Previous Next

When I told my friend Rock I was leaving for Japan, he told me to cut all ties with everything I knew. Rock had, some time ago, left to wander around the Middle East for a while. This career-interrupting retreat of self discovery I’d flung myself into is not uncommon in my circle of friends. Forgo a phone and internet, he advised, and get deep down inside yourself. I had no intention of following this advice but, it turned out that getting deep down inside myself was something I couldn’t avoid.

I woke up in a place where mysterious glyphs covered the cityscape. But every now and then my eyes found words written in letters I knew. This piecemeal comprehension became my new reality. I walked excitedly in the shadow of asymmetrical skyscrapers and wandered into red-gated shrines. Each new discovery made my soul reach out to those around me, to share the overflow in the way I was used to. But I didn’t speak the language of these people.

Here, no one looked at me. They barely looked at each other as they moved between work and home. I floated along in a sea of people bigger and more orderly than any crowd I’d ever seen, completely isolated. Once, I crumbled at Tokyo Station. I was hopelessly lost and everyone who passed by ignored my attempt to make eye contact and ask for help. After an hour I sank to the floor in frustration and exhaustion and sobbed. The never-ending march simply stepped over me and continued about its business.

Am I pretty, or smart, or a teller of corny jokes, if there’s no one around to prompt or validate those notions?

There were moments of intense disconnectedness. I’d be sitting at a bus station surrounded by salarymen in suits, all absorbed in books with brown paper covers, so no one could know what they were reading. And I’d feel like I had faded. I swear, for an instant I was no longer there. It was developed-country anonymity piled on top of an unforgiving language barrier. And don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t exactly painful. It just was. I tried to enjoy the swirly, dreamy, rootless state of cultural and existential in-betweenity that I was lucky enough to be getting in on.

And really, it was quite nice sometimes, like a scene in a movie. You’re staring out of a bullet train window into a rainy night at city lights whizzing by. Some hipster anthem of alienation is streaming into your ears. And you know there’s no way you’re going to run into anyone you know. Because you don’t know anyone here and you probably won’t either. Not in the way you’re used to knowing people. Not when you’ve been spoiled by the openness of a people with souls close to their skins, as a friend of mine puts it.

Island people like me tumble all of themselves onto others upon first meeting. On buses back home, women will show you their x-rays or tell you all about their pregnancy. Taking any form of public transportation means signing up for vigorous discussions about politics and relationships and life. And, hell, it can be obnoxious. But I’ll pay money for it now that people are mere passing forms to me, with little betrayal of humanity lurking beneath their robotic orderliness. That is, until you catch them drunk and stumbling after karaoke on a Friday night. All of the barriers come down then.

I like to think I’m glimpsing for the first time how little one really is by oneself. I mean, you know in theory how important human interaction is to your identity, but you really begin to understand all of this when human interaction dries up. Who is this “me” I’m supposed to be finding anyway? Such an exercise seems so mundane now. Am I pretty, or smart, or a teller of corny jokes, if there’s no one around to prompt or validate those notions? Are those things somehow written into the core of who I am or are they merely created through innumerable encounters with others? I mean, do I even exist if everyone looks straight past me?

So maybe this is an opportunity for evolution, this sudden crumbling of constructs I hadn’t even known I was resting upon. Oh Japan, some of your Buddhist philosophy seems to have seeped into my skin. How clever you are to kill my ego a little at a time, so that I get a chance to see what remains — what matters.

Expat Life

 

About The Author

Shivonne Du Barry

Shivonne Du Barry was born in Trinidad and Tobago and now walks the earth. She blogs here.

More By This Author

view all →
  • Scott Hartman

    Really good! And yes, your ‘take’ on it is a good one… Use it. Use this time to recreate… reimagine yourself…

  • Gail Stringer Wilson

    Sounds suspiciously like Indianapolis to me. I move about the people but make no lasting connections.

  • Gail Stringer Wilson

    Sounds suspiciously like Indianapolis to me. I move about the people but make no lasting connections.

  • Gail Stringer Wilson

    Sounds suspiciously like Indianapolis to me. I move about the people but make no lasting connections.

  • Rob Modzelewski

    Lovely piece Shivonne. I’ve visited Japan myself, and while I didn’t feel quite so isolated, I certainly recognize some of what you mention.

  • Rob Modzelewski

    Lovely piece Shivonne. I’ve visited Japan myself, and while I didn’t feel quite so isolated, I certainly recognize some of what you mention.

