At the edge of the horizon

At the edge of the horizon
At the edge of Japan

Saturday, May 14, 2011

another world, a different path (a non-Golden Week series post)

As previously noted, I live what seems to me like half a world away from mainland Japan.  When I first arrived here on 石垣島, I felt severely isolated from most of civilization.  I was depressed that I didn't have much of an option in terms of escaping what I thought was a provincial city in a rural area of Japan.  It wasn't really a case of immediate culture shock or the kind of homesickness that strikes you like an undercut to your stomach (which is sort of how I felt on the second day -- and every day after -- that I woke up in HCM City, Vietnam many years ago).  No, this was a complicated mix of feeling lonely, frustrated and isolated from city life.  It had everything to do with adjusting to island life, which is something very new for me.  I cannot count the four years in Manhattan/NYC as island life.  Though NYC loves to isolate itself in a self-absorbed ball of energy and convinces its inhabitants that there is no other place in the world like it, it is by no means an island like Ishigaki.  The next large city near my island is about an hour away by jet plane.  So, yes, there is only one city and a variety of smaller villages around the island.  Because I'm so far away from mainland Japan (approximately 1200 or so miles away from Tokyo) and because Okinawa has its own culture that is distinctly different from most of mainland Japan (especially the Japan that most foreigners dream about in their geisha and samurai, Cosplay, Maid Cafe culture, Otaku, J-Pop, manga and anime fueled fantasies), I had to adjust my original ideas of how my life would be in Japan.  

Geisha in Kyoto (photo via Wikipedia)

And that adjustment took time.  It's hard to imagine how much of your own self-identity you have to rearrange when moving to a different environment, but since I moved here I feel in many ways like I had to let go of parts of my former self (both good and bad parts) and in essence I had to jump to a new pathway in my life (a path that was less urbanized, less cosmopolitan, involved less in an art/theater/dance community than I had hoped for).  I had to make due with the fact that this year would not be a year where I'd see new works of dance or theater on the streets of Ishigaki (unless I stretched the notion of theater/dance and performance as an everyday life sort of thing, which I normally do but let's just define it less encompassing), or be able to go to a museum or gallery and see the latest movie even.  This was hard for me and the more I struggled with it, the more upset I was for having come to Japan in the first place (I felt that I was completely on a path that was so far removed from the art career I had been attempting to have).    

Teaching the students as a job didn't bother me at all.  It's an enjoyable experience overall (much better than any office job I've held).  Is it a life long career?  Probably not.  What bothered me was having very few people I could relate to artistically.  I had to look out via the internet to do this and for me, while I enjoy internet based performance/art/writing and I know plenty of artists whose artistic career is internet-based, I need liveness.  I need to feel like I have a community in the city in which I live.  I need to feel exhilarated by city life.  I didn't feel like that and I didn't feel like I had much support from the few foreigners who I'd been thrown onto this island with.

I've long felt though that I haven't had much support in terms of an arts career.  I have been told many times by that I should channel my artistic drive into hobbies while pursuing more practical pathways.  I think this happens all the time for those who want to make a life of their artwork.  The idea of "making it" is built into the archetype of the struggling, impoverished artist.  My biggest issues though have to do not finding the right person or people as catalysts for collaboration (I work better on a team, though I enjoy the solitude of writing).  I have to admit that internally I never felt my work was exceptionally good or at the place where I wanted it to be (due to self-confidence issues, internal perfectionist criticism, lack of positive feedback (though I have received some from those in my life who have supported me) and lack of funding/money to create what I wanted to make or have time to create what I wanted to make instead of working 50 hours a week).  Such is the life of those in the arts, especially in NYC.   I mentioned once to a good friend here in Japan that I lacked a senpai 先輩 in NYC (though I guess the Western equivalent of "mentor" is much more intense in terms of its meaning), and thus I felt somewhat lost in terms of self-direction.  I guess what I was really facing though was a coming to terms of letting go of something from the past (this desire to be successful -- ie top-notch, famous -- as an artist/writer I suppose).  What I've found instead in this year is an understanding that the internal struggle that I came to this island with was coming from the years I'd spent in NYC (and before that) and was fueled by a mindset that promotes a consumerist mentality towards art-making and demands so much from those in the arts, yet rarely pays for the blood it demands.  It's a myopic way to see the world and I think it affects the artwork that's created in NYC (I'm not the first to comment on this).  It's one of the big reasons I left to explore other places.

After feeling the initial disappointment from moving to this small island and feeling that I had to give up my former life, I started to understand that what was here in Ishigaki and what made it unique were its cultural traditions that are still actively pursued as part of everyday life, as opposed to being only ceremonial as they are in other areas of Japan.  The students in my schools actively learn traditional Yaeyama buyo (folk dance) and I'm involved with a dance company here that regularly produced shows to packed houses.  People here dance and sing (after drinking enough) at parties and their dancing and singing styles involve a dance form unique to this region of the world.  I realized that I am moving slowly away from a very competitive, assembly line production approach to making work (which I learned to do while in NYC), to embracing a more honest, slower approach that doesn't seek extrinsic rewards or reputation.  What I am learning, slowly, is to approach my life with wonder and to hold onto the wonder I experienced when I was young (the same wonder and excitement that I see in my students', especially the elementary students', faces). I'm also learning that there are many different ways to approach life, arts careers, love, etc. and the idea of the successful life can be measured only by the person living it (whether she or he ultimately feels fulfilled) and that requires the ability to move outside of the comfort zone, to see things from a different perspective, and to be honest about things with yourself.  It's a process I'm still working on...

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