In another month and a half it will be three years since I returned home from Japan. Some days it feels as if I just got back. I’m not sure of what that’s an indication, other than my life became the busiest it has ever been for the past couple of years, and perhaps that’s why it sometimes feels as if I just got back. The passage of time feels as if it slows down when we move through it quickly. I remember soon after coming home in 2006, perhaps just a month after I came home, I was at Wiscon in Madison, Wisconsin, and my friend Karen Fowler asked if it (my life in Japan) was starting to feel as if it were a dream. I think I nodded and said yes. But it was the wrong answer. It was how I was feeling at the very moment, about being home again. So her statement made sense to me because of that, but I was out of sorts. I can see now how out of sorts I was when I returned home for the first six months to a year, really, in retrospect. It wasn’t Japan that felt like a dream, it was America. I felt as if I were stumbling through a very foreign landscape that was still somehow familiar. My center of “home” had shifted, the foliage of my life and the meaning attached to seasons, flowers, trees, rivers, mountains, had all changed. I had temples in my mind, not churches. I visited shrines, not memorials. There were a plethora of icons from folklore talked about on a more regular basis in Japan, and many gods surrounding you in so many ways. Coming back to America felt as if I were stepping into a much smaller world, despite it being a much bigger country. So it was a feeling of being in a dream I was having, not a feeling of my life in Japan as a dream. I can see now what the difference was.
I can see now what the difference was because enough time has passed, enough time that my life in Japan has passed into feeling as if it were a dream. Enough time has passed so that when I think of my memories of being there, I see myself almost as if I were watching someone else in my memories, as if I’m reading a story in the third person. Enough time has passed that I’m sure I’ve forgotten a lot of things. Which was the thing I unconsciously knew when I returned to America that I would someday do, the thing I unconsciously, obsessively fought against. I brought with me absolutely everything that consisted of my daily self. I refused to buy new clothes on a regular basis. I still wear articles of clothing that I’ve worn out. I have shelves devoted to housing souvenirs I picked up in various places while living there. I reread novels I read for the first time then. I continue to make Japanese meals that I once made on a daily basis. I learn how to make new recipes for things I never learned how to make while living there, so that I can properly taste and smell something that I haven’t tasted or smelled in years. It is all a kind of attendance to someone who is passing away, a kind of nourishing, a desire to keep memory alive for as long a possible. Here, have this soup. When you drink it, you will remember the first time you had it at Masako’s apartment. Here, wear this sweater. It will remind you of the store in which you purchased it, and the word of welcome used by the women who worked there. Listen to this CD. You heard that music at a festival once. The sound of drumming, the shine of lantern light on the sweaty faces of men and boys dressed in traditional garb, spinning a wagon full of musicians and dancers through the streets.
I have a hard time remembering Japan sometimes. It’s difficult to access memory as you grow more and more distant from the place and the people with whom you made those memories. But I can will myself back there despite that difficulty, with a concentrated effort. It’s easier to do at night, when I’m becoming sleepy, and I sit back in bed, close my eyes, and think myself back into my last apartment there, remember the tiny heater that kept me warm in winter, remember ordinary things, like the canister of fuel I kept on the balcony, the smell of kerosene when it was time for refueling, the tiny burner I cooked on in a narrow hallway of a kitchen, or the deep and wide closet that held almost everything I owned at that time. The smell of cedar in the woods around my first apartment, the feel of tatami mat beneath my bare feet. And then suddenly there is the old man who bicycled past my place every afternoon as I returned from work, encouraging me with my learning of Japanese, inviting me to play tennis with him. And the little girl who fell off her bike as she rode past one evening, who I picked up as she was crying, still startled by the fall for minutes despite not having hurt herself, asking in Japanese if she’s okay, hoping that a foreign man who must surely look frighteningly strange to her wouldn’t make her cry harder, and her completely unafraid response, “I’m okay now, thank you.” The boys I ran with after school each weekday, in the sandy lot behind the school. The teachers in the teachers office, chatting away throughout the day with one another, holding conversation over the desktops. The cup of hot green tea that I’d find on my desk each morning on my arrival. The first conversation I held in Japanese: with a second grade boy who had asked me how I liked Japan, and if I missed America. Him nodding knowingly as I told him I liked Japan but sometimes I did miss America. The realization that he couldn’t speak English, so how had we held our conversation? Why had I heard him in my head in English, despite him obviously speaking Japanese? And then when I tell him, again in Japanese, that I think I’m starting to understand his language, he and his friends all raise their tiny fists in the air and cheer for me.
Now, though, in these moments of dreaming backwards, they’re no longer cheering because I’ve begun to understand them. They’re cheering because I’ve managed to make my way back to them again, if only for a visit.