A friend recently told me that I was “so like Byron.” I tried to puzzle out what she meant: A prolific poet? A notorious bisexual? A major theme in a work by Tom Stoppard? All are applicable to me, but I imagine, given the context of the conversation in which we were engaged, she was referring to the “self-imposed exile” thing.
You see, I’ve decided to not return to my mother country until the end of my contract; This may seem like a pretty commonplace choice for JETs, but it’s proven controversial with the folks back home. It doesn’t help that I don’t know when I’ll be returning yet– it might be as early as next summer, or as late as September 2020. I’m currently on the horns of re-appointment anxiety, but that’s an article for another day.
None of my friends back home accept my motivation for this uninterrupted separation, which is odd because I’ve given each of them a different explanation: I want to explore more of Asia in my time off; it’s too expensive; I don’t have time; it’s against my contract (I am not, and never have been, above lying to get out of awkward conversations). I’ve told everyone something different because the real reason is difficult to articulate.
For one thing, I need to prove to myself that I can stay away from home comforts for so long. Much like Bilbo, I need to know for certain that I am not a creature of habit, unable to go without his kettle, his armchair or his prissy little mantel. I also want the world to know these things– I want to metaphorically march back into Hobbiton, head held high, the smell of adventure clinging to me, all the locals agog at how worldly I am. I have stayed away from home for exactly a year before, which at the time seemed like a major accomplishment but now feels like it might as well have just been a long weekend in Brighton. I want everyone– including myself– to know that I am an independent person, one who needs no native land or base of operations, just a point of origin. A citizen of the world. I’ve been told that your twenties are the time to become who you want to be, and the person I want to be has been everywhere and is so comfortable in his own skin that pretty much anywhere is home.
A year or two may seem long in the moment, but when you look back, it was often rather ephemeral. The time I’ve spent abroad until now amounts to very little when compared to the literal decades I passed in Britain– I want to redress that balance and punch my life with even more of that most evasive spice, variety. At the moment, I have lived in four different countries, but that’s only two percent of the countries in the world, and really that kind of scares me. Even if I travel every minute of every day for the rest of my life, I’m never going to see even half of the planet I call home. There’s just too much of it. I need to have a good stab at at least seeing the parts to which I was given a free plane ticket.
Plus, going back home will make it more difficult to come back: when I was in France, I travelled during every half-term, religious holiday and long weekend and, while those experiences were great, it made returning exceptionally hard. Returning to Edinburgh, even for just three days, made the next fortnight in Picardy feel like a year. Now, my life in France was awful compared to my life in Japan, but I’m well aware that seeing the people you miss only to leave them again after a week is not a panacea for homesickness. As Joanna Gleason sang, “To get what you wish only just for a moment, these are dangerous woods” (she might have been talking about something else). I’ve heard stories of JETs who went back during their first Christmas holiday and never returned to Japan, kind of like the reverse of what all my neighbours said would happen to me coming here. I don’t want to be one of those people– for one thing, they have to pay for their own flight home, but, more urgently, I want to make the most of the short time I’ve been gifted here. I want to cram it so full of adventures and misdemeanours that I can’t tell some of the stories because people simply won’t believe me. I want my time in Japan to be an entire chapter in my autobiography, not a footnote.
And, on top of all of that, I want to be different when I finally come home. You don’t look at a caterpillar when it’s still in the cocoon– you don’t see the awkward stage when its wings are no more than back stubble and it’s still got its baby antennae. You just see the beautiful butterfly afterward. Japan has already changed me somewhat– for example, I’m much more aware of the dangers of cross-shoe-contamination– but I know there’s more on the way and I don’t want to spoil the surprise for the folks at home. When I was in France, I popped back so often that my newfound love of wine and my now-deep-ingrained disdain for cooking steak correctly barely registered with my cohorts. I want my post-Japan identity to land with all the force of Godzilla’s foot, frightening villages with its power and fascinating generations to come with its hokey strangeness.
Byron left because of scandal, bankruptcy and incest. None of those happened to me and, unlike Byron, I do plan to return at some point. But there are some notable similarities between us: we both gained an interest in our new lands from reading stories when we were younger; we both have no idea of our adopted home’s tongue, except how to swear; we both tried to buy children and were widely rebuffed. And, it would seem, we both left noticeable absences when we absconded to the East, so much that people have felt the need to write actual hand-written letters to us (this might have been a bigger deal for me than Byron). I know it will hurt me and my friends, but this exile is necessary for all the reasons I said above, even the one I admitted was fake. We will have to learn to be apart so that when we are together, we are all the best people we can be.
Unlike my counterpart, I plan to come back and live past thirty-six. I’d like to leave you all with a quote from Byron’s When We Two Parted which I have subtly altered:
If I should meet thee,
After long years,
How should I greet thee?
With hugging and beers