Contributor: Sarah Carol Hughes
I am a tall, bright-haired anomaly in the small suburb of Tokyo where I live. I moved into my studio apartment eight months ago and have yet to see another foreigner in the area, much less one with a shock of red hair. Many mornings, I see an elderly neighbor as I leave my apartment, usually bringing in clothes or arranging plants, and we exchange morning greetings. The ritual has been going on since I first startled her with my presence months ago and stuttered out an apology in Japanese. I look forward to this small moment of normalcy, but today I don’t see her.
My walk to the train station is only ten minutes, and it’s the shortest and quietest leg of my commute. I’m waiting on the platform of my town’s single station to board a train that will carry me from these muted suburbs to one of the busiest stations on Earth. There, I connect to another train to take me into the heart of downtown Tokyo. The entire commute usually takes about an hour and a half, but since it’s Monday, I decide to stop by Starbucks on the walk to my university, the latter of which is crammed onto several floors in a single skyscraper.
I clear my throat several times as I wait in line to order my drink. I’ve been awake for several hours, but with no reason to speak, my voice is still rough with sleep and the familiar remnants of a hangover. I moved from my parents’ house in California to my own apartment in Japan at barely 20 years old, and quickly discovered the easiest way for me to make friends and learn Japanese was to meet new people and drink alcohol with them. Since it’s generally rude to refuse a refill and trains stop running at midnight, I usually end my weekends leaning against a pillar in Shinjuku Station, half asleep, waiting for morning train service to begin at 5am.
The Starbucks is swarming with people, as always. This is one of the most populated cities on Earth, and the lines are inescapable. The shop is mostly filled with businessmen and women tapping away on their phones. It’s the start of cherry blossom season and while the patrons are curiously eyeing me I’m eyeing all of the delicate pink merchandise and spring-themed food items. I’m hesitant as to what cherry blossom cake will taste like. I know I don’t look like a tourist to most people. I’m young, alone, and have a Japanese cell phone with a smiling takoyaki plushie keychain dangling from it. I don’t even own a pair of sneakers or other sensible walking shoes. I don’t look like a tourist, I think, because I’m not one. Not anymore.
I hear distinctly American accents behind me and see a few foreigners have wandered in, speaking far louder to each other than necessary. I cannot pinpoint the moment my thoughts first changed the label to “foreigners” instead of “fellow Americans”. It looks like a husband and wife with a daughter close to my age, if not a bit younger. They are the quintessential tourists with their backpacks, baseball hats and ill-fitting khaki and jeans. Their mouths gape open obscenely as they laugh, and I steadfastly turn away and don’t make eye contact. If I don’t make eye contact, other foreigners tend not to speak to me. The gaudy English is now the most prevalent sound in the coffee shop and carefully subdued annoyance is thick in the air. I can see it in the narrow-eyed glances behind me and feel it in the uncomfortable shifting of purses and briefcases.
In all my time in Japan I’ve never been correctly identified as an American by a non-native English speaker. Before venturing overseas, I’d never considered my nationality to be particularly important, and yet the removal of it from my identity often leaves me irritated. My Canadian and American friends can easily place my accent, but I’m told I don’t “sound American” when I speak Japanese. No one can tell me what that means, except that it’s supposed to be a good thing. It’s a strange sensation to not be seen for what you are, especially when you aren’t doing anything to hide it. It’s stranger still to be told that the misidentification is a good thing. Over the months, I’d been mistaken for French, British, Irish, Scottish, Swedish and Russian. I once let someone continue to guess, and he gave up after naming over 15 countries (including Canada). I’ve had other foreigners come up and talk at me in their native tongue, expecting that I will understand them. I’m told I don’t act like I’m from America, but what I am feels obvious to me. Clearly, I am what an American traveller is like, since I am both American and a traveller.
In many ways, being a foreigner in Japan feels exposing. From the moment I leave my apartment, I will not escape notice. The confusion surrounding my existence in this space is almost palpable. Living in the suburbs only increases the demure glances (to stare openly would just be rude), and I can’t hide that I don’t belong. In my first few months living in Japan, the constant scrutiny did not bother me. I didn’t see this place as my home then, and the scrutiny was understandable. I felt new and out of place and the world around me was reflecting that.
