Monday, January 30, 2006

Strange Days

Today was a strange day. Lately the ninth graders have been taking practice tests for the end of the year to graduate and so I haven't been going to their classes. Mainly I've been going to the eighth grade, which is my favorite grade level anyway. But today the eighth graders finished their textbook and will begin their practice tests for the end of the year now. The ichinensei (oops, I mean seventh graders) have been doing this for a bit of time already, so I am now sitting at my desk in the teacher's office a lot, busying myself with whatever I can come up with and only seeing the kids at lunch and after school mainly, and in the hallways. So the day passed slowly today.

At lunch, I went to a seventh grade classroom to eat and was going about my business until I bit into this...I don't know what to call it. Something fried on a stick. I figured it was some sort of fish as usual, but when I started chewing I tasted something odd. I don't even know how to describe it, but I had definitely never tasted whatever this was before. So I asked the kid in front of me, "Ne ne, nani kore?" Hey, hey, what's this? And he is very excited although all the other kids at our table are groaning and making icky faces and giving him their sticks. "Oniku!" he says. It's meat! Well duh, I thought, I could tell by looking into the stick where I bit off a piece that it was meat, although it was really dark, like dark chocolate colored, and greasy looking. "Donna niku?" I said. What sort of meat? But his mouth is full now, so I turn to the girl beside me and repeat my question. What sort of meat is it? "Gujira," she says, "mazui ne!" Whale, it sucks, doesn't it!

Suddenly my stomach flips. I knew whale was being served again on coastal towns, but it hadn't reached Edosaki in the past year and a half I've been here. It's a meat and potatoes farm town. I've tried a variety of different foods here while I've been here, and honestly the only thing I don't like are the tiny little fish that they put in my eggs and salads occasionally at school lunch, the ones that look like noodles with eyes, and I don't like the small fish that have their mouths wide open and their eyes all frightfully bulged out, which are apparently popular breakfast food. Oh, and natto, really don't like it at all. Nasty smell and sticky/runny like half refrigerated jello. But I figure hey, there's lots of things I don't like in my own culture's food, I don't have to like everything here either. In fact, the vice principal is always impressed that I can eat almost anything they serve. But now I'm adding whale to my list. I tried another bite after knowing what it was, but it's just a strange tasting and feeling meat, and it just made my stomach feel unsettled. And for the rest of the day I felt that way.

There was a meeting at the end of the day, so I left school a bit early and sort of rushed out in order to get home and grab my gym bag and head off so maybe I could spare an extra hour of night for myself. But while I hurried, I forgot to put on my seatbelt, and just a few blocks from school a policeman was standing in the road waving some people on and telling others to pull into a parking lot. He directed me to the parking lot. I knew almost immediately why. I didn't care though. I was more annoyed with the whale I ate. So I park and the policeman comes over and gets the nervous look on his face, but asks if I understand Japanese, I tell him I can understand in general, he's surprised, but looks relieved. Then asks if I know why he stopped me. I play dumb. Then he says, your seatbelt, and then I play up my surprise and look terribly shocked and say, "Oh I totally forgot it!" He asks if I understand I have to wear seatbelts in Japan. I said that I do, and that in America we have to also. He says he didn't know that. Then asks for my license and starts filling out a form. Then he says, "There's no garble garble." It's the first word he's said so far that I don't understand, but wait, it ended with "kin" so I'm thinking this has something to do with money, and if I had one more millisecond I would have figured out that it meant "fine." Bakkin. Hello, new word for the day. I was excited to have gotten to the money meaning and was about to assume it meant fine, but he then said, "It's not necessary to pay," which is pretty simple Japanese, which confirmed my suspicions that this new word was "fine". I was very happy for someone who has been pulled over by a cop in another country, or any country period. And even better, no fine! Just a point on my license, which brings me to the older policeman who at first was laughing thinking his young colleague was going to have trouble talking to the gaijin but is seemingly not having any. He comes over and also tells me there's no fine. I tell him I understand. He's very surprised. Asks me where I work. I tell him at the junior high school. Oh, you're a teacher, he says. And asks if I understand the point system here. I say that I don't know, so he explains that if you get ten points on your license, you can't drive for a while. And if you get fifteen, you lose your license. Each year without a violation, a point can be taken off. I'm very grateful, and again happy because a year ago I would have had no clue what they were saying, and now it all seems really simple. But now the young policeman is having trouble writing my name. It's so long! Because on my Japanese drivers license it has my full name. And there are no nicknames here. I feel bad because he's not sure how to fit it all on the page and isn't used to writing in romaji often, so I tell him I can write it for him, which he thanks me for and I finish it off so it all fits neatly in the box. First time to help give myself a warning slip. But everyone is so pleasant and they are apologizing to me for giving it to me, and I'm thinking, you know, American cops could take some pointers from these two guys, because I'm more than willing to take my ticket and move on when everyone is so nice! I am then free to go and return home, still angry at the whale I ate but strangely, absurdly happy about the ticket. I don't understand why I get so stupidly happy about understanding another language, but I do. To the point that even getting a seatbelt ticket makes me happy. Hey, a new word is committed to memory. Bakkin hadn't been in my textbooks I taught myself from, and there's just words like this that I pick up now from situation to situation, and it's just a really interesting place to be at, language-wise.

