so it feels

March 15, 2019



"It still feels as though you'll return tonight and say, 'I'm home,'" my host mother writes in her text message, sent as I am riding the bullet train away from Kyoto. From the window I watch as the city grows smaller with the increasing distance, until the buildings, the people, the Kamogawa (where we sat along on some nights with our cheap convenience store drinks and aimless conversation) are no more visible than specks of dust. And the sight of Kyoto disappearing, along with the weight of my belongings—pockets protruding with four months’ accumulation, souvenir keychains clinking in synchrony with the rocking of the train—along with her words in my shaking hands, I am inundated with emotion.

The aftermath of abroad, or more generally, of growing older, is defamiliarization of the home. I feel this when I return to New York for a break after months at a time in St. Louis, and I am lying in my childhood bed staring at the stickers we had pasted on the ceiling as makeshift stars among a finite sky. My father, usually the one to think of quick solutions with his boyish snicker, suggested that though we could not see actual stars here in the city, glow-in-the-dark stickers from Home Depot were virtually the same thing. Five-year-old me was ecstatic, moved by his brilliance. Yet they are unsightly now, stripped of their light; the bedroom oppressive in ungodly hour. And if I extend my arm far enough from the top bunk, I can reach and therefore remove, but I keep them in their discolored state, peeling at the edges.

In the air-conditioned haven from the August heat that is the hotel (in which orientation took place), we wait for our host families to pick us up for the first time like soldiers off to the war zone. The nervousness is palpable; we are constantly eyeing the exit, wondering whose parents will emerge, who is next to leave. There is the furious tapping of feet, awkward shifting of weight from one leg to the other. Each time a family arrives, Shore-san calls your name from the front, and then: “Your host family is here,” her voice reverberating through the hollow storage room. Everyone proceeds to watch as you clumsily retrieve your luggage and make your way to your host family, and gives a round of applause as you stumble out the room, in the direction of your new home.

In this case, it is my turn. “Yu-san, your host mother has arrived,” Shore-san says with a hand cupped around her mouth, and I jump, convinced I still have another few minutes. Gina gives me a reassuring push forward on my shoulder, Adam bids me good luck with two thumbs up, and everyone claps and hoots as I follow my host mother—a middle-aged Japanese woman who seems to reciprocate our anxiety of the foreign and unfamiliar in her shaky smile—and we frantically dash to her car in the rain. We are met by her daughter, my host sister Risako behind the wheel; Taylor Swift is playing.

It is a lot in the beginning. The day before classes begin, my host mother brings me on a little journey: “You take this bus for a few stops,” she explains as we ride the #9, “and you get off at Horikawa Imadegawa. Then you have to transfer there, across the street.” She points to a bus stop right by a hair salon, congested with uniformed students and the elderly. “And you take that bus for two stops. Walk for about three minutes, and you’ll be at Fusokan. It’s the same buses back home. Just remember that our bus stop is called Shimogishicho, okay?” I lose her at Horikawa Imadegawa.

Another time, I am at the convenience store and as the cashier rings up my purchases, he asks whether I need a hukuro. At first I think it’s a matter of mishearing, so I ask him to repeat himself, and he does. He does so a few more times, actually, and each time I fail to catch that single word. Confused by my East Asian face yet inability to comprehend him, he at last resigns and takes out a plastic bag, pointing to it. He asks again if I need a hukuro. I laugh nervously, and I tell him I do not; I have not forgotten the word since.

There are then, of course, the first times, in which we are cycling repeatedly through our names, where we are from, what we are studying, what we like to do in our free time. A lot of small talk, modest laughter. Going to stylish cafes and bookstores, shopping around for clothes and stationery downtown, and happening upon shrines in the neighborhood, all of which is new; we ask the ema for a happy semester abroad, draw omikuji with hopes of good fortune. I go to bed each night wondering what to expect for tomorrow, a sort of childlike apprehension yet excitement.

