July 4, 2016    East vs. West

Japan—My Strange Home

I’m back in Japan, the first time in 16 years—although I’m not sure if “back” is a right word to use. Being back in the culture that I left many decades ago, both physically and psychologically, is a strange experience. We all like to believe that, at the core, who we are is unchanging, but the stories we write about ourselves (also known as egos) are inextricably tied to the cultures we belong to. 

For many Westerners, Japan is a good place to become aware of this artificial nature of self. The modern aspects of Japan are immediately familiar, but no part of your own sense of self is connected to the surroundings. It’s as if you could walk around naked, and you wouldn’t care. It’s like you are a particular color and a shape, say, a blue triangle, positioned against other colors and shapes in an abstract painting; you might look beautiful in that particular context, but outside it, there is no way to evaluate its beauty (or ugliness) on its own. (It’s the contrast that can make a blue triangle beautiful or ugly.) 

In an utterly different culture like Japan, you cannot evaluate the context, which means, in terms of self-image, you are standing in complete darkness. No matter how you look, what you say or do, it would have no impact on your ego. It’s liberating as long as you know you can always go back to your own culture where your ego is safely restored. But if you decide to migrate, you have to reconnect every part of yourself to the new surrounding by turning on one light at a time in the darkness. It’s a time-consuming process of rewriting your own story.

Most first-generation immigrants 20 years of age or older, do not (or cannot) entirely rebase. Instead, they create additional, alternative selves in their new cultures. Their bases are still their own native cultures. They are proud of themselves most in their home countries which provide the securest sense of self.

The immigrants who are 12 years old or younger can relatively painlessly rebase their identities, mainly because this is the upper limit for the human ability to acquire another language flawlessly.

Those who immigrated between 12 and 20, like me, are in an awkward position. Rebasing is possible but it’s a long, painful process. Not rebasing would position their sense of self-worth in a permanent limbo.

In college, I chose to rebase. I had to throw away whatever I had built of myself in Japan. When you successfully rebase your ego, what you get is the opposite of what most first-generation immigrants get; you feel securest in your new culture, but your identity in your home culture has not been entirely wiped out. So, whenever I go back to Japan, I find these traces of my identity I left behind. My physical presence causes them to be reinstalled in me. It’s like re-living my previous life before reincarnation.

This is the third time I’ve been back since I moved to New York 30 years ago. For me, going to Japan isn’t like a vacation. It’s not like a typical first-generation immigrant going back to feel at home and secure. I feel foreign in a country that is technically my home. Everything is familiar, so it’s not interesting for me to go sightseeing. The predominant sense I get is: “What am I doing here?” Every time I’m back, I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing, or why I’m back. And, this time, I have a new factor that complicates my feelings: my daughter is here. 

In the midst of all this confusion, I’m rather shocked and overwhelmed by the generosity I received from the people around me. Given my generally arrogant personality, I’m not sure why anyone should be generous towards me but they are. My mother-in-law and her husband, my parents and their friends, my sister and uncle, my friends, and my old friends in Japan. I should probably thank my daughter and wife for bringing all this generosity around me.

What I’m learning from this trip is that there are forces beyond my control that shape who I am. That is, I do not entirely own who I am. Instead of fighting, I have to go with the flow and accept the ambivalence and the sense of self that these forces shape.