Monthly Archives: September 2012

“Honest work”: a few words

Today at 3:55, I was sitting at my desk at my visiting elementary school, trying to look busy as usual. At that school, I have a set schedule and never teach any classes after lunch, so it’s a challenge to find enough to do in those post-lunch hours.

Then, one of the vice principals made an announcement over the loudspeaker. I caught a few things: it was an announcement for staff, something was beginning at 4pm. I got up to ask another teacher what this was about, and it turns out the teachers were all going to do a massive cleaning of the school to prepare for a school festival-ish thing next weekend. I decided to see what I could do to help.

When I joined the other teachers outside to weed the garden/playground area, everyone apologized profusely, mostly about me wearing a skirt and joining them in a dirty job. This happens often. Whenever someone else gives me work to do, they fall all over themselves apologizing and expressing regret that I have to go to any effort. It’s just a cultural thing, but I wish people understood that I actually cherish having tasks to complete! And if they’re as menial and straightforward as pulling weeds, so much the better!

It’s impossible for me to explain it to my coworkers, but I would so much rather be out in the dirt doing something productive than sitting at my desk in the stuffy staff room as the blood pools in my lower body.  I truly, honestly, 100% don’t mind making hundreds of copies of a worksheet if it’s work that needs to be done. I guess I’m saying I enjoy doing these modest tasks because it makes me feel useful. At work, I want to feel like I’m contributing something. And hey, I was given a delicious little mochi this afternoon for my 30 minutes of hard work. 🙂


An essay contest that showed me the sad state of my writing

I’ve actually been here for 6 weeks now, but the topic of the following piece is “My first month in Japan.” I wrote it for a contest that was connected with a social event this weekend: all of the Toyama prefecture JETs (and friends) went to a campsite high up in the mountains with plenty of beer and had some pretty sweet adventures. Had I won the contest, I could have gotten a whole 1500 yen (US$17-ish) off the price… but alas, it was not to be. Somehow, dear readers, I write comfortably for you, but when competition was involved, my recent stint in academia reared its ugly head and my writing got all stiff and cheesy. You can read the excellent winners here.

Anyway, despite its flaws, I’m throwing the mini essay up here because there are some fun anecdotes. I found out later about the belly button thing in the first paragraph: Japanese parents tell their kids during thunderstorms that the thunder god will steal their belly buttons. 😀


Since coming to Japan, I haven’t had any huge moments in which this drastic change to my life becomes clear. Instead, there’s been the occasional surprising minor event. The weather is one example. Obviously, sweating for the majority of each day, I had noticed that the weather wasn’t what I was used to. But somehow it didn’t really sink in until my Japanese teacher and fellow students (from China and Thailand) were discussing thunderstorms and all the ways thunder affected them: they felt scared, covered their ears, and there was something about belly buttons that I didn’t quite catch. “So, Melissa, what do people do where you’re from?” As I said, “We don’t really have thunderstorms in California,” there was a mini jolt: I really am halfway across the world.

Of course, some changes to my daily life are much more apparent. If you were to rely on the remarks of Japanese people, I have transformed into a deity since coming here. Everything I touch turns to gold; everything I do is jouzu*. The Western goddess appears to have only one flaw: she is oblivious to the fact of her own youth. Luckily, I have a supportive community of teachers, acquaintances and complete strangers (and some ALTs…) to remind me every day how young I am. If you made a list of most frequently used words in my Japanese class, at the top would be wakai** – said with that cutesy intonation that only the Japanese can pull off.

Although I’ve had plenty of bizarre and delightful interactions with Japanese people, I have spent the vast majority of my first month here in the company of other JETs. We’ve all been under the spell of what I’ve come to think of as the summer camp phenomenon. Nobody knows anybody else, so everyone is extra open to making friends. I think it’s beautiful. We’ve made a fresh start; all the habits and preconceptions that we carried around with us back home are gone. Friendships grow out of practically nothing. Spend a few minutes chatting with someone at a barbeque and you feel you’ve found your soulmate.

“Who are you replacing?” That’s a question I have become used to; it tends to occur very early in conversation with senior JETs. It reminds me of an article I read at university about rural Corsica, where it’s taboo to ask for someone’s name when you first meet them. Instead, you establish some point of commonality by turning up a mutual acquaintance. It’s like my predecessor is that tenuous connection between me and veteran JETs, an absent third party who helps us bridge the gap between being strangers and being friends. Maybe it does us some good to see the imprint that this person has left, the effect he or she has even after leaving Japan. I’m inspired to make the same kind of mark, however big or small, during my time here.


To become Japanese?

I have been forming these thoughts for a while, and I’ve already talked to a lot of fellow JETs about this topic in person. So if you’re one of those people, sorry for the repetition! Maybe I’ll be more eloquent on paper (well, on screen).

I always used to envy friends whose families had immigrated to the United States from elsewhere. It seemed like there was this huge facet of their identities — that of having a mother culture — that I lacked. My family has been in the same country for generations; we never had to pack up our heritage and bring it to a new place. We never had to work to preserve the traditions, clothes, language that were important to us; these things already surrounded us, they were already part of the dominant culture. I always felt a little deprived, passed over, for not having the kind of cultural history and identity that I could see was so important to my friends’ families.

Coming to another country has helped me to become aware of my American-ness and how profoundly it has shaped who I am. Some people begin their journeys abroad as visitors and then become permanent expatriates; they create a home in a new part of the world. I have a strong feeling that the opposite is true for me. As I wrote in the last post, I feel that I belong in America, whatever its flaws may be; at least they’re intimately familiar ones!

This position of being between cultures — of growing up in one culture and then being transplanted to another — is one that people approach in a variety of ways. Some hold tight to what they are used to and fail to see any value in assimilating; they create an individual-sized American bubble in Japan, or a Mexican microcosm in the United States, and so on. Others attempt to balance the familiar and the strange, the old culture and the new, while still others dive enthusiastically into the new culture and try to soak up as much of it as possible.

Which brings me to my main point: The great paradox of the JET Program is that the Japanese government hires Westerners with the aim of bringing a small piece of authentic, pristine Western culture to Japan — and yet, many of the people who make the final cut are Westerners who want more or less to become Japanese. It’s this perfect, circular irony, like The Gift of the Magi or something! As Japan works hard to accommodate our difference and learn from a different culture, some JETs work just as hard to efface those characteristics that make them un-Japanese.

As you’ve probably figured out, I don’t believe we should become Japanese — indeed, I don’t think we can. I do think that we can and should learn from and appreciate the culture that surrounds us. So it’s a balance. If some behavior or belief that you brought from home is important to you, you can find a way to fit it into your life here. If it’s a hot day, I’d go ahead and wear that spaghetti strap blouse, even though I haven’t seen any Japanese women dress like that. But at the same time, I make every effort to eat new and strange foods, to notice and emulate the behavior of the people around me, and to speak Japanese.

At its best, I think time abroad should teach you an infinite number of new things while also showing you exactly how and why your home culture is precious to you.