Today is the Fourth of July. Brian is going to work 12 hours, like usual. I’m going to teach an English lesson, cook some food, and do some chores, like usual. There will be no parade. There will be no fireworks. I can’t grill dinner.
But for me, it will still be a huge day. I left for Japan six months ago. I have been gone 182 days. It is simultaneously a life time ago and just yesterday. I have learned so much.
I have a bunch of trip posts in the back log but for me it is important to stop and be honest for a moment. To reflect on the fact that these have been six hard and wonderful months. So that I remember things truthfully. In order to get through everything, I’m going to bullet point this list.
- I am so grateful to have this experience. It is an honor and my privilege to experience life in a society different from my own. Japan has centuries of history and acts like it. I am so grateful to the people who go out of their way to share it with me. Noriko Kato, my yukata teacher, and Noriko Sugimoto, my Japanese language teacher, have done so much to help me understand Japan and find my way here.
- It is a gift to be able to learn another language. I have gone from not understanding hiragana, katakana, and kanji to being able to read all of hiragana and katakana and pick out a few kanji. I adore my teacher. Every class we laugh together and learn new things. She’s learning Spanish for fun, and instead of giving me hints in English, she will spark my memory using Spanish. She’s awoken and activated a part of my brain I never had confidence in. I get sad thinking about the end of our time here because I want to continue learning Japanese and will no longer be able to do so on Toyota’s dime. I’m really hopeful that I will make it a priority in my life to continue because it brings me joy. Today I learned how to express desire (through the word want- hoshii) and purpose. I am learning how to say things other than basic needs and questions. I could already hold a short conversation or ask someone a question, but I can now talk about my feelings. To me that feels like a benchmark.
- The Japanese people I know here are wonderful. My friend Miyako helped me transport a small couch in her minivan and get it up to the 6th floor and through the very small hallway into my apartment on the day that I met her. She takes me to new restaurants, throws sakura viewing parties, and teaches me how to make Japanese dishes. I have been accepted by my rowing club here in a way I did not expect. They help me with basic things like making an appointment for a hair cut, but also have offered to go to the doctor with me when I was feeling sick. Even the team members who don’t speak English work to include me and speak in simple Japanese so that I can understand. Similarly, the people I tutor English to also help me. They’ve programmed my GPS when it was all in Japanese, they’ve explained a Japanese custom or phrase, and one even made me a new pair of glasses when I mentioned that the prescription wasn’t working too well (he happens to be an optometrist). They are all friends.
- My ex-pat friends are also wonderful. They understand exactly how hard this life is and are willing to listen to my hardships. They are up for adventure and are generally hilarious individuals.
- I miss my dog and cat so much. I knew I loved them before I left, but I hadn’t realized how much I rely on them until being alone here. I go a little crazy when someone lets their dog come say hi to me (“konichawa little puppy. Aren’t you a chisaii kawaii inu.”)
- It’s been amazing not to work for 6 months. It’s the first break I’ve had from working since I was 15. It’s allowed me to gain some head space and figure out what I enjoy doing and what I don’t. It’s also provided me with time to reflect on how I can make my life better when I return home. One thing that it has shown me is that I do love my job. I really miss being in the library and doing research. I think I’ll do an even better job when I return. Especially if I start working on those skill sets that I promised myself I would learn….
- These have been the hardest 6 months of our entire 8 year relationship. The challenges each of us face here grate on our nerves and expose the weak spots in our life, both here and at home. My husband works all the time, usually between 10-14 hours a day, and then commutes 30 minutes each way. It’s not an easy experience for him. I honestly have no idea what it is like. However, all he sees is my free time and not my commitments or struggles to accomplish our life moving smoothly. It’s easy to be jealous. We’ve stepped up our communication by both telling each other why something is the way that it is and also by listening more closely. There is still work to be done but we’re both putting in more effort. We’re trying to create habits that will remain with us when we go back home.
