Tokyo swallowed me up in one neon-flashing, subway-mobbing, impossibly bright and impeccably-styled gulp. I live here now. I say the words carefully, letting them roll over my tongue (trembling from a day of stumbling through the staccato fortress that is Japanese). I’m glad to be seen carrying grocery bags down the alley behind my apartment- it means people know I live here.
Were I merely a tourist, I surely wouldn’t be grocery shopping, buying my tiny food to store in my tiny fridge in my tiny room. I’m proud to wait in line at the market, the pharmacy, the ward, I’m proud to be attempting to infiltrate the biggest city on the planet, knowing that if I pushed any further east, I would start wrapping around the globe, and be heading towards home again. But here I am, head spinning, blood pumping the inexhaustible soundtrack of the city into my veins. House music maybe, or some syrupy, digitalized, genre of the future. I am perpetually over-stimulated in my new life here. My eyes are never not straining, my brain never not processing. And I am constantly reading, reading, reading.
When I first arrived, all the signs, advertisements, and notices were nothing more to me than a random combination of lines, swirls, shapes, and designs. Nothing written held any meaning for me, which led to immense frustration, confusing, and disorientation. Yet I diligently kept studying the characters, writing and rewriting them on every available surface, a sort of mania that led my hand right off the paper I was working on. Finally, one day on the train, I looked up at an advertisement, neurotransmitters fired in the way they’re supposed to, and I found that I could sound out the words written in front of me. It was painstaking at first, testing my motivation and patience, and I can’t quite describe the sensation, but the world around me had suddenly become accessible, no longer the overwhelming, mysterious Babylon that it had been. That’s the day that I began walking into things.
Anytime I saw a sign, an advertisement, even a menu posted outside, I craned my neck to read it. I read everything, slowly identifying and sounding out each character, then stringing them together, and finally attempting to glean the meaning as a whole. This frequently required me to stop walking suddenly in my tracks, thus causing a pile-up of throngs of busy Tokyoites behind me, or better yet, caused me to walk directly into a stationary object in front of me as my head was still turned and my mouth still mumbling incoherently and excitedly to myself. Having been here for several months now, I still read everything I can, though I’ve learned not to injure my self or others in the process.
And when I’m not reading the entire city, I’m breathing it, sweating it, squeezing it, tasting it, cradling it, capturing it, seducing it, and grasping it, preparing for the day when I’ll have to remember it.
- Alina Alter, Philadelphia – Tokyo