The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

How many years should an expat stay? The answer is blowin’ in the wind…

Most human beings feel disconcerted when they lose the self-validating “mirror” that tells them who they are. That’s what we hear from the relocation experts — as cited by Kate Allison in her article exploring how even people who move within the same country can have something akin to an expat experience.

But in my own experience of being displaced, first in England and then in Japan, trying to live in a country where you share a great deal — ethnically, culturally, linguistically — with the natives is easier to sustain for lengthy periods. Under those conditions, it’s possible to maintain the illusion of the mirror still being in place.

After all, quite a few Americans — comedians like Ruby Wax and Reginald D. Hunter, writers like Bill Buford and Bill Bryson — have made it in England. In Japan, by contrast, although foreigners can become talento, they will never achieve the same level of belonging.

Thus when I first learned the news that Junichi Kinoshita had won this year’s Taipei Literature Award, the first non-native writer to do so in 13 years, I thought, well, no wonder. On the face of it, Taiwan should be a relatively easy adjustment for a Japanese person.

But does Kinoshita actually feel that way? Yes and no. His first impression of the Taiwanese was how similar they looked to the Japanese, and though he found learning Mandarin a challenge, he eventually mastered it to the point where he was able to write his debut novel in Chinese, and at a level that garnered it a prestigious award.

On the other hand, life in Taiwan posed a considerable culture shock as people there tend to be much more hospitable than the Japanese. In Kinoshita’s book, the title of which can be roughly translated as Dandelion Floss, five Japanese expatriates in Taipei struggle to adjust to the local culture — and when they finally get the hang of it, must grapple with the question of when (and whether) to go home to Japan.

At the end of the novel, one of them says:

I think every expatriate is following some kind of mysterious calling from their heart. There is some predestined relationship between a person and a city. One leaves the city when the affinity ends, be it a few months or 10 years, it just happens.

Kinoshita intended his book as a swan song to his life in Taipei. After submitting it to the contest, he planned to return to Japan with his wife, who is also Japanese. Now, however, they are rethinking their next step: perhaps the prize is a signal that Kinoshita isn’t finished with the city yet? Besides, he has already decided on a theme for his next work of fiction, as well as a language: Chinese again.

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