Alan Riquelmy: Living someone else’s life
I don’t remember applying to the job.
I’d been laid off for weeks, sending emails like mad, applying to anything that paid, well, money.
Then one of those emails hit — an interview at the Japanese consulate in Atlanta. Go overseas and teach your native language. Get paid seven figures.
In yen, of course.
I thought, well, why not? It’s an interview. No commitment, just a few handshakes and a suit coat with tie.
Things got serious when they offered the job that day.
About two months later — Jan. 18, 2001 — I stepped aboard a plane that flew me to Osaka. Almost 20 years to the date of this writing, I closed a long chapter and started a new one.
Like stepping through a tesseract.
One of the interview questions had been, essentially, how I’d handle the fact that squid is sold in stores, sitting alongside some food that I’d consider normal.
A better question might have been how I’d handle living in a country whose language I can’t speak while sticking out like a sore thumb wherever I went.
You’d catch people staring at you on the train. We’d have conversations about whether you should nod to another foreigner when seeing them in public. Should we acknowledge one another for no other reason than we’re both from another country?
Gomen nasai, shirimasen.
It was a slow transformation, but it happened to all of us. You’d gawk at the world around you for the first few weeks, then you became a part of the world around you. You’d park your bicycle illegally, like everyone else, and race for the train. You had a favorite train car, because it stopped near the exit you wanted.
During cherry blossom season, you’d share beers with friends and coworkers by the Shukugawa River. The air is thick with a thousand different directions your life could go.
At first, I’d have dreams of being in America, knowing I had to reach a classroom in Japan for my job, realizing it’d be impossible to make it in time.
The unconscious mind thinking I was supposed to be in the states, I suppose. Those dreams faded after some weeks, my brain determining it was in the right place after all.
America faded as well. You could see it on a map, point out where someone used to live, tell stories about the people that might have been there. But it was on the other side of the planet. Who could tell if those stories were true, or those people real?
It had to end, though. That spot on the map called, and its song grew louder as the months passed.
I could have stayed, I suppose, content with teaching conversational English and an extended college lifestyle that paid better than actual college life. A string of nights laid out by the river, the cherry blossoms in bloom, lush and drunk, living someone else’s life.
I’d wonder about my decision, sometimes, when it rained. A sad, gravel parking lot just outside my window in a small Alabama town and the endless crush of newspaper life always descending.
I’d tread through wet pavement and get into an old car, on the way to another assignment, not quite sure what happened.
Glancing at the rear-view mirror, asking —
Who is this?
Where did that other person go?
Alan Riquelmy is the editor of The Union. He can be reached at 530-477-4239.
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