Tuesday, July 14, 2009

first post: on being a foreigner

A good friend calls and says, "So I guess I'm not applying for OPT."

OPT is optional practical training, which allows those of us who are in the US on the F-1 (student) visa to experience working up to one year. Though getting OPT doesn't mean you can stay here for longer than one year, not getting it means you're leaving for good. Well, unless you're planning to come back or to get married to an American.

I shrug, knowing my friend won't see it, and say, "Okay."

I should be sad, at least sentimental, considering how much time we've spent together, but things like this don't register right away. What I feel for now is more of emptiness. As my "international" friends left one by one for their countries, I felt as if they left holes in my life here, one by one. My friend will be leaving the last one, and it'll be big, for sure. I may feel alone, almost. Well, not alone. I'll just be back again at the point where I started.

When I first came here for grad school, I was probably the only foreigner in the program. At least I was usually the only one in class who spoke accented English. I struggled. I made friends. I got by. I was always conscious that I was Japanese, a foreigner, but I wasn't really aware of that consciousness. Until I moved to the next program where I met other international students.

They were from Taiwan, Korea, Japan, and all over, and were mostly comfortably foreign. They spoke their native languages like it was normal. And now I see how natural it is, but at that time after two years of trying not to sound like a foreigner it felt utterly odd when I had to speak Japanese to my Japanese classmates.I almost wished I didn't understand Japanese so I didn't have to think about how I should sound in Japanese to people I'd just met.

But soon, I got used to it. Speaking Japanese and being a foreigner. That was me, after all. To think about it, I never wanted to belong to America. Yes, I do want to be good enough in English to function sufficiently and not to be treated disrespectfully. Yes, I enjoy American things, some of them, and I like my American friends. But those are the things I would probably enjoy in Japan, and those are the people I would probably be friends with in Japan. I never had any desire to become American. When people asked me if I was from here, I winced secretly. I was happy to be a Japanese who enjoys living in America, and my foreign friends let me be just that. My Japanese-ness didn't stand out because I was Japanese, and it was okay if I acted a little more Americanized once in a while, because, after all, that was where we lived. It was a nice feeling to be one of them--us; it protected me like a cushion from the feeling of alienation that you cannot help but feel sometimes in a foreign country.

So now that most of them have gone back, and the last one is leaving soon, I feel like I'm suddenly losing the comfort zone. I think of my friends, how happy they seemed, while sad to leave the place where they'd spent a few years, to be going back to their own countries. How funny it is that all the people I made good friends with who are from other countries are the ones who were certain about leaving America. None of them wanted to belong to the country where we met. None of us. And yet I clearly know that I'm going to stay here longer, or at least try to do so. If I feel the same way as they do, if I don't want to belong here, why do I even want to stay?

Then I realize after all I don't dislike being a foreigner.

A friend who had gone back to Korea told me, "Back in my country, I feel I'm facing reality. Long Beach was my paradise." Is America a paradise for me? No. Not really. But then, is it reality? Maybe. Maybe not completely. It is reality in the way that it's here where I'm trying to build my future. But it's not reality in that there's always this feeling in the corner of my mind that I have Japan if anything goes wrong. I'm a fortunate foreigner who has a place to return to if America fails me, and that makes my life here less of reality, if not paradise.

And in that way, Japan is sometimes too much of reality. I belong there too much. It's the country I was born and grew up in for most of my life. It's where I left all the things that tied me down to whatever I wanted to be free from. I'd rather be foreign than to completely belong to the place I live in if I could avoid that inescapable sense of reality. Being a foreigner gives you freedom.

So I live on in America, for a little while at least, and I'll try to write down how it turns out and what I see.