In Pursuit of the Cherry Blossoms

Tadaima! I’m back! As I mentioned in my last post, I spent the last week traveling down to Okinawa, then up to Tokyo before returning on an overnight bus to Kyoto, arriving girigiri into Monday morning classes. It was nice having some time off before spiraling into these last few weeks of the semester, and luckily my program funds these kinds of trips for us.

Although Kyoto is considered one of the best places to experience the cherry blossoms, they haven’t fully bloomed here just yet so I thought I’d chase them down instead. Hanami, cherry blossom viewing, is a huge tradition all over Japan and a spring weather report on national news will also feature a sakura forecast. They start blooming down in Okinawa and finish off up in Hokkaido in early May. I arrived in Okinawa to find out that I’d missed them by nearly 2 months! There were still plenty of other things for me to do in the warm weather though.

My host mother's nephew, Komai, is a diving instructor in Okinawa, so this happened at an incredibly good discount

My host mother’s nephew, Komai, is a diving instructor in Okinawa, so this happened at an incredibly good discount.

Even if you keep busy, things slow down on you when you’re backpacking solo and that’s led to one of my favorite parts in traveling: the art of letting your mind wander. It leads you to discover many things about yourself and on this occasion it was about a home’s meaning for me.

About 20% of Okinawa’s area is occupied by U.S. military bases, a decrease from the post-WWII occupation period. The return of the prefecture to Japan in 1972 disoriented Okinawans who had been using military currency, carrying special passports, and even driving on the right side of the road like in the states. However, they welcomed it because they thought it would mean a decrease in U.S. military presence. It didn’t. Today, the majority of residents still want the bases gone, and a level of mistrust and resentment persists. These have been highlighted by a history of unaccounted rape by military personnel as well as environmental harm caused by the bases. Soldiers end up here with families including third-culture children who still claim full American identities. I got the impression that although they live in Japan, they keep in bubble communities without interacting as much with the Japanese. Okinawans have been the most “exposed” to Americans but the nature of their relationship with us is abnormal.

Shuri Castle in Naha, Okinawa

Shuri Castle in Naha, Okinawa

Wakayama Castle is representative of the castles you see in mainland Japan. You’ll notice differences between them and those in Okinawa because they were completely different nations for a long time.

Wakayama Castle is representative of the castles you see in mainland Japan. You’ll notice differences between them and those in Okinawa because they were completely different nations for a long time.

Tomari International cemetery in Naha is the final resting place for many who perished during WWII.

Tomari International cemetery in Naha is the final resting place for many who perished during WWII.

Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo contains the enshrinements of Japanese who perished in the name of the Japanese Empire. It also contains war criminals and is a controversial topic especially for China and S. Korea who criticized current Prime Minister Abe's 2013 visit.

Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo contains the enshrinements of Japanese who perished in the name of the Japanese Empire. It also contains war criminals and is a controversial topic especially for China and S. Korea who criticize current Prime Minister Abe’s 2013 visit.

In Kyoto and Osaka, I’m assumed to be either a student or tourist. When I visited Nagoya I was assumed to be an immigrant. I found myself feeling awkward in Okinawa and some of that was because of how I was being perceived as an American. At first I accepted it because shouganai, I can’t help where I was born and it’s true, I’m American! But here’s the odd part. As I waited for my flight to Tokyo, surrounded by so many Americans for the first time in a while, I surprisingly became really uncomfortable. Something about Japanese norms is that you’re not supposed to be too loud, sort of limiting any annoyance you may cause to others. I guess this is important in the U.S. as well, but a lot fewer people actually abide by it there. Part of me thought, “Oh my god no, you’re making us look bad” but there was a (really really) small part of me that liked being around this familiarity. Two fighter jets sped down the runway before our Jetstar flight was cleared for takeoff and as I looked around me I had to think, what even connects me to these people?

The most obvious thing is our shared nationality. I admit that this does create a broad community but it’s not one that necessarily translates into a “home”. Even if I narrow things down to NY State, or even further to the Bronx, I can’t claim these as places where I will undoubtedly feel a sense of belonging. While we’re growing up, our homes are for the most part decided for us but part of becoming independent is in creating a home, a space of comfort, for ourselves even if it only has a single inhabitant.

I met up with my friend Kat in Tokyo and we went to a rabbit café!