- Cleaning here sucks. My shower room is always gross and I have to scrub it so the black mold (which isn’t the scary type of black mold) stops growing. I have to clean the filter for the shower/tub combo all the time and it is always slimy. The house is always dusty and I have to sweep and mop at least twice a week or I get dust bunnies sticking to my feet. I don’t understand where it is all coming from! We don’t wear our shoes into the house (we aren’t allowed to) so it’s not like we are tracking it in! In the kitchen, I always have dishes to wash because we have no dishwasher and there is not the luxury of space to let them sit for longer than a meal. The trash ends up smelling after two days because it is so dang hot! Laundry is a lot more effort because I don’t have a dryer and have to hang dry everything outside. It sometimes takes two days, and if it starts to rain and I don’t bring the laundry in, it then takes another two days! Chores are even more of a chore than at home, even though my apartment is probably 1/5th the size.
- The opportunity to travel here has been incredible. We have gone somewhere new almost every weekend (we’ve gone back to some regions to cover a different part of it but other than the Fuji Five Lakes area, we haven’t done the same thing twice).
- Managing life at home can be incredibly difficult! Tokyo time is 13 hours ahead of Michigan, so to talk to people during business hours at home I either have to stay up late or get up early. Email also usually takes several days to have a conversation because by the time they get a message I sent, they are done with work, and then by the time I can respond to their reply, they’re off work again.
- There are a few lonely hours every day. People at home are asleep (even my night owl pals), and friends here are dealing with their kids or doing their own late afternoon rituals. My husband won’t arrive home for another 2-3 hours, I’ve done my chores for the day, and also already relaxed more than my brain needs.
- Small changes in my world can totally throw me off balance in a very painful way. My grocery store was rearranged, not just which aisle is which, but also they way they grouped foods changed. Flour was no longer with sugar. Cereal wasn’t near coffee. Only refrigerated foods remained untouched (frozen stuff was also moved). I left in tears with only chicken and milk and none of the other foods I intended to purchase.
- Stationary here is wonderful. I have bought so much of it and used almost none. Send me your address and I’ll write you a letter! You can comment your address and I won’t publish it.
- Not knowing a language and still trying to accomplish tasks is both fun and awful. Sometimes people understand what I am attempting to say in Japanese, some people speak English (at least enough to communicate this particular need), and some are willing to rely on mime and gesture or google translate. Sometimes I have to give up and call our translation service, who sometimes help really well and other times do a subpar job. Some shop people are willing to spend the time and effort to help me and others make it clear that they don’t even want to try.
- Race is really obvious in Japan. Foreigners make up 1.6% of the permanent resident population of Japan (as of 2012). Americans make up the 6th largest group at .04% of the population here with 48,000 people (it may have gone slightly up due do large projects with Lockheed Martin and Mitsubishi making a plane) plus another 30,000 military (not counted in that percentage). Not all of the Americans here are white, but most are. Seeing a black person here makes me do a double take and causes most people here to blatantly stare (I think I’ve met 2 and maybe seen 10). It’s weird.
- It makes me reflect a lot on the state of race in the US. By being a monoculture, Japan has the advantage of being able to solve problems that are race related issues in the US. It’s ok to openly comment on race here. When I comment that I’m hot to my Japanese friends, they tell me that it’s because I’m white (which really seems to be true- they all wear long sleeves and pants and are ok while I’m wearing shorts and a tank and dying). I don’t have any solutions or even concrete thoughts on the matter but it is making me think about how we perceive race and the effects of it on American culture. It’s a really weird time to be out of the US looking back in. It’s doubly weird as a white person who is used to being invisible at home and sticking out here everywhere I go.
- I’ve also reflected a lot on the state of immigrants in the US. As an immigrant here, I have been greeted by overwhelming kindness. People help me in the grocery store, the subway, in restaurants when I can’t open a soy sauce packet (a mom at a nearby table got up to end my struggles). It’s hard to pick out immigrants in the US. We speak many languages, have many skin colors, and generally have no obvious markers that signify them as an immigrant. I’ve thought about this because I want to do my best to help immigrants in my community at home. I know there are many Japanese wives in my area, on the same exchange that I’m on now. I know they must struggle in the same way I do, yet I don’t think Americans welcome them the same way I am here. I want to make a difference, I want to be a link.
So this year, for the Fourth of July, I celebrate Diversity because I think it is what makes America great. It’s something that I really miss about home. I also celebrate bringing diversity to Japan and being a link between two wonderful countries. I celebrate gaining a new perspective. I celebrate new experiences, good times and hard times, and six months that I will treasure for the rest of my life.