How Are We Different? Let Me Count the Ways...

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I don't consider myself an unsociable person, but one of the surprising challenges about coming back to Canada, for me, has been engaging in small talk within a group of people.

The topic might be centred on something as mundane as a hit TV show of the nineties and early two thousands (Seinfeld? Survivor? Friends? I missed all of them living in Japan). Among neighbours it often hones in on the perpetual issue of homeowner renovations, which in Japan just isn't done. For me, it's still so overwhelming to think about the choices and the expense, I can't get motivated to change the wallpaper, let alone take down walls.

And so I hit them in conversation.

The fact that I live in a government town adds to my perpetual sense of singularity. In Ottawa, many of my friends, acquaintances and neighbours work in the public service. At book club meetings and the odd girl weekend away, I find myself unable to contribute to the inevitable work chat that erupts into acronyms and government jargon. And so I sit there. Just listening. Without being able to relate to the discussion at hand.

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The result? A really ugly room in my house (complete with 1980s wallpaper and blue carpet) that I haven’t yet had the gumption to change; bewilderment at the bureaucratic lingo that runs this town (which I can be excused for, I suppose), and a complete obliviousness to some of  the most iconic TV episodes of the past twenty years (which, funnily enough, some think there is no excuse for).

The irony of it is that in Japan, my obvious foreign-ness made it inherently acceptable to be different, whereas here, I feel fraudulent all the time. I look like I should fit into some middle-class norm, but I know I don’t. And sometimes I’m embarrassed about it; it feels like I’ve taken up residence somewhere that I really don't belong.

One day, I’m going to be so sick of looking at that wallpaper I’ll just start ripping it off for the fun of it. Maybe I’ll figure out the next step after that.

 

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Cindy Graham

Cindy Graham is a Professional Writing student who lived in Japan for 12 years. Now living in Ottawa, Canada with her husband and two children, she explores issues facing adults who return to their home countries after having lived for an extended time abroad.

Expat Women / repatriate.me / expatlog/Twitter/Facebook

 

Face Value

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One day when he was two or three years old, I took my oldest son to Arisugawa-koen: a large, beautiful 16-acre park in Tokyo with cascading hills, ponds, and wooded areas. Centred in a quiet suburb that was home to embassies and international schools, the park was full of nannies and their charges that afternoon. As I fed my son his onigiri, a nanny, who introduced herself as being from the Philippines, approached. “Is he yours?” she asked, indicating my son. I assumed she was curious as to why he looked Asian, so I explained that my husband was Japanese. She immediately followed up with a question and an offer: wouldn’t I like some help? Her sister was available for sponsorship and was a wonderful caregiver.

 Yup. They're really, really mine.

Yup. They're really, really mine.

I explained that I worked part-time teaching at night, and stayed home during the day to take care of him; I wasn’t looking for live-in help. But she simply wouldn’t believe me.

No matter how I tried, I couldn’t make her understand I wasn’t in a position to hire. To her way of thinking, that I should be found in the middle of this affluent suburb indicated I was a company or embassy spouse, when in fact, I was a spouse of a different stripe: married to a Japanese citizen, and living in Japan for years.

She never did take me at my word, and in the end departed with a broad, cheeky smile and a lilt in her voice. “All right, all right,” she said. “But I know you need a nanny...or you’ve already got one.”

It was somewhat comical, and while I understood her presumption was based on my appearance and situation, I was a little unsettled that she couldn’t let go of it.

Back in Canada, I’ve found that people make assumptions based on my appearance, too. Sometimes people are surprised to find I’m a full-time college student. On campus, the kids I meet assume I’m teaching.

We all do it: assume people fit within “the norm” of the group we most typically represent; I know I have. While it helps categorize, it doesn’t allow us to discover who people really are, or where they’re at in life; the truth may lie beyond the norm, after all. But if someone is willing to share their story, I believe it's worth taking the time to listen. And to hear it.

Beautiful Arisugawa Park, where I met the nanny who wouldn't believe....

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Cindy Graham

Cindy Graham is a Professional Writing student who lived in Japan for 12 years. Now living in Ottawa, Canada with her husband and two children, she explores issues facing adults who return to their home countries after having lived for an extended time abroad.

Expat Women / repatriate.me / expatlog/Twitter/Facebook

The Stuff of Dreams

One afternoon when I was home with my children in Kita-Kamakura, Japan, we became aware of a great "buzzing" from outdoors. Faint at first, it soon intensified to a loud vibrational hum, but it wasn’t until I looked out my window and saw a flock of black-robed men in straw hats sprinting down the mountain path, that I realized it was chanting. The monks-in-training were coming down from their Zen temple to beg in a centuries-old tradition.

 A rare snowy day added to the beauty of the path in January, 2006.

A rare snowy day added to the beauty of the path in January, 2006.

It was slightly alarming; no one had warned me chanting monks might descend from the heavens and knock on my door, austerely begging for food. But this was a much-loved part of my surroundings, and now that I’m so no longer there, I sometimes dream about it.

It meandered and curved at a gentle slope for about half a kilometre, and was bordered by all manner of quintessentially Japanese sights: a local shrine on one side, a graveyard on the other. Cherry, peach, plum, bamboo and cedar trees lined the way, rustling and speaking to us in the wind. Children's voices and laughter could be heard from the temple’s yochien (kindergarten), tucked far down off the path. For my own small boys, this trail was a natural playground. With its gradual ascent, rambling stairs, rocks, and shrine bells to ring, I could count on the excursion to tire them out. Certainly knees were skinned and noses scraped, but there were far less interesting places a child could learn to walk. And it was right outside my door.

