I am going to admit something that is very embarrassing for me: this weekend was lonely.
Let me explain: feeling lonely feels like a failure. I’m a pretty outgoing person, who has learned that the best way to make friends is to be the one to say hello first. If I show up at a new place and feel lonely, I am clearly not charming the population the way I hoped. But this lonely feeling wasn’t the feeling of being at home, with no invitation to the proverbial ball. It happened when we were out, exploring and adventuring and surrounded by crowds of people everywhere we went.
Do you remember a time you felt lonely in a busy place? That feeling, maybe, of being a college freshman and going to your first party. In the age before smartphones, you showed up to the party together with a crowd of fellow freshman, giggling-yet-nervous, and stuck to each other like a pile of burrs, each desperate not to be left alone, because being alone was like a social kiss of death. Once at the party, of course, you became separated from this group as you spread out to pour a drink of fire-tasting red juice or water-tasting light beer, or to find the line for the ladies’ room. You clutched that red Solo cup and looked around the room, heart knocking, knowing it was so obvious that you were alone, wondering what to do, who to talk to, where to go to to blend into the wall or furniture. You wanted to look busy so that you didn’t look alone, and maybe you found a poster on the wall next to you. That poster, that life-preserver of a poster, made you feel a little less alone for a moment, because reading it gave you a purpose, instead of just standing there, looking around at all the strangers around you as they talked danced laughed.
Sometimes, being in Japan, I am very lonely in a busy place. We live in a city (around two million people), and so when we leave the house we are rarely alone. Sapporo is full of wonderful parks and activities for kids, so we spend much of our weekends outside exploring these gems. Parks here are beyond the typical playground: some have giant yoga balls for kids to roll up and down hills, pogo sticks, giant slides, bikes to borrow, woodworking shops where kids can use hammers, nails, and wood to build, water play areas, and more. Many homes in Japan are small, and almost no one has a yard. Therefore, everyone needs a good place to get their kids outside on the weekend, and parks are full of families. These families are, almost without exception, Japanese.
Um, obviously, right? I live in Japan. Of course these places are filled with Japanese families. What I have come to learn is that up here in Sapporo, foreigners are pretty rare. There are tourists, to be sure, but most of them can be found in the museums and tourist streets downtown, or at the ski resorts that ring the city. Very few foreigners live in this city, and therefore very few foreign families wind up spending their weekend hours at the parks or playgrounds accessible only to car traffic.
What that means is that we are somewhat of a spectacle. In a land of petite, dark-haired women, I’m 5’11”, with curly blond(ish) hair. When I show up at a restaurant, a park, an onsen (hot spring), or even a Starbucks, with my two blond children in tow, we are the elephant(s) in the room. Children and adults alike turn to look at us, sometimes smiling and nodding our way, sometimes staring open-mouthed. Sometimes they cast furtive glances to check us out. I imagine these people are judging us, noticing all the ways we are breaking the strict social customs of Japan. I imagine that if I strike up a conversation, they will not have the patience to survive my slow and simple Japanese language ability.
Nowadays, thanks to my iPhone, I don’t need to find a poster– I can look busy at any time. Instead of reading and rereading a poster tacked to the wall, I can text a friend, play a move in Words With Friends, or dive into a book on my Kindle. When I feel my heart knocking at the thought of trying to say hello, when I smile at a mom near me and then flush with fear that she will speak to me, I can just dive into my phone to relieve the anxiety. There is a socially acceptable way of hiding in plain sight, and I cling to it like a security blanket.
Yesterday we ventured to the local indoor water park. Pools, giant slides, waterfalls: it was paradise. The three of us, alone together in a sea of strangers, played, chased, swam, splashed and laughed. Until my daughter piped up, “Mommy, I want to make a friend.” She is six, and her Japanese language skills include “hello”, “thank you”, and “pink”. Not exactly the required vocabulary to make herself a new friend. “Please,” she begged me, “Please come help me talk to someone!”
And there I was, standing waist-deep in water, clutching my virtual Solo cup and looking at the strangers around us as they laughed, splashed, and played. How could I tell my daughter that it was impossible? How could I tell her that we should just blend into the background and try to look busy? So, I looked down at her. “Okay. Let’s do it.”
We approached a child who was playing alone. My heart knocked. “Want to play tag?” I asked in Japanese. His eyebrows furrowed. My ears flushed.
“Huh?” he asked.
“Tag,” I repeated, kicking myself for forgetting the Japanese name for the game. My daughter and I mimed tagging someone, running away, and being chased.
“Oh!” he exclaimed in Japanese. “You mean onigokko?” He smiled a big smile. “Yes! You’re it!”
I threw down that Solo cup and we were off, my daughters and I, chasing and splashing and playing in this pool full of strangers, but no longer alone.