by Suzanne Bhagan, Tottori
This story was originally published on Suzanne’s blog, Hot Foot Trini, in December 2014. Her first experience in Japan as an ALT is a familiar one for anyone going through the first stage of adjusting to culture shock. You can follow her adventures on her blog or on Instagram.
It’s the end of my first term in Japan. Almost five months has passed since I left home with my life measured in purple suitcases. I’m at my school’s bonenkai, a party held to “forget the past year.” The atmosphere is light and loud: fresh seafood, booming voices and laughter, red faces, plenty of booze. It makes me remember our very Westernised welcome enkai in Tokyo. Then, we drank, ate and laughed, not knowing what to expect when we left the bright lights and big city.
Too soon, we swapped Tokyo’s blue skies for moodier clouds in Yonago. After a whirlwind welcome to the school, the city hall, the estate agency, our apartment, the train station and grocery shopping, I was tired. The next day, I was up at 5:30am to head to Tottori. I was back home at 10pm. Then, the following day, I reported for duty, because this is Japan.
This was my introduction to ganbare, ganbatte and ganbaru—Japanese perseverance, Japanese stoicism, the will to endure, the mark of a mature individual, the stifling of selfish complaints because the “nail that sticks out gets hammered down.”
The first two months were tough. When Jesse (my husand) and I arrived in inaka central, we were like fish out of water because we knew very little Japanese. What irked me the most was that I could not do simple things like set up a bank account, get a phone plan or read my mail without my supervisors’ help.
The supermarket was a trial. Almost everything was in kanji. There was no brown rice, no whole wheat bread, no white vinegar and no oatmeal. Once, we bought soy milk instead of regular milk. The imported papayas were bland. Worst of all, there was no hot pepper!
The apartment was tiny with thin walls. The bedroom and living room faced the street, so we kept the curtains shut. In the kitchen, we had a two-burner stove top, a sink, a drainboard, a tiny fridge and a temperamental microwave. Separating garbage was a pain. Before we could throw something away, we had to think, “Where does that go again: burnables, non-burnables, PET bottle trash, paper trash, can/bottle trash, white styrofoam tray trash, milk carton trash or recyclable bottle trash?” Also, there was no dryer so all clothes had to be hung outside during infrequent, sunny, hot days or inside during the many rainy, snowy, cold days.
In the beginning, like my students, I caught the early morning train. There I would join the conga line up the escalator, down the escalator, through the station doors, across the road, across the bridge and up the hill. It rained most days. A day without an umbrella or a handkerchief was pure torture.
During the summer break, the staffroom was virtually empty. I felt listless. I practised my greetings—”Ohayo gozaimasu” when I arrived and my “Osaki ni shitsurei shimasu” when I left.
When the term began, I delivered my official jikoshokai (self-introduction) at the opening ceremony and during my first 16 classes. I faced hundreds of silent stares. No one raised their hands. No one asked questions. However, everyone remembered my dog, Max.
I learned to bow at the beginning and end of the daily morning staff meeting. I joined the flood of students and teachers between classes, running up and down the darkened staircases. I sometimes pitched in during morning soji (cleaning), using a crappy broom that swirled the dust around rather than cleaned the floor. I got used to the squat toilets, no hand soap and wafer-thin toilet paper.
In the classroom, at first, I got annoyed when some students dozed off and the JTE (Japanese Teacher of English) just laughed. I had to slow down my English and use simple words. I learned to keep silent while my students thought about how to respond to my questions in English. I grew accustomed to being regarded as an “expert” on English grammar. I barely batted an eyelid when my schedule changed frequently.
There were pinpricks of sheer joy during the examination and competition-choked term, specifically the madness of the undokai and the bunkasai. Then, I saw a totally different side of my otherwise laconic students.
I marvelled that students thought nothing of attending school in full uniform during school vacations, on the weekends and on national holidays. As soon as classes ended, students rushed unto the tennis courts, flooded the baseball, softball and football pitches, shaked their hips in the common hall, played the flute like maniacs in emptied classrooms, chanted, cheered and ran laps to release the stresses of life spent in a Japanese academic high school.
Thankfully, first impressions do not last. After Kyoto, things changed.
When we got the car (after 8 weeks), life became much easier. We began seeing more of the prefecture. We walked on a windy Kaike beach, watched swans at sunset, climbed Mount Daisen, saw a temple thrown into a cliff, attended a fire festival, waded through a sea of lanterns, saw the most beautiful garden, visited numerous temples and shrines in Shimane, Kyoto and Yonago and ogled weird yokai ghosts.
It got colder—freezing bathrooms where you can see your breath, cold water that makes your hands ache, heaters that belch the thick smell of kerosene as they slowly come to life, cumbersome kotatsu blankets. It began to snow and nostalgia ripened. I developed a soggy tabanca for doubles, Trini life, Tobago and its empty beaches. However, nostalgia is a helluva thing.
