writing > Nomad Chronicles > Zetsubou and I
Last Updated: Dec 2016
9 minute read

Zetsubou and I

The following is a little loaded and very personal, so if you do read it I am grateful for your time and letting me dampen your mood a little bit.

3 years ago I boarded a flight out of SFO with my entire life packed into a single suitcase, a backpack, and my desktop PC in a makeshift trolley. As I paid the $25 overweight baggage fees at the Virgin America desk, I realized it was the first (and hopefully last, so far) time in my life I can say I was truly sad to be going to the airport – not when I left Oman for college after 18 years, not when I left Boston for California after 5 years, but when I left the Bay Area after a mere 1.5 years.

People say that time speeds up and slips by after college, once you enter the working world, as the days pass in routine with big changes few and far between, maybe when you switch jobs or get married or buy a house or have kids. Well, with none of those happening, these were the 3 longest years of my life. In these 3 years, I lived many lives – the long-lost family member, the adventurer, the “digital nomad”, the random brown guy who spoke Japanese, the overly culturally curious conversationalist, the antisocial recluse, the fellow making everyone he meets play his damned board game, “the one who returned”.

It sounds pretty exciting. In many ways it was. I was bombarded by new experiences on a weekly basis. I was never allowed a routine to slip into, constantly rebuilding most of my lifestyle. I would escape from it all into my laptop screen for several hours every day, until I could forget that I was on a bus from Tokyo to Osaka, or in a 7’x7’ hostel room in Seoul, or on a flight from Hong Kong to Taipei. Where I could forget that I had no idea what I’d find for lunch, or dinner. Where I could forget that I didn’t know a single person around me, and probably couldn’t even say a full sentence to them in a language we both understood. Where I could forget that I had nowhere to be. Where I could forget for a moment that I was all alone.

I never successfully forgot that I was alone.

[ I will use the words “alone” and “loneliness” here, but what I really mean is much more complex, somewhat dynamic with the circumstances – it was a mixture of despair, feeling lost, being exhausted, etc amplified by feeling alone, by being in a position others couldn’t relate to. The Japanese word “zetsubou” (絶望) conveys this a little better. Also, start getting used to the Japanese phrases. ]

In fact, that feeling is the only thing (perhaps besides my laptop?), that stayed with me the entire time I travelled, from the day I boarded that flight. I never forgot for even a second, through nights filled with soju with my board game club in Korea, or days spent in picturesque hikes in Thailand and Hong Kong, or parties with old friends and new alike in cities I stopped by. Every time I looked in the mirror, I got more and more familiar with what loneliness in ones’ eyes looks like. Over time I learned to understand Zetsubou, and become comfortable with him, sometimes even find solace in his presence. In part because I’m somewhat introverted, there were countless days I needed to be alone to escape the loneliness, to escape realizing I’m but a passing attraction in the lives of most of the people I met.

I once asked a friend I’d made along my travels if they had time to hang out if I took the 3 hour train to their city that weekend. They texted “sorry I’m really busy this weekend, maybe next weekend?” I was flying out of that country in the middle of that following week. I curled up into a ball in my little Airbnb room. I replied “It’s ok, next time we’re free in the same city then :)” which I was certain would be maybe probably never. Silent tears found their way down my cheek as I gazed into the buzzing fluorescent lamp in my room. I thought how almost everyone else has “maybe next weekend” as an option. It was 6pm. I asked myself over and over “Why are you doing this to yourself? Why not just settle wherever”, coming up with a different, unsatisfactory, incomplete answer each time, until I fell asleep, with the light still on. I lost track of how many such nights I had over the course of those two years I spent on the road, trying to answer this question by myself. Maybe a compilation of those answers and why I had no better options would make a worthwhile post, for another time.

Countless people used to ask me this question and I struggled to answer them every time. When my productivity for work understandably plummeted while going through this, I spent a weekend trying to write an email to my teammate attempting to explain the pertinent almost-answers. When I stopped by my parents’ my mom asked me the same question when I told her I’m not happy. I was struggling to explain to my mom, in my decaying command of Malayalam bastardized with English, how I finally found my “jibun no basho” in the Bay, and in America.

[ A common anime theme song phrase, “jibun no basho” (自分の場所) or a “place for myself” refers to finding purpose, acceptance/being welcomed and something worth fighting for.

PS: my mom speaks perfectly good English, and yes I know “jibun no basho” is neither English nor Malayalam, language is difficult ]

And as I did so I found tears streaming down my face, for the first time in front of my mom (or anyone outside a movie theater for that matter) in nearly a decade. At the time I thought it was because I missed my close friends in the Bay, or the environment that jived with my values, or my awesome team at BitGym that I could learn from and build cool shit with. I mumbled something incoherent through the lump in my throat as all the times I tried to answer this question by myself crashed into each other in my head. But I have since dwelt upon what it was that really made the glands overflow. At the time, I was fairly certain deep within I would never be able to move back to America long-term. That I had a lot I really cared for that I would have to learn to let go of. It was about coming to terms with breaking up with almost every aspect of my life at the same time, and not just one person or one thing. All the relationships and values I had invested in would be stopped in their tracks. At best I could watch them decay as they never amount to more than could-have-beens. Which is exactly what I did for those two years – I lived every day knowing this, and trying to come to terms with it. I tried to reinforce and preserve what I could, but I could see the cracks spreading every day and knew I would have to let go eventually.

Let me make this extremely clear before I go further: This is not some cry for sympathy or help or “friendship”. Things have worked out splendidly for me, as there was a happy sequel to the above story – through a little luck and a lot of support from my team and friends and family and network, I miraculously made it back. I am perfectly fine, and about as happy as I have ever been. I see some of my favorite people often. So please no “aw you’re not alone I’ll always be your friend” stuff in response to this. This is also not about trying to convey the trauma of the US immigration system and what it does to people’s lives, though that’s something I’m always fighting to have heard. With that out of the way, I wanted to say something else…

Last week, I had what I can only describe as a mild form of anxiety attack or PTSD. While only slightly under the weather, for the better part of a day, I slipped in and out of dream-like flashbacks of many of the above experiences. I relived the moments of “zetsubou”, the hopelessness and despair so vivid that several times I had to sit up for a moment and think really hard to convince myself that those fears have been long laid to rest, that I am living out my best case follow-up to that. I managed to go eat some good food and fall into a tired dreamless sleep later that night, and have been fine since then. This is likely no cause for long-term concern, but it did catch me by surprise. This was my first such experience, and it was a little disturbing. I take pride in my ability to manage negative thoughts well, being grateful and fulfilled with what I have, never regretting anything and not being harder on myself beyond accepting blame and responsibility. I trust those who know me can vouch for my usual emotional stability. Yet when this happened, I doubted everything, and felt extremely vulnerable, weak, and lonely as I realized even today how few people understood what I went through during that time, and that it still haunts me.

We are all trying to appear strong and happy and figured out, posting shit about our fancy vacation, exotic dessert, new house, blossoming relationships, puppies, what not. That’s cool, you do you, share some of the sunshine. But I also want to be part of a space where it’s okay to talk about your personal, slightly messed-up skeletons that keep peeking out of your closet. This was not easy for me to write about, and even harder to bring up with people around me to talk about. But it is still harder not to, so here we are. If you made it this far, thanks for living a moment of my life with me :)

cross-posted: on Facebook