I read my husband Tim’s recent post with interest where he outlines most people’s bafflement to his devotion to LA, a city that leaves me and the majority of visitors cold. However no one seems to question his or my deep affection for Japan. He studied Asian Studies at university, I was born in the UK but my mum is Japanese – it was natural that we would take time out after university and teach English in Japan for a few years after graduating. Plus, people generally accept that Japan is cool.
But Japan was actually my second choice for a gap year. Pfft I had been there like four times already; I’d been to the temples in Kyoto, eaten Kobe beef and been scared silly by Michael Jackson in 3D at Tokyo Disneyland. I don’t know if I was still bitter about Sleeping Beauty’s castle being a gift shop or it was just a twenty year old’s conviction that I’d “been there done that”, but I thought that Italy would be a more exotic and fun country for a gap year. Japan was a mercenary choice for me – there was no need to take or pay for a TEFL course to teach there. I could also breeze through the interview by earnestly repeating how much I wanted to learn about my culture.
It’s kind of embarrassing to admit how precocious I was back then thinking I knew it all – I didn’t even put city preferences as I had no idea what any of them were actually like.
But I found Japan completely intoxicating – my first full time job living in a new exotic country. Visiting your grandparents in a suburb is a completely different experience to exploring a city with a bunch of kids your age. I had never learnt Japanese – I could speak it up till I went to school but the teachers couldn’t deal with me mixing my English and Japanese. They told my mum to stop, but she valiantly continued. Then the cheeky buggers told me to tell my mum to stop talking to me in Japanese and all chances of me being bi-lingual were scuppered. So I spent quite a while being clueless. Tonight I went back through emails I sent to friends just after I arrived and relived the pain of this:
“I spent 5 minutes talking to someone in Japanese to hear them say, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t speak English.”
And my first day at the school I was working at:
“Yesterday was my first day and didn’t get off to a promising start. I turned up and there was only one teacher that only spoke Japanese and kept saying “but…why are you here? What are we supposed to do with you?” I think he thought I’d just turned up for fun, and to throw them in a tizzy.
Apparently the Board of Education hadn’t even told them I was coming. They had to phone the JTE (Japanese teacher of English) at home and get him to come into work. They all spent a long time looking alternately exasperated pissed off and confused while I apologised profusely that they didn’t know I was coming. In the end Hayami sensei took me on a city tour. We went to a temple and saw some amazing Japanese art, then to Shimonoseki, which is on Honshu island. We went by car under a tunnel so that was pretty cool. We had a look round the famous fish market, and had lunch there.
Half way through this very tasty fried fish he informed me it was fugu. Any fans of The Simpson’s will know why I was rather concerned. Apparently as a final test fugu chefs must prepare and eat the liver…the most poisonous part of the blowfish. Also, the best chefs are supposed to leave just enough poison to make your lips tingle. I thought mine did a bit but it was probably all psychological.”
I did get my bearings eventually and fell in love with the place. And I did learn about my culture – but not really through the sumo (watching not participating), temple visits or tea ceremonies. By living and working there I feel like I now understand my grandparents better (literally – I can say more than 5 words to them now) and I understand more why my mum left.
Tim and I went back for a visit for the first time since we lived there last month, and it’s stirred up some serious self indulgent nostalgia. Please forgive me! Next posts will be about the trip.