As a slightly weird, overly well-read child growing up in New Zealand, I was about eleven when I realized that I wanted to live somewhere else. Clutching my little red British passport, I realized I could.
I can’t really pinpoint where it came from. It might be from bullying or not being good at sport, or not really having the competitive edge that honed my whole family. It might be from my British immigrant mother, who pined, palpably, for museums and history and old friends. It might have been Enid Blyton. All knew was, after university I was out of there.
I left for Japan less than one month after graduating from my law degree without much in the way of a backwards look. I had a family home that I could pile all my books and abandoned notes into and a family who I knew would travel to see me, so boarding the plane didn’t feel as momentous as it could have. Maybe more to the point, I had a devoted boyfriend of four years who was ready to follow me, even though I had savings and a job and security and he had none of the above. I sat on the plane and watched the entire first season of Glee. I thought “I’ll watch the second on the way back”. And then I realized I wasn’t coming back.
I spent my first three weeks in Japan without him, lying in my underwear in my first apartment without flatmates, in the 30-degree heat, listening to the crows. I went to the supermarket and wandered down aisles of kimchi and brown sauce in brown bottles, then returned to my house with beer and Frosties. Japan was inimitably, amazingly foreign, and nothing prepared me for the sensation of having that foreign-ness turned back upon me in the form of thousands of pairs of confused, interested and hostile eyes. I had thought, before arriving, that I was toying with the idea of Japan, but I was the toy. Boyfriend arrived, my job started, I settled in. I made some friends – very few Japanese people – I took lessons in the language, I diversified in the supermarket. I made it my home.
Japan isn’t a country that accepts foreigners easily. I loved it there; I couldn’t love it more, but I had an expiry date. It didn’t come up when the earthquake struck Tohoku and hundreds of messages from people flooded in, convinced I was among the thousands of dead. It didn’t come up when someone stole my bicycle or when I accidentally ate mushroom and prawn custard, or any one of the tens of times I slipped over on the ice. It didn’t happen when my boyfriend broke up with me, and left.
It happened when I realized that two years of teaching was enough for me – that for me, the learning I was experiencing just by living wasn’t enough. It happened when I looked at my bank account and realized that I could handle a few months of unemployment in my holy grail, London. And yeah, it happened when I got a British boyfriend.
I live in London now – I’ve been here for nearly two years. Moving here proved more of a shock than Japan ever was, because it was so familiar, so culturally like my homeland, and because I was so, so lonely. In a city of millions of people who could talk to me, so few of them wanted to. I found a job without difficulty, and a place to live, but friends came slowly. Now, settled, with friends of my own and suburbs I know, I feel at home.
When I write it down, I know how it looks – these aren’t the movements of an intrepid traveller. Breaking it down, where the hell is the bravery in moving across the world when you do it with someone who would move worlds for you? Leaving people and places behind hurts less when you bring someone you love with you, even if that love, and that person, changes. But it still hurts. And parts of it still feel brave. The realization that I will never again know the feeling of being in a room with everyone I love is hard. It’s the hardest thing I have to deal with, and I have to re-swallow it daily, and I know that makes me lucky, ultimately.
Nowadays, I think I know where I belong, but I’m not sure. Everything I know is spread across three continents, in almost even proportions. And I’m no nomad – a nomad is someone who can pack up and leave and create a whole new life wherever they are. I’ve never completely managed the packing up part. I’ve left pieces all over the place.