Here comes the home stretch.
Although my contract runs through July 31st, my last real day of work is now less than a month away. When the semester finishes up on July 19th, I will deliver my farewell speech, effectively closing the book on two years as a teacher at Kazusa Junior High.
I’ll have plenty of opportunities to practice my speech in the meantime. I teach at seven elementary schools, and at each one, I’ll be saying goodbye.
The teachers I work with all know I’m leaving, but I can’t say the same thing for all the students. I’ve been forthright in answering questions on the subject, but I don’t bring it up of my own accord, and the students rarely ask. They’re a little too absorbed in their own lives to wonder at length about mine, and that’s probably as it should be.
Still, for those that don’t already know, I imagine it will be a little strange hearing me announce that I’m leaving. Not because they have any special attachment to me–I don’t have any Dead Poet’s Society illusions–but because of the finality of the thing.
It’s strange for me, too, because I know I’m leaving Kazusa for good. Both times I have moved from one city to another, I left an ellipse behind me, with the knowledge I’d return again in time. When I leave Kazusa next month, it will be with a period, full stop.
I don’t mean this as a kiss-off. For all that it lacks, I have some affection for Kazusa, and even more for its people, who did their damnedest to make me feel at home in a place that simply wasn’t. Even so, there’s nothing for me to return to here, and if I did, it would be as a stranger.
We tend to romanticize the places in our lives. Whether it’s the school you attended, the bar where you met your girlfriend, or the house you grew up in, we keep space in our heart for the places that mark our personal milestones.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. But I think most of us recognize, when we think about it, that it’s seldom the place itself that makes the memory. That’s a little like eating a great meal, then looking back fondly on the way it was plated. Even if you remember vividly the cracked paneling of the basement where you had your first kiss, it’s not the basement that brings a smile to your face. It’s the experience.
Of course, setting still matters, since it can certainly influence the experience one way or another. But the background takes a back seat to what’s most important: the people. If you want to know a place, you have to know its people. There’s only so much you can glean from passive observation. To understand a place, you have to see it through native eyes.
I’ve met a lot of nice people in Kazusa. In fact, almost everyone in Kazusa is nice, to a fault: I frequently receive gifts I neither want nor need but cannot politely refuse. These are good people, and I have nothing for them but admiration and gratitude.
What I don’t have, by and large, are relationships with the people here. Although I have had many surprises since arriving in Japan two years ago, the biggest may have been how difficult it can be to forge lasting relationships in another country.
In some ways, this is strange, since making acquaintances is actually easier here than in the U.S. People are curious, or they want to practice their English, and so they’ll approach you unprompted. Meeting people is easy–getting to know them is hard.
It’s a language thing, right? Of course, it’s a language thing, but that’s not the whole story. Even if you share a classroom or a workplace with dozens of English-speakers, you’d consider yourself lucky to find two or three friends in the lot. It’s not just a language thing.
It’s also about time. As a visitor, even one with a three-year visa, you are on borrowed time: it’s not a matter of if, but when, you’ll be leaving. That’s not an obstacle to friendship in and of itself, but when the future is already written, people are less inclined to invest heavily in developing rapport.
And rapport is the currency of a meaningful relationship. Whether shared experiences, pop culture references, or inside jokes, rapport takes time and effort to grow, even under the best circumstances. When artificial barriers like language and time are in place, the process is even slower.
But perhaps the most difficult hurdle to overcome is the lack of common ground. There are a few things, like food and weather, that everyone can relate to, but these universal topics usually aren’t enough to lay the foundation for friendship. A similar background, similar interests, or similar ambitions do wonders to grease the wheels of rapport. Opposites may attract, but without something in common, they seldom stay together.
It bears mention that this isn’t just a case of Japanese culture against American culture. The people of Kazusa are, in general, about as unlike me as you’d be likely to find anywhere in Japan. They are farmers. They are fishermen. They are older, and married, with children. They were born here and have lived nowhere else. They are different, not just from me, but from other Japanese like me.
As I prepare to say goodbye to these people, I am conscious of the fact that I will seldom revisit this chapter of my life. Without (Japanese) friends to visit or reminisce with, my time in Kazusa will be as it has been, a sojourn inside the self. When I look back on my time here, it will be a personal reflection in every sense of the word.
Perhaps I will feel more sentimental about my departure as it nears. Is it possible to miss a place without wanting to return to it? Is it possible to miss a person you didn’t really know? I promise you that it is. But it’s still time for this gaijin to go.
The farewell tour begins next week.