Stranger in a Strange Land

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


| July-August 2000



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.