By Jennifer Cerna
One of the main reasons why I went to Japan was because I wanted to find myself. I grew up jumping from place to place, but when it came time for my identity to solidify during my adolescent years, I found myself in Kansas. Suffice to say, I didn’t know anybody other than my sister who shared my heritage. I didn’t know what it meant to be Japanese or Mexican. I definitely didn’t know what it meant to be both of those while also being an American. I had a long, drawn-out identity crisis when I was in university. So I thought that I might be able to find some answers in Japan. Long story short, I realized that identity is something that we create for ourselves, rather than something we find. It’s a constant process of reshaping and tweaking.
Coming back to the U.S., I realized that though I became better at socializing, I still felt like an outsider, as I did before coming to Japan. Somehow, Japan has been the only place where I truly felt like I belonged–both as a child and as an adult. It was strange, because I had been more of an outsider in Japan, but there was something that always drew me in that made me feel more comfortable. Maybe it was because as an American, I was not expected to fit in, and not being able to fit in was normal. Whereas being in the U.S., I felt as though I was supposed to fit in and yet I didn’t. Maybe that incongruence made me feel like I didn’t belong there. I liked Fort Worth and what it had to offer. I just didn’t feel the same sense of belonging that I did in Japan. Maybe it was because people in the JET community all arrived at the same time, knowing nobody, and that created a sense of camaraderie? I considered the possibility, but even when I was a new student in Japanese school during the fifth grade, I felt like I belonged. I have not been able to figure out what it is about Japan that feels so right. It just does.
In December, I found myself going out more often. I had been able to form positive relationships at work, and some of those relationships went beyond the restaurant. I went to a coworker’s drag show a couple of times, I went to watch movies, and went out to bars all with different people.
I enjoyed making friends, but I found that making friends with guys tended to be more complicated than I had expected. Last time I formed friendships in the U.S. was when I was in college. Everybody seemed to be fair game. But now, I found it difficult to become friends with males. I got asked out by two different people whom I thought I was forming a friendship with, and a couple other guys had girlfriends, which made me uncomfortable (I don’t want to be perceived as a homewrecker). I just wanted to hang out with people, but it seemed to be a difficult situation. I also tried to hang out with more women, but something always seemed to come up, or they were less enthusiastic about going out and doing something. I began to feel very isolated. Though I went out more often than I had before, December was an isolating experience in many ways.
I began to feel burnt out. I had a lot of logistical things taken care of: I had my driver’s license, a job, a place to live, I signed up for health insurance, I was a member of the ultimate frisbee league (I even became a team captain), I finally started CrossFit. I was mostly finished with taking care of a ticket I received for causing a car accident. I had met scores, if not hundreds, of people. I was almost finished with the 30-page police department application. I had a few Christmas presents to make. I was working at a job that I still wasn’t particularly good at, and my general manager’s mood suddenly became foul for a few weeks. He was constantly picking at the things I did and didn’t do. I started to become homesick for Japan. And all the emotional turmoil that I had pushed aside from July and August was starting to bubble back up. I’ll be honest: I ended up crying at work on more than one occasion.
December was a month full of reflection. I looked back a lot, and there was a strong pull to fall back into thinking about Japan, really reminiscing, but I didn’t like it because it made me feel sad. I didn’t know if I should let it run its course. I felt like it might be healthy. But I also didn’t want to get stuck there. I preferred to shove it all away and power into a new life. That’s what I had been trying to do, but I felt like I might have to deal with the rough parts of missing Japan first. I had been finding myself thinking about the past a lot.
I felt really homesick for Japan. It was such a strange feeling, knowing that there are flavors and smells that I might never experience again–certainly not while I am still in “gaikoku.” And they’re not flavors and smells that are necessarily Japanese–they are uniquely the ones that made my little corner of Japan mine. It’s the smell of the shotengai at two hours past midnight, accompanied by the echoing shouts of drunk salarymen. It’s my favorite fabric softener that I used, or the slightly moldy smell of my apartment, despite my constant airing it. It’s the smell of the office at work, or the stink of my pubescent students right after gym class during sixth hour on a hot summer day. I missed my cold and barren kitchen that I tried so desperately to give warmth to. I missed the weird, stuffy smell of my ex-boyfriend’s apartment, the grocery store jingles, the tiny shops in alleyways, the ugly, gray, disorganized outside and infrastructure, my hairstylist’s charming salon hiding at the foot of a mountain. I missed Japan so much, I forgot all the reasons I wanted to leave in the first place. All of the negativity I felt towards the end of my time in Japan was forgotten or diminished, replaced only by the good memories that I managed to keep.
Here, the infrastructure is ugly too, but in a totally different way. All the buildings are the same shape, as if they were built by the same, unimaginative architect. The zoning laws put everything far away from each other, but in clusters. It takes twenty to thirty minutes to get anywhere by car. The only things I care about within walking distance are the supermarket and the bank, both a mile away.
There’s just too much space here in Texas. When I first went to Japan, I felt very claustrophobic. I lived in a valley, where there was a strip of a main road with tiny roads branching off of it. Everything was squished together. Here, everyone has their large lawns, their enormous cars. Everything is spread out. I didn’t know anybody. It was almost surreal. Like a bad dream. But it wasn’t.
I didn’t have anybody to talk to. I didn’t want to talk to my parents. I didn’t feel as though I could talk to my sister. It didn’t even occur to me to talk to my boyfriend, Erik, since we only texted a handful of times each day and almost never spoke on the phone. I felt extremely alone in December. Though I was hanging out with more people, I wasn’t close enough with anybody to express the way I felt. Being surrounded by people I didn’t feel I could talk to made me feel worse and more alone than if I had truly been alone. I only found solace in my journal. There, I wrote about how much I missed Japan and wanted to go back. I missed everything: the little cars, the narrow roads, the sky and the ocean and the mountains, the smell of rotting mikans. I wrote about how much I just wanted to be alone. I was at the end of my wits, being harrassed by my mother about small things. I became depressed. In the midst of it, Erik was due to arrive for the holidays.
In short, the time Erik spent with me in Texas was a nightmare. Because of my emotional state and my unwillingness to talk about it, we fought nearly every day. In hindsight, I should have talked to him about my difficulties much sooner, but that happened too late. A couple days after a nice trip to Austin, we decided to split up again due to the incompatibilities which have always existed between us.
But looking back, I had only moved to Fort Worth two months ago. During the summer, I uprooted my life, and in October, I finally chose a place to live and dove headfirst into everything. It was no wonder that I felt worn out. I had work, writing, money troubles, my living situation, and my traffic citation to look after. I was experiencing a lot of pressure to look a certain way, and my acne wasn’t getting much better. Work wasn’t going well. I constantly felt that I needed a good cry. Of course I was burnt out. I guess that was what reverse culture shock felt like to me. It didn’t present itself in an obvious way: I didn’t hate my country and the mannerisms of the people there. But I was exhausted, depressed, and just missed my old life in general. One time, something triggered a memory from my time in Japan and I found myself almost crying at work while filling a drink.
But December wasn’t all bad. I finally found a solution to the bathing problem I ran into back in August. I would shower, rinse out the tub, and stand there while I let it fill. I’d sprinkle salts or essential oils or both into the water and place a vinyl suction cup that I bought online over the overflow drain to maximize the amount of water my bath can hold. I also finally got around to decorating my room in a way that reflected myself better.
It’s the small things that count.
Jennifer is a JET alumna currently living in Texas. She is the published author of novelette My Imagined Pregnancy: A Daydream Gone Wild and several flash fiction and narrative non-fiction pieces. In her free time she enjoys exercise, food, and movies