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reflections on wayfinding

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In Medias Res 01 Mensis
guardian
olifhar
This weekend marks one month living in Japan.

A month ago I was in the midst of cycling through packing, weighing, and repacking my luggage cases. About thirty minutes later, I would move on to a last minute sort on a pile of documents.

But the story of how I got here is one I'll save for another time.

Most of the past month or so has had to do with getting used to being alone. And occasionally lost. Bryce left for duty early the next morning after I arrived. I followed him on the ten minute walk to the train station, went up and down the main street in our small suburb, and then took about three hours to find my way back to the house. And then I was completely alone, surrounded by strangers, for another three and a half weeks.

I'm in this big house out in the suburbs of Yokosuka. It's big, I think, by Japanese standards and also big for one person's use. There are three rooms and one toilet that I barely use. I've mostly loitered in the kitchen and what I'll call the living room, binge-watching Netflix offerings only available in Japan.

I've switched back and forth between trying to act like a local and trying to be an enlightened expat. Both didn't work out. I posted photos on Instagram, but found that more social media intensified the loneliness. I found no problems with getting people to speak Japanese to me, but I struggled to understand everyday conversations. (Though now I have to acknowledge that most cashiers speak really, really fast.) When a police officer singled me out in Yokohama Station for routine questioning, I let that cast a shadow over my jaunt to Chinatown. Trips to the grocery store took hours.

Two typhoons passed through Tokyo Bay, which gave me an excuse to stay shut in. My friends on our Slack cheered me on to go talk and meet new people, but I processed that as pressure that made things worse. I felt ashamed about not making the most of things, not visibly enjoying myself, and struggling to manage my time at a basic level. I worried about not keeping the outside of the house clean enough. My sleep schedule, which had quickly adapted during the first week, flipped. I was going to sleep and waking up the same time as Germany.

A fourth of my initial ninety days had elapsed. When I leave, what will I have to show for this? That I learned how to use the fish-broiler that is standard in Japanese kitchens? That appreciate that you can take your trash out to the dumpster any day of the week in the US? I felt fine in the house, but outside, my jaw was permanently clenched from worry about standing out too much, about not having a place anywhere in this society, about not knowing what I was doing with my life.

I turned to media as a distraction. I played more games than I had in the past two years. I watched Japanese crime and medical mystery episodes by the half dozen. In the back of my mind I worried that December would roll in, and I'd have spent almost all my time on TV and games.

But something came out of this spiral. While solving puzzles in The Witness and watching mysteries unravel in Subete ga F ni naru, I remembered something important. The state of not knowing, and sometimes being lost is the main point. I never meant to come here just to consume sights, sounds, and experiences to populate my mental and social media scrapbooks. And I didn't quite come here expecting to erect something grand—neither multum ille et terris iactatus et alto, nor the American Commodore Perry with his black iron-clad gun ships.

I brought two suitcases and a heavy backpack with me across the Arctic Ocean and over Siberia, then from Narita down the JR East Soubu-Yokosuka line, a fraction of my belongings. Yet I also brought all of myself and that baggage.

The critical part of me acknowledged that Monday night there was not much shame in that. Even if no one really understood. Hasn't it been this way all along? Finding a meaningful way to communicate experience has always been the central individual struggle of my life. But that's why it is so painful, especially when I am alone, with no one else to see what I see, with whom to share a meal. And that's tough, but it's okay. It's not shameful, even if it sometimes feels that way.

And the most important is the unfolding mystery. Japan is new to me, but people have lived here for several thousand years—it's all been charted. That leaves my own life as the territory to explore. What are you doing here? Not a confrontational demand, not an exhortation. Just a question.

With that small thread of cognizance, I went to sleep Monday night. And the following day, I went to see my friend on my first and his last day in Tokyo.