I Went Home Again
Eight months ago, I left Japan. I had a wonderful two years there, and we were all sad to say goodbye, but I felt like I’d already done everything I could there. Everyone made me promise to come back, though, and last week, I did. My plane slammed through clouds of nuclear radiation and crash-landed in an apocalyptic urban landscape; I emerged in a protective suit and ferried across 25-foot waves and – actually, besides minor gasoline rationing, everything in western Japan was the same as always on a physical level at least. It even looked nicer because the trans-Kyushu bullet train line just happened to open the day after the earthquake, but sadly, that disaster made everyone cancel their travel plans, so the new Tamana Station felt like a haunted house when I arrived: there were no sounds except piped-in birdsong and the recording announcing the next departure and arrival. People were also anxious about the stability of the Treasury, which has been bicycle-pumping money into the market. We said silent prayers for the victims of the disasters at every event I attended.
I did worry about everything else related to the trip before leaving. Would my students be so much bigger that I’d feel like they’d left me behind? Would I be able to see everyone in this workaholic society despite not planning everything in advance? Was my Japanese (or my psyche) up for thirteen hours of talking per day? Could I avoid car accidents, calling students the wrong names, and getting poked in the butt by small children?
I had nothing to worry about. My successor, Joe Fowler, hosted me in the third room all week; my friend Valerie lent me her second cellular phone; my old host family lent me their big ol’ company van, and everyone gave me some of their time. I did say hao instead of hai! the whole week, and I suffered the dreaded kancho, but every day in my old home was so relaxing that by the end I couldn’t remember what I was taking a vacation from. It was one of the fastest weeks of my life. I only spent a few hours in front of the computer. Only today did I open my gmailbox and collapse under a load of birthday notes.
My jaw is tired because all I did was talk and eat. One friend said, “Yoshiko heard from her mother that you’d forgotten Japanese, but you’re speaking just fine…what happened?” I replied, “Well, she saw me on Tuesday, and today is Saturday.” Everyone said, “You lost weight! [This is the “you got a haircut!” of Japanese small talk.] The food there is so oily, though! How is this possible?” I replied, “No home invitations and no enkais (work parties).”
Speaking of which, that was elementary school graduation day. Since all the ceremonies were at the same time, I could only attend one (and it was emotional), but I spent a half-day at all 5 of my schools (including the junior high) over the course of three days. I didn’t tire of the shock and then joy on kids’ faces when I materialized before them. Everyone was so welcoming. Does absence make the heart grow fonder? I’m lucky enough to say we were just as fond of each other at the time. Some classes had really grown up. One class made me lovely impromptu thank-you cards with photos and hand-drawn pictures that I’ve showed to my friends here. A five-year old made a tricolor threaded bracelet. Not that it was as triumphant a return as Julius Caesar’s to Rome: I walked into one second-grade class not realizing my fly was unzipped. And some of the junior high kids were more cheeky and sarcastic than friendly, but that comes with their age group.
My best conversation pieces were Taiwanese and PRC newspapers I picked up in the airport on the way. Japanese can half-read them because all the countries use Chinese characters, but Japanese have simplified the them a little and the PRC a lot, so there are clear differences. It was nice to not have to start out by explaining where Taiwan was and how it’s not the same as Thailand.
Plus Taiwanese papers are way more colorful than Japanese ones…and in more ways than one: when the third graders found color pictures of an actor and actress in bed together on one page, they MARKED OUT, and I had to crunch the whole thing up and stuff it in my pocket, then hold my pocket shut because so many boys were prying for another glimpse of that holy grail.
It was good to see my fellow Tamana ALTs before most of them change jobs themselves this July and to meet the new guys I’d only encountered on Facebook. They said it felt like I’d never left. What we had at the time was good, and our values haven’t changed. I spent my birthday dinner at a J-diner called Joyfull with 20 of my junior high school grads; it was gratifying that so many showed up on 24 hours’ notice. One of my 16-year olds invited me to swim with him, exercise I really needed, then encouraged me and taught me technique between the lane lines. I wouldn’t say I was loyal or supportive at that age, but some kids just “get it,” and I don’t hesitate to call them friends rather than students.
Many of my friends are teachers, some much older than I am, and this trip reminded me what a wonderful calling it is to help people grow up. If you don’t have a dream of your own, you can do worse than becoming a teacher and helping other people find theirs. One of the best parts of my job is that I spent time in about 50 different homeroom classes. It was much more revealing than theoretical textbooks, and I wish Japanese trainees had the same opportunity themselves. I even got to teach my colleagues some things on this run.
The good things about Tensui and Tamana were as good as ever. Not that I want to usurp Joe; he’s doing very well and is getting as much out of the job as I did. In the words of the Japanese, he doesn’t have my “tension” (a la jumping around and singing and saying HELLO in a BIG VOICE) but he is 落ち着いている or “natural and relaxed.” I think I spent the right amount of time in the job and on this trip. After catching up on how everyone was doing (and even updating people on later days with gossip I’d heard on previous days: it’s like Rural News Feed) and then discussing languages, education, the earthquake, and Taiwan, it was just about time for me to get up and go to the next home. I didn’t feel like the time between now and last July had slipped away from me; I’ve done almost everything I could with it.
I’ll definitely come back to Kumamoto. Besides bringing my Japanese back to life, and it’s such a beautiful language that even repetitive sentences like airline flight safety features are interesting because of how they’re said, this trip sparked my emotional engine. I was back to spending time with kids and the elderly [the ladies at the church made 20 different dishes for our Tuesday reunion lunch, by the way…I have over a hundred pictures of food alone]. I was back home and back to speaking with people I already knew rather than introducing myself again. I’m laughing loudly again and even speaking Chinese a little more naturally.
But from the moment I post this I’ll be back to making my Chinese better rather than just dropping a few phrases to widespread applause and back to living this life rather than explaining what it’s like. I’d love to end this with a philosophical flourish, but my time’s up.