Some men are born hermits. They don’t mind spending the rest of their lives in a solitary existence.

I am not that kind of man.

Yet, in Japan I was by default. Not in the sense that I was out in a shack in the middle of forest all by my lonesome, but in my style of existence. My little house, squatted at the edge of the railroad with waving seas of green rice stalks on three sides. On the other side I had a neat little rows of brown, clay shingled houses. My neighbors. They were friendly when I saw them those first few days, smiling before getting in their cars and zooming to the next part of their lives. To them, I was just a piece of scenery, a new situation in the comfortable setting of their lives.

For me, I was in a whole new world. My bed was a futon (small four inch mattress) resting on the floor. I had straw floor mats instead of carpeting or wood. I had no chairs in my house on which to watch TV. I had no dryer to dry my clothes (the Japanese hang theirs on the line and let it wind dry). My cupboards were full of sticky rice and soybean paste for making soup. Walking outside I saw bamboo trees and stalks of corn rather than trees and grass. The Japanese pluck the grass from their fields and lawns because for them, it is a weed. Everyone I saw was Japanese, even in the cities. Japan is a homogonous culture, 99% of the people inhabiting the country are Japanese, black hair, brown eyed people speaking Japanese.

Everything around me was strange. The only English I heard spoken was the broken English of my students. Most of the meals I ate were Japanese. Fish and sour, fermented soybeans for breakfast. Rice at every meal, and plain, not covered with some great sauce or flavoring. Bowls of soup for school lunch and strange greens mixed with peanuts and vinegar. Chicken or fish on stick for dinner.

It was a strange world. One I wanted to understand, come to love, and fit into.

During the early fall I spent my evenings outdoors, exploring the town by bike, walking along the roads that spit the rice fields, or picking up every can and box in the grocery store to see if I recognized what was inside and how you cooked it. I also worked on my house. It gave me time to think while keeping my hands busy and I wanted to say something by my presence. I wanted to be more than an “ugly American.” I wanted to give, instead of looking to take, to understand their world and way of living instead of just trying to impress upon them my way of living.

I began working on the little patch of grass around my house. I crated rocks from the river bank up to my house, stone by stone, to build rock walls and pathways. The Japanese stared at me as I pedaled by fifteen to twenty times a day, my backpack sagging around my hips with the rocks that were poking out. Their eyes widened at the sight of the strange foreigner and his crazy actions. I built short stone walls around the house, and made something of a garden and a walkway and a little stone bench to watch the sunset.

After school I trotted up to the baseball field and played catch with my junior high school students and tried to whack baseballs as far as I could. Other days I went to the gym and played ping pong volleyball with the girls. After a month of living in Japan, I invited the members of my Board of Education and those people who had been friendly or introduced themselves to my house for a barbecue and a little bonfire where we could roast some Smores.

In the middle of all this activity, of trying to be a great positive influence and leave my mark, I began to grow uncomfortable inside. My nights were spent with the TV on; it was my only companion and it drowned out the growing murmur of discontent within me. If I just turned it up loud enough, or got absorbed in the Japanese music program that was on, then I might not hear what was going on inside. But in the quiet hours when I awoke in the morning and rose to take a shower, those murmurs came back to me and grew stronger.

I was overwhelmed by the so much newness. At first, the strangeness of everything seemed exotic and exciting. New people, new places, new things to explore and try and understand. It was fun trying to guess what people were saying by their expressions and how they said their words. I loved it. But soon I grew frustrated and wanted to have real conversations rather the shallow, “how’s the weather?” and “Oh, I like baseball too,” conversations.

Those days, I waited hours for the train to show up and then rode it an hour into the city searching for that element I was missing. At first I thought it was just familiarity. I went to the big city grocery stores and searched for food that was familiar. Some tacos or a hamburger. But the isles only had Japanese food except until I found one blue package. Oreos. I grabbed that package and held it high and shouted with excitement. Oreos! I don’t even like Oreos, but finding something familiar made me happy. I ate those Oreos and even hiked three miles to a McDonald’s just to satisfy my craving for something familiar.

And still the uncomfortable feeling remained. I was changing, losing that sense of myself that I had been so sure and confident of only three months earlier when I had graduated college. It was necessary to adapt and grow and change, but I didn’t quite know how to accept it or deal with it.

Winter came and the wind whipped our mountain peaks fiercely. My house was not insulated and I didn’t have central heating. I had a small kerosene heater that heated the small room that had my bed and my TV. At night I had to turn it off, one to save oil, and two so that I wouldn’t die of carbon monoxide poisoning. When I woke in the morning I could see my breath misting in the air. I would run to the toilet and jump up just as fast because the seat was cold as ice cream. After school, I came directly home and retreated to my one warm room. I didn’t venture outside because there was nothing to do and it was so cold outside. I didn’t even use the other rooms of my house because the little heater couldn’t keep them warm.

Such living does not help the feeling of isolation. My unhappiness grew. What had I gotten myself into? Why was I here again? Wasn’t I calm and collected, confident and assured back in the USA? And here I was full of questions and stinking freezing all by myself day after day now!

Sure, I wasn’t really completely alone. God had promised never to forsake and never to leave me, however God had also said, “it is not good for man to be alone” in the garden of Eden and this was when He was even physically present with Adam on a daily basis.

That thought stayed with me. All I need is someone. I just need someone to share this, this newness, this new me with. I just need them to understand me and everything will be OK. If I can have some deep conversations with them and talk about real stuff, stuff that matters, then it’ll be OK. I’ll be OK.

And so I began searching outside myself to find the answer to me. It was the wrong place to go looking for answers, but I wouldn’t learn that for another three and a half years, many tears, several heartbreaks, and some permanent marks later.

© Seth Crossman