Gaijin

In Japanese, there is a word “gaijin”. It means outsider. It is a somewhat insulting word. I use it for myself quite often.

I have never found the same things fun that others do. I find it fun to accomplish some kind of an intellectual challenge. I find discovery fun. I find learning a new language fun (when it’s achievable). Most intellectual pursuits are very interesting to me.

So pardon me for the fact that in the rest of this post I’m not going to mince words.

When I was a child, my parents got the bright idea to drag me to an amusement park. I did not find this either fun nor interesting. Quite frankly, I found it boring, and to some point, even offensive. The reason I found it so was that these were people who were supposed to know me better than anyone, and they didn’t give two craps at all that they were forcing me into something that I did not find fun, interesting, or useful in any conceivable way. But they either didn’t, or they didn’t care. Of course, sometimes you have to make children do things they don’t want to do, but I remain convinced that forcing a child to have fun against their wishes is not only impossible but that the attempt is traumatic.

From that experience and similar ones, some of them WCG events, I became very good at ruining everyone else’s good time. If they were to force me into a place where they expected me to have fun when I would not, then by golly, I was going to ruin their day as well.

And I did. Because for some reason, they cared that I pretend. Long story short, I didn’t. I didn’t crack a smile. I did not do anything that they did not specifically force me to do, and in most cases, I didn’t even do those things. They could make me go through the motions, but I made sure they were aware that I was royally pissed off, and that there was nothing that they would do to change my mind. It got to the point where if they could cause me to crack a smile they’d consider it a victory. It was rare. I stayed pissed off throughout the entire trip.

They tried it a couple more times before they gave up. I never gave an inch.

I’m older and a little wiser now. I still am required to go to some of these events. I hide it quite a bit better and still manage to even pretend to have some fun, because that’s what’s expected of me, but to be quite frank, I’d still rather not.

Tomorrow there is a sports outing at work. I understand and appreciate their intentions, but I still find it incredibly boring and the only redeeming thing at all about the whole proposition is that they’ve rented an air conditioned conference room where there is a lot of food. So I can camp out in the conference room, eat, and read a book if I choose. Honestly, though, I don’t want to go. I’d rather stay back and work. I actually do have that option but too much of that kind of thing and it could hurt me politically.

For no matter how much I pretend, nearly everyone else in the world still has so little respect or thought for me that it never even occurs to them that people like me might find this nothing more than an utter waste of time. And the only reason that I’m prepared to make even the token effort that I do is that I’ve resigned myself to this fact. For the people who organize these events, unlike my parents, don’t know me and I can’t expect them to. My parents were selfish and unthinking. Everyone else, well, they just don’t realize or care that I, and the few people like me, are strangers in our own world. We are gaijin. And no one else realizes that there are gaijin amongst them, masquerading as those that belong.

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Music

In the Worldwide Church of God, there were two ways to prominence in a congregation. The first was to be on the ministerial track: Go to Ambassador College, get a ministerial assignment, and take classes in how to put a gun on a lectern and say “there’s a new sheriff in town” (yes, that really happened). The other was to be good at music.

Because I was incapable of ever pushing my true self back enough to swallow the copious amounts of bullshit they would have required to in becoming a minister, the only thing I had at my disposal was the second track.

See, it was very clear from the very beginning of my life that those who were good with music in a WCG congregation were greatly – sometimes even unhealthily – respected. By “worldly” standards, they were rarely really good, but they were at least, for the most part, competent.

When I was a teenager I was desperate for attention and acceptance, so I decided (not actually consciously) that this was the path I would take. I started studying piano. I was very smart, so it didn’t take me long to become proficient enough that I could start doing small performances for “special music”, etc. That’s not to say I was very proficient, but it was good enough for the WCG.

Then I imploded. Not much later, so did the WCG.

But somehow I got it in my head that I was competent to attend music school. I became a piano performance major at the University of Toledo, and for somewhere between two and three years, I threw myself into the study of piano.

I rank this amongst the worst and stupidest decisions I’ve ever made in my life.

I did not have the emotional depth required to be a competent musician. What was competent in the WCG was not enough to succeed anywhere except in a WCG congregation. And I was only doing it because I saw it as a path towards acceptance and admiration. Which, as it turns out, was very much not true.

I had no business even stepping inside the Center for Performing Arts.

