Awkward Encounters of an Ex-Foreigner pt. 1

Awkward Encounters of an Ex-Foreigner pt. 1

For many “foreigners” in Japan, the title carries with it almost a celebrity status, particularly for those with typically “Western” features (light hair, colored eyes)- my own experience was little a bit less so because my dark hair and eyes sometimes made it easy for me to blend in. When I was found out, however, the reactions ranged from clandestine stares to outright gawking to timid but friendly attempts at conversation usually in broken English and/or Japanese. While I am once again living stateside and the term “foreigner” no longer applies officially, the process of coming back, or “repatriating” has made many once-familiar experiences feel a little “foreign” to me. These incidents are sometimes are painful- like my near panic attack in a crowded, noisy barbeque restaurant in Austin- while others are pretty harmless- like when I forget which side of my car is the driver’s and accidentally block someone from trying to enter through the passenger’s side.

First things first, using a public restroom in America is easily one of the most uncomfortable experiences ever. I know it’s been lamented by countless others before me, but I just really wanted to reiterate that, ok? There’s gaps all over the place, everyone can hear your business, and subsequently you can hear theirs; it’s just overall unpleasant compared to a public restroom experience in Japan. To be fair, I’m mostly talking about Japan’s ‘western’ style toilets, and not their ‘Japanese’ style toilets, which are kind of like an oblong-shaped commode/hole thingy built into the tiled ground that one must squat over. That style of toilet going experience can also be quite uncomfortable, but for completely different reasons.

Back to their ‘western’ style toilets; they are marvelous. First of all, the toilet itself is in its own legit little room- not some plywood stall- completely enclosed with floor to ceiling coverage and an actual door, with a latch that reads “vacant” or “occupied” so nobody has to knock and interrupt someone else’s private toilet experience. Furthermore, in some of the restrooms I used, once one shut the door, soothing water sounds could be heard, I’m assuming, to help one ease into the process of toilet going. If that didn’t make you automatically comfortable, then I have two words for you: heated seats. And I’m not talking about suspiciously warm seats that one happens upon when one is forced to enter a stall that was very recently occupied by another; these seats were heated electronically by hot water passing through tubes under (or within, I don’t know the mechanics behind it) the seat, and they are a godsend in the middle of winter- trust me. And if you’re STILL not impressed, let me leave you with this: the bidet. I’ll be honest, at first, the concept of a stream of water suddenly hitting one’s tushy did not sound appealing, but, like a Japanese toilet seat, I quickly warmed to it. You just feel cleaner and fresher after using it, and it’s really nice- plus, you can control the water pressure, so it’s not like it’s going to blast your backside. And on that uncomfortable note….

Of all the words I’ve had to use to describe myself over the years, “Foreigner” quickly became one of my favourites, and now it’s kind of a downer to be back in my “home” country where the term no longer applies. But the funny thing about having spent an extended amount of time as an outsider in a foreign country, is that now I carry the feeling of being out of place wherever I go. It has its ups and downs, but I know wouldn’t trade any part of this experience for anything. It’s given me a unique perspective on things both in my home and host countries, and, for better or worse, I now know that I can handle a whole lot of weird and unfamiliar.

Two New Mini Series

  
Hello all, 

I hope everyone is having a great Saturday! I just wanted to take a moment to update my blog and let you all know that, at least for the next month or so, I’m going to be pretty consistent with what I post and publish- fall’s the perfect time to turn over a new leaf, right? Get it? A new leaf?! Ahahaha, I’m hilarious.

Anyways, ICYMI, this past Tuesday I kicked off the first of my Japan-related thee part mini series, called “Japan in Retrospect” in which I talked a little bit about how I experienced a turning point in how I reconciled with my short-term expat life. If you didn’t get a chance to read it, just scroll down to the previous post, and- as always- don’t be afraid to leave a comment! On that note, next Tuesday I plan to publish the first part my other mini series, “Awkward Encounters of an Ex-Foreigner”, which is a bit more of a humorous take on what it’s like to be awkward in two cultures/counties. So be sure to be on the look for that as well! I’ll be alternating each week which series gets posted, so I hope enjoy them both!

Jaa ne!  

