A Well Known Stranger

The benefit of returning to a place we’ve already lived for the two previous seasons is familiarity. As familiar as a foreign country can ever be to someone who doesn’t belong there. As familiar as I can feel in a place I am illiterate and where I am always forgetting where to take my shoes off.

I know how to get around town. I’m used to driving on the left side of the road. I know the seasons and how to pack. I know which bread is wheat and which grocery store carries oatmeal. I know which parks have swings and which have slides. I know where to sit at the games. And, after a disturbing number of errors, I know which button on the insanely complicated vending machine at the rink will give me hot chocolate instead of cold coffee or corn soup.

I know the children of all Dave’s teammates and the names of their wives. I recognize my neighbors. I am greeted by women from playgroup when I see them in the store. Our favorite restaurant knows my order and even bought a special chair for Vesper to sit in when we are there. We aren’t totally unknown, we are recognized and acknowledged and treated very warmly by most of the people in our lives here. And yet, aside from the other imported players passing through, we know very little about anyone. And they possibly know even less about us.

The improvements we’ve made in our Japanese skills allow for slightly less stilted social situations, but not for in depth conversation. The English spoken by anyone we know is generally equal to the Japanese we boast. And so it’s a lot of ‘Hi. How Are You.’ And then some bits about how old your kid is or where you are from and once that is established it’s mostly smiling. I like to throw in the occasional thumbs up just to make myself seem friendly. That’s what friendly people do, right? Should I add in a wink? Probably.

So it’s this very odd feeling of being somewhere very familiar that we don’t belong. At this point, our daughter has spent more months of her life here than anywhere else in the world. Our soon-to-be baby was made here. Our lives have spent the last several years evolving here. And yet none of our most commonly encountered ‘friends’ know us. And it’s not their fault, it’s probably 33% my fault in terms of language efforts but still. Even if I spoke Japanese I can see how hard it is for an outsider here. I can see how hard it would be for a child who lives in Japan but isn’t ethnically Japanese. I can see how no matter how many times there is dried seaweed sprinkled on my pasta, it’s never going to feel ok.

And this should probably make me homesick. Make me want to put away the suitcases forever. And yet I keep my passport up to date and my traveling shoes near the door. I curse the heavens when I buy salt instead of sugar or the chips that taste like some kind of sea animal, but then I enjoy a fresh picked persimmon and slurp down ramen that would make anyone pledge allegiance to Japan. I spend quiet nights searching for social work jobs abroad and wondering what happened to that part of me that used to wish for Dave to retire from hockey.

And so I watch my programs recorded on Slingbox (and we let the commercials play…to makes us feel ‘at home’) then I make our dinner on what is essentially a camp stove and open a letter about my prenatal care and pretend to read it for a few minutes before admitting to myself it might as well be written in 0011001 computer language. Doing my best to belong where I don’t.

7 thoughts on “A Well Known Stranger

  1. Is it bad that I pretty much read this entire entry while thinking you should just walk around with a dry erase board around your neck to draw pictures to communicate. Of course I realize you can communicate just not as thoroughly as you would like…that sounds frustrating and to an extent kind of awesome, only a little small talk and then…nothing…in most situations that sounds awesome to me. The good with the bad but life is meant to be shared and I can understand how that can be painful when D is on the road but hey, there is always ramen and that goes a long way!

    1. Life is meant to be shared, I love that! Yes, and there is something more ‘us’ about being on our own ‘out here’ in the wide world. It’s fun to be home with more friends, familiar food, family support…but we really do lean on each other more when we are here!

  2. I can so relate to this! We’ve lived in 2 different countries (Germany 3 years and Korea for 2 years) and you explain this so well – especially the mom and mom to be part. Whewww. Truthfully there are bits to this even when you live somewhere in your own country but know you will be moving again very soon (we are averaging a move every 2). Its def trickier once you’re a mom though…its somehow ok but part of you struggles with it. On the ugh days I tell myself we are Ok b/c we have to be but sometimes I’m yearning for something that we haven’t had in so long I’m not sure it exist and the thought of staying in one place starts to freak me out.

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