Sure, knowing how to play piano has opened a few doors. Not many, but it’s provided a few interesting and even memorable experiences. For particularly gullible women, it seems to even be mildly attractive. But honestly, if I had never set foot inside the UT CPA, I think I would be far better off. I had many negative experiences there, and few positive ones – and most of the negative experiences were entirely my fault. Not all of them were negative, but about 95% were, and that might as well be all of them.

The WCG destroyed everything it touched, and I remain convinced, in fact more than ever, that this has been the case from the very beginning.

I should have been in the sciences. My education should have been in computer science, mathematics, or any of the other hard sciences. I would have excelled, and it would not have demanded emotional competence and maturity out of me that I was unable to provide. But I chose music, and while some of the results were okay, I will regret that decision until the day I die.

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Steadfast

There is one thing the WCG – quite unwittingly, I might add – trained me to do that is proving itself very useful in this culture.

They taught me how to stand in the face of some pretty awesome pressure without flinching.

See, the WCG culture was in opposition to the dominant culture of the world in some very specific and immediate ways. Since we did not celebrate most of the holidays that everyone else did – in fact, thought them evil – we had to answer for our faith in ways that sometimes approached actual persecution.

(of course, in the American culture, the word persecution is greatly misused, which is why I say sometimes approached. Ask the Apostle Paul what he would think of our persecution and he’d laugh in our faces).

But we had to answer for our faith. Every time we sat out a birthday, or a Halloween party, or a Christmas celebration, it cemented the fact that we were different, and we were faced with a choice. Give in, or stand our ground.

We stood our ground.

It was not easy sometimes. With the benefit of hindsight, I’d say we did a pretty crappy job of picking our battles most of the time. But you can’t get that kind of training in a school. I learned not to care what other people thought, and I learned that some things are worth standing up for, even if everyone else in the world believes you are insane.

The things the WCG stood up for were, generally, not these things. But it’s the principle of the thing, as Little John said in “Robin Hood, Men in Tights”!

I am center-right. I am not in any way liberal, though I don’t agree with many of the things that conservatives believe in either. But this culture puts a tremendous amount of pressure on people like me to “tow the party line”.

I don’t care what they think. I mean, I literally, and with no exaggeration, give no concern whatsoever to what they think.

I don’t care what they tell me about the social issues of today. For example, the idea that men can be women is laughable on its face, and I don’t care what they think of that! The only thing they can do to me is maybe (maybe) impact my livelihood or make life a little more inconvenient for a short time.

Big whoop.

On balance, I consider this perhaps the most invaluable thing that the WCG taught me. Because most people seem to be under the delusions that most social activists (and, frankly, on both sides) have their best interests at heart.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

I was trained to stand for what I believe in. By a cult who believed in things not worth standing for. That’s how it works, isn’t it?

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Depression

I had what I would consider a relatively happy childhood, comparatively. Objectively, it was pretty rotten, but y’know, when you’re a child, you really don’t know the difference. I had food, I had a place to live, I had parents – none of these things could be called ideal by any stretch of the imagination, but I had them. And, as oblivious as I was, I was content. I had my world.

My world was full of good and bad things – security and terror – but it was my world. It was what I knew. And I was surrounded by people who shared my experience, as imperfect as it was. There was comfort in this.

I remember when the depression started. I was somewhere between 10 and 12 – I don’t remember the exact year. It’s not exactly as if I woke up one day, said to myself “man, I’m depressed”, and then wrote it down in a calendar. It snuck up on me. Isn’t that what it always does: sneak up on you?

But I remember some of the earliest times when I was truly depressed.

I used to go to the Toledo-Lucas County public library a lot with my parents. This was before they redid it around 2000. It was a large, boxy structure, with creepy art deco styling, and far more books than they knew where to put them. I was walking across the main lobby – with its marble floors and wooden accents and desks, and I saw two girls, about my age or a little older, walking out of the library. They were probably pretty, but that didn’t matter.

That’s all it took. I was depressed for days after. The kind of depression that swims in front of your vision and seems to be a living, breathing mass of nearly visible fog. I read my books and could barely do anything else.

I think that is when I realized that the gulf was too wide. Or that it existed at all.

It is perhaps the worst feeling in the world to be biologically driven to want something that you know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that you will never, ever, ever have.

But there are other elements to this as well. You know those girls? I don’t remember their faces. I don’t remember what they were wearing except it was shorts. I didn’t know their names. But I remember them.

They don’t remember me. They never saw me.

