I met Ai almost exactly one year after I’d moved to Japan. I’m getting ahead of myself, though – I need to go back to the beginning.
In my early 20s, I was addicted to travelling; I had perpetually itchy feet. Travelling had me in its grasp, my wanderlust an uncontrolled entity. And like most addictions, I needed more money to sustain it. At twenty-four years old and jobless, my savings fast running out, I needed to start making money to support my habit. It only made sense that I’d look for a job in a different country; it seemed, in my mind, to be killing two birds with one stone. Soon I was looking up international jobs, researching visas, investigating how much I’d need for the plane ticket. I then did what seemingly every other twenty-something English-speaker with a university degree but no idea how to use it does: I decided to teach English abroad. It was relatively easy to find a job online, and after an interview and a grammar test, it was confirmed. I was going to be a teacher in Japan.
I arrived in Osaka on a humid afternoon in August, my suitcases bulging with light grey office-wear and books by my favourite authors. I stood on the yellow footprints at immigration as I was fingerprinted and photographed, my first encounter with the country’s order and diligence. An airport bus took me to where I’d meet Bruce, an American man sent by my new company. He showed up two hours late, with bleached hair and a sweat-stained polo shirt. He didn’t offer much by way of explanation for his lateness, just a mumble or two about traffic, but I later realised this was a huge faux-pas in Japan. As I’d learn on my first day of work, if you’re on time in Japan, you’re 15 minutes late.
“Sumimasen,” he bowed to me, a word I’d later learn means I’m sorry and thank you and excuse me and just about everything one would need to appear polite in Osakan dialect.
Bruce took me to my new home deep in the city centre. We drove for what seemed like hours through winding streets that would suddenly explode in fluorescent lights. I tried to make out the katakana and hiragana symbols that I had studied before arriving, sounding the words out as best I could. Eventually Bruce parked the van, helped me unload my suitcases.
“Your apartment is down this arcade.” He grabbed the handle of one of my bags, wheeling it down the brightly-lit passage. Everything was closing up, but I caught snippets of the shops: rows of unfamiliar vegetables, walls of colourful stationery, the blast of air-conditioning from the open door of what appeared to be a casino, the plink and plonk of slot machines resounding out into the night air. The floor of the arcade was smooth and tiled; it was only for pedestrians and bicycles. I couldn’t see the end of it, could only guess how far it stretched in the distance.
We stopped at an inconspicuous building with a brown door.
“Through here,” Bruce punched in a code, and the door swung open. The hallway smelled of something thick and stifling, like rotting garbage. He pressed the button for the elevator and the doors heaved open. “You’re on the top floor,” he grinned. “Penthouse.”
The apartment was larger than I thought it would be. It was fully furnished, but it felt old and dingy. It had definitely been lived in.
“I bought you some bedding and a couple of towels to get you started,” Bruce said. I looked around, said it was fine. Everything was a slightly different shade of sepia, from the tatami mats, to the bedding, to the bare walls. After Bruce left, I pulled back the beige curtains and stepped onto the balcony. I looked over a sea of low buildings, and for as far as I could see there was the dim of lights. The air felt sticky and flat. It was my first time in Asia.
Over the next few weeks I started to find my way around the city. I hadn’t permanently lived anywhere in over two years, as my previous stops of Toronto and Edinburgh had both been temporary bases, and they had never truly felt like home. In Osaka I decided to allow myself to grow attached; it was an easy city to love, anyway. I was immediately enamoured with its combination of energy and tranquility, the fast-paced business world mixing seamlessly with the traditional temples and shrines. There were cat cafés and photo booths and trains that could take you to the other side of the country in a matter of hours. It was a city where every day I saw something that made me pause in fascination or wonder, keeping me active and curious. There was an organised approach to the hustle and bustle of life, an order to the expansive shopping centres, the crowded subways, the throngs of people on every downtown sidewalk. I grew to feed off of the noise and the pulse of the city. This was still before Google Maps told everyone where to go, so every day I clutched my paper map in my hands, willing my brain to make sense of the complex alleyways whose names were written only in Japanese.
I knew that I toed the line of local and foreigner, and that perhaps I always would. I would forever stand out on the subway, no matter how many years I lived there or how well I spoke the language. I would forever be blonde and blue-eyed. I would forever be an other. My students drew cartoons of me in class sometimes; the drawings looked like anime characters, the eyes unnaturally large. Despite this, I was determined to feel like I belonged.
