Posted in flashback friday

Flashback Friday: Why I Came to Japan

From August through September of 2011, I got swelled under the newness of everything. I started working at Itako Second Junior High School at the beginning of September, mainly doing introductions over and over again for about two weeks. It should’ve been only one week, but they were having a delayed Sports Festival Day that first weekend. Due to the big March earthquake, they couldn’t do the usual annual one in May.

And so for over a month I didn’t post on my blog, even though a lot of things happend in that interval. Most JET Program partipants come into Japan straight out of college or university or graduate school, so this job would be the first 9-5 gig they’d ever had. I was one such person, although I worked pretty hard at my part time job as a pizza delivery driver during summer and winter vacations all throughout my four year undergrad at Transylvania University (yes, really, and it’s my school’s name I’m not making that up). Still, I hadn’t really done a “proper” job before, and I had a lot to learn.

I didn’t want to post negative things, too, when I first started off. I felt like sharing those experiences would make my family and friends worry, and they were my only audience at that time. I was exhausted from the heat, because my school refused to use air conditioning, only opening the windows and blowing hot air uselessly around with fans. All the inaka (rural) Japanese schools do this, the reasons varying between something about keeping global warming at bay to it toughens kids up by exposing them to the heat. Regardless, I sweated through my shirts most days and went home to a nice shower and blasting the air con in my apartment.

There was also a steep learning curve that I had to get up and over in a very short amount of time. The JET Conferences and other preperation I did ended up getting me about 5% ready for teaching a full 40 student classroom. After my introductions, I was told to start making plans, get activities ready, start thinking about how to train for conversation competitions, and etc. Luckily, half of my first month ended up with me only doing a few bits of lesson one thanks to the Sports Festival.

But then I got switched to Hinode JHS and I felt like the carpet got ripped out from under me. Just as I got into a routine, I had to learn a whole new one! I got my schedule, and ended up doing all of those introductions all over again. Then, I moved into the lesson I just did, but the activities needed to be longer so I scraped them completely and changed to something else. Basically, I was frazzled, stressed, but doing strangely okay.

The postives outweighed the negatives by a mile. I put in a journal from that time, “No matter what, even if I’m having a bad day, I just remind myself I’m having a bad day IN JAPAN, and it turns everything around.” Every single day was a challenge, and thus I was not bored or somehow felt like I should’ve been anywhere else. I was exactly where I wanted to be as well as doing what I wanted to do. I felt really fulfilled getting to know my students, learning Japanese bit by bit at classes on Tuesdays, and just overall making a place for myself.

Throughout those two months, I kept getting asked one question over and over again. “Why did you come to Japan?” I got the question from co-workers, other JET members, new friends, random people, it was just a constant thing. I recognized that might be a fun topic to talk about, one that wouldn’t devolve into me “complaining” (I didn’t recognize at the time all my experiences were perfectly valid reactions to a new environment and was terribly hard on myself).

I titled the post simply:


I get asked this question so many times! “Why did you come to Japan? Did you know about the earthquake and the radiation? Weren’t you afraid?”

Here are the answers to such questions and more!

To answer the first question, I’ve wanted to go to Japan since I was eleven years old. Initially, my interest started by reading manga. My school’s social studies textbook really only discussed Japan when it came to World War II and that’s it. And so, I started reading about Japan’s history and culture on my own at the public library.  I became fascinated by a world that seemed so different from mine. It became my dream to go and learn about Japan first hand.

I remember as I wrote this post that I kept deleting things over and over again, trying to stay concise and to the point, but I feel like reading it now I left out so much of the backstory. First off, I’m going to embaress myself a bit and admit that my love for Japan started with Rumiko Takahashi’s “Inuyasha” and I’ll be even more honest with the admission I fell head over heels for the fictional Sesshomaru. Without that story, without that character, I never would’ve gone to my public library to grab books about Japan, get more manga, watch more anime, try to learn Japanese via Berlitz tapes (and FAIL), and in the end fall in love with the idea of Japan.

What I also didn’t mention was that although I loved Japan, I never really believed I’d go there. I wasn’t optimistic as a kid. I thought I’d be stuck forever where I was, in Paducah, maybe get married and have kids of my own. I didn’t want that, but that’s what everyone seemed to assume I’d do someday (except for my mother, she always believed that I’d do more). So by dream I was understating, it seemed like a PIPE dream.

In 2010, I studied abroad in Japan because a friend told me about the JET Program. She recommended that I study abroad first to see if I would like Japan as it really was and not as I imagined it to be. She warned me that I would be disillusioned and most likely would find that the country’s differences would be irreconcilable with my own Western ideology.

