cultural ptsd

“We’d like you to introduce yourself first in English, then in Japanese,” came the request.
I was facing three strangers in a room whose defining characteristic was that it simply had none. Stark and barren, manufactured and blank, I sat uncomfortably in a similarly indistinguishable suit, and commenced to distinguish myself by choking spectacularly.
Because while mixing the two languages together comes naturally, when asked to switch – in seconds – from rattling off bar certifications in English to doing something similar entirely in Japanese, I start to sound like a drowning child with Tourette’s. My brain shut down, that time, and I spent an eternally slow second moving my jaw silently, groping for words I knew, deep down, weren’t there (though, I figured, it didn’t hurt to look). All while being stared at by people I had met less than five minutes ago.

It comes as a surprise to many that I am barely literate in Japanese. I cannot read a newspaper or write a coherent paragraph about even the simplest concepts, but can converse enough to deceive people into believing I am a “normal” Japanese person. I lack the accent that my sister has developed after too many years away from Tokyo, as well as any external signs that I am not entirely of this country. This has led to numerous embarrassing episodes in which I am forced to stumble, verbally blind, through simple, daily interactions. Most recently, at my local bank, a teller kindly showed me the characters to copy into the relevant spaces as my hand shook, my face flushed in shame. “Look,” I wanted to say, “I’m not really an idiot. Really. I promise. I just never got around to learning my own language. But I’m not useless in English! No, I mean it. I passed the bar…two bars, actually! That means something, right?” But only able to convey so much, I pushed down the peeking tears of embarrassment, thanked her, and walked out into a street that seemed too bright, too crowded, and too overwhelming for my small words.
This struggle to express myself is – putting aside my lack of a scrotum – the more emasculating and disenfranchising because words are my chosen medium. The ease with which sentences can flow from mind to typing fingers, the catharsis of hitting all the right tropes, the allegories articulated by alliteration…all become mangled or nonexistent when I attempt communication in my alternate language. The pressure builds further as I look as if I should belong here – those freckles I work on all summer fail to suggest foreignness and only inspire pity at my blemished complexion – the façade slowly giving way as furrowed brows press together for simple vocabulary and my grammar disintegrates like dampened rice paper.

“Oh, that’s just culture shock,” some people might say. “Don’t worry, you’ll get over it.” And it’s true that we are all allowed some time to hide under this all-encompassing excuse for our respective inability to adjust appropriately to a different culture. But if they are implying that there is some finite period after which one recovers and emerges with an understanding of what has occurred, my linguistic ball gag is more akin to a full-blown case of PTSD. The frustration slips into my decidedly unilingual thoughts, tripping up thought processes with guilt, and translates into even my writing. My usual rote escape, a week or two has slipped by before a comment from Josh forced my hands back onto the keyboard. But the words are now tinged with a measure of guilt because I cannot do even half of this in Japanese. It brings to mind how I once coyly, lightly quoted Sage Francis – “This ain’t a good impression, but I work better on page/They say words are my profession” – only now, unable to mop up after myself, to feel the heavy irony of those lyrics.
And linguistically muted, there has been a companion stranglehold on any desire to push the pedals, my cluelessness as to ride routes underlining another loss of freedom. Hesitant to ask for yet another guided ride, yearning for the lost ability to swing a leg over my bike and head confidently towards a familiar route, I have chosen to [ironically] spin resolutely in place. It doesn’t do much for my legs, or my lungs, but it gives me a brief hour to dream to a sunrise, before facing the perpetual frowns of unfulfilled expectations.

Back in that sterile room, scrutinized further by the glare of fluorescents, my interviewer asked me what I missed most about the States. For a split second, I was chasing Dave N., Jeremy, and Chris through a typical New England summer, the wind softly teasing the robust greenery around us. I could feel myself squinting up at the sun before standing up in the pedals, realizing I was close to getting dropped. “Nature,” I replied, a little lamely, because there was no way to express the sweet smell of bike rides, friends, and a favorite boy. “Good,” came the reply, as if satisfied with my feigned detachment from my former life. I smiled as I kept the door firmly closed on the threatening flood of homesickness, consciously resisting the pull towards a place other than lonely, and feeling – for the first time in weeks – an intense ache distinct from the blunted, dull sensations of my current day to day.
I kept a cautious hand on that emotional door until we all bowed, said our “thank you”s and finished with our formalities. As I boarded the train, I tried to concentrate instead on the straps of my bag digging uncomfortably into my shoulder, on how tired I was, and how I was out of tissues, so crying wouldn’t really be practical, at least not until I got home.
But I still thought of Boston the entire way back.