I soon fell into a routine at work, learning which convenience store had the best sushi near my office building and how to manage minor earthquakes while stuck on the eighth floor. I made cultural mistakes, of course; my first week, grocery shopping, I bought what I thought to be peanut butter only to discover it was miso. I forgot to take my shoes off in a classroom, I poured my own tea at a dinner with coworkers, I handed money over with one hand – I didn’t know so many of the Japanese customs, but it felt good to learn them, even by trial and error.
I had originally picked my company because one of my friends from university recommended it, having taught there for two years herself. Through her, I landed one of the best roles a foreigner at the company could get: I taught English to high-level adults three days a week. The other two days, I wrote English textbooks and materials to be distributed within the company. In the first week of teaching I had to stop my hand from trembling whenever I wrote on the whiteboard. Most of my students were older than me, and I was sure they’d find out I didn’t quite know what I was doing, but soon even teaching felt natural and fun.
I tried to settle in to my neighbourhood, which was called Nishi-nari-ku, but I never liked my flat; it felt dark and unlovable, a place filled with shadows. To escape, I often took my bicycle out for late-night tours of the neighbouring areas. Most of the streets of Osaka grew quiet by dark save the neon signs for ramen shops and the dull hum of vending machines selling cheap alcoholic drinks and cigarettes. I’d buy a can of beer and cruise for hours, sometimes a portable radio in my bike basket. I had spent many hours like this, minus the beer, in my Canadian youth. I liked how this nostalgia mixed with my new surroundings, mixed with the unfamiliarities that awaited every corner.
After a year of living in Nishi-nari-ku I moved to Shin-Fukae, a quiet neighbourhood in the east of Osaka. From what I could tell, I was the only visible foreigner living there. I moved because I wanted a nicer flat, and I found one: one with clean white walls, a big balcony, and panoramic windows in the bedroom that let in lots of light. Sometimes I’d walk home while school was getting out, and I’d be swarmed by students in navy uniforms and straw hats.
“Hello, hello, how are you?” they’d shout and giggle, running away before I could answer. Nearly everyone in the neighbourhood waved at me, or said hello. At night I’d take the train into the city centre to meet friends, both foreign and Japanese, for ramen or chu-hi or a gig to see punk bands, or sometimes, on good nights, for all three. I’d stumble home under the light of the street lamps that lined the road like a string of pearls, happy in my new home, happier than I had ever been.
After living in Shin-Fukae for about a month, I heard a woman’s voice call out to me while I was walking toward the subway station, on my way to work. It was a sticky morning, and I could hear the roar of cicadas from the trees in the park, even though it was a few blocks away.
“Ohayo gozaimasu!” she yelled. I turned round. She was standing in the doorway of a little izakaya, a Japanese pub. I had noticed it whenever I walked past. Sometimes, at night, I’d hear karaoke from behind its door. I couldn’t tell how old she was; she could have been anywhere from forty to sixty, her face youthful and line-free. She waved a white washcloth at me. “Ohayo!”
“Ohayo gozaimasu!” I called back, thankful that I at least understood how to say good morning. Despite studying on and off for a year, my Japanese had never made it past simple phrases. I could talk to kids and taxi drivers, but that was about it. Once the conversation went past the weather, my favourite colour, or the names of my siblings, I was lost. Even though I lived in Japan, my encounters with the Japanese language were somewhat limited: my job required everyone to speak English, and most of my Japanese friends were fairly fluent, too. I probably shouldn’t have felt as proud as I did with each minor interaction in Japanese, but I couldn’t help it. She grinned at me from the door of the pub, and I smiled and kept walking.
A few days later, returning home, I saw her again.
“Konnichiwa!” she called to me with a laugh. She had a soft, round face framed by a bob of black hair.
“Konnichiwa,” I smiled back. This time I stopped. “How are you?” I asked in Japanese.
“You speak Japanese!” she cried out. I felt awful that I was about to disappoint her.
“No Japanese. Little. I am from Canada.” I couldn’t think of anything else to say in that moment – my mind went blank – but I just continued to stand there and smile.
“Canada!” she laughed. “It’s too cold in Canada for me!”
“Hot in Japan,” I replied, aware that everything I was saying was riddle with grammatical errors. I mimed fanning myself. She laughed again, and said something I didn’t understand, but I smiled and nodded anyway.
