There have been days when, one minute, I question what in the world I’m doing on the other side of the planet. A few hours might pass when I begin thinking how incredible life is in this place. These oscillating states, the push and pull between anxiety and excitement, outline my first month and a half in Japan.
I’ve been in Japan for a little over a month now, and it’s one of those situations where written words might be the best way to digest everything that’s happened so far. I can kill two birds with one stone: describe my experiences to those interested in living abroad and put down my thoughts in a somewhat organized manner, with the hope of making sense.
I’m a firm believer that one year is simultaneously the fastest and longest time lapse in someone’s life. So much can happen in a blink of an eye. It’s not until you take some time to sit down and think that it hits you; I would never have seen myself in the place I’m currently writing this at one year ago, even if I overclocked my imagination. One year ago today, I was beginning my senior year at university and was consumed with worries and problems that are now fading memories.
An Amalgamation of Good Things
I arrived at Iki Island on August 1st. I had spent the last three days in Tokyo attending day-long orientation sessions at the Keio Plaza Hotel. Upon landing, a small but vibrant entourage that included my supervisor’s office staff and fellow JET Program participants greeted me and another newbie at the tiny island airport. We were treated to a tasty meal and shepherded to a hotel to spend the night in while our apartments received some final touches. At the Tokyo orientation, panelists called one’s first few weeks in Japan as the “Honeymoon Stage”: a period during which you are blind to all the hardships and simply bask in the wonder of it all. The first few weeks were amazing. Meeting new people everyday, trying new foods, seeing and visiting new places, running away from Beedrills. Each day packed something unique.
There are many things to be appreciated about living abroad, many of them specific to Japan and some specific to Iki. It’s a safe country. People are kind. The schools foment teamwork and camaraderie. The clothes fit well. There’s a lot of parking on Iki (I’m looking at you, Isla Vista). The food is delicious. The beaches are breathtaking. I learn something new every day. I get to immerse myself in Japanese. The rent is cheap. The opportunities to travel are plentiful. The list goes on. Binding a lot of these experiences is a group of supportive expatriates: four other ALTs and one Coordinator for International Relations (CIR). Four of them are from the U.S., two from Canada, and we’re all in our twenties. They’re a good bunch, always willing to try something out or go someplace cool.
And then, at the very top, there are my students’s smiles. They’re like a pure injection of happiness. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of random encounters with my elementary students in the grocery store. They act like they’ve been reunited with a long-lost friend, screaming “Hector sensei” and jumping around. I teach at nine schools with an age range between five and fifteen. All these little tykes, from kindergarten to junior high school, are the job’s lifeline.
I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream
While I’m nowhere as helpless as the jelly-person at the end of Harlan Ellison’s post-apocalyptic story, there have been times where I feel as useful as a Ditto without the shapeshifting abilities. And it stems from the inability to speak or understand the language. I took some Japanese at university but proceeded to forget most of it and not practice before coming here. I can say simple things and understand the broad ideas of a slow-moving conversation, but a constant inability to communicate takes its toll. I’ve only been here for a month and half, so I’m expecting things to become tougher before they become better.
Couple the language barrier with the cultural differences between the U.S. and Japan, and you get the feeling of landing on another planet. I had never traveled extensively. I had only been to a few states in the U.S. and Mexico, but I was never placed in a taxing situation where communication through language was nixed and I constantly ran the risk of being disrespectful because of my ignorance as a foreigner. It can be extremely frustrating.
One of my interviewers for this job probably foresaw my struggles. “You seem like a very verbose person,” he said. “How do you see yourself dealing with a situation where your words won’t help you much?” I answered by saying I had never been in a situation exactly like that before, but that I thought I could adapt. And I think I will, eventually.
The other major struggle is missing the world of journalism. I miss the rushes of adrenaline that accompanied creating news, the talking with people about their stories, and the teamwork of a news team. I don’t know if journalism is in my future, but if these reminiscent pangs continue I might try to return to the field once my job here is over. The upside is that I’ve been able to keep politics away from my daily life and work, a calming respite after several years on the news beat as a student journalist. I’ve gotten the “What do you think of Trump?” question a couple of times, but that’s the extent of my conversations on American politics.
Some other unfortunate things include a wide array of bugs, an uphill battle against mold, not being able to read what the foods are in the supermarket (which sometimes concludes in accidentally buying gag-inducing foods), terrible bank and ATM hours, and occasional days where I don’t know what’s expected of me at work until I arrive, resulting in the inability to prepare. However, the biggest hurdle (日本語) can be overcome. Learning the language has been one of my biggest drives so far.
The rough things I talked about are transient. Language can be learned, culture can be assimilated, and friendships can be forged. And it’s just the beginning. I still have 11 months left on my current contract, and the possibility of extending that by more time exists. In Japanese, people say “faito,” meaning “fight on” or “keep working hard.” I will take that expression to heart. I’m scheduled to take the N5 level of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test this December in Fukuoka, so I’ll let you know if I pass once the results are out.
I have a lot of other things I want to write about including but not limited to: my experience as a Mexican-American in Japan, the education system and its similarities/differences to the American system, teachers in Japan, and culture shock.
If you have any questions about my experience or want to learn more about something in particular, reach out and I’ll see if I can provide any answers.