 Fuji emerged only on the clearest of days.

Fuji emerged only on the clearest of days.

On a really clear day, Mt. Fuji loomed in the distance, and junior high school students emerged in uniform from the mountain on the other side. They made their way like ants onto the busy Kamakura kaido , the main, narrow thoroughfare through the town.

I didn’t realize at the time what an effect the place would have on me, but the same thing happened when I left Canada years ago for Japan, and dreamed of green fields and grass. It’s proof positive that the land and environment have a profound effect on our psychology. Even though we may leave a place, we take home with us, wherever we go.

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CINDY GRAHAM

Cindy Graham is a Professional Writing student who lived in Japan for 12 years. Now living in Ottawa, Canada with her husband and two children, she explores issues facing adults who return to their home countries after having lived for an extended time abroad.

Expat Women / repatriate.me / expatlog/Twitter/Facebook

 

 

 

The Long Way Home

The other night as I left class, I bade my Canadian friends goodbye with a hearty “Jya ne,” (“Catch ya later.”) A few months ago, I had to restrain myself from bowing low as I met my son’s Grade eight math teacher for the first time. And to this day I always point to my nose, instead of my chest, to ask if someone’s talking to me, the way it’s done in Japan.

Seven years after leaving, it’s still like someone's forgotten to turn off the switch.

My first weeks back in Canada I stopped at the door of every single building I approached, waiting for them to open in front of me. Once, I even walked into one. I had to stick Post-It notes on my car’s dashboard as a reminder to drive on the right side of the road instead of the left.

It was natural to adopt these behaviours while I was in Japan; they were essential to facilitating the smooth transactions of my daily life by allowing Japanese people to feel comfortable around me. But the manners, customs and habits are extremely hard to leave behind, even when they’re no longer in their proper element.

Which is why, in my first month, I found myself practically accosting an Asian woman in a park as she spoke to her children. I rushed over in a flurry of what I can only describe as crazed homesickness when I heard her speak, introduced myself, and said, hesitantly, “Excuse me, are you Japanese?” We’ve been friends ever since.

It’s funny because there’s a common lament among foreigners living long-term in Japan that goes, “No matter how long you live there, you’ll never be considered Japanese.”

But what is also true is it’s almost Zen-like opposite: that the longer you live in Japan, the more Japanese you become— in manner, custom, and gesture.

It’s been a long time since I returned to Canada, but I try to remember that adapting to life back home takes time; not because “home” changes so drastically while you’re gone, but because you do. Fitting in again requires an adjustment of your expectations, attitude, and responses, but eventually you get there. Or, like being in Japan, maybe just approach it.

The first few weeks home you don't know if you're coming or going. 

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Cindy Graham

Cindy Graham is a Professional Writing student who lived in Japan for 12 years. Now living in Ottawa, Canada with her husband and two children, she explores issues facing adults who return to their home countries after having lived for an extended time abroad.

Expat Women / repatriate.me / expatlog/Twitter/Facebook

 

Mothering Across Cultures

I’ll never forget the day I went to work for my once-a-week job at Hitachi Corporation in Japan, knowing the time had come to tell my wizened, chain-smoking, sixty-something boss, Kimura-san, that I was pregnant. I sat across from his ashtray-ridden desk and watched him drag on a cigarette as I explained why he’d need to find a substitute teacher in a few months. After proffering his congratulations and (in the course of speaking), his smoke, he declared, “Aka-chan tanoshimii da ne! Shufu ni narun desu ne?” (You must be SO looking forward to having another baby! And to becoming a full-time housewife!)

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Why, of course. Now that I was working on my second child, I would surely do the proper thing and venture off into the maternal abyss, ostensibly never to show up in the Japanese workforce again.

But this wasn’t an entirely unusual assumption: while parental roles are changing in Japan, it’s not uncommon for wives to exclusively raise their children while husbands spend long hours outside the home providing for them. Perhaps because my husband was Japanese, Kimura-san assumed I would follow the same path. After all, stay-at-home-mothers in Japan are venerated for their roles as family bookkeeper and guardian of their children’s education

I knew, of course, that women in Canada had more broadly-defined roles after motherhood. Still, when I returned seven years ago—as a stay-at-home-mother with no apparent job prospect in sight— it felt like cultural whiplash. As we settled into our new lives I braced myself for the words I came to dread most. “So,” would come the eventual question on the soccer field, at the parent-teacher meeting, or at the dentist’s office, “What do you do?”

It felt incredibly odd not to be able to attach a profession to my name; so much so I felt like a ghost without one, or at the very least a woman without an identity.

But perhaps it spoke more to personal insecurities than cultural expectations. After all, every mother is more than what she gives to and does for her children, whether she stays home to raise them, or works full-time as they grow. We would do well to remember this, whether we get paid for the jobs we do—or not.

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Cindy Graham

Cindy Graham is a Professional Writing student who lived in Japan for 12 years. Now living in Ottawa, Canada with her husband and two children, she explores issues facing adults who return to their home countries after having lived for an extended time abroad.

Expat Women / repatriate.me / expatlog/Twitter/Facebook