Wednesday, April 12, 2006

There Are Really Not Enough Words For This

I've been staying with my friend Jody out in the wilds of Yachiyo machi (machi just means town) for the past couple of weeks. It was her house I was moving my things to when I had the accident. That first week here, she was without a car too, as her company was sort of changing hands and the one who had given her a car last year took it back and she had to wait a week and a half for her regular company to give her a new one. Very complicated business, actually, the English teacher gig in Japan. Unfortunately it's not run directly through the schools, but through companies that headhunt and hire people to bring over and teach English, so a foreign English teacher here actually has two bosses, so to speak, their company that hired them and the school they work at. When I first got here I worked directly for my school, because I was replacing someone who left halfway through her contract with the school. After that contract ran out, the company that hired me for the school took over my contract, and I can honestly say things were much better working directly for the school for a number of reasons. Better pay scale raise, more days off, more sick leave, huge bonuses if they weren't given to the company that brought me here to pay them off for headhunting, more freedom to act as an agent in my own doings in the classroom. As soon as my company took over, though, my coordinator was always trying to tell me what I should and shouldn't do at school, even though it was almost always the complete opposite of what my school wanted from me as a teacher. I ended up doing as my school wanted in the end, and mostly ignored my company because they in fact didn't really know much of what the school would like from their foreign teacher. Their advice was almost always in opposition to that. Anyway, those days are over. I'm no longer a foreign English teacher. Except in the way that trees accrue rings for every year of life, so in that sense I'll always be a foreign teacher, it's a part of me, my experience, but the days of doing it every day are done. Jody and my other friends here are already back to work, and I spend my days while she's at work making last minute preparations, reading, cooking, working on a still unannounced project which I will someday soon be making public, and biting my fingernails a lot, wondering what's going to happen to me once I get on that plane and fly ten thousand miles back to Ohio.

There are a lot of things I think I'm imagining correctly that will be as I think, but even those I can't be completely sure of. I've been gone a couple of years, people have kept on living without me, some of those people I haven't spoken to in the entire time I've been here, and then suddenly I'll be there again, in their lives, they in mine, and I just don't know what to expect. I'll be staying with my family when I get home initially, for a couple of reasons. I don't know where I want to go next, what I want to do, who I want to be after this yet. I'll need time to just settle back into things in the United States for a while. Driving on the other side of the road again, driving on the other side of the car actually, deliberating over the cereal aisle with its double digits of choices in breakfast flakes where here I had a choice of maybe eight different kinds of cereal at most. Seeing old friends, wondering if I'll even know how to talk to all these people who were an intimate part of my life before I came here, and who I've kept up relationships with while I've been gone, but differently. It's not the same to get an email, a phone call even, from a friend who's living in another country, and immediately understand the things they're saying to you. It can't be. It's the same as the way I thought I knew what getting into an accident and slamming your head into a windshield would be like, and then having one, and now knowing the difference. Or it's the difference between my classroom French and the Japanese I use and hear everyday. There's a gap, and I hate gaps, but I've been trying to teach myself to be okay with that anyway, because I can't expect anyone to get inside my skin and know who I am now, how I've changed, or why, or to what degree, or for them to know how even though I may have the same sense of humor or pull the same stupid stunts to make people laugh, or make the same idle social banter, who I am underneath all that is really different from the who I was underneath when I left.

After Jody got home from work today, I borrowed her car to go to the 100 yen store to pick up some packing tape. I have one last box I hadn't planned for that I want to send before I go. It seems I'm trying to bring all of Japan that I've accumlated back home with me, whereas when I left America, I left almost everything behind and just took the essentials with me, most of which wasn't essential I later discovered. I tend to have conversations in my head as I drive, just with myself mostly, though I occasionally imagine a conversation partner, a friend or a family member, what they would say about what I'm thinking, etc. But today it was just me, myself and I. And I was thinking how I'm a better person than the one who came to Japan, and how so many people, if I said that in conversation, would say, Oh no, it's not that you're a better person now than you were, you're just a different person now than you were then. But I think I'm both a different person now and also a better one. I wouldn't ever want to be who I was when I came here again. Not that that guy was someone bad or anything. I just like who I am now better than I liked myself then. I was unhappy mostly, to tell the truth. I was unhappy with my life, with where I was living, with the path I'd been walking that seemed to end without any other direction to go in, with my relationship with my family (still not too happy with that one), with my country (another one I'm still not happy about), my culture (yet another), just about everything. And when I came to Japan, I suddenly over a period of mere months started to be happy again. Some of it was a mystery, I didn't know why I was feeling this way, so happy some days that I would be driving home from school and find my eyes filling up with tears because of what? Someone was nice to me at the grocery store? A parent told me thank you for teaching their child? A teacher gave me a souvenire from a trip they had been on? I was going to karaoke with friends later that night? What? What? I had no clue, but I found myself so happy sometimes that at times it overcame me, and yeah, occasionally I'd cry tears of joy. Another truth: I never knew what those were before I came here. I'd never cried them. I didn't really believe they existed except in my mother's sentimental descriptions of emotional events in her life and also in bad romance novels, or maybe just in bad novels in general. Tears of joy. Who knew they were really real? I didn't.

