Mount Fuji

Longtime expatriates all play 'Survivor' 


(This article, which first appeared in the Japan Times of May 31, 2003, is
reproduced here in Japan Perspectives by kind permission of the author.)

It’s not reality TV. It's reality.

Yet I too am a survivor.

True, I have not been secluded on a desert island. I have not had to overcome boomerang matches, fire­making contests and knockout votes.

Instead my challenges list like this:

Struggling doggedly with another language and culture, not just for a few weeks, but for every single day of every single year, year-in and year-out . . .

Raising two kids between two lands and a pair of families separated by a wide world of differences and understanding . . .

Sweating through a boiling cost of living that overcooks even the smallest of expenditures . . .

And — perhaps the hardest task of all — watching other folks in similar situations not survive, but rather pack up their bags and head home.

I am reminded of these old friends every day, for like a true survivor I have inherited their cast-off belongings.

I sip coffee from the mug of an ex-colleague who is now who knows where in the upper Midwest. I watch videos on an ancient tape machine from a former neighbor from Texas. I gaze upon a bookshelf filled with novels that I keep claiming I will someday read, all forsaken by good buddies who exited this land long before they intended.

"What rubbish," says my wife. "You act like those people are dead. But all they are is gone."

So? And is that not death?

At a business lunch one friend tells me of another who had at last taken all he could of the stagnant Japanese economy and moved his family back to Seattle.

"No," I gasp. "He's left us? Al­ready? But he was so young!"

We toast his memory with cups of bullion as if we were at a wake and not a cheap eatery. In both our eyes reflects the ultimate question:

Who will be next?

Not that I ever planned — or even plan — to stay in Japan forever. In truth it often seems that the years have bushwhacked me, that they have accumulated unexpectedly from out of nowhere.

Yet I draw a fast and easy camaraderie with those who sit in the same expatriate boat, especially those people of the same generation or in the same line of work. It is as if we have all shared a common misadventure, one of tripping clumsily through a colorful land of overly arranged flowers, ceremonies and relationships.

It's almost as if we were family. When one of us leaves, it hurts.

Of course keeping contacted with such dearly departed has never been so easy as the present, when the shortest distance between two points lies not in a straight line but rather within some eye-blink of cyberspace.

Yet e-friends are not nearly as close as those smooshed with you in­to the same commuter train. For they no longer take the Japan challenge. They no longer . . . survive.

There is no pattern as to why these people left. There is no rhythm nor rationale for non-surviving.

Some hated every minute of being here. Others loved it so much they would speak Japanese even with fellow foreigners. Some couldn't go through a meal without rice, seaweed and something fishy. Others knew the location of every set of Golden Arches within 10 km. Some were married to the land, as so many of us are. Others just liked to flirt with it.

Whatever, they were part of the expatriate whole, which is always diminished by another absence.

"Do you ever wonder," I ask my business-lunch friend, "when your day will come? I mean, most of us go back, sooner or later. The alternative is much too permanent."

"Sure," he says. "The only problem is timing. Most people stay too long . . . or too short. But when is just right? Once I figure that out, that's when I'll go."

He has unknowingly paraphrased Sartre. And I, knowingly, flip the remainder of the paraphrase back at him.

"Isn't it the other way around? You don't leave because it's finished. It's finished because you leave."

So he leaves — the meal, that is — as existentialism makes a rotten desert. Most of us Japan hands are waiting for something much sweeter, like a home, a job and a pension, all happily planted in a resort-type setting.

Benefits that expats cannot receive unless they first stop surviving and . . . go back.

"Sometimes I worry," I now tell my wife, "that I'm afraid to go back. That the prospect of starting over again — even in my own culture, even among my own friends and family, even in the bosom of my own hometown — is just too daunting.

"I worry that surviving here this long has changed me forever."

"No doubt it has," she answers. "No doubt after all these years you have traded away one view of reality for another. Isn't that why it's worrisome to watch others return? It makes you anxious over both settings — the one you have chosen and the one you have left behind.

"It's the same for me," she goes on. "It's the same for anyone who has embraced something different. The tighter the embrace, the harder it is to tear yourself away and glance backwards. How can others do it?"

What's left then? Except to aim ahead. When you're an expat in Japan with a long-term commitment, "Survivor" always has another episode.

"Something else I worry about," I confess to my wife, "is that so many longtime residents here turn out a trifle weird. You know what I mean?"

She smiles. "Yes, I think I do. But survivors can't be picky, can they?

"Besides," she pats my hand, "for some survivors, it may already be too late."

Editor's note: Sincere thanks to the author for his kind permission to republish the above article, which first appeared in his regular Japan Times column "When East Marries West".