This is my home

We clarify ourselves among the foreign, make camp where we'd least expect to.

Published February 23, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Once, after I'd been living here, on and off, for three years, I decided I needed a typewriter. The machine I was using, an ancient Japanese manual, was as arthritic, almost, as myself, and the only other implements I had for composing my articles were a box of $1.19 pens, a limited supply of paper and an entirely illegible scrawl. I picked up a local magazine and started going through its classified section, finding at last the name of a company that offered simple, cheap electric typewriters similar to the one I'd had in college. I called them up, faxed them some forms, deposited a payment at the post office, and waited.

A few days later, as if by magic, a Black Cat messenger appeared at my door with my salvation in his hands. Eagerly, I began typing all the articles I'd previously handwritten, and before long, thanks to my expertise, the correction tape was all used up. Suddenly, I was helpless (having survived quite happily for years without a typewriter). Fretfully, I called up the company, got some more forms, faxed them back, deposited a further payment at the post office, and waited. Soon a whole box of correction tapes arrived. By then, however, the regular ribbon was worn out.

Again I was at a loss, stranded, with no apparent way to complete the article I'd started. I rang up the poor salesman again, completed more forms, made more trips to the post office, and paced up and down like an expectant father. The problem, of course, lay not in the machine but in me, and I was reminded, firsthand, of how quickly we become the servants of our tools, habit-bound machines ourselves.

The story is as old as the camel and the tent -- we're always possessed by our possessions -- but it reminded me forcibly that the less one has, the less one has to worry about (a lesson that having one's house burn down, and all one's projects and hopes go up in smoke, ought to teach, but somehow does only on paper). And it brought me back to some of the defining principles of the society all around me, which more or less patented the notion that if you decorate a simple room with a single chrysanthemum, it will concentrate the mind and consecrate the flower. It pulled me back, too, to a simpler time, when small pleasures were big and old sensations new. If some of us feel nostalgic for childhood, for all its limitations, that is mostly because we long for a time when days could be eternities and the mind would be where the body is. In a small way, in Japan, with few belongings, no space, and not much savoir-faire, I'm carried back to that state of quick enjoyment, where phone calls are so occasional that they're actually welcome and every movie, seen once a month perhaps, seems special.

I dwell, of course, in a kind of parallel universe here, and it takes my girlfriend (who's away at work most of the day) to explain to me that the frightened, kindly woman at the convenience store is, in fact, the cruel owner's wife and the lady who sells me croquettes has a daughter at the local junior high school.

One summer evening, after I'd been here for perhaps four years, she offered to take me on a tour of the neighborhood on her motorbike, and suddenly, five minutes from our flat, I was in a sleek, unanticipated world of Big Boy burger joints and Chateau d'Or bistros, with the Hotel Silk Road nearby. In parts, the area looked like Atlanta with subtitles, a random suburb made for those with wheels, and appointed with the look-alike global props of Book Bahn, Sushi Land, and Bottle World. Here was the standard jabberwocky of the convenience universe in the latest International Style -- Mr. Pachinko, Taco Donald's, boys in baseball caps that said WHAT'S NEXT? SEX trooping into Neo-Geo Land.

In parts, though, it was something other, and as we drove, the shopping centers fell away, often, and gave onto open fields, and rice paddies, and farmers working outside straw-thatched houses, in villages still so linked that the news of the community was transmitted to every single house by speaker at seven o'clock each night.

And as the sky turned indigo, and a huge pulsing moon rose above the hills, suddenly we came upon something even stranger: huge transparent modern buildings, complex with tubes and workspaces, like the innards of a laptop, erected in the middle of nowhere. The signs said they were the Nara Institute of Science and Technology, here in the vastness of old green hills, and other tidy notice boards nearby explained, in English and Japanese, that they were the first signs of a whole Kansai Science City, which would one day extend for forty miles in every direction, linking all the areas of western Japan into a Silicon Valley East.

