First Email From Japan
Hisashiburi desu, ne? I’ve written this email many times in my head over the last month, but only the middle sections – I never decided where to begin. So let’s go English 101. (It might be the only thing I remember by the end of the year!) I am fine. My health is good. I’m far away but not lonely. Somehow it feels like you are here, too.
I was placed in Kumamoto prefecture, Tamana City , Tensui town, in the southwest region of Japan. The climate is North Carolina with monsoons. Tensui isn’t haiku-level remote, but like most people who enter the program, I was secretly hoping for Kyoto or Osaka, and my 8000-person farm town is certainly different from that. I live in the shadow of a mountain I didn’t realize how much I loved cities until I noted that Duke, with its high-density quarters, nightly cultural activities, and busy public spaces, is a city itself, and I loved living there as much as I loved Madrid. However, I am at peace with my placement, so much so that I’m not even planning to travel until winter. I can learn Japanese even better out here than I would in town – no one here can even speak fluent English with me, not even my supervisor – and I won’t fully enjoy the culture until I’m literate anyway.
How long will that take? Ideally, two more months. I know Japanese is supposed to take several years of meditation, but Duke has me hard-wired. I can’t stand being in the dark, and so after two months of study, I’m already ahead of people who took classes for one or two years. I am truly fortunate that this the perfect challenge for me. Regardless, I can see why the language takes others so long: the 2000 essential kanji seem infinite; having a composition you sweated over for an hour sound like Babelfish to native speakers is deflating; seeing a teacher switch from talking to you about what food you like to having a “real” conversation with the other faculty makes you feel like you’re 8. Principally, having your mind open to Japanese all day long, and leaving the language of your birth behind, is emotionally tiring. One veteran teacher learned Japanese by drinking – by drinking so much, he had to stay in Japan to make more money – quite a cycle. A few nights ago, I ran into a 16-year old Dominican baseball player at a town festival. A couple Japanese friends joined in the conversation, so I was flipping between Spanish and Japanese and English to translate for everyone, and wow…3 Beers + 3 Languages = fireworks. But, I’ll persevere – people here really do say ganbatte 10 times a day. (They also compliment you on your Japanese ten times a day, no matter how good you are, and you know it’s a matter of courtesy but you want it anyway.) There is too much I want to do with my life, too many places I want to go, for me to settle down here. I want to be radiant when I see you again. The older teachers say it takes a couple years to really get the hang of the language and have things open up for you. So I’ll just fit two years of experience into the next twelve – no, eleven months.
The thing that has affected me the most, for good and for ill, is the strong national unity of Japanese people. I thought that here in the country, the ties would be less strong – that people would think “What has the capital done for us, anyway?” But what are they supposed to be otherwise? Americans? People are even more culturally conservative out here. I felt strange coming back to 90% white Indiana after school, but Japan is 99% Japanese, and here in the sticks it’s really 99.9%, so even I sometimes wonder what I’m doing here. I am internationalizing the town just by going to the grocery store or sampling free food in a mall, so surprised are ordinary citizens that a foreigner would live among them. (Az for one is fantastic at this because he is a burly, friendly African who goes out every night.) I have the odd feeling that people like me or dislike me not because of who I am but because of what I am. I think I already know why Christianity hasn’t caught on here: it’s not Japanese. And the official religion of Japan is not Shinto or Buddhism, it’s being Japanese: being modally polite, deferring to superiors unconditionally, honoring ancestors, working ridiculous hours for the good of the country, being straight-laced at work and opening up during officially sanctioned parties, and loving karaoke. Japan has gone a long way with its ethics, to be certain, but I wonder if the exhaustion they impart has contributed to Japan’s demographic spiral. The old guys here get paid for what they did before, not for what they’re doing now, and soon there will be a lot more of them than of the young work horses. Even for the committed Christians, belonging to the faith can feel like a betrayal. But we’re supposed to believe that the message of Christ is for everyone, that you have to leave your father and mother behind for the truth. My church, by the by, has about 30 people, by the way, and it’s very charming; plus I met the Bishop of Fukuoka last Sunday! He was a holy man.
