I'm not someone who tends to suffer from homesickness. When I left home to embark on my lengthy university career, I surprised myself by not experiencing any particularly strong separation anxiety. I suppose I was so excited by the possibility of getting drunk any night of the week with impunity that I never looked back. Just like that time I got whiplash.
Nine years later, I had a similarly easy ride leaving my country and culture behind. That's not to say I was completely untroubled by the experience; much as I would like to be, I am not in fact a Spock-esque emotionless robot. It seems just about every ALT bursts into tears at some point in their first week here, and I was no exception. For many, it is the first time they left alone in their new abode, after all the madness of arrival, to quietly contemplate their situation. But for me it came a little later, on my first sunday in Nanyo (I arrived on wednesday). I went for an evening stroll around my neighbourhood in the rain, and although I didn't even feel particularly sad, before I knew it, my eyes were assisting the rain's efforts to moisten my face. I suppose I just got overwhelmed by how alien it all felt, walking around a strange and humid town with illegible writing and incessantly chirping cicadas, and trying to tell myself that this was now 'home'.
After that initial phase, all I experienced were occasional pangs of longing to be back home. Curiously, these always seem to be pub-based. I really, really liked hanging out in pubs. Izakayas are great, but they aren't quite the same; it's typically a frenzied couple of hours of unlimited drinking. I miss the relaxed, slow and steady, straight from work at half five on a friday, still there at closing time, vibe of the UK. And more to the point, I miss all the friends with whom I would spend these boozy hours. When I start thinking like this I try to just acknowledge the thought and then dismiss it, as one should do while meditating. There is no point in pining over something that you can't have.
Special occasions are when this kind of mental discipline becomes more challenging. Spending my first Christmas Day away from home, eating supermarket chirashizushi while I watched my family tucking into turkey and all the trimmings was a real downer. Thankfully my spirits were soon buoyed by my friend Alda throwing an excellent Boxing Day dinner, and by the snow.
Yesterday was my birthday. I've always subscribed to the 'just another day' school of thought, so I wasn't making a big deal out of it. However, being a wednesday, Marie clearly wasn't going to miss this opportunity for a party. Along with her friends, we went to our favourite Italian restaurant, and they showered me with little gifts (the highlight being monogrammed chopsticks). But my heart wasn't in it, for which I felt really bad.
I think part of the problem was that I had spent all afternoon trying to plan what to do with my five friends who are coming to visit in July. Working out which combination of trains, rental cars, planes and boats will result in the perfect Japanese holiday is a formidable challenge of optimisation. The task is further complicated by the disparate attitudes the various members of my party hold towards travelling. At one extreme we have someone whose idea of fun is hanging out in third world hell-holes, and at the other someone who objects to barbecues on the grounds that they represent an unreasonable level of inconvenience. Coming straight from a six-Firefox-window intense data mining session to a party maybe isn't a great idea.
Another problem was the perennial issue of language. I can tell that Marie is disappointed by my Japanese ability. I think my problem is one of temperament rather than skill. My Japanese is coming on; listening carefully at the restaurant I would usually be able to pick out enough words to give an executive summary of roughly what was being spoken about, even if the specific meaning of each utterance escaped me.
In what was presumably an attempt to encourage me to use Japanese, Marie was largely holding off on translation, or even on explaining to me in toddler-level Japanese. This removal of my communicative stabilisers meant that I would spend long periods with only a vague idea of what was going on. Thus I didn't really feel like taking part in the conversation, for fear of either having massively misunderstood, or for asking something that had been explained moments earlier. If I did decide to speak up, I would face the tough choice of whether to do it in English, disappointing everyone but getting my meaning across swiftly and clearly; or in Japanese, forcing everyone to shut up and listen while I reduced the conversation to about a fifth of its former pace in order to produce a mistake-riddled sentence that, thanks to my severely limited expressive range, was a very crude approximation of what I'd actually wanted to say in the first place. I think that to get good at a language one needs the chutzpah to just wade into conversations, all linguistic guns blazing, without a care in the world about looking like an idiot or about boring or irritating one's listeners. This is what I lack.
But, to bring this back around to the point I was initially making, I suspect maybe the real source of my melancholy was the occasion. For the 27 birthdays preceding this one (actually, I can't really speak for the first few) I've been around family and/or friends with whom I was relaxed and comfortable. As much as I appreciate all the kindness and hospitality Marie and her friends have shown and continue to show me - and I really am supremely grateful for that - there was no getting away from the fact that for number 28 I was with five middle-aged women who were speaking a language I couldn't understand, eating spaghetti with chopsticks. I really wished I was back in the 'Leslie.