I have never said goodbye so many times in my life. In my finals days in Japan I had two sizeable farewell parties, and nearly a dozen one-on-one dinners. It was truly touching to see each and everyone. To think I arrived in Japan not knowing a single person, and I left with more friends than I can count. That says something about this place and the people here.
Instead of talking about each goodbye I’ll leave you with just a few photos from the final weeks.
I spent my final month in Japan in a serious job hunt. I sent out my resume over a 100 times to states from New York to Hawaii. Much to my surprise I got a sincere reply from Hawaii. I had a phone interview and was asked to fly in for a personal interview. I told my mother it was a win-win situation. Either I would get the job or I would have a month vacation on the beach. So I went for it. I bought a ticket five days in advance and packed my bags. When opportunity calls, you’ve got to answer. Sayonara, Japan.
I sat in my seat aboard Korean Air Flight 1. We started to taxi away from the terminal and I could see the airport sign, “Narita International Airport Terminal 1.” I laughed, that was the first sign I saw, three years ago. It was in English. I sat back in my seat and waited for the tears to come. I was finished. I was leaving behind the most important chapter in my life. My friends. My life. My home. It was all finished. Oddly I didn’t cry, I smiled.
“You’ve done it right, Alex,” I thought to myself. “You’ve accomplished what you came here for. You’re a better person.”
The captain lit up the engines and I was thrust back in my seat. The wheels came off the tarmac and my physical connection with Japan was finished.
I was roused from my sleep by a flight attendant. She set down a breakfast plate with a coffee. I opened the window shade and looked down. Below us were the western Hawaiian islands. It reminded me of Japan, except more tropical and much, much smaller. Soon enough we touched down at Honolulu International Airport and I exited the plane to a warm 75 degrees (23 C). It was November 29th and 75 degrees. Amazing. I looked down at my watch, 4 AM Tokyo time. I had left Friday night at 9 PM and arrived Friday morning at 9 AM, gaining 12 hours in flight. I walked down the terminal and grinned like an idiot. There was English printed and being spoken everywhere. I looked outside and saw cars on the right side of the road. I was home.
-Reverse Culture Shock-
I moved to baggage claim and saw two men taking luggage off of the carousel. How nice of them, I thought.
And then they literally threw it on the floor. Hard. I stopped and stood in disbelief at the carelessness of the two men. I’m sure this is a normal practice behind closed doors, but to do it in front of clients was dumbfounding. I looked to my left and there was a Japanese couple next to me, staring at the men and equally shocked. Welcome home.
I stopped by an information desk to ask about free wifi. The woman behind the counter never looked up from her phone and answered only with a “no,” and a “next.” I couldn’t believe how rude this customer service representative was. Welcome home.
Outside I found a shuttle service and loaded my luggage in the bus. I started searching for the driver, and I found him. The poor man was literally four times my width. He was heavily obese and seemed to breathe heavily even at a rest. I spoke with him and found out he was a really nice guy. I sat shotgun and looked down at the driver’s pack. His lunch was nothing but processed food and drinks; candy, chips and soda. Suddenly his weight made sense. Welcome home.
I was dropped off in front of my hostel and proceeded to check in. The two employees behind the counter were dressed… casually. The woman was spilling out of her top and the man’s shirt was undone showing a hairy chest. They freely used a few curse words in front of me while getting me checked in. They were so casual. Welcome home.
I was shown to my room. It was a former apartment with a shared kitchen/bathroom and four separate rooms. The sink had dirty dishes coming out of it, the bathroom stank of pee, and the floor had never been swept. Cleanliness, it was quickly becoming apparent, had varying degrees. Welcome home.
I set down my bags and went out to pick up a few things. There was a Walmart down the street so I set out. My first Walmart in three years. It was busier than I remembered. I got halfway to the back of the store before I realized it; it was Black Friday. Two hours back in the States and I was shopping in a Walmart on Black Friday. It was like American culture just slapped me right in the face. There were people of all sizes and colors. I heard different languages all around me. There was varying degrees of being clothed. And varying degrees of politeness. Welcome home.
One of the most surprising points at the store were the tattoos. In three years I had seen maybe 20 tattoos in Japan. In Walmart I was, apparently, the only person without a tattoo. Big tats, small tats, modest tats, obnoxious tats, tats, tats, tats. Welcome home.
On the walk home I was struck by a well documented, and growing problem, in the United States. Economic disparity. There were dozens of homeless people and others clearly less fortunate. At the same time, luxury cars sped past me and highrise condominiums dotted down on their luck. I couldn’t believe how some people could be doing so well for themselves, and others couldn’t eat. It was sad and tragic. Welcome home.
A few days later I was back at Walmart. I was strolling up and down the food aisles at a leisurely pace. I was taking in all of the American food. It really exemplified American culture. Everything came in a massive size; gallons of milk, pounds of meat, dozens of beers. The selection was overwhelming. I wanted to buy a box of cereal and there was literally, literally an entire aisle full of choices. Nearly everything was processed. I tried to find the produce section and all I could find was a few racks of bananas, apples and potatoes. The prices were also ridiculous. Everything was cheap, I couldn’t believe how small of a percentage of a household’s budget went to food. Truly this was the land of plenty. Welcome home.
I wasn’t the only one marveling at all of this. By chance a group of Japanese high school students, dressed in typical uniforms, ran up and down the aisles at Walmart. I thought it was funny that their chaperones took them to Walmart for an American experience. Actually I found the chaperones later looking at umbrellas. I laughed listening to them complain about the poor selection. But back to the students. They were literally kids in a candy store. They ran around taking humongous bags of candy off of the shelf. They were buying all sorts of novel sweets they couldn’t find back home. I listened to them talking about the wonders of America and it cracked me up. Welcome home.
Despite all of these little road bumps I was back. And I was happy to be back. Several times here I’ve realized I’m back where I belong. Communicating with others is a breeze. Swagger is a positive thing. I know what to expect. I’m in my element.
Perhaps the greatest victory in my homecoming has been securing my new job. The in-person interview I mentioned earlier went well and I landed the job. Come January I will be a legislative aide to a Representative in the Hawaiian House of Representatives.
Long ago I took a government test at the US embassy in Tokyo. That was a watershed moment that led me to return home and get involved with legislative government. I may be starting my career a little later than other people, but I feel confident about this. Now it’s up to me to make my future. I’ve got this.
Mahalo and a happy New Year!