Following My Star
“So, are you staying in Japan another year?” I can answer that before I finish this paragraph, or even this sentence: “Yes, I am.” “Why?” A much shorter question, that, but one that will take more time because I also have to address a third, which is, “Why did you take this job in the first place?”
Medicine, engineering, banking, and law: if you are at Duke University, chances are good you’re aiming towards one of these things. I wasn’t. I eschewed pre-med because I didn’t want to look at bodies all day. I didn’t want to do that for machines, either, so I avoided engineering. Banking took a little longer to refuse because the companies were on campus every week telling us the jobs and the money were unlimited and if we invested only three years we’d be set forever. But I couldn’t buy into it. The 100-hour work weeks with no church and no sleep seemed unbalanced in the Aristotelian sense of the word, and the money-sex-booze vibe I got from the financial types at Duke, not to mention the ones profiled in the media, didn’t suit me. I befriended a few brilliant people who genuinely loved banking and couldn’t stop thinking about the numbers. Cheers to them, but I can’t relate to that. I minored in Math more because it was a mental challenge than because I wanted to do equations all day. (“There is redemptive value in suffering,” I always said.)
Law, which I was born into, happens to relate to Philosophy (my major) and to be a safety valve for liberal arts majors, but it seems so dry and technical. People said, “You can become a lawyer, make your money, and then write about law, just like [my favorite writer] John Grisham!” But law school is three years; the bar exam process is a fourth, and then becoming a partner requires many years of grueling labor. Ezra Pound excepted, law is a vocation, not a side job. I took an LSAT class and got a good score on the test, but I just couldn’t go through with the application. The only school that interested me was Columbia. Not because of its programs but because it’s in New York. If the first place you go in a law school’s FAQ is “Can I defer acceptance?” then you probably shouldn’t apply.
My dream, I have said since I was around ten years old, is to be a novelist. Writing is the one thing I can do for hours without looking at the clock; in fact, I have to keep myself from writing more because it’s bad for my sleep and my grades. (In fact, it’s getting too late right now.) My host mother in Spain, though, had a point when she said “Escritores no tienen ningún futuro,” or “Writers don’t have futures.” Making it as a writer is as difficult as making it as a rock musician: there are way more dreamers than actual positions, so people give up a lot of money and years get the bottom-level jobs, and the people on the top often owe as much to luck as to skill. Lots of writers go into journalism, but the day-to-day reporting grind wouldn’t give me the kind of knowledge I wanted. If it’s my vocation, the Holy Spirit will show the way, but the path is not clear.
Plenty of writers go into journalism, but the day-to-day grind wouldn’t give me the kind of knowledge I wanted. In high school I threw myself into the Western literary canon, from “War and Peace” to all of Shakespeare’s plays. I majored in Philosophy. I hadn’t heard anything about Plato, Descartes, Confucius and the like, but they were so often cited in intelligent discourse that I knew I had to understand them; plus the classes encouraged rigorous, systematic thinking. Now I feel drawn to learn Chinese and Japanese. It never occurred to me when I was trudging through the high school Spanish curriculum, but my ear for languages is unconscious. I started behind most students in my Spain study abroad group, and by December I was better than everyone but the kids from Miami. Chinese, which I took my senior year, is famously grueling at Duke but I made A’s both semesters and then could carry conversations with Singaporeans when I got here. I went home for Christmas this year, and when I came back to Japan I was speaking the language better than I had before I left.
Whoever has ears ought to hear. The economic argument for my path is that the world is becoming more and more global and competitive. China has four times as many people as we do, and they’re also working harder. Japan may not grow much but it will still be one of the strongest economies. In the Western hemisphere, everyone south of Houston speaks Spanish. Fluent in those languages, I’ll be needed somewhere. The literary argument is that understanding so many cultures, not just in the “I’m a surprised tourist” sense but in having the language ability to draw from thousands of years of stories, metaphors, and value systems, is my “angle.”
Originally I was planning on staying here a year, then doing the same kind of work somewhere Mandarin-speaking, but this was the best teaching job available. In fact, this was the best job available anywhere. I looked for other jobs in Japan, in the embassies and newspapers and so on, and every opening, even for secretaries, seemed to require 5 years experience and bilingual skills. I sent emails to all my contacts in Japan asking if they knew of other opportunities, and no one replied. I have great pay, lots of time, and a fantastic atmosphere. Coming here was like visiting a friend’s house right before a snowstorm. I’m in a temporary situation, but I’m also very safe – safer than I would have been had I gone into banking, business, journalism, or law school, ironically. My salary is a rent-free, tax-free 3.6 million yen. One dollar was worth 120 yen when I applied, but it’s only 87 now. My Board of Education pays for my housing. Thanks to a treaty between the US and Japan, I don’t have to pay taxes to either country, not even Social Security. (Japanese Social Security is deducted from my income now but paid back in a lump sum when I leave.) So I have the equivalent of a $60,000 job, and I’m consuming less than 20% of my income. Teaching jobs in China and Taiwan offer half the pay, plus I’d pay rent and income tax, so I’d be much closer to breaking even.