A road sign pointed us to Hi-Touch Research Park, and scale models showed the outlines of an urban corridor that would pulse in our midst like an answering machine blinking with some message from the future.

I had been staying in Nara for half the Heisei Emperor's reign, and yet had never known that I was in the middle of some cosmic city of the new millennium, and suddenly to come upon these spacecraft was vertiginous, like being lifted up so high that one could see one's home as a dot on some enormous canvas, fashioned by a meta-Thomas Pynchon. All the driving ranges, all the Family Marts and Tomato gas stations and billboards of Felix the Cat I'd taken to be the things of commuting doctors were, in fact, part of some Techno-City of tomorrow that would, among other things, help to displace the green hills that stirred me so deeply.

We got back on the bike, and drove past rice paddies and village streams and wooden houses huddled against the dusk, then turned a corner, and came upon a sign for PARK-DORI, the quiet street I walked down thrice a day.

The person with whom I shared all these adventures was, of course, a little like the society itself to me, alluring both for the parts I could recognize and for the parts that were beyond my ken; daily, she recalled 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, under the distant moon; 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 -- that could be said to be the distinguishing sign of being a couple; but, in my case, the setup is even stranger, since I share no public tongue with my partner. 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.

What this means, though, is that we're 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 or betray. Speaking across a language gap means speaking less to win than to communicate.

The global village has given more and more of us the chance to move among the foreign, and so to simplify and clarify ourselves in this way; even in the neighborhoods where we were born, often, we find ourselves speaking by gesticulation, or enunciating very slowly, like language tapes, to saleswomen and telephone operators. And living a little bit away from words means living a little bit away from the surfaces they carry: my partner of more than twelve years has little sense of who I am in terms of brand names and labels -- what my job means, what my schools connote, who I am on my CV -- and I, likewise, can't confine her to the answers on an application form. Neither of us can read a word the other has written, and so we have to apprehend one another, to a small degree, in some way deeper than the known.

For me, being surrounded by a language I can't follow means, at the lowest level, that I can sleep while the television's going full blast (so long as it's not in English), and am never disturbed by all the chatter outside my window about O.J. or Diana's death. The one steady companion I've had all my life (the English language) is here done up in a foreign garb, of "live house" music clubs and "Viking-style" breakfasts, "pocket bell" beepers and "hammer price" auctions. And living out of a linguistic suitcase, I'm reminded of what I find on every foreign trip, which is that, leaving home, I'm convinced I don't have all I need; and, within a few days, I feel I have three times more than I require. The extra words (the extra goods) get in the way.

Best of all, in Japan, bringing strange eyes to the things the Japanese take for granted, I can see the places that I might otherwise take for granted (England or India or California) through the marveling eyes of those who take them in from right to left: once I took my girlfriend's seventy-four-year-old father for the only foreign trip he'd taken since the war, to California. Suddenly, in this incomprehensible space, he was a child again, rolling up his trousers and dodging the Pacific surf, collecting shells to take back home. Everything was new to him -- albeit translated into the terms he knew -- and before he'd even boarded the plane, he'd emptied a roll of thirty-six exposures. For the duration of the eleven-hour flight, he sat with his hands pressed against the window, peering out into the dark.

Such minglings are more and more the fabric of our mongrel worlds, as more and more of us cross borders in our private lives, or choose to live with foreign cultures in our arms. In Toronto, in Hong Kong, even in the Olympic Village nowadays, I seem to see as many couples dissolving nationalities as other kinds of distinctions, and so bringing to light unimaginable new cultures in which the annihilation of traditional identity is turned to something higher.

In Kyoto once, on my way with my girlfriend to the Holiday Inn, I saw a foreigner, tall and sweet-faced, walking down the street with a Japanese woman in one hand and a Japanese-English dictionary in the other. The hotel itself, along the Kamo River, on a narrow street with the northern hills behind it, is not unlike that couple -- all the global properties of the Atlanta-based chain reproduced in a setting that could only be Japan. There is a hundred-lane bowling alley there, a driving range, tennis courts, and a room-service menu in English; but when you go to the hotel swimming pool, you are reminded, by written rules, that it is "restricted to guests with tattoo or under influence of alcohol."

