Remember when you were in the fifth grade and you’d just found out that you and your family were moving from Michigan to South Carolina? A classmate with orange curls all over her head said, “You’re so lucky! You can start a new life in a new town with a new personality.” But it didn’t turn out that way because, try as you might, you couldn’t imagine what that new personality would be. Your Midwestern-ness clung to the soles of your feet like cow pats and every time you opened your mouth those nasal vowels gave you away. In your new hometown you were shy and awkward, just as you had been in the old one.
Now, in this new place, no one cares about your past. No one is interested in the men you slept with, the drugs you ingested, the parking tickets that piled up on your dashboard.
For the people here, your life began when you deplaned seven years ago and the worst thing you’ve ever done is to vomit drunkenly in a restaurant bathroom after your welcome party. Which is just as well. If you were Japanese, your prospective in-laws would have had you and your family investigated which probably would have wrecked your chances of marrying The Love of Your Life.
No one in the new place knows anything about the abortion you had at sixteen,your uncle in prison, or the day you were fired from Kentucky Fried Chicken. The Japanese rarely reveal such intimate details in conversation. Not even in bars. What they want to know is: “Can you eat octopus?” “Are there four seasons in your country?” “Is it true that Americans can’t do long division?”
You may as well not have a name, a past, an identity. To those you encounter, you are Blonde Hair and Blue Eyes. You are America, Freedom, Democracy and Wide Open Spaces. And yet, and yet…
Why you live in the new place: although you’d only meant to stay for a year or two teaching English and amassing funds for graduate school, you soon discovered that the man of your dreams had been waiting for you on this sinuous archipelago.
Even as a young girl you were prone to wistfulness and romanticism, and the idea of giving up your country for The Love of Your Life had a biting poignancy that you couldn’t resist. A lifetime of longing struck you then as tragic yet beautiful. And you know that if you want to be with him you must stay here because he will never follow you anywhere.
At the kindergarten where you teach English (apple…book…hippopotamus) the children find you very curious. Black-haired, brown-eyed, white-smocked – every one of them. They look at you and say, “Why are your eyes blue? Why is your hair yellow?”
They ask you where you live and when you tell them “just down the street,” they don’t believe you. And although you are communicating with them in their native tongue, it’s difficult to convince them that you are speaking the same language.
One day a moon-faced boy asks, “Are you a ghost?” The next time you look in a mirror, there is no one there at all.
You are often called upon to offer your opinion. “What do you think about the war in Afghanistan?” you are asked. Or, “How about earthquakes?” Before answering you must always think very carefully. Whatever comes out of your mouth is the Voice of America.
One day you find yourself involved in a panel discussion addressing the issue of “internationalization.” You think “global interdependence” and “one world.” You think “africaasiaoceanianorthandsouthamericaeurope.” In truth, you are the only non-Japanese in the room. Before you can say, “Where are the Thai and Chinese? Where are the Russians?” the talk turns to Gone With the Wind. A fiftyish woman with thick pancake make-up and a loud-as-trumpets blouse tells the group that Margaret Mitchell’s novel is the apex of American Literature.
In front of thirty people, this woman asks you, “Whom do you identify with, Melanie or Scarlett?”
It’s been years since you’ve read the book, but you recall that Scarlett was a selfish bitch who didn’t take care of her daughter and pined for a weak-willed man. “Melanie,” you say.
The woman, whose fingernails are painted crimson, nods knowingly. “And I’m more like Scarlett. I guess that’s why you choose to live here and I have a house in L.A.”
Someone else says, “Yes, you are like the Japanese.” And yet another, “You are more Japanese than we ourselves.” You know it is meant as a compliment, but you can not smile. That night, you sleep with your passport under the pillow.
You are beginning to think that the love of your life is not the man who sleeps beside you, but the country you have left behind.
But when you return for a visit, it doesn’t kiss or embrace you. It wants to spit you out. And you wonder, what does “exapatriate” mean, exactly? Is it like “ex-president” or “ex-husband”? Does it mean that you no longer have a country?
Like an old lover that you haven’t seen in years, the place you left behind is not the same place you go back to. Many things have changed. People wear different clothes, cut their hair in strange new ways.
You try to fit in, but you are fooling nobody. All those you’ve called “friend” in another life now treat you like a week-end guest.
You decide that you will have to find another place to belong to, and so you begin weaving together wishes and memories and scraps of forgotten planets. You will name yourself creator, president, and chief citizen. Soon, when the new country is ready, you will here and also there, if only in your head.
Suzanne Kamata is an American living in Japan. She is the author of the novel Losing Kei and editor of three anthologies, including Love You to Pieces: Creative Writers on Raising a Child with Special Needs and Call Me Okaasan: Adventures in Multicultural Mothering. She also edits and publishes a literary journal in Japan called Yomimono.