“Sayonara,” I said to her, and walked the last block home. When I turned the corner to get to my flat, I looked back, and she was still standing there, watching. She lifted up her washcloth and waved again.
Over the next year, I learned a lot about her. I saw her a few times a week, sometimes chatting to other neighbours, sometimes sweeping outside the pub. She always lit up when she saw me, and she introduced me to many others in the neighbourhood. I learned her name was Ai, meaning love. The first time she told me this I got hopelessly confused.
“Ai means love,” she must have been saying to me. She was saying the word love in English, one of the only English words she seemed to know. All I heard was ‘I’ – the pronunciation of Ai – and ‘love’.
“I love you?” I said back to her, and she laughed so hard she bent double.
“I love you!” she laughed back, calling her husband out of the pub to tell him the story, her face contorted in happiness. She was impossible not to like. I eventually visited her pub a few times, sat on one of the rickety little stools at a smooth counter while she poured me a pint of Asahi. During the summer of 2010, nearly two years after I had moved to Japan, I’d sit there with a cold beer and watch World Cup games on the tiny television in the corner. Sometimes, when we couldn’t understand each other, she’d painstakingly look through my Japanese-English dictionary to write out a note on a scrap of paper, her writing neat. ‘Today you are beautiful Brenna-chan,’ she’d write to me. Adding ‘chan’ to the end of my name was a sign of my youth and our familiarity; I added ‘san’ to the end of hers to show respect for my elder.
“Arigato, Ai-san, arigato gozaimasu,” I’d reply. “And you, too! You are beautiful!” and she’d hide her face in her hands and laugh.
Somewhere amongst all that was so unfamiliar, down a sleepy little street in Shin-Fukae, I started to come into my own. I had a rewarding job, a comfortable flat, a great social group, and a sense of community. I learned new words, new alphabets. I made friends. I loved my job, and my students, who were all engaged and intelligent. I grew used to the bombardment of questions: where I was from, what I did, what my favourite Japanese food was, if I liked Osaka, if I had a boyfriend, if my curly hair was real. My neighbours and friends and students were curious, and surely the greatest compliment is to be found interesting. I didn’t mind the impromptu interviews, and memorised my answers: Canada, taught conversation classes and wrote English textbooks, okonomiyaki, yes, no, yes. Osaka felt like home, sometimes even more so than my previous homes of Halifax, Toronto, or Edinburgh. In some ways it felt like home even more than my hometown of Winnipeg – perhaps because it was the first time I had truly carved my own path in a place. I showed up with nothing and nobody, but I left feeling like I had made a home for myself. I left feeling like I had belonged.
One rainy summer day, when I had first moved to Japan, I exited the supermarket and walked toward my bicycle. Arranging my bags in the front basket, I noticed an elderly woman waving at me from under the awning. She was saying something to me I did not understand – she was speaking too quickly for my rudimentary Japanese. She pointed to the handkerchief in her hand, and then to my bicycle, over and over again. I smiled, still not understanding, saying the only word I could think of: “Sumimasen.” Unrelenting in her mission, she left her dry spot and walked toward me in the drizzle. With one quick swoop she wiped my bicycle seat off and motioned for me to sit down – she had wanted to make sure that my seat was dry. The incident was not isolated, and I was often granted random acts of kindness by strangers.
Since Japan, I’ve moved to London, where I quickly felt even more at home than I ever have; a little corner of the East End of the city suddenly became my whole world, the epicentre of my work, my friendships, my life. I quickly got to know my neighbourhood and my neighbours, and it’s rare for me to leave my flat and not wave hello to one or two people: the woman who works at the flower shop, the local from the pub, the barista from the corner café. Japan taught me how to do that – how to find my place in a neighbourhood – and I think about Ai sometimes, wonder if she still runs the little pub in Shin-Fukae. I think about the kindness and generosity I was granted in that community in Osaka. And I think about how much better the world could be if only we all stopped and said hello to one another, or waved at our neighbours, or fumbled through foreign languages together just to share a laugh.
I learned a great many things during my two and a half years living in Japan, but that – the power of a simple hello, the strength of one moment of kindness, the rush you get when you feel you might finally fit in – is perhaps what stuck with me more than anything.
On my very last day in Japan, 2010
If parts of this story seem vaguely familiar, I wrote Navigating Home: A Story From Japan almost four years ago.
Have you ever lived in another country? Did it ever truly feel like home?