Eight months after moving to Japan, I’ve made a monumental decision: it is okay to be an American.
I’m allowed to put sushi and ramen on-hold once in a while and enjoy a nice burger instead. I don’t have to wear heavy sweaters in the heat of summer or exclusively drink matcha. My shopping needn’t be restricted to Japanese brands that don’t fit my hips, and the occasional Netflix binge doesn’t mean I’ve wasted the day.
Now, the niceties must still be observed. I will continue to uphold the Japanese social contract of quiet train rides, superfluous bows, and six different types of recycling. But while I may live in Japan, I am decidedly not Japanese.
This may seem like a silly realization – obviously my blonde hair and green eyes are a dead giveaway. But I tried. Truly, I did. When I learned of our move, I studied the history, began Rosetta Stone, and forced myself to tolerate the taste of raw fish. I wanted to take our adventure seriously and get the most out of the experience. I wanted to assimilate.
During my previous stints in Italy and Austria, I’d successfully adjusted to life abroad. I didn’t feel deep longings for American food or culture. I easily shopped my way across Europe, and I became comfortable in my surroundings. I was even mistaken for a local on more than one occasion.
But Japan has been an altogether different challenge. While I will happily grab a bowl of ramen or dig into miso soup, I don’t crave them. They are heavy and hot; they leave me feeling bloated. Likewise, sushi makes me feel stuffed yet hungry – an odd oxymoron, I know. Frankly, even if I loved Japanese food as much as I loved, say, pizza, I don’t think I could eat it every night. I guess I just require more variety.
Shopping here is difficult. First of all, it’s depressing. As a society, they are a very small people. (Yes, this is a generalization, but it’s also generally true.) Going from a US extra-small to a Japanese medium is frustrating. And even when you shop in traditionally American stores, like American Eagle or The Gap, sizing here is different. Whatever your US size, add a 2 or a 4. That’s your Japanese size.
Furthermore, their clothes are cut differently. Less curves, more fabric. The current trend is baggy clothing that appears chic and elegant on a stick figure, but makes me look like I’m swimming in a burlap bag. I appreciate it for the art that it is, but it doesn’t seem to reciprocate the feeling.
Lastly, while I love being a tourist in my own city, adventures can be exhausting! The easiest example is dinner. We can either embark early and go exploring by train and on foot in search of a true Japanese experience, where the signage and the menus will both require translations, not to mention the high probability of leaving hungry. Or we can get in the car and drive to one of many Western restaurants we know that have English menus (and English offerings) with easily accessible parking nearby. Which would you chose to do on a near-daily basis?
Therefore, I’ve decided. I am allowed to act like an American. Not all the time – I’d never give up being a tourist or trying new things – but occasionally.
To clarify, this does not mean I will become a loud, obtuse, and uninformed tourist who refuses to try traditional cuisine or model their behavior on the locals’. Merely, that no longer will I feel guilty when I choose waffles over rice and pickled vegetables for breakfast. I won’t be embarrassed to sometimes shop on base for shoes rather than going out in town. And I will treat myself to a day at Tokyo Disney without feeling like a tacky tourist who wasted their time on commercial pageantry and silly rollercoasters.
Once in a blue moon, I’m allowed forego shrines, sushi, and sightseeing for something a bit closer to home. Because this is home, even if it’s Japan.