That Time I Traveled To Australia (Part I)

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For Winter Break in 2012, I went to Australia.

I was tired of Japanese winters. The constant, unavoidable cold was quickly taking its toll on my psyche. I woke up every morning and watched my breath appear in puffs of white – inside my apartment. I would ride my bike in the cold to go to work where they didn’t have central heating. In the afternoon, I would return home to an apartment that was sometimes colder than the temperature outside. I was sick of it.

So, like a migratory bird, I decided to fly south and escape the winter for a bit. What better place to go than Oz? It was on the opposite side of the world, sunny and warm and, best of all, everyone spoke English there. Whether or not a country spoke English wasn’t usually a factor in where I decided to go, but at that point I was pretty nestled in Stage Two culture shock. The less my brain had to work to understand something, I thought, the better.

I knew that Australia was expensive. I didn’t realize quite how expensive it was until I was looking at hotels and hostels online. Even if I would have been able to afford them, most places were booked full throughout the winter holiday.

Luckily a Kiwi friend suggested a hostel – BASE Backpackers. The way she said the name implied a sort of ‘well, if you really have no other options…’ but I went ahead and booked there anyway. The reviews online all seemed mostly positive and I’m not a diva when it comes to traveling and accommodation. I figured I would be fine.

A few weeks and fifteen or so flying hours later, I was standing outside the hostel with my suitcase. My legs glowed iridescently in shorts that I had packed away when the weather in Japan had taken a turn for the chilly. The heat was glorious and my body was still trying to adjust to the fact that it was, in fact, December.

My room wasn’t terrible – a hallway entrance boasted a communal toilet, sink and shower. The room itself was a long stretch that consisted of four large bunks on the right side of the room and…nothing else. Basic and effective.

In my room, I chatted with a friendly German girl with one arm who was in the process of packing – such is hostel life. I chose the lower bunk next to hers and threw my small suitcase on to it.  I sat for a bit, reflecting on how I was both in a different country and on the other side of the equator. The Bottom Half of the Earth: it was kind of a big deal to me.

Before long, a boy and girl entered the room chattering excitedly. They were both very loud and very British.

“Are you AC-CHOOLY joe-king me?” the girl exclaimed in awe. Her blonde hair gave off a dull shine as if it hadn’t been washed in a month. A tiny stud glittered in the left nostril of her large nose. She was tanned and must have been wearing at least half a pound of dark eyeshadow.

“I told you it was nice!” the boy responded as if he were proud of himself. He was slightly heavyset with beady dark eyes peering out from his round face. A backwards baseball cap covered his mop of shaggy brown hair.

“Like…you have so much more’n we doooo,” the girl whined. “Are you ac-chooly joe-king me right now…” she repeated in astonishment as she flopped on the lower bunk closest to her.

“Well you can come an’ sleep ‘ere whenever you want…” the boy responded creepily.

The girl giggled and said she would consider it.

I rolled my eyes. Were these Chavs? I was not well-versed enough in the subcultures of Britain to say for sure. Maybe not, but they were definitely obnoxious. For all accounts and purposes, I named them Brit 1 and Brit 2 in my head.

I exchanged pleasant greetings with the Brits before gathering my things to head out for the evening. I was meeting someone.

I was fortunate enough to have two friends in Sydney whom I already knew. Both of them were Japanese.

The one I was meeting that night, Shuhei, was a handsome man who was in his early thirties. He was tall and rail thin with an expressive face that broadcasted a radiantly youthful smile wherever he looked. At the time, he was dating an Australian and had moved to Sydney to be with him. He worked as a travel agent and spoke English fluently. Shuhei had lived in various parts of the world so his accent fluctuated between North American Vanilla to Peppery Australian twang. It was adorable.

I was sitting outside on an uncomfortable window ledge, on the very edge of the Wifi zone, when Shuhei appeared from the street. He called my name and excitedly ran up to me, proceeding to envelope me in a bear hug that was extremely atypical for a Japanese person.

His cheeks, I noticed, were red and his whole face seemed to be flushed and burning. The Asian Glow.

“Were you drinking?” I asked him with a smirk on my face.

“Yesss,” he said, elongating the consonant. “I just came from work party so I’m a bit drunk. My boss gave me a lot of beer to drink.” he flashed the charming grin my way. “Wanna get beer?”

I agreed and, in no time, we were in a local pub having a pint.

Shortly after our second drink, Shuhei decided it was time to go.

We chatted excitedly as he hurriedly led me through the streets of Sydney. It was nearing sunset and the sidewalks were growing more crowded as Sydneyites got off work.

Suddenly, Shuhei whirled around and placed both hands on my shoulders. “You didn’t go see it, did you?”

I stopped and stared at his handsome face in the changing daylight. His eyes were dark and piercing, scanning me for truth.

“No no,” I said. “I don’t even know where it is. I’ve only been here for like three hours, dude!”

This seemed to satisfy him. “Okay yokatta. It’s just down here, then!”