One day, as we were sitting in the lobby of this hybrid place, an elderly woman looked over at my girlfriend, and then leaned over to talk to her. "Excuse me, can I ask you something?" She was Japanese, it turned out, and it was Sunday morning, and the Wedding Hall and Holiday Hall were filling up around us. "What is it like communicating with a foreigner? Do you have problems with religion, customs, other things? How do you get yourself across?" My partner, used to my propaganda, replied that we probably communicated better than if we had too many words, and were free from at least a few distractions; words tend to be most divisive in a common language.

Satisfied, the woman sat back and surveyed the men all around, patting her bouffant hairdo.

A few minutes later, a trim black American, with a gold stud in his ear, sauntered in with his tall Japanese wife (in knee-high boots and miniskirt) and a baby in a stroller. Seeing my girlfriend, the baby cried, "Mama!"

Perhaps the deepest obligation of any foreigner in a place he loves that's not his own is to remember, daily, that his paradise is a fallen one, if only because it is an everyday reality to those around him, and offers conveniences far outside the reach of most people on the planet. And whenever I read the books of Haruki Murakami, the highly contemporary Japanese novelist who has seen his country from the perspective of living in Europe and teaching at Princeton, while translating Raymond Carver and John Irving into Japanese, I recognize that Japan can appear as soulless, to a native, as sad with loneliness and loss, as London or LA can to me.

In the six hundred pages of his magnum opus, "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle," Murakami delivers a series of X-rays on modern, affectless Japan that amount to a virtual autopsy on a culture that's lost dimension and depth, and dwindled into a reflexive creed of "I don't think, therefore I am." Almost all his characters have VACANT signs hanging up outside their souls, and float through life as through the pages of glossy magazines, hardly more substantial than the images they devour. "I was like a walking corpse," says one character, and another says, "I was now a vacant house."

"I had turned into a bowl of cold porridge," a young woman explains, and the friendly unemployed narrator volunteers at one point, "I am a weed-choked garden, a flightless stone bird, a dry well." Life is a numbing haze of Percy Faith orchestra Muzak and Dunkin' Donuts mugs of coffee and cinder-block abortion clinics (so without weight or direction that it comes to seem like a waking dream).

Perhaps the most shocking thing in Murakami's synoptic novel is that he comes almost to express nostalgia for the atrocities of the war, and the campaign in Manchuria, when people at least had lives instead of lifestyles, and a sense of intensity and humanity that arose from a close acquaintance with suffering (by contrast, the contemporary narrator blandly reports, "My reality seemed to have left me and now was wandering around nearby"). The other, quieter shock of his book is that all its dislocated fashion victims and Sprite-drinking teenagers, sleepwalking through their planless days as if on Prozac, might be dropping in from an Ann Beattie story. The hero wears a "yellow promotional Van Halen T-shirt" and listens to FM radio while cooking up spaghetti; the women he runs into are called Nutmeg, Malta, and Creta. "I felt a strange emptiness inside, a helpless kind of feeling like that of a small child who has been left alone in an unfamiliar neighborhood," the narrator confesses, and it isn't hard to see that the foreign country where he is stranded is a suburb of a chill and soundproofed future. Japan to Murakami certainly looked no better than Hong Kong or Atlanta did to me.

And so I sit at a small blond-wood desk in a child's bedroom, with a stubby Hello Kitty pencil, a Japanese folder that says PERK UP YOUR SPIRITS (TRY TO TAKE THINGS JUST AS THEY COME), and a T-shirt (given to me in California) that says I DISLIKE FEELING AT HOME WHEN I'M ABROAD -- GEORGE BERNARD SHAW, and write the essays in this book. On the desk in front of me is a pencil-box that says WELCOME TO MY HEART, a ruler from the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts (how it got here, I don't know), and a small James Dean mirror with my quasi-stepdaughter's name on it, a memento from a school trip to the Temple of Clear Water in Kyoto.

