Tokyo to San Francisco: savouring suburban solitude

I hand over my passport and residence card at Japanese immigration. The customs officer looks at me, at my passport, and then looks at me again. I hear the familiar thud of yet another stamp in my passport. He hands my documents back to me. I make my way to the gate to wait for my flight to San Francisco. I breathe in and out – releasing that feeling of repression that doesn’t belong to me. Since returning to Tokyo from my trip to Beijing – each day in Japan has been a bit of a struggle. 

I’ve not been in a chatty mood the past six weeks – which is kind of annoying considering that a large chunk of my job requires me to speak for hours and hours at a time. I feel the drudgerous drain with each day that passes – but I persevere. When I finally get on the plane, I make myself comfortable in my seat. There are two Japanese gentleman sitting next to me. They give me the once over that many Japanese people give foreigners.


As if I care. 

After the plane takes off, dinner is served. The ANA flight attendants blather on in keigo – Japanese honorific language – to the gentlemen next to me. I can see the discomfort in her eyes as she makes the switch into English to speak to me. Ordinarily I would respond in Japanese to make things more cordial, but these days I don’t care. 

I’m tired of being gaigokujin

Ever since December last year, I’ve been travelling a fair bit for work – a welcome respite from the daily grind in Japan. I’ve also been really homesick lately – but I won’t get into that. 

Ten hours later, I arrive in San Francisco. I remember my first trip to the US some four years ago. The queue at New York airport stretched out like a snake from that game I had on my very first Nokia phone some 16 years ago. I’d stood in line at immigration for close to two hours. I vaguely remember chatting with a Kiwi couple that were standing behind me.

Wow – that was a long time ago. I was a different person then. I really have come a long way from where I started. I must learnt to appreciate my own journey more. 

Unlike New York, the queue at San Francisco International Airport moves quickly. Within minutes, my turn arrives. The gentleman at US immigration is polite and friendly. He asks me how long I’ll stay and where I’ll be staying. And then I hear that familiar thud of yet another passport stamp. 

“Enjoy your stay,” he says as I collect my documents.

“Thank you,” I reply.

Within minutes, my bag is on the belt and I am on my way. I make my way to the bus station to catch my bus. There’s only one bus an hour so I have to wait 45 minutes for the next one. There are two large groups of Chinese flight attendants fiddling with their phones next to me. 

When it’s nearly time, I make my way to the bus bay. A middle-aged man with longish blond hair starts making conversation with me. He looks like an overaged hippy. I tell him I’m in town for a conference and catchup with an old friend. At some point I notice his eyes. They have the look of someone who’s on something. His eyes are dazed, unfocused and a little deranged. 

I begin to do that thing that Japanese people do when they do not want to participate in the conversation. I stop making eye contact. I give ‘umm’ as a response. I nod with pursed lips occasionally. I say yes to everything he says even though I don’t agree with him at all. When the bus finally arrives, I’m relieved. 

I tell the bus driver to tell me when I get to my destination. The bus driver is friendly and hospitable. He stares at my shoes and smiles. I smile back. 

I sit far away from the hobo. He stops talking. He finally got the hint.

***** ***** will always be ***** *****. 

45 minutes later, I arrive at my bus stop. I take my bag and begin looking for my AirBnB host’s house. It’s an idyllic suburb. I smile as I walk past the cute houses with lawns and driveways. It’s been a long time since I’ve stayed in a neighbourhood like this one. After a ten minute walk, I find the house. I take the key out of the lockbox and make my way inside. 

The room looks exactly like it did in the pictures. EXCEPT – I didn’t expect the three large bookshelves stacked with all kinds of books. The shelves are from Ikea. I recognised it immediately. I had a red shelf just like it back in the day. As someone who used to be an avid book collector, I stare at the spines of each book with an indescribable longing that I haven’t felt in years. I wonder which story I should start with first. It’s only been a day since I got here, but I’ve already gone through three books.

I’m a machine with books. I really am. 

This area is nice and peaceful. I know there’s a big city out there just waiting to meet me, but I’d rather stay here in this quiet house nestled in the big open spaces of American suburbia. When I get into bed, I realise the mattress is memory foam – my favourite kind. It never ceases to amaze me that a mattress can be both soft and firm at the same time. I think of the futon I sleep in every night. I can’t say I miss it. 

I wake up the next morning feeling rested for the first time in months. I make my way out around 8am and go to one of those places that’s famous for its large breakfasts. The owner of the restaurant offers me a coffee the moment I walk in. He refills my cup once I’m halfway through. I’ve missed that sort of thing. 

Everywhere I turn, people are speaking Spanish – America’s unofficial second language. I’m surprised that I can still understand the language fairly well – considering that I haven’t spoken it in some four years. I learnt a lot of new languages in my twenties – but Spanish is my still my favourite. I hear a whole plethora of other languages, too. Some I recognise. Others I don’t. 

I breathe in and out. It’s my first time in San Francisco, but I feel at home for the first time in a while. 

The menu at the restaurant is fairly large. I’d forgotten how many variants of egg-related recipes there are out there. I end up ordering the Popeye’s Omelette: made with eggs, spinach, bacon and cheese. It comes with a side of hash browns and two slices of sourdough bread. Ordinarily, this would be waaaay too much food for breakfast, but I manage to finish it and leave with a happy belly. 

I consider going out to greet the city, but instead I go back to my room and settle in with yet another book. It’s been a long time – since I just lazed around and really had the headspace to read for enjoyment’s sake – as opposed to education’s sake. I’ve read a lot less since moving to Japan. And the books I do read are all non-fiction. I have no idea why.

There’s something comforting about being alone with a book. It is solitude at its most pleasurable. It’s like being alone, yet sharing the author’s world. There’s something indescribably magical about it.

I take a deep breath – feeling rested and at ease for the first time in months. 

I have missed the quiet suburban life.The bird chirping outside my window. Wide open streets. Families with 2.5 kids and a dog. Soccer mums with big SUVs. The crazy notion that although everything is only a ten minute walk away – people still insist on driving everywhere. 

Well – I know I’ve been a bit of a recluse lately, but I’ll get my act together in time for tomorrow. 

Till then – remember to enjoy your solitude. I know I will. 

After all – I’ll have company from tomorrow. 

11 thoughts on “Tokyo to San Francisco: savouring suburban solitude

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