Creative Non-Fiction: Personal Essay + Journal
Belonging is a necessity for psychological health and most seem to belong somewhere, somehow. Aboriginal Australians assert they belong to the land whereas the British-descended Australians claim the land belongs to them. The strongest sense of belonging I have is to this planet. I’m not sure if I belong anywhere in particular or if somewhere belongs to me: ownership seems to contradict belongingness. My possessions belong to me in that they are mine, yet I feel no sense of possession by or for a place. The best I can say is that this is my planet but I’m not actually sure I belong. My understanding and experience of belonging definitely changed through the first month I was in Japan.
Landing at Takamatsu airport was the culmination of months of applications, interviews, meetings and pure excitement! I have dreamt of leaving Australia since I was a child. My father had patiently responded to my 13 year old indignation about borders and passports and I couldn’t believe someone else could restrict where I may go on this – my – planet. Also, growing up in broken homes and below the poverty line made flying as likely as visiting the Moon. As the years went by, I found a cheap apartment in East Brisbane and daily watched the jet liners coming in to land: One day I’ll fly away on one!
That day came at the end of 1999 when I flew to LA to visit one section of my family. I deliberately chose a stopover in Osaka on the way there and Tokyo on the way back. Osaka enchanted me. The otherness of Japan enchanted me. Everything new enthralled me. I yearned to return and, one night at gay tennis, a fellow offered to teach me how to hit the ball so that it remained in the court. Whilst chatting afterwards, he mentioned that he was going to Japan to teach English. My mind moved to Japan in that instant! It took 18 months for my finances and body to join it and my first experience of being there turned out to be Takamatsu airport in early August.
I was swimming in sweat within minutes of exiting the airport doors with the welcoming entourage: three men and one woman. None of them seemed to speak English. They escorted me to a small, white, Japanese hatchback and placed me in the middle back seat. For the next hour or so, the men attempted speaking to me with strange and unfamiliar vocalisations and gestures. The woman stayed mute. Silence gradually engulfed the car. My mind was whirling with new sensations and experiences, my eyes were hard-pressed keeping track of the new sights sliding past the windows. I finally needed to know what all those stone monuments along the road were called and I repeatedly pointed and asked after them. The woman, who I later learned was a Japanese teacher of English – and my supervisor to be over the next three years – simply said, ‘Haka’. Brimming with excitement I opened my Canon WordTank, a moving overseas present from my younger brother, and found out what it meant:
This, my first trip in Japan, was about three and a half hours in a cramped car with people I could not communicate with, perched on the transmission tunnel, and the first word I learned represents the dead. Perhaps you are thinking of death and zombies and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (yes, I’m 49 now), but attitudes are very different over here. Through my time in Japan, I was to learn how venerated the ancestors are and how present they are in daily life. Remembering one’s ancestors gives the Japanese such a deep, unassailable sense of belonging, not just in space but also in time. Unlike the fleeting notion of the ‘now’ pervading Western culture, which seems to hurl people about like leaves in a whirlwind, the Japanese have a sense of ‘always’ which weaves lives into lives through time, creating an ever-present tapestry wherein a singular identity, only in part, holds the whole together. These people belong here.
A Place Called Home
My apartment, one in a three-story building of 12, was fairly standard. My first impression was the fragrance of the tatami then the subtler wood. Blistering hot and steamy as a sauna, I gradually had to release my aversion to using electricity to cool down. The tipping point was laying awake for hours in a pool of sweat with my mind like sludge. It was even worse than waking one night to find my bedroom full of ghosts of the local ancestors, crammed into the place cheek to jowl.
Queenslanders are amazingly well designed with peaked rooves to keep the sun away from the rooms below, awnings over the windows and large eves to keep the sun off the walls. Also being raised, the earth underneath provides a cooling layer like a geothermal air conditioner. Interestingly, traditional Japanese homes share many of these same features but the verandahs often encircle three sides of the house and can be enclosed completely. I have enjoyed many naps on tatami. There is something so liberating about just laying down on the floor with that natural scent comforting you.
This is similar to how, as a child, I used to fall asleep outside on the grass under the Hill’s Hoist. The bellbirds and magpies singing, sounds of distant neighbours across the gully, the dog playing with my brother. Cool, dry air and warm sunlight from a crisp, stunning-blue sky. The moon a white semi-orb so high up. The Earth holding me. And the pervasive freshness of eucalypt and grass as I dozed. Perhaps this is one reason I had no culture shock moving to Japan. There were always reminders that I was here.
The Ultimate Yumminess of Japanese Culinary Delights
His eyes bulged.
He couldn’t breath.
He couldn’t even chew.
He was utterly conquered by tempura.
– Watching an ex’s reaction to his first bite of tempura at an average restaurant in Shinjuku.
After I had settled in to my new apartment, close enough to the school that students could call out my name from inside the buildings (although this was quickly stopped by the teachers), I decided to roam. I’d been introduced to the amazing udon but I’ve always had this quest to explore, whether by car, boat, train, plane or foot, through physical and psychological worlds. There is just so much to know and I want experience it all for myself.
