セミ in Tokyo

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Article by Akika Altman-Chandler

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Everything in Tokyo is incredible. It’s futuristic and compartmentalised and chimerical. I feel like I closed my eyes and woke up in a utopic simulation—my very own version of The Truman Show — where the sun lights up every cafe and skyscraper perfectly at four thirty in the afternoon; where everyone dresses in chic, smart-casual clothing from vintage thrift stores; where every restaurant serves Michelin star meals. 

I don’t know how to keep up with the blur of soft Japanese voices around me. I guess I figured that, being born here and having been exposed to Japanese culture via brief visits and stories I’d heard from both my mom and my dad, it wouldn’t be difficult for me to adjust to Tokyo. But this city is more alive than any photograph, tourist brochure, or bedtime story could ever convey.  There is no way to describe how foreign I’ve felt, and how foreignly in love I’ve fallen with Tokyo these past couple of weeks. I completely underestimated how overwhelmed I’d be standing in the middle of Shibuya square, with bright lights screaming at me: “Who do you think you are?” 

I used to believe I had experienced the world— I’m a mixed expat kid with well-traveled, well-educated parents. I distinguished myself from my peers by my international childhood, and was, honestly, condescending towards friends in America who had spent their entire lives confined within hometown borders. Somehow I thought that growing up in Hong Kong, a bubble built on artificial harbours, imported sand and way too much money, gave me the right to claim global citizenship… but I am no less naive. Hong Kong is unique. It’s part tropical island, part finance fulcrum, and has a history as both a British colony and Chinese trading port. I am grateful to have grown up in an S.A.R. so sundry. But in no way, shape, or form has it prepared me for the rest of the world. 

I came to Tokyo confident that I’d be able to adapt to the environment around me immediately. I came here loud-mouthed, impulsive, extroverted, and satirical… diametrically opposed to the Japanese national character. I came here with a head full of cultural “norms,” like cutting lines and yelling for cabs, that I had to realize weren’t socially acceptable anymore. I came here with minimal knowledge of hiragana, katakana, and kanji, and feel so moronic asking waiters to repeat themselves and staring blankly at train station signs. I came from a brash and fast-paced city, where no one has time to admire scenery, and had a hard time believing in the people that strolled leisurely down streets so unimaginably picturesque. My arrogance as a “third-culture kid” and my hopes of blending in disappeared after just a couple of days of living in Tokyo. Here, I stand out in a sea of faces, and I feel so alien. 

When I was younger, my grandmother would call me セミ (semi), the Japanese word for cicada. It was a playful nickname I earned because I never stopped talking — I was as loquacious as the constant electric buzz of cicadas in the summertime. And day by day, that moniker gains meaning. The life cycle of a cicada consists of three stages: egg, nymph, and adult. After a couple weeks as eggs, cicadas hatch and dig themselves underground, where they spend 17 years as a nymph before emerging above the surface. I spent 17 years in Hong Kong, thinking I knew everything there was to know about the world. And here I am, crawling out of the country I was so comfortable in, completely unequipped for the culture shock I’m facing right now. I am a cicada, bewildered at a brand new world I know nothing about.