Ten and a half months later

First post in almost a year, but let’s just jump right in, shall we? My pension refund came in over the weekend. Although pension contributions were taken out of all my paychecks while I lived in Japan, the government is kind enough to return that money to me once I prove that I have left the country and will not be growing old there and recouping those expenses. However, the refund was also taxed, which means I have to send in one last form in order to reclaim the taxed portion.

This means I have just dug up the forms and instruction packets from one year ago that I filled out in English and Japanese and dutifully copied and saved. Looking at the Japanese words in my handwriting brings back to me all the work that I did in figuring out this pension refund procedure. The most memorable part was a sunny bike ride (how I miss my bike!) to the tax office: my vice principal let me leave school to do it, and it felt for all the world like playing hooky (I’ll admit that I stopped for a pastry at the train station on the way back).

What made life in Japan so difficult is also what made it so amazing: I was completely on my own. Expat life presents a lot of problems and obstacles, and although what I focused on at the time were the failures (to assimilate, to befriend coworkers, to communicate perfectly), there were also a lot of successes. I paid bills. I bought food. I filed for a pension refund. And I overcame those obstacles, large and small, more or less by myself.

The concentration of problem-solving experiences in my life here in the United States is simply not as high as it was in Japan, and I think I’ve figured out that that is what I miss so deeply: the feeling of figuring things out by myself. And at the same time, I realize it’s good that I left when I did. I may never experience self-reliance quite as challenging and rewarding as that which came with living abroad. But I cannot recreate the exhilarating independence that I felt in Japan without also returning to the overwhelming isolation and disconnectedness.

I guess what I have to do, now that I’m back, is to set lofty, difficult goals to ensure that I have problems to solve and successes to rack up. Sure, I’m in my home country with a network of friends and family to support me, so the successes won’t be as dramatic. But I have to try, right? :)

Saigo no saigo: My very last class

It was unreal. That glowing JET experience that they splash across the brochures and the websites — I lived it, for 50 minutes. My last class at junior high was one of the few times the students were so engaged, having so much fun, experimenting with their English. (Lately, among the first-year boys, this involves some variation of “You are beautiful.”)

I’ve been doing a Jeopardy-style quiz game in every class for the last 3 weeks, and it’s met with pretty good results, but nothing like the room full of screaming, laughing 12-year-olds, every hand in the air, that I experienced today. When I walked into the classroom, I was met with enthusiastic applause. When I announced that we were playing a game, applause. When I announced the name of the game (they have never heard the word “Jeopardy” in their lives) — applause.

After the game, I showed a PowerPoint that first covered my experiences around the prefecture and then introduced LA, loosely my home city. Questions abounded. These included the standard “How old are you?” ( I guess they’ve forgotten that every single class asked this 4 months ago at the start of term), and when I told them that tomorrow happens to be my birthday, there was yet another enthusiastic outburst, followed by a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday.”

I made a short speech at the end of class thanking the class for a good year. They told me for the thousandth time that I am very cute and “You are Great Teacher” (they know that moniker from this manga/anime), which made me a little teary-eyed, causing shouts of “Oh, sensei! Namida [tears]!” and “Don’t cry!”

God, who’s been on my mind a lot as I struggle to deal with the grief of leaving, was with me today, coursing through the kids of grade 1, class 2 and leaving me with this unexpected feeling not of sadness but of peace — a washed-cleanness like that of the hot blue sky outside. The formidable energy of 36 teens focused, like sunlight through a magnifying glass, on my lesson — there’s nothing quite like it.

In every possible way

It’s Sunday morning and I am on my way home from Leaver’s Weekend, the bookend event to Welcome Weekend. Japan through the train windows is a vision of green, blue and white: endless shimmering rice fields, clear sky overhead and rainclouds vaguely threatening at the edges of the horizon. Sunlight streams through the windows and “Dreams” starts playing on my iPod.

 

I had written kind of flippantly in much earlier blog entries about enjoying the challenge of living abroad, as if it was something I had already grasped. And sure, I’ll never fully “get it” – maybe if I stayed for years and years I would. But as I lounge on the ugly rust-colored seats of the Hokuriku Line and speed towards my waiting apartment full of warm summer air and light, I think about the person I was a year ago – a newly minted college graduate just gearing up for a year more rewarding and transformative than I could imagine – and I think I understand. Although I couldn’t see it, my life was changing every day.