Japan in Retrospect: The Process

Japan in Retrospect: The Process

  Several months into my time in Japan, beyond my unintended, accidental half-way mark, I met a fellow gaijin who had long since established himself; he had a Japanese wife and children, he had strong ties to the local community as well as the foreigner one, and he just seemed all-around adjusted to ex-pat life. The night I met him and his family, I was attending a concert at a small shop owned by an American missionary family who knew that I had been having difficulties with pretty much every aspect of life in Japan and as an ALT; needless to say, they were happy to put me in contact with someone who might understand what I had been going through. During that initial conversation amid a cramped but cozy setting, he said something to that I wish I had known all along: The amount of stress and emotional upheaval a person goes through in travelling to and living in a foreign country, is nearly equal to that of losing a loved one.

When he said that to me, suddenly everything about my experience during those early weeks and months started to make sense: the loneliness, the fear, the confusion, the sleepless nights, the anxiety and depression. And it wasn’t just that things made sense (finally), it also was ultimately a relief to have that experience validated, to hear someone tell me that, “Yes, it’s supposed to suck. It’s going to be freaking hard, and that’s ok.” To hear that, meant that I wasn’t a failure for struggling- I was simply human. It meant that I was going through something that was fundamentally altering my life and identity, and so of course, there are going to be some growing pains involved.

Once I began to realize and accept this truth, I started to have a little more grace and patience with myself, and I finally began to forgive myself for my piss-poor attitude that I had hinted at in my “first blog post about living in Japan.” In a lot of ways, that night was a turning point for me, late in the game though it was. It was the moment where it finally clicked in my mind, that what I had been experiencing (in some ways) was a grieving process: I was grieving the life I had lived back in my home country, I grieving the loss of the identity I had built, and the loss or alteration of so many important relationships in my life. I was grieving and sad and afraid, and all too often, emotions like sadness and fear like to wear the mask of anger because anger feels stronger, but really it’s not. Anger feels strong because it hardens us, but sometimes that hardness that we think will protect us from struggle actually becomes a barrier to us reaching out and receiving help for our struggle. That’s definitely what was happening in my case, and that was the reason it took me so long to connect to a faith community- which is commonly wherein I tend to find comfort and support- and to reach out to my colleagues.

  
I think the last thing I want to stress about this “process” is that it won’t last forever, and for me, a huge impetus to finally ending it was, in fact, simply having a name for it: grief. Pain. Growth. It was no longer a nameless monster lurking in the back of my mind; it was, instead, a common experience that countless others had endured and conquered. That meant I could conquer it, too. In a way, I think I did, so that even though I ultimately decided to leave Japan, I have the benefit of now being able to recognize the ways in which Japan has changed me- for better and for worse. I also know that if, for whatever reason, I ever returned, I’d most likely have an easier time adjusting, and that’s a relief.

Peanutbutter Cups and Pizza

Peanutbutter Cups and Pizza

Today was a special, out-of-the-ordinary day. I was invited to road trip with a family from the church on their way to Fukuoka to go to Costco, all of places. I know it’s clearly not a traditional Japanese outing, but the woman who invited me, whose eldest daughter is two years younger than me, rightly assumed that I had been missing more American-type environments. The last time I was in the States was over six months ago at Christmas, and in that time I’ve kind of re-acclimated to life in Japan, so the trip to Costco was kind of a mish-mash of comfortable nostalgia and surreal dysphoria. I don’t intend for this to be a long post because I really just wanted to focus on one thing that hit hard about this trip back to Americana (complete with a big bag of Reese’s peanutbutter cups and a huge slice of pepperoni pizza), so I’ll just get right to it.

As I wandered the spacious aisles and chatted with the family about life in the States and in Japan, a vague inkling kept nagging at me, and at first I couldn’t put my finger on it, so I tried to ignore it, but about half-way through the trip and right in the middle of Costco, it hit me like a bullet train. I kept expecting to see my family. A small part of me was waiting to see my Mom or Dad or one of my sisters pop their head out of the aisles calling me to rejoin them. I turned to the woman who invited me, “Mina,” and told her this, and as soon as I said it, I realized another thing: that’s just not going to happen. So in the middle of this huge (especially by Japan standards) warehouse store, surrounded by crowds of unfamiliar faces both Japanese and foreign, I felt like a little, lost child and it was gut-wrenching. I immediately felt tears stinging my eyes, and “Mina”, this kind, gentle-spirited woman, quickly tried to comfort me.

The moment went as quickly as it had come, but even now when I think about it, I have fight to keep the tears back. I almost wish I could explain it way; like, maybe just blame on the fact that I’m on my period, or maybe I was just tired from getting up early, or maybe I was over-stimulated from the trip, but I think my reaction goes even deeper than all those things. It was visceral. It was bigger than just, “Oh, they’re not here right now, silly girl.” It felt more like, “Oh my god, these familiar faces, these larger-than-life, almost mythic people, who were once a huge part of my life, who were once my whole life–when was the last time I saw them face-to-face? The last time I heard their voices in real time? Felt their hands in mine? Felt their arms around my shoulders? Was it really just six months ago?” Because in that moment, it felt like a lifetime ago, and that was what caught me off-guard.

