First a bit of backstory:
In January, my grandmother suffered a massive heart attack.
I’m sure most expats can probably agree that a situation like this is something that we all dread above everything else. An emergency of some kind that happens back home while we’re stuck thousands of miles away powerless, wanting to know everything that’s happening and frantic to help in any way we can.
After a voicemail and a text from my mother that I should come home (at the doctor’s suggestion), I immediately purchased a plane ticket home and left the next day. My supervisor and Board of Education were all extremely understanding and did not give me any hassle. Thankfully, during my five-days in the states, my grandma’s condition improved dramatically.
As I boarded the plane back to Japan, a niggling fear that something would happen again settled in my heart. The stress and uncertainty of being 7000 miles away from my family in a time of crisis like that was pretty rough and it definitely shook me up. It really put into perspective just how far away I lived.
On the long flight back, I had a lot of time to think about the future and my next steps. On the JET Program, ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers who don’t know) have the option to extend their contract for up to five years. We’re given the recontracting paperwork in October and we have to deliver our formal decision in February. While I was already leaning in the direction of not recontracting, this incident pushed me to make my decision to return home for good in August. I decided that while I loved Japan, my area, my friends and students, shit back home was a bit too crazy for my liking and it was for the best to be back with my family.
As my final months in Japan passed, I kept in close contact with my mom and demanded constant updates on my grandparents. The news I heard was rather unsettling: my grandma had fallen down the stairs of her house multiple times and had to have her toe amputated due to an infection caused by her diabetes. My grandpa was having a lot of trouble walking and was beginning to forget things.
The closer it got to my departure from Japan, the worse my grandparents’ health seemed to be getting. My grandma’s attitude was worsening and my grandpa’s kidney function was extremely low — low enough for him to be put on dialysis.
All of this was stressful and disheartening to hear however it reaffirmed that I had made the right decision by returning home.
When I got back last week, I saw that my grandparents were indeed in pretty rough shape – worse than they had been just eight months previous. However, they were overjoyed to see me (and I, them) and I think that my being back has picked up their spirits considerably.
The day after I returned, I began taking my grandpa to dialysis. I don’t profess to know too much about dialysis, but it’s basically a way to cleanse the blood from my grandpa’s body since his kidneys aren’t functioning well enough to do it effectively on their own. He’s hooked up to a machine that takes his blood, filters it and then returns it to his body.
This whole process takes about three to four hours and is done three times a week. As I currently have no job and an abundance of free time, I take my grandpa to and from the dialysis clinic.
In the waiting room, patients and their friends or family often sit and wait – sometimes for the entire day. There are a group of Hispanic ladies who seem to stay at the clinic for the entire duration of their person’s dialysis. Coolers of drinks and food resting by their legs, they chatter away at each other in Spanglish and watch the horrendous daytime TV that the waiting room is subjected to.
“You know my son likes when I make enchiladas in the microwave. Pero sabes que he calls them ‘lazy enchiladas’! Como que son lazy?! Si las ponga en el oven, sometimes they get all duro!”
“Ay, I do that too! Y mi hijo le gustan these tacos that I make when I shake the tortillas còmo este y they get all puffy. Èl los llama ‘tacos wangos’! He says ‘mama, make me the tacos wangos! Ha ha ha”
Everyone in the waiting room seems to be going through the same long, drawn-out ordeal that dialysis is. When someone comes into the waiting room, usually the Club de First Esposas will greet them with a cheerful ‘Good morning!’ and a round of smiles. I find this to be incredibly sweet and it’s something about the USA that I’ve missed.
Another thing that I had forgotten Americans – especially Texans – do…is talk. Jesus Christ do they talk.
Recently I was picking up my grandpa and waiting for him when a woman who I had seen once before leaned over and struck up a conversation with me. She was a small woman who looked to be in her sixties with horn-rimmed glass and a short hairdo that said ‘I’m a hip woman, aren’t I?’.
“So when are you back to school?” she said with a knowing smile.
I explained to her that I was no longer attending school and that I had just recently returned from teaching English in Japan.
“Oh, that is so nice!” she gushed. “You know, I work at a hotel chain and we just recently got some Japanese people in who are doing work experience down in housekeeping – well they’re in housekeeping now. Before they were in the kitchens learning how to do all that but they’re just so CUTE!” Her face pursed as she were talking about a litter of newborn kittens.
“And you know, I feel so bad for them because they’re just so LITTLE!” she went on. “You know how these Japanese – well you know, orientals – are just so TINY and I just feel so bad for them you know because those women who work there are so mean!”
I blinked, gave a slight nod and said something to the effect of “Oh.” and not ‘Did you just say the word ‘Oriental?’’ like I wanted to say.
“I just see them sometimes and they look so SCARED and I just want to go up and give them a hug and say ‘Ohh honey it’s okay!’ but I do think now that they’ve become a bit more acclimated to the job and they’re doing much better! But I still, those women down there can be downright MEAN, I feel so bad!”
Mind you this is the first time I had ever talked to this woman. I had forgotten how at ease Texans (Texan women in particular) are at talking with complete strangers.
“I just take Bob here to dialysis.” she said with a point at the closed door that led to the facility inside. “He’s my sister-in-law’s brother. And you know they were doing it for some time but it just got to be too much and I said ‘sure I don’t mind taking him’. And I’m glad I did because with Chris and Janet’s schedules boy it would be impossible, I tell you.’
I had no idea who Chris or Janet were.
“And you remind me of their son, you know.” the woman went on. “Billy used to wear his hair just like that, is yours natural?”
I told her that it was, in fact naturally curly.
“Gosh that’s nice,” she sighed. “You know Billy doesn’t wear his like yours much anymore. His job won’t let him, you see.” She shifted in her chair and leaned forward a bit. “He’s in the FBI.”
“Oh,” I said feigning all the interest I could at the abstract person who this woman was biographying.
“Yes and it’s so hard on Chris and Janet sometimes because they’ll say ‘oh, how’s work?’ and he’ll say ‘I can’t tell you’ you know? And boy it just drives them crazy. He’ll sometimes tell Scott something but even if he does, you know it’s nothing much! The other day, Debra said to me ‘it’s so frustrating isn’t it? I wish I knew SOMETHING.’ I said ‘I knoww’-.”
It was then that the door opened and my grandpa came through with the nurse. I leapt up (probably faster than I should have) and bid the woman farewell. I realized that I now knew the name of her brother-in-law, someone’s son and three other names of her family members but she had never told me hers.
Being around extremely friendly people like this is a definite shock to my system. I remember now how Texas is a place where people will talk to you for whatever reason. Is it hot outside? Did the Spurs/Cowboys/Mavericks/Rockets win/lose? Is Obama ruining the country?
It doesn’t matter if you don’t know who the people in their life are. It doesn’t matter if you don’t agree with what they’re saying. It doesn’t matter if you couldn’t care less about the price of onions at HEB compared to last year. Texans will find a reason to strike up a conversation and, when they do, you had better be prepared to listen.
By the way, I still have no idea who Scott and Debra are.