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Looking back

Although it’s still two months before I return to the United States, I’m beginning to wrap up my affairs in Japan, job-hunt, and plan my future. So I’m starting to be able to look back on my life here and articulate what it’s been like.

This is actually something I thought about a fair amount before I came to Japan: What will I have to say about this time after it’s over? When people ask me at church or work or parties, “What was it like living in Japan?,” what will I reply?

I had imagined it as something along the lines of “It was a blast” — sentences brimming with superlatives, tales of unforgettable cultural experiences and, most importantly, all tied together with the concept of FUN. Because if you’re 22 and abroad and not having “the time of your life,” you’re doing something wrong, right?

It turns out that, like Eryk — the blogger behind This Japanese Life and my absolute favorite author on expat life — what this year abroad has given me hasn’t been crazy, exotic fun so much as life lessons and a greater understanding of myself. So here are the things I can say about having lived here:

I found a career path that excites me, challenges me and inspires me. I stumbled on work that I love doing but also developed larger ideals and goals behind that work.

I formed close friendships with people whom I might have written off in my old life: people whose superficial identities — political views, taste in music and movies — don’t match mine. We connected not over shared likes and dislikes but over being emotional human beings who could give and receive support. I came to see myself a lot better, I think, than before, through the various lenses of these diverse relationships.

I learned it’s okay to be alone. Being alone isn’t the same thing as being lonely, or sad, or antisocial. I stopped passing up opportunities just because I didn’t have a buddy to go with me and hold my hand.

This is the most important thing I learned:
I’m not responsible for how others feel about me or how they treat me. When I first wrote this down, I was thinking about dating: in the past year, I’ve dated more than I did before (which is not saying much), and a few things went pretty wrong. At first, I was devastated when I was mistreated, used, lied to; it sounds cliched, but I think I blamed myself.

And somehow, something clicked in the latter half of this year. Others’ treatment of me is where I end and they begin. It is not a reflection of my value as a person. This has been perhaps more important for me in Japan-specific situations than in dating: in my life as a foreigner, I’ve run up against so many situations and remarks intended to make me feel strange, incompetent, less-than. But the world does not decide who I am. If a guy lies to me or a stranger gapes at me, that is a reflection of their identity, not mine.

Hindsight
Last, I’ll address the thing I thought, a year ago, that I would have to say. The thing about FUN. This Japanese Life puts it better than I can:

“You’re going to have the best time of your life.” I heard this a lot from people before I left. Nobody meant for it to stress me out, but it did. … How much did this compound the feeling of failure and insecurity about my ability to cope in Japan? …

Fun is a side effect, not a goal. Life requires rest, security, and the comfort of people who actually care about you. When those conditions are met, happiness organically emerges. It takes time to get that all in place, and it can be frustrating here, as the connections you make are, by nature, fleeting. Don’t depend on forcing “fun” into a substitute for the things you actually need.

I’ll add that, even beyond rest, security and good relationships, there is value in the experiences that are decidedly un-fun. Dragging myself out of various states of despair did a lot more for me in terms of personal growth than any drunken night or awesome getaway weekend could.

Maybe all of these things would have happened for me even if I hadn’t decided to move to Japan. Maybe it was some cosmic time-release system: “You will learn this set of life lessons within a year of graduating from college.” But who knows?

An imagined second year

Preamble

I have hit a low point in my attitude towards Japan. Well, towards life as a foreigner, filtered through the lens of Japan. I’m not dissatisfied with the country per se; I’m disappointed in the treatment of foreigners and the underlying cultural attitudes about them. It feels like instead of meeting the Japanese halfway and striking a balance between our cultural differences, I’m stretching 90% of the way all on my own – and still find myself pushed onto a strange pedestal that feels more like a prison.

There’s a Japanese saying, “The nail that sticks up gets pounded down.” I think the glaring exception to this rule is foreigners: no matter how much we try to worm our way into the proverbial wood, we are firmly held back, held separate, by the surrounding culture.

I’ve noticed a change in myself in the last month or two: for at least my first six months here, I tried so hard to adapt, to “read the air,” to show coworkers and the general public that I could fit into their culture. I was always on edge, always apologizing or preparing to do so, trying to do everything the way I saw others doing it.