Before coming to Sydney, Shuhei had made me promise that I would not see the Opera House without him. In fact, he insisted that he be the one to show me. It was very important to him.

“Look! Here it is!” he said triumphantly after a short while.

I found myself in a bustling area of tourists and locals alike. There were buskers balancing metallic baseball bats on their chins, tour guides handing out flyers for their boats and hundreds of tourists (myself included) marveling at it all.  Close by, I saw a small group of people dressed in aboriginal wear playing didgeridoos. The incredibly deep tones of the instrument bounced every which way, filling the area. I felt a vibration in my chest as we passed it – almost awaking something primal within me.

Darling Harbour is a fascinating place. In the distance, the massive frame of Pyrmont Bridge looms like a mountain. Traffic of all sorts passes through it while bold tourists test their gumption by securing themselves with ropes and walking across the top of it.

The harbor itself houses massive cruise liners bigger than any boat I have ever seen in person. They sit calmly on the blue water like enormous steel bath toys, awaiting their next voyage.

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Further down the harbor, the main attraction sits at the end like the spectacle it is.

I had seen pictures of it, but to see the Sydney Opera House in person was something of a moving experience. The iconic alabaster waves rose from the top of the opera house in majestic arcs. I couldn’t look away, my eyes wanting to take every curve of the incredible design. As we walked around it, it seemed to morph appearances – giving it a different perspective from every angle.

On our way around the other side of it, I spotted a small outside bar on the edge of the opera house. There were people milling about and conversing with one another. We could hear laughter and music and it seemed like everyone was having a good time. As we drew closer, I saw that they were all dressed in costume – Batman, Wonder Woman, a cowboy, a prisoner, a pirate.

“Are they…having a costume party?” I asked Shuhei.

“Yeah, I think so.” he said. “Australians do that. Dress up and have costume parties around Christmas time.

“I don’t know why.” he added, sensing my follow up question to this cultural revelation.

Shuhei led me through the adjacent Royal Botanical Gardens to one of his favorite places – Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair. Cut into the rock wall was a large bench that is said to be where an historic governor’s wife sat and watched the ships come and go.

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As I sat in Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair with Shuhei, we gazed out at the harbor. The sky was turning a periwinkle color in preparation for nightfall. The darkening water of the harbor shimmered as it reflected in the last rays of the setting sun. Above, the patchwork of clouds that covered the sky swirled and burned with pinks and purples and oranges that seemed almost otherworldly. The bridge in the distance, the massive ships floating motionlessly and the Opera House’s distinct architecture all combined for a picturesque sight that I doubt I will ever forget.

“Thanks so much for taking me here, Shuhei.” I said, turning to my friend. The shadows of the evening were beginning to shroud his face but I could still see his bright smile.

“I told you it was beautiful,” he said. “I love it here.”

Shuhei’s tour of Sydney included one final stop – Kings Cross. As we were walking there, he raved about how cool it was. Apparently it was a famous neighborhood but, at the same time, it was a bit dangerous. I nodded as he spoke, it sounded like a party area – maybe a bit like Khaosan Road in Bangkok, I thought.

After walking through a few unremarkable streets, we happened upon the famous Kings Cross. Or at least that’s what Shuhei told me dramatically.

“Here we are!” he said, throwing his arms out in grand fashion.

I looked at what he was motioning toward and saw a large illuminated billboard for Coca Cola.

“Oh…okay.” I said, trying to sound more impressed than I was.

“Isn’t that cool?” he asked, beaming.

I returned my gaze to the sign. It was…large. The lights flashed in sync and it did a very good job of advertising Coca Cola. But aside from that, it just seemed like a normal sign to me.

“I mean…I guess, yeah?” I said unconvincingly. “It’s…big.”

“What, you don’t think it’s cool?” Shuhei said defensively.

I laughed. “Er…it’s kind of…”

I tried to find words that would nicely convey my complete disinterest with what he had so proudly shown me.

“…plain?”

“What?!” he exclaimed.

“I mean, I’ve seen this kind of thing a lot.” I said with a nervous laugh. “It’s cool and all…but it’s just an ad for Coke.”

“You don’t think is awesome?!” he asked incredulously.

“It’s not NOT awesome…” I fumbled. It was no use. I could feel the jet lag begin to wrap itself around my brain.

“I’ve just…it’s nothing new or exciting to me, really. Sorry.”

“Well you need to take a picture in front of!” he insisted, grabbing my camera. “So you can say you’ve been here. People will be jealous.”

The result was a photo of me looking incredibly underwhelmed in front of a giant illuminated ad for Coca Cola. To this point, nobody has ever claimed to be jealous of this picture.

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“I still can’t believe you don’t think this is cool.” Shuhei continued as we walked on.

I laughed and gave a shrug. “I don’t know, maybe if it were an ad for like, Vegemite or something, I’d be more impressed.”

Suddenly, we were interrupted by two males storming out of a bar in front of us. They were a little older than middle-aged and looked pretty worse for the wear.

