Thanksgiving, Day 1: Japan

Even though Thanksgiving isn’t celebrated in Japan, and I haven’t had a proper Thanksgiving since 1999, it’s still my favorite holiday. I describe it to people here as a day to think about the things that are going well in your life, instead of what we all usually do, which is to focus with laserlike intensity on the things that are going wrong. Of course, there are other upsides to Thanksgiving as well – it’s a time to get together with your family, to eat egregious amounts of really good food, and to enjoy a four-day weekend. What’s more, it’s a day that isn’t dedicated to any one religion or ethnic group or anything. It’s for anyone and everyone.

Last year, John Scalzi got the idea to do what he called a Thanksgiving Advent Calendar, in which he would make a daily post on his blog to detail those things for which he was thankful. I figure if I’m going to steal an idea, I may as well steal a good one. So without further ado, here is my own version. Keep in mind that there is no actual order of Thankfulness involved here – they come up as I think of them.

First up: Japan

Taken the day after I got here, at Higashi Honganji temple in Kyoto. Those pigeons were a force to be reckoned with…

I moved here in September of 2000, thinking I would stay for a little while, teach English, and then – after making some indeterminate improvements in myself – come back to the United States a changed man, ready to tackle the responsibilities of being a proper adult. One year became two, which became three, which then went on until it was twelve. Now that I am thirty-eight years old, I realize that I have lived nearly a third of my life here – indeed, this is the longest I’ve ever lived in one place since I was growing up in Connecticut.

There’s something about being here that just… works. It’s certainly not the language, as my ability to speak Japanese is woefully deficient, considering how long I’ve been here. Maybe it’s the history, the landscape, or the lack of that special kind of aggression that comes with living in the United States. [1] Maybe it’s the weirdness and highly contrastive nature of the country, where you can have centuries-old temples that stand amidst dense forests, smelling of incense and earth – and a five minute walk will being you to some of the trendiest and modern shopping and dining you’ll find anywhere. It’s a complex and deep country with a fascinating culture and history that is wildly different from the one I grew up in.

While Japan hasn’t exactly welcomed me with open arms – I still am, and always will be, an outsider here – it has been welcoming, patient, and kind. I’ve met some of the most interesting and generous people I knew while living in this country.

There’s always this as a fallback, but the commute is awful…

Hell, maybe it’s just because I can get a job. Whenever I think about moving back to the States, the first thing I think is, “Yes, but what would you do there?” I don’t know that I have the skills or training for anything outside of ESL, and as I approach the more venerable age of forty, I realize that my employment opportunities in general are dwindling. Thoughts of moving home are usually followed by thoughts of having to work in retail again, and that just can’t happen. Switching careers is a hard enough thing for anyone to do, but to do it while switching countries at the same time? I’m not sure I’m up for that yet.

But here I have a skill. A valuable skill, at that. It is true that, at its most basic levels, you don’t need any special training to teach English here, but my experience and my time make me more valuable (I hope) than some yahoo who’s trying to extend his tourist visa. In Japan, I am employable. Elsewhere, I’m not so sure.

Japan has been good to me, in ways I never thought it would be. There’s still a lot for me to learn and to do, but I know that I’ll never be bored here. For that alone, I am thankful.

[1] The first time I came home for Christmas, I was shocked by how aggressive and angry people sounded when they said, “Excuse me.” Not to get my attention or anything, but just as they were moving past me in the store or something like that. It had this very distinct undertone of, “Why the fuck are you in my way?”