The alien home

A globe-wandering writer discovers that home is the most foreign place of all.

Published February 19, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

And so our dreams of distant places change as fast as images on MTV, and the immigrant arrives at the land that means freedom to him, only to find that it's already been recast by other hands. Some of the places around us look anonymous as airport lounges, some as strange as our living room suddenly flooded with foreign objects. The only home that any Global Soul can find these days is, it seems, in the midst of the alien and the indecipherable.

And so, a wanderer from birth, like more and more around me, I choose to live a long way from the place where I was born, the country in which I work, and the land to which my face and blood assign me -- on a distant island where I can't read any of the signs and will never be accepted as even a partial native. Specifically, I live in a two-room apartment in the middle of rural Japan, in a modern mock-Californian suburb, none of whose buildings are older than I am, 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. Once every few months, I see a foreign face in the neighborhood, and occasionally my secondhand laptop greets me with, "Good morning, Dick ... . The time is 6:03 p.m. [in Houston]," but otherwise, long weeks go by without my speaking my native tongue.

You could say that much in the area is familiar -- my apartment building is called the Memphis (as in the city of the hero of a thousand karaoke bars), and my girlfriend worked for years at a boutique called Gere (as in Hollywood's most famous Tibetan Buddhist). The Gere store is to be found inside the Paradis department store, which houses the Kumar Indian restaurant on its fourth floor and sits just across from a Kentucky Fried Chicken parlor, a Mister Donut shop, and a McDonald's eatery. But the very seeming familiarity of these all-American props serves only to underline my growing sense of a world that's singing the same song in a hundred accents all at once. The Kentucky Fried Chicken parlor is generally rich in young girls with black silk scarves around their throats, waiting, in thick black furs and fedoras, for the lucrative (elderly) dates they've just arranged to meet on their miniature cell phones. Mothers with silent kids beside them sip demurely at blueberry flans and pear sorbets, rice taco salads and tomato gratin, while a country-and-western singer on the sound system croons about the sorrow of lost truckers. Colonel Sanders is dressed, often, in a flowing blue yukata, though the recipients of his old-fashioned Southern hospitality are largely carrot-haired boys and girls in black leather microskirts slumped, in untraditional fashion, across the spotless tables.

On rainy days, the unfailingly perky cash-register girls (with TEAM MEMBER and ALL-STAR written across their chests) race out to place umbrella stands in front of the entrance, and hand out "Gourmet Cards." The scented autoflush toilet plays a tape of running water as soon as you go in (just past the elegant sink for washing your chicken-stained hands). And every time a cashier presents me with my change, she cups my palm tenderly to receive the coins.

I go for walks, twice a day, in and around the neighborhood -- the "Southern Slope of Deer," as its name translates -- and pass through silent, tidy streets that look like stage sets in some unrecorded Star Trek episode. I pass Autozam Revues and Toyota Starlets, Debonairs and Charmants, Mazda Familias and Honda Todays (with Cat's Short Story tissues in the back). Mickey Rourke grins down at me from a bank of vending machines. The local dry cleaner hangs out a sign that promises, REFRESHING LIFE ASSISTANCE. At the intersection of The School-dori and Park-dori (as these science-fictive locales are called), dogs wait patiently for the lights to change, and everything in the whole firm-bordered area is so clear-cut that every single house is identified on maps at the number 12 bus stop.

Outside my window, toddlers cry 'Mommy" and men in white shirts and black ties scale ladders to polish the sign outside the bank. Most mornings, a truck rumbles past, playing the unbearably mournful song of a traditional sweet potato salesman.

