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Deborah Lea

A Year Already?
By Deborah Lea
May 23, 2005 - 10:32:00 AM

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The list of things I love about my newest home could run on pages and pages, and would surely try the attention span of even the most patient reader. The list of things I dislike about my new home, on the other hand, is at this point extremely short.

First, I rue that predecessors in my apartment buried their unburnable rubbish in the garden, making it difficult to work through in places, though it does make for a bit of a treasure hunt. I'm not sure how I could live without those special soggy bits of former mattress and old watches I keep finding. I could, I suppose, think of my afternoons in the garden as archaeological expeditions: I get a chance to explore through old remains the lives of previous inhabitants of this very narrowly defined region. Some would probably find this much more fascinating than the actual gardening I prefer, and I wish such people were here to lend a hand. Just let me join together my plant shop finds with the soil out back and I'll be happy. I don't need the extra thrill of backyard discoveries.

Second, I regret the utter lack of opportunity to speak English here. My Japanese is improving much more rapidly for it, but that doesn't change my chagrin when I find myself forgetting how to actually speak English. "It's about six foots across" and "I goed to McDonald's" are sentences I have found myself speaking within the last week. Additionally, I've had to search strenuously through memory for such difficult words as "sign" and "fork." It might be about time for me to invest in a monolingual English picture dictionary.

At least I can edit when I've written and present a convincing facade of English fluency. I should just disconnect my phone already and hide from my friends the fact I can't actually speak my own language anymore.

Third on the list of things I'd change is the lack of proper groceries here. We have a couple of corner markets and even a Yamazaki, but they are small and charge - for example - $5 for an orange where I'd only have to pay an ever-so-reasonable $3 in my last town. I recently paid $6 for a handful of cherries because I was desperate for something different, but I vowed as I ate them I wouldn't so splurge again. I do want to support the local grocers; I'll buy what I can here. Trips away will definitely continue to be a necessity, though, for to live without fruits is hardly to live. I tried it when I first moved to Japan. I couldn't imagine paying five or six times what I'd just paid in Los Angeles, but after a few months I realized I need fruit. A ramen-exclusive diet didn't work in college and I liked it no better in Yamaguchi.

This morning I found myself down to a couple packs of strange, not particularly oishii egg-based noodles and some distinctly inedible tofu. A trip to the grocery store was definitely in order, so I laced up my shoes, donned my backpack and threw some of my mountain of "pet bottles" (plastic beverage containers) into a duffel bag. My neighbor had told me I'd have to recycle this outside a bigger city's grocery store, so I thought it would be a good time to start diminishing that heap.

Only minutes away from my house, I saw an aggregation of old ladies standing around a shack I'd never before noticed. I wondered if they were selling vegetables as I've seen vegetable stands housed in such shacks before. But as I began passing, I noticed masses of large plastic boxes set out and full of sorted recyclable materials. I was confused at first because I'd been told there was no recycling near here, but mostly was pleased to think getting rid of all those bottles will be much easier than I'd realized before. A quick chat with the ladies had them laughing; I opened up my duffel bag and displayed my pet bottles to them with an embarrassed smile. I offloaded the bottles, put my duffel bag in my backpack, and continued on my way as the obasan shouted kindly after me to come back the second and fourth Sunday of every month.

"Hisashiburi," I joked when one of the ladies from the recycle center arrived at her home as I was passing it about a half-hour later. Long time no see!

I daydreamed much of the way as I walked, stopping first to take a cell phone picture of lilies finally blooming amid lily pads on a nearby pond. Later I stopped to examine the work of farmers on the rice paddies below the road I was walking. Last year I arrived too late to see the early stages of paddy work, so to stand in the drizzle and watch paddies being made of mud was fascinating to me.