Regardless of racial differences, the people here in Tensui have been very nice and very welcoming. I had a host family my first few days, and I’ve visited them and played with the six grandkids a couple times a week since. There have been certain challenges of accommodation: the good news is that trash is picked up each day; the bad news is that it comes for something different each day, so you have to separate it yourself. TV creeps me out because the shows always include a little picture-in-a-picture showing one of the TV personalities reacting to the things on the show. His laughing, crying, and such are supposed to cue you, but it feels intrusive to me. People dress nicely all the time; I even went to the touristy places in Tokyo in a long-sleeved shirt and tie so I would fit in. Driving on the left side of the road was scary for a couple hours but seems normal now. It would seem no one would get into a car accident here because speed limits top out at 30 miles per hour, but most of the roads are one lane wide and most of the drivers are aggressive. It is Mario Kart. But I think I’m the kind of person who could adjust to living on Mars, so this hasn’t been bad.
School starts Friday! I’ll be splitting half my time at the town junior high school and the other half between four elementaries. The kids seem fantastic, if not as far ahead of Americans as international tests make them out to be. If you have time, check out the logo for Kumon, the cram school: kids think the face in the O looks happy, which explains a lot about the difference between the Japanese and American education systems.
Anyway, it’s time for me to retire as it’s the middle of the night here, and I’ve taken up so much of your time already. Thank you for following me this far, and know that you’re in my thoughts and prayers.
I have a giant Japanese-style house all to myself. Strangely, the biggest challenge of my move-in was cleaning up after my predecessors. Everyone says they were nice guys, which is probably right, but I’m not sure how they could take it. According to reports, both they and the Board of Education worked hard to clean the place up, but it was quite literally toxic. A partial list of things that were left behind:
-50 gallon barrel full of liquid fertilizer which had decomposed into poison
-20-30 pounds of broken glass in the backyard
-14 empty 1-liter glass bottles
-50 gallon glass bottle with an actual ecosystem inside it
-Rusty nails on the floor
-Loose knife blade (sharp)
-10 bottles of hard liquor
-A 30-lb box of alcohol he couldn’t take overseas and which I must ship to him in Kyoto
-Decomposed cardboard covering half the backyard,
-Condom in the back corner
-A decomposed plate of guacamole, now black and fuzzy, atop the refrigerator
-2 broken fans, 1 broken stereo
-Old decorations from several years of Halloween parties
-Stickers on the walls and furniture that can’t be taken off
-Under the bed: 2 hardcover books of hentai, and…well, this is a family column, but the kind of implements teenage boys usually employ, obviously used
-On the bookshelves, two books of photographic porn, one called “Asian Ladies,” a Kama Sutra, a manga about girls losing their virginity
-3 bottles of soy sauce, 5 bottles of Tabasco sauce, various used toiletry and shower products
-3 drawers of his clothing, dirty gym clothes in his school locker
-3 shelves of manga
-At school, a deck of cards with 31 of the required 52 and a mess of random things in his desk
-Manifold trash and empty boxes
-$30 in loose change
-Uncatalogued, disorganized 1300 book library, 900 of which are English language fiction
-Giant box of Star Trek tapes dubbed into Japanese
-Not to mention all the dust
I can understand why the house got the way it was: everyone comes to the program with a temporary attitude. Why take care of something that won’t be yours forever? So things built up for years until someone new couldn’t stand it anymore. It took 8 consecutive nights of effort (after the third day, my brain was telling me. “This is a fun hobby,” not “This is a waste of time”). I organized and catalogued the books on Excel; I even cleaned the bong. The worst part was probably picking up all that broken glass with my bare hands. It was a 90-degree day; I could hear a little girl playing in the next yard over, so I knew the glass had to come up, and hordes of mosquitoes were consuming me, as if the Lord of the Flies were protecting his home. The situation was positively satanic. Now, though, the place has been beautiful for three weeks. I am a legitimate home-owner. A husband of the land.
There’s still no central AC/heating, which makes food especially perishable when room temperature is 95 degrees, as it has been all month, but it’s zen. There was a big empty corner where a bookshelf would have fit perfectly, but it just looked wrong to have something there.