Anyone who either cannot lead the common life, or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god. — Aristotle
For months I would wake up, stare up at the ceiling, and think: I cannot believe I am still here. I’d pull the covers up to my nostrils, freezing, because there was no central heating in my home in Japan. The height of my desperation hit in April, probably. I’d arrived in Japan nine months earlier, on July 8, 2005, two months after graduating from college. On mornings like those, the idea of a month felt like an eon. August–four months in the future, when I would fly home–was never. My roommates were American, but didn’t identify with me. To be fair, I felt the same. Things got sour and dark between us; I had no backbone and said nothing. And that was just my home life.
Japan, to speak in gross generalizations, is a society of “group first” mentality: What does my family want? What does my company want? What does my community want? It was the complete opposite of the self-indulgence and loud baseless opinions I was used to in America. The adult students at the conversation school where I worked took my class as their outlet; a hobby they could pursue for no one but themselves. This was my own issue, but that made sad. I wished they could run away and never return if that’s what they wanted.
My Japanese students could not have been more gracious or generous, touring me around the country to temples, historic villages, and the most tiny and delicious soba restaurants, but we did not connect on a deeper level. And this was not a big city like Tokyo or Kyoto where more western people lived. I was a novelty person and the language barrier was very real. It was also 2005 and 2006. So there was Internet—The Daily Show had just gone online, thank all that is holy! Twenty minutes of warbled Jon Stewart telling jokes that made me cackle and touched my humanity felt like doing drugs—and Skype, but no video chat. So even in two-dimensional form, thousands of miles away, I couldn’t see a friendly face who looked at me like they got this larger disconnect, and who looked at me like I was me. Speaking of that person, I was losing sight her, too.
Far beyond language barriers and the fact that, physically, I couldn’t get warm for seven months, I felt like an alien in my own skin. After so many months on end with no external touchstones—friends confirming that I was a sane person and semi-likable– my center, my deeper sense of who I was, started to fade. But in the midst of feeling like a consciousness without a personality, I started to force myself to do things mechanically—anything that would not amount to throwing away human days, of which I was aware I had a limited supply, in the garbage dump. Because if there was one commodity I had an abundance of, it was days, and I felt a desperate need to make them count, somehow.
So, I started reading like a maniac. At lunchtime, I’d ride home on a crappy bike leftover from a previous teacher (a very nice one I bought had been stolen; Japan is safe but filled with prolific bike thieves) in the whipping wind (it was always so windy! god do I hate wind), through the rice fields (they were really pretty), sit in our chilled living room under the heated table (this, truly, is an amazing Japanese invention) and read. I read Villette, A Tale of Two Cities, The Beautiful and Damned, Madeleine Albright’s autobiography (I thought I wanted to be Secretary of State after that, ha), Crome Yellow, A Moveable Feast, Fitzgerald’s short stories, Hemingway’s short stories, White Noise, Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, The Portrait of a Lady, Women in Love. Without real people, filling my head with voices that lived even after they died was immensely comforting. The world was bigger than my predicament.
I filled three huge notebooks with highly detailed dramatic journal entries. Ten years later, I have not been able to look at them yet.
I took myself places. I found Alfred Stieglitz at a photo exhibition in Nagoya, and later, spent a weekend in Hiroshima. Images of gnarled lunch boxes, charred fingernails in glass display cases, and a lot of wristwatches frozen at 8:16 AM are emblazoned in my brain. I left the memorial and stuffed my face in a busy restaurant, then bought tennis shoes and a new wristwatch and waited to fall asleep in my silent hotel room. I will never take a trip to a the site of a mass murder alone again.
I wrote dozens of long letters, mostly to my Grandma. I bought pretty stationary and silk scarves and sent them to people. I biked around and bumped into tiny villages hidden at the foot of mountains, and old men urinating in public.
Then, I made plans for post-Japan: I applied to teach English in France. Spending time in a place I didn’t identify with made me prioritize spending the next year in a place that seemed easy and romantic, where I could learn French. I ordered French Rosetta Stone and would do three lessons in the morning before going to class. French-Rosetta-Stone-voice was like a soft baby, cooing sweet nothings in my ear. Today, if I hear a split second of French-Rosetta-Stone-voice, I am shot back to my cold Japanese living room, induced into a state of imaginary euphoria.
I’m grateful I did all those things, but they were not enough. More than anything, the absence of people I loved taught me how crucial they–other humans, who I connect with–are for happiness. It’s not just that other people help me pass the time or make me laugh; without conversation, without interpersonal, emotional engagement, I wasn’t a complete person. On my own, I could not materialize the part of my personality, and the kind of experience that is brought to life in the presence of others. Only that connection, that meeting between two people, creates something new that did not previously exist, and that does not live individually inside of us. Like falling in love, being fully alive requires others.
Finally, July returned. New teachers came to replace us, and there was an overlap of three weeks to help them settle in. I had helped one of the guys, Stuart, get the job; he was the brother of a friend from college. I warned him about the solitariness of the setup, but Japan was his France. He dreamed of going there and he would make the most of it (and he has; he still lives there today). One afternoon, Stuart walked with me from school back to our apartment.
Nothing in particular happened on the walk. We took our time, walked over the bridge that led to the homes on the outskirts of town, passed the baseball field behind the large public school, and began the last stretch of narrow road, surrounded by rice fields, that led to our apartment. I was so inside of my shell that normal conversation felt jarring. Stuart was just asking me about my day, I think, how stuff worked, and what I thought about these little, meaningless facts of Japanese life, but he was talking to me in particular, not blankly asking questions, meant for anyone. I was badly rusted, however, and needed practice to get going. Or, it was like that last scene in The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, where all the Whos down in Whoville start singing quietly but eventually let it rip. I suddenly realized that voice I heard was my own, someone wanted to hear the thoughts that had been stuck inside my head, and it was joy to have them heard. Maybe it was like coming out of coma, too: exciting, but also disorienting and sad I’d been asleep for so long.
I’m sure Stuart was weirded out, though he probably doesn’t remember this walk. It was an otherwise non-event. But for me it held everything: another person, conversation, company, laughter. What a gift is was to share this with someone else; what a thrill it was to be a person.