Along with the whale bothering me, though, I think the real thing that was sort of bothering me today was an uneasy feeling in general, about leaving in a few months. One day I'm happy about going, the next I'm worried sick. Back and forth, back and forth. Just when I think I'm okay with it, my mood switches again. I'm going to assume this is natural for returning. A cultural trainer recently told me that the really hard part of what I've done the past couple of years hasn't happened yet. She said the hard part will be going home, that I'll feel disconnected, will find much of my own culture foreign, will feel alienated by family and friends who haven't witnessed my time away from them and the changes I've gone through, who will most likely be dealing with the person I was when I left them, because they weren't there to see the changes occurring in me. Yay! Can't wait!

So all this, as well as already a worry over what I'll do with myself for work and where to live when I return, has been preying on my mind lately. Last night I couldn't stop turning thoughts over so finally at two in the morning I turned on the light and took out the travel journal I bought in Thailand to record things about that trip in, and starting writing whatever came into my head down in it. And finally after about ten pages, I was tired enough and satisfied enough to go to bed.

It's been hard in many ways, learning how to live in a different culture, but it's been easy for me for a long time now, with only moments of homesickness now and then. And now when I find myself finally making the decision to go home, everything I know again is going to change. In a lot of ways, it'd be easier to stay in Japan at this point, but I think for that exact same reason it is time to go home.


Blogger Karen said...

Having kept this blog may help with your return, because we can see something of the changes you're going through. You may feel that it's not really coming through, but I think it is.

11:05 AM  
Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

Coming home from China was the hardest thing for me, and I wasn't gone as long as you. Nor did I accimate as much as you have. One mistake I made was getting a temp job about five days after I came home. I thought it would be best to just throw myself back into life, but it was so hard. I'd cry every day coming home from work for no reason. Always at the same spot, the exit ramp off the freeway.

So maybe you should come and see me when you get back and then go see some other friends and be a tourist in America for awhile. Although you might not be able to do that. I'd love if you came for a couple of days.

7:32 PM  
Anonymous kblincoln said...

I have to agree with the cultural trainer. It's pretty funny, but the hardest time in my marriage to naoto is when we move back to the U.S. When we have problems in Japan, naoto flips out, but I kind of just take it in stride, it's Japan, so what can you do? But when it's my country, I flip out because you know, I'm supposed to have a handle on things here. But you don't. Not that you did before you went to Japan, but you have this feeling that you should have a handle on your own country.

good luck with your last few months. I always found that friendships were blossoming and things working out really really well the last few months before I leave!

9:55 PM  
Blogger Christopher Barzak said...

Karen--I'm thinking the blog can be a sort of touchstone, for those who read it. I'm not sure anyone in my family reads it besides my mom, though.

Maureen, would love to come see you for a couple days after I get back. And in fact, you read my mind, as the only *real* thing I've planned after I get back is to be a tourist in America for a few months, driving from state to state and couch surfing with friends. I don't think I could throw myself into a job so quickly. I think I would end up crying on the freeway everyday for weeks too. Thanks for the invitation. I'll take you up on it in a few months.

Kirsten, yeah the illusion that you should be more in control in your own culture is a difficult one, but what it comes down to is that we're not really all that in control there either. I'm glad to see you and Naoto are settling into the states with not too too much trouble. And yeah, the last few months are good, and I think that I've heard a lot of people say that about various times they've lived abroad. I think the last few months are always really great because you see an end in sight, but it's sort of an illusion that relaxes you and allows you to just enjoy everything. Which is a useful trick possibly one could play on themselves when living abroad, at least for a while, just telling themselves they're leaving in a few months. ;-)

10:04 PM  
Anonymous Benjamin Rosenbaum said...

Couch, and expatriates experienced in culture detox, standing by in DC.

7:50 PM  
Blogger Christopher Barzak said...

Much appreciated! Will visit. Fellow expatriates appreciated!

9:04 PM  
Blogger Beth Adele said...

As with Maureen, I wasn't it Peru nearly as long as you nor acclimated nearly as much. But I still vividly remember sitting on a bus with two of my friends, driving into Lima the day before my flight left, feeling a deep ache as we passed the dingy neighborhoods that now looked so familiar. And then a mirror image, driving up I-95 out of Miami a couple days later, feeling out of place and overwhelmed by the hugeness of the houses, the cars, the shininess of everything, the casual wealth. The incessant English! And the utter incomprehension in the faces of friends and family when I tried to talk about my experiences.

You always have a Tampa Bay air mattress to crash on and sympathetic expatriate ears. :)

9:03 AM  

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