I have a lot more free time than most people with 9 to 5s. A big reason is location. The only way my commute could be shorter is if I lived in the locker room of my junior high school. Monday, Thursday, and Friday, I have a two minute walk to work. My elementary schools Tuesdays and Wednesdays are all within ten minutes by car. The junior high school also has a track, so there’s always somewhere to run. I’m busy at elementary school but at the junior high, I don’t have to write tests or grade much. I usually have 2 hours of free time to study, and my teachers are pretty supportive of me using time that way because I’m a good example for the students. (Plus they’re in the habit of teaching, and they can teach me, too!) In another job, I would lose more time to commutes, have more responsibilities, and would probably face more resistance to studying at work.
My junior high school was built about three years ago, and besides being too cold in winter and too hot in summer (like all the other buildings here), its facilities are top-notch. The windows in the seventh graders’ rooms provide a clear view of the beautiful green mountain, covered in orange groves, that frames our town. The volcano across the bay is in the western horizon, and sometimes when the sun is setting behind it, it looks as red as the Japanese flag. When I drive back to my house after dark and the houses and street lights on the mountain get closer and closer, I get a sense that I’m coming home. Since my kids are reputedly the best in the state, and Japan as a whole is renowned for being an easy place to teach, I’m going to have more fun and less stress teaching these kids in my 2nd year of knowing them than I would starting over with new people, new age groups, and a new language.
So this will likely be my only English teaching job. The following year, my plan is to leave Japan with around $50,000 in the bank account and use some of that saved money to study Mandarin as a student in a major city. (I’m leaning toward Taiwan Normal U in Taipei right now.) The rest is still beyond the horizon, but I am at peace about both the next two years and what’s beyond that.
The downside to staying is that I might get bored, plus another year here is another year not spent in another exciting place. It’s hard to be sure since I’ve only served half the first year, but this is a case where the more I learn, the more I realize I have to know. I had a strong sense at the end of Carmel, Duke, and study abroad that it was time for me to go. I haven’t felt that yet here; instead I’d felt anxiety about having so much to do and so little time. I’ve come so far so fast but I’m still not close to fluent. I read terribly slowly. I went to a comedy show in Osaka this weekend, and several of the jokes flew over my head. Sometimes my teachers have to translate my –Japanese– for the kids, and in the part of the language I know best (kanji), I still haven’t passed any of the junior high school tests yet. I haven’t traveled to many places or read any books, so my knowledge of Japanese history, literature, and famous sites is still largely dependent on things I read in English before I came here. Now I’m free to go all over the place this summer, read literature, and actually develop a “voice” in Japanese. Since kanji and also many words are shared between Japanese and Chinese, studying here will also cut down on the amount of time I have to study there! And a second year in rural Japan is still far more exotic, and provides much more writing material, than most things I’d be doing in America. I’d prefer a city and a more central location in Japan, but my job is the same here as it would be there so the only huge difference is not having anywhere to go on weekday nights and being too far away from Kansai or Tokyo to pop in for a day trip. In that case, books can take me where the trains can’t. There are no girls my age, but I’m not close to the man I want to be so I’m not losing anything.
The other bad thing about living here is that while I have a lot of acquaintances and warm relationships, I have few true friends here, in terms of people who share my interests and values and who I really love spending time with. (It’s a good day for Aristotle, who earns his second citation in this mail because he described friendship in this way.) This is quite different from Carmel and especially from Duke, where I had so many wonderful experiences. I had so many great friends at Duke that perhaps I was sent there just so I could meet them and feel so much love. Now there are other ways I have to grow. I live alone, go to church alone, pray alone, read alone, travel alone, and study alone. I’m uniquely suited for this life, so I’m not lonely, but please keep in touch! Your friendship supports me in ways no one does here.
So that’s why I’m out here. This isn’t a “break” from life for me, or at least it doesn’t feel like one. It’s the only thing that takes me closer to my dreams, and the only thing I can see myself doing for now. I’m giving it all I have. Thank you very much for your prayers and support. Like I said before, I feel peaceful about my decision, and I’m excited about what’s ahead. I’ll keep working as hard as I have, and now I know I’ll have the time and the means to fulfill my goals for this part of my life. Good night, and I’ll write you again after Valentine’s Day!Interesting Places, Japan, La Vida