pure instinct, efficaciously following my nose and my hands around in the dark. I’ve been blessed with great hands though, dexterous and perceptive, and my olfactory glands are not easily outdone, and so life in Japan became this Darwinian proving ground, an environment ripe for evolving sensibilities and enhancing intuition. I was living on the Japanese archipelago, but culturally and socially, I was a rare species in the Galápagos.
Apparently these are traits the natives found attractive, perhaps out of a supercilious sense of propriety or some sort of empathy bordering on pity. Or perhaps they were impressed that I would even attempt to navigate perilous social and cultural terrain that even they, with all their native senses and faculties intact and fully functioning, often find to be a chore at best to negotiate, treacherous at worst.
It was an exciting adventure that would eventually lead to my seeing, at least partially, what I was truly made of, unbeknownst to me. Hell, I was too busy having fun with the surface shit to take note of the changes going on below the surface. I was supposed to be learning something about myself other than the lies I tell myself about myself, or what, over the years, I’ve let others convince me is true about me. But, I was more like The Who’s Tommy, a pinball wizard in my own mind.
But change is a ninja dressed in a grey pinstriped suit. It has a way of just going about its business, as stealthily as carbon dioxide feeding a forest or sunshine tanning skin.
They say people don’t change. Perhaps some superficial stuff can change, but short of some traumatic circumstance, that deep down core shit rarely if ever changes. And, previous to coming to Japan, for some reason I can’t even recall now, I bought into this theory wholeheartedly. So much so that I was blinded a bit to what was happening to the me I brought to Japan, and even when I’d notice, from to time to time, that something was amiss below the surface, I refused to fully embrace the changes underway to my core being.
It’s like that first grey hair in your whiskers. You yank it and its gone, and you’re back to living in that reality where you found comfort, where you’re not old enough to grey, where at least most things made sense. Then a week or two later, that grey strand returns. You tweezer it this time, trying to get at the root of the matter. Pretty soon it returns again, this time longer and more prominent, like it has a will of its own. So you let it go, let it grow, and naturally people notice it, comment on it. You, or they, blame it on stress, blame it on diet, blame it on whatever makes you or them feel better about it. You laugh it off. It’s nothing, you tell yourself. I’m still me. Before long, another pops up in some random location like in your pubic area or springing from an eye brow like a sunflower protruding from a lawn of manicured blades of green grass.
Nothing appears while you’re looking, though. It’s only when you stop looking that those obstinate and persistent changes we’re all constantly undergoing reveal themselves.
What I couldn’t fully appreciate, for its mode of stealth was so obvious as to be inconspicuous, like a lie hidden behind a sneer, was that life in Japan for non-Japanese is a constant traumatic circumstance. To live (let alone survive) here requires the fabricating of normality in, at least for me, an almost entirely abnormal circumstance, like voluntarily living in an artificial environment, and isolated from the greater environment by all kinds of filters and life support systems. The upside being you’re protected from many (but not all) of the contaminants, the distasteful and/or damaging elements of that system, by a semi-permeable membrane, but the downside is you’re a spectacle everyday of your life, constantly under surveillance by the camera-like eyes of the curious and/or fearful natives, and often ostracized, subject to being labeled whatever the greater society, in all their wisdom and ignorance, deems appropriate to you.
In fact, a plastic bubble is almost the perfect metaphor for life in Japan for non-Japanese.
So, what did Miki see in New York?
Well, she saw me, for the first time, outside of this bubble.
This was something I, surprisingly, hadn’t considered during all our preparation for the trip to New York. I was so focused on thinking of fun stuff to show her a good time, and bracing her for the shock real New York (meaning the New York her friendly narrator Carrie Bradshaw from her favorite show Sex in the City couldn’t give her any deep salacious insights into, nor could she glimpse it on her previous visits to Brooklyn where she was relegated to well-gentrified forts peopled by yuppified pilgrims that dot the Brooklyn landscape) might be to her Japanese sensibilities that I hadn’t even considered how ME in real Brooklyn might affect her.
In fact, I hadn’t even been fully aware that my emergence from this Gaijin Bubble would be a profound development. I mean, I’d done it several times before.
At least I thought I had.
Now, looking back though, I suspect that during those visits I had likely smuggled a portable, US compatible version of this bubble through customs, for though I felt like a burden had been lifted during each of these visits, and I’d certainly find myself luxuriating in my brief spells at the Resort of Normality New York tends to be, I’d also felt at times another burden had taken its place: one replete with fear and disgust. Fear for my belongings, fear for my life even, sometimes, and was unexpectedly aghast and even mildly disgusted with being in a comparatively unclean environment, surrounded by crude, overweight people who actually physically harm one another regularly with little to no provocation…and who might, accidentally or otherwise, target me.
This was the effect of the portable bubble, my seeing New York through Japanized eyes, for, with little variation, this is exactly how many people here have callously expressed to me they see New York (or at least saw it, prior to Guiliani’s Gestapo mayoralty, during which he “cleaned up” NY and made it safe enough for even Japanese to visit, again…)
But there was something different this time around. Something Miki picked up on, as did I.
This time around the bubble tried to stow away in the Samsonite of my soul but, at JFK, somewhere between the Immigration Official looking at my passport, noting that I’d been gone for quite a while, and telling me rather warmly, “Welcome Back, Mr. McNeil!” and a few minutes later, the Customs Official asking, with a facetious grin, whether I had been given anything by anyone, or if I had any contraband I wanted to declare, that bubble just burst, palpably.
I could feel it!
I almost shed a tear, cuz for the first time in years, I was home…
to be continued…