The Magic of Exchange: A True Taurean Story

Leaving home didn’t hit me until the end of the last open mic in my hometown (Monday Night RUPO) I’d attend for a while. The entire night was truly beautiful. I was graciously showered in so much love from the people I absolutely adore, and when it came to an end, I wanted it to repeat over and over until I was literally sick and heaving and hiding in some corner wishing I was someone else.

That was not my first attempt at time control and most certainly would not be the last.

As a triple Taurus (sun, moon, mercury in Taurus…born on an eclipsed Taurus new moon), I hate change. The thought of it makes my skin crawl. But then, I found myself ready to touch a new ocean. And when I say ready, I mean that I spent two years and one week (to the date) prepping myself for this trip. I had never lived outside of the Inland Empire (the IE) before. I love the IE. It will always be that place I’m returning to, but in order to return, I have to first leave.

Months before leaving, I was sitting outside of a poke restaurant in Riverside, California, with a dear friend talking about my trip. The more questions she asked about it, the more visibly uncomfortable I was. Being the good witch she is, she, without criticizing my discomfort, grabbed my hand, looked into my eyes, and said, “Micah, I know you’re scared. You’re doing a scary thing. It’s okay to be terrified. You’re leaving the only home you’ve ever known, and so many people never make it out of the IE. But you must go. You deserve to go. You labored for this for a long time. And you’re ready.”

And so I left, on the day of an eclipse. I left behind everything I knew, my family, my loved ones, the poetic stage I had built around me, my community, my favorite foods and clothing. I left the beautiful California sunshine for a humidity I had no idea would be so suffocating.

I hugged my family, I boarded a plane, I sat for 10 hours in a middle seat between two snoring Japanese men who could neither speak my language nor understand my story. I had no idea that the frustrating feeling of being confused and isolated was just beginning.

I crossed the Pacific my ancestors had already crossed generations before me so that I wouldn’t have to. The plane provided statistics the entire flight, and, being the anxious human that I am, I checked those obsessively every few minutes. Somewhere over the Pacific Ocean (starting point: LAX, destination: Narita Airport, outside air temp: -50.4F, distanced traveled: 4771 mi, distance remaining: 800 mi, time since departure: 8 hours 39 minutes, time remaining: 1 hour 45 minutes), I wrote a poem (the first of many). I wish I could share, but it’s currently tied up in a poetry contest that I’m waiting to hear back from. When I do, I will share (promise).

View from LAX

View from the Pacific

View from the Pacific

When we landed, the sun was still shining, and upon taking one step outside the plane, the humidity grabbed my entire body in a nonconsensual hug that lasted the entire rest of summer. I sweat. I sweat like I had never sweat before. The next few days were a blur. We got off the plane, were shuffled to get our bags, handed residence cards, passed through customs, hurried onto a bus, and sped (on the left side of the road) towards Tokyo for JET (the Japanese Exchange and Teaching Program) orientation. The bus was noisy as many new ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers - the official title of my job) grasped for possible friendships in this unfamiliar world we were now immersed in. I was quiet. After sitting in a metal space ship for 10 hours while we were hurled across the ocean, I didn’t have any energy to speak to anyone. I didn’t understand how they did. But this was the first of many things I would not understand (I now have a list that keeps growing and growing). I thought about my ancestry. I thought about what it would have been like to cross that ocean in a boat the way my family did so many years before. I thought about what would pull them to a country like America. What promise waited for them there? What now waited for me in this vibrant, green country that left my skin sticky and my hair a messy frizz?

Tokyo orientation was a wave of too much information for the human brain to absorb. Battling jet lag, I tried my best to pay attention but often slacked away to day dreams and checking the time at home. I hadn’t yet changed the watch my mom bought me as a going away gift from California time to Japan time, but it wrapped around my wrist like a gentle reminder that from 5,000 miles away, home was still holding my hand. The little of Tokyo I was able to see in those 3 days of orientation was magnificent. So much unlike home, there was no trash on the side walks, and everyone (except me) seemed to understand which side of the pavement to walk on and where to go in this beautiful harmonious dance. Those 3 days were full of gomen nasai and stumbling aimlessly through a gigantic city that spoke a language I didn’t understand.

Then, I boarded a bus and was off to Fukui Prefecture with other new JETs. To be completely honest, I had never heard of Fukui before I was placed there, and the many hours of research prior to leaving told me that Fukui was known as the happiest prefecture in Japan and was full of gorgeous rice paddies and dinosaur statues.

Upon arrival to Fukui orientation, I was again showered with more information that I could not possibly begin to absorb, and then I had my first non-hotel-food meal since coming to the country. I went to my first izakaya with older JETs in Fukui city. That was a great night. I finally got some questions answered and made a few friends.

Arriving in Fukui Prefecture for the first time.

Arriving in Fukui Prefecture for the first time.

Days later, I met my supervisor from the school I would be working at for the next year. The people who gave the orientation told us to memorize an introduction speech in Japanese to say to our supervisors upon meeting them (because first impressions were everything in Japan). I stayed up most the previous night trying to memorize it, and when I fumbled my awkward Japanese introduction to my supervisor, he, more confused than impressed, said, “Huh, you have nice pronunciation,” and then spoke to me in fantastic English for the rest of the day. He, along with my predecessor (the American who’s house and job I was taking over as she left back to America), drove me from Fukui city to Mihama, the city I would be living in for next year (or two, depending).

My first impression of Mihama was the smell of saltwater in the air. I had never lived by the ocean before, and the salt-smell rushing into my lungs provided me with some sense of love. As I was again given more information, toured around my new school, shown my new house, and told how everything worked, all I could think of was how badly I needed to be alone. I’m a super introvert, and spending over a week surrounded by humans I didn’t know with absolutely no alone time was a true nightmare. I wanted so badly to go inside my house, shut the door, close the curtains, curl up next to my suitcases, and listen to the silence. And I eventually did.

My first night in my new house, I cried. I was sleeping on a very thin futon (a Japanese mattress that goes on the floor and can be rolled up for more space or to be aired out to prevent molding in high humidity), and it was the most uncomfortable sleep I’ve ever had against hardwood floors. So, I cried until my eyes ached in their sockets because I didn’t know what else to do.

I hate change. It makes my skin crawl. It keeps me up at night. But, I also desperately need change. Stagnancy is the closest thing to death for me. Living in the same space for too long buries me in my emotions, and I have a hard time breathing. Plus, what is the purpose of life if not to change?

And this isn’t a story to say that you must face your fears or that change is necessary. This is more a story to say that sometimes you have to defy your nature because there is magic in exchange. All of the love and familiarity and comfort that I sacrificed to be here is and will come back to me. Every relationship back home that I potentially wounded by leaving will either strengthen or sever but will also be met with even greater friendships and experiences than I could ever hope for. Every delicious favorite food that I will not taste for as long as I’m out here (like Mexican food….oh, god) will be equally met with a delicious and new favorite ancestral food that makes my tastebuds scream, “Where have you been my entire life!” And every tear poured on this new soil will sprout the seeds my ancestors left for me here. Eventually, they will grow into shade trees and blossom fruits that will nourish me through any and every obstacle I am faced with. That is the magic of exchange. That is the magic that tugged at my soul for years to pull me away from the home I was so comfortable in and bring me to this new one that I am so quickly falling in love with.

This is the story of my transition. Thank you for witnessing.