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BEYOND THE PAPER SCREEN / Expats face difficult decisions whether to return home or stay abroad

By Sawa Kurotani /Special to The Japan Newsこれがまあつひの栖か雪五尺

Is this it?

Home half-buried in snow

To end my life in?

Haiku by Kobayashi Issa

(Translation my own)

I believe I was in high school when I came across this poem, written by the 19th-century haiku master Kobayashi Issa at age 51. I had enough imagination to sympathize with Issa’s ambivalent return to his snowy rural home after decades of disaffection from his family, but I realize now that the mental distance between us back then — the aging poet who had lived his life in travels and a teenager who had never left home — was too great for me to overcome. Thirty-some years later, its significance hits me closer to home than ever.

Through my childhood and teenage years I lived in the same little house where my father and his family had lived since he was 19. That was not unusual in Japan back then — houses were passed down from one generation to another, and people stayed put in one place for the most part — especially in old neighborhoods like the one I grew up in. The very first time I moved in my life, I was headed to a college dorm in the United States. Even then, my true “home” was always in that little old house.

Since I became a permanent resident of the United States, I found that home-bound life is not peculiar to my childhood environment or to Japanese culture. Contrary to my previously held stereotype, the majority of Americans, who are themselves descendants of immigrants, preferred to be near their family and live close to where they grew up. We might even venture to say that it’s a common human tendency. Even in the days of hunting and gathering, humans pretty much stuck to a well-defined territory and lived in a kinship-based social group; and as soon as they learned to grow their own food, they quickly adopted sedentism as a way of life. In the current era of globalization, people still hold on to the sense of home and move only when there is a persuasive reason.

Back in Issa’s day, during the time in Japanese history when people were closely bound to their places of origin, I imagine that being sent away from his home in Shinano (today’s Nagano Prefecture) to Edo (Tokyo) would have been like going to a foreign country. He was alone in a strange city at age 15, floating from one apprenticeship to another for nearly 10 years, until he finally found his raison d’etre. By the time of his father’s death, he was a significant figure in Edo literary circles, successful enough to support himself as a full-time poet. Yet, he was compelled to go back to his estranged home and claim his birthright.

His return was, on one hand, a moment of triumph: He fought successfully to receive his inheritance and was going home as a nationally recognized poet with an enthusiastic local fan base. On the other hand, it must have been a bit of letdown, after years of flamboyant life as a traveling poet, to move back to a remote village in one of the snowiest regions of Japan. I can almost hear him exclaim: “What the hell was I thinking? I struggled so hard for so long to get buried in this place for the last years of my life?” Or perhaps, it was the gap between the nostalgic memory of home to which he yearned to return, and the stark material reality of homecoming.

His problem, ultimately, was that he had two equally imperfect choices: staying in Edo, where he never felt completely at home despite his literary fame, or going back to the home that pushed him away in his youth. This is a quintessential problem for those who have lived their lives in multiple places. As I write this essay, a very close friend of mine, who also came from Japan and has lived in the United States for over 30 years, is preparing to return permanently to Japan. The circumstances of her homecoming are far more positive than Issa’s. She carefully prepared for comfortable retirement, and she has a place in her hometown where she can stay for as long as she needs or wants. Most importantly, she has friends and family members who are looking forward to having her close by. But I also know that she had her own set of questions and concerns that stemmed from being an expat, and that she debated for quite a while between two imperfect choices before finally deciding to go back home upon her retirement.

Her upcoming departure evokes in me as mixed and contradictory a set of feelings as Issa’s return home. As a friend and a fellow expat, I want to support her decision any way I can, and sincerely wish the very best for her new life back in Japan. At the same time it is difficult to say good-bye to this special friend. I will dearly miss our trips to Japanese grocery stores, silly Japanese banter, and long conversations into night about our experiences living away from home. It also reminds me that I, too, will face my own choices down the road. I think I know what my answer will be, but who knows? The only thing I’m sure of is that, after living in Southern California for so long, I have no chance of surviving in six feet of snow.

(The next installment will appear on Oct. 20.)

■Kurotani is a professor of anthropology at the University of Redlands.Speech

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