I felt like I was in limbo.
“Where are you from?”
“What are you doing here?”
“Your Japanese is great!”
Five years of doing something, and now I was yearning for the next step. I’ve been yearning for the next step for… quite some time. It feels like I’m the sidewalk underneath layers of ice and snow, waiting for the sun to melt it all away. Little things crack away at me, like I suddenly can’t deal with what’s been my reality for years. I’m faced with a constant wavering between being burnt out and being terrified of change.
It’s charming, being a human.
My relationship? That part was amazing. It was smiles and giggles and honesty and warm arms and talks of the future and real, scary, intense intimacy that shook me down and left me breathless. This was real. This was it. He was the brightest beacon in my entire life. When I was with him, I wasn’t the foreigner. I was Amanda.
It was with everyone else that I felt like a specimen to be examined.
Not true. Not fair. I have many friends who treat me like me. But many of those friends are in Tokyo, or in China, or on the coast, or in America, or just busy in their own lives, which they have every right to be. And I’ve been too busy too – but I’m down to just a few people readily available who are accessible to my true self. I felt like that peach I was talking about: sweet and friendly to everyone, feeling like no one was seeing the shriveled-up core.
Take a bite, I dared every passer by. At some point that I couldn’t remember, I had built a wall to keep new connections from forming. Maybe it was when I met Satoru, because I wanted to concentrate on him, and us. Or maybe it was when X left, and R left, and I-san left. Or maybe it was even when all those boys headed off to the coast. All I know is I forged all of these deep connections my first year here and I don’t remember how I did it anymore.
There’s just so few people who can understand.
I wanted more fervently to go home for a break than I had in my entire life.
I arrived in New Jersey on the 20th, my mother, my sister, and my grandmother waiting to pick me up. My grandmother, short and almost hunched over, gave me a tight hug. Her face was rosy, and her eyes were bright. Lively. I breathed a sigh of relief. She seemed so much better than when I saw her last – and she was living at home now, so my visit wouldn’t have to be punctuated my long drives to a senior living facility. Once we got home and ate some pizza, my sister and her boyfriend left for their shared apartment, and Mom and I were getting ready for bed.
I budged open the back door to let my old, lumbering dog out, something I have done so many times in my life that I can time it down to the minute. The screech of the old sliding door felt like home. Sleepily I stood in the frame to watch her limp down the steps of the deck. Suddenly, I saw a flash of red light on the roads through the trees, and heard some blaring sirens in the distance. My mother and I both looked at each other, knowing what it meant.
“Santa Claus! It’s Santa Claus!”
No, it’s not some weird Jersey thing; it’s not even a South Jersey-wide thing, as far as I can tell, to welcome Santa Claus five days early on a fire truck. It’s just a special tradition our local municipality gifts us with. Every year, a few days before Christmas, the local fire department dresses a member up as Santa Claus and they drive through every development and neighborhood, sounding off their sirens. I remember when we first moved to the area twenty years ago, and being a first grader, and running outside to see Santa Claus blast past my house.
“Is that really him?” I gasped.
“That’s just his helper,” said Mom.
For a while, we would run outside to jump up and down, waving at the man who played Santa Claus. But then we stopped believing in Santa Claus. The fire department would only come by on a random night, usually when we weren’t home. It became a legend of sorts, in our family: if you’re lucky, you might catch Santa Claus visiting your house on a fire truck.
When we got Lucy, we discovered that she liked Santa Claus a heckova whole lot. In the December of the first year we had her, we were lucky to be home the night that Santa Claus drove by, and as soon as she heard the wail of the sirens she howled like a maniac, waving her tail happily. The blasting sirens seemed to filled her with a joy she couldn’t deal with but to yell it outwards, towards the sky. The dog had never howled before, and never would again.
It had been years since I had seen him – always being at college or in Japan when the truck had rolled by. But now, home for the holidays, there he was. WhooooOOOoooo. There he was! Mom and I grabbed our shoes and our coats and ran outside, Lucy trailing behind us. We stood outside of our house, pricking our ears up for the truck.
“Did he go in the neighborhood yet?” Mom asked.
“I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
We waited for a while, walking to the end of the block, but he didn’t seem to be coming. Maybe he was hitting our neighborhood tomorrow. Shrugging, we made our way back inside, when the sirens sounded closer. There he was, making his way to us from the other side of the street. Santa Claus!