There are two small strips of stores in my "Western Convenience Neighborhood" (as the Japanese might call it), and both are laid out as efficiently, as artfully, as batteries inside some mini disc player. I can get fresh bread at the Deer's Kitchen bakery and eclairs (and Mozart) at Pere de Noel. The Wellness building stands just across from a twenty-second-century health club, which offers qigong classes twice a week, its gray walls thick with autumn leaves, and the man at the Elle hair salon tells me (every time I visit) about his one trip abroad, to Hawaii. Right next to the Memphis Apartments, competing with the Elle, the Louvre Maison de Coiffure, and the Musee Hair and Make, is the Jollier Cut and Parm, and I had been in the neighborhood for three years before I realized that the name probably referred to Julia (as in Roberts). A ten-minute bus ride takes me to the Bienvenuto Californian trattoria down the street, the Hot Boy Club (with surfing shop next door), and a coffee shop above an artificial lake, that used to be called Casablanca and contained the very piano that Dooley Wilson played for Humphrey Bogart.

At one level, of course, all these imported props could not be more synthetic or one-dimensional, and participate, as much as anything in Los Angeles or Hong Kong, in all the chill deracination of the age. The Japanese are probably less apologetic about embracing artifice and plastic replicas than anyone I know, and have few qualms about modeling their lives on the Spielberg sets they've seen on-screen. Those who worry that history is being turned into nostalgia, and community into theme park, could draw their illustrations from this suburb.

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 out ancestral prayers to the gods. The very cool clarity with which the neighborhood shuts me out; calling me a gaijin, or outsider person, is partially 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.

The old ceremonies are scrupulously observed in Japan, even in a place where there are no temples and no shrines. Every year when the smell of daphne begins to fade from the little lanes, and the first edge of coldness chills the air, the baseball chat shows on TV transfer their interviews to sets melancholy with falling leaves, and Harvest Newsletters appear beside the Drink Bar at my KFC. And as soon as the five-pointed maples begin to blaze in the local park, it lights up with matrons, sitting at easels, transcribing the turning of the seasons on their canvases.

And sometimes, on these sharpened sunny days, when the cloudless autumn brightness makes me homesick for the High Himalayas, I fall through a crack somehow, and find myself in a Japan of some distant century. Not long ago, as I was looking out on a light so elegiac that it made me think of the magical transformations of the Oxford of my youth (where Alice found her rabbit hole and a wardrobe led to Narnia, and where the Hobbit sprang out of some dusty Old Norse texts), I went out for my daily morning walk along the shiny, flawless streets, held as ever in a tranquil northern stillness of tethered dogs and mapled parks and grandfathers leading toddlers (in Lovely Moment hats) by the hand.

Men were washing their white Oohiro Space Project vans in the street, and girls, or sometimes robots, were crying out "Welcome" from the computer shop with the two kittens for sale (at five hundred dollars a pop) in the window. Fred Flintstone in a White Sox cap invited me to a local softball league, and a Mormon, by a park, promised some form of enlightenment. A simple prelude of Bach's floated down from the upstairs window of the stationery shop. And, just behind the power plant, which I'd passed almost every day for five years, I chanced, for the first time ever, upon a flight of stairs, leading down into a valley.

I followed the steps down, and ended up in a thick, dark grove of trees. I passed out of it and found myself inside another country: green, green rice paddies shining in the blue-sky morning, and narrow, sloping streets leading up into the hills. Two-story wooden houses, and a small community ringed by hills. Grandmothers were working in traditional white scarves outside their two-story homes, and as I passed one, she favored me with a gold-toothed smile. "It's warm," she said, and so was she. "Look at me! I'm working in my socks!"

I walked on farther through the silent village streets, past flowering persimmon trees and a central oval pond. Then I turned back, and greeted the old woman -- my friend now -- as I passed. I climbed the fifty-four steps, and the hidden world fell behind me as a dream.

Four-year-old boys were playing catch in Harvard T-shirts; women walked with parasols to shield their faces from the sun.

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 when I enter (a role that diminishes every foreigner with glamour, and marvels at his stammerings as at a talking dog), and asks me to go about my business, and let it go about its own. It offers politeness and punctuality without fail, and requests in exchange that I accept my fixed role in the bright, cheerful pageant that is official life here. Coming from quicksand California, where newcomers are warmly welcomed to a vacuum and no one really knows where he stands in relation to anyone else, I find a comfort in the culture's lack of ambiguity.

