During the month of February I volunteered at an animal rescue in the mountains of the Kansai area of Japan as one part of my study abroad program’s curriculum. Living in Tokyo causes one, no matter how inborn an amicable country bumpkin, to come to view others as bags of meat whose lone reason for existence is as an impediment to you, whether you are on your way to class, to go out drinking, or to the bathroom. Indeed, my bowels discriminate against those I consider less than human.
Coming from a small New England town myself, I had reached something close to critical mass. Crowded trains and oblivious cyclists had become all too familiar; I would have been grateful for one of the two to put me out of my misery. A month in a depopulated and green area was just what the proctologist ordered.
I was faced with the usual questions from the staff. A white ogre like myself is a rare sight at such a place, and one who can speak Japanese is rarer. I made it clear I could communicate from the start, but most of the people I worked with were young women, making the gap harder to bridge. I still don’t know if they believed that I could speak Japanese. No matter how many times I struck the MacArthur pose they did not laugh. This was the so-called yamato damashii I had heard so much about, and truly its depth was impenetrable. Luckily the hearts of animals do not change with the soil, and the best medicine for a white American with wounded pride is walking a dog who pulls like hell and shits every thirty seconds. Dogs are about as stupid and prone to self-harm as I am, and they say that birds of a feather die together, so as one would expect I was mentally prepared for a variety of situations. I was also allowed an hour of “play time” with cats of my choosing every day. One would expect cats to be the more relaxing of the two, but irregular exposure to humans left them with too much pent-up energy and so they flocked to me like the underaged and unemployed flock to a Bernie Sanders rally. All things considered it was easy work, but tiring in some ways.
Trips to the lone convenience stores were met with unabashed stares of amazement. To be faced with the embodiment of the Occident is nothing to sneeze at; the way they stood their ground should be admired. Somewhere along the way, perhaps triggered by brazen microaggressions such as these (I feel so attacked right now, ugh!), I mysteriously came to miss Tokyo. The town had metastatized deep within my body and no countryside was quaint and folksy enough to halt its advance. My suspicious rural outing had run its course. After several detours I arrived back in the capital by mid-march, and have been here ever since. All that’s changed is that my room no longer faintly smells of vomit. I have learned to hold my sweaty, potential-first-step-on-the-path-to-becoming-a-sex-offender commute in higher esteem. There is something to be said for familiarity in the unfamiliar.