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Whence the fascination?

I’m really not sure why I’m so interested in Japan, or the Japanese language. It’s easy enough to find the point of entry of my interest; it was when I started to match sounds to subtitles in the anime I watched in college. However, that was little more than a passing fancy; it doesn’t explain why every so often, I return to my study of the language and start to put serious time into flashcard drills and revisiting the textbooks. It certainly doesn’t explain why my semi-official plan for After the Army* includes going back, this time for intensive study of the language.

I like the Japanese language, of course; its grammar is simply better than that of any other human language I’ve ever encountered. I’m still not sure that I agree with the notion that kanji are inherently more efficient than spelling everything out, but the more I learn about them, the less I find them distasteful. Japanese is aesthetically pleasing in its structure, and an interesting challenge in its implementation. Even so, there’s no real need for me to study it; I have no need of it unless I return to Japan, and the most likely case in which I go back to Japan is the one in which I do so for the purpose of studying Japanese.

You’d think that the time I spent there would have been enough. I made some friends, proved to everyone concerned that I could support myself far from the safety of my family, got to soak in the experience of living in a foreign culture. I got to figure out that job satisfaction requires more than a generous salary for minimal work requirements. I even exceeded my own completely arbitrary minimal stay length by about 15%. All in all, it was a successful year-and-change abroad.

My current living conditions are closer to what I had when I lived there than any others I’ve had since my return. It is perhaps because of this that I most often find myself wishing I were back there. I live in a small, mostly rural town–but where Matsubushi was defined by its parks and paddies, Enterprise is defined by its giant strip-malls and chain stores. I live in a very humid, barely temperate climate–but where in Japan this led to refreshingly cool midnight bicycle rides, here I’m constrained by the knowledge that every day, I have to wake up again at 4 AM to get to work on time. During the bubble of non-training at least, I work almost as few hours as I did as a teacher while making more money, but it feels like my options for extracurricular exploration are far more limited here. This town exists because of Fort Rucker; it boasts large-scale generic commercialism, long roads of identical housing units, a few smaller stores supporting the local farmers, and little else. In Japan, I always felt like I could walk in any random direction and find something interesting, from a park to a shrine to an otherwise normal intersection done up in aesthetically pleasing tile patterns.

There are advantages to being in the US, of course. My apartment now is three times the size of the one I had in Japan, and includes amenities like a drying machine and a private toilet. I have a car here, and despite all my complaints about its cost of ownership, it’s still cheaper in every respect than its equivalent there would be. It is easy, unconscious, to socialize as much as I want with my coworkers here; there is no process of picking my way through the translation of both language and social norms.

The thing is, I think I would trade back those advantages to live in Japan again. It’d be difficult to go back to an apartment as cramped as I had last time, but the car and the easy socialization feel like incidental benefits that I could easily live without. The sense of being surrounded by fascinating things which make it worthwhile to get out and just explore seems a lot harder to replicate here in the US.

Perhaps I’m approaching this all from the wrong direction. I never really question myself for thinking that programming is an interesting and fun mental challenge, or that flying is a pretty awesome thing. I just accept that I can personally take those as self-evident facts even if they are not so to the general population. Maybe I should just accept in the same way that I’m fascinated by the prospect of returning to Japan any way I can, and that studying the language is rewarding in and of itself. There’s a nice sort of symmetry to it, if I can divide my interests into the Productive Hobbies of programming, flight, and Japanese, and the Personal Hobbies of books, video, and games.

The Holy Grail, then, is to find some sort of paying job which unifies the Productive Hobbies and leaves time for the Personal Hobbies. Such a thing, in this case, would be an odd job indeed; I can’t really imagine how it might plausibly exist. There exist jobs using various combinations, though, and those seem like interesting possibilities to investigate in the future.

I think I will take that approach. There’s the danger of sugarcoating my memories of my time there and rushing back to find a nation that would be quite happy without me, but I think it’s a risk I can take. In the worst case, I spend my interest in the place and language and end up with a much clearer picture of where I should take my future. In the best case, I love it again, and further my goal of living interestingly.


* Or at least, one of the more likely variants. That plan is still really a quantum superposition of a number of mutually-exclusive plans whose waveform will only be collapsed much nearer my eventual discharge.

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