The items are the ones to be found in many a teenager's room anywhere, but here they make up a kind of anthology of foreign worlds brought into this unremarkable modern flat: a huge sombrero from the Yucatan; a mock-Californian license plate that says IAN; a large poster of Hideo Nomo pitching for the Los Angeles Dodgers; and, next to a Japanese fan advertising the local Hanshin Tigers, a button from the Istanbul 2004 Olympic Committee.

I sit against the midnight blue pillow and listen for the sound of a motorbike, a familiar footfall on the stair.

That this is my home, I realize now 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 Baptist hymns float over from across the way, 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 two months ago, I took Hiroko to Kyoto on the final day of Obon, the traditional holiday in August when most 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 on the expressways, and it is the time when, quite by chance, thirteen years before, I'd stumbled upon a Kyoto alive with ghosts and lanterns, and decided to return.

Heading now towards the eastern hills, the two of us walked along a broad avenue of trees, with the night before us, through a receiving line of lanterns, white, with the names of stores in black upon them. At the end of the gravel path, we passed through a huge wooden gate, into an area thick with the smell of incense and the sound of muttered prayers, men in priestly raiment hovering all about. Old, old men, from another age, walked past in kimonos, half-doubled over, to visit loved ones at their gravestones. Cicadas buzzed deafeningly, and lanterns began to glow as the sky darkened.

We followed the old men through a small entranceway to the south, and came out in a world of shining lanterns, for as far as we could see, all across the slope above us, zigzagging towards the heavens like fireflies trembling in the dark. Below us, at our feet, were the lights of the modern city, cacophonous, fluorescent, a distant hum; above us, stretching towards the sky, a shivering sea of golden lights, soundless somehow, and strangely disembodied, as if about to float into the night.

We walked up the steep slope, with its worshipers at headstones, and followed the paper lanterns up and up, past rows of illuminated graves, till it felt as if we were bobbing on the sea of golden lights. There was nothing really to anchor us, and nothing to see but the tremulous lights, and the ghosts who were whispering farewells. To my amazement, I realized that the moment I'd seen before, on my brief first trip, a decade before, had been real, and not, as I'd half imagined, some fabrication of jet lag and culture shock and wishful thinking. More searchingly, I realized, too, how miraculous it had been to come across the sight while here for only three days, on a stopover in Kyoto, and staying in a high-rise hotel on the wrong side of town: the gate was open only three nights a year, and in all the succeeding thirteen years, I'd never seen this field of ghostly lanterns.

I pointed out the magic to Hiroko (who, though born here, had never seen the scene before), and she, a part of it, confirmed that it was true.

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. We moved, through girls in yukata and figures carrying lanterns, up to the northeast quarter, to stay in an acupuncturist's flat in an apartment block with Global in its title.

That night, I fell into a deep, deep sleep, and found myself in a country house in England. There were only a few other people there: some flop-haired schoolboys, a woman who'd been kind to me in youth -- and Hiroko. It was a lazy Sunday morning, and we were doing nothing more special than reading the Sunday papers and making the occasional witticism. Everything had a languid, undirected air; once, we went for a walk, in green, green hills, encircled in mist; once, I asked something about Egypt before the war.

Somewhere, Lou Reed was playing "Heroin" and upstairs there were some fashion magazines, and a few half-familiar figures drifted in and out. All the unremarkable languor of a weekend in the country.

And something in this unexceptional scene felt absolutely right. I couldn't find the words, and I didn't need to find them, 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" -- I meant the large redbrick 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 just feel and see all the days of my childhood but taste them and be inside them, in this distant science-fiction land, on the night when departed spirits find their way back 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 tenth year of the era known in English translation as "Achieving Peace."

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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