Stranger in a Strange Land

For the modern nomad, home is everywhere and nowhere at all

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The biggest challenge today is how to make our peace with alienness. The villager in Cambodia (or Tibet or Ethiopia) suddenly runs into visitors from Stuttgart, or Vancouver, or Manchester; the person who has never left north London walks out of his door to find himself surrounded by signs he can’t read and voices he can’t follow. Never in human history have so many been confronted by so much they don’t understand.

My answer to this global swirl is to live in a two-room apartment in rural Japan, in a mock-Californian suburb, none of whose buildings are older than I am. I live with a longtime love whose English is as limited as my Japanese, and her two children, who have even fewer words in common with me. You could say that much in the area is familiar—my apartment building is called the Memphis, and my girlfriend worked for years at a boutique called Gere. Gere is inside the Paradis department store, just across from a Kentucky Fried Chicken, a Mister Donut, and a McDonald’s. A 10-minute bus ride takes me to the Bienvenuto Californian trattoria, the Hot Boy Club (with surfing shop next door), and a coffee shop above an artificial lake.

Japan is probably less apologetic about embracing artifice and plastic replicas than any country I know. Yet the children in the neighborhood call every older woman “Auntie,” and the Aunties feed whoever’s child happens to be around. At dawn, old women take showers in freezing cold water and shout ancestral prayers to the gods. The very cool clarity with which the neighborhood shuts me out, calling me a gaijin, or “outsider person,” is partly what enables it to dispense courtesy and hospitality with such dependability, and to import so much from everywhere without becoming any the less Japanese. Surface is surface here, and depth is depth.

Japan will never be entirely my home, of course, and Japan would never really want me to come any closer than I am right now. It assigns me a role. It asks me to go about my business, and to let it go about its own. It offers politeness and punctuality on cue, and it requests in exchange that I accept my fixed role in the cheerful pageant that is official life here. Coming from quicksand California, where newcomers are warmly welcomed to a vacuum and no one knows where he stands in relation to anyone else, I find comfort in this culture’s lack of ambiguity.

One virtue of living in so strange a place is to be reminded daily of how strange I seem to it. When I am tempted to laugh at the notebook on my table that says, “This is the hoppest day of my life,” or the message from the abbess of a local nunnery that prays (in translation) for “Peace on the earth and upon every parson,” I recall that the real sense of local comedy, for the Japanese, is me: an unshaven, disheveled, seemingly unemployed Asian who speaks like a 3-year-old and seizes the senior citizen “silver” seats on the bus. “The most peaceful place on earth,” as the writer Elias Canetti once said, “is among strangers.”

And yet for all this mutual strangeness, I recognize in my neighborhood the outlines and emotions of the safe, protected England I knew when I was young, with its orderly, changeless world of corner shops and drizzly afternoons, with tea served promptly at 5 p.m. I recognize—more than the words, the codes and silences—the force of all the things unsaid. I recognize the imperial shelteredness, the island suspiciousness, the old-world cultivation of private hopes and habits that leave the status quo alone. On its surface, Japan is more alien than anywhere I know. Under the surface it speaks the language I was trained to hear.

I am reminded of how little I belong here each time I return. At the immigration desk the authorities scrutinize my passport with a discernible sense of alarm. I am a foreigner who neither lives nor works here, yet seems to spend most of his time here; an alien who is clearly of Asian ancestry, yet brandishes a British passport; a postmodern riddle who seems to fit into none of the approved categories.

I’ve been strip-searched for carrying over-the-counter allergy pills, for making a telephone call from the customs hall, for going to the men’s room. Once I was taken aside because my overcoat was abunomaru, abnormal (I was flying to the Himalayas). I have shown them my Time business card, a book I wrote on Japan, interviews I have conducted in Japanese magazines. But these do not satisfy them. What concerns the Japanese, clearly, is that I am a modern citizen of nowhere and, more specifically, one who looks like exactly the kind of person who threatens to destroy their civic harmony. During the Gulf War, I was routinely treated as if I were Saddam Hussein’s favorite brother; at other times I have been detained on the grounds of resembling an Iranian (thousands of whom live illegally in tent cities in Tokyo parks). The rest of the time I am suspected of being what I am—an ill-dressed, dark, and apparently shiftless Indian without a fixed address.