I used to privately distinguish myself from other foreigners who really seemed to want, literally, to become Japanese – people who obsessively studied the language, put on all the cute clothes and mannerisms– but it turns out I was working just as hard to change myself, in the hyper-adaptability and humility I tried to exude. Now, I act and react more or less as my American self, stripping away the makeshift Japaneseness that everyone always knew was counterfeit anyway.

 I will always, my whole life, maintain that Japan is a gorgeous country with a culture worth learning about, both in the teeming cities of Tokyo and Osaka and off the beaten tourist track. But I cannot endorse it as a place to live and work as a foreigner. I don’t pretend to speak to the experience of all foreigners here, nor to imply that immigrant or resident alien life is better in the United States or elsewhere. All I am saying is that I’m disillusioned by my experience, and that life as a gaijin is not for me.

My Fantasy Second Year

There are so many things that I wish I could stay and accomplish, so many frustrations from this year that I know will never be resolved. So I like to imagine that, if I stayed a second year, I would confront head-on everything that has bothered me about my life here.

I would start by refusing to play along anymore in the caricaturizing of foreign countries.

One day, I would refuse to smile indulgently when a teacher told her 10-year-old students that, “if you put up the middle finger in America, you will be riddled with bullets” (this last clause not spoken but vividly mimed). My supplies of temperance and patience would run dry as I continued to correct the stream of outrageous and offensive assumptions about Americans or foreigners in general (because all too often in Japan, those two terms are interchangeable), presented to me gleefully by coworkers who should know better.

I would also confront the routine harassment of foreign women, the legions of men who target us because they assume that we lack the language skills to object.

When a store employee said, “you have long legs compared to me,” and reached to grope my hip – or when a stranger asked me out of nowhere if I was wearing nylons and pinched my knee – I would finally yell at him like I always wish, in retrospect, I had. I would embarrass him for the whole country to see: I’d eloquently tear down stereotypes (because in this second year, I would be practically fluent in Japanese) as well as this creep’s inflated ego.

No More Ms. Nice Guy

And yet, at the same time, I would be a stereotypical American. I would put my foot down, set ultimatums, stand up for my individuality and my personhood and my culture, for the ideals of tolerance and respect that America has instilled in me.

Why I haven’t done any of these things this year, I couldn’t tell you. All I feel is an immense shame and frustration, a lack of integrity: I was so busy trying not to make waves that I forgot how to be myself in the midst of this vast ocean of a foreign culture.

Until tonight, I had felt guilty about the recent transition I’ve mentioned, from desperate attempts at adaptation back to plain old me. Until tonight, I had seen it as giving up. But I’m beginning to view the problem of cultural exchange (and yes, in Japan it is a problem) as one that can’t be solved with tact and gentleness and a sugar coating. I’m beginning to believe that, as someone hired for my foreignness, my job is more about constructive criticism than about playing nice. And my job extends far beyond the classroom: in a way, I’m always at work – challenging prejudices one at a time, in every interaction with every store clerk, postal worker and creepy stranger.

I think our countries have things to learn from each other, and the closed-mindedness I’ve run up against time and time again here discourages me. I can only hope that I won’t find a similar brand of exclusivist nationalism in my own country when I return.

Ritualized graduation misery

I expect I’ll always remember March 2013 as one of the saddest times in my life. It’s been a tough week and it will only get worse until the term ends on the 22nd.

With graduation coming up in less than two weeks at all of my schools, classes are drawing to a close and the end-of-year finality is heavy in the air. Yesterday I was invited to a shaonshiki at one of my visiting elementary schools, which is a thank-you ceremony that the graduating students put on for the teachers and staff. I have two more of these to get through (one for each of my schools), not to mention graduation as my third-year junior high students move on to high school, but I’m choosing to write this post before any of those other events. I suspect I’ll be so rubbed raw emotionally over the next two weeks that I’d be dripping all over the keyboard…

What makes shaonshiki so unbearably poignant, I think, is a combination of two potent factors. First, as a teacher, I feel the unavoidable sadness of sending off students with whom I’ve spent hours of classes and exchanged countless greetings and banter; students with whom I’ve shared the desperate frustration of trying to cross the language barrier. (In my *last ever* class with the junior high third-years today, I felt that helpless frustration for the billionth time as a student eagerly asked me a question in Japanese which I couldn’t understand. I thought, maybe by the grace of God I can give this student the small gift of a successful exchange before I say goodbye forever – but no such luck.)