The truck rambled by, its sirens on full blare, reverberating throughout my body, making it feel alive with vibration. The man dressed as Santa Claus waved to us, and we two grown women, jumped up and down, screaming and waving back. Red and yellow and white lights flickered on and off, illuminating the street and our old, grey-paned house. I felt like I was being lifted off of the street.
There it was, and there it goes. I started to sob, but no one could hear me.
I chased after the truck until it turned the corner, and then I walked slowly back to my mother, wiping my eyes discreetly. ”Lucy, it was Santa Claus,” I said. She didn’t look up, sniffing the grass in the distance, shuffling from one spot to the other.
We still believed, but the dog had outgrown Santa Claus after all.
I had vowed this time to set in stone all of my plans with friends way in advance, so I didn’t spend my time at home feeling bad that I didn’t get a chance to see such-and-such or so-and-so. Once I go to America I seem to fall into a jetlag-induced lethargy, so I knew I had to do the majority of the planning while still in Japan. So I emailed people, Facebooked them, let them know I’d be around, and please let me know when you’ll be around too? I even finalized a trip to NYC to visit with E, which lay at the end of my trip like the last Lucky Charm in a glorious bowl of cereal.
That’s it. I’m set this year.
But I found a pervasive sense of anxiety descent upon me from the very first night I arrived. I hadn’t done something, surely. I had forgotten someone. But I checked my Facebook again, and then again. No, I hadn’t really. I was going to see everyone, if only for a few hours. I was even going to see my dad. There was nothing to worry about.
But I did. It just…felt like I was missing something. It felt like something was wrong.
Looking over those Facebook profiles of the people who shaped me and supported me during my high school and college years, I thought back on all of those days. About how glorious it is when we catch up on each other’s lives. It’s like trying on a beloved sweater you forgot about in the back of a closet. It just fits. It’s just right.
I was happy to see just how happy they were. Awesome relationships, thrilling jobs, exhilarating life adventures. I had those things as well. We all had things we were still working on, but for the most part, all of us had turned out to be pretty cool people in our own ways.
But…I had missed all that, hadn’t I? I was only just seeing some of this stuff now. I don’t check enough, I admonished myself, staring at the computer in the dark. I don’t do enough.
I’m missing out. I made my choice, and I’ve got a full, happy, settled life. But having a full life on one side of the world doesn’t mean I’m not missing out on the other side.
I chose to try to belong somewhere else, and with every passing year, I belong here less and less. Is this what it means to be “bicultural”? To stop belonging to your place of origin, knowing you will never quite belong in your adopted home? To only belong with a very small, special subset of people?
When I saw E in New York City, one of only very few people with the same amount of experience in both America and Japan, one of only a very few people who knows what I’m talking about, I hugged her like I was drowning. And it wasn’t just because there were polar vortex-like conditions freezing us through our winter coats.
Last year I wrote about how I “never” have fights when I come home for Christmas, and how that sort of bothered me. Well, of course I spoke too soon, because I began bickering with my sister almost immediately after I arrived home. I actually lied last year, because I can’t seem to last a whole trip without screaming at her. I remember worrying that there’s some sort of disconnect between my family and I causing the lack of conflict, which is a laugh. With my sister, all of our fighting is caused by that fundamental disconnect of our personalities. We are just two different people who react in opposite ways to almost everything.
I always go back vowing, “I don’t want to fight with her. What could we have to fight about? It’s always about something stupid, so this year just be the adult you know you are, and drop it.” But I just can’t. There’s something inside of me that she just sets off on a molecular level. It’s not like she’s purposely provoking me, either! We can be totally fine and then she’ll act like I’m the most selfish person in the world for wanting a bite of her meal at a restaurant. “You always do this! Why can’t you just order your own?!” “I just want a stupid little bite; what’s so wrong with that!” So we fight about fucking cakes. Let’s not even mention the Parfait Incident of 2011.
I don’t want to fight. I want to just be with her without being my worst self. I want a relationship that I just will never have with her. And I’m sure she feels the same, so why can’t we just.. get it together?
But then, how can I ask that when I only see her once a year? How can I ask that when I’ve left her to be the one to visit home once a week, to take Grandma out for lunch, to figure out where our dad will stay when he comes up to visit? I want her to look up to me as a “big sis” when really it’s her that’s doing the stuff that I should be doing. It’s always been that way.
