Expat Life


Sad Tree By Melonhead83

I had a friend in Japan who was one of those curious ‘between cultures’ people who didn’t identify with any one country’s beliefs or value system. She’d grown up in Tokyo, Chicago, Bangkok, Oregon, New York and Sydney and was a free-thinker, a non-conformist and completely unbothered by other’s opinions of her. In other words, she was very ‘un-Japanese’. And yet, technically speaking, she was. She was born in Japan and spent the first eight years of her life there. But as far as her mentality towards life was concerned, she was no more Japanese than I was.

Which was why I found it surprising to learn that she’d purposely abandoned her life as an inspiring photographer in Australia, to return to Tokyo to try to reconnect with her Japanese roots. The process was very ‘square peg, round hole’ and I couldn’t understand why she bothered. To me, it was like a butterfly trying to squeeze back into a cocoon and remorph back into a caterpillar; a real step back in the evolutionary process. She was a far more interesting and fascinating specimen the way she was, why try to hide that part of her to fit back into mold that she didn’t value or even wholly respect?

She told me repeatedly that she’d returned to Japan to “learn how to like it.” It was important to her to learn to appreciate Japanese culture because for better or for worse, it was “home”.

Sometimes I think that she might have been right and that maybe I should follow her lead. I’ve never felt like I’ve belonged in America, but maybe I should try. Maybe I should ‘learn to like it’ too.

But there are few words that scare me more than: ‘settled’. It’s rivaled only by the anxiety-provoking phrases ‘growing roots’ or ‘growing up’ or the dirty words ‘mortgage’, ‘car payment’, ‘mini-van’ and ‘soccer mom’. Just typing those words makes me want to permanently relocate to a hammock in Tahiti.

But maybe all the anxiety I have around staying in one spot is a sign. Maybe that’s precisely what I should be doing. I mean, they say that you should do what scares you. Well, living abroad isn’t scary anymore. I lived abroad for three years (four if you count my time working on a cruise ship), and I feel like my world has shrunk to the point where it seems like the entire planet is my backyard. I could live anywhere and be happy. It seems almost too easy. It’s no longer a challenge. But living in the US…now that’s frightening.

My mom tells me that I should ‘bloom where I’m planted’, meaning that all of the lessons I need to learn in life I can learn from right here. I don’t need to travel to the ends of the Earth to find or challenge myself. I can do that from my own backyard. And I almost believe her.

But then I look at that ‘Sad Tree’ photograph. He looks so trapped…He’s stuck in the mud and I can imagine him longing for a life as a sailboat on the open sea. Or maybe he dreams of being transformed into a kite or an airplane. Or the dashboard of a car. He looks like he’d rather be anywhere other than rooted in place and all alone.

And it makes me feel so…I don’t know, conflicted.

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13 thoughts on “Roots

  1. Never underestimate those old Asian cultures dragging it’s “children” back to the fold.

    Several times I’ve had open conversations about culture with Asian-Americans about their “mother cultures” and they suddenly get defensive about even the smallest and seemingly most insignificant criticism. The old blood runs deep.

    You’re friend is going to settle down and become a Japanese housewife for sure.

    Regarding the sad tree, I doubt he wants to be a sailboat on the open sea, because that would require him to be chopped up in pieces and, you know…dead. 😀

  2. Ha. The tree would be happier dead and a sailboat then stuck in a swamp, trust me.

    It’s funny because right after I wrote that about my friend, she emailed me to say that she’d had it with Japan and is thinking about moving to Hawaii. I doubt she reads this blog so it was a total conincidence.

  3. Of course, the tree did not choose its location, but you can, have, and will. Everything you do, Reannon, is a choice that you make, and so far you appear to be making very good ones. Maybe allaying your anxiety will help you see how great your choices have been in making your who you are. Unlike the tree, if you don’t like “where you are,” you can do something about it!


  4. Very well said, Rod! I know that I tend to think of settling down as something permanent. I guess that I have to remember that nothing ever has to be. I can always change my mind and move somewhere else.

  5. Reannon,
    Challenges certainly stretch us and let us know who we really are… but there is a line of undo torture that need not be crossed.

    But you seem one who enjoys a challenge, and enjoys a change from the norm. I’m sure that when you decide what “the norm” and what your next challenge will be, your next step will be clear.

  6. Have you ever considered moving someplace really random in the U.S.? To state you’ve never been to before? It would still be an adventure..but just not on as grand of a scale as moving to a foreign country would be.

