I'm in Japan on a programme called JET- Japan Exchange and Teaching. The basic concept is this: they bring foreigners from all over the world to teach their native languages or promote international relations or assist with sports. We come here and share our cultures and eventually go home and take Japanese culture with us.
Because one of the objectives is for us to go home, there's a maximum time you can be on the programme. 5 years. This is my 4th. Which is why I'm always on about my next move these days. But all of that is background. Today , I'm thinking about re-contracting. Every year around this time we receive recontracting papers. It seems different prefectures/ cities will require different attachments to the recontracting papers, but for me it's really simple. Two statements, essentially "I'm staying" and "I'm going" and I just tick the relevant box.
Every year, no matter my thoughts and feelings, it's hard to put that little tick mark on the paper. To the point where one year I handed it in the day (in February) it was due. Even though I'd decided before I got the papers that I was staying. One consideration that keeps me ticking "stay" year after year, is that I feel there's more and better to come. And I haven't been wrong yet.
My first year was a whirlwind. I was on the other side of the world in a country where (miraculously) I couldn't make myself understood. Remember I spoke 4 languages then. Being incomprehensible is right up there with growing a second nose in my mind. Also, Japanese people are some of the most polite people you'll every meet. And they're really warm. Up to a point. There's a threshhold that you can't cross until you're a part of the group. And I wasn't going to acheive that status in a year.
Add the fact that this was my Asian debut. I'm from a country on the other side of the world, right at the bottom of the list of developed nations. There was no way I was getting over here without the free ticket provided by my contracting organisation and the JET programme. And being a traveloholic, I couldn't resist discoverin Asia. I found myself in 9 countries in 2009- mostly during my 1st JET year, and extending into my 2nd.
I'm totally going to pretend that my devastation over my crumbled relationship had nothing to do with it. And you can pretend to believe me. :)
I started discovering foreign friends further afield- up to a couple hours North and South, and spent pretty much every weekend "jetsetting" to other prefectures. My neighbour at the time, P, joked that I didn't actually "live" in Iwate on weekends.
The English conversation class my previous neighbour, C, had started late in our first year got into full swing, and we built a bank of acquaintances in town, and in the neighbouring city. But, as P loved to say, "Everyone in Japan is friendly, but noone's your friend." It's weird to have these people that you can go out and hang with, but noone to just call and chit chat when you're bored.
I decided to get something new from the programme by running for AJET. It's basically like student council but for JETs. I had sme amazing opportunities meeting with the bigwigs at CLAIR (yes the organisation that administers JET is a synonym with my name- it makes for some interesting jokes - Oh, Claire's paying?) , and officials from the misitries of Foreign Affairs, Internal Communication and Education.
Things really changed at school towards the end of this year as well. Japanese companies and government departments make transfers every year. Since the school year starts in April, I've seen 4 sets of transfers. Which means I've been working for my Board of Education and at my schools longer than most of the other staff. Hierarchy is really important here. And even though I technically will always have the same rank as when I came, I'm a sempai in lots of ways. My schools include me in everything. Now, when memos go around the school, they always leave one on my desk- before they'd skip over me. They invite me to all the after-parties. When they pass things around that all the staff have to stamp that they've seen it, there's a space for my stamp now. They even invited me to come cut the lawn with the PTA this year. Never have I been so glad to be allergic to cut grass. Ready-made excuse. lol.
Of course the highlight (or lowlight) of my 3rd year was the earthquake-tsunami. You can't not bond with people after you live through something like that together. It's not as many as some people claim - especially since the quake happened at the end of the school year and some people's contracts were up anyhow - but some foreigners did leave Japan afterwards. I don't blame them. Until you've felt the Earth shake for 5 minutes, and once every 5 to 15 minutes for the next 2 days, you don't have a clue what it's like. But I think Japanese people respect the ones who stayed through it. Especially here in Iwate, one of the 3 prefectures which was hardest hit and which is still recovering.
My 4th year started in August, but already the changes are wonderful. People in my town are so much friendlier to me. They no longer ask how much longer I'm staying, they just come over and start talking. Every time I go somewhere, there's a kid screaming, "Ah! Kurea-Sensei da!" (Look! It' Claire Sensei!) During the town festival, I was right there mingling with my neighbourhood group, like I'd always been there.In my town, I'm almost a "regular person". You have no idea how big that is as a foreigner.
Another big thing that happened this year, is that I went to one of my teacher's house. Japanese people don't have friends over. They'll prefer to meet up at a neighbourhood restaurant or park or the library. So I've never been to anyone's house other than my host family. You have to be really "close" to go to people's houses.
2 weeks ago, I started hanging with the "reggae crew". I've always known where the reggae bar was in the city next door, but my predecessor had some bad experience there. He never went into depth about what happened, but I've just never gone because of it. And then a Jamaican friend took me, and I exchanged phone emails with a girl that was there. (Somehow the fat chicks always gravitate towards me- like there's a universal Fat Chicks Unite campaign- it happened again today. I suppose it must be hard to be fat in a country with one of the world's highest anorexia rates. ) She invited me to an event at the bar, and then last weekend we all went out- the Master (owner of the bar), a DJ guy, and the 5 of us girls- to an event with DJs from Jamaica. It was great., sitting around the table in a breakfast restaurant chattering at 5 am. It's one of the "friendliest" moments I've had with Japanese people.
And then there was today. I've lived in this prefecture since August 2008, and I'd only met one Spanish speaker. He used to be my best friend in Japan. The only reason he's not is because he moved back to Bolivia. I go to a meeting today, for an internationl event we're having. And I meet 5 Spanish speakers. I spoke more Spanish today than Japanese or English. It's crazy to me, because they're all long-timers and they've all been here the entire time I have. One even lives on my train route. And I have never so much as seen a single one of them.
I feel a little like Pocahontas. Every time I think I'm sure of something, something new appears, and I just can't wait to see what's waiting just around the riverbend. I don't think I can really say I've been truly unhappy here. Hard to tell being bipolar and all. But it just keeps getting better and better. Looking back, if I'd left at y time, I would never have experienced z.
So much of life is like that too. Even when you're not aiming for something. Who's to say that there wasn't something really awesome in front of you, 2 seconds after the point where you turned around and went home. I guess you can't really worry about that. If you did you'd be second guessing every single decisions you had to make. Kinda like I do.
I guess when the issue of time really comes into play, is in the instances where you have a goal. When you're waiting for things to go your way, and doing your absolute best to get there, and sometimes, it feels like you won't ever get there. There's a point when giving up starts to make more sense than going on.And you personally have to weight the decision for yourself. I just ask that you remember that you could be right on the brink. If you were to get what you want today, would everything you've gone through up to now be worth it? If you think the answer's yes, then maybe you should keep at it.
I'm 99% sure I'm going to take the 5th year if it's offered. I have no idea what it will bring. I can only hope that it's as great as the first 4.
"Today is where your book begins, the rest is still unwritten." UNWRITTEN, sung by Natasha Bedingfield.