A short while later, I reached the town I last worked in. I walked through it hoping I might see some of my old students, but it is a small place and few people were out. As I walked, I remembered all the times I'd driven through there before, back in the days I'd had a car (two months and ever-so-long ago) - before I'd decided it was too expensive, that I needed to lose the car and put that money toward actually being able to see my family during vacations. For old time's sake, I stopped at the town's single convenience store for a pre-packaged caramel latte, but they were out so I settled for a latte instead.

An hour and a half into my walk, a car pulled over and its driver rolled down the window nearest me. In Los Angeles, such an occurrence was never a good thing, but here I felt none of the trepidation I had in those Angeleno days. The driver was a smiling woman with long, dyed blond hair. She shovelled the contents of her passenger seat into the back and propped the door open for me, but I explained in probably abrupt-sounding Japanese: "Arukitai!" - I want to walk. I thanked her profusely for her kindness, and I was in fact beaming as a result of it. When she offered me her zebra-striped umbrella, I accepted it with another round of thanks. "My son is junior high student," she told me shyly, her manner incongruent with the wild air of her hair and umbrella. I promised her I would return the umbrella to her son, though, truth be told, I'm going to have to refer to one of my coworkers to find him. The seven weeks I've lived here so far have not been nearly enough to learn the names of my 600 students. I actually suspect a year won't be enough to remember all those names, but I'm going to give it my best effort anyway.

The walk to my old hometown was two and a half hours. I'd made the walk once before, a fact my neighbors and coworkers alike found amazing - and thoroughly baffling, too. There is a bus between the towns, after all. Why on earth go to all the trouble of walking it?

I've always loved walking, for the chance to see things more fully and clearly than a quick ride through a landscape will provide. There is so much more time to see and hear on foot, and I relish the chance to more fully experience my surroundings. I relish the peace, too, of being utterly removed from any distractions, of going somewhere but going for the process and not just the end result of arriving at a place. I am calm as long as I'm walking, and that priceless peace is one I have found nowhere else and in nothing else.

I did my shopping quickly, reveling as I did in the familiarity of the surroundings. I'd been to that Izumi many times before, when I'd lived only a couple of kilometers away.

I had almost escaped Izumi with a minimal amount of spending when I noticed the flowers outside the shop. I'd been admonishing myself for overspending on flowers so close to summer break and knew I shouldn't even to stop to look, but there were some beautiful flowers I'd never seen before and their lure was ultimately too strong for me to ignore. (I have willpower, mind you. Tons and tons of it. It just lies dormant, somewhere in the vicinity of my feet.) With a vague sense of guilt, I picked out some of the more unusual ones and went to make my purchase.

The clerk was a round-faced woman in her thirties. She was busy wrapping a bouquet for someone and apologized as I stood waiting. I was in no hurry, I assured her, and I stared into space while she finished up her prior transaction.

It's a good thing I was in no hurry, because the conversation I had with the flower store clerk was one of the best I have had in many months. It was likely the first actual conversation I have had in Japanese, and if I could not speak at the same level I understood, I was thrilled to realize I could take part in a half-hour conversation.

The clerk and I talked about all manner of things over the flowers untouched in my basket, but my favorite part of the conversation was definitely when we began disagreeing over which country's babies are cuter. Manami told me that American babies are absolutely cuter, but I disagreed and with emphatic gestures demonstrated that here is the level of cuteness of American babies while here, at a height at least double that of the former group, is the cuteness of Japanese babies. It was an utterly ridiculous argument we were having, but it was simultaneously the most enjoyable I've ever had. Manami explained that Japanese people have awful, uniformly wide faces while American babies - who all, of course, look exactly alike, much like Japanese babies do - have such adorable, shapely little chins. The conversation seemed perfectly natural while we were having it, but the silliness of it is making me laugh now. Mostly I still remain pleased that no more than a smattering of English words were used and I held a conversation I would have been incapable of holding even two months ago. I really mean it when I say my Japanese is improving phenomenally for my lack of opportunity to speak English here. That flower shop conversation was the first tangible indicator I've had of it.

Manami and I decided we'll have to chat again soon. There's no telling if we will; plans fall through with even greater frequency here than they did in Los Angeles, notorious for being home of the fickle. I expect we will.

