Home I Could Not Belong

Food for Thought

While staying in Japan for two months, I had a lot of vague yet profound feelings I could not articulate. Now back in New York, I’m beginning to process them.

A friend from my high school in Tokyo invited me to dinner one evening, and we had a memorable conversation over natural wine. He remembered that I often complained about how things were in Japan and described me as hard to forget, whether people liked me or not.

It’s true; I was born with an uncontrollable propensity to think critically about norms. Critical thinking is about questioning our most fundamental assumptions and values. Although we want to think of ourselves as critical thinkers, it’s not easy to be on the receiving end, as it can destabilize our sense of self.

Japanese people shy away from critical thinking because norms are essential for social cohesion. It’s not that they can’t think critically; they have different priorities.

Japanese norms have an exceptionally narrow range (a tall and narrow bell curve). You won’t see in Japan the behaviors seen in @whatisnewyork For jobs that require speaking to customers, Japanese businesses will accept no less than native fluency. In the US, we get customer service reps whose English is barely coherent.

Japan is a great place to live if your personality overlaps the narrow norms; otherwise, it can be suffocating. But this doesn’t mean I hate Japan. When I watch people interact in Japanese movies, I often wish I was within the norms so I could be part of it. Ironically, normative people often think of themselves as “crazy,” while truly crazy ones wish they could be normal.

Sadly, Japan is a home I could not belong. My friend said sometimes he wished he lived a more unconventional life like I did. I sometimes wish I could have lived a normal Japanese life. I didn’t have a choice, I told him.

But it doesn’t mean I’m unhappy with my life. Ultimately nobody has a choice. We can choose one path over the other only if we know the results. In life, we must choose a fork or spoon without knowing what to eat. We call it a “choice,” but it’s only rhetorical. As we didn’t choose, there is no basis for us to feel happy or unhappy about it.