“You’re a fucking CUNT!” one of them screamed. He had a large, bulbous nose and a face covered in pockmarks.

“OH I’M the cunt, am I?” the other yelled back, matching the volume of the first man. He was overweight and his stringy gray hair hung down over his forehead, clashing with a face that was beet red.

“Who’z tha one who hasn’t even seen ‘iz FATHER in years?!”

“Yeahhhh yeahhhh,” the pockmarked man spat “and you’re a fuckin’ SAINT aren’t ya? Miserable BASTARD!”

“Oh, FACK OFF!”

Shuhei and I said nothing as we gingerly shuffled by the pair. I like to think I’ve perfected the vacant ‘I see conflict so I’m suddenly interested in whatever is happening across the street’ look.

When they were gone, we both exhaled a sigh of relief. Their argument was still audible in the distance, but the profanity was much harder to make out.

“Australians are lovely people,” Shuhei said with a sadness in his voice. “But when they drink, they sometimes become violent.”

I had heard this stereotype before, but I didn’t put too much stock in it. I still don’t. Americans are the same, after all. And Brits. And the Irish. And probably Martians, too.

Perhaps what I had just witnessed was a coincidence of sorts. Maybe the two guys were just having a bad night. Maybe, plot twist, they were actually father and son?

Aside from the drama, the neighborhood of Kings Cross was not very stimulating to me. Even with the unremarkable Coca Cola sign, I failed to see why it was a tourist spot. Perhaps I had gone at the wrong time – eight o’clock on a Tuesday evening – but it seemed just like any old neighborhood.

Not long after, the jet lag hit me all at once and I decided to head back to my hostel. Shuhei and I were meeting up the following day to go to the famous Blue Mountains and I decided that I needed rest in order to fully enjoy it.

He bid me adieu and I walked alone back to my hostel. I replayed all the things that I had seen in the past seven hours – it had been a bit of a whirlwhind. The streets of Sydney were alive and, as I wandered slowly through them, I decided that I had definitely made the right choice in coming to this intriguing faraway country.

More to come in Part II. Stay tuned! As always, feedback is much appreciated! Hope everyone is having a great Winter Break and enjoying the holidays! ❤ 

“Roy”

I was in a kickboxing class at my gym a while ago when I noticed something interesting. Between following the punch-kick-squat-jump-kick-kick-punch-uppercut combo that my insane instructor was blasting through, my eyes fell on a woman in front of me.

She was older than me – maybe late thirties – and was in good enough shape that it gave her a younger appearance. Her brown hair was tied into a ponytail and she was powering through the combo making small ‘tsch! tsch! tsch!’ noises every time she punched and kicked the air.

On her shoulder, however, was a tattoo that read ‘男’. I was excited to be able to understand the kanji and after class, I strode up to her and made conversation.

“I like your tattoo!” I said as cheerfully as I could after a 50-minute intense cardio class. “Do you have a son?”

“Huh?” she responded with a voice reminiscent of a Kardashian. “A star?”

“No, a son.”

“Sun? What?”

“A son. Do you have a male child?”

“Oh,” she said, obviously confused. “No, why?”

This was not going how I expected it would. I was in too deep now.

“Ah, well I like your tattoo.” I repeated. “I lived in Japan for three years so I was happy that I recognized it. It means boy, right?”

I knew what it meant.

“Ohhhh thanks,” she said with that fake laugh that people do when they’re nervous or caught off guard. “Umm, the tattoo artist told me that it was my husband’s name.”

“Ohhhh,” I said. This was indeed awkward.

“His name is Roy.” she continued.

“Well…it means….’boy’?” I offered lamely. “So that’s kind of close? I mean…the same sound?”

Where was the ABORT CONVERSATION button?

“Well, whenever I’m mad at him, I just tell people that it means something else,” the woman told me with a devilish smirk. “That’s why you get a tattoo in a different language, right?”

Wrong. Completely wrong. 

“Yeah…haha,” I gave a small, cordial laugh. “I guess it is.”

I disengaged as quickly as I could and left the gym out of a different exit.  My mind was boggled. How, I thought, could someone just have a kanji  tattoo on their body without knowing what it meant?

I had made this point in Japan to my students by showing them pictures of incorrect kanji tattoos and nonsensical Japanese on T-shirts. They thought it was hilarious until I pointed out that the Japanese do the same thing with their clothing etc.

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In which you can see a fifth grade girl’s pencil case with inappropriate lyrics.

“English is cool,” I told them. “But if you’re going to wear it, you need to make sure that what you understand what you’re wearing.”

I think this also relates to people anywhere – do your research about things. Especially if you’re going to get a tattoo!

‘Boy Roy’ woman obviously just chose hers off of a wall and believed whatever the tattoo artist told her. I’m sure there are tattoo artists out there who have a functional knowledge of Japanese and Chinese characters. I would still do my own research before deciding on inking a word or phrase in a different language on my body.

