Exit the gaijin

Today is my last day of work in Japan. In reality, I’ve been done for a few days, since the semester ended on Friday. But technically, my contract compelled me to show up for a few days this week and play out the string. Tomorrow, I tie up the last of my loose ends, and on Friday, I leave Nagasaki for good. I’ll be spending some time in Tokyo and on the slopes of Mt. Fuji before I return to American soil.

Once I’m back in the U.S., I’ll post a write-up on that trip, as well as some final thoughts on the JET Program and the Japanese education system. Today, though, is as good a day as any for reflecting on what I’m leaving behind.

I’ve never lived in a small town before, but I imagine there are a lot of similarities that transcend culture and country. Life in Kazusa moves slowly, the ebb and flow of nature unwinding at its own pace. Farming takes time, and patience, and the mental fortitude to do the same thing day after day, year after year, without milestones to chase or any end in sight. When your way of life demands such a steadfast, even-keeled mentality, you must embrace routine, and find your satisfaction in the familiarity of everyday life.

Not everyone in Kazusa farms, but even for those who’ve come in from the fields, life ambles along to the rhythm of the seasons. Last week, while I was buying presents, a woman showed me an old travel brochure from 1937: “Developing Kazusa, a sea-side resort town.” In it were pictures of long-vanished hot spring hotels and geisha houses, but also buildings inscribed with familiar names, those of families who still own and operate shops in Kazusa 75 years later.

To live in such a place is at turns soothing and maddening. It can be a source of great comfort to know that things will be tomorrow as they are today. No matter your troubles, the sky, the sea, and the wind will remain. As I am reminded every time I sing our school song, these are the essential elements of life here, and they are indifferent to our fears and ambitions alike.

Coming from a place where a person’s goals are the measure of his character, however, such a passive way of life can be deeply disconcerting. The ability to focus on the task at hand, to find satisfaction in something you’ve done a thousand times before and will do again tomorrow, takes a mental toughness I’m just coming to appreciate. It is easy to be derisive when someone tells you they’ve never left Nagasaki. As a foreigner, it can seem an affront, a repudiation of your value as an emissary of the wider world. How can you live such a narrow life? Where is your curiosity?

But after two years here, I’ve begun to see the value in such a narrow field of vision. We scoff at provincialism, but while blinders prevent you from seeing the bigger picture, they allow you to appreciate the finest detail of what is right in front of you. I become restive when I think of living here indefinitely because I know how much else is out there. We see insularity as a curse, but for those whose roots are planted in small towns like this one, it is a blessing that helps them appreciate what they have.

People often say, “Life is short.” Time is our most precious and finite resource, yes, but is life really short? In many places, where achievement is the measure of time, it certainly seems so. But in Kazusa, for the first time, I have seen and felt the opposite. But no matter how you measure it, my life here is at an end, and the time has come for me to go.

So, sayonara, Kazusa. I’ll take solace in knowing you’ll be the same tomorrow as you are today.

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The long goodbye

It turns out that one of the nicest things about living in Japan is leaving.

As I said in my last post, I have no illusions about my significance in the lives of my students: I see many of them only once per month, so even over the course of two years, it’s hard to cultivate a deep and meaningful connection. Still, you wouldn’t know that from the way they’ve embraced me as I prepare to return home.

“Underuse” is a common lament of people in my line of work. Unable to control the direction of the curriculum, it is the lot of the assistant teacher to carve out niches, to mold oneself to the class rather than vice versa. But after a two-week deluge of parting gifts, handwritten cards, class photos, and farewell songs, I can’t see how anyone in my position could claim to be underappreciated.

I won’t soon forget the students and teachers of Minamiarima Elementary, who lined the hallways to shake my hand as I left that school for the last time, and stood by the windows as my taxi drove away. Nor those at Higashi Elementary, who made certain I had a picture of every student to take with me when I left. Nor those at any of my other schools, who reminded me why I’ve so enjoyed doing this job in this area in spite its limitations.

With just three more days of classes, farewells all, the end of my time in Nagasaki is upon me. After two of the longest, fastest years of my life, I’m thrilled to be returning home, though I wouldn’t mind saying goodbye just a little longer.