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A New Perspective

Thoughts on Pittsburgh from abroad.

By: Miles McCoy

Before now I had never lived outside of the country. To be honest, I’d never lived outside of Pittsburgh. If you had asked me a year ago what makes Pittsburgh my home, I probably would have talked about some famous people from the city, dropped some historical facts about a few of the neighborhoods, or mentioned a favorite restaurant or two. But they say that with time comes perspective, and my present self wants to tell my past self that he’s a pretentious idiot.

Don’t misunderstand, I’ll still go to vegan brunch with the rest of Butler Street’s inhabitants, but I must have been crazy to have thought that a sandwich and some pancakes were what made Pittsburgh my home. If you had asked my past self, “Well, what does make Pittsburgh your home?”, I might have guessed at a few ideas, but nothing would have stuck. After all, I didn’t know anything else; I wouldn’t have been able to articulate an answer for you back then. It was only after I picked up my life and moved overseas that things started to become clearer.

Moving to Japan is like landing on an alien planet, or at least it’s what I imagine landing on an alien planet would feel like. It’s not just walking on the opposite side of the road or people speaking a different language. Even a smaller city, like Nagoya, seems to go on forever, and after you reach the border, the city starts to stack. You ride an elevator through different dimensions from a laundromat on the first floor to a ramen shop on the second, restaurants on the third, cat Cafe on the fourth, and a nightclub taking up the next three. You spend the first few weeks or so in sheer awe, taking in the immense scale of it, knowing people live here their entire lives without seeing it all. Eventually, however, you begin to understand just how little you know about where you are (even after hours of those videos online); you don’t understand the signs, the rules or the people who enforce them. Is the stuff on the top of the sushi in the convenience store meat or fish? How can I tell this station master that I’m not trying to sneak off of the train, I just lost my ticket? I’m supposed to wear which slippers where? Hold on: what do they mean by non-combustible trash?

Suddenly plunged into an environment where it could be just as frustrating to go it alone as it was to ask for help, I got homesick. A lot. But I didn’t miss going to Primanti’s or riding the incline. I missed being able to tell whether or not the bags I was holding at the grocer’s were sugar or salt. I missed looking at a menu at a bar and knowing exactly what I was ordering. I missed not getting lost. And the more I longed for that, the more I wanted to go back to the place that just made sense.

But a commitment had been made. I had signed the dotted line, and I was going to see things through. I put my head down, gritted my teeth, and muscled on. I studied the language. I watched the morning news and evening comedy specials without understanding a single word. I practiced writing, listened to the dialogue around me, visited the city until I found a sense of direction. And things began to simplify for me faster than I thought they would. I began to understand jabbering elementary schoolers. Train maps un-jumbled. I learned to ask where things were and how much they cost, and the answers began to make sense. I began to grow, and along the way I managed to meet some new people and have some interesting experiences. It felt fantastic when things began to fit. And as the days got longer and hotter, home began to feel farther and farther away.

Around the end of August, a couple of friends messaged me with some news: they had managed to find some tickets on sale, and were hopping across the Pacific to see me. I was pretty nervous, not just because I hadn’t hosted many guests (I bought some extra plates and bowls for them to use, just in case; they never used them), but mostly because I thought they would be bored. By getting the run of the place, somewhere along the line Japan had lost most of its luster. I drew up an itinerary, made a list of places they might find interesting, tourist spots and photo ops. I asked friends and coworkers about attractions off the beaten path, lesser known and more likely to drop jaws.

The day finally arrived with me still biting my nails. Through the turnstile they came, backpacks in tow. Imagine my surprise at the faces they made riding the train to my apartment, gawking at the cityscape stretching into the distance, the quiet streets of the sleepy town where I lived and the local temple where they rang the bell every sunrise and sunset. I was glad. Their happiness brought my old frame of reference back into focus, one that I had almost forgotten I’d ever had. I felt like an old man when I remembered it hadn’t always been mundane, that this had all been new for me, too, not so long ago. But what exactly had I left behind?

Looking back now, I can’t quite remember when it happened. Maybe it was during their first night in the city when we got our celebratory bowls of ramen and tall glasses of beer. Maybe it was during one of the many plates of okonomiyaki, or during the typhoon, when we spent the day eating curry rice and watching old movies. Or maybe it was during all of the above. I’m not completely sure. What I do know is that these moments were filled with talk, and in at least a few of these moments the talk shifted to Pittsburgh. They told me about new restaurants that just opened, construction that was finished (but still seemed never-ending), bars that were our old haunts, and the well-wishes from friends. And after a while, I realized just how little I now thought about that place, those days. At some point along the line I had packed up all the thoughts I used to cling to of my past. I realized that, after so much time away, Pittsburgh had stopped being just Pittsburgh for me. Without me even realizing, time away had terraformed it into so much more. It had become a box, and I had packed it full to bursting with all of the stuff home was and is, in me.

Pittsburgh wasn’t just the city I was born anymore. It had become an atmosphere, almost ethereal. Suddenly I was recalling things in so many abstracted ways: the soft glow of neon on Murray Ave. in the rain, the strobes and warped wood at one of my favorite bars, the street lights zooming past my windshield on I-376 (only a pleasure to travel on at twilight, when the roads are clear), old bar stools so worn that you just might be tipsy enough to fall asleep on them. I smelled baskets of tater tots and tasted dollar tacos. The box held the wide streets from my grandparents’ neighborhood in the suburbs, my mom’s homemade spaghetti and my dad’s secret rib recipe. I dug around and found my sister hogging the TV to find out who was not the father. I found my granddad reading the newspaper in the kitchen, and my grandma taking a nap on their patio. My friends only came for 10 days, but even halfway around the world, just their presence made me feel like I was home.

Before I knew it, I was standing with my buddies at the turnstiles again. We had made one last toast the night before, and the next morning, souvenirs in hand, we made our way to the train station. The ride in was quiet. After firm hugs and pats on the shoulder, I watched them walk down the hall and around the corner towards the bullet train. I looked for them in the distance for longer than I’d care to admit. I looked until I realized that I felt like I had when I boarded my plane to Japan 10 months earlier.

I walked back to my apartment alone, Pittsburgh playing between my ears like an old song stuck in my head. Back at my apartment, it looked like a storm had come through. I spent the morning cleaning, and as the sun began to set, I laid back on the futon and listened to the silence. It hurt, but it wasn’t all bad: for the first time in a long time as I slept, I dreamt of Home.