Recently, I saw a woman in my Zumba class with the character ‘勇’ on her shoulder. Instead of saying anything to her, I simply kept my mouth shut and shook my butt with her and the rest of the class. It worked best for everyone that way.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Futon

Right there, on the wall of my bedroom, was a cockroach.

I stared, frozen in disgust as it sat calmly on my wall – slightly camoflauged by the wooden perimeter that ran around the small room. Its spindly antennae moved back and forth inquisitively and I knew that it sensed my terror.

 

 

 

ゴキブリが大嫌い!!!

 

“Oh god oh god oh god oh god,” I repeated manically as if I had just found a dead body.

I took several deep breaths and tried to calm myself down. My revulsion at this intruder had rendered me nearly useless. I was revolted and hysterical but for some reason, I couldn’t take my eyes off the six-legged offender.

Composing myself slightly, I slowly made my way to the door of my bedroom. My bare feet pressed into the slippery surface of my tatami as I made my way out of my room. I hurriedly clomped down the stairs, causing a symphony of creaks and groans to fill the downstairs of my apartment.

I yanked the thin string of my ceiling light and it blinked slowly to life. A terrifying image came to my mind of a dozen cockroaches scattering across my floor, trying to escape the light. My friend Hermán’s words echoed in my head – “You know, I hear that if you see one cockroach in your house, it means there are about fifty more living there as well.”  How innocently he had relayed his little factoid – as if it were a piece of trivia we would hear and then file away for years.

Now, however, that was all I could think about. As I quickly made my way to the kitchen, I pictured an enormous family of cockroaches living in my walls. Zigzagging erratically across my floor when I wasn’t home. Having little cockroach pool parties in my mountain of unwashed dishes. Enjoying the cold air as they explored the inside of my wall-mounted air conditioning unit.

I held back a gag as I yanked open the cabinet under the sink. I kept a various array of cleaning supplies in here, along with my poison spray. I stared into the dark space with more than a bit of trepidation. If any place in my apartment was perfect for a huge family of cockroaches, I thought, it was most definitely this dark, cool space underneath my sink.

I snatched the can of poison spray and shut the door as quickly as I could. The design on the can was formidable looking and showed a red upside-down cockroach with a large X through it. The nozzle was apparently designed for heavy spraying which meant I would not have to be close to the offending insect.

When I got back to my room, I saw with a mixture of relief and dread that the bastard was still chilling on my wall, antennae swiveling back and forth on its gross, crispy head. I crept to the other end of the room and tugged my futon out of the way. I didn’t want to sleep in poison spray residue, after all.

Gripping the can in my shaking hand, I took a few more deep breaths. Your fear of bugs should not be this crippling, I chastised myself. It’s like four hundred times smaller than you are. And plus, you have poison. POISON.

As I psyched myself up, I began to feel an odd sort of remorse for killing the little guy. He’s only being himself, my emotional side chimed in. He’s probably cold. Maybe hungry or thirsty. And he just wandered in because he was trying to survive. Is that so wrong?

I stared at the cockroach again for a brief moment. Its black teardrop of a body was fairly large by cockroach standards. Its legs were jagged and almost hairy-looking. All the while, its incredibly long antennae wouldn’t stop moving.

I took a deep breath. It had to die. I wasn’t about to scoop it up nicely in a cup or with a piece of paper and kindly escort it out of my apartment. And I surely wasn’t going to let it roam free in the crevices of my place with the rest of its disgusting family. No, I decided firmly, this son of a bitch was going to have to be dealt with.

Readying myself, I tightened my grip on the can. My finger grazed the trigger and I steadied my aim. The cockroach’s antennae waved back and forth, paused for a bit and then continued to move alternately. I’m sure it sensed something was about to happen.

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Actual handrawn depiction of the events that transpired that evening

“Sorry, little dude,” I said, trying to sound simultaneously brave and apologetic. “You came into my house. I don’t wanna do this but you gave me no choice…”

I squeezed the trigger and a forceful spray shot out of the can. In the exact same instant, the cockroach leapt off the wall and flew toward my face. FLEW TOWARD MY FACE. Its wings made a sickening thump thump thump sound as they beat frantically against the air.

I let out a horrific shriek as I dove out of the way – something that must have sounded akin to a baby goat being attacked by a pterodactyl.

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Yes, my mouth really is that enormous

The newly-revealed flying cockroach made a sharp turn and crashed into the far wall of my bedroom. It fell on the wood perimeter of the room, safely off the tatami. Its spiky legs twitched, its body spasmed and, its (now obvious) wings flapped uselessly.

“YOU SON OF A BITCH!” I was now yelling. My finger was tight on the trigger, emptying far more of it onto the poor thing than was likely necessary.

It didn’t matter that it was now past midnight on a Tuesday. Or that the walls of my apartment allowed for every footstep, sneeze and snore of my elderly neighbors to be heard. Nor did it matter that said elderly neighbors and I had a fairly good relationship.

