You always meet a man just when you're ready to leave

I'm finally done with Tokyo. So why is this man suddenly being so nice to me?

Published September 28, 2004 7:00PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I have lived in Tokyo, my adopted city, since my early 20s. After six years, I am beginning to resent the restrictions on my life that come from being a foreigner without permanent residency and have become less able to brush aside the racial stereotyping and discrimination that I experience on a regular basis. Recently I began to consider the fact that maybe I couldn't make a life for myself here. The thought of a future without my oldest friends or family, without the right to vote, without guaranteed healthcare, frightens me. My work here is not enough to anchor me; in fact I could almost certainly find better-paid work in my home country, and my gender would not be as great a disadvantage to me there as it is here. And I have been out with a string of men who weren't right for me, blaming our splits on cultural differences, and failing to find the perfect partner. In three years' time I will be 30 and I want to have settled down by then.

So this year I began to make concrete plans to leave. I told my boss, my family, my best friend. I examined flight schedules, rental agreements, international moving services. For a while I was almost optimistic again as I imagined creating another new life; the third in a series and perhaps luckier than the preceding two.

But a couple of months ago I met someone. When we first met, I told him that I had already made plans to leave, and we should just be friends, but our relationship has broken through the bounds of friendship. We have amazing conversations, I think about him all the time, he makes me laugh and holds me when I cry. I have not felt like this about another person for 10 years, and I can't bear the thought of letting him go, but at the same time I don't want to stay here with him as the only reason. What if I continue in my dead-end job, remaining away from my family to be with him and we end up splitting after a couple of years?

He still thinks that I am leaving in three months' time. I'm afraid to tell him I'm ready to stay here for him in case it scares him away. I don't think he is ready to make a commitment after only a couple of months. Should I wait and put up with the rest of the crap in my life to see if our relationship progresses? Or should I stick to my original plan and hope that I can find another soul mate on the other side of the world?

Traumatized in Tokyo

Dear Traumatized,

I am in the business, you might say, of envisioning catastrophes and miracles. Each has equal attraction for the imagination, and each circumstance has the potential for either fate.

With equal ease I can imagine you finally being rescued by this man from your isolation and despair in Japan, or being subtly held captive by the unrealized dream of such rescue. Which will it be? I, in my hardheaded bias toward concerted action (born of frustration with a family of inertia and indecision), favor sticking with your decision to leave. My fear for you is that if you waver, you will never get out of Japan and things will never change for you. But that, as I say, comes from a man who grew up in a family that was forever planning a fantastic voyage that never occurred. People like us never get to Japan in the first place.

You, on the other hand, seem to be after something subtler and more complex.

So say you do the sensible thing: Delay your departure for six months or a year until you see what develops. Who could fault you for that? For sometimes it's at just that moment of maximum disillusionment when everything changes. We reach the end of the line, we purify ourselves of need, we let go of all we previously hankered after, and then a gift arrives in a strange new box.

My wife, for instance, when we met, had completely had it with men. She had washed her hands of all of us. Another man in her life was the last thing she had in mind. But suddenly there I was: Baby baby baby let's try to make this work! If it doesn't work, no problem, I'll disappear! But I did not disappear. I am still here, trying to make it work, providing amusement and exasperation in equal measure. You would have to ask her if it was worth it or not -- but she still has not left our little island!

But how do you know if the sudden shift in winds signals deliverance from shipwreck, or another wrecking storm, worse than before? I think it may help if you try to understand what drove you to live in Japan in the first place: Was it a feeling of aesthetic estrangement from America, that nagging dislocation of the intellectual exile, an enchantment with Kabuki and vertiginous ink paintings of high, hollow cliffs with waterfalls and courtesans and old men walking a long way without speaking, virtuoso tea-ceremony gestures speaking the way a stone speaks to the river, their savage art of sword making, their amazing carpentry techniques and all the other things they do so much better than we do things here?

And what is it that pulls you back to America? Do you think about your family and how they missed you? Do your friends sometimes wonder if it was something they did? Do you regret all the ties you carefully untied after they had been carefully tied by others? Do you think about the naive orientalism of Americans and our privileged modes of travel, our tourism by satellite, the culture-proof vests we wear for safety in other countries? Do you sometimes suspect that, much as you want to be elsewhere, there is only one place you truly belong?

Perhaps you will never leave Japan. Or perhaps this will be the final burst of hope after which follows a serene realization that it is time to go, and as the plane rises out of Narita Airport you realize that Mount Fuji is just another code for something you can't say but have to make a rubbing of, and you start to answer your own questions: What were you looking for in Japan all that time? Did you find it? Were you able to keep it? Or did they make you surrender it at the airport?

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