Living in Japan is a really lonely experience. I have a lot of acquaintances here, but few people I can call close friends. This is true of my life in America too, though. I’ve spent so much time abroad that I’ve collected friends like I’ve collected postcards; found and then immediately forgotten.
I’m a regular reader of the Metropolis Classifieds section (Metropolis is an English language magazine popular among foreigners in Japan). They sometimes feature funny ads in their personals section, posted by people searching for some beautiful stranger they had a random chance encounter with. They read something like this:
“I’m searching for a girl with long, red hair who I saw at the Tokyo station on October 15th at 5:02 pm. We made eye contact and you smiled at me. Please email me. It’s really important that I see you again.”
These ads are ridiculous but I love trying to imagine the people who wrote them. Everyone has had memorable encounters with random strangers, but I think frequent travelers encounter them at a far higher rate. There’s something about being in new, frightening or dangerous situations that creates a feeling of closeness and intimacy that wouldn’t develop under normal circumstances.
I owe the reason I’m in Japan (at least in part) to one such encounter.
Last year, on a 10-hour train ride in India, I met a girl from New York. We both ended up in the same crowded sleeping car that was teeming with smelly livestock and smelly, leering old men. We shared a dinner of potato chips and bananas and compared India stories and tattoos. We learned that we were remarkably similar (we’d gone to college near each other, majored in Psychology and even shared the same birthday).
Then she told me all about Japan and her two-year teaching stint. She told me stories of vending machines that sold used school- girl underwear and bars where women dressed as maids and called the customers “master”. She also told me about the Japanese boyfriend she was planning on marrying in a few months. I was intrigued.
When our train arrived in Agra the next morning, we parted ways. She gave me a book (The Life of Pi, which I still have) but we didn’t exchange contact info. What would have been the point? So we left it at “maybe I’ll see ya around…”
Of course, I never saw her again.
But it’s interesting how vividly I remember that night. The sounds of the trains whooshing past the open window. Shivering under a thin blanket. The man with the crate of chickens who slept next to me.
And so months later, in New York, as I tried in vain to string together some semblance of a life plan, I thought of her Japan stories.
And well, you know the rest.
I’ve met so many people this way. I once stayed for a week at this Brazilian’s apartment in Amsterdam. I met him on a bus. Every night we’d sit up on the roof of his building with a group of his friends and eat hummus and watch the sun set over the city.
Another time, I was in Paris and this American business man gave me 200 euros, after overhearing me explain to someone how my ATM card wasn’t working and I didn’t have enough money for cab fare to the airport. I don’t know what I would have done if it weren’t for his generosity. I probably would have had to walk all night to get there.
So many people, so many random encounters that have had an impact on my life. And they’re all people I’ll never see again.
I wonder how many people can say the same thing about me?
It makes me sad to think about it.
Is it weird that I now not only mourn the loss of old friendships and relationships but also the loss of potential friendships and relationships?