A woman once accused me of “saying whatever it will take”. I objected at the time, because I didn’t see it as true. I still don’t. But I can see her point, because in a sense, I guess I did. It wasn’t an attempt to manipulate. It was simply me trying to behave in the way I thought I needed to in order to be accepted by her. It didn’t matter who she was – I don’t even remember her name, and I don’t care. But I remember what she said to me.

She doesn’t. I’m just one of probably a significant number of men who made their way through her life in one way or another. I was passed off as a jerk and she moved on.

It never occurred to her that I wasn’t being a jerk. It never occurred to her that I just didn’t know any other way. I was expected to behave in a certain way, so I did. Because being myself was not, and never would be, acceptable.

It still isn’t.

Ever since then, depression and anxiety have been my near constant companion.

And the honest truth is: I can tell people this is the case. They’ll try to understand. They’ll make noises about how they wish it could be better. And they probably even mean it. But at the end of the day, the fog never lifts.

Those two girls never saw me. Never looked, and never saw. And that has played itself out, over and over again, for the next thirty years.

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Stranger in a Strange Land

Today I was at work, and my boss came around. He started talking to me and a coworker about a movie that was coming out, something about an adaptation of a kid’s book about scary stories.

As he and my coworker were talking, I started to feel, strongly, that I fit into that conversation about as well as I would have fit into a conversation between two Japanese people talking about Shinto. In Japanese. It was a conversation with which I had absolutely no cultural reference. Finally I just wandered off while they kept talking. They never even noticed I left.

Thinking back on it, I have this kind of experience frequently. In fact, I have it constantly. I have not learned to fit in, but I’ve learned to pretend that it doesn’t bother me that I don’t. But every now and then I’m reminded – frequently, in fact – that I’m completely out of my depth in almost every conceivable way. It’s not that people don’t understand. Understanding is only the surface of the problem. It’s that people don’t even understand that they don’t understand. And sometimes I have the same problem.

I have spent most of my adult life trying to relate to other people on their terms, and it has never worked. I don’t even have the slightest idea what their terms are, much less how to relate to them. I look back at my previous workplaces, and that is probably the root of a large fraction of the anxiety I experience on a day to day basis. I’m walking a tightrope. No one knows how much I am pretending, and if they did, I’m not sure they would want anything to do with me. And I’m not sure they’re wrong.

This pretense has little to do with any deep, dark secrets – I have a couple, as I’m sure most do. But it’s mostly mundane things. What I think. How I think. My experiences. How I interact with people. The gulf is wide and has never narrowed.

I have had a few romantic relationships in my life. I enjoyed the physical companionship of a few of them. I loved a few of them. But I didn’t understand them, and they didn’t understand me. The relationships were doomed before they even started, because the gulf was too wide. They would do or say something that should elicit a particular response (in their experience), and instead, the response was completely different. And vice versa. They didn’t know what to do with me, and I returned the favor.

Here’s the problem, though – I don’t think I can entirely blame the WCG for this, as I didn’t fit there either. I remember some disastrous YOU dances that I still regret ever going to. I remember some disastrous YOU Bible Studies – where I was ready to study the Bible and all they wanted to do was go over the next social outings. Honest truth was, I had no time for or interest in social gatherings. I considered them a waste of time. Frankly, I still do. I’ve gotten better at pretending, and even can tolerate them to some degree, but at the end of the day, I just want my quiet time.

People are exhausting. Everything about people is exhausting. Talking to them, listening to them, navigating their expectations… it’s just exhausting. I’ve tried many different approaches in my life. I’ve tried to treat it as a cultural exchange. That didn’t work because everyone else doesn’t understand that I’m not of their culture. I’ve tried to blend in. That never worked either, because one can only hold up such a pretense for so long (in my experience, about two or three years at top). I’ve tried to subsume my oddities in order to be more accepted, and that never worked, as even if if I succeeded, I knew better. And lately, I’ve tried the “I quit” approach. But that doesn’t work either, because unless one wants to become a hermit, camped out in a cave somewhere, one must support themselves. And that involves people.

I am a stranger in your world. I don’t understand your ways. If I want to survive, I must pretend, but that’s all I can do. And the cost of pretending is high. The cost of pretending is the destruction of my own identity.

But pretending is all I have.

And this – this, I have no one to blame but my parents and Herbert Armstrong’s tangled web. I am to blame for much. But not this.

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Festival of Tabernacles

Possibly the thing that I miss the most about the old WCG is the Festival of Tabernacles.