The mobile world and its porous borders present a challenge to a uniculture like Japan, which depends for its presumed survival upon its clear boundaries, its maintenance of a civil uniformity in which everyone knows everyone else—and how to work with them. And it is not always easy for me to explain that it is precisely this ability to draw strict lines—to sustain an unbending sense of within and without—that draws me to Japan. To invert Robert Frost, in the postmodern world home is the place where, when you have to go there, they don’t have to take you in.

My daily life in Nara is a curious artifact, belonging to a kind of existence even I could not have imagined a decade ago, before technology made centrifugal lives possible. I go to bed every day by 9 p.m., in part so as to wake up at 5 a.m., when my New York employers (13 time zones away) are at their desks. My research facility is an English-language bookshop 90 minutes away by train, and my version of the Internet is a copy of the World Almanac. The person I see most often, outside my immediate household, is the Federal Express boy who collects and delivers packages from distant Osaka. In our shrunken world, I can complete articles or even books without having to exchange a word with editors, and can draw money in a local department store from a bank account on the other side of the planet.

For breakfast I enjoy some combination of asparagus cookies or “chlorella biscuits,” chaperoned by what is here known as Royal Milk Tea. For lunch I go to a convenience store around the corner, where all the goods of England and America are on sale, yet nothing is quite as I would expect. Little old women are photocopying Chopin scores to the sound of piped-in Clash songs, and teenagers with safety pins all over their faces are consulting magazines with titles like Classy, Waggle, and Bang.

Usually, in the afternoons, I go to the post office next door. All the clerks look up as I enter, as at the arrival of their daily soap opera. My principal means of communicating with the world is fraught with hazards: The envelope I am using is too large—measured against a green post office ruler—or I have neglected to attach a Par Avion sticker. Once I was rebuked for including too long a P.S. on the back of an envelope, and another time, during the holiday season, I was presented with an invoice for $30 when it was discovered that my New Year’s greetings exceeded the five-word limit. Afterwards I walk around the local park, past the “bad boy” son of the electrician, polishing his Corvette until it is as red as his waist-length hair. And at one street corner, in this placid neighborhood, I pause before a set of vending machines where I can buy 49 kinds of cigarettes, 36 alcoholic drinks, and 92 nonalcoholic drinks.

Perhaps the way in which my neighborhood most solidly uplifts and steadies me, though, is its tonic blend of cheerfulness and realism, measured (as I see it) with the wisdom of a culture that has been around long enough to know how to mete out its emotions.

In practical terms, this serenity—some would say complacency—may be what gives an air of pink-sweater innocence to protected neighborhoods such as mine. Much of this can be regarded as hypocrisy, but it can also suggest a prudent drawing of boundaries in a world where they are in flux, and a sense of which illusions can be serviceably maintained and which cannot. Japanese society urges its members to conceive of a purpose and an identity higher than themselves. Even punky nose-ring boys and scruffy Indians are implicitly urged to tend to responsibilities beyond their mortal bodies. I find myself picking up stray pieces of trash as I walk down the street; getting up from my seat in the bank, I stop to brush it clean as I would never do “at home.”

The homes we choose, in short, deserve a tolerance we might not extend to the homes we inherit. In a world where we have to work hard to gain a sense of home, we have to exert ourselves just as much to sustain a sense of Other. I choose, therefore, to live some distance from Kyoto’s eastern hills, which move me like memories of a life I didn’t know I had.

A large part of the liberation of living in suburban Japan comes, I think, from the enforced simplicities that accompany a very foreign life. Living far from anywhere, without a bicycle or private car, I conduct my days, nearly always, within the boundaries of my feet. Living without newspapers or magazines—and with a television whose spoken words are usually modern Greek to me—I can be free, a little, of the moment, and get such news as I need from the falling of the leaves, or the Emerson essays on my shelf. Living in a small room, moreover, prompts me to be sparing, and to live only with the books and tapes that speak to me in ways I can respect. And not knowing much of the local tongue frees me from gossip and chatter and eavesdropping, leaving me in a more exacting silence. I cannot hold very much to these austerities. (Nor can I really refuse technology, which allows me to communicate with bosses half a world away—and to get on a plane when I need a dentist.) Yet being in so alien an environment is the first step toward living more slowly and trying to clear some space, away from a world ever more revved up. In our global urban context, it is like living in the wilderness.