I met up with my friend Kat in Tokyo and we went to a rabbit café!

I entered college thinking, “Wow, by the time I leave this place I’ll be 22 and what then?” In hindsight, it was like leaving home for good, especially since my mom moved in with my sister and that was it for the apartment I grew up in. This past summer, I finally noticed that I hadn’t spent any longer than two weeks at a time with my family since I left for college. It’s scary realizing how we’ve already become adults, and while a home for my sisters means raising their toddlers, for me it means cultivating friendships and learning to depend on myself more.

The new #1 absurd thing I’ve witnessed in Japan: Robot Restaurants

The new #1 absurd thing I’ve witnessed in Japan: Robot Restaurants

At Amherst I don’t really get homesick, and I think it’s because I know I always have the option to take a bus down for a weekend. It’s natural to start missing what you’ve been familiar with for years, especially when you’re thrown into something completely different. There’s no remedy for homesickness, you don’t just get over it with some sudden realization. It comes both in waves and in moments. The smell of Tokyo rain was the first to remind me of NYC’s and this triggered a slight nostalgia. For me, one of the hardest parts of adjusting was in the diet change and I’ll be honest when I say I still dream about my beloved pizza.

I didn’t experience this one as much but there’s also the “fear of missing out” among friends you’ve left behind in college. Being halfway across the world and over 12 hours into the future has allowed me to focus on present experiences here all the more. The distance has actually helped me improve communication with my family and allowed me to create unique friendships here. It’s also forced me to develop, or at least be more conscientious of, an increasingly complex identity.

Purikura booth pictures, super kawaii. It took us traveling halfway across the world to meet when we're less than an hour apart in the pioneer valley. Miss these smithies from the fall. Bokutachi: Gina, Kristi, and Kait

Purikura booth pictures, super kawaii.
It took us traveling halfway across the world to meet when we’re less than an hour apart in the pioneer valley. Miss these smithies from the fall. Bokutachi: Gina, Kristi, and Kait

Who I am is more ambiguous here and it’s a combination of both what’s projected onto me and how I end up reacting to those expectations. Your behavior changes depending on where you are and who you’re with. For example, whenever I go out with my homestay family I try not to embarrass them even if being a foreigner means being pardoned from several social conventions. I’ve grown hyper-aware of what I do that’s not “Japanese” and in some ways learned to call that “American”. Don’t get me wrong, this awareness doesn’t stop me from embracing what I know to be American while I’m in Japan, but I’d probably be more willing to do some of those things when I’m around other Americans, or more so people who wouldn’t misunderstand my motives or intentions. An internal conflict between abiding to a new society vs what you’ve always known presents an opportunity to create a new self.

I visited Kiko and Daniel in Bankok last November, and they returned the visit in December. Kiko at a maid café in Osaka.

I visited Kiko and Daniel in Bankok last November, and they returned the visit in December. Kiko at a maid café in Osaka.

Daniel walking down Fushimi Inari

Daniel walking down Fushimi Inari

Meeting other Amherst students on this side of the world has shown me that reverting isn’t necessarily all that difficult either. It’s also a pretty good feeling to know enough about the Kansai area that I can show others around. The most familiar faces to me though are those I return to everyday—my host family. My birthday was this past Monday (on the last day of the trip) and the girls planned out an entire dinner celebration .

There was cake and everything! The big year here is 20, not 21 though

There was cake and everything! The big year here is 20, not 21 though

I’ve learned to venture out and enjoy alone time more during these past few months and that’s helped a long way in being able to feel comfortable in most places. I like the idea presented in a novel we read in Japanese class this semester, Kazuki Kaneshiro’s Go. If you raise your fist straight ahead in front of you and turn around completely in a circle, that’ll be as big as the space you can truly claim as your own. Through life you’ll let some people in while kicking others out, and some will try to burst their way in and it’s up to you to protect this space. I guess what I’ll add to this is that the span of this circle depends on the person and I can see how someone can claim that theirs encompasses an entire country.

It had been nagging at me for a while and it took coming to Japan to figure it out, but a home doesn’t have a designated physical location for me right now. At least for the time being, I can carry it with me wherever I go and I hope it’ll stay this way for the next few years.

The cherry blossoms should be here by next week. I’ll stay put and wait for them to come home.

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