As a returnee, it was three weeks after the start of school that I finally found friends to go home with. It was great having someone to talk to, as I no longer needed to play the part of the depressed cult of businessmen: either lonely looking down at their phones or fast asleep surrendering to their fatigue.
“Hey little boy.”
The voice spoke in English – a thick Japanese accent. A firm hand then landed on my shoulder and spun me around. This time in Japanese, the old man hissed, “You foreigners are all the same. Look at you all drunk and loud. WAKE UP YOU ARE IN JAPAN! LEARN SOME DAMN MANNERS BOY!”. The arrival of the train snapped me back to reality, and I instinctively sped away into the station's crowd of workers. However, I couldn't escape the old man’s remark – that I was inadequate for the “Japanese” standards, simply for being myself.
In 2020, my family was issued a mandatory return to Japan. Four years in the United States was enough for one to appear as a foreigner to the Japanese public. As an “outcast” I fell victim to indirect remarks from my peers: they shot me looks in the halls, with eyes that shed a hint of the old man on the train, and directed conversations like pre-recorded voicemails. The suggestions left a scratch of painful rejection each time, and “ordinary” gradually became my sole idolization. I patted down my quiff hairstyle to a side fringe; I injected my English pronunciation with syringes of Japanese accents; I practiced my smiles to always squeeze out a forced laugh in-between conversations. I laid my tracks as a typical side character.
As time passed, people started to greet me in the halls and I was no longer vigilant for the sound of the final bell. The pain had ceased, yet the empty void within my core remained. The exchange for happiness was temporary, and it had cost my personality. I was now an empty shell that feared to connect - witnessing hallucinations, shadows of the old man, roaming behind the people I met – to the exception of a single friend.
His name was Toki, a fellow returnee from California I met during the school orientation. If not for his care and relatable presence, I wouldn’t have survived past the rudimentary stages of returning to Japan.
It was the fall of 2021, Toki and I found ourselves alone on the train from school, when Toki abruptly broke the silence. “It sometimes feels like you are the only one that understands me, but I’m still glad I joined this school; you know how difficult it can be to have your differences acknowledged. Here, though, our friends and peers accept us for who we are.” The comment was sudden, and I couldn’t come up with a sincere reply.
That day I went home attempting to follow Toki’s train of thought; I was skeptical of his words, praising those that saw me as a foreigner. Craving for a hint of clarity, I opened my phone to my photo collections in Japan. Scrolling through, I saw my friends and I constructing together albums of priceless memories. Looking back, the man on the train car came to mind. Upon retrospect, he was a person who had taken advantage of my enfeebled system in the course of my return to Japan.
In hindsight, the looks were a display of acknowledgment, and the conflicting conversations were their form of conducting reaffirmation. I had misinterpreted friendly gestures as hostile salvos toward my fragile mind, and killed situations that could have been more.
People often praise novelty, but the majority forget to address the inundating challenges that come along with it. So, to myself tomorrow, I want to say, “Everything takes time, and that's how it should be. Progress forward knowing you are improving day by day. Neither reacting nor adapting, but improving. Learn while holding onto ‘you’.”
One step at a time, I will work my way to my designated station – to board my train and ride in the present – on tracks above the reaching hands of illusions and traumas; I want to enjoy every passing scenery.