Wrapped up in this teacherly pain is a parental concern for the kids, which leads me to the second stab of shaonshiki: I realize with surprise that maybe the hallmark intense groupism of Japan has rubbed off on me. As I watch my students, thanking the teachers and staff with stiff formality but full of emotion, I find myself feeling everything on their behalf.

These young teenagers fight through tears as they prepare to leave the group of peers and adults that’s been their community for six formative years. Nobody in the class of twenty-six is immune. Not Oyama, who was Mr. Personality all year, loud and confident and always joking; not Mori, who was sweetly silly, constantly smiling, and whose favorite pastime in English class was saying his own full name with an exaggerated American accent. Those students who are dry-eyed still can’t hide their set mouths, tight lips, drawn faces.

And I want so badly to be a grown-up for them: to smile at them, tell them it will be okay, tell them that about a decade ago I was in their shoes, young and scared and uncertain about the future. But my throat is painfully tight as I see in my class of young, bubbly sixth graders the misery that comes with ending a chapter in their lives.

Also, it’s simply not true that I was in their shoes when I was that age. Thinking back on my own commencement ceremonies at elementary and middle school, I remember being a few things – relieved to be done with that level of school; excited to move on; happy and proud to be celebrating with my family and school community. I definitely wasn’t sad. And that’s only natural: in American society, school was nowhere near as big a part of my life as it is for these Japanese kids.

As all ALTs in Japan come to understand, teachers and students have a much closer relationship here than in the United States. And with Japanese adults working famously long hours, plus school and club activities in the evenings and on weekends, many of my students have probably spent more time with the teachers and staff than with their parents.

Somehow the fact that I’ll see these students in less than a month, when they enter my junior high school, doesn’t console me as much as I would expect. Again, I feel that my whole pattern of thinking and feeling has been impacted by this culture, and I can’t escape the collective sadness that this room full of students, teachers, staff and parents seems to feel as one.

All I can ask for during this trying month is to be as strong as these students are forced to be: to face the future with their grace, their maturity, and their bravery. I can be thankful, too, that my job is something I care enough about to shed tears over.

Global diversity and the racialized universe of stock photos

Part of my job is “cultural exchange at the grassroots level,” and it’s especially clear in elementary schools that I’m there not only to teach language but to widen students’ awareness of the diverse world beyond their country hometown. So when my homemade flashcards and other activity cards involve images of people, I always try to mix up ethnicities and ages. ALTs work to debunk the Japanese kid’s assumption that all English speakers are white Americans (and being a white American myself doesn’t help me in this respect!).

I feel guilty and fake somehow for using terms like “interracial couple” in my image searches. But I realized today how ludicrous and problematic it is that stock images are invariably of young, attractive white people, unless they have modifying terms. That is, “family at Christmas” will yield exclusively white families, and only by adding a race word can you escape the Internet vortex of beautiful white people.

Yes, it seems like a small thing to harp on, but this is one example of the hegemonic structures of race and institutional prejudice whose repercussions become clearer, perhaps, in this job than in others. I’ve already written about the unequal position of English among world languages, with its overtones of privilege and political and economic power. Just as that issue didn’t become clear to me until I worked closely with EFL* students, the underrepresentation of minorities (especially in English-speaking culture) is a problem that might not be so apparent to me were I not attempting to teach students about diversity and the world abroad.

The problem is not an actual shortage of images. Indeed, there are thousands of pages of images of black, Asian, Latin@ people available online – once you’ve manipulated Google Images with the right combination of descriptors. My complaint is that we can’t conceive of minorities without labeling them by race; that the faces of people who aren’t young and white are lost in a kind of racialized anonymity.

The blanket terms are applied liberally in academia – “underrepresentation of minorities,” “invisibility,” the “politics of representation.” But a few Google searches reveal that there’s actually very little material out there, whether in the academic context or in the blogosphere, that discusses concrete examples of these big ideas. Stock photos are not a very important part of most of our lives, but they are rooted in the milieu of racial language, and this belies the voices out there claiming that we (Americans, but also the whole world) are a “post-racial” society.

*English as a Foreign Language. We distinguish this from ESL because, where ESL learners are surrounded by an English-speaking society and need the language to function in everyday life, there’s no practical application of English for students here. (Combine that fact with teenage ennui and you can begin to imagine the motivational problems ALTs face with many classes!)