Magic realism, the literary form native to our floating world, tells us that the simplest fact of our neighbors' lives may read like fairy tale to us. The forgotten, tonic appendix to that is that our lives, in their tiniest details, may seem marvelous to them, and one virtue of living in so strange a place is to be reminded daily of how strange I seem to it. Whenever I am tempted to laugh at the notebook on my dinner table that says "This is the hoppiest day of my life," or the message from the abbess of a famous local nunnery that prays (in the English translation) for "Peace on the earth and upon every parson," I recall that the real sense of local comedy, for the Japanese all around, is me: an unshaven, disheveled, seemingly unemployed Asian who speaks like a three-year-old and seizes the senior citizen "silver" seats on the bus. "The most peaceful place on earth," Canetti writes, "is among strangers."

This is a way of saying only that many of us are exiled amongst strangers now, and it makes most sense to embrace the odd fusions we cannot resist. For me, I can relish all the conveniences and courtesies of Japan (which come to a foreigner without the value-added tax of social responsibility), and savor, too, the fact that the most ordinary transactions are extraordinary (to me). Every time I call the local Federal Express office, I get put on hold to the sound of the Moonlight Sonata, and when I turn on the TV (bilingual, and with headphones attached), it is to find an exotically dubbed drama -- from California, as it happens -- called The Wonder Years. Even the places that have least romance to me -- especially the rainy redbrick England that is the stuff of childhood -- pass through a kind of magic looking glass and reemerge in dreamy dissolves of country houses and Beatrix Potter figures, pretty young boys on sunlit lawns and the "University of Oxford" shirt my girlfriend gives me from the Piccolo Sala store.

Japan treats its residents as coddled children, and so the props of infancy are all around, though found in the terms of my own distant past. Paddington Bear smiles down at me from street corners (not least because he's the mascot of one of Japan's leading banks), and those signs on the local train not advertising a Royal Riding School are announcing the arrival of Thomas the Tank Engine at the local theme park. Noddy books are scattered across the shelf of the desk where I work, and when I go to the Lawson Station around the corner, I find Smarties (here mysteriously rechristened Marble chocolate) and Mentos, Maltesers, and McVitie's chocolate digestives (in bite-sized haiku form). Japan's response to globalism, it sometimes seems, is a promiscuous consumption of all the cultures in the world, at the level of their surfaces -- all of them converted into something so Japanese that I can feel as if I'm reading Proust in German.

Yet deeper than such toddlers' props, I recognize in the neighborhood the outlines and emotions of the safe, protected England I knew when young, with its orderly, changeless universe of corner shops and drizzly afternoons, tea served promptly at 5:00 p.m. I recognize, more than the words, the codes and silences, the emphases that politeness fights back or the force of all the things unsaid. I recognize the imperial shelteredness, the island suspiciousness of the personal pronoun, 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; but underneath the surface, it speaks the language I was trained to hear.

I am reminded of how little I belong here -- how alien I am to Japan's image of itself -- each time I return to the place I like to treat as home. At the Immigration desk, the authorities generally scrutinize my passport with a discernible sense of alarm: a foreigner who neither lives nor works here, yet seems to spend most of his time here; an alien who's clearly of Asian ancestry, yet brandishes a British passport; a postmodern riddle who seems to fit into none of the approved categories.

After I've been reluctantly waved on to the customs hall, I collect my bag and park my cart in a line of obviously law-abiding Japanese tourists returning from their holidays in California. When it's my turn to be questioned, I am confronted with a customs officer who is, for some reason, always very young and uncommonly fresh-faced. He (or sometimes she) goes through the standard list of queries: Where have I come from? How long will I stay? What am I doing here? Then, abruptly, he asks, "You have marijuana, heroin, LSD, cocaine?" No, I say, I don't. "You have ever had marijuana, heroin, LSD, cocaine?" he goes on, waving, now, a laminated picture of these forbidden substances. No, I say, not always able to keep a straight face. "Porno video?" No.

