Following the angels

Why I came to Tokyo

Image: blog_following_the_angels

I have a cute story about why I came to Japan, and it's basically true. I've told it over and over, and with each telling, it gets sharpened to the essential details for the best telling. So I can't assure you that it's the truth, but it's definitely a truth.

The deal is that my grandmother on my father's side, when she was alive, was a great woman who did a lot for the downtrodden and in-need people of Vancouver. Which I mention because I don't want you to think of her as just some crazy person when I tell you that she used to speak to angels. She was very religious, Anglican to be precise, and I wasn't totally clear when she said she "spoke" to angels if she meant a general sense of communion through prayer, or directly sitting across from her when she was having tea.

In any case, she said there were different guardian angels looking after different members of our family, and sometime around when I was in my early twenties, she informed me that my guardian angel told her that I needed to go live in Asia. I'm not the adventurous type of person who just gets on a plane and goes somewhere, but my grandmother said with finality, "you're going," and to punctuate her words, she gave me a plane ticket. A one year open ended ticket to Hong Kong with a stop over in Tokyo. There were a variety of reasons as to why those two cities got picked over others, but one reason for Tokyo was a cousin of mine was staying there with her Japanese husband.

How could I say no? I got on the plane. Shortly after I arrived in Tokyo I posted a message to a Usenet forum for people working in computer graphics, saying, "I'm in Tokyo, I don't speak Japanese, but I just graduated from Vancouver Film School, and I specialized in 3D computer graphics. Are there any jobs here?" Within days, I got a response from a guy who soon after hired me to do graphics for television.

I didn't take to Tokyo immediately, and might have given up on it, but, through a chain of circumstances and my personal evolution, I've ended up being in Tokyo for half my life, and still going. I like it here now, and, I've been to Hong Kong a few times since, and while I love to visit, I wouldn't want to live there. Ditto for anywhere else I've been. It looks like Granny's angels were on to something.

Except, I know it wasn't really the angels making predictions. Or, well... I guess you could go into a pretty deep theological discussion about how exactly it is that angels do their thing. Anyway, the more secular explanation is a little less romanticized.

It is true that my grandmother bought me a ticket and told me that it was on the advice of angels. It's also true that my grandmother was empathic enough to see that I was generally unhappy and always a difficult and overly sensitive person. Also, being someone who migrated from one country to another herself, from Britain to Canada, perhaps she saw the potential healing properties of a change of surroundings.

Still, that my grandmother stepped in and forced me to take action doesn't address the question of why there was something to take action on. Why was I so miserable there? Vancouver is often rated as one of the best places in the world to live, which is part of why it's livability is being killed by so many people buying property there and blowing the housing market up to problematic proportions. So many of my other friends, people with largely the same circumstances as me growing up, are still there, happily living successful lives that I have to admit I envy from my current viewpoint from atop my mid life crisis. But, just because Vancouver offers so much doesn't mean it's a good fit for everyone, and maybe it was the wrong place for me.

How much does your location determine your happiness? Clearly being in Somalia or Afghanistan right now would create a lot of obstacles to living your dreams. But does that mean there's another end to that scale, where being in the perfect spot could lift you higher than anywhere else? Just before I left for Tokyo and Hong Kong, I was considering volunteering at a hospice that my grandmother had set up. While at an orientation seminar, I met a woman from Germany who had recently moved to Vancouver. I told her my plan to move to Asia and I guess I mentioned that part of the reason was because I hoped to make things "better" for myself. She wasn't that much older than me, but she was clearly more worldly than me, more experienced. She just had that calm self assurance of someone who knows what it's like a little further down the path. She advised me, in that dour tone that Germans have, that, "wherever you go, you're still you."

I considered that advice, and using it as a base, I thought that I was going to Tokyo, or maybe Hong Kong, with my eyes wide open. I wasn't expecting a new city to solve my problems, but, maybe changing your environment is a good way to test yourself to see what it is you might be looking for. Except that a good test requires that all the factors around the thing being tested are held constant. I threw a me that I barely knew into a petri dish filled with a culture I didn't understand. I spent my first year in Tokyo feeling miserably alone, and the only thing keeping me here was this inexplicable resistance to returning to Vancouver. The place where on paper it looks like life should be a lot easier for me.

