Tokyo | 1996 | 25 years old
At the time I decided to teach English in Tokyo, I was working three jobs (as aspiring writers and free spirits tend to do to make the rent) and I was yearning for a new adventure. One day an ad in the paper caught my eye. It was advertising for teachers abroad. Specifically to Japan. A light bulb went off. During my travels thus far, I hadn’t conquered Asia yet and it held a certain novelty. I went for the interview and quickly realized that I met the major requirements. College degree—check. Native English speaker—check. Pulse—check. Clearly they needed warm bodies to fill the teaching slots. I dusted off my passport and two weeks later I had offloaded most of my earthly possessions to scale down to life in a six tatami mat apartment in Tokyo. Think tiny. I was told that I’d be trained in their ESL teaching method, that I’d have the choice of living with a family or in an apartment complex with other English speaking teachers, and that I should bring a certain amount of money to tide me over until my first paycheck (which would also include reimbursement for my plane ticket). I was less than thrilled to have to pony up the cash for the plane but figured it was a worthwhile investment. It also made sense that they would do it this way because I figured otherwise people might be tempted to take advantage of a free transcontinental flight and then back out on the actual teaching bit.
So I got all my ducks in a row, read up on Tokyo and attended my going away party at which everyone seemed supportive yet baffled by my latest choice of employment. “Why Japan? Don’t you speak Spanish?” Um…yeah. But my generic response was always—”Why not?” Some envied me, others were just clearly stumped. Two weeks after the interview, after a long flight and train ride I arrived in the land of neon. It was like Disney, Vegas and New York City all rolled into one. Even though I was exhausted, my excitement soared as I wondered what amazing new escapades this city would bring into my life. How would it compare to my other travel experiences? Would I make new friends—maybe lifetime ones? Would the people be friendly? What would my apartment be like? How would I deal with the inevitable homesickness? I couldn’t wait to see the city and explore all of its neighborhoods and nuances. I couldn’t wait to begin my new life.
After the training period was over and I started getting settled in and making friends I started to feel more comfortable in my environment. I did realize fairly early on that the expenses were higher than I could have begun to imagine. A movie ticket was nearly twenty dollars as was a cantaloupe! So I would be catching up on my cinematic and melon consuming quotients at a later date when I had returned stateside. In the meantime, I’d learn to love revolving sushi bars and octopus on a stick. And I’d start getting used to being the only Caucasian on the train everyday. And sitting on the floor. And tiptoeing around the local customs in order not to inadvertently offend someone. And to watch where I stood on the crowded subway to avoid the ‘skebbes’ aka ‘perverts’ who grabbed women’s butts. And I developed the skill of watching where I stepped to avoid the phlegm globules on the road since the Japanese are not shy about spitting here, there and everywhere. I also learned to smile and laugh off the British teachers’ anti-American jokes. But despite these annoying issues there was an inherent beauty to Japan that made it all worth it. Like the supernatural silence at the shrines, or the fairylike snowing pink petals falling from the cherry blossom trees during ‘Sakura’ the spring season (when everyone picnicked below the ethereal trees).
I also learned that karaoke was completely different in Japan. Instead of singing in front of a large group of strangers, it was customary to rent out small rooms with a group of friends and be served all night by a waitress who brought snacks and drinks and sake. The warm rice wine was something I never quite acquired a taste for but Japanese beer was flavorful and potent and it wasn’t unusual to see many coworkers throwing back a few after a long day at work. Although apparently the culture is changing and one is not expected to drink half the night away with upper management. Now it is far more common to head straight home from work thus avoiding the syndrome of showing up for another long grueling workday both hung over and potentially embarrassed by the drunken antics of the night before. The way women are viewed is also evolving according to some of the younger students I spoke to. Women are now asserting themselves more and although the feminist movement took a bit longer to reach Japan, it has taken root in a noticeable way over the course of the last decade or so. During the year I spent there, I realized that the older generation of women were raised to cater to their men. Now however the younger women are postponing marriage and exploring their career options instead.
In a year it’s barely possible to begin to scratch the surface of another culture, especially when your Japanese is limited to “Where is the train station?” and “One beer, please.” Some of my favorite moments during my brief time there are a montage of memory flashes. Like the country family who’d apparently never seen a foreigner before and asked me to pose for a picture with them making me feel like the world’s weirdest rock star. The smile on the face of a 15-year-old high school student as she began to master her ‘l’s and ‘r’s which are notoriously difficult to pronounce for Japanese people. The huge concrete Buddha statue that I passed every day on my way to work. The old couple who gracefully seemed to float rather than walk in the park near my apartment every Sunday. The sales clerks who’d yell the high-pitched welcome greeting ‘Irrashaimase’ in the department stores as soon as you walked through the door. The bond and camaraderie with the other teachers from Scotland, Ireland, Wales, England, Australia, and New Zealand despite the constant good-natured teasing. The kink in my neck from bowing so much. The several students who asked me (because I was an American) if I owned a gun. The endless sea of neon–making the city seem like it was daytime all night long. The paradoxical fast pace yet underlying serenity of the way people navigated the crowds without jostling knees or elbows—the quick reflexes almost inborn. The elderly women with osteoporosis who were shaped like commas due to a lack of calcium since milk was not really introduced until after the war. The openly curious stares of the people as they wondered what the heck I was doing there. And I often wondered myself. But that was part of the whole mysterious experience. Stretching the limits of my comfort zone was both humbling and educational. Being abroad you have to balance cultural sensitivity with seeing the absurdities of it all, too. When I heard that in the sex district there were vending machines with women’s dirty underwear I was both appalled and entertained. Keeping perspective is always an important thing whenever you travel so you’re not perceived as the so-called ‘ugly American.’ This can be even more challenging sometimes in a post 9/11 culture where our reputation in the world can be tenuous. Japan is incredibly technologically advanced yet has a historical depth that gives it that enigmatic feel. Everyone who goes there whether for business or pleasure or a little bit of both will have their own personal, individual experience and will approach it differently. The main thing to remember is that you are a guest. And you are representing an entire country—no pressure. So have fun but be respectful. And keep an open mind and heart. If you do that then you can’t go wrong. And hey—octopus on a stick? What’s not to love?