O Canada!

I may be a lot of things but one thing I'm not is a piner. Stop any Singaporean living overseas and ask what he or she misses about home. I guarantee you the answer will either be "food" or the name of a specific dish groaned with desperate reverence. A former American colleague of mine in Tokyo ate lunch every single day at Subway, not because she loved their sandwiches that much but because she sought something comforting and familiar. In contrast, I just spent the last week in Canada and didn't see rice once, and could not imagine any Japanese acquaintance of mine tolerating such an "ordeal" without making a break for the nearest fast-food Chinese takeout only to completely freak out at the first taste of long grain or, worse, Uncle Ben's. I don't make fun of such miseries. I can only be immensely grateful that despite living in a foreign land, where some of the things I love are unattainable, somehow I don't seem to care mind.

I suppose my easy contentment is due in part to a monkish tendency toward self-denial and an avoidance of overindulging. For example, I don't shop much, so when I do buy even the simplest things, I can become unnaturally gleeful over, say, new underwear with multicolored frolicking whale print--oh, come on, don't tell me that doesn't sound wonderful. Indeed, before I got married, my most sophisticated argument against the institution of matrimony was: would you really want to eat chocolate cake every day, at every meal, for the rest of your life?--my fair choice of chocolate cake indicating that it was possible to have too much of even this ultimate treat. Incidentally, I don't see my husband that often because he's always working (he's a "salaryman"), so in my case, marriage is more like chocolate cake every weekend for the rest of my life, which sounds pretty good to me.

This doesn't mean I don't know how to go all out when a fleeting opportunity presents itself. So while I was in Canada last week--mostly Vancouver and a little Whistler--it was Nostalgia Fest 2005 and I did my best to savor all the things one wouldn't find in Japan, and in the process found myself thrilled anew by things I'd forgotten and would have missed, were I the missing type.

What did I enjoy? Uh oh, I feel an unordered list coming up.
  • cars stopping for pedestrians at crosswalks -- that's right, they stopped for me. Every time. The first time this happened, I was torn between awe and an arrogant realization of my own pedestrian power. In Japan, this sort of thing just doesn't happen. If you're thinking of coming to this country or you're new here, please do NOT attempt a zebra crossing if there are any approaching vehicles. I think the Ministry of Public Works just had extra cash to burn at the end of the fiscal year and thought some road fresco would look pretty because that cute stripy pattern holds no meaning for Japanese motorists.

  • hanging out with old friends, watching videos but not really watching because you're too busy laughing and talking at an annoyingly loud volume (having lived in Japan about four years now, I'd forgotten just how loud and annoying I can be).

  • whole wheat bread -- I *love* whole wheat bread, the denser and heartier the better, but unfortunately it is a rare commodity in Japan owing to the Asian palate's preference for light, white, fluffy stuff. I completely stunned my friend's mom and later overheard her relaying my plight to a flock of Canadian ladies--"[collective gasp] No whole wheat bread?" And, violins.

  • the tap water -- at the risk of gushing, I need to shout out: Canadian tap is the best water I've ever had! I'm one of those stingy types who refuses to pay for bottled water, so I guess I have no right to complain, but frankly, the tap water in Japan is pretty well chlorinated (the first few times I leaned into my water glass, I was instantly transported to the rec center swimming pool of my childhood). In contrast, the water in Vancouver is so good it actually tastes sweet.

Well, those were the big mentions. I know, you're probably blinking and saying to yourself, "Friends, bread, water... that's it? What kind of sad person is this?" What can I say? I'm a simple woman with simle tastes. Just call me Brother Rachel.

If you're still not convinced, I should explain that Vancouver used to be home, from the time I was nine until I left at seventeen. I didn't really need to do the whole tourist circuit this time round. I wanted merely to see the plain, everyday things I'd left behind. I remember when some friends and I stepped into a Safeway supermarket my first day back, I shouted out ecstatically, "Oh, this smell!" and earned us a look from a nearby lady. It wasn't good or bad, just a smell that once used to mean supermarket to me. There were so many basic things I'd completely forgotten about Vancouver: how high the trees loomed, the sight of the mountains encircling the city, skies so overcast you could believe you'd never see the sun ever again, the old lady statue seated on a bench in Stanley Park, Burnaby, Lonsdale Market, Mmmuffins, Caramilk bars--a mix of the extraordinary and ordinary, but nothing that had entered my thoughts in over a decade.

I'm afraid I wasn't born with the roomiest cerebrum and I simply don't have the shelf space for mental knick-knacks that clutter up the place. Things that can't be immediately used are ruthlessly gathered up and buried in some hole, unlikely to ever see light again. I was trying to explain to a friend, who was shocked at how much I'd forgotten, that because I've moved around a lot, I simply can't afford to cling to what I leave behind or I'd never be able to deal with the present. She accused me of being uncaring, but I think I'm just pragmatic.

For example, seeing my friend, whose marriage I had gone to Canada to attend, was for me, a bittersweet experience. We hadn't met in years, and I was glad that despite all the time that had passed, she still considered me a good enough friend that she wanted me to be her matron of honor. But having to eventually say good-bye to her reminded me that we live in separate worlds. We might email and even meet again, but we'll never be a part of each other's lives the way we were when we used to live in the same town.