Not so long ago I was having a conversation at an izakaya with my friend Paul, and he was saying how people have a mistaken idea that as they grow, they change their nature. They go from being kids with child like concerns, then become teenagers with teenage concerns, and then adults with adult concerns. The idea is that we're in a constant state of metamorphosis, where everything before is discarded to make way for the new. One day you just don't feel like playing with toys and you're interested in girls, or whichever way your interests go. It's not as if an interest in toys turns into an interest in girls. You just discard toys and suddenly can't help but think about girls. But that's a deceptively simple example, and tied very specifically to the physical change of puberty, a kind of change that really only happens once in our lives. It may seem that at around twenty we stop being a teenager and become an adult, but that's entirely a societal construct. Judging by many middle aged people I know, maturity is not assured the way puberty is.

Paul's idea was that actually, we're more like Lego, where our identity is the result of compounding new facets of ourselves on top of old ones. How we perceive the world as a child doesn't get tossed aside, we just add more blocks on top as we are exposed to new things that we have to make fit alongside the identity we've built so far. Which means that who were as a child is still there inside us. It isn't a core from which all future decisions radiate, but, it's there. I nearly drowned once when I was around seven, and ever since, I don't like water if I can't see the bottom. As an adult, I've off and on taken swimming lessons and tried to overcome that, but, those efforts are in negotiation with that child who instinctively backs away from the shore. The potential is there for me to completely overcome my distrust of dark waters, but that has to be done by acknowledging there are some old Lego blocks that are buried deep under other newer ones, making them a little harder to access and move.

When I was in elementary school, I went through a time when I became the kid everyone picked on. The reasons why are because of a bunch of shit kids do, and I just can't be bothered to go into the forensics. In any case, I don't have an idea for how long it was that I was placed below the bottom of the social order. Could have been a couple weeks or a few months, my childhood sense of time being distorted, and my memory not too clear either. But even if it was just a day, it was transformative, in that at the time, I felt the world turn on me. Largely because my best friend joined in with everyone else in making me hate every school day. What was critical to my perceptions of him was that I noticed he would still speak to me when we were alone, or possibly in the presence of someone else who had formerly been my friend. But if the group of people got too large, and if certain key bullies were around, then he became part of the jeering mob.

This all happened at the end of grade six, and the situation got better the next year, when it seemed the key ringleaders of my persecution went on to high school. For those from America or wherever, in Vancouver we don't have junior high school, we just go to elementary up to grade seven, and then high school from grade eight to twelve. So, grade seven, my last year of elementary, was fine because without certain key personalities it seemed my friends were willing to be my friends again. And I had a good time in grade seven, except that part of me remembered not to trust these people. What would happen if we all went to the same high school? Would they turn on me again?

The solution, as far as I was concerned, was to transfer to a different high school. And, in the end, I met a bunch of new people, some of whom are still my good friends today, so there was significant upside to my strategy of avoiding potentially dangerous environments. The downside, though, was very down. My take away from the experience was that love is circumstantial. Not conditional, circumstantial. Conditional love means you think that if you live up to other people's standards they'll love you. My sense of love is more arbitrary than that. People, like a best friend, will be your best friend so long as it suits them, so long as they aren't at risk of being caught in the crossfire of the flack you're taking. But if the heat goes up, they'll go the route that works for them and keeps them popular.

Of course, it wasn't just this one situation in my life that made me believe love is circumstantial. If anything, it was probably just a validation of my existing perceptions. At home, my mom could be the coolest person ever, answering my endless questions about everything in the universe. But, she could also be a hurricane, destroying everything in the house and throwing things at me and my brother for not helping unpack the groceries quick enough. I had no idea which mom would happen when, as it all seemed to be based on circumstances completely beyond my comprehension. Things like "income" and "job security" and "divorce", which to me were just words written on a dice.

My father left my mom when I was five, and actually, at first I literally had no idea he left, because I was too busy playing with Star Wars action figures or running around the garden pretending to be like Snoopy, flying a Sopwith Camel and fighting Red Barons. It took me years to clue into the pattern that I only saw my dad at certain times, what I later understood to be alternating weekends. Or maybe it was every Sunday and then for Saturday and Sunday on alternating weekends? My memory is as unclear now as my understanding was then. Of course, now I know that there was a regular schedule that was probably determined by emotionally frustrated negotiations. As a kid who barely understood that time was linear, I just assumed that we were seeing dad when dad wanted to see us, the circumstance of his whim.

Of course, there's also me. Just because I can catalogue a bunch of different situations in which I felt the world's empathy is only on tap so long as circumstances allow doesn't mean that anyone and everyone else would necessarily end up with the same lessons that I learnt. Getting down to why it is that I adapted to the stimuli of my life the way I did is going down to a level of science and philosophy that asks more questions than it answers. It doesn't really matter, though, because I don't have to account for what my life would have done to another person.