Exchanging names, Manami asked me if I knew the meaning of my name. I told her - in English, because I don't know how to say it in Japanese - "bee," and imitated the English interpretation of a bee's sound. Once I was done, she explained with amusement how most of the English speakers she's met call her Minami. "Minami - 'south,' ne?" she said as she pulled a notepad out of her apron pocket. Writing out the two characters of her name, she told me the first means "love" and the second "beautiful." No wonder she's indignant about such an error. It's an innocent enough error for an English speaker, but the difference between being called "south" and "beautiful love" is vast indeed!

We exchanged information and I set out on the road back with a smile. Such simple pleasures brighten my days here, and there are such examples in abundance in each day.

I sang as I walked back. Twice I told concerned passersby I was content to walk, and part of that was that I wanted time to sing the songs I used to sing along to when I drove to work. My sister and I grew up singing to pass the long hours of walking we did, and in singing while I walk I most easily remember what it was like to be a child so hopeful about the future. Now I live in that future, singing some of the same songs in a country I surely never then imagined I would call home.

Not all of the songs I sang today were childhood favorites. As the drizzle made way for true rainfall, I teared up to Everclear's "Wonderful." Many of my friends have mocked that song ("It's such a 'na-na' song!"), but it held special significance for me even before I could sing along while driving through the mountainous Japanese countryside. Those drives singing it have made it even more important to me, adding new layers of understanding to my first experiences of it.

As I distractedly imitated Art Alexakis's much rawer voice, I thought of what life was like when I first passed many afternoons listening to that song and its album. I recalled listening to it when I first moved to Japan a year and two days ago, when I had only hopes but no real idea of what this country would be to me. I didn't know then how crazy this place could make me, or how deeply I would come to love it. I didn't know there would come a point where I would stop thinking, "Oh, so that's how they do things in Japan" and instead think of the things around me as natural, as right, as simply The Way Things Are Done. These days, when I find myself surprised by something, I am apt to find it silly I didn't know it before rather than thinking, "Wow, so that's the Japanese way!" Slowly I've stopped thinking about this as my life in Japan and rather as simply my life. Sometimes it's a rough life but some days are filled only with laughter. No matter which way a day swings, this is only my home and no more, my neighbors now merely people and no longer distinctly Japanese people.

I continued to sing and contemplate how this once-foreign country has now come to be my home, to feel in every tree and raindrop like the place I belong. But after about an hour of walking back, I was starting to feel the heaviness of my groceries and my thoughts turned from tunes and abstract meanderings to the pain slowly growing in my shoulders. If only there were a bus coming soon ...

Shortly after I decided to catch the bus, and sit down at the nearest stop I could find, another car pulled over. The young woman driving asked in perfect English if I'd like a ride, and this time I leapt at the chance. "Yes, please!" I hopped in and she told me how she had lived in Minnesota for a time, but how she feared she was losing her English after two years back in Japan. She was going to visit her cousin, it turned out, who lived not more than a couple of minutes from me, so we chatted about her difficulties finding a job and my pleasure at being able to speak a little English. When she dropped me off, we exchanged numbers and cell phone addresses, and then I waved her off as she turned out of my apartment parking lot.

Back inside the dryness of this place which really is starting to feel like my place and not just a place, I flopped down on my swivel chair and watched the rain falling on the trees beyond my window. Before my five-hour trip to the grocery store, I'd intended to write an entirely different article, but in the aftermath of my morning expedition that article was forgotten. This is my life in Japan, after all, and that life is a sequence of these unexpected little encounters. These are the moments that now define my life, that make living here what it is. And if I wish I could just find a supermarket down the street from here, maybe it's better that I have to go out in search of groceries. In the search for such mundane things, after all, I end up discovering things of much greater consequence - friends and truths I can't find - or perhaps just can't see - along the one-mile stretch of my everyday life.

Deborah Lea can be reached at

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