We moved to Japan almost 10 months ago, and I’ve had nearly 10 months of difficulty falling asleep. My head hits the pillow and waves of thoughts and worries and nothingness pound at the forefront of my mind. Something that helps me fall asleep is to picture myself walking around in my favorite memories. Usually, that’s a place we vacationed many years in Maine. Lately, it’s been walking room to room in my parent’s house back in the States. Last night, my mind brought me to an unexpected memory.
I spent many summers as a child going to a neighboring lake near my grandparent’s home. I cannot remember this lake very well, unless I imagine the lens of a mid 1980’s video camcorder, or the filter on an old Polaroid. We park our car in the parking lot that’s barely recognizable from the sand that’s swept across it’s lines. (Perhaps a concrete lot never existed, but that’s my memory). We get out of our vehicles and I walk down the sand path to the beach, donning my itchy cotton bathing suit cover up and my parents toting coolers and beach chairs.
There were two paths – one was a wide sand path. I chuckle to think about the 7 year old Kaytlin that – even then- hated walking in shoes on the sand. I hated the pine needles poking my bare feet so I chose the path where I could keep my shoes on – and walked about 2 feet to the left in a more narrow path under the treeline. The vision of the wildflower and weed barrier that now separated my family on the wider path from me on the shoe-path is blurred in my mind, similar to the memory in itself. (That beach though….I’d choose that tiny freshwater sand beach any day over the jellyfish-laden ocean).
Memories have a way of sneaking up on me lately.
What’s funny is – I’m now a foreigner in a strange place that feels safe – like the warmth of nostalgia from a childhood memory – yet still unfamiliar. I feel at home, but I’m away from home. It’s a confusing place to be some days.
Culture shock. They tell me that it’s not necessarily something that happens when you step off the airplane – but it happens through time, moments where you’re caught off guard and you feel out of place. Perhaps you’re easily irritated by things that you aren’t accustomed to. Maybe you decide you feel like going out for dinner and grabbing Chick-Fil-A, and then you remember Japan doesn’t have those (that happened to me yesterday). That split-second moment of disappointment and longing can unravel you. Over a chicken-salad sandwich with a side of waffle fries. Or, some days it’s the sound of your parents’ voices in real life without a skype delay (and yes I’m eternally grateful for skype and technology).
So the same people that define culture shock also tell me that I’m in the upswing of the hardest parts of the process. So that’s good. The timeline seems about right. But instinct tells me I haven’t even started – when I see the tears of my coworkers as they share about their parents who are dying and they are a world away. Or the longing as someone watches my toddler play and they ask to hold her so they can imagine how big their grandchild is to hold since they last saw them a year ago.
You guys, this life is really hard. It’s also very exciting. But, it’s never going to be easy. I was never guaranteed ease, comfort, or even the nearness of family in my zip code or even on this earth. Even as I write these words, I’m realizing just how difficult this is and what the reality of my words mean. See, it’s easy to make a commitment to move overseas and leave your family. Honestly – that was the easy part. This is the hard part. It’s really difficult to hear your family and friends say they have grieved you. What’s even harder to admit now – is that I’ve barely been able to start.
When I first began the process of settling into Japan, I saw a really interesting thing happen. My transition and grieving happened in steps as follows:
1. Missing familiar foods. It makes me laugh that this happened first, because I love Japanese food. In fact, I might prefer it. But, comfort food is still comfort food, and a bag of rice crackers or dried seaweed isn’t doing it for me yet. (PS – anyone who thought you’d lose weight moving to the land of sushi, think again. You take your baggage with you, regardless of what cuisine surrounds you. And, living overseas is very stressful). (Let’s revisit my comfort food comment).
2. Missing places: my favorite restaurants, the street near our old house, the country roads, my church sanctuary, my old workplace – to name a few.
3. Missing familiar smells. I walked into a building a month ago that smelled like a school I once attended and I thought I’d need to take a mental health day from the culture shock. Because now that smell reminds you of America, and home, and the life you left behind, etc, etc, etc.
4. Missing acquaintances and familiar faces: missing the Starbucks baristas, customers from your old job, co-workers you haven’t seen in years, people you knew at church, my old neighbors I never had the chance to say goodbye to.
5. Missing holidays and traditions. Substitutes just aren’t the same, but they’ll tide you over. Case in point: Christmas lights. The Japanese celebrate Christmas as a romantic holiday. But hey, I’ll use your theme park Christmas lights to pretend you’re celebrating the birth of Jesus and everything I remember from my traditional childhood Christmas.
6. Missing weddings you weren’t invited to because, Japan. Missing babies being born, specifically my twin niece and nephew. I’ll miss the baby squeezes, the post-bottle burping, the whole shebang. Gone. Thank goodness for pictures (and that their mama is a professional photographer).
Below are a list of things I haven’t started processing yet, but I know I’m going to be dealing with in the next year or two:
1. Missing friends. In my mind I will see my dearest friends next week for dinner at our favorite restaurant. So dear BFFs, I love you, but it’s hard to write you because then I have to admit you’re not near.
2. Missing all of the special occasions I’ll continue to miss while overseas.
3. Missing family. I. can’t. even.
I hesitate to share those with you, because it seems like I’m complaining. But, I feel like if you know me, you’d know I love Japan. I do! I am living a real-life fairy-tale adventure. Every single day is a great exploration.
I could write a list that would be never ending, of all the things I love about Japan and the Japanese people. I am truly at home. When we’ve been gone, I drive down my street and the feeling of returning home gives me comfort. We are growing roots here. We are making friends in our community, we are loving our Japanese church. If we had to leave Japan I’d be devastated.
There are so many heartwarming reminders of my American life scattered in the midst of my Tokyo life. From the import doritos to the taste of a grilled hamburger. The small, inflatable pool I purchased that can’t fit on our back walkway because I don’t want my neighbors to see that I sit in it too. The smell of cut grass (I rode my bike past someone mowing their 10 feet of grass – the second largest lawn I’ve seen in Tokyo). I took the biggest whiff ever as I rode by. Summmmerrrr. Then, there’s my favorite reminder: the large white American house that sits prominently on a hill overlooking acres of farmland, a special place in my city where the urban and rural collide. The home’s two-story frame, black shutters and barn-like shed give me chills. How mysterious this house is surrounded by its Japanese real estate counterparts. Some days I feel like that house was built for my comfort – to gaze upon it as I pass by and tote my mall purchases home. That thought doesn’t seem so silly in the moment, when you’re caught between two countries you call home.