The other night as I left class, I bade my Canadian friends goodbye with a hearty “Jya ne,” (“Catch ya later.”) A few months ago, I had to restrain myself from bowing low as I met my son’s Grade eight math teacher for the first time. And to this day I always point to my nose, instead of my chest, to ask if someone’s talking to me, the way it’s done in Japan.
Seven years after leaving, it’s still like someone's forgotten to turn off the switch.
My first weeks back in Canada I stopped at the door of every single building I approached, waiting for them to open in front of me. Once, I even walked into one. I had to stick Post-It notes on my car’s dashboard as a reminder to drive on the right side of the road instead of the left.
It was natural to adopt these behaviours while I was in Japan; they were essential to facilitating the smooth transactions of my daily life by allowing Japanese people to feel comfortable around me. But the manners, customs and habits are extremely hard to leave behind, even when they’re no longer in their proper element.
Which is why, in my first month, I found myself practically accosting an Asian woman in a park as she spoke to her children. I rushed over in a flurry of what I can only describe as crazed homesickness when I heard her speak, introduced myself, and said, hesitantly, “Excuse me, are you Japanese?” We’ve been friends ever since.
It’s funny because there’s a common lament among foreigners living long-term in Japan that goes, “No matter how long you live there, you’ll never be considered Japanese.”
But what is also true is it’s almost Zen-like opposite: that the longer you live in Japan, the more Japanese you become— in manner, custom, and gesture.
It’s been a long time since I returned to Canada, but I try to remember that adapting to life back home takes time; not because “home” changes so drastically while you’re gone, but because you do. Fitting in again requires an adjustment of your expectations, attitude, and responses, but eventually you get there. Or, like being in Japan, maybe just approach it.
Cindy Graham is a Professional Writing student who lived in Japan for 12 years. Now living in Ottawa, Canada with her husband and two children, she explores issues facing adults who return to their home countries after having lived for an extended time abroad.