I recently wrote an email to a friend and former coworker about my life so far in Japan. While writing this essay of an email, I realized that I talk sparingly about living in Japan. My blog has become more about my very personal experiences. Experiences that may occur no matter where I’m living. Do some of my new followers even know I’m living on the other side of the world??? My friend asked me some really good questions that made me think more about what Life is as an expat in Japan. I have decided to share and build upon excerpts from this correspondence with you all.
The thing that scares me the most about living here is that it actually feels normal. I wake up, eat breakfast, go to work, teach. The kids try to grab my hair and call me Buddha. Another tries to “kamehameha” me below the belt; it’s just an average day. Monday through Friday I’m on autopilot. Sometimes I’m on autopilot and awake through it all; other times I’m not really there. My mind will be somewhere else. In my journal like I am now, until the bell rings for next period. I’m snapped out of the hypnosis; awake and ready to resume the sequence.
In these autopilot sequences, sometimes I even forget who I am externally. I’ll be at the supermarket on a Wednesday as usual. Buying milk, soba noodles, eggs, bread, and whatever fresh fruit is on sale. Walking tall, back straight, but eyes cast slightly down like everyone else. Partly because my glasses never stay high on my nose. Partly because I want to feel like I am them too. While walking through the dairy section I’ll begin to notice an older man staring at me. I won’t confront him directly with a return glance. But I remain in my position to see how long the stare lasts. As I’m looking down at the yogurt, I feel another twin beam on the side of my face. A young child a few feet away is staring up at me. I don’t take offense to the two pairs of eyes now casting a spotlight on me. Curiosity is as alive in the youth as it is in the elders. Enough of these stares in a short period of time and I’m forcefully pulled out of the realm of recycled inner thoughts. Out of sequence. Out of autopilot. The world is not so normal anymore. If anything, it’s as foreign to me as the Moon. But the reality is, I’m the only foreign thing about this whole supermarket scene. I am the alien finally realizing that he’s different from everyone else.
If I am away from society for some time (e.g. a long weekend snowed indoors), the likelihood of this “Man on the Moon” moment to occur increases. Being stationary for a while kinda messes up my autopilot mode. I never see these moments as a negative occurrence. They serve more as a reminder of my own uniqueness. When I had these moments as a teenager going to an all-white private school, my reaction was much different. I was filled apprehension. I felt like I was silently being judged in everything I did. From the slightly ebonic colloquialisms, to the parts I got my barber to design into my temple. I don’t think my double consciousness has entirely gone away since then. It’s still there, but no longer strong enough to take my confidence away.
Being a student abroad is much different from working abroad. I didn’t realize how much more social my life was by simply being present for class. Also, living in a share house was a social experiment in itself. Using shared facilities, there was really no way to avoid interaction with housemates. I loved it. Ontakesan share house was little slice of America (and a morsel of Canada) to help ease the cultural transition. Although I did work during this time, it wasn’t the same. My bosses knew that I was also in Japan to enjoy myself in the little time I had. I could take off for a day trip if I wanted to.
Now, I work. I can’t take days off left and right. I probably couldn’t afford to do so either. My interactions at work are limited to my Japanese abilities. My students are really the ones I talk to the most, not my coworkers. With the new time I have, I’ve started to develop my own post-undergrad curriculum. 1 documentary a week, Japanese studies on Thursdays and Fridays, a page of personal writing daily, blog posts weekly. I’ve been learning my whole life, why stop? Yet unlike an actual school, I’m the only student in the classroom.
No job training can prepare a rural ALT for the level of isolation one could experience. My coworkers in other cities have told me how fortunate I am to at least be in a 20-minute radius of a bar. They say I’m even more lucky to be a 50-minute train ride from Tokyo. I keep forgetting how big Japan really is. I could have gotten placed in the mountains somewhere. I see why people typically stay in these contracts for a year or less. I can’t imagine what it would be like to just quit my job, depart with all I’ve known, and move to work in a foreign land. It’s like starting all over again, with no base but your employer. I had a base: friends, language experience, familiarity with the culture. Yet even I still have those feelings of isolation so prevalent in the hearts of my coworkers.
My first time here, I was all about making as many Japanese friends as possible. At the time, I felt like that was the best way to get a grasp on the culture. Because of this, I sometimes avoided hanging out with my American peers. I even would go out alone on some nights. I had this weird theory that Japanese people would have an easier time approaching 1-2 foreigners rather a whole crowd of them. The second time around though, I have grown closer than ever to my non-Japanese friends. I believe it is a direct result of the rural loneliness. When I was living with Americans, going to school with Americans, hanging out with Americans; there was a sense of togetherness. We could all relate because we shared the same experiences of culture shock. When I’m out in the countryside, my journal and fellow ALTs are the few I relate to. I find myself more often in Tokyo to visit friends.
That’s as real as it gets. I feel like this whole experience is changing me for the better. I may not fully realize what changes have occurred until I’m back home. Until next post, Peace.