What’re You Made Of?

I keep thinking to myself, “it’s probably just a matter of time before I really get it.”

Japan. Where the background music is in English, but nobody can understand it. The land of the rising sun. Where any amount of time I spend trying to get to know it feels like it’s not enough. There’s just so much to it. It’s a whole ‘nother world.

For my last post I decided to put to paper my deepest feelings about the struggles of moving here. It’s been a journey of discovery. About the world and about myself. And it’s certainly been a struggle. Some days feel like I’m in some kind of exotic theme park, while others feel like there’s an impenetrable barrier between myself and everyone else. And those other days can really break you down. But it takes some breaking down to see what you’re really made of.

The move to northern Japan went relatively smoothly, but going from a comfortable western-friendly city lifestyle to being dropped in the thick of rural Japanese culture has been a huge shock. Another bout of culture shock. I feel I’m closer to the core of Japanese culture, but there’s still so much I don’t understand. And it doesn’t help that the accent is so different here. But to be fair, I was warned about this before I came here. Japanese friends told me they couldn’t understand anyone out here, even though they’re still speaking Japanese. I feel like I’m in the Newfoundland of Japan. (Canny a word adem Newfies.)

Everyday it’s as though I’m sent down the rapids to navigate through my day. It’s a bumpy ride, and I have no idea what’s going on on a daily basis, but whatever it is, it’s happening regardless, so son-of-a-bitch, I’m in. I’ll figure it out eventually. Hopefully.
But even if I don’t, I’m at least enjoying myself. Picking up whatever responsibility I can, trying to learn and do my best.

I keep thinking to myself, “it’s probably just a matter of time before I really get it.” But how long do I have? And how long does culture shock last? Until I fully integrate with this new place I find myself in? Can I really do that? It’s all so different here, compared to back home in Canada. Part of the same world, yet somehow worlds apart.

I don’t know the answers to these questions. I feel like I’m missing something. I find myself feeling nostalgic for old Canadian things I used to use, eat, watch, experience. Maybe I’m finally homesick.

Sometimes it’s hard not to just feel like I’m some kind of spectacle out here. Allow me to paint the scene: I walk into class. Emphatic surprised noises echo amongst the students. The Japanese teacher says something along the lines of, “BEHOLD! as I attempt to communicate with this foreigner.” And there I stand, trying not to embarrass myself (too much), trying to speak in this strange balancing act of actual English and something they might understand.

But those everyday struggles, – the simple things that wouldn’t even cross your mind back home – they feel like big accomplishments when you don’t know the language or the customs or the rules. Somehow something so small begins to feel so big. Baby steps, I suppose. Even if you fall flat on your face every time, at least you’re getting somewhere. Getting through those everyday struggles, breaking down, and rebuilding yourself – that’s when you start to find out. What’re you made of? Something that sinks? Or something that can swim? Maybe you’re someone who can tread water after all.

State of Emergency

The last line of defense in the face of an epidemic: teaching English. A candle in the darkness. A bastion of hope. Everything else may have closed, but my company refused to. I stepped through a dark, abandoned mall to make it to work. It was eerie, but people were truly counting on me in these difficult times. The only other place with their lights on was the supermarket.

In April, Japan extended it’s state of emergency from the hard-hit prefectures to the entire country. Things out where I live slowly started to change. But there was never really any social distancing. Stores measured out and marked how far you’re supposed to stand from each other in line. That’s about it. People were and are still gathering just like before, though it’s quite rare to see people not wearing masks. More recently, everything around here began to close early. And some places have just been closed period. Of note, many of these places are restaurants, which has thrown a wrench in my regular schedule for grabbing lunch at work. This whole corona virus thing may have killed thousands of people and thrown economies into disarray, but now that it’s inconvenienced me, it has gone too far!

I hope everyone read that as a joke.

The number of cases in my prefecture have been at a standstill for weeks. And just yesterday, the government announced that it will be lifting the country-wide state of emergency, and maintaining it only in heavily affected areas. This means things will hopefully go back to normal around here very soon.

In other news, Golden Week, the week-long Japanese holiday, just went by at the beginning of May. Originally, I wanted to travel to Hokkaido, but with COVID-19 on the radar, I had to cancel. Instead I joined my friends on a surprise hiking expedition that was going to take “two hours” (it was actually closer to six), where we visited three temples in the mountains. The fresh mountain air and the scenery were fantastic. The temples were all unique and interesting. My feet hurt like never before. It was one of those snap decisions that will be memorable for a lifetime. It was a small reminder that no matter what happens, we can always use the time we have to do something worthwhile.

Then, the other day I found myself staring out of the employee break room window, at a magnificent view of lush distant mountains. I longed to be out there in the fresh air, adventuring. And that brought me back to my school days, staring out the window at a beautiful summer day while the teacher talked on, having the same feeling. Every now and again growing up, I would always look back and ask myself if I’d changed, but looking back now I feel like I’m still the same kid I always was: the one who brought a soccer ball out on the playground with the other kids during a snowstorm and slid around the field through the cold white fluff until the school bell called us back in; the mischievous child who, during class, used to take things from his friend’s pencil case, smother glue on them and throw them at the wall until they stuck; who skateboarded as fast as he could to school because he was always late; who was always training for and playing hockey, and ended up breaking his arm twice; who never did his homework, because homework is for chumps. Trying new things, longing for adventure, wanting to push myself, refusing to do things I disagree with. It’s as though all of these things have always been a part of me from the beginning. To me, I’m still the same little kid I always was. But now here I am: an “adult.” Someone who the kids now have to listen to. The more I think about it, the more I realize there were never actually any adults. There are just kids who got older.

Everyone on our hiking trip.