The only thing that mattered now was exacting revenge on this evolutionary freak of an insect that had taken me by surprise not once, but twice in the span of an hour.

After a few more seconds of adrenaline-fueled spraying and hysterical curse words, I released the trigger. The cockroach now lay glistening in a small lake of poison. Noxious fumes filled the area and I moved to crack open my window before I passed out.

Dramatically, I collapsed onto my tatami and covered my mouth and nose with my blanket. Nobody had told me cockroaches in Japan flew. I thought flying cockroaches were only a weird Floridian thing. What in the ever-loving christ was going on?

Before too long, I had a wad of far too many paper towels in my hand and I was standing over the insect again. Its angular legs kicked slowly against the air and my stomach turned in response.

Eventually, my heart rate slowed and my bedroom no longer reeked of insecticide. I had taken the cockroach in its massive tomb of paper towels and thrown it in the bag of perishable trash I kept in my freezer. I warily gave my apartment a final once-over before climbing the stairs to my bedroom again.

I don’t know what I would have done had I found another cockroach. Probably spend the night at a friend’s.

I verified that the walls, tatami and wooden perimeter of my bedroom were all bug-free before repositioning my futon. Shaking out the blankets diligently, I settled cautiously in to my futon, turned off the lights and tried not to think about where the cockroach had been before I found it.

 

*This is part of a larger story on my encounters with bugs in Japan. I hope to post more here sometime. Feedback is appreciated, as always! 😀 Do you hate bugs like I do? What’s your least favorite insect? Ugh.*

A year later: Bleeding Through

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Lately, I’ve been thinking about my life.

The Short Version: from 2010 to 2013, I lived in rural Japan. I taught English in local elementary and junior high schools. It was easily the most challenging, amazing, rewarding, frustrating and life-changing thing that has happened to me yet.

For this reason, I find myself still thinking about Japan quite often. I will talk about it to whoever will listen. I’m on the board of my city’s Japan-America Society. I try to practice my Japanese whenever I can. And I still keep up with and listen to a lot of Japanese music.

Whenever I find myself talking about Japan though, I can occasionally see something in my friends’ eyes for a split-second. An eye roll or a lift of the eyebrows that seems to say ‘oh jeez here he goes again’. As if I’m a veteran grandpa recounting his time in ‘Nam or something.

It just seems that I can’t let Japan go.

But…do I have to?

レリゴーレリゴー

レリゴーレリゴー

For me, living in Japan for three years was a serious life-changing event for many reasons: It was my first time living away from home, I was in a different country doing something that I had dreamed about doing for years. I was able to travel to several different countries as well as domestically in Japan. I also formed amazing relationships with my students, coworkers and other foreigners from all over the world. I was even featured on a radio program, a TV show and on the front page of a Kyushu-wide magazine!

These are extraordinary things to do in one’s early twenties and I recognize that I am incredibly fortunate to have been able to have the experience I had.

But now that I’m back, and as I look forward to the future, I find myself still wanting to hold on to my connection to Japan. It would be great to work someplace where I can use Japanese. I would love to go back and visit sometime – specifically Kumamoto. And I still want to practice the language as much as I can because, hey, I spent a lot of time learning it. I don’t want to forget it.

It’s difficult, however. I want to embrace and cherish the special relationship I have with this island country that’s seven thousand miles away. But at the same time, I don’t want to dwell on it so much that it turns in to this sort of conceived paradise that it never was – causing me to deem what I plan to do in the future as ‘not as cool as Japan’.

Even though I’ve been back in the US for almost a year. Things like dealing with reverse culture shock (which is a very real thing), shifting dynamics in friendships old and new, and the crumbling of a long-distance relationship have all been more challenging than I anticipated they would be.

These things caused me to reflect more fondly on the good times I had when I was living in Japan. Almost like an escape back in to the Good Old Days. I was even quite resentful for a short period after coming back to the states, feeling that I had plateaued in my life. I even began looking up ways to get back to Japan.

But this wouldn’t have solved anything.

A metaphor popped into my head the other day, though, that I feel aptly describes my feelings.

Imagine you have a blank journal. You write in said journal for a good number of years with pens of varying quality. Some of the pens may be blue or black or red. Some may have been running out of ink when you used them. Maybe you even wrote in pencil on a few occasions.

Then one day you obtain a new writing utensil: a marker. You continue to write with this marker for a good long while before you eventually lose it.

The next time you go to write in the journal again, you see that the words you’ve written on the previous pages have bled through to the next dozen pages or so. You can write over the splotchy words and exclamation marks that have bled through, but you’re still able to see them clearly.

 

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Japan was, for me, the time in my life that I wrote with the boldest, darkest marker I could. I painted the shit out of my journal with it. I doodled in all the margins, I took up every line on every page. I wrote so boldly that the ink bled through for pages and pages and pages.