I’m sad and ashamed to realize that some of the most powerful and enduring relationships I have have been reduced to 1-2 hr video chats once every few weeks. How did that happen? Is that just what happens when someone becomes an expat? If this, indeed, is part of the package, then I’m not sure I want it anymore. It’s sobering thought, for sure, but in a way, I’m glad this happened. I’m glad to have a little more perspective, because as I’m writing this post, there is, in fact, a big possibility for change in the air. At the moment, things need to be kept under wraps, but just in case anyone forget (or didn’t know in the first place), my life is constantly in transition, and for some reason I can’t seem to stay put for very long. Keep on the look out as I am able to share more with you all, and as always thanks for reading!

Jaa ne!

Two Things

Two Things

This afternoon at church, I spent some time chatting with a young family over lunch, and as they got up to leave, the mother invited me to join them in walking over to the small festival that was happening in town. Suddenly, I had a choice to make, and if you know me at all, then you know that I am absolutely the most indecisive person on the planet- no joke. The young woman laughed, and said that I sounded just like her small boy (he’s a very genki three year old with enough energy to power a small country). She then held up up two fingers, and quoted her son, “I want to do two things,” and I laughed, but totally agreed. I could completely relate because, yes, I really did want to do two things! And that’s always been the issue for me, especially since coming to Japan. Pretty much from the moment I stepped off the plane on day one, I have found myself caught between two deep and conflicting realities. Part of me was (is) so ecstatic to be in Japan and eager to soak in the experience, but the other part was (definitely still is) terribly homesick and uneasy. I thought the uneasiness would wear off as time went on, but it’s never really faded away, and that’s been really troubling. I’ll still find myself questioning my decisions to come out here and then to stay and continue teaching for another year because I want to do two things.

I want to go back to the States and live (relatively) close to my family. I want to watch my nephew grow up. I want to spend time with aging grandparents. I want to be able to visit my friends. But, I also want to stay in Japan. I want to learn the language and experience the culture. I want to build relationships with the people I’ve met at the church that I attend. I want to travel around the country more. I’ll find myself going back and forth pretty often, and even though I’ve made the decision to stick it out another year, the truth is that I’m really struggling.

I’m struggling to make sense of how I could want two very different things so very much. Maybe this post is me asking for advice, or trying to poll for unbiased opinions? Or maybe I just want to know if anyone out there can relate? Does anybody else ever feel like they are completely stuck between two great desires? Trapped between familiarity and freedom? Caught between chaos and comfort? So often, I think, when we find ourselves in those kinds of situations, we rush to ease the tension and make a decision; we want there to be a clear right choice and wrong choice, but sometimes there really isn’t. Maybe, sometimes, we’re just supposed to live in the tension even though that, in and of itself, is uncomfortable.I don’t know, these are just my “late-night-I-really-should-be-sleeping-but-instead-I’m-having-an-existential-crisis” thoughts, and I really would love to hear you opinions, so feel free to share your experiences in the comments. Thanks for reading!

Jaa ne!

10 Songs from Animated Movies that Sound Just as Good (or Better) In Japanese

When I came back from the States after winter vacation, I told myself I would be serious about actually practicing my Japanese instead of just relying on my HRTs and JTEs who knew English to translate everything for me. I quickly realized that I still need a lot of help and still have a lot to learn, but one habit I’ve picked up is looking for and listening to catchy music in Japanese to help with fluency. I had so much fun finding these videos and singing along that I really wanted to share them with you all, so I hope you enjoy them as much as I do!

1. I Like to Move It, Madagascar

2. What’s This?, Nightmare Before Christmas 

3. Friends on the Other Side, The Princess and the Frog 

4. Colors of Wind, Pocahontas (this video has the lyrics in romaji, so you should totally sing-along-I did!) 

5. I see the Light, Tangled 

6. You’ll Be in My Heart, Tarzan (this one also has romaji lyrics) 

7. When You Believe, Prince of Egypt 

8. Let it Go (Ari No Mama De), Frozen

9. I’ve a Got a Dream, Tangled 

10. For the First time in Forever, Frozen (this one is in romaji and kanji/kana)

So what do you think? Comment and let me know which songs you liked best! Plus there are a bunch more Japanese version playlists on youtube so you check those out too, and let me know if you think any other songs should’ve been on this list.