This all culminated in a fight I picked with her while we were out and about when my father was visiting. She was mad that she had to give up her precious vacation time to schlep us around, I was mad that she wasn’t making any effort to act like she loved us or was happy to see us. To her, we were selfish and imposing. To me, she was cold and unfeeling. We were family right? This is what family does, right?
“Why are you making your boyfriend plan all this stuff?” I said.
“Why do I have to do all the work?” she snapped.
“Because he’s your fucking father!” I screamed.
Yep, I screamed obscenities in a Hard Rock Cafe at my sister. I’m a regular ol’ suburban stereotype . And I knew the moment I said it how ridiculous I was – uh, hello? He is also my father? How could I be such a bitch? My dad wasn’t even upset, so why should I take it upon myself to be so self-righteous? This is not what I wanted to say. This was not how I wanted to act.
What I really wanted to say : “Sure, you just saw him a month ago. But what about me? Why can’t you show any enthusiasm for seeing me?”
But…as always, I only have the courage to say these things after the fact.
“You and your mother are really similar,” said my stepfather, “in that you overreact to stuff like that.”
“I’m not like this when I’m in Japan,” I huffed.
It’s true. I don’t get upset like I do here, I don’t get crazy, I don’t feel like screaming my head off (except when a pokey obasan blocks me from getting my choice of milk). I feel like a mature, rational, happy person in Japan, and in America I just don’t. I feel anxious and detached and superior and weird. I feel like I’ve gone back to the reactive, radioactive, unformed me that I left behind. I leaf through old sketchbooks and I feel like that again. And I was a horrible mess of a person in high school. I’ve grown up.
But we all revert back, don’t we? We all go home, in more ways that one.
“I hate when people bring up stuff that happened in high school,” I said to my dad. We were walking around the small town my sister lived in, exploring the shops in the cold December air. “It’s like, that was ten years ago. What do you want me to do?”
“People do that to me too,” he said. “My mom especially. She’ll bring up something I did like fifteen years ago. Mom, I’ve mellowed out. I’m sorry for whatever I did, but I’m not that person anymore.”
What he said rang so true to me. I mean, hell, I’ve been guilty of doing the same thing to him. But we’re not around each other, and he doesn’t live anywhere near his family either. How can our families know we’ve changed unless they’re there to see it?
All they have to go off of is the person we were the last time we saw them. All they have to go off of is the selfish 17-year-old that hated herself so much that she took it out on everyone else.
Well. That’s what 17-year-olds do, after all. But every time I think I’ve said goodbye to her, she’s waiting for me in my old childhood room, her sketches in an old yellowing notebook.
Talking to a friend at a New Year’s Eve party, she asked me, what do I miss about America when in Japan?
“Baked goods. Real pizza. Sitting around watching Food Network. Being with friends and family. My dog.”
“And what do you miss about Japan while you’re here?”
“My boyfriend,” I blurted out, but I had to think some more about what else. It’s not about missing, really. I know I’m going back, and I know I’ll be there for … let’s be honest, the rest of my life.
My bed. My routine. My independence. My life that I’ve created. The “me” that I am while I’m there. That’s what I miss.
And conveyor-belt sushi, while we’re at it.
The last morning, I got in the car with my too-heavy suitcase at 4am, and we headed to the airport like we always do. The lobby was choked with people, all trying to get out in the small window of Blizzard and Polar Vortex, and I raged at the check-in machine for not recognizing my passport. “This never happens in Japan,” I snapped. Frowns and people with fat pieces of luggage and bulging coats surrounded us on every side. Yet suddenly we were at the security line and I had to leave.
I hugged my mother tightly, tears forming in my eyes. I’m sorry I had to make this a shitty visit. I’m sorry there’s something in me I can’t deal with yet.
“Oh honey,” she said warmly. “I’m always so happy to have you here.”
I stood in the middle of Detroit airport, other travelers scarce around me. Light poured in the windows, a blinding white, with snow swirling around and in and out of the dark figures of planes and equipment. CNN could be heard on a distant speaker. A few other people were wandering around, a way-station before getting to the next step our journeys.
I had a bit of time to kill before the next portion of my own. I wondered what to do next, my heavy backpack straining at my shoulders. It would be a long time before other passengers would show up, even if they could at all. A dad and his son walked by, looking at the closed stores. There were a few Japanese women to the side, wearing face masks, chatting about this, that, or the other.
What was next? Where was I going?
I remained motionless for a long time, surrounded by white.