Permanent Residency

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I recently made the decision, with advice from my immigration lawyer, to apply for permanent residency in Japan. I realized that even though I have lived here around 23 combined years, I still feel like a guest of the Japanese government. Permanent residency, if I get it, is just that: permanent. Excluding the ability to vote, I will be treated like a Japanese citizen, no need to ask permission to start a business or provide a reason when I leave or enter the country. Applying for visas every 3 years isn’t that big of a deal to be honest, but it’s the mentality more than anything that bothers me. I have spent most of my life here but I could be denied a visa at any time. The life I built up in Japan could vanish at any moment at the whim of an immigration official having a bad day. Perhaps that is a bit dramatic, but that’s how entering the immigration office feels anyway.

Before they grant permanent residency though, they definitely do their research. They want to know everything… how much I paid in taxes, how much my parents paid, my Japanese language certification, my work history, my bank statements, my driving record, my school records, a guarantor, my pickleball credentials, recommendations letters, the list goes on. I even have to write an essay about why I want to live in Japan and how I am going to contribute to society. It feels a bit like begging but I have to remind myself that it’s all part of the process and that once I finish, I never have to do it again.

I will say though, if I am denied permanent residency I will have a seriously diminished view of the Japanese system. Japan says it wants to become more international by increasing immigration. And for both demographic and economic reasons, it desperately needs more people. If I am not the type of international who Japan would want here, frankly I’m not sure who is. The one catch is that typically permanent residency requires 10 consecutive years of living in Japan (I had to start over when I left at 16) but I am applying after 6 years because of exceptional circumstances. Not to toot my horn but I have lived here 23 years, have the highest level Japanese language credential, bought a house, pay taxes, have brought hundreds of people here and started a new sport in Japan. Also I’m not saying this is right but I am one of the “desirable immigrants” from Western countries, not a “suspicious character” from Southeast Asia, Africa or the Middle East. It sounds simplistic but it’s true. I don’t agree with categorizing people like this, but the reality is that it happens in all countries and I got a lucky roll of the dice for being born American.

Concurrent to applying for permanent residency, I am registering my house as a Japanese style inn or Ryokan and registering it on Airbnb. Why do I have to register as a ryokan? Great question. To prop up the hotel industry, the Japanese government basically cut the number of airbnbs in half a few years ago. If you aren’t registered as a hotel, you can literally only rent out the property for 180 total days a year. In addition, the local ryokan association in my town got together and decided to limit rentals on certain days when they make money. So rentals during golden week (early May), silver week (late September) and the entire months of August, October and December are not allowed. Since I can’t beat ’em I decided to join their ranks, which is why I am registering my house as a Japanese style inn. It’s more expensive up front, but I’m choosing to see it as a barrier to entry. Like many things in Japan, the bureaucracy makes it expensive and difficult to get started, but once you push through the crowd there are fewer players to compete with. I’m playing the long game, even though it means investing more up front.

All that to say, my life in Japan feels much more entrenched than before the virus. I enjoyed my globetrotting life before but I’m not sure it was the healthiest. In the last year I’ve started working out, eating healthier, and made more friends/business contacts in Japan than ever before. Like the permanent residency or the airbnb registration, circumstances are what they are so it’s better to make the best of them. Dealing with the Japanese bureaucracy is a practice in stoicism but there is a lot of good in it. I’m hoping to take some of the lessons from this pandemic into the post-pandemic world. Before, I tended to think of work as a sprint to make as much money as possible, saying yes to everything as a result. Being somewhat bored for a year, I have realized that I never want to retire anyway. I will go back to traveling the world and a busy lifestyle but I want to remember that it’s a marathon. The pace needs to be set accordingly, running but taking time to take it all in as well.

Pickleball and Language in China

I made it to China! I will be here for the next week and a half teaching pickleball in Dongguan (close to Hong Kong) to a group of coaches, college students and teachers. It’s exciting to be a part of starting a sport in a country as big as China and although it’s at the very beginning, I can see it growing fast.

I’ve been observing recently how language changes experience in another country. In Japan, I feel comfortable to the point of not knowing what to write about in this blog anymore. That might sound strange but living in Japan is normal for me. I can say anything I want, I have close friends, I can tell jokes and am confident that I can do things. I even sleep talk in the language. China is a different story. Today I bought food at a convenience store and asked the front desk for chopsticks. Unable to say “chopsticks”, I resorted to demonstrating my noodles and acting like I was eating them. Later, a student in the pickleball course insisted on taking me to McDonald’s (a cultural discussion for another day). I ordered a cheeseburger with no french fries, but he thought I wanted it without vegetables. On top of being a McDonalds burger, I ate it dry sans condiments… with fries on the side. Admittedly these are first world problems. I’m not saying “woe is me for not getting exactly what I ordered”. It’s just that communication is fascinating. In just a short flight, I have gone from literate and knowledgeable to basically having the oratory capacity of an infant. Maybe less so… when a baby cries we have a basic understanding of what it wants. When adult humans utter unintelligible gibberish to each other, they most often have no clue. Nothing is so humbling as this experience, but I believe it’s a good thing. When language disappears as a means of communication, I find my creativity and observation increases proportionally.