Jaa ne! (^_^)/”

Social Anxiety in Japan: A Vignette

Art by http://tetsuyayamatashi.deviantart.com/
Art by Tetsuyayamatashi

I think people will just always make me nervous, no matter how old I get or how often I do public speaking or stage performing (I was a drama/theater kid in middle and high school), it’s just a fact of my life- that’s just how I’m wired. If I’m in a crowd and everyone’s talking, or, you know, existing, it doesn’t take long for the noise to become unbearable; it’s like this intense buzzing that just gets louder and louder, and suddenly my ears start ringing and my cheeks feel warm and my arms go limp and I want to disappear into a puddle of jelly on the floor just to escape. Part of me knows I’m being unreasonable, but another part of me, the anxiety-ridden agoraphobe, says, “No, this is a completely normal way to react to being out among peoples.” Full disclosure, I think this is the same part of me that says all cars are “speeding metal death-traps”; I suspect there is an 80 year-old, crotchety shut-in living inside my brain- I’m gonna call her “Irma”. But now I’m way off topic!

This week I had a branch training meeting on Tuesday afternoon, so, that morning, I had to make the nearly three hour trek from my home in Ozu-machi all the way out to Fukuoka; I took the train, naturally (re: all cars are “speeding, metal death-traps”). I didn’t have to be in Fukuoka until about 2:30, so I was able to take a mid-morning train, and didn’t have to deal with crowded commuter trains. Traveling to Fukuoka was a breeze; I changed trains in the right stations, was able to find a seat each time, and the scenery was lovely. I always feel like I lucked with my placement in Kyushu since I get to be out in the rural part of Japan with lots of mountains, woodsy locals, open fields, and picturesque farm lands; even in the winter things are pretty green and still growing- last week one of my JTEs said he and his wife when strawberry picking! All that to say, I was very much at ease during my journey.

Photo Cred: Utsunomiya Terunobu
Photo Cred: Utsunomiya Terunobu

For a bit of context, another advantage (at least in my experience) to living in the country, is that not many people speak English- admittedly, this is also sometimes a disadvantage since my Japanese is non-existent. That being said, as a foreigner, I almost never get approached by strangers when I’m out in public. I’ve heard and read about foreigners who live in bigger cities like Tokyo, who sometimes get bombarded by eager, younger, Japanese people wanting to practice their English on them (the foreigner), and, honestly, that sounds nerve-wrecking. Here in Ozu-machi and where I teach in Takamori-machi (which is very rural), I am mostly unbothered when I’m out and about. I say “mostly” because when I do light shopping in Takamori, I’ll occasionally run into one of my shougakkou (elementary school) students, but they’re usually happy with a quick, “Hello! How are you? Okay, goodbye! See you!” And that’s that: no awkward, drawn-out conversation in broken English/Japanese; no uncomfortable, stop-start, back-and-forth talking; it’s just cute, simple greetings in under 2 minutes, and then I get to go on about my shopping in peace and quiet. That, I like.

Okay, back to my Tuesday outing: once I got to Fukuoka, my stress levels spiked. The building in which our training was being held was right next to the station, so finding it wasn’t a problem,  but I had some time to kill before I needed to be in place, so I went into a nearby Starbucks (yeah, it’s everywhere, and the Japanese actually really love it). Stepping into that Starbucks was jarring; suddenly gaijin (foreigners, i.e. other ALTs from the company) were all around me, and I could hear English being spoken rapidly and fluently, and even though I had been back in the States only a couple weeks ago, it was still so discomfiting. I tried to not make eye contact and hold on to the last few moments of my solitude and anonymity, as I ordered a tall Chocolate Orange Frappuccino (do they have those in States? I hadn’t tried them before I left for winter vacation, so I didn’t think to check. Anyway, they’re delicious).

Once I was seated with drink (and iPhone- hello social buffer) in hand, I tried desperately to zone out the din, but by then my anxiety was already climbing. I remembered that the whole reason I was even in Fukuoka was to talk to these people, to “mingle” and “catch up”, to “brainstorm” and “share ideas”, and then I gave myself a headache thinking about it, well, I should say, I made my headache worse because, believe me, my head was already pounding from the noise and the people and the English. Oy. Even with all this anxiety though, I was able to go to the meeting and come out of it without a scratch. I guess the reason I say all this is to remind myself, and anyone else out there who also struggles with anxiety, that nothing is impossible. Don’t be afraid to do things at your own pace, but most importantly, don’t be afraid to do things period.