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Crossing and Dwelling

16 August 2009

Perhaps its just that pure coincidences rarely make for good writing–let alone blog posts–but it seems to me that today is quite the fitting day for me to make my first post on this blog in almost a year.  I had very little control over it, of course.  Much praise is due to the folks at YahooBB for providing me the blazing fast modem that is whirring away on my desk at the moment.  But this morning, my supervisor walked into the office and handed me this:



This nifty little thing, called a Gaikokujin Shoumeisho, or “Alien Registration Card”, is something I’ve never had before.  I don’t think I’ve ever had anything close to it in all my previous travels, in fact.  After surrendering finger prints (twice), about thirty passport photos, birth certificates, transcripts, FBI Background Checks (no joke), and quite possibly my firstborn child to the draconian beast that is the Japanese Ministry of Justice, I was rewarded with this card.  I’m essentially helpless without it, as no company that offers subscription based services will sell anything to a foreigner without one.  I’m also required to carry it with me at all times.  While it rarely happens, I’m told, I can be stopped by the police at any time and asked to present my card–probably forced to eat natto if I don’t have it on me.  But when my supervisor handed me this card today as I sat at my desk in the Board of Education offices, it struck me as a tangible, laminated reminder of why it is that I am here at all.

In the past two years, I’ve certainly gotten my money’s worth out of my passport application fee.  Egypt, Turkey, Morocco, Israel, France…  I’ve been privileged to see some truly fascinating societies, and have had innumerable unlikely and transformative experiences as a result.  That I would do these things, I suppose, is the result of the value my parents placed–and still do–on traveling.  They spent months traveling through Europe during and after college, and pretty much dragged me all over the world whenever the opportunity presented itself, so it seems rather logical that I would follow in their footsteps.  But one thing that I learned in Egypt and Turkey is exactly how large the gulf between traveling and living really is.  I became so frustrated with being an academic tourist, seeing only the ancient Egypt while almost disregarding the vast complexity of what it is now.  So much of that, of course, was due to my complete lack of knowledge of Arabic, but I think what frustrated me most was the idea of trying to “see” a country, and trying to do so under pretty strict time constraints.  Oddly enough, I felt as though I was fighting the “Carpe Diem” mantra that is endemic amongst adventurous folk.  I immensely disliked the notion that in order for the journey to be “worth it” (though precisely what the ‘it’ was, I never quite understood), I needed to pile as many experiences atop each other, conquering challenges and cultural barriers en route to the finish line, at which I would be able to look back on the accomplishments, and know that I was a different person for having had them.  It’s a perfectly understandable way to look at things, I think.  After all, I still thumb through my passport on occasion and get a slight rise in my chest, a little glow of satisfaction, when I see the accumulated visas and stamps.

I’m very thankful for all of those experiences, but it’s safe to say that by the end of my time in Israel, I had pretty much had it with the sort of travel I was doing.  I was tired of being able to constantly retreat into the bubble of Americana whenever I felt like it, tired of the always being on the run, tired of being fearful of missing out on something.  I love to live my life at a fast, driven pace, but I like it to be at one that I set for myself.  I would like my experiences to be judged not for the amount of things I did, or things I saw, but the people I met along the way, and the openness and understanding I brought to those meetings and encounters.  The other stuff is certainly incredible, but it’s not what I really want to remember.  From Egypt, I will remember an afternoon with three incredible friends where wandered into a graveyard, and left having had a rare insight into the lives of a family making their way through very difficult circumstances.  From Israel, I won’t think first about seeing the Dead Sea, or standing in the Church of Holy Sepulchre, or standing in Prayer at the Western Wall.  I will, however, remember a conversation I had with an imam standing on the Temple Mount, and the kindness of a family who had me as a guest for a Shabbat weekend, and the soldiers who braved memories they would just as soon forget in order to share  their recollections of serving in Hebron.  I aspire to be the sort of traveler who truly brings their whole self along for the journey.

So today, when I got my Gaijin Card, I found myself thinking about how I have traveled in the past, and what I would like this journey to become for me.  It is, after all, easy to feel friction with the urgency to have ‘experiences’. Most everyone with whom I have traveled in the past has felt that way at one time or another, and I am certainly not alone in disliking it broadly.  But to actually separate myself from it is more difficult.  It’s not as though I can consciously avoid the many new, challenging, and hopefully transformative experiences that I will have during the next year (Well, I suppose I could try, but I think we can all agree that that would be rather silly, yes?).  Those, inevitably, will come at a fast and furious pace, and I can only do my best to welcome them.  What I hope, however, is that this year will teach me to see all of those experiences as being in vivid continuity with each other, with my values, and with the constantly evolving and self-refining person that I am.  I suppose, then, I have come to believe that travel, in and of itself, isn’t a valuable experience. What is valuable about it is what it teaches us about ourselves: how our perspectives and assumptions are but one set among many; how easy it is to be an outsider, and how difficult it can be to overcome that; how to contend with discomfort and isolation; and, if we are lucky, how to be fully present to those we meet along the way.  The success or failure of these is contingent entirely on ourselves, on if we are willing to consider our experiences as anything but “one-and-done”, and allow them to continue teaching us at even the most unexpected of moments.  Too often, I think, I have let my traveling exist in a bounded region, where having had the experience is the important thing, rather than what, if anything, I actually learned from it.

At Carleton, I had a professor who began a course by reminding us that history is not, first and foremost, about cause and effect, or about power.  In his words, we as students would be best served as intelligent, curious human beings–if not as scholars–by wondering, simply, what constituted a good life? I’m trying to keep that in mind as I think about the year ahead.  I won’t pretend that I will be able to even touch a complete answer with a ten-foot pole.  Learning from whatever I find about Japanese answers to that question will be more difficult still.  But then I remember: I am in the middle of nowhere, Japan; I am about as far from any major cities and major attractions as it is possible to get in a country this size; Distractions are few and far between for a foreigner like myself.  So, as the card that is now nestled in my wallet, right next to my みちのく銀行 ATM Card and Wisconsin driver’s license, reminds me, there is really only one thing left to do while I’m here in Japan: live, and make of that what I can.  There will, of course, be plenty of adventures.  And I’m sure I’ll put up plenty of “Here’s this cool thing I did today” or “look at this weird Japanese toilet” posts on the blog.  And I’m really under no illusions that I can shed my identity as a traveler–the homogeneity of Japanese society and my job as a teacher preclude that.  But if nothing else, I hope this time that my experience won’t be clouded by the sense of hurriedly passing through.  It will be a year of learning–or re-leaning–to truly dwell in a place.  Somehow, that idea has never seemed more perfect.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Emo permalink
    17 August 2009 9:06 am

    Hi Hal!! I’m sorry we missed each other in Tokyo. It would’ve been a blast to hang out with a fellow gaijin. Great post! I agree with you about traveling—it’s frustrating to string together a bunch of experiences without gaining access to how other people live. I’m back in MN now, and people keep asking what my favorite experience was. They usually have trouble understanding that no one experience stands out, but getting a faint taste of what it might be like to live there was most valuable to me. Anyhow, I hope that your experience is rich, educational, and fun—I can’t wait to hear about it!

  2. Heather and Shelly Campbell permalink
    23 August 2009 1:00 pm

    We think you are an incredible writer and an even more amazing thinker.
    Wishing you many thoughtful exchanges,
    Heather and Shelly

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