Somewhat related to this, a funny event happened to me while snowboarding before I left Japan. My friend and I like to find powder snow outside the boundaries of the ski area. We find some, but the ski patrol sees us and waits for us at the bottom of the run. I come down first and assuming of course that I don’t speak Japanese, the ski patrol says I’m not allowed in that area. I respond in English, “sorry”, wanting to remain a stupid foreigner and not someone who actually knows they aren’t supposed to be in that area. Then my Japanese buddy comes down and because he is with me, the ski patrol assumes he doesn’t speak Japanese either. My friend knows pretty much zero English so I know that if he says anything, we are busted. And I know that he knows that I know all this. After the ski patrol’s speech on back country safety (he was actually nice about it), my buddy just says “ok” and the ski patrol lets us go! He followed us the next run to make sure we didn’t get into any more fun… I mean trouble and I realized how convenient it is sometimes to be a foreigner. It goes both ways.

All that to say, I am seriously contemplating learning Chinese. The opportunities are huge. Even if it’s not with pickleball, Mandarin is something that will be beneficial forever. But it’s a daunting task filled with visions of trying to say ma 4 different ways and insulting someone’s mother by calling her a horse. Or something like that. Of course, my customers say that about Japan, which is not true, so maybe I am wrong. I find that things are always the most daunting before you start them.

The pickleball club here is serious about spreading the sport. I attended a media day the other day where almost a hundred people attended including the mayor, owners of companies and university professors. Other attendees came from Hong Kong and Singapore to take part. Li Na’s tennis teammate got silver in the competition: I have been teaching her this week and might play with here in a tournament in Taiwan. Things are moving, Asia is coming on the pickleball scene. It’s an exciting time.

The last thing I want to say is that China makes me feel tiny. I still can’t wrap my head around a number like 1.3 billion people. Colorado Springs where I went to high school has 500,000 and there are 800 cities in China with over a million people. I drove from Hong Kong to Shenzhen the other day, and for over an hour straight I saw tower after tower of apartment buildings and businesses. Dongguan where I am working is considered a “medium-sized city” with a paltry population of 8 million. China is mind-boggling and while I don’t want to live here, I want to learn more.

Walking Through September

I am starting and ending this month with walking. At the beginning it was hiking through Colorado with a Japanese tour group; at the end walking through Japanese forests on a 10-day journey up the Nakasendo Way. Neither trip is new, yet I love each and continue to learn about myself as I journey. Both trips feel like stepping stones, essential experiences required to move on to bigger and better things.

Hiking up Mt. Elbert with my mom and the Japanese group

Hiking up Mt. Elbert with my mom and the Japanese group

I also did some running in the middle of the month, namely in the form of the Tournament of Champions pickleball tournament held in Brigham City, Utah. I was fortunate enough to win a singles and a men’s doubles title (and accompanying cash), although it wasn’t quite the accomplishment that my dad’s triple crown victory was. Thanks to my partners, the tournament organizers, friends, and everyone else who made the tournament stand out. Even last year, I never could have imagined I would be doing what I am doing today.

Looking ahead, October is going to be insane – but good. Finishing my current walking tour on the 3rd, I begin another one on the 7th in Kyoto. I end 10 days later, when I take a bullet train to meet my college roommate and his wife in Ueda, the town where I spent most of my childhood. We will do some hiking in the area, before I return to Tokyo to meet my parents and the participants of the first ever pickleball tour of Japan (with many more to come). I am so excited and thankful for this year’s participants for believing in us and being willing to spend the time and money to plant the sport in a new country. It makes a huge difference. On the second to last day of the tour, I return to Kyoto to begin a final Walk Japan tour, before flying back to Phoenix to play in the USAPA national pickleball tournament in Arizona.

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Rice Fields and Cosmos Flowers in the Kiso Valley

Let me say a final word and contemplate a bit on life where I am at the moment. It’s Autumn in Japan, my favorite season. The leaves in the mountains are just starting to show a hint of color. There is a coolness in the evening air and a dampness to the fallen leaves. Massive Fuji Apples are appearing in the grocery stores and every day as I walk, I secretly nab at least one ripe persimmon from trees weighed down by them. I hope no one minds. I love this seasonality. I’m sure living in the tropics (or Arizona for that matter) has its perks, but there is something about making it through the summer that makes you appreciate the coolness of the Fall so much more.

It makes me think that joy can’t be experienced fully without some pain and that perhaps life isn’t about avoiding the pain. Maybe it’s about taking in these short moments and deciding to find good in everything – because it’s there if you look for it. The last few years have not been without their difficulties. Even though I don’t show many things on the surface, I often had doubts about where I was going, didn’t have a great attitude and was angry that I wasn’t as successful or with it as other people my age. But with some wisdom that comes from making mistakes and the help of people around me, I am discovering that no matter what I’m doing, there is joy to be found and pride to be taken in doing something well. It helps that I am discovering what I love doing and have the resources to pursue it, something that very few people can say. That’s my philosophical thought of the month, some of the things I think about as I walk many hours through the Kiso Valley