And so, when did it all become routine? Second nature? I wake up promptly a little past eight, study for the daily Japanese quiz while shoveling rice into my mouth, and shuffle out of my slippers and into my shoes as I leave the house with an ittekimasu. Then there is the early afternoon, in which we recharge with snacks and tea from the local convenience store, work in a classroom or the library for a bit before calling it a day. Sometimes we make a quick karaoke stop before going home, or take a spontaneous walk in the ongoing city in which we come to have favorite songs to sing (“Lemon,” always), favorite routes to embark on, embedded in our memories. “I can’t believe it’s only been a few months,” Caitlyn says once, as we saunter through the sleepy streets on a humble night. “I feel like I’ve known you guys for years.”

In the final weeks of the semester, there is only talk of how little time there is left. Itsuka, we all keep saying—someday, when you return to Japan, we will be able to meet you again. There is an odd feeling in believing that you will see someone once more, but not knowing how long it will be before then. “If Moe gets the teaching job in America, in maybe and hopefully California, you’ll be able to meet her halfway,” Yuki proposes as we consider the future of friendship in a cafe in Gion. “Or if you get a job in Japan… Or take a vacation here. You’ll come back for sure, right?”

Similarly, a month earlier, Sun and I meet her host family in Okayama for the first time, and we spend the weekend together, mostly with Kana-chan, their fifteen-year-old daughter. She takes us through the city and the nearby Kurashiki, reciprocal English and Japanese lessons and games of shiritori during the car rides in between destinations. “What’s America like?” she frequently asks with starry eyes, and so we try to conjure an image—in no means holistic—filled with our family, friends, the streets we have walked. And in turn she talks of growing up in a small but nurturing city, her best friend Yui who “is really shy when you first meet her, but funny and kind and also way better in English,” her ongoing quest in figuring out what she really wants to do with her life. On the Sunday we are to leave, we make a final round through the department store in Okayama station. Kana-chan, situated in the middle, has one arm looped through mine, the other through Sun’s, and we stroll clumsily as a collective from store to store; she holds on tightly—it is the image, perhaps, of familial-like love. “We’ll play together again,” she says with the biggest wave of both arms upon our departure and separation. “Someday.”

For a few years during the time Risako was in elementary school, my host family lived in the countryside of Kyoto. Every year or so they drive the two hours to visit some friends, while basking in the quiet of the greenery, the undisturbed night. Once, while we are sitting at the dinner table, my host family thinking of where to take me as my time abroad is approaching a close, my host father suggests: “Sylvia always mentions wanting to see stars, but you can’t really see them in the city of Kyoto either. But do you remember? In the countryside? We saw them so well then, the sky was so dark.”

And it really is. One weekend—marked two weeks ahead on the kitchen calendar in red marker—we drive past my host family’s old home, the little produce shops, the public bath, the ceaseless stretch of fields, on a sort of journey to find the darkest part of the Kyoto countryside. On a small strip of the road, close to a ledge that leads to ceaseless trees and who-knows-what below, there is an absence of cars, of people, of light. As though not to disrupt the silence holy, we emerge from the vehicle with a discreet opening and closing of the doors. My host mother looks at me with only warmth in her softened eyes, points soundlessly overhead. In the infinite sky rest boundless stars, materialized from the pitch black. Brilliantly, they glisten.

There is the childhood bedroom in New York with the faded baby blue paint, the peeling, pseudo stars; the single bedroom in St. Louis with the matching, white Ikea furniture set, shelves neatly lined with coursework and eighteenth-century literature; the lone second-floor bedroom in Kyoto (which used to belong to the son Yosuke before he moved out) with omikuji (some good, a few wonderful, many bad) accumulating on the etched desk (Risako’s name infiltrates somewhere underneath), 30-yen photos printed from 7-Eleven (thank you Gina for the discovery) lining the wall. “When you grow older and if things become difficult,” my host mother continues in her text message, “don’t forget that you now have a third home here in Japan to which you can always return.”

And I am thinking—even three months after, sometimes—it still feels as though my host mother will knock on my bedroom door as I am studying during the night, enter with a cup of cocoa and sliced persimmon, and tell me to keep working hard as I do. The humid Kyoto air lingers with light laughter. So it feels.