And yet, in this constant state of being seen, I feel increasingly invisible. As I learn and change and build a life here, my presence continues to be strange to everyone else. The reactions to me are always the same, these responses like gazing into a time capsule from my first day in the city.
I reach the front of the line and order a drink and a slice of the lovely, but questionable, cherry blossom cake. I speak quickly and clearly before the barista can even pick up the laminated English menu and hand it to me. The Japanese slides off of my tongue easily now after so many months. Any lingering gazes very intentionally find something else to look at. It’s as if this small proof of language ability is also proof that I may notice them back. I walk over to the bar area where the completed drinks will come out and other patrons shift to give me space.
“We should ask her for directions. She probably knows where it is,” the American woman, still in line, tells her husband.
I stare stiffly at my phone and read the same text over again. I don’t feel up to making idle small talk or answering banal questions about where I’m from and why I’m here. My head has been pounding all morning (although that’s entirely my own fault) and I already regret getting the pretty little cake instead of actual breakfast food.
“Go ahead,” the man says after a moment. “But I don’t think she speaks English.”
I bite the inside of my cheek at this baseless assumption. My order is called out, and I smile at the little drawing the barista added to my latte cup. It looks like a grinning cat. My cake is wrapped in a little white box with a carrying handle.
Despite vehemently wanting to avoid this family, I know rushing past them would be rude, so I walk slowly enough that they can choose to stop me. I want to say to them that English is the second most-spoken language on Earth, and I’m much more likely to speak it than not. I want to tell them that many Japanese people speak at least a little English in Tokyo, and that they shouldn’t give up before even trying. More than that, I want to see the looks on their faces when my accent mirrors their own. They look at me, but say nothing, and I leave the Starbucks almost entirely relieved. When I reach my linguistics classroom on the fifth floor, I am the first one there. I take a seat at the front by the window. The cherry blossom cake I bought tastes upsettingly like eating spongey perfume, but it does make a pretty picture before I throw it in the trash.
In just a few weeks I’ll be in this same classroom when a 9.0 earthquake sends me slamming against the wall. I will be stranded in the centre of the city with no way back to my small suburb, and I’ll walk hours to a friend’s apartment. I’ll watch on the jumbo screens in Shinjuku as people and homes are swept away by flood waters from the resulting tsunami. I’ll lose count of the hundreds of aftershocks. I’ll be wearing a surgical mask when I go out, like so many others, despite it being utterly useless to protect against the radiation leaking out from Fukushima less than 80 kilometres away.
I’ll be walking with a friend to the train station, on our way to lunch, and get stopped by an elderly Japanese man. He’ll ask us, confused, why we’re still here. “Why didn’t you go back to your country? Why not go home?” It won’t be the last time we’re asked that question. Many of my friends and classmates returned to their homes overseas as soon as they could get a plane ticket out. The city will be as empty as I’d ever known it to be.
He won’t understand that those are two separate questions which hold two very different answers. My friends, university, and apartment all exist in Tokyo. My cellphone is a Japanese model that doesn’t work out of the country. I bypass the line at my favourite club in Shibuya because I know the bouncers. My friends and I get free drinks at the bar we frequent because we know the people working there. I know what aisles my favourite foods are on at the local grocery store. I can navigate Shinjuku station’s multiple levels without thinking about it because of how frequently I travel through. I may be deeply unfamiliar to him, but this place is not so unfamiliar to me. I won’t know how to say this. I won’t know how to say that from the moment I built a life somewhere new, home could never again be a singular place. It’s become a series of puzzle pieces from different places that don’t quite fit together, but all of which irrevocably belong to me. I won’t have the words to tell him that returning to my own country isn’t the same as going home.
I won’t have these words yet in either language, so I’ll use his and say, “This is where I live now. This is my home.”
I’ll be thinking of the look on his face— the small and careful smile of almost, but not quite, understanding— as I continue on to the station.
Sarah Carol Hughes is a writer and stage manager from California where she studied theatre and journalism. She also studied journalism in Tokyo, Japan, and currently lives in Australia where she’s pursuing a Master of Creative Writing degree at the University of Sydney.