Thoughts on Leaving

I’ve got a year and a half left in Tokyo and I’m not counting down the days.  There’s a reason I recontracted, and I’m going to be really sad to leave.  But I am starting to plan the next stage, so I wanted to write why I’m really set on leaving next year.

I feel like I have to say over and over, to myself and others, how much I like Tokyo.

So as not to appear ungrateful.

So as not to look like I’m whining from this position of so much privilege and good fortune.

So as to convince myself that it’s still true.

The more I say it the more desperate it sounds, and the worse I feel.  Who else is having this problem?

Everyone else manages to just live peaceably, and the exact location isn’t as important as the way they approach it, the people they surround themselves with.

Even looking at it positively, and even thinking of the friends I have who are some of the best people I’ve ever met, for (to) whom I’m so grateful, there’s something missing.

I think the thing that’s missing is me.

It’s probably less about Tokyo, in the end, than it is about my relationship to Tokyo.  I suppose a relationship needs two parties, so it is partially Tokyo, but it’s probably mostly me.

If I could, for my own peace of mind, give a brief account of things I love about Tokyo:

It’s a beautiful city.  It is probably the most beautiful place I’ve ever lived.  For all that it’s also the largest, it never feels overwhelming.  The neighborhoods are small and sweet and interlock perfectly and it just feels safe and clean.  In terms of architecture, not trash and crime.  I guess there’s less of that as well, but that’s not the point.

Aforementioned friends, from other JETs to my coworkers to the people I’ve met around the city.

My neighborhood is small and gentle.  If you make the time to talk to people they’re so friendly and welcoming.  Except for the people at the new Chinese place near my house who asked if I needed a fork for my tantanmen.  However well intentioned that was, screw you, noodle people.  I was eating for twenty minutes with chopsticks before you offered so…???  What are you thinking?

It’s very bikeable.  The number of times I got into some kind of traffic collision in Chicago are uncountable, but in Tokyo it only happened once.  I have been ticketed a lot, but that’s definitely my fault.

I have a good job.  There’s too much going on there to say more, but at the end of the day I can’t deny that it is a very good job.

There are infinite other little things I could list, but basically the atmosphere is comfortable and energetic, and it’s easy to spread out and be creative.  There’s so much to think about and feel and experience all the time.  It’s such a stimulating place.

Honestly, after writing all that I feel a lot better.

When I leave, I think I’ll always miss Tokyo.  People sometimes say university is some of the best years of your life, but I think for me it will be my years on JET.  What an opportunity, what an experience, what a space for so much growth.

But at the end of the day, there is something missing.

I think it’s mostly tied to my job and how I approach it.

My co-JET often jokes that I’m in deep with the school’s underbelly, which is pretty much true.  More than many JETs in Tokyo I think I’ve worked my way into the school really thoroughly.  That’s very much a product of circumstance and the good grace of my coworkers, but in small part it’s also a product of how hard I’ve worked.  I’ve been really lucky in that there is a lot of work, because for many JETs there’s not much to do and consequently there’s not much of an opportunity to prove themselves or show how hard they can work.  Fortunately, there’s infinite work for my school’s English department, so I’ve been able to take on a lot of responsibility and it’s paid off in how close I’ve become to a lot of people.

On paper, it sounds really nice but of course it’s not some achievement I’ve unlocked, or a badge to add to my JET accomplishments.

To put it another way, I’ve gotten in deep with a bunch of people who have their own issues and drama and quirks, some of which are deeply endearing, some of which are cause for concern, and some of which are just stressful.  With all human relationships, the potential for good things that help you forge a strong bond with the community and feel at home is equal with the potential for bad things that make you wish you could quit an entire city just to get away from a room of 40 people.

Recently things are weighing more on the bad side, even though some of the people I’ve met through work have become really good friends who mean a lot to me.

If their influence on my seems disproportionate, well.  Every day that I have work I work for a minimum of 12 hours, so the people I work with become extremely important.  I spend more time with them than anyone else in my life, and I spend more time at school than at home.  That’s not anyone’s fault but mine, but that’s the situation.

I sometimes think if I changed jobs then my relationship to Tokyo could be different.  It’s not fair to want to leave a city because of a few people in it.

