I've been home seven months. I really can't believe it. It feels more like two years have gone by. I haven't really written in this space in a personal way more than once or twice since I left Japan. I've looked back on those entries in this journal several times since returning home and read them sometimes as if they had happened to somebody else, some other me that I met for a brief moment somehow, as if the walls of imperception between this world and the multiple dimensions of time and space that could exist had been torn away for a moment in my own piece of life here on earth. It all still feels incredibly real to me, and yet it also feels dreamlike more as time passes. I get caught up in the America around me, but then suddenly I can turn a corner and see the rice fields of Edosaki on either side of the road and the sweaty faces of the farmers wearing their straw hats and cloths hooding their heads away from the sun. Or I can get off the subway in New York and come up out onto a neon street in Tokyo, like I did this summer.
I suppose I haven't written much about my daily life since I've come home because, in a way, though I've gotten used to being back, I feel slightly disconnected from everything around me. I felt this way in Japan, but because I was a foreigner. I feel this way now, here at home, and I think it, too, is because I'm a bit of a foreigner. It feels that way sometimes at least. But I think I've always felt that way since I can remember. After all, we're all born into this incredibly amazingly weird world and into a life that we know fairly early on is going to end without any certainty of what's going to happen after that, and we have consciousness and live with animals in our houses and wow--let's not even get started on this language capability thing we developed. Frankly, I don't understand why more people aren't more agape and in awe of existence than there seem to be. But in any case, I think culture shock is something that develops more over time after returning home after living abroad rather than right at first. At least that's how it seems to be for me.
When I was first home I think I must have unconsciously felt as if coming home was just another trip, and it's after that feeling of being a traveler that you develop as an expatriot slowly fades as you stay in one place again for a while when the real culture shock has a chance to begin. When you've stabilized enough to look around and take in the place you've returned to, knowing finally that you're not going to leave it again anytime soon. I feel sometimes like I have the memories for two different lives co-existing inside me. My life in America and my life in Japan. Sometimes I don't know how me, some kid from a small farm in the middle of nowhere grew up to be educated and have published stories and have a novel being published and have lived in Japan and, well, lots of things. I don't know how I got to be me sometimes, is all. All those choices we make in life when we're young and aren't necessarily able to have a real concept of how choices make our future because we're just too young and inexperienced to understand that concept yet. I'm glad about the choices I've made in life. But it's still an odd feeling knowing at so many junctures it could have become something other than it is. I'm at a point in my life where I feel like I can look back on my younger self and see him, too, like that other me in Japan, almost as if I was watching someone else.
I've gone through a lot of adjustments and changes since coming back. I didn't realize how much I'd have to do that, how much energy it would actually take to figure out how to live here again. I think I just tried to ignore it for a while and pretend as if I could just slip back into a life here without thinking about it. Like I might be able to just pretend to be smooth at living, a polished person, like it seems so many people are able to do. I can put on a good poker face. It's one of my talents. But it's not really a good talent in the end, because it always leaves things I really do have to engage with--including things that have to be engaged with in the company of others, not just alone--unattended for long periods. And then at some point I get focused and dive headfirst into all that I've been trying to contain. I suppose that's what I'm doing now, lately.
One thing I thought about the other day was how, when I first came back, there were certain ways of being that I'd forgotten the codes and manners of after a long absence from their environments. The time that stands out in my mind about this sort of thing was going to Wiscon, where I was insanely happy to see many of my old friends, but where I was also just a bit disoriented and at a loss when it came to "being an author". Writers go to conventions and read from their books, talk on panels to audiences about their books and other people's books, chat with fans in hallways about their books and other people's books, and sign their books for others, and talk shop with one another, and there's a certain lingo to it all, and a range of stances that people seem to take, approaches to doing this, I mean. And I don't think it's a conscious thing for most of them, but probably a conscious thing for a few of them, and I realize this now because at some point when I was much younger, in my early twenties, just starting to enter the writing world and convention circuit, I can look back now and see I was learning a kind of language and dance at these functions, that it wasn't always instinctive, and that I had gotten "the hang of it" at some point too and not thought anything about it much afterwards.
