When I think about living in Japan for so many years, 2 + 7 as of the beginning of April, I start to wonder whether this isn't as much my home as Nova Scotia where I grew up, or Labrador where I spent 12 years raising a family.
I often wonder what home actually means. I'm not sure, but right now I think it means the place where I've lived, worked, set up a household and especially my kitchen, enjoyed learning about the local food, and just slowly began understanding the names of and how to cook many of the local vegetables that I've had the fun of discovering in the Farmers' Market. Started to learn how to cook them, I should have said, because the home cooking of Japan, though pretty simple in its use of techniques, is a little exacting when it comes to the presentation of things and the many steps required to make even the simplest dish.
Take chirashi-zushi. Its the sushi that looks easy, the one in the box with ingredients mixed in and then spread artistically, or even seemingly casually, over the surface. It subs for other kinds, especially in home kitchens where homemakers don't always have the time to roll up sushi. Especially as it takes a couple of hours to get all the ingredients ready. As I found out this morning when I realized that I've really missed sushi and other Japanese food since I've cut out gluten and had to stop eating prepared food. I started around 10:00 and I was finished around 1:30 or 2:00.
It was a nice lunch, though. With a few cups of locally grown tea, really nice.
Some of that time was setting up what I thought was a semi-artistic arrangement and taking pictures. But I've got a lot to learn both about food styling, and photography. I usually spend so much time wrangling with the light sources and angles of shots that I don't notice that the rim of the container needs to be wiped, that there is a small piece of vegetable on the rim that looks appetizingly like a little green worm crawling away.
I never notice those things until I see the close-ups on the computer; too late because by then I'm pretty tired of shooting the food, and in some cases it's snugly in my belly anyway. After all, I was shooting my lunch.
I know I need a better camera, but frankly I can't afford one. I need a photography course too. Maybe that's in my future, if I continue loving writing and blogging as much as I do now.
What I'm getting around to, and crawling all over the place, a little like that imaginary worm, is that I'm going home in two months. I've decided to leave Japan, though every morning when I wake up and look around at the Shoji paper casting soft light on the tatami, and the rich dark Japanese wood of the posts of the room, and wet my mouth with a cup of leftover tea lifted off the hori-kotatsu that I sleep beside (my dining table and night table), I wonder why I'm leaving. I feel a little sick at the pit of my stomach for the love that I've found for my home here, the mornings in the back garden filled with ornamental bushes and small palm trees, camellia, red berries, leaves coloured yellow and green, and the large crooked pine towering over all. The place I wash my clothes in an outdoor machine and hang them up to dry on clotheslines under the narrow roofed veranda.
My breath of fresh air and piece of sky in the midst of the concrete, the place where my cat friend, Mustache, often greets me as she crawls out from under the house, where she likes to sleep.
I do know why I'm leaving Japan. I've found at last that there is no way to have the family that I've realized I've wanted for a few years now. And it's too far away from the family I have left in Canada. I'm lonely and for that there is no cure here. I've got lots of students that I cherish and some acquaintances, but no deep friendships. The ones I've made have come and gone, and I've grown tired of making friends only to lose them within a year or two, as they move on.
And my Mom is growing older, and has developed Parkinson's disease. Though she has helpers come in a few times a week and her sisters live nearby, as well as my family who can take a look in on her once in awhile, I fear as she gets well into her seventies that she can't take care of herself properly. I want to be close enough to keep an eye on her.
I want to spend the big holidays with my children and their families. I have a grand-daughter that I've seen only a few times. As she heads into her third year, I'd love to be there to see some of that growing and learning that is so joyous in those first years. I'm missing that.
I've given up a lot to be here in Japan. I came for the challenge, and to get the teaching job that was so elusive after returning to school in my early forties to get my Education degree. Full of enthusiasm and idealistic as any younger teacher, I wanted to engage in my passion. The kind of teaching I found here didn't really satisfy that urge, based as it was more on the illusion of teaching and the business of getting money, rather than any real sense of mission.
Eventually I made the teaching more of what I wanted, getting jobs where I had the freedom to set up my own curriculum. I've enjoyed that quite a lot, but eventually the lack of progress of students, mostly because of the very restricted time you can spend with them, meant that most classes are at such a low level that enormous patience is required to teach them. In only a few could I broach the big questions that were on my mind or introduce small snippets of the texts I was longing to bring them.
I love literature and poetry and the music of language. I wanted to bring them great writers and philosophers and big ideas, make a great big soup of our ideas and creative energies that would swirl us into that plane of magic that sometimes happens in a class when everyone is engaged and inspired. Occasionally it happened despite the limits of my teaching and the barriers of our communication. But there were inevitable disappointments, ones that made me long for a change.
Then there is the political environment. Disappointingly, the government seems to be stepping backward into a scared and defensive stance in dealing with its non-Japanese residents and visitors to Japan. Maybe they are only following the United States and if the government gets a change there we can look for some more forward-thinking policy. And they might finally pass human rights' legislation. I hope that's the case, both for people like me and the Japanese as well. I think this country could benefit greatly from a real mix of people and ideas and more active democracy. That could only freshen and strengthen Japan, if it were embraced.
So, though I know why I'm leaving, I find that I've become a little Japanese. The culture has seeped into me deeper than the skin that looks different from those around me. Perhaps that's why I resent and am surprised when people still stare at me as if I were a visiting giraffe. I feel in some ways as Japanese as they. Why can't they see that, I wonder.
I love many things here and will miss them dearly when I return to Canada. The elegant arrangements of seasonal flowers in every train station. The ease of bicycling to do my shopping. The convenience of train travel. The rice fields and vegetable fields of the countryside, with their changing colours, season by season.
The exquisite tea cakes that one of my students brings to class at the change of the seasons.
The small shop around the corner with lovely green tea and strawberry manju (tea cakes), seasonal manju, and the next-door family-run coffee shop, guarded by two enormous twin Dalmations, that makes smoky flavoured, freshly roasted coffee every week for sen sambyakku-en for 300 grams, about $13.00, worth every yen and maybe a few more besides.
Obviously I could go on a lot longer. Japan has a lot of things to love. I think those that have founded families here are the lucky ones. They can stay forever if they like. Japanese families are by-and-large very supportive. If they accept you and you can accept Japanese ways, you will find a network of arms that can hold you up forever.
Even a lone teacher can feel this kind of support, in perhaps a more limited but also freer, way. I have a lot of affection for those of my students who have been with me for years. Many of them have supported me through deaths in my family and the birth of my grand-child, in their quiet way.
We've seen the seasons come and go together and talked about everything from the special colour of cherry blossoms at night, to the grave washing rituals of o-bon. We've dressed up and designed and carved "American" pumpkins at Hallowe'en and had a regular Christmas party at a nice restaurant every year I've been here. They have never allowed me to pay, and given me a gift besides.
I'll remember this kindness forever, and though I grow indignant at political policy, and sometimes impatient with citizens who never seem speak up about what they think is wrong, or question too much the racism here, except in rare instances, I know I have grown to love them and Japan with a love that will never fade.
So when I sit in my mother's house in Nova Scotia a few months from now, looking at the sunrise over the the ocean surrounded by the sea air and pines that I love and have longed for, wondering what my life is going to be like from now on, and while I go on to live that life, hopefully amid family and friends, I know that while I may be gone from Japan, perhaps forever, at the end of that life be it short or long, the feeling of home that I found here, I will never have forgotten.
Note: The recipe for Green Worm Chirashi-zushi, will be up pretty soon.