But when I think of living in Tokyo past next year, it just feels comfortable and nice.  And I guess there’s nothing wrong with that, but I want a place with more energy.  Even though Tokyo is so stimulating, it’s very private and closed off in a lot of ways.

And that’s really why my job makes me crazy enough to want to leave.  It represents, to me, my whole relationship with living in Tokyo.  It’s wonderful and inspiring and it’s made me into such a better person, and I’ll always be grateful.  But both the city and my school seem to take every opportunity to remind me–you’re never going to belong here.  We like you, they seem to say, we like you a lot, but you’ll never be one of us.

The amount of work I have put in has begun to be highly disproportionate to what I’m getting in return.  To the point where I wonder why I try so hard.  For people who don’t see me as I am, for a job that I love but doesn’t make me feel alive and inspired.

Is it so important to belong?  Isn’t there something valuable in not being accepted on the same level as everyone else, when a lot of people feel caught up and stifled in strict social hierarchies?


But I just want to relax.  I want to live somewhere that’s a constant mess and where people don’t mind so much if you make mistakes or if you’re a bit of a mess yourself.  And a place where people aren’t constantly reminding you that their island is the most special and that you will never belong on it.

For me right now, that place is Taipei.  I suppose it could equally be Paris or London or Luxembourg, but right now it’s Taipei.  I like to think there’s something unique to Taipei beyond the fact that it’s not Tokyo, but I don’t know.

I hesitate to be that white person finding salvation in an Asian country, but the fact is that I studied Chinese long before Japanese and when I speak Chinese I feel relaxed and loose in a way I can’t manage in Japanese, with its tight structures and rigid grammar.  As fun as Japanese is, it feels like a harsh rattatat rhythm that I have to nudge along, trying to remember verb tenses and sentence particles and whatever the fuck.  Chinese just flows.

Not perfectly.  I mean, when I panic I just throw tones out the window and get lots of blank stares as a result.  But when I’m not panicking it’s fun to speak, and I like to listen to people laugh in Chinese.  It sounds happy and excited and full of life.  And even a difference as small as that means a lot.

And I think one day I will live in Paris because I’ve always wanted to, and I want to experience life everywhere, not just in Asia.  I don’t want to be that educated expat who flees to Asia because they can’t make it in the West.  I just want to feel everything, and right now Taipei is at the top of the list.

But reigning things in from my Grand Nomad Plan, there is something about Taipei that’s particular to Taipei that makes me want to come here (not there, because I’m in Taipei right now; the third long vacation I’ve taken here in the past year).

It feels, compared to Tokyo, much more relaxed.  Yes, there’s trash all over the place and people cut me in line at the convenience store sometimes and a lot of the really good places to eat are street carts or places that seem to exist in between buildings rather than actually inside of them, but that’s what I like, goddammit.

It reminds me of New York in that, when a city doesn’t have so many rules it makes everyone feel that much freer.  Sure, it’s nice to have super clean streets and very organized neighborhoods like in Tokyo, but it also feels like you’ll get in trouble if you breathe incorrectly there.  There’s even a correct way to open onigiri from the convenience store, which is charming until you think hey, maybe I want to open it a different way today.

I think one way to think about it is something a friend of mine said last night, about the difference between Japan and Taiwan.  I don’t necessarily fully agree with him, but to him, people in Japan are on the whole more interested in design (really expensive design) than art.  They care a lot about very expensive foreign brands and a neat, manufactured look.  Obviously that’s a big generalization that isn’t true for a lot of people, but I see his point.  I suppose there’s a reason Uniqlo and Muji have become extremely popular in Japan, whereas in the past things were a little more roughshod and uniquely creative.

One way of living isn’t better than the other, but there’s definitely one I’m more suited to, and it’s not the one I’m stuck in now.

My friend said then, don’t worry.  You have nothing to worry about when you’re 23.  You have lots of choices, and you can come to Taiwan next and then anywhere you want after that.

Everything’s going to be alright.

Someday I’ll be embarrassed about all of this like Goethe was about The Sorrows of Young Werther, but it feels important right now.

So I guess whatever happens next, here’s my account of why I can’t cut it in Japan, and why I’m going to move to Taipei and study Chinese and take so many pictures and sit in my favorite cafe and listen to Asakawa Maki all day, and I’m going to breathe easy for the first time in three years.


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