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.
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.
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.
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.