Visa Vacation: My Second Country in Asia!
Were I a tourist used to hopping from country to country and not an American immigrant invested in establishing roots in my new homeland, I would have been more well-equipped for Japan. Not that I’m all that ill-equipped or anything. It’s just that for about 55 minutes, as I navigated my way from the customs desk at the airport to the seat on the train that I am currently occupying, I experienced a flutter of the vertigo that comes from being F.O.B. I can only imagine the wide-eyed-ness of my stare as I hunted my way through the Fukuoka Prefecture Subway Station. I must have looked permanently baffled.
So far, there has been nothing all that unbelievable about Japan, but still. Unheimlicht. Apparently I’ve normalized, very specifically, to a Korean context, because I am thrilled and confounded by all this Japanese strangeness. First, the language. Oh my God, it’s so different from Korean! I never realized! Not really. The vowels are just… flat. And the consonants, too. “Hadawadakada.” And everyone seems so mumbly, or breathy, or something. It’s like they’re all performing slam poetry or talking to a baby; everything seems to rhyme and scan in some impossibly artificial way. I am, of course, playing up the whole hometown pride thing (Go, KOREA!), but really my point is this: I’m impressed with the distance I’ve come. That there are meaningful differences between Korean and Japanese shows that I’m actually learning something.
And, oh my God, can I just say how STRANGE it is to suddenly lose written language again? The last three months have been all about reading an alien alphabet, so when faced with the geometry of an Asian language, I expect to be able to sound out what I see. In Seoul, I only understand a TINY TEENSY WEENSY fraction of the things I read, but at least I can (sort of) make the sounds. Here, my eye expects the neat little packets that Korean resolves into, but they just aren’t there. Or maybe they’re there, but just not accessible to me? I don’t know. What I do know is that Japanese looks crazy complicated. All those swoops and dots make me appreciate King Sejeong, the inventor of the modern Korean alphabet. Koreans LOVE to point out that hangul is the most “systematic” written language on the planet, and being in Japan, I am beginning to understand where that big talkin’ is coming from. Don’t get me wrong; Korean is still a CRAZY language, but it’s my habit to be thankful for small miracles, so thank you, King Sejeong.
I can’t entirely blame this disorientation on Japan being Japanese: I’m not only dislocated in space, but also in time. Sort of. In general material terms, Seoul is about five years ahead of the US. (You noticed I specified “material terms,” right? This was not unintentional.) It’s clean and shiny and automated in many of the ways our grandparents expected America would be clean and shiny and automated by the early 1990s (how appalling Grunge must have been to that generation). Fukuoka Prefecture, which is far from the technological/economic marvels of downtown Tokyo, is—in some ways—arresting in its presentness. Hell, sitting in a Fukuoka Subway car, the present stepped aside for 1971: plush, red velvet cushions; faux-mahogany wood paneling; composite “stone” laminate flooring. And right now, the train I’m on is cruising through an infinite expanse of fields planted with some sort of short grassy grain crop (Is it Orientalizing if I assume it’s rice?) In other words, this isn’t Seoul. But, even though I didn’t realize it until just this instant, that’s actually exactly what I’ve needed.
The farmhouses, which stand in the (rice) fields like watchdogs, are really very lovely and in a totally familiar way. Everything has a little bit of a pagoda vibe, but this isn’t the Japanese exhibit at Disneyland’s International Village. These are people’s homes, you know? You can see weather-beaten bigwheels and flowerpots filled with geraniums…
I suppose in the process of writing this post, I’ve worked out whatever mental block made Japan feel foreign.
We’ve just crept up on Tachibana Bay, and let me tell you, it is remarkably beautiful here. Unlike the cliffs of California, this shoreline has nothing of the sublime. It feels positively Mediterranean. The water is placid (it feels strange to use that word when talking about the waters surrounding Japan) and dotted with red and white rowboats. For Chrissakes, there are fish jumping in the shallow water! This place is actually alive. Goodness. What a beautiful region…
I tried to write a funny post—I really did—but this place just snuck up on me.
I’ve been thinking recently about how unbearably lucky I am, about how I can’t believe this is my life, about how, in all honesty, I’ve never been happier than I am right now. And all that, all those many blessings, all of it, is thanks to HCB, my loving, wonderful, generous fiancé, without whom my life would be both desolate and much, much smaller. If not for everything he’s offered me, none of this would be poassible. I am so very lucky. I can hardly stand it.