As an adult, I’m aware that there were many unsavory things going on behind the scenes that I only ever got a glimpse of – they didn’t call it the “Feast of Booze” for nothing – but as a child, it was and remained the highlight of the year for many of my formative years.

In fact, some of my earliest memories involve the Feasts. I remember dragging the suitcases out of the closet a full two weeks ahead – we couldn’t wait to start packing. Even making the list of things to pack was a special time.

I remember the big white building at Wisconsin Dells. Looking at it now it’s just a utilitarian pile of tin, but back then it was really something. I remember the administration building, the tram that would take people back and forth from the immense parking lots. At one point, between services, my parents packed a picnic, and we had it on a small hill overlooking the site. There were a whole lot of small yellow flowers. I couldn’t have been more than two or three, and I still remember this vividly, and with an intense feeling of nostalgia.

I remember playing “Little Professor” on the floor with another, slightly older, kid from my congregation. Basically, I remember a lot, and I miss most of it.

And there was such an atmosphere of celebration! It’s like the entire city just became.. happy. Whereever we were. Occasionally I’d be at a site when the feast was not in session, and it was not the same. Something was missing. You could feel it in the air.

It’s never coming back, though. For a while, earlier in my life, I actually used to stay in a local hotel – at some expense, actually – for a couple of days in a vain attempt to recapture even a small part of the experiences that I remember. But it’s all gone. Even if the church existed now and the Feasts were still going strong, the world has changed out from under them. There’s no smoking section at Denny’s anymore, so the smell of stale cigarette smoke mixed with coffee is gone. (You might think that a terrible smell, but it’s terribly nostalgic to me). The freeways are different, the drive would be different, the cars would be different… it would all just be so different. The experience would be gone, ruined, just as it’s already ruined by memory.

I don’t miss the sermons, or the ministers, or the theology. But somehow, that never seemed to matter. It was fun. It was one of the few good experiences I had as a child. And it, like everything else, was ripped away. Either by the loss of childhood innocence, the destruction of the WCG culture, or other familial situations that were also very destructive.

What can replace it? The problem is, I fear nothing. Nothing has ever come close. I’m not convinced anything ever can. For all of the WCG’s flaws, the feast was… unique. Unique, and irreplaceable. The experience can never be relived, but there isn’t a whole lot I wouldn’t give if it could. Because, honestly, there is little to nothing in the culture I find myself in now that even remotely comes close.

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Japanese

I have been studying Japanese for a little over a year. Or, should I say, 私は一年から日本語を勉強しました。Over that year, I’ve learned a lot about the Japanese language and culture, and the more I learn about it, the more I’m suffused with a sense of profound sadness.

The Japanese are about as different from the US culture as one can get and still be developed humans. Their language is backwards from English, their religion is entirely different (in fact, they have two, bolted on to each other), their way of looking at the world is completely foreign to us, and, well, it’s not an easy language or culture to crack. I often wonder whether it’s worth the battle, but I forge ahead anyway, somehow.

But the honest truth is, American culture and Japanese culture are, to me, very similar in how foreign they are. The only real difference is, I’m fluent in English. I’ve learned a lot by immersion, I suppose, but at the end of the day, I don’t understand Americans either.

In some ways, though, Japanese is more appealing. In Japan, I am a 外人, or gaijin, which means “outsider”. I will always be an outsider. They may be outwardly accepting, they may welcome my money, they may appreciate the fact that I am making an effort to understand their culture, but at the end of the day, I am and always will be an outsider. As has been pointed out, this has some serious drawbacks in Japanese culture – but it has some rather cool perks, too. That’s neither here nor there.

In American culture, I am, as well, an outsider. I always have been. But the difference is, I have white skin, I speak the language, I was born here. So people expect me to understand and integrate with the culture, in the same way that the Japanese would hold a native Japanese to a different standard than a “gaijin” like me.

But I don’t. I’m an outsider.

I wonder often if I would be better off trying to move to Japan. At least there people don’t expect more out of me than I am capable of giving.

The thing the WCG took away from me that I can’t get back, and there are only a few things that fit into that category, is the ability to integrate with the culture amongst which I was born. I can’t. I never will be able to.

And then the WCG destroyed its culture, leaving me homeless.

Sure, I can go through the motions, I can pretend, I can try to act like I’ve integrated. But it’s exhausting, and that’s all it is. Pretending.

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