In Japan, I know Japanese people my age but they're my husband's friends, they will never be mine. I don't know if it's the language or something else, but no matter how many times we meet, there is a gap that seems unbreachable. The people I do consider my friends are foreigners and I've yet to meet one who intends to live here forever. Eventually, everyone wants to go home. I could be disturbed by this. I could miss every friend I have ever said good-bye to and think, I'll never have friends like that again. But what would be the point?

Maybe I come across as hard-hearted but I learned a long time ago the value of letting go and not looking back. So maybe I don't care as much as I used to about anyone or anything, but unfortunately I'm more at peace for it.

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She's Baaaaack!
I think you are definitely pragmatic as opposed to uncaring. Friends, bread and water are basically the stuff of life--it makes sense that you would not-miss those things. I challenge anyone to live without one of them for a while. (You know, "bread" in the wider sense.) Anyway, I am so glad that your rare gift allows you to be happy where you're at, and to enjoy your weekend chocolate cake and your less-than-permanent friends. Welcome back!!! 

from Jessica

3/08/2005 11:55:00 PM  

Ah, I totally know what you mean.

When I was living in DC people would often ask if I miss Vancouver (for some reason people in DC seem to think that Vancouver is heaven on Earth even though most of them have never been there...or maybe because most of them have never been there).

Anyway I have always tried to explain the odd paradox I live in whereby I don't miss Vancouver when I'm away from it but when I go back I can't stop saying...'oh how I miss the trees' and 'how am I managing to live without a view of the ocean'. Indeed I only really miss having these things as a part of my daily life when I'm in Vancouver and confronted with them every morning as the mist clings to the tops of the trees and spreads across the waterlike gift wrap allowing momentary peeks of the presents inside.

The same goes for friends and family...when I meet up with a friend I haven't seen for years I start thinking about how great it would be if we lived close by once again, but when we head in different directions I certainly don't pine for them every day (not to say that I'm not jealous of all you people in Japan who get to experience Rachel's adventures with her first-hand).

It's odd how we do seem to adapt, as if we almost make a subconcious decision to accept our lot in life and only miss the things we can't have on the rare ocassions that we can have them. 

from Jaime

3/09/2005 12:50:00 AM  

I am baaaaack, Jessica! Oh, no, "less-than-permanent friends"--how sad! Oh well, who wants to read about someone whose life is so gosh-darn happy and wonderful all the time, right?

Jaime, living in the same neighborhood as you would be great--for heaven's sake, what does Montreal have that Tokyo doesn't, I ask you? And Bert could totally speed skate for Japan.

I'm sorry we didn't have a chance to resume our usual inane, irreverent conversations (gold vs. silver...remember?). 

from Rachel

3/09/2005 11:32:00 AM  

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

3/09/2005 11:33:00 AM  

Hey! You're back! Sounds like it was a good trip-down-memory-lane holiday for you.

Re moving on. It's just a coping mechanism, although different people use it to varying extents. Given our mobility these days, I wouldn't call it being hard-hearted at all. You do the best you can with the here and now. 

from Hsin

3/09/2005 12:39:00 PM  

Okay, it looks like I'm ruthlessly erasing people's comments left and right, but it's actually Blogger.com going crazy again and sticking multiple copies of comments all over the place. I just got rid of the extra ones.  

from Rachel

3/09/2005 05:15:00 PM  

Hey, I totally know what you mean about the supermarket smell. You know, when we first visited Vancouver, Jason and I, not even married yet, decided that we'd retire there. There's just something about being surrounded by mountain and ocean.

BTW, even though I am going to leave Japan sooner or later (probably sooner than later) you can always count me as a friend, no matter where I am. 

from Lynn

3/09/2005 06:41:00 PM  

Hey Rachel,
Good to have you back. You didnt hit Tim Hortons like most of my friends did you???LOL 

from keona

3/10/2005 07:02:00 AM  

Hi Hsin-Li! Yeah, I had such a great time, what with all that unlimited tap water. But truly, I wish I'd had a few more days.

Lynn, wow, I can't believe someone else noticed the supermarket smell. I gotta say, I think Vancouver would be a great place to retire, as long as you don't mind all that rain.

Aw, thanks for offering to be a more-than-less-than-permanent friend! I hope you'll hang around in Tokyo a little while longer though. After all, your kimono dressing time still needs a little work doesn't it? Uh huh.

Keona, as a former resident of Canada, I feel it is my duty to tell you that one's "always got time for Tim Horton's." Ummm, actually, I didn't stop by, and to be honest, I don't think I ever went while I was actually living in Vancouver. Have your friends told you about the "addictive" coffee?  

from Rachel

3/10/2005 11:20:00 AM  

I know how you feel. I think they should stop whining. That`s the point of moving abroad. You have to give up some familiar things but you get a whole lot more in return. 

from quaisi

3/14/2005 04:30:00 PM  

Hi quaisi! Ah, well, I don't fault those who miss home. If what you left behind was so wonderful that nothing else can compare (and you can return to it), then I think you're a lucky person. But it's true that I cherish all my experiences, and although not every move I made was wise, I'm glad for each place that for a small part of my life became "home"  

from Rachel

3/17/2005 01:19:00 PM  

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