And it wasn't just here and there, it was consistent, for a long time. And even now, my general level of happiness is pretty remarkable. I've had some major low points here, I've had my heart broken, that tore me up for a while pretty bad, but even then I had a general level of goodness in my life, I still kept my chin up and walked forward and enjoyed my job most days and my friends and whatever came my way, I enjoyed my solitude too. I've lived alone before I came here, but I always had a sort of sad feeling when living alone before, like I wanted someone around to share the space with, to make memories with. But here I even enjoyed the times I was completely alone as well.

So it's with some nervousness and worry and anxiety and all of those other words that fall into that sort of emotional classification that I write now, thinking about that happiness, and thinking about the world I'm returning to, and wondering if what I've gained here will be compromised by going home. Can I be happy in America? Can I live the sort of life I want to live? Will I be disgusted with the general state of the culture and run screaming to the nearest airport within days after arriving? Will I be happy there too? Because really, you know, this happiness thing, it's not easy to do. In fact, in some ways, I don't feel it was anything that had to do with me, I can't name anything that I did here specifically that made myself happier than I did back home. I was a teacher back home too. I taught college freshmen, most of whom didn't even know why they were in college and didn't appreciate the fact that they could go to college, and didn't understand the power of an education or the beauty of learning for the sake of learning, of growing and becoming a bigger person, hopefully, with the more knowledge you acquire. Here I was thanked almost every day for doing what in America was a thankless job. Education is serious here. I don't know how many times I was told thank you for taking care of my child, or thank you, Chris sensei, for studying with me, etc. It took me months to get used to this. I wanted to tell anyone who thanked me, it's just my job, no no, you don't have to thank me, it's nothing. And I tried to say that, but they kept on thanking. And then one day it hit me, how wonderful it was to go to work and why I loved my job so much, at least part of it was the fact that I was actually appreciated, that I wasn't some drone, that the community I worked for really did appreciate me doing what I did. It made me happy. And I never felt that kind of feeling about any job I held in America. I felt useful here, and a part of things. There were of course many times when I felt very apart, just being a foreigner, but all in all, there was an underlying sense of community I had here that I hadn't experienced back home in the everyday world. I had my community of writing world friends, but I saw them all of several times a year. In my everyday world, though, well it pales in comparison to what I experienced here.

I don't want to say everything here was better. There are of course lots of things that I have decided over time I prefer the way something is done back home, or whatnot. I like hugging for example, which isn't done here very often at all. I got most of my hugs from my elementary school children because it was "okay" for them to still hug because they were kids. When the sixth graders I taught my first year became junior high students the second year, they would hug me in the hallways and the teachers all thought it was cute, but the kids never tried to hug any of the Japanese teachers, and eventually after a few months of being junior high kids they came to realize they had better lay off the hugging Chris sensei all the time now that they were badass seventh graders.

I miss them already and I've only not been teaching for the past couple of weeks.

It's that sort of feeling that makes me wonder how much I'll miss everything here when I'm home again. Because, even though it may sound bad, maybe even offensive to some people, I didn't miss home much the entire time I was here. I miss individual people, I missed certain kinds of food, I missed certain places, of course, but not everything, not the big wide world of America and everything that goes along with that. I didn't miss my life there.

But I'm afraid I'm going to miss my life here.

4 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think there's something to be said for learning to--or realizing that you can--be happy, be content. Because once you've done that, you know that it's possible. It becomes something that you can carry around and keep.

- Hannah

6:55 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

Been trying to think of something not-ridiculous to say. But Hannah makes a good point. Sometimes you have to get out of context to figure out who you are and what makes you happy. Hopefully, armed with that knowledge, you are returning to us ready to carve out a place here no matter what.

In any case, it'll be good to see you!

2:37 AM  
Anonymous kirsten said...

I'm sure you have other Japan veterans giving you the same advice, but anyway, I just wanted to say that it is difficult to come back home, sometimes more than going to Japan in the first place. Partly, I think because you have the expectation that things will be difficult and awkward in japan, but when things are like that in your home country it is annoying. Also, I think, because when you are male and white in Japan you are a "local celebrity" kind of thing. People act certain ways toward you just because of who you are, but meanwhile, they don't expect you to toe the Japanese culture line. It's kind of like a get out of jail free card. (women, too to some extent, but we still end up making tea for the office). Anyway, be kind to yourself when you get back, it takes longer than a few weeks or months to readjust. Until I found myself traveling back and forth with husband and children (in which case the difference isn't so great) I really had a hard time with coming back.

And if you find yourself in Portland, let me know!

7:10 PM  
Anonymous kirsten said...

I'm sure you have other Japan veterans giving you the same advice, but anyway, I just wanted to say that it is difficult to come back home, sometimes more than going to Japan in the first place. Partly, I think because you have the expectation that things will be difficult and awkward in japan, but when things are like that in your home country it is annoying. Also, I think, because when you are male and white in Japan you are a "local celebrity" kind of thing. People act certain ways toward you just because of who you are, but meanwhile, they don't expect you to toe the Japanese culture line. It's kind of like a get out of jail free card. (women, too to some extent, but we still end up making tea for the office). Anyway, be kind to yourself when you get back, it takes longer than a few weeks or months to readjust. Until I found myself traveling back and forth with husband and children (in which case the difference isn't so great) I really had a hard time with coming back.

And if you find yourself in Portland, let me know!

7:10 PM  

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