  • Geeta Singh

    Id say this is mostly true especially for those of us who have been raised to hug and kiss `uncles and aunties` that your mom JUST met for the first time and is merely a kind person introduced to your circle….Recently the lack of Warmth is getting to me in Japan. My only friend at my job retires today and I honestly am not sure where my chips will fall from here onward. But, like you…Ill trod on…creating imaginative short term goals to keep my spirit alive. I relate to the dismantling of my ego as well and honestly I’m grateful because If I was still in Trinidad…with that heavy western influence and competitive spirit…who knows what crazy ego inflation could have occurred out of the need to survive. I am thankful for being saved in that respect. However, I vow not to allow myself to be drained (for too long at least) because this is just a stepping stone and I believe I am who I feel comfortable with, with what makes me smile and feel fulfilled and glowing inside, not what others affirm about me.So, I tend to walk around with a strange mona lisa smile because whether they see it or not or agree or accept me or not,.Ill always just be any way that makes me feel…..good.

  • Geeta Singh

    Id say this is mostly true especially for those of us who have been raised to hug and kiss `uncles and aunties` that your mom JUST met for the first time and is merely a kind person introduced to your circle….Recently the lack of Warmth is getting to me in Japan. My only friend at my job retires today and I honestly am not sure where my chips will fall from here onward. But, like you…Ill trod on…creating imaginative short term goals to keep my spirit alive. I relate to the dismantling of my ego as well and honestly I’m grateful because If I was still in Trinidad…with that heavy western influence and competitive spirit…who knows what crazy ego inflation could have occurred out of the need to survive. I am thankful for being saved in that respect. However, I vow not to allow myself to be drained (for too long at least) because this is just a stepping stone and I believe I am who I feel comfortable with, with what makes me smile and feel fulfilled and glowing inside, not what others affirm about me.So, I tend to walk around with a strange mona lisa smile because whether they see it or not or agree or accept me or not,.Ill always just be any way that makes me feel…..good.

    • Bipedalling

      Geets I can definitely relate to the Mona Lisa smile and everything else you said. Japan can be an amazingly transformative experience. One just has to accept at the outset that it will be nothing like the world you’re used to. Struggling against it is pointless. Better to relax and swim.

  • Geeta Singh

    Id say this is mostly true especially for those of us who have been raised to hug and kiss `uncles and aunties` of whom your mom JUST met for the first time and is merely a kind person introduced to your circle….Recently the lack of Warmth is getting to me in Japan. My only friend at my job retires today and I honestly am not sure where my chips will fall from here onward. But, like you…Ill trod on…creating imaginative short term goals to keep my spirit alive. I relate to the dismantling of my ego as well and honestly I’m grateful because If I was still in Trinidad…with that heavy western influence and competitive spirit…who knows what crazy ego inflation could have occurred out of the need to survive. I am thankful for being saved in that respect. I MUST add though, that my time here evolved into a different sort of existence (Japanese fiance now… ex fiance :/, so the isolation wasn’t of the same shade but I could beg to argue, it may have been an even darker shade, because, I couldn’t help but feel isolated in the safety and presence of my `loved one` at many times during our romance…imagine that.Anyway, I vow not to allow myself to be drained (for too long at least) because this is just a stepping stone and I believe I am who I feel comfortable with, with what makes me smile and feel fulfilled and glowing inside, not what others affirm about me.So, I tend to walk around with a strange mona lisa smile because whether they see it or not or agree or accept me or not,.Ill always just be any way that makes me feel…..good.

    • Inshan Meahjohn

      “So when you’re cold
      From the inside out
      And don’t know what to do,
      Remember love and friendship,
      And warmth will come to you.”
      ― Stephen Cosgrove, Gnome from Nome

  • Harald Seidler

    beautiful and poignant. Thank you.

  • Harald Seidler

    beautiful and poignant. Thank you.

  • Harald Seidler

    beautiful and poignant. Thank you.

  • Dan Rinehart

    The “do I even exist” part goes a little overboard, but I really liked this. Its a familiar feeling while traveling solo, but I don’t remember ever thinking about these sorts of questions as often as I did when I was in Tokyo.

  • Dan Rinehart

    The “do I even exist” part goes a little overboard, but I really liked this. Its a familiar feeling while traveling solo, but I don’t remember ever thinking about these sorts of questions as often as I did when I was in Tokyo.

  • OmnesSolitarius

    ITS JUST TOO BEAUTIFUL..THE WHOLE ARTICLE EVERY WORD OF IT..!!

I hadn’t considered the difficulty of adjusting to a new country as an “accessory”...
I learned and felt so much just by trying to live a normal life in a new country.
I was supposed to come home from Alaska with everything turned inside out.
Freelancing in Tokyo, wandering neighborhoods vlogging and helping create online travel...
This seemingly bizarre local custom involves stacking standing participants on top of one...
I began working at Kaze to Matsu every weekend. Sunday became known as Gaijin Day.
My understandings of Indian femininity were initially judgmental.
For the first 15 months, neither the subway lady voice nor the crowds bothered me.
After a few short months, the hidden burdens of their time in Myanmar will loom large.
After two semesters abroad in Barcelona, returning to the US.
We used to laugh and point. Now this is how we roll.