My first impression of Japan as I approached Narita airport was its similarity to my native state of Northern California (that’s the part of California which is more like Portlandia and less like every show you have ever seen on TV about California) It has the same hilly terrain, the same precise, rectangular rice fields interrupted by orchards; however, as we touched down on the runway I was reminded that I was indeed in a foreign country as we blew past a long line of Japanese characters punctuated with a large Japanese flag which had been presumably been cut into the grass beside the runway to welcome us to Japan.
Once I arrived in the airport I was struck by how quiet it was. Here I was in one of the busiest airports in the largest city in the world and it was almost silent. This was good because I decided to deal with jet lag by not sleeping on the flight to Japan so I had been awake for 27 straight hours by the time I arrived and my entire nervous system was feeling a bit shaky. (As unpleasant as this sounds I have to admit that it is an effective strategy for dealing with a nine hour time difference. )There were people everywhere but they managed to get things done without the yelling and screaming that is so popular in American airports. It was like watching an airport in the US with the sound on mute. In twenty minutes I was fingerprinted, photographed and entered into the Japanese immigration system, I picked up my luggage and declared that I had nothing to declare but then came my first real test. I had to exchange my dollars for Yen. Dealing with people in a language that you can barely speak or understand after going an entire day without sleep is a surreal experience. It reminded me of how much of human interaction is playacting. I pretended to understand what people were saying, they pretended that I understood what they were saying and a few “domo arigatoes” later I walked away with an envelope fill of Yen.
The drive home from Narita was another eye opener. Narita, like many airports, is actually pretty far from the city that it serves. So my initial views of Tokyo looked like any other large city anywhere in the US. If it were not for the Japanese writing and the fact that many buildings looked like they had been assembled out of a huge set or grey and black legos, I could have been in downtown Milwaukee or Minneapolis. However as we moved into the city I began seeing some familiar landmarks like Tokyo Disneyland, the Tokyo Tower, the Rainbow Bridge and the Diamond and Flower Ferris Wheel which are the things which most foreigners associate with Japan. It was the beginning or rush hour so I could see groups of people walking out of their offices onto the trains for the trip home.
I hate to repeat clichés but my first impressions of Japan are full of them. During my first hours in the country I was impressed by the vastness and cleanliness of Tokyo and the friendliness of the people here. In the next few blog entries I will be getting a bit more specific about some of the unique aspects of life in Japan which you probably will not experience as a tourist
The US is a nation of immigrants but why do people look at me funny when I tell them that I am emigrating?
In the US we pride ourselves on being a nation of immigrants, if you ask almost any American they will go through their entire lineage listing the various countries that their ancestors came from complete with their dates of arrival and reasons for coming. Even people who want to close the borders can play this game. Americans like this idea because it appeals to the idea that we have of ourselves as a tolerant, open nation that a lot of people want to come to. In fact so many people want to come here that we have had to build a wall between the US and Mexico and create a complex beauracracy called ICE to keep people out. The US is such a desirable place to immigrate to that we are the prom queen of nations and despite our negative birthrate we can still be relatively picky about who we decide to let in.
But how accurate is this picture? While we are still a desirable place for new immigrants things have changed a bit since the economic meltdown of 2008. According to a recent article in The Atlantic “Why So Many Americans are Emigrating from the US” we are currently running an immigration deficit with a number of nations including Mexico. So it seems that Mitt Romney may have gotten his wish. All joking aside, this change is due to a number of factors including relatively slow US economic growth compared to a number of Latin American countries and higher living and medical costs for the elderly which have made countries like Belize and Costa Rica attractive destinations for retirees. In many ways this is good news since it means people are less likely to immigrate because things in their home countries have improved relative to the US.
Also the world is becoming more inter-nationalized (in the sense of “inter-connected” or “inter-related”) which means that the US is not longer a center which simply absorbs people from other countries but the movement of people now goes both ways. While this may be a blow to our national ego or ideas about American exceptionalism, it is simply an indication that the US is becoming more like other countries (or perhaps that more countries are becoming more like the US). In fact, according to the State Department, there are currently over 6.3 million American citizens living abroad which is about 5% of the total population and this statistic does not include military personnel.
However, despite this trend, emigrating still seems strange to people. When my daughter told one of her friends that I was moving to Japan her response was “Japan? Who does that?” To which my daughter responded “My dad” as if this is just another personal eccentricity like my fondness for iced coffee and fruit smoothies for breakfast, or the fact that I spent my 49th birthday at a Kendrick Lamar’s Lollapalooza aftershow. But I think people’s objections go a bit deeper than that. Emigrating seems almost disloyal or ungrateful, it is like an insult to your country of origin and America’s sense of self. So many people go through so much to come to this country why would someone want to leave? My own reasons are very complex and I will not go into all of them. Part of it is a desire for a relatively comfortable adventure and a desire to experience another culture by actually living there rather than breezing through as a tourist. But much of it is my own sense of the US as an inter-national country and the opportunities that it has opened up for me as an English teacher. Although the US may be less central to the world, the English language has certainly become more central to it. English teachers are now more in demand than ever in countries like Japan, India, China and South Korea and the EU because English is now the lingua franca of international science and business. This has meant that my unique skill set is now more in demand abroad than it is in my own country where I often feel like an overeducated loser. Also it is my feeling that in the next few years most of the interesting things politically, culturally and economically are going to be happening in Asia and moving to Japan will provide me with a front row seat for these events.
So in reality there is nothing as American as emigrating. It is simply an extension of the same spirit which motivated my ancestors to come to Pennsylvania from Germany in the early eighteen century and motivated my parents to move from Pennsylvania to California in the nineteen sixties. As more opportunities open up for Americans abroad, emigration has become the newest expression of this spirit.