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East to West: Gently, Gently

February 26, 2013

By Angela Jeffs

There is so much I could get stressed out about.

No, start again Angela, and this time be honest: There is so much I AM stressed about.

It began not with my time here alone, nor my aunt’s death. It began with Akii’s arrival on December 28. Not that it is his fault, please understand. It is me, not him: my totally unreasonable reactions to suddenly having to share a space that I had learned to fill so comfortably over the previous months. It was my mother’s home. Then it was mine. Now it is ours.

Of course for the first week or so, everything was novel, spiced with relief and pleasure to be over the hump of visa-related bureaucracy, be together again. Poor man: he was exhausted, physically and emotionally drained from all the fraught business of shipping house contents, closing down household services, and saying sayonara to his relatives. There was also the cat…

Tora (meaning tiger) had been with us for 14 years. Much as it would have been convenient to find her an adoptive home in Japan, she was family. We angsted much over which decision was the most cruel: hand her over to new owners, or bring her with us. In the end, we decided to stay together, and Akii brought her with him, albeit on a different flight. Meeting him off the train from Edinburgh, luggage in one hand, cat basket in the other, having travelled half around the world over three days, he was stumbling with jet lag and anxiety (having missed his connection in Edinburgh he’d to wait an additional two hours in freezing darkness after travelling all day),  and Tora catatonic.

Catatonic. I’m laughing at this wholly unintentional pun. But while true – she hardly moved or made a sound for the next 48 hours –  it was far from funny at the time. Poor creature. Had we done the right thing?

Have we done the right thing in making the move at all.

This is the question that neither of use dares speak; rather it hangs unanswered in the air as the weeks pass. A question that so easily could become angry and divisive. But as Akii sleeps and slowly recovers, and I try not to resent having to re-schedule my quiet easy undemanding  life to accommodate proper meals, thick black Japanese hair clogging the shower outlet,  mens’ clothes and  computer cables all over the place, and a cat that insists on sleeping on the bed right through the night, there is an answer to my prayers. Snow.

While plummeting temperatures brought us huddling together, two major snowfalls carried us slowly and beautifully into silence and stillness. We watched from our windows as the world outside softened and slowly disappeared, and the effect was wondrous: all extreme of emotions and thinking fell away, dissolved. We were back in the moment and all was perfection.

Yet each time the snow thawed and the outside world slowly came back into focus, I could sense irritation returning. Akii had never lived in the country, so I had to teach him everything, from the names of birds to chopping logs and laying fires. Also I had to do all the driving; he had a licence, as do so many of Japan’s so-called “paper drivers” but had never driven in 40 years. So I was busy, rarely able to start any kind of my own work, even if I could identify what this work could or ought to be. Whereas he, lucky beggar, began translating almost immediately, with the switch from one country to another relatively seamless and (once we had the broadband sorted out) undemanding.

Yet as Akii appeared to be finding his feet, telling everyone he met how much he liked living here (what I call the initial Alice in Wonderland syndrome of experiencing a new country and culture), I felt increasingly lost. Rather I see-sawed from happiness to despair, delight to disgust. How could I be so disgruntled and unkind. I remember thinking one day after snapping at Akii , snarling at Tora and swearing at the phone (I rarely if ever swore in Japan) that I was a far nicer person in the East than I seemed to be in the West. The thought made me upset and sad… made me want to go “home”.

But I am home, this other home, for the time being at least. And really I have nothing to complain about. We live in a beautiful place, with relatively clean soil, water and air. The natives are friendly, and we are even beginning to make the odd friend or two.

Really, I am pleased that Akii likes my tai chi class enough to want to join in. (I am, I am…)

I am delighted he wants to come absolutely everywhere with me, whether it be shopping or taking stuff to the recycling centre. (I am, I am…)

I am thrilled to be sharing our newly built office space (called the “O-shotei”, meaning laughing bush warbler’s hut, after Akii’s rakugo storytelling name), even though I have always had my own study and he mutters non-stop as he works. (I am, I am…)

The list of adjustments to be made is endless, and far from easy. But there is a way.

I need to soften my view: make a concerted effort to look at our new world with gentler eyes, as if through a veil of snowflakes that fall to calm rather than smother, quieten rather than deaden, and keep me moving forward with warm appreciation rather than freezing our relationship to death. Easy to beat myself up about feeling so less than welcoming and irritated to be at such a loss as to how to reinvent myself here. Yet really, what a waste of time and energy.

All will come right in its own good time, as it is supposed to. Not today, not tomorrow and maybe not even next week, when the container of our household effects is due to arrive. One hundred and 20 boxes of what? to go where? All steps along the path of course. I just need to stop resisting, stamping, trying to run before I can walk. Gently is the only way forward. Moving as lightly and delicately as the deer that pass by over the land outside while we sleep. Their hoof prints are always there to see. But only just.

I must learn to take things easy and be less hard on myself, leaving as little trace of this challenging rite of passage as possible.

I must remember the old proverb “Gently, gently (softly, softly in some books) catchy monkey”, originating in Colonial India as homesick British soldiers tried to catch potential pets, but now used to describe a slow and patient approach to a problem with careful consideration rather than rushing in reactively.

Germany has a similar proverb, which neatly translates as: “With patience and spit one gets the midge (gnat/mosquito)”.

Both some how fit the bill. Except – in this case perhaps – the spitting.

Late summer 2012 writer and journalist Angela Jeffs moved from Japan, where she lived for 25 years, to Scotland from where she reports monthly on how her life is changing. This is the fourth installment. See here for part one, here for part two, here for part three and here for part four.


About the author: After training in theatre and Laban dance, Angela Jeffs stepped sideways into London publishing. She worked freelance as an editor from 1973, then reinvented herself in Japan as a journalist and writer from 1986. She was a weekly columnist for The Japan Times for 22 years, and Japan Correspondent for Asia Magazine in Hong Kong from 1989-1996. Her book Insider's Tokyo, commissioned from Singapore, was published in 2001. Since 2005 she has been developing and facilitating a programme of therapeutic creative writing under the title Drawing on The Writer Within ( Her latest book, Chasing Shooting Stars: A South American Paper Trail into the Past, was published in January 2013 and can be ordered via
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