Now, when I write more things in the journal of my life, it’s with the constant reminder of what I have done in the recent past. Instead of blank pages to start from, I’m forced to write over the inky shadows of exciting times that seemed like just yesterday.

It feels like the new words that I write are not eye-catching or impressive – especially when compared to the huge, fun strokes of what’s left over from before. It’s like they’re having to fight for space and attention on the page. Sometimes it almost feels too fresh to even attempt to write over.

What I’ve had to learn to do is to accept that these reminders of my time in Japan will always be there in my journal. They’re going to have bled through to a good number of pages. But as time goes on, the dark smudges and blotches will begin to lighten and fade as new pages are turned.

Part of me fears that I will never be able to recapture the gusto and passion from the time in my life that I wrote with that bold marker. But another part of me sees that as a challenge. Why wouldn’t I be able to have another experience like that? It’s up to me to make it happen.

Sometimes it’s definitely easier said than done, but I’m finding a nice balance now between my life that was and where I am currently. The wonderful thing about having a journal like this (or, life, as I call it) is that at any time, I can go back and relive all of these adventures. I can flip back a few years and lose myself in rumination about how great (or not so great) certain aspects were.

These moments are nostalgic and fun to look back on – especially with friends who were there too. But the truth is, there’s no hope of recreating them. And that is a painfully bittersweet thing to realize.

(noun) A homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for the lost places of your past.

Hiraeth: (noun) A homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for the lost places of your past.

 

I’ve seen discussions and articles from former JETs on ‘Breaking up with Japan’. I think this is a good way to put it, but it seems a bit…final. I guess for me, ’Archiving Japan’, is a better description of what I’m doing — writing about it, experiencing it again and storing it away in my memory.

And I know that every time I take it out and revisit it, I’ll see those bold-ass marker strokes and smile at what a great experience it was.

 

 For those ‘ex-expats’ who have left Japan (or anywhere) and have readjusted to their home countries, have you found you’ve gone through the same kind of challenge? Have you managed to strike a balance that’s put you at peace? Do you have any advice for others who are struggling? 

 

Rain and Rainbows, 雨と虹

 

ビショビショだね〜

ビショビショだね〜

 

As a child, June always began with a rush of excitement. School was on the brink of letting out for the summer, my birthday was right around the corner and the air seemed to buzz with the promise of adventures waiting to be had.

In Japan, however, I learned to my dismay that school was still in session during my birthday month. Schools in Kumamoto did not get out for summer vacation until mid-July or so. And even then, their summer break was only a couple of weeks long.

I remember the chorus of shocked “EHHHHHHH”s and resentful “IIIII NAAAAA”s when I told my sixth graders that Americans get three months off for summer vacation. The homeroom teacher threw me a scared look and then cast a wary glance at their class; I’m sure she feared an uprising of Japanese children who demanded a longer break from school.

“WHAT DO YOU DO FOR THREE MONTHS?!” they screamed incredulously.

“…forget EVERYTHING we learned.” I said, only half-joking.

The month of June, it seemed, was incredibly different in Japan. There, the air grew heavy with moisture and dark clouds covered the entire country. At night, the rice field directly behind my apartment came to life with hundreds of frogs croaking loudly from within.

Days later, as if responding to the amphibian rain orgy, the skies would open and torrential rain would begin to fall in sheets for days at a time. It was so unrelenting that the rice field would routinely flood and I would often find myself opening the curtain to lakefront property.

IMG_2835

Without fail, the calming pitter patter on my window would put me back to sleep so I always had to set at least four different alarms to make sure I got up. When I eventually rose, whatever motivation I had had for the day would sink down through my chest and disappear somewhere into my body.

I would make my way downstairs slowly and see my living room and kitchen bathed in gloomy gray light instead of brilliant sunshine. The intense humidity gave my walls a sheen of moisture, causing the posters to crinkle sadly. Sometimes they would simply give up and detach themselves from the rubber cement that held them in place.

I had to learn to consistently check for and clean up everyone’s least favorite guest during rainy season: mold. It sprouted everywhere, looking as if a tree sprite had run gaily through my apartment. During my first miserable rainy season, I was horrified to find it all over my floor. It stretched from my bathroom to the front door in a massive carpet. I hadn’t known that it was mold. I hadn’t even noticed that my floor had darkened.

Or maybe I had noticed and just didn’t care. Contrary to the feelings of excitement and opportunity that June gave me in the US, Rainy Season brought with it an overwhelming sense of melancholy and listlessness. I wanted to do things, but the onslaught of never-ending rain dampened any kind of desire I had.

Whenever I did venture outside my apartment, it was only to go to and from work. Wrapped in a poncho and rain pants that did little to keep me dry, I would hop on my wet bike seat, and ride to school – ignoring the rain that stung my eyes and blurred my vision.

This was my face most mornings.

This was my face most mornings.

When I finally arrived at school, I threw my soaked shoes in my cubby and padded barefoot through the hallway to the staffroom, leaving a wet trail behind me like a slug.