The person with whom I share these adventures is a little like the society itself, alluring both for the parts I recognize and for the parts I don’t. Daily she recalls to me that the point of familiarity is to make one comfortable with mystery. All of us know, too well, that no place is more foreign than the face asleep by our side; yet in our modern world such old truths gain especial force, as more and more of us find ourselves sharing homes with our own private Japans, half strange and half strangely familiar.

Every couple has its private tongue. In my case, the setup is even stranger because I share no public tongue with Hiroko, my partner of 12 years. Because my Japanese has never been good enough to teach her English, nor her English good enough to teach me Japanese, we can communicate only in a kind of fluent pidgin with English words thrown into Japanese constructions. It sounds a little like the way the neighborhood looks to me.

This means, however, that we are free, for the most part, from subtexts, and from the shadows and hidden stings that words can carry. I can’t make puns with her, spin ambiguities, or engage in very much verbal subterfuge, and she can’t pore over my words to see what they mean or what they don’t mean, what covert weapons they hide. Speaking across a language gap means speaking less to win than to communicate.

The global village has given us the chance to move among the foreign, and so to simplify and clarify ourselves. Even in the neighborhoods where we were born, often, we find ourselves speaking by gesticulation, or enunciating slowly to saleswomen and telephone operators. And living away from words means living away from the surfaces they carry. Neither my girlfriend nor I can read a word the other has written, and so we have to apprehend one another in some way deeper than the known.

I realize now that this is my home in incidental ways: I can tell when the trees in the park are going to change color, and when the vending machines will change their offerings from hot to iced. I know when my girlfriend will bring out the winter futons from the cupboard, and when her daughter will change her school uniform from white to blue. I read Thoreau on sunny Sunday mornings, as hymns float over from the nearby Baptist church, and think that in our mongrel, mixed-up planet, this may be as close to the calm and clarity of Walden as one can find.

One midsummer day last year, I took Hiroko to Kyoto on the final day of Obon, the traditional holiday in August when faithful Japanese return to their hometowns to pay respects to their departed ancestors—and when the departed ones themselves are believed to return to earth for three days. It is a time of solemn obsequies and traffic jams, as Kyoto comes alive with ghosts and lights.

Heading toward the eastern hills, the two of us walked along a broad avenue of trees, through a receiving line of lanterns. Old, old men walked past in kimonos, half-doubled over, to visit loved ones at their gravestones. Cicadas buzzed, and lanterns began to glow as the sky darkened. We followed the old men through a small entranceway and emerged in a world of shining lanterns as far as we could see, all across the slope above us, zigzagging toward the heavens. Below, at our feet, were the lights of the modern city, cacophonous, fluorescent, a distant hum; above us, stretching toward the heavens, was one shivering sea of golden lights. Then we walked back into town and dined on a summer platform along the Kamo River, while five great bonfires were lit up along the northern and eastern hills, spelling out a Chinese character.

That night I fell into a deep sleep and dreamed myself in a country house in England. Only a few other people were there: some flop-haired schoolboys, a woman who had been kind to me in my youth—and Hiroko. It was a lazy Sunday morning; we were reading the papers and making the occasional witticism. Once we went for a walk in green hills, encircled in mist; once I asked something about Egypt before the war. Somewhere Lou Reed played “Heroin.” A few half-familiar figures drifted about—the unremarkable languor of a country weekend.

But something in this unexceptional scene felt absolutely right. I couldn’t find the words, but as I slept I heard myself saying of the everyday English scene, “This is my home. This is where I belong. Usually I’m not very sociable, but this is me. This”—the large red-brick houses, the gray afternoons, the musty light and dullness, the sense of nothing special going on—“is who I am.” Words I never thought to say in waking life. But here, suddenly, I could not only feel and see all the days of my childhood, but also taste them, and be inside them, in this distant science fiction land on the night when departed spirits find their way home.

Then I woke up—to the sounds of a bright Sunday morning in the northeast quarter of the ancient imperial capital of Japan, in the 10th year of the era known in English translation as Achieving Peace.

From Prospect (Feb. 2000). Subscriptions: ₤59.50/yr. (12 issues) from Freepost SWB 1187 Bristol, BS32 0ZZ, UK. Adapted from Global Soul: Jet Lag, Shopping Malls, and the Search for Home by Pico Iyer (Knopf, 2000).