So there I was, deliberately wandering the town when my interest was piqued by a bakery. Going inside with my Japanese money and non-functional Japanese language, I primed myself to buy one of the items stacked in the extremely clean displays. The tidy shop, inside and out, was swimming in all the fragrances and aromas you’d expect form a local bakery. In a rare moment of harmony, my eyes, taste buds and stomach were in perfect agreement for this course of action.
Let’s start with something familiar, my cowardice determined. Perhaps I needed a taste of home surrounded by so much unfamiliar. I chose an innocent-looking jam donut with a squirming meekness. Perhaps the loveliest part of this interaction was that the girl behind the counter already assumed I had no Japanese: she very clearly confirmed which item I wanted and showed the price using a calculator. Pleasant and efficient kindness. A lot of smiling and bowing. ‘Arigatou gozaimasu’, I bowed and went out.
I bit into the donut, spittle at the corners of my mouth. The day was bright and a light breeze cooled the sweat dripping from every pore. Teeth sinking through the perfect dough, sugar sprinkling on fingers and down to the road, I felt the sweet centre ooze into my hungry mouth. A moan escaped from deep in my throat.
Suddenly I froze! What is that?! Confusion and doubt rilled through me: The expected sickly sweet strawberry sauce was not sweet, nor was it strawberry! This treacherous morsel! Resentment built. Yes, but what IS it? That bakery was delightful so, therefore, it must be edible. I continued devouring this deception, but slowly, trying to ascertain the unusual textures and flavours smothering my tongue. Oh! Beans!
My mind exploded.
The three years I lived in Toyohama, red bean donuts and that German bakery became my anchors. This is the best bakery I’ve ever been to anywhere. I eventually learned that, in Japan, only children eat very sweet things and that anko, sweetened red bean paste, is used in a variety of desserts. My palate and blood sugar levels have thanked me ever since. Belonging takes unexpected forms.
‘Wow! They just loved concrete!’ I said to another foreigner on the JET Programme.
‘Huh?’ she replied.
‘Well, look!’ I made a long slurping sound as I waved my hand along the sides of the roads.
The gutters are deep enough to hide a cat in and wide enough for three. They often have carp or yabbies in them. Embankments are also made of concrete looking like melted wax along the sides of mountain roads. Sea walls and garden walls blend concrete with Besser blocks, too. Much later I discovered that Japan had serious issues with blood flukes and with true Japanese efficiency, they rid the country of the ecosystems which supported fresh water snails. Thank the Romans for creating concrete and thank the Americans for introducing it!
‘Konnichi wa. O-genki de gozaimasu ka?’ I said, proud of my pronunciation.
‘You are a foreigner! You speak English!’ she replied, stabbing her finger at my face, affronted by my uninvited familiarity.
I was made fully aware of where my temporary belonging ended and began. When people come to Australia, I expect them to at least try to learn about the country and our distinct version of English. I expect them to try Vegemite, even though I hate it, and to have a few Lamingtons. Call me old fashioned but this is courtesy. I gradually learned that I’d be accorded my Japanese sense of belonging within particular boundaries, most of which would not be stated until after I had blundered through them.
‘Sensei! You speak American?’ Cute junior high school students who obviously slept through the principal introducing me to the school and also my self-introductions to classes.
‘No, I speak English. I’m Australian.’ My response is met with with confused, suspicious glances. Geography, now?
Did you know that unlike Britain, which has been overrun by everyone except the Mongols over the past 2000 years, Japan had never been conquered until the Americans with the Black Ships in the 1850s and then again when they bombed Nagasaki and Hiroshima in the 1940s? I repeatedly got the impression that Australians are somehow not up to scratch. I can trace my lineage back to the 1060s and our family castle still stands. I feel more British than I do Australian despite both parental lines boating to Oz in the 1860s. I felt more Australian when Albanese put the Aboriginal and the Torres Strait Islander flags up. Our disunity disturbs me.
At The End of my First Month in Japan
‘Hi, I don’t understand Japanese and I’m watching the news. Can you tell me what’s happening, please?’ I called my boyfriend (that guy from tennis) in Australia to find out:
‘I don’t know.’
‘It looks like planes have hit the World Trade Centre.’
‘Could you turn the news on and tell me what’s happening, please?’
‘This doesn’t make sense.’
‘Yeah, planes have crashed into the World Trade Centre.’
A plane flies into the World Trade Centre,
Planes do not fly into the World Trade Centre,
Therefore, that was not the World Trade Centre.
A plane has crashed into a building,
That looks like the Pentagon.
Planes do not crash into the Pentagon.
Therefore that is not the Pentagon.
Another plane is flying into the World Trade Centre.
This isn’t happening.
This is a Hollywood movie?
That isn’t the World Trade Centre.
Planes do not crash into these buildings.
Therefore, they are some other buildings.