When I studied abroad, I fell in love with Japan all over again. I try to explain why, but it’s so difficult for me. I had a hard time speaking in Japanese (and still do) but I liked the sound of it. I also discovered things about my own language and culture that unless I studied Japanese I would’ve never even thought about.

For example, I realized that English is a fast paced language. I never really noticed it’s made for quick conversation until I spoke in Japanese. For Japanese, the conversations are meant to take their time. Words are, usually, really crisp and clear and people take their time to get the message across with the best clarity possible. I hated it sometimes because I just wanted to know where the damn restroom was and the person I asked would take forever to tell me where to go! But when I was at home with my host family, I loved it.

I would come to discover that I’d been around Japanese people who were used to being around foreigners, and that’s why everything I heard was “crisp and clear.” Ibaraki-ben (accent) is a whole other kettle of fish. It’s often garbled and sounds like someone is talking under water and/or drunk.

I still stand by English is a fast paced language, we Westerners are efficient and direct. Easterens are generally indirect in expressions and language, which still sometimes drives me crazy when I just need a yes or no. You think, “Oh how difficult than it be?” Let me explain something that happened the other day. I asked a co-worker (Japanese) if I needed to give him a copy of something or another. He said THIS, “Well, if you want to give it to me, that would be great, but I don’t really need it. It would be good to have it, though, but if it’s too much trouble I can be ok.” IT WAS A YES OR NO QUESTION DUDE! I just made the damn copy in triplicate and put it on his desk.

I also just got to see the religious aspects of Japan first hand. I took a Buddhism class before I went over there. I liked the ideas of Buddhism and Shinto. I really liked how Japan simply takes in both religions and makes them into one. When I performed a prayer in front of a Shinto shrine, I felt so peaceful. The open sky made me feel more connected with God than any church ever did. Hearing the wind blow amongst the trees, I could sigh and just release all of my burdens. It was a wonderful experience for me.

A bit dramatic in the execution, younger me, but not inaccurate. I love Shinto Shrines so much. They really do feel like more spiritual places that churches for me, but then again I got a bit traumatized by getting bullied at the old Lone Oak Southern Baptist Church. I was informed by both other kids and adults that my parents were going to hell for getting a divorce. I could deal with the other kids, I could get mean if I needed to, but the adults? I didn’t know what to do, because I thought it’d be rude to talk back to them. With Shinto Shrines, all I have to do is toss some money, ring a bell, and pray. No need for congregation, brimstone and hellfire, just peace.

I also liked the circular idea of time. Honestly, I never liked linear time. It made little sense to me when I knew that time worked in cycles. Eastern philosophy speaks to me. It basically just tells me things I believed in already but my Western world didn’t like. It was comforting. People would tell me that I was odd for thinking that way. I was glad to find a place that understood me in some small way.

I was that weird kid in class, what can I say. Seriously though, circular time makes more sense to me also when you think that the world is circular, the orbits are circular, we’re all just going around and around and around. There are no lines! It’s all circles! Cyclical time thinking was always how I thought and continue to think.

I visited schools, too. An elementary school filled with adorable children made me really want to teach. I felt that just by being there I was influencing the students. Whether for good or ill, I can’t say, but I’m hoping for good! I talked with teachers who already worked in Japan, and they were adamant about really thinking it through. They warned me that although the one class seemed wonderful, that the challenges of living abroad and working abroad can be too much for some people.

I did feel some doubts, I won’t lie. I wondered if I was cut out for completely leaving America and everything familiar to come back. By this point, I was aware that Japan had some, in my eyes, negative aspects. For example, Japanese people are friendly, even when they hated your freaking guts. I grew up in the South, so I’m used to people talking behind my back. However, if you make someone mad, you might never know. Imagine an invisible bomb getting passed around and you can’t even guess when and where it will blow up. It’s that kind of fear and frustration. I was told that “someone” (my teacher wouldn’t say who) didn’t like how I was holding my chopsticks at a meal and thought I was being rude on purpose.

I will never know who that person was, and I will never know what I did in the first place to offend. Never. That’s just one example. There are other cultural differences that I couldn’t quite reconcile with the way I knew the world to work, so I was worried.

I will have another very honest moment here: I have completely given up caring about whether someone is talking behind my back or not. If someone is mad at me, too bad, I’m not changing anything about what I’m doing until a higher up gets involved. I’ve been teaching for five years now, and I’ve been teaching at my current school for over a year. If someone doesn’t like what I’m doing, too bad, this is how I’m running my ship. Either get with it or GTFO, I’m not people pleasing anybody at work anymore.

