I Don't Miss Japan

It’s been just about three months now since I finished my contract on the JET Program and left Japan. And I gotta be honest with you, I don’t miss it. I haven’t eaten Japanese food once since leaving. I don’t read friends’ Facebook updates about their lives in Japan with envy or nostalgia. I’ve even unfollowed a bunch of Japan-based Instagram accounts because I just wasn’t into the content anymore.

I’ll be the first person to admit that this apathy is weird.

Japan was my whole life for 10+ years. I studied Japanese in high school, I fangirled over Japanese boybands, I studied abroad in Japan during college. Heck, I even wrote my honors thesis on Japanese pancake restaurants.

And yet, every time I walk past a Japanese restaurant in KL (there are a lot) or hear the chatter of Japanese tourists passing by (a lot of those, too), I’m always struck with just how thoroughly I’ve buried Japan in my head. And the more it happens, the more I try to figure out the logic behind it. Over time, I’ve come up with a couple ideas.

  1. I have a lot more satisfaction in my work now versus when I was teaching

  2. The convenience of living in a city outweighs how much I love Japan

  3. I’m just very relieved to be able to use English in my daily life

  4. My love of Japan was basically just a prolonged case of Stockholm Syndrome

But I’m convinced it’s a bit deeper than that. I think a lot of this also has to do with this desperate need for a sense of identity and belonging that we all have inside us. As social creatures, we need to know where we stand in relation to the rest of society. And regardless of whether or not we were born with a clear idea of who we are or who we’re supposed to be, even the tiniest grain of uncertainty can send us scrambling off in any which way searching for answers.

Technically speaking, I’m half Japanese. The reality of it is a little more complicated than that. For one thing, my family immigrated to the United States four generations ago, and neither my dad nor my grandparents even speak Japanese. If we no longer speak the language, no longer have strong cultural ties, does that still make me Japanese? And then there’s the question of even being Japanese. You see, my ancestors came from Okinawa, which, for the majority of its history, was politically, culturally, and ethnically separate from Japan. But it’s part of Japan now, and much of modern Okinawan culture is in line with the rest of the country. So am I Okinawan or Japanese? Both? Neither?

I’ve come to realize that much of my infatuation with Japan was me trying to find my way back to a connection with what I felt (feel) is an important part of who I am. I felt like an imposter calling myself half Japanese to people who, you know, actually knew Japanese, lived in Japan, or had a real connection to the country. Like, where’s my proof?

But what does this have to do with me not missing Japan? Well, two things:

First, after having three full years of living in Japan under my belt, I finally feel confident enough to say, “I’m half Japanese, but I was born in the states.” That is, I know enough about Japan to make it seem like I’m simply one generation removed rather than four. It’s like my brain has decided I can take a Japan break for now.

Second, the other half of me is Chinese, and honestly, Malaysia is doing a fantastic job completely fulfilling the role Japan played in my life for the last few years, and then some. Growing up, I didn’t feel as connected to my Chinese side as I was to my Japanese side, probably because I wasn’t exposed to as much Chinese media and culture. And I didn’t realize just how equally desperate I was to learn about that side of me until I arrived in Malaysia.

While I’m not signing up for Chinese classes quite yet, I’ve found that the itch to dig into a distant piece of myself that used to be tasked to Japan is now being properly scratched by my new home.

Just like in Japan where I never tired of Japanese food, here in Malaysia, I will almost always choose Chinese food above anything else. Much of the Chinese in Malaysia are from the same regions as the Chinese in Hawaii. The flavors are the same, everything tastes like childhood to me, and I’m getting a ton of validation that the Chinese culture that I grew up with is something real.

I remember a conversation I had with my mom not too long ago. We were talking about how I once begged my parents to let me take Japanese classes over the summer, and that kind of confused her. She said, “Our generation, we didn’t really care about ‘finding our roots’ or anything like that. All of us went to Chinese school, but we hated it. I don’t remember anything from it. But you guys, you’re all about learning about your heritage.”

I think people are beginning to realize that where you’re from is just as much a part of who you are as where you are now. And I’m no longer scrambling to connect with the Japanese side of me because I know that I have a strong grip on it now. It’ll always be there holding me up, shaping me, reminding me of where I’m from. Once I get to that point with the Chinese side? Why, I imagine I’ll be unshakeable.