“Ohayou gozaimaaasu”, I would say as I entered. I always tried to be as cheerful as I could, but some days were harder than others. Especially during rainy season.

“Ohhh Ian Sensei,” a teacher would call out to me. “今日、自転車?” they would make an exaggerated bicycling motion and rock back and forth as they looked at me.

“Yes,” I would answer them in Japanese. “Today, bicycle. Every day, bicycle.”

After the fourth or fifth time of explaining to all of my teachers that my bicycle was indeed my only means of transportation, it got harder and harder to be patient with them.

“Ohhh,” they would say some mornings. “ビショビショだね〜”. You’re soaked, aren’t you?

“ちょっとだけ!” I would respond, my hair hanging in front of my face in wet spirals. Only a little! My sarcasm never translated well and they would always giggle innocently as I resisted the urge to wring my hair out over their desks.

ビショビショだね〜

ビショビショだね〜

Aside from the weather, another huge difference between June in Japan and June in the USA is the celebration of Pride.

Before I went to Japan, I never really saw Pride as something worth my time. I figured that it was just a bunch of drunk white people dancing around and sporting garish, risqué clothing while riding giant inflatable penises down the street.

I went to a Pride once when I was 17 or 18 in Las Vegas. I remember being underwhelmed and not really ‘getting’ it. Since then, I’ve never really had much of a desire to participate in or go to another one. Even though San Antonio Pride is a big deal, and even supported by the mayor, I’ve still never made the trek downtown for it.

This year will be different, though.

In Japan, the topic of being gay rarely came up – if ever. I would constantly be asked questions like ‘Do you have a girlfriend?’ and ‘What’s your type?’ and ‘Do you like Japanese girls?’.

I would answer these questions vaguely – not giving any more information than I needed to. No, I definitely did not have a girlfriend. My type? Nice people (never stating a gender). Yes, I liked Japanese girls, they were very nice. I had several girl friends who were Japanese.

The longer this went on, the more frustrated I became. Coming from a country where I was out to everyone from my family to my coworkers and classmates, it was torture to dance around these issues and be so vague. I wanted nothing more than to answer honestly: that I didn’t have a girlfriend, but rather a boyfriend who was Japanese. I wanted to tell them how we’d been dating for two years and how he was great and how being gay is nothing like the ridiculous caricatures that are paraded across Japanese television.

But I didn’t. Instead, I kept my mouth shut, rolled my eyes and bit my tongue harder and harder as I answered the same questions again and again.

It was tough for me because as much as I wanted to be the cool openly gay American ALT in my city, I knew I wasn’t prepared to take on the responsibility of such an announcement. There were too many uncertainties – how would the students react? How would the teachers? My board of education? If a problem were to arise, CLAIR (the organization behind the JET Program) would surely have my back…but was that really something I wanted to dive in to?

The questions and constant assumptions of my heterosexuality were annoying and difficult to deal with some days, but it was the price of choosing what I did. I’ve known openly gay ALTs (GAyLTs, as I lovingly say) who have had great experiences and were completely accepted by everyone. For me, the risk of outing myself and possibly changing my entire experience in Japan was just not worth it.

Now that I’m back in the US, though, I’m reminded this June about what it means to be LGBT. With marriage bans being struck down left and right, the president officially declaring June as LGBT Pride Month and emerging conversations and education about trans* issues, it’s an exciting time to be in the United States.

 

Things that I had taken for granted before living in Japan are once again readily available to me: Being able to go to gay bars without having to go to a different city. Being around other openly LGBT people. The ability to bring up and discuss things like LGBT rights in public without feeling like I’m committing an enormous faux pas.

And, of course, the fact that it’s SUNNY.

As Pride events pop up throughout the city and I meet other people who share a common thread with me, I find myself feeling very different about Pride than I have in years past. I feel an appreciation for my local community, proud of how far the LGBT rights movement has come and optimism for its future. This must be what Pride feels like. And I’ve missed it.

While I miss Japan and the life that I had there every day, I am grateful to be back in the USA (for the time being) to experience this. This is my first June since coming back and I’m so happy to be experiencing more Rainbow than Rain.

Tackling the JET Program (Part 7): Placements!

 

Hey new JETs, it’s that time of year again! After what feels like months of agonizing silence, you’ve finally gotten your placement!

I love this time because the internet explodes with curiosity, excitement and uncertainty. New friendships are formed as leaving JETs get in contact with their successors and vice-versa. The staying JET community is flooded with excited gossip about who’s coming next, where they’re from and what they look like (Yes, I’m serious. I dare anyone to argue with me about this).

This is a super exciting time as it means that you’re one step closer to moving to Japan! Having an assigned prefecture/city/town/island makes it all the more real. Ahhh!

Here are some tips that I found helped me when I first got my placement in the wonderful Kumamoto prefecture.