  7. Hello! Last time I commented was waaaay back when you went to Takaragawa onsen without a towel 🙂

    Anyway, I just wanted to say that ultimately, we make choices according to the best we can do at any given time, meaning that even if things seem short-sighted in hind-sight (ummm, you know what I mean)at the time we made that decision, that was the only solution we could see.
    What am I getting at again? oh yeah, that although it’s easy to say, it doesn’t serve well to regret the past but I also think that you can learn from it.

    My gut feeling from everything you have been writing recently is thus: your free plane tickets are causing you trouble. I am not joking! When I came to Japan three years ago, that was it; my only chance to do something with my life. All of my money was spent on the ticket, paying for my room and for food to tide me over for one month. Now that I’m here, I still don’t have enough savings to get back on a plane and start over. Because I’m “stuck” here (such a negative word, I don’t feel that way), I feel like I have no other choice right now than to hang on, keep working and studying hard (my Japanese lessons are the main reason I can’t afford anything else! But it’s worth it ^^) and keep on moving towards my dream (it’s a secret though). Honestly, if I had had plane tickets, there have been at least five occasions when I would have thrown in the towel and moved on. My goal is this: when I leave Japan, I want to feel completely at peace, happy with my time here and with a sense of achievement.

    You are a great writer, it’s obviously your forte. You have travelled. You need element number 3: a sense of purpose. Find what would give that to you and you’ll be sorted. 😀

    Unsollicited advice. Don’t you just love it. 😉

  8. I graduated on Saturday, and the president of our university gave the same speech about blooming where you’re planted. He also said “If you can’t be a rose, be a dandelion.” Which to me was the most crap metaphor out there. Flowers and human beings are different! A much better saying is “home is where the heart is.”

    It doesn’t matter where you are, anything can be home. Arbitrarily assigning the place you were born as “home” seems wrong. Maybe you just haven’t found the right place yet, or maybe the world really is your back yard.

    Jenlovestokyo mentioned this, but writing does seem to be your strong suit. Maybe a “roving reporter” thing might work for you. Keep an apartment in your favourite city, and then roam. “Oh the places you’ll go” and all that.

  9. Geeze guys, ya'll give some awesome advice. I should really hire you as my spiritual / career counselors or therapists or something. Maybe one day when I've raked in millions on a book deal. : )

  10. Jen – Good to know you're still reading this blog after all that time. That's too bad though that you're feeling 'stuck' in Japan. It's true that having access to free (well, more like 'dirt cheap' – I have to pay a tax and fee) plane tickets makes things complicated. It leaves everything a little open-ended. But really, even when my mom didn't have a job with an airline, I still pretty much made decisions the same way. I'd just book plane tickets on my credit card and pay them off later…not the best idea. I've got crap credit because of it…but at least it made making a decision a little easier because I'd know that I had an escape strategy.

    If you're unhappy living in Tokyo, maybe you could try the same thing (?). Buy a plane ticket and worry about the rest later.

    What goals are you trying to achieve by staying in Japan?

    I think you're right to stay though. Everyone I've talked to said that it's best to stay in a foreign country for over a year. It takes that long to get adjusted. I probably left too soon.

  11. Kira – Congrats on graduating! Wow, That's really lame of your graduation speaker to say that. I mean, what was he even talking about…"be a dandelion". WTF??? That's funny though.

    Are you still planning on moving to Japan?

    Thanks for saying that I'd make a good writer. I enjoy writing but I don't know if I'd enjoy if I had to do it for a living. That'd probably be more stress than I would want to handle. : )

  12. Heheh, I knew that when I used the word "stuck" it wasn't going to come out right. I'm not very good with words.
    No, really, I love Tokyo, I'm happy here. But as with any place where you live, the crap times come eventually too: heartbreak, work stress, etc, etc. In those moments I would have left just to escape the problems.
    I have a lifelong habit of giving up everything (hobbies, people, jobs) because they weren't perfect, so my goal is to stick at the things I love doing: drawing, designing, etc etc, and Tokyo is one of the best places to be as an artist/art lover. 🙂

    Enough about me!!!


  13. Unfortunately I didn't get into the JET program, but I did get in to a few grad schools, so I'm moving to Newfoundland for the next two years. I really wanted to go to Japan though, and it still bums me out a bit that I'm not going.

    Yeah… The whole dandelion thing… I was pissed for the rest of the ceremony! Who is he to define who is a rose and who is a weed? And there are MANY levels between roses and weeds anyway! Grr.

    If writing will stress you out, then you're probably right to avoid it professionally. Maybe you could do freelance? Just whenever you felt like it… Or when you're broke, ha.

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