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.

Farewell tour

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.