 

 

  •  Reserve your judgmenet about how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ your placement is

When I googled Yatsushiro City, the only thing that came up was the depressingly barren Wikipedia page. I actually don’t think it’s changed at all since I last checked it three years ago. I learned about a giant pommelo fruit (banpeiyu) that is grown there, a festival in November…and the main shopping area that is ‘in decline’.

To be honest, I was a bit bummed. Where was this strange place that I was going to? All my other friends who had been accepted to JET were rejoicing in their placements that were only a couple of hours from Tokyo or Osaka. I felt as if I had kind of been exiled to Kyushu – far away from my friends and the big cities that I associated with being ‘REAL JAPAN’.

When I actually arrived in my city, however, I found it to be so much more than I ever expected. There were two giant malls, a gorgeous mountain range to the east and a port to the west. There were ample hiking opportunities, I was super close to a train station and they were actually building a shinkansen (bullet train) stop that was to be completed within the next year.

My point is: don’t put full faith in whatever you happen to scrape together about your placement on the internet. There’s really no way to know how much you’re going to like or hate it until you are actually there. Don’t be discouraged! It’s far too early!! 

 

  • Don’t compare yourself to other JETs and their placements.

I touched on this briefly in the last bullet point, but it’s important. Don’t compare yourself to other people. Especially those who think they know all about their placement. I had people at Tokyo Orientation practically bragging to me about being placed in X Y Z prefecture and how they were going to be so close to A B C and how they were going to do D E F every weekend.

Coming to Japan is exciting, it really is. I think that some people get so caught up in the excitement of it, though, that they start to fantasize they’re already living the life they’re dreaming about. It might sound great to be located only three hours from Tokyo. The reality, though, might be having to drive/take a bus 50 minutes through the mountains to get to the nearest train station in order to hop one of two daily trains that head that direction. Not quite as glamorous as it sounds.

If you compare yourself to other new JETs who are bragging about their placements before even getting there, you might start to feel unnecessarily bad about your own awesome placement. Pay them no mind. Just nod politely, maybe give them the ‘wow, cool!’ that they so desire…and then forget about it.

 

  • Start connecting with people ASAP!

I am a very social person. As such, I immediately began to scour Facebook and other social media when I received my placement. I discovered the AJET page for Kumamoto, joined it and announced myself. I was met with an incredibly warm welcome and instantly found myself put in contact with other JETs in my city or nearby. I then got to ask them all of my noob questions and, in the process, became even more excited about going.

I found in my time in Japan that, as a whole, the JET community is amazingly supportive and welcoming. Take advantage of this social network. In my experience, JETs in your prefecture are just as excited to meet you as you are them. Trust me 🙂

 

  • Reevaluate your expectations.

Surely, if you’re moving to Japan, you’re prepared for things to be different. But knowing your placement can solidify things you had been wondering about. Maybe you’re going to have to get a car and you didn’t think you would need one. Maybe you’re going to be a high school ALT and you really really wanted junior high/elementary. Maybe you’re going to be the only person in a village of 3,000.

I think that, applying to JET, many of us have expectations about what it could be like. When you get your placement, however, these expectations could shift slightly or be totally obliterated. If you were planning on being super close to Hiroshima because you studied there once…only to be found out that you were placed in Northern Hokkaido, you might have to reevaluate your expectations.

Like I said before, don’t get discouraged because things turned out different than you had expected/wanted. It’s important to keep an open mind and roll with the punches. Not only is it required almost every day as a JET, it’s quite possible that you will grow to love your placement more than you ever thought you could.

 

And that’s about all the advice I can think of at the moment! As I said, this is an exciting time and it’s a step closer to the reality of moving to Japan! Enjoy the time you have left while you prepare for your adventure!

If you’re a JET, where are you headed? If there’s anything else that I could maybe help with, feel free to leave a comment! And, if you’re headed to Kumamoto, congratulations!! 😀 

JPOP Friday! 5/2

 

This week’s featured Jpop Friday artist is CREAM!

I first heard about CREAM a few years back while living in Japan. They did covers to Western songs like Super Bass andI was really impressed with them.

Watching them evolve as artists has has been pretty impressive. Both Minami and Staxx T are incredibly creative and talented and it really shows in their music.

CREAM released they’re album DREAMIN’ last year in January and I really enjoyed it. Songs like Money Money Money, Firework and Whatever stuck out to me because they’re high energy and fun. Their song Shooting Star was also a pretty big hit and helped them break in to the mainstream spotlight.

Their new album #nofilter dropped on April 30th and, while more laid back and less in-your-face energetic than DREAMIN’, I think it still showcases their talent. Minami has a beautiful voice and Staxx T’s rapping is always fun to listen to.

Overall, #nofilter wasn’t what I expected but I still enjoyed it, though. CREAM is a fun group and they continue to put out great music that makes you want to move, smile and have a great time.

 

Favorite tracks: #nofilter, Nobody, Forever Young and Wonderland.

Similar artists: M-flo, Mademoiselle Yulia, capsule

 

What do you think of CREAM?