Tokushima is my second home. It’s where I spent the first 3 years of my post-school life, and therefore the birthplace of my adulthood. I had my first “real job” there, working as an English teacher at a high school. I had my first apartment, living on my own, making budgets, and figuring out local taxes. I bought my first car, a Mazda Carol, MeLady edition. I became part of a community. I paid off my student loans, traveled to other countries, sewed quilt tops, competed in a local speech competition, and figured out how different foods influenced my mood. I gave up caring about Christian denominations and instead appreciated a worldwide community of believers. I became an expert in calculating time zones. I began to believe that I could be free of depression and social anxiety someday. I discovered a new interest in ecological living and food production, and spent oodles of time outdoors. My literary interests expanded to include nonfiction books, and I started listening to entrepreneurial and economics podcasts. In coming to Tokushima I was given a clean slate to shape my life as I wanted. I had no past identity there to live up to, no expectations for how I spent my time, and built all my relationships from scratch.
Before moving to Tokushima, I was very prepared to experience major culture shock. All the books and orientation training warned of this. Yet the only “shock” I received was over how comfortable Japan was. I had spent all of my teen years trying to figure out how to have conversations, how social conventions worked, feeling pressured to give opinions on things I didn’t care very much about, and rewiring all my introvert tendencies to fit into an extroverted world. The very structure of Japanese society took all those problems away from me. There were set phrases to cover most conversational exchanges. There were specific rules about when to begin eating, how to speak to people of different positions, gifting rules, and who pays for dinner. People care more about establishing commonalities and maintaining harmony than about forming and debating personal opinions. And finally, if America is full of extroverts, then Japan is a safehaven for introverts. All you have to do to say no to something is to tilt your head and suck in your breath a little – no questions asked. There are comfortable silences in conversations, giving you time to reflect and compose a thought. As a foreigner, no one really knew what to expect of me. I could fit in or stand out without surprising anyone. This kind of environment gave me a lot of personal confidence.
Two years had passed, and I felt a lot of emotions about coming home. Would it be the same? Would I be the same? I thought I might have become too American and no longer feel at home there. I was nervous that a new perspective might taint my nostalgic memory of this place. In my time away, I had done a lousy job keeping in contact with people. Would they forgive my negligence?
When my train crossed over the bridge to Shikoku, my heart pulsed with excitement. There I was, in familiar territory. The closer I got to Tokushima, the more things I recognized: station names, student uniforms, the seat fabric of the antiquated gas-powered trains. At Shozui Station, my old stop, a load of students wearing the uniform from my school got onto the train. I tried not to stare too obviously, but couldn’t hide the big grin from my face. Within 11 more minutes, I had reached the end of the line, Tokushima Station. Even though it’s the capitol city of the prefecture, you still hand your tickets to live humans instead of feeding it through a fancy machine.
All my fears about returning? They were for naught. The place was as beautiful as I remembered, and the reunions sweeter than I dared hope. My ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) communities had all returned to their countries, but my Japanese friends were still the same. Sure, some teachers shifted schools a bit, but they were all still in the same system, working on the same things. I couldn’t believe how little had changed. It was like returning to a living time capsule.
On my 2nd evening some friends took me to the top of Mt. Bizan, the mountain overlooking the city. I was drenched in nostalgia. Each place my eye fell was attached to a memory. For the next 3 weeks I kept busy reconnecting, revisiting, and remembering all the reasons I love this place.