The point is, for a long time I've had the idea woven into me that love is circumstantial. It comes and goes like rain, uncorrelated to your output into the world, or how much it seems like you know or trust anyone. That might seem like then a strategy to cope with that would be to keep changing your circumstances, but, I don't move around a lot. I lived in Vancouver, and then I lived in Tokyo, and that's it. I think because if love is essentially random, then a strategy of constantly moving wouldn't work. Love isn't like the climate where there are warmer and colder places. By going somewhere else, all you do is have another table to roll dice on, which doesn't change the odds.

The bottom line is that I didn't go to Tokyo, I left Vancouver, and when I got here, even though I had no friends to start, at least I knew why. In the gaijin world of Tokyo, friends come and go, but at least nobody is breaking any unsaid promises. Tokyo is a never never land where you don't worry so much if the people around you are life long friends, because if you did, or at least if I did, then I'd wonder how much I can really trust them, and I'm afraid to ask.

It's weird to think in my forties that my life is where it is now, at least in part, because of circumstances when I was eleven. But when I started tracing the stack of Lego blocks that I am now downward to the ones I started with, I could viscerally feel the eleven year old me punching myself from inside. Even though I can explain away my friend's actions from my current perspective by supposing he probably had his own feelings to protect at the time, it doesn't negate the impact the situation had. Just like how I rationally know my mom was in a difficult place, because she was so young when she had me and my brother, she was still in need of the kind of support that she was supposed to be giving us. The kid inside me doesn't know or care, he just feels there's no such thing as "home", because you never know how your going to feel there, so just go hang out all night with people who will be friends for that time if you can. And dad... what exactly is that anyway?

Even with my new insight on how certain blocks fit together, there's a lingering Pavlovian response to Vancouver itself. Each experience I had there growing up, where I responded to potential friendships with my internal trust issues, is now soaked into the streets. Last time I was in Vancouver, as I drove down 10th Avenue to my father's house where I was staying, I felt so empty in spite of having just been hanging out and having a great time with one of my best friends and his new wife. Maybe what's worse than knowing your friends will eventually leave town because they were just checking out Japan for a few years is the irrational fear of being fooled into believing in permanence.

I don't know exactly how it all works. Every time I think of why I'm in Tokyo, my perceptions shift a little, because the reality is that we're constantly adding Lego blocks, increasing our complexity. Each time we look at the blocks that we put in earlier, we affect them, we move them around. Maybe the rate of self understanding is always a little behind the rate of our self creation, because understanding is in itself a way of adding complexity.

Maybe the angels had a long term plan for me. I guess I did keep asking myself why I'm in Tokyo over and over because the conventional answers like, "because it's so safe and organized," or, "the women are so great," just never feel final or complete. Eventually, I stopped looking at what it is about Tokyo that keeps me here, and looked at what it is about me that stays.

I wish I could have learned lessons faster, and I wonder if I would have learned them if I weren't where I am. But, late or not, I feel, I hope, that I have at least learnt something. I'm pretty sure now love isn't just circumstantial. It's not conditional either. It's not guaranteed, it's not the goal, it's not elusive, it's not anything. It's not this beautiful thing that you finally find with the one right person and then you're done. It's not automatically guaranteed from a family, or anyone else. It's not permanent, nor is it necessarily going to change. You can foster it or reject it, but in either case, your participation helps shape it. You're in it as much as the rest of the world. It takes a particular kind of strength to handle, to be able to stay open when its offered, and to not close off when it's taken away. Love is it's own particular thing, and any time you reduce it to equating it with other terms, you've reduced your chance at it.

So that's nice. I feel it's a healthier definition of love to work with. I have to pick up the scattered Lego pieces of my life in order to hopefully build something better, and I hope it's not too late. Whether or not I do that in Tokyo, I don't know. Where I am matters less to me now, because wherever I am, I'm still me.

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There was a time I considered doing a comic about my experience in Japan. I decided it wasn't worth it, but I did about seven or so, and I'm going to put them online just so the effort isn't wasted. This first comic is probably the most dysfunctional, referencing issues that no longer matter and events no one remembers.

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Another comic about life in Japan. This time, an encounter at Narita airport.

The Lithium of Experience The Lithium of Experience The Lithium of Experience The Lithium of Experience

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Mortality is measured in increments of lowered expectations.

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What's a blog for if not to be embarrassingly revealing?

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What Louis CK does that aspiring comedians should emulate.

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Tama Chan

There was a time I considered doing a comic about my experience in Japan. I decided it wasn't worth it, but I did about seven or so, and I'm going to put them online just so the effort isn't wasted. This first comic is probably the most dysfunctional, referencing issues that no longer matter and events no one remembers.

Narita Narita Narita Narita

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Another comic about life in Japan. This time, an encounter at Narita airport.

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