But then I went to Japan. And though I was a writer in Japan, I did not have the sense of being an author. I realize now that, for me, I have two very different definitions for these words, and one is about the act itself and the other is about a sort of social identity that comes with certain already in place cultural assumptions attached to it. And that its is authors, not writers, who are mostly in attendence at writing conventions. And I felt at loss because I had forgotten how to do it, to be that. I gave a reading that possibly went fine but throughout it all I felt nervous and uncomfortable, not sure of myself at all. I then participated in a panel that I had signed up for, foolishly, on a whim while I was still in Japan because it was a funny idea, The Death of the Panel, which I didn't think anyone would actually take seriously. And I thought that would be a good panel for me to be on because it wasn't really going to be a real one in my mind, I think. And I was right for the first five minutes of that panel, it was just a joke. And then a woman in the audience, a bit angry it seemed, raised her hand and demanded if all we were going to do was have a bit of fun or were we really going to talk about the Death of the Panel on this panel, and then Hal Duncan came in with beers because apparently that's how panels are done in England, and then the next moment suddenly the panelists were trying to actually throw together an actual serious panel about The Death of the Panel, and Scott Westerfeld was nudging me to say something, you know, serious about the Death of the Panel, and I thought to myself, this is ridiculous, you can't have a panel about the Death of the Panel unless it's a joke, and I'm not going to let some audience member bully me into taking it seriously. I have absolutely nothing serious to add to a discussion about something that just isn't going to happen, I thought. Later I mentioned my uncomfortability about being on panels now, which wasn't the case in the past as much, to John Scalzi, and I remember saying how I didn't feel like I had any ideas of interest for panels, and he said he'd read my blog and knew I had interesting ideas and opinions, and I corrected myself and said okay, well maybe I just don't think in the way you have to think to be a good panelist at a convention. I don't like to think in front of other people, I guess you can say. I didn't grow up in a family that bounced ideas around and were thoughtful philosophers, where arguing was done civilly and sometimes just as an intellectual exercise. I learned how to do all that later in college with friends I made there who had grown up in such families.
But something that occurred to me the other night, seven months later, was that I actually do have an idea for the Death of the Panel that could be quite serious, and which I didn't hear mentioned really that day, so I offer it now. There cannot be a death of the panel without replacing them with some other form of social engagement between sf readers and writers, or without the death of conventions themselves. SF has something that no other form of writing, from what I can see, has as part of its cultural makeup: a real sense of community. And one of the things that makes that community possible are conventions, where readers and writers and editors all converge and chat intelligibly about this form of writing that they love, where they sometimes make lifelong friends, fall in love, or receive inspiration for their next story or novel and sit down to begin writing it in the hallway by the elevator as my dear friend Amber Van Dyk did at Wiscon on the last day this past year. One of the things that makes this possible are the panels. Without them, where do the readers and writers go to interact, what other event can give shape and form to this exchange for three or four days steadily, allowing hundreds of people all in the same building to engage with one another, but in plenty of different rooms listening and talking about a variety of topics? If panels die, conventions die, at least how they're conceived of at this moment in sf history. So really, I was right in thinking The Death of the Panel panel was just a joke in a way, because how can it not be? But I was wrong in thinking I didn't have any real ideas about it.
Seven months home and I'm still not so sure if I'll ever be able to be an author when I go to conventions, if I'll ever really get used to it again like I had in my mid-twenties, nor am I sure if I'll ever get back to living in America again without being keenly aware that I'm doing just that. But I'm not sure either if I don't prefer how I feel about my relationship to these things now than previously.
I think for a long time my life is going to feel like Before Japan, and After. Other than that, I'm pretty certain the the next few months and probably the next year or two are going to feel as eventful--emotionally, experientially, intellectually, and spiritually--as life was while I was living in Japan. And because of that, despite some of the disorientation of returning home, I'm looking forward to 2007.
Despite the smallness of my life here on earth and the smallness of my voice amongst all the others, I wish good things for all of us in the new year.