"Please open your bag."

At this, he pores carefully over all my belongings -- the stacks of faded notes in a hand even I can't read; the scattered bottles of hotel shampoo, which have already begun to leak and deface everything in their vicinity; the Olympic pins I'm bringing for my girlfriend's children, and the elaborate set of inhalers I need to protect myself from Japan's allergy-producing cedar trees.

Then, almost inevitably, he comes upon a tiny red tablet of Sudafed antiallergy medicine. Gravely, he mutters something to a colleague. Whispers are exchanged. Then, nervously, they radio a superior, and, with brusque politeness, I am led away, by at least two officers, to a distant room. My guards look anxious and unhappy, as if they recall that the only time Paul McCartney was separated from Linda was as the result of a Japanese customs check.

In the back-room interrogation center, my home from home, I know the drill by heart, having visited so often, and proceed to take off my clothes, till I am down to my underpants. Meanwhile, as many as seven uniformed officials gingerly go through my possessions, surveying every last bottle of leaked shampoo, every last sticky Mento in my coat pocket, even the temple charm in my wallet. My shoes are shaken out, my toothbrush holder is fearfully inspected, a stick of incense is held up as if it contained cannabis.

Then I am subjected to a barrage of questions. Why do I carry over-the-counter allergy pills that contain a stimulant as proscribed as LSD or cocaine? What prompted me to bring antihistamines into a peace-loving island? Will I formally consent to hand over my drugs to the Japanese authorities, and authorize a confiscation of my tablets, while signing a confession?

I am more than happy to do all of that, sometimes saying so in such amiable gibberish that the officials, fingers sticky with shampoo, tell me, "Okay, okay. You'd better leave before you miss the last train." But my answers only compound their dissatisfaction. "Where were you born?" one asks me, while another tests my case for false bottoms. "England," I say, as they scrutinize a Hideo Nomo telephone card. "No, where were you really born?" "Oxford, England," I say, "as it says on my passport." "What are you doing here?" I show them my Time business card, my Time Inc. photo ID, even my name in a copy of Time magazine. I show them a whole book I wrote on Japan, interviews I've conducted in Japanese magazines, notes on Japanese topics I'm working up. Unhappy with this, they try a spot quiz. "Who is I Masako-san? What is the importance of Kyoto? Where are you really from?"

Sometimes, sensibly enough, I have made sure that not a single antihistamine tablet could be found within a hundred-yard radius of my person. But, really, that's beside the point, since it's not my allergies that trouble them. Once, I was strip-searched for making a phone call from the customs hall, once for going to the men's room. Once, I was taken aside because my overcoat was "abunomaru" (I was flying to the Himalayas), and once I was even stopped as I was going out of the country ("Why is your photo so creased?" "Because so many Japanese officials have pored over it"), and the British embassy was hastily faxed on a Sunday night to authorize my departure.

What concerns the Japanese, obviously, is just that I'm a Global Soul, a full-time 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 (41,000 of whom have stolen into Japan and live illegally, in tent cities in Tokyo parks, or nine to a shabby guest-house room, undermining the local economy with fake telephone cards). 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 newly mobile world and its porous borders are a particular challenge to a uniculture like Japan, which depends for its presumed survival upon its firm distinctions and clear boundaries, its maintenance of a civil uniformity in which everyone knows everyone else, and how to work with them. And it's not always easy for me to explain that it's precisely that ability to draw strict lines around itself -- to sustain an unbending sense of within and without -- that draws me to Japan. In the postmodern world to invert Robert Frost, home is the place where, when you have to go there, they don't have to take you in.

By Pico Iyer

Salon Travel Contributing Editor Pico Iyer is the author of "Video Night in Kathmandu," "The Lady and the Monk," "Falling off the Map," "Cuba and the Night" and "Tropical Classical."


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