I used to stress myself out something fierce the first year I was here because I kept thinking I must be doing everything wrong because I’d never done any of it before. However, as time went on and I gained more experience, I realized that for a successful lesson in a classroom it’s really all about consistency, control, and active learning. With those three elements, everything else is kind of surperfluous.

But then I visited Hiroshima. If you ever get the chance to visit the memorial, I highly recommend it. They’ve got English translations for everything. If you’re studying Japanese, like most of my study abroad group was, it’s a great opportunity to practice reading and listening skills. My heart broke from reading all the stories. I felt awful being an American at the sight of where my forefathers killed so many people. I’m well aware that Japan bombed Japan first, but that doesn’t change the fact that Hiroshima and Nagasaki are tragedies that must be prevented from happening again.

After that visit, I decided for sure that I wanted to come back and teach English. I wanted to be a part of an international community, a community I was already a part of but never bothered to participate. I wanted to actively engage in helping my country and Japan understand each other. It’s my hope that through understanding we lose fear of the unknown, and with that we can move one step closer to acceptance. Not tolerance, but full on acceptance of others different from us.

In the end, we’re all human.

I was quite proud this year when President Obama came to Hiroshima to talk about the same topic, of preventing another huge cataclysm of war like the A-bomb. I still remind myself some days when I think that I’m not doing so well, that it’s alright. Just by sharing stories about Japan, and in turn sharing stories about America to my students, there is cultural exchange. My students see me and they see a person, I see them and see…hellions, but also future adults that will one day be at the helm of Japan’s path towards the future. I want to help steer them in the right direction if I can.

Answering the second question, when the March 11th earthquake happened I wanted to go back. I felt that Japan was like a friend that had been hurt. I don’t abandon my friends when they need my help. I go and see what I can do to make them feel better. And so, I wanted to come back to Japan and help in any way I could. It was torture waiting to hear from JET. I was trying to think of ways to go back. I had applications for Fulbright and Red Cross at the ready if I didn’t get the job.

Luckily, I did get the ALT position. I felt so relieved that I was going back. My mom wasn’t worried. She saw where my city was on the map and basically said, “Oh, yeah, you’re fine.” My family’s been pretty supportive of the whole thing. I noticed that the radiation levels around my city were minimal, and even then, I would’ve gone had the nuclear incident spawned a massive Godzilla outbreak.

I wanted to help, no matter what I didn’t, and still don’t, want to be an ally in just name only. I want to be there for the country that stole my heart so long ago in good times and bad. I don’t want to just show up when it’s convenient. I want to be there for all of it. I want to be here when the earthquakes happen (and they do, almost every day or every other day, it’s no big deal). I want to be here when the typhoons hit (although the recent combination of typhoon and earthquake was terrifying, I wont lie). I want to be there when its boring, interesting, exciting, awful, miserable, great, amazing, just okay, and all the rest. I want to be there for Japan.

I really was torn up about March 11th. I was frantically contacting people I knew living abroad there, emailing my host families to make sure they were fine, and watching the news with horror as each development happened. I cried myself to sleep a few times because I just felt so useless and helpless.

Now that I’m here, I discovered that Japan can do just fine without me. The country has healed pretty well, most construction being done is more for the Olympics than for fixing earthquake damage, and people aren’t ducking under desks with every shake. We all just sit around and wait with annoyed sighs.

At the same time, I do still want to be here, just to help a bit. Here and there throughout the year, Fukushima has programs and charity drives to help the hardest hit regions to get some more books, school supplies, clothes, and such. I participate in a few, and I do the same for Kumamoto as it’s still having some problems.

Now, I am living the dream! I want to continue to be a friend to Japan and to the people of Japan. I want to help those who want to understand my culture, and I want to learn about Japanese culture very much. Although I am a teacher, I still want to learn. I take any opportunity I can to have a cultural exchange, even though the language issues still pop up.

I am afraid sometimes, but not of radiation or earthquakes. I’m afraid that I’ll mess up and get sent back home. I’m afraid that one day I’ll wake up and it had all just been some weird dream. Losing this job would be my worst nightmare. I was homesick for a moment, but I don’t want to go back. Not really, not when there’s still so much to do. I try not to let the fear control me, because I want to be strong.


And there it is again, what I thought would be my sign off phrase, TTYL. How silly! I thought I’d get fired? Jeeze, I never did anything ever against the rules and regulations, and I wasn’t a bad teacher just an inexperienced one.

Anyways, so this post was a bit long winded, sorry. I didn’t realize going into it that it’d end up being so long. See you next Friday for another Flashback, and have a great weekend!



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