Stakes [Pull Up / Put Down]: An Interview with Rob Nugen

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I conducted this interview as part of Stakes [Pull Up / Put Down]. For more information about the project, read the project overview. To read additional entries as they come available, subscribe to The Letter.

The same acquaintance who introduced me to another interviewee after I made a personal request on Twitter for connections linked Rob Nugen and I for a conversation, which we scheduled via e-mail and conducted via Skype.

Rob and I talked in my midmorning and his early evening. His home office in Tokyo made for Rob’s Skype backdrop and my Ménerbes AirBNB kitchen (and later bedroom, after wireless difficulties) made for mine.

How Rob Got to Japan

At the time of our conversation, Rob had lived in Japan for sixteen years. He moved to the country without ever having visited it, entirely trusting the recommendations of his friends.

He wanted to move away from his country of origin, the United States, for a life change.

He said he wanted a country with a language in a completely different alphabet and he liked that Japan didn’t seem overly militaristic. (He only later realized that Japan has no military due to the rewriting of its constitution after the second world war.) “I didn’t want my tax dollars going to feed the war machine,” he said.

Rob’s Found Japan Challenging

If he could go back and do it all again, knowing what he knows now, Rob doesn’t believe that he would choose to move to Japan.

“Living in Japan has been extremely difficult,” he said.

After his first year, Rob thought perhaps his struggle in Japan came from his job, not the country. He wanted to give Japan another chance. When he found another job, he did feel that his overall experience living in the country improved. However, it didn’t suddenly become easy.

Rob intended to return to the United States after a stint with a Japanese-based humanitarian aid organization called Peace Boat. He loved the Peace Boat experience, during which he traveled the world and learned about different cultures and places.

After the Peace Boat trip and before taking steps to move back to the United States, he rode his bike across Japan to a ten-day meditation course. On the ride back, he tumbled from his bike and broke his shoulder—putting him in debt. He needed to start working in Japan to get back to break-even, which delayed his planned return to the United States.

And then Rob met a Japanese woman, who later became his wife.

Years after planning to leave, Rob has stayed in the country. He said he struggles still. His men’s group of foreigners coming from outside Japan—all English speakers—keeps him “sane.”

Rob doesn’t have many Japanese friends, even after so many years. “Most are westerners of some variety,” he said. “In Japan, there’s a strong concept of ‘we are Japanese and you are not.’ The word for foreigner in Japanese translates literally as ‘outside person.’ They make westerners feel very separate from them.”

The Japanese people Rob has met who have a more welcoming spirit have lived outside of Japan and have returned. “So they’re a little bit different as a result,” he said.

Not Proud to Not Like America

Rob defines himself as a “U.S. American.” He grew up in Houston, Texas.

I asked him if the difficulty of his move and the sustained challenges of integrating into Japanese culture made him more patriotic or origin proud. He said no.

“With all due respect to Texas, I don't have the same hobbies,” Rob said. “Texas is all about Texas being the world and church and football and drinking and hunting. They aren't my things.”

As to whether he felt patriotic about his country of origin, the United States, he said that “as an American, I’m not proud to not like America. It kind of sucks, the way the system is going. It's a third-world country in a lot of places. And it's getting worse. And to what end? It's not being run in a sustainable way. I miss my family, but I don't miss the news and the politics.”

Home is… Where?

Given that he doesn’t feel in alignment with his country of origin and he doesn’t feel integrated in his adopted country, where does Rob consider “home?”

He answered, "My house in Japan."

He clarified that he truly meant his own home—and, even more specifically, his office within his home. There, he feels most comfortable, most relaxed. “However, that doesn’t really serve me. If I’m just inside all the time, I feel stir crazy.”

When did the United States stop feeling like “home” to Rob?

He said it didn’t hit him that anything had changed until he returned from his Peace Boat experience—two years and three months after he’d arrived in Japan. He walked into a convenience store after he disembarked, saw snacks he loved—packages he recognized and that had become his definition of comfort food—and thought, “Finally, we’re home.”

He said, “That’s when I recognized that something had changed for me.”

Now, when he goes back to the United States, he feels a strong disconnect between himself and the people he sees who he knew before he moved. People don’t really ask about his life now—they assume he hasn’t changed from the Rob they knew before he left. He said he doesn’t think they care what he’s done since he moved to Japan, or what he’s experienced, or how he feels about the course of his life since he moved.

“It's harder than you think to move to a new culture,” he said. “But you'll grow more than you'll possibly imagine, going through it. And going home, you'll be shocked at how much you change compared to your friends.”

How Does He Define His Living Status, Then?

When asked how he defined his living status, he answered “expat.”

“I didn't run away from any danger, so not ‘refugee,’” he said. “I don't necessarily want to live here forever, so not ‘immigrant.’”

Rob said he didn’t know the word “expat” before he came to Japan. Though, as he talked through it, he acknowledged that he understood the word “expat” to mean someone who a company has moved to another country and who has received some level of funding for the move. Which he didn’t have.

He said maybe he should invent his own word, then. Or adopt some of the terms he’s heard elsewhere, like “nomad.”

I suggested that perhaps he had self-exiled: That he had chosen to move to a place, yet now he felt like he couldn’t leave it, even though he didn’t want to stay. He didn’t seem fully convinced that he should own “exile” as his term, either.

More than anything, Rob seemed to sense his “foreigner” status most strongly; a status he feels the Japanese have imposed upon him and which they reinforce in their treatment of him.

Will He Ever Move Back to the United States?

Rob doesn’t believe he’d feel at home in the United States, even though he doesn’t feel at home in Japan. He may not want to live in Japan for the rest of his life, but he predicts that he will. After all, his wife is Japanese and his career has developed in Japan over nearly two decades.

How does he feel about never moving back to the United States? “It makes me sad for my dad,” he said. “He stopped asking when I’ll come back, finally. But the question still rings in my ear. It makes me feel a bit of shame. A bit of guilt.”

More generally, Rob said that the idea of living the rest of his life in Japan makes him a little afraid. “I don't fully understand the system here. I don't understand what will be expected of me in terms of, for example, how you sort out where you’re buried. It’s weird.”

Rob said that he figures all these questions become easier when you don’t have children and don’t think you will have children. “I don’t think that’s going to happen for us now,” he said. “So there's no legacy there. If I had kids, I'd feel more of a push to go back to the United States. I like the English language, and I’d want my kids to learn it.”

Deep, Open Conversations

Rob and I shared a very open, very honest, and very real conversation. He has clearly thought quite a bit about his move to Japan and his day-by-day decision to stay there. I appreciate deeply his willingness to speak with me about his musings.

Here’s to sharing a cup of tea in Japan one of these days, Rob.

For more information about Stakes [Pull Up / Put Down], the project that generated this interview, read the project statement. If you would like to participate as an interview subject or have a participant to recommend, please contact me. To get updates on the project, subscribe to The Letter.