By Leonid Lopez
I arrived at dawn and there were few people in the streets. It gets light here at around 5:30 in the morning and people begin work at 9 or 10. The first thing I thought was: “I’d like to live in this city.” I’ve now been living here in Ibaraqui Shi, a city in Japan, for six months.
In Cuba they say that all Chinese look the same, referring to anyone from Asia. When I arrived, the truth is that it seemed that way to me. Even before, when my Japanese girlfriend, now my wife, came to Cuba to visit and I came to meet her at the airport, I was worried that if several Asians appeared together I might not recognize my girlfriend. I made plans to call out her name so that I could be sure it would she who approached.
I can now differentiate faces and I recognize those who work in the small fruit and vegetable shop, the old woman in the pharmacy, the young girl in the florist shop and many others. Another shattered myth was that of the language.
The Samurai movies that I saw as a child and the idea held by the majority of people in Cuba is that Japanese is a language of shouts of which nothing can be understood and because of that impossible to speak, something like the German of Asia.
I now know that Japanese is spoken much more softly and varies greatly depending on the region. I can even babble a few small phrases.
Other myths began breaking down while I noticed that, yes, I could live in this place in the middle of a country so different from the one in which I had lived for 34 years. Likewise, I could have an Internet connection for the first time and connect with friends outside of Cuba who celebrated my leaving and asked me how I was coping with homesickness.
It was like a recipe where the only two ingredients had to be mixed together. Upon responding that I was neither euphoric with joy nor did I feel the least touch of nostalgia, my friends answered that this was because I had been away from my island for only a short time. All of them still repeat the same thing.
I even have an acquaintance who is preparing to go to Spain for three months; she hasn’t yet left Cuba, but says that she already feels homesick. I would have to add this idea of nostalgia to the other myths about Cubans: that we’re good dancers with beaches and beautiful women, with very good rum and tobacco, with a Fidel who is worshipped as a god by some and demonized by others and all of us homesick.
The Caribbean islands are seen as paradises, perhaps they are surrounded by this halo of nostalgia. Perhaps I’m using the period of homesickness to move around Japan with my wife, as much as her salary will allow us, in a way that I couldn’t do very much in Cuba, dressing as I like, choosing the daily meal, writing whatever I think in this site, and catch up with the whole world with all of its contradictory criteria and all with only one salary and a renewed joy of living.
I live a simple but peaceful life in a big city, since – to my astonishment and shattering another myth – there isn’t any crime and you can walk down any corner at any hour with no fear.
It was exhilarating to see how people leave their bicycles without locks in parking areas that no one watches over; they would sit there for months sometimes and no one takes them. I left a shopping bag full of things in a big market and returned calmly a half-hour later to find it in the same spot where I’d left it.
Six months have now passed since I arrived in Ibaraqui Shi and with them the time of astonishment, the time of feeling yourself to be a child again or feeling that you live in a borrowed body that they may soon take back from you.
Nevertheless, nostalgia has not appeared. Perhaps I don’t believe any more in that magic myth of the forced emigrant, forever longing for his country, or maybe I don’t need that myth.
In its place, perhaps, is a feeling of strangeness from time to time, as if it couldn’t really be true that I had traveled to another country, and that the only horizons were still the commandments of leaders in Cuba that I could never identify with.
In its place, I now live among other commandments, but I can ignore these or get to know them as my interest dictates, and move the horizon according to my effort, or my dreams. I still don’t have a clear direction but for the first time I’m happy to have fears, because they’re real fears that I can pinpoint.
I can be happy to make mistakes because I see that I am coming closer to firmer truths. I can feel sorrows and joys that have to do with my life, with the workings of my body and not with those of a mass (the Cubans) that has become stupid, concerned only about dragging itself along and being happy that way.
One thing I did learn before arriving here, and maybe it’s the only myth with which I can identify: happiness has nothing to do with who is leading you, no one gives it to you or takes it away from you. It’s a decision that is made every day of your life, even with an empty stomach. It’s the only larger sense in which I trust.
I had learned to be happy in Cuba and here I am being so, even though still without friends or family or the necessity of nostalgia with its magic halo to feel that I am carrying something good inside of me. This is the only myth that accompanies me. I understand the necessity of myths, but if they’re going to exist I prefer that they be living impulses towards reason and feelings and not inert historical memory for museums expert in preservation.