Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Short Straw: A Year Abroad Reflection

I`ve never been on Lady Luck`s good side. Coming onto the JET Program and getting one of the most rural placements in one of the strictest prefectures only solidified this fact. I went into this year abroad hoping to be in a sizeable city, working for an engaging school, and enjoying a relatively popping social life with other JETs and Japanese young adults. Instead, I got a sleepy rural town with a very old population, teaching for a school that constantly puts English and my classes on the back burner, and placed in the same town as a few other foreigners who made it very clear that they do not need or want another friend here. After many months of tears, frustration, and saying, “Why me?” I realized that I`m glad my JET adventure turned out to be a less-than-stellar version of what I expected. This year has lowered my expectations, brought me down to Earth, and made me realize how lucky I do have it back in New Orleans.

First, I am happy I got an inaka placement. Prior to coming to Japan, I swore to myself that if I got a rural placement that was not by the sea, I`d turn the position down. I wasn`t coming here to learn how to cope with living a lifestyle that I never wanted for myself, especially if that placement got a lot of snow. Well, by the time I found out about my placement, I only had 2 weeks to make the final decision. I knew it would be rural, and I knew being in the mountains would probably yield snow. Still, I already had my new suitcase, my forms filled out, and all of my savings converted into crisp, new yen bills. My fate was sealed, and I`m glad I didn't back out. It's the challenges of this past year that marked it as a learning experience and a turning point in my life. 

The winter was the hardest part. It`s no mystery that I hate cold weather, and pairing it with snow and no car really tested my patience. The lack of friendships (and believe me, I tried) added to the loneliness those long, winter nights bring. I definitely fell into a slump during those months. Some days, I would struggle back home and only manage to curl under my electric blanket while the heater would blast on its warmest temperature. Sometimes, that wouldn`t be enough, and I`d shiver my night away.

 I`m also the most land-locked I`ve ever been in my life. The higher altitudes and dry climates are unsettling to my New Orleans blood. Other JETs scoff when I mention this, but I like my air wet and hot. For 5 months, I had the opposite. But this is all good, being away from my river, lake, and bayou, I will appreciate the smell of the water when I go home. And as for the heat, well I won`t say I`ll never complain, but I`ll do my best to remember those frigid nights when I`m sitting on my riverside porch in late August.

I`m also happy I got placed in the same town as two unfriendly JETs. That`s not to say they weren`t, and still are, extremely helpful if I ever need help figuring something out. They just have each other and weren`t taking any applications for new friends. This took me the longest to get over, even longer than the longest night in winter. Finally, after nearly 11 months, I decided to ask if I was wasting my time inviting them to hang out, and I got an answer that read more like a breakup letter. Seriously, I have it saved because in hindsight, when I`m far away from my inaka town, it will make me laugh.

I`m a very social person by nature, and coming to a town with a small group of foreigners made me assume we`d all be hanging out in our little Gaijin Club. Maybe this was karma getting me back for being a mean middle school girl, but nothing hurts more than to invite people to hang out only to hear them have a grand old time next door without you. I kicked about that one and got pity invites to the next couple of gatherings only to realize something profound. I`m not going to like everyone I meet, and everyone I meet won`t like me. That`s not to say we bicker and fight every time we come into contact, but a solo night out has more meaning than listening to two guys share inside jokes and stories about trips I`d never been on. The idea that I could be the solo adventurer within a group of people is an honor and something I thought I`d never be. 

It also forced me to go elsewhere, oftentimes traveling long distances, to see the friends I have made here. Though they be far, our bond is strong, and I appreciate the friendships I`ve made along the way. It also all but forced me to find a Japanese group of friends within my inaka town. As a result, I fell into the local taiko group, who have made the days in my town well worth every struggle. Despite the sizable language barrier, they took me in and actually made the effort to get to know me and include me in things. And you know what? If they think I`m alright, then that means loads more than the unfriendly foreigners in town.

 Having said that, being here more or less on my own has me itching to get back to my friends. I was a bit of a moody flake when I was home, and I can`t wait to get back and rectify all of the times I was a less-than-stellar friend. I am more than ready to make up for the times I backed out of plans and skirted around events back home. Hope y'all are ready for some high-quality hangage! 

The one thing I really did not want to compromise on was my school situation. I`d made the grave mistake of reading JET blogs before coming here, some of them recounting horrible encounters with inactive supervisors and dead beat schools. Guess who got both of those! My warm welcome to town consisted of my supervisor showing me my 4 months deserted apartment full of mold and lacking a stove or fridge. He extended his welcome by failing to get my ever important hanko (a stamp that seals all fates in Japan) thus resulting in my not getting a bank account or a cellphone for a month after my arrival. The time frame for getting a cell phone is 7 days, by the way, but I wouldn`t have been so impatient about getting this technology if my supervisor hadn`t informed me that I`d be making a solo journey on public transportation to a random town during my 4th week in Japan. He had no problem letting me go, with no knowledge of public transport (you don`t ride the bus in New Orleans) and no means of communication should I get insanely lost.

However, I took this challenge as an opportunity to speak of for myself in order to get needed getting done. Despite hearing about how Japanese people avoid conflict at all cost, I used my gaijin-smashing power to get my bank account set up and which allowed me to get my cell phone. And though my supervisor should have been more helpful in the beginning, his inactivity allowed me to speak up when I was confused about something or to ask for help when I needed it. Before coming to Japan my pride and desire to not bother anybody would have kept my mouth shut. Now I`m not afraid to get what I need and ask questions when I have them. Coming to a country where you understand only half of what is going on is the big dose of medicine I needed to take to overcome that silly fear. It will be nice to be around people back home who inherently know if you have a question or need help, though.

So, overall, my JET experience was the opposite of what I had in mind. I`m glad it wasn`t the smooth-sailing ride I`d hoped for and heard other JETs have. Maybe they didn`t need an extra serving of humble pie in their mid-20s, and I`m glad. My bratty self definitely needed it, and it challenged and shaped me. As Ernest Hemmingway said, “We`re stronger in the places we`ve been broken,” and that is a lesson I learn every time I go abroad. Life is gonna throw you some curve balls, but instead of simply chalking them up as experience, try to learn from them. You may find some ugly truths about yourself, but like a cavity, it`ll only get better if you tackle them head on and create something better from its absence. A year in Japan showed me how I need to lighten up with the friend making, to take not-so-optimal situations as they come, to be a better friend and citizen in my own country, and it showed me that I can take on a lot more than I thought. Here`s to this past year, and may the lessons I`ve learned never leave me! 

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