Some of my best memories span through my fifth year of elementary school. I had just moved to a new school and was once again the new kid. It was my third time switching schools since I first moved to the U.S. in 2001. Luckily (as I am now seeing firsthand), elementary kids are usually excited to have a new member on their team. I soon made friends.
Every recess, we would begin an epic, hour-long odyssey by the name of “team tag.” The game was simple: one or two people would start as “it,” with their objective being to tag all the other ten to fifteen players in the game before it was time to go back to class. Looking back, Lime Street Elementary School felt like a sprawling metropolis—hidden alleyways, grassy and concrete areas, other kids playing their own games. In this boundless arena, we were either working to methodically capture the stragglers or running for our lives until the final chime of the bell. I was a happy kid.
Milan Kundera wrote that human happiness consists of trying to repeat the past, that people long to experience the memories that made them feel a certain way for the first time. For sixth grade, all the fifth graders around the city moved to a different school structure. Its playground was fenced and cramped, eliminating any hopes of team tag. And then I moved to Mexico. Tag wasn’t as popular there. Soccer and banter took over as the recess passtime. The feeling of boundless freedom present in fifth grade became a thing of the past, occasionally resurfacing only during periods of reminiscing. Until now.
During my first visit to one of my elementary schools, the kids invited me to play a game with a name I didn’t understand. They explained with gestures however, and it immediately became clear that they wanted to play team tag. The only difference was that instead of being “it” you were an “oni,” a demon present in countless Japanese folklore. After eleven years, I got to race against the bell again. And race I did; there are some kids that I can’t outrun for longer than thirty seconds.
Running around and being silly is one of the biggest upsides to the job. There’s a good amount of leeway to how I behave since I’m the foreigner in town. I’m nowhere as busy as Japanese teachers are most of the time, and I’m not intrinsically tied to the harsh Japanese work culture. This gives me more freedom to play with the children during recess and to just be a generally goofy person. In a sense, I’ve traveled back in time.
Time has ceased to behave consistently. Ever since I stepped out of the airport in Tokyo, time has passed at an alarming rate. A day might feel like a few hours, a week like a couple of days, or three months like one and a half. I hadn’t realized how old my first blog post was until I got an email from a former professor telling me to keep it up. It’s a little disconcerting at times, the sudden realization that you’ve been living in a foreign world for a quarter of a year.
The change in my perception of time has altered some other things. Dreams have become a bit more realistic, and I often wake up in a hazy state of semi-consciousness. I get tired sooner. I’m not on social media as much anymore because I realized I lost track of time too easily. And maybe most important of all, I feel younger. It’s not because I spend more time with a bunch of whippersnappers (they make me feel pretty old). Rather, it’s all the new knowledge that I’m discovering exists.
I had previously lived in the U.S and in Mexico. That itself is one country more than many people. But adding a third to the equation has caused waves in my understanding of myself and others around me. While Mexico and the U.S. differ in history, culture, and languages, those differences were never so pronounced as to make me feel like I stepped into another world. Japan’s contrasts, however, are much bigger. The language, culture, architecture, laws, schools, restaurants, mannerisms—they’re things I had a notion of before I came but that have henceforth become tangible. The world’s weight increased, and I saw just how small an individual is when compared to the rest.
I feel younger because my size of this world expanded in a matter of weeks. Therein lies the value of travel. I don’t think the main benefit of traveling originates with sightseeing or exotic food; I think the core value appears quietly and suddenly mid-trip or after you return home.
Maybe when you’re sitting quietly on the plane or commuting in the train, the number eight billion hits you. How much do we willingly ignore when it comes to other countries and people? How much have we let the self-righteous American Dream fervor take grasp of our views? Nowadays, were a politician to disagree with the statement that America is the greatest country in the world, he or she might suddenly hit a brick wall in their political career. But it’s this self-imposed isolation that makes us fear progress.
The world is here to show. Whether we are willing to look and learn is another thing. Travel won’t magically make someone a more cultured person. I think it takes a bit more humility and a willingness to admit your insignificance. And the same theory stands in reverse. Japanese rigidity on creativeness, work culture, and gender is vulnerable to improvements. But I fear that combining the best of both worlds and eliminating the worst might be too big of a task. There’s so much ingrained in the culture and formative education that change of the magnitude I’m speaking of could be a lifetime away. And maybe we shouldn’t even try. Maybe the good things are permanently interwoven with the bad.
Luckily, change starts with the individual. The more synapses you make between people, the greater your probability of having an impact will be.
I’m curious to see how I’ll readapt to the U.S. when the time comes, to what extent the country will have morphed, and how I’ll be able to help.