“Nostalgia is denial, denial of the painful present. The name for this denial is golden age thinking, the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one one’s living in. It’s a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present.”
– Midnight in Paris
In other words, nostalgia can make you hanker for a polished past that never existed. It can make you miss the present, happening right in front of you. Past perceptions can muddy and even poison your perception of the here and now.
With the first snow, my mind suddenly cleared. The powder white proffered a blank slate. The snow silenced the conflicted musings, the resentment, the frustrations, the tears and cries of despair. The chill air promised a new beginning, a new way of seeing things.
I slipped back into my old thinking when the snow melted. Then one sleepless night, it came to me. It was so simple. It rang clear like a bell in my head. Japan wasn’t the problem. Trinidad wasn’t the problem. I was the problem. The apartment wasn’t too small, too cold, too hot, too messy, the weather too miserable, the language too difficult. It was all me and my bad attitude. If I wanted my experience of Japan to change, I had to change.
“We could live in the best place in the world. If we are not good, then it won’t be.”
I was one of the few given the opportunity to teach in Japan. I chose to accept it and to bring Jesse along for the adventure. No one forced us to come here. We chose to leave behind our comfort zones, to strip away the old self, to become illiterate, to learn snippets of an alien language by totally immersing into it, to re-prioritise our needs versus our wants, to learn what really matters to us and what doesn’t, to be the silent observer, to slow down, to be more considerate of others, to listen more closely, to not assume that people understand us, to appreciate the small moments when people use all their English to get to know us, to soak in an onsen totally naked with strangers, to conserve more—no more open doors, dripping pipes, stray lights left burning for hours—to be prepared, to adapt, to change.
Now, I realise how much we took for granted in the Caribbean: drying clothes quickly under the hot sun, picking mangoes, fresh herbs and hot peppers in my parents’ kitchen garden, waking up to my dog, Max, who would wait outside our bedroom door, walking barefooted, drinking coconut water straight from the nut, going to the beach whenever we wanted, liming with friends and family anywhere, anytime.
Now, I appreciate our families who chat with us religiously on Skype and who post boxes of local snacks and spices when we really need that Trini fix. I appreciate our friends back home who keep us grounded with their Whatsapp chats and Facebook updates about regular life.
Here, I appreciate the other JETs who offer advice about making it in Yonago. I appreciate Casey and Fernanda who have made life in this city immensely more liveable.
I appreciate my work colleagues. I appreciate my supervisors who help me find my way around the office and share their travel stories, language and culture with me. I appreciate the JTEs who thank me for planning and delivering lessons. I appreciate the Japanese teacher who talks to me in the ladies’ locker room, and the English teacher who was worried about us driving during the first snowfall. I appreciate the little sweets they leave on my desk, and the fukukocho sensei who acknowledges when I help during soji. I appreciate the kyoto sensei who chats with me during lulls in the workday.
I appreciate the math teacher who calls me in the morning if the weather is bad, and who introduced me to sudachi and mokusei, the social studies teacher who encouraged me to run in the teacher’s relay for the undokai, the physics teacher who tinkers with my laptop when it’s behaving badly, the biology teacher who offered me his wireless keyboard when mine stopped working, the office member who complimented my blouse during my first week, the other who introduced me to yukidaruma when I wandered the empty school halls on a snowy day, and the school nurse who invited Jesse and I to her house and gave us our first true Japanese welcome.
I appreciate the students—the ones who smile at me and say my name when I pass them in the corridors, the girls who excitedly say, “TT!” (short for team teaching) when I enter the classroom, the kids who shouted out “Black cake!” and “Parandero!” when I played Christmas Jeopardy with them, the shy ESS (English Speaking Society) member who finally smiled at me in class because she remembered the Christmas card I gave her.
Since living in Japan, I understand the fragility and flux of human existence. Already we have endured three typhoons, heavy rains, sweltering heat, a tiny tremor and a snow storm. Now, I understand ganbatte. You have to be strong when your world can crumble at any time. You have to venerate ephemeral things like sakura because you don’t know when it will be destroyed or will disappear. In spite of this transience, the Japanese continue to strive for perfection, even in mundane tasks like folding a carrier bag for a customer. I also understand why “the nail that sticks out will get hammered down,” especially in times of crisis. If catastrophe strikes, you better be with the group, for survival’s sake.
It’s all about perception. Change your perception. Change your life.
Suzanne is a first-year ALT in the only prefecture in Japan where you can find sand dunes. She’s dabbled in international relations, law, journalism and copywriting. When she’s not teaching her students about articles and tenses, she pines for Moruga scorpion pepper and listens to music from the 90s. You can follow her on Instagram and Facebook and visit her blog.