Christine Piper on the Journey That Changed Her

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Jul 21, 2016

by DI WEBSTER, Managing Editor

On exchange in her mother’s homeland, the New York-based author reclaimed her identity.

My parents met in Japan in the ’60s. My father was an exchange student at a Tokyo university; for a short time he was hosted by my mother’s family, as one of her sisters was studying English and wanted someone to practise with. There’s a photo of him taken during that period, which I love: standing on the docks in front of a Japanese shipping container, dressed in Reservoir Dogs-style sunglasses, shirt and trousers, his tie flying in the wind.

When I was 17, I decided to follow in my father’s footsteps and spend six months in Japan on exchange. Having just completed Year 12, I yearned for new experiences and the opportunity to stretch my wings.

Above all, I wanted to find myself. Growing up in suburban Sydney, I felt ambivalent about my ethnic identity. In primary school, my sister and I hid our bento boxes and demanded our mother make us Vegemite sandwiches instead. We tolerated family holidays in Japan but preferred Australian summers and lazy days at the beach.

SEE ALSO: Where to See Cherry Blossoms in Japan

In high school, I secretly felt different to my Caucasian and Asian friends. Perhaps it was because we weren’t part of a Japanese community – the culture was always there, haunting the edges of my existence, yet out of my reach. I decided that living in Japan would allow me to reclaim the missing piece of my identity. With enough time I’d feel complete.

But soon after I stepped off the plane in Nagoya, I realised my mistake. In an instant, I had shed my compact 165-centimetre frame and quiet demeanour and become a gaijin: a lumbering foreigner who talked too loudly and blew her nose in public. The first few weeks of my stay were a crash course in Japanese decorum. I tried to hug my host family when we first met, accidentally wore indoor slippers to the bathroom and received cold glares when I ate snacks on trains.

Haafu [people who are ethnically half-Japanese] were everywhere – smiling coyly in advertisements, giggling on TV – but they seemed a world apart from me with their long legs, doe eyes and lilting Japanese. Occasionally I passed for a local but as soon as I opened my mouth, the illusion disappeared.

I’d expected to be shaken up but I didn’t think I would have to build a new concept of myself. In the absence of anyone I’d ever known, I was forced to reassess every facet of my identity. Why do I like the music I like? Why do I dress the way I do? Is it innate or simply what my friends back home are into?

There was so much about living in Japan that I loved – the food, the festivals, the spirituality – that I exhorted myself to stay. I got lost on a mountaintop amid a blaze of autumn leaves. I soaked in an outdoor onsen while snow fell around me. In Kyoto, I cradled a sacred rock and made a wish.

But, after six months, I was relieved to return to Australia, to my mundane family and my friends who wore corduroys and Cons and listened to Nirvana. Somewhere along the way, I realised that the half-formed, ill-fitting version of myself was already complete. 

SEE ALSO: John Birmingham on the Journey That Inspired Him