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Interview 2009: Surfing to Serenity

Neil Kramer takes blogging seriously. And he wants you to take it seriously, too.

That's why he used his blog to create the Great Interview Experiment, in which he invites his readers to interview each other. Last year's Experiment was so successful, that A Free Man ripped it off paid tribute. Neil has repeated the Experiment this year.

As readers of this blog will know, I share their belief that the stories we write online are a new form of folk wisdom.  The oral tradition has become a digital one.  Social historians wish they had such rich material from the past. That's why I participate.

This year, Neil's blog revealed an intriguing writer, who calls herself Long Story Longer.  An astonishing woman. 

If you zip over to her blog, you'll that her current preoccupation is learning to surf, as an adult.  She writes about it with calm and poise. 

She writes about surfing with such thoughtfulness, that any question I might ask about it would seem superficial.  So I checked her back catalogue. 

I'm glad I did. It turns out she and I were both expats in Japan at about the same time.

In my experience, there are some expats who "get" Japan, and love it.  Others find it a frustration and a misery.  I asked her what makes a successful expat in Japan.

"Hmmmm. I think the thing that makes a successful expat in Japan is close to the same thing that makes a good international traveler in general - an openness, a curiosity, an appreciation for things that are different from what you know," she began.

"Having said that, Japan is pretty weird! I've done quite a bit of traveling, and Japan is one of the weirder cultures I've explored. I think it can take an extra bit of openness. I think there's some discrimination and misogyny that runs pretty deep in Japanese culture (for many reasons), and you just have to be really open to the "different, not wrong" idea.

"I adore, adore, ADORE Japan. It's an easy place to visit and to live as an expat, and after almost four years I felt like I could have explored and enjoyed it for a dozen more years without it getting old. It was very hard to leave. I've always said it's an easy place to feel peaceful. I miss it often."

It changed her life so much, that she actually felt some reverse culture shock. 

"My transition back to the States from Japan was difficult in so many ways," she replied.  "I just felt lost. I remember not being able to figure out the credit card machines here (Japan is a cash-based society; I basically went 4 years without using my credit cards), the ubiquity of advertising almost gave me panic attacks, cell phones suck here; just so much.

There were logistical issues - driving on the opposite side of the road (this still gets me—it makes so much more sense to drive on the left!).

More important than the practical side, LSL felt some ennui on returning to normal on her return.

And then the emotional issues—feeling displaced and lost. I'd figured out how to "do" life in Japan. It took me a long time to figure out again how to do life here. I could go on and on. I think the toughest part is that no one in the US knows what you've gone through. I didn't talk or blog very much about my transition because you don't even know where to start. Repatriating was a lonely process. Therapy helped me a great deal."

If the feelings were so strong, why not work abroad again?

I would LOVE to work overseas again and hope very much that I get to do so at some point. I have a feeling I will. I'm particularly drawn to service in the Peace Corps.

However, I was overseas for almost 4 years before, and there is a degree to which it can really put your life on hold. I didn't date while in Japan, and I missed my family a great deal. It can also be difficult in small but irritating ways. I've been back for 3 years and I'm still regularly thankful for the conveniences of living in the States and for being in close proximity to my family.

Every westerner who lives in Japan has a tale of karaoke triumph, or of karaoke disgrace. I asked her about her greatest moments in front of the "Ghost Orchestra".

"Unfortunately, I don't have many fun karaoke stories. I ADORE karaoke, but I was such a sick workaholic in Japan that I only went a handful of times.

Each time, each song involved both triumph and disgrace. Isn't that part of the fun? I do remember singing Leaving on a Jet Plane with a group of Americans once. I remember thinking about the transitory nature of our lives in Japan and getting a little choked up. And I do remember bombing enthusiastically on a Backstreet Boys song. Man, I stunk. But I love karaoke. I miss those private rooms, and the phone that brings you more beer."

Though not a uniformed soldier, LSL's job in Japan was on a military base.   I suggested that Americans hold the profession of "soldier" in greater respect than many other nations around the world.  It is almost assumed that one becomes a soldier as a moral calling, rather than just another highly dangerous job.  I asked for her take on the subject.  Do people become soldiers for the wrong reasons? 

"This is such an interesting subject to me. I knew very little about the military before taking this job...managing banking offices on multiple US military bases. I learned a lot about the military, and the people in it through my position.

My guess is that people join the military for a lot of different reasons, and probably few do it to fulfill a moral calling. However, once they're in, I have a feeling it all changes. I don't know if it was the Vietnam experience or something else, but I think Americans do hold military members in high respect in general. I feel that way. It's such a tough, tough job. I couldn't do it. I take issue with a great deal about the military, but I do have deep respect for those that volunteer."

Since she knows  so many of the US bases in Japan, I asked why the ones on Okinawa have such trouble getting along with the locals, in a way that, say, Yokosuka (near Yokohama) and others don't?

"Regarding the bases issue, I think some of it has to do with the type of base (Marine, Navy, etc.) and the age of the military members.

I had some young, tough bases and those kids were getting in all kinds of trouble. It's understandably very tough on the local population."

LSL takes a strong stance against homophobia.  I asked her if it was a stance she took on principle, or is there a personal connection?

"I have personal connections to equality issues and the gay community, but I guess you could call it a stance on principle. I don't know if I'll ever understand the discrimination that goes on against GLBT people. The short answer is this: I like to hope that if I had been alive during the civil rights movement in the 50's and 60's, I would have been on the right side of that fight.

I try to take an active role in decreasing homophobia and supporting equal rights for gay and lesbian sisters and brothers because I believe it's the right side of this fight. If I say more, I won't stop for pages and pages! This is a hot button for me."

This positive and principled attitude pervades LSL's blog.  It led me to suspect she might be part of a programme like Al-Anon—she confirmed this in her About pages.  It was obvious from her subject matter: the serenity about life, the pleasure in the moment, the heartfelt gratitude for experiences both good and bad.  It's against Al-Anon traditions to tout, and against the fundamental principle of anonymity to reveal too much about yourself or qualifier.  But I was curious to hear about her personal response to the programme.  What was step one, where she decided that trying to control the uncontrollable (like your relative's drinking) was futile?

"Thanks for saying these nice things. I've been going to Al-Anon off and on (mostly off lately - I need to get back) for at least 15 years. I love step one! However, I never had a single step one experience. I have step ones over and over, sometimes multiple times a day. For some reason, admitting that I'm powerless over something and that my life has become unmanageable is so easy for me. I don't have to look very far to see evidence of that. It keeps me humble and reminds me that I can't do it alone, which is a core belief of mine - no one can do it alone. That's part of the challenge and the fun."

Learning to surf in middle age?  I asked LSL if this were a response to a mid-life crisis.   Lots has been written about mid-life crises for men, but little about the mid-life for women, lest it merely concern biological clocks and such.  Is there a difference?  Will it perhaps result in changing career?

"You know, I would say that I'm going through a bit of a mid-life crisis, but it's pretty normal for me. I've been going through a mid-life crisis since around age 8; it's just how my brain works. I'm constantly (daily!) evaluating and reevaluating my personal happiness, my beliefs, my ability to bring meaning to my life and the lives of others. It's just who I am. I'm walking mid-life crisis."

If you haven't clicked the link already, I urge you to visit Long Story Longer.  When you're feeling down, or troubled, or just jaded, her optimism is a tonic.  And to LSL, a hearty どうも有り難とう.  Long live The Phone that Brings You Beer.

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