Travel Journal of my Time in Japan

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January 21, 2003

John Lennon Portrait and Stylish Galoshes
My school is adjacent to the train station, and the train station is almost like a mall with lots of stores and restaurants in it. At night, when they close down the train station, they pull down these doors that are like garage doors. Each door has a different portrait on it - Mozart, Einstein, John Lennon and more. John Lennon is particularly well-known in Japan, maybe because of Yoko Ono.

Anyway, I have been meaning to get a photo of this because the train station is always closed when I'm walking home from work at 9 pm and I only recently 'discovered' the Beatles just before I came to Japan. So I asked Conor to take this photo when he and I were walking home from work together one Friday night - the only night we end at the same time. I asked him to be sure to get the galoshes in the photo - aren't they stylish? Everyone wears them because of the sprinkler system I told you all about in the December 11th entry. Otherwise, you walk around with wet pant cuffs all day. The first day it snowed, I walked out my front door to find a pair sitting in the hallway for me. Suzuki had left them for me. :-)

That'll teach ya!
I've heard from a few people that there was talk back home of some great romance between Conor and me. There isn't any romance. In fact, only at Christmas did we really start hanging out, beyond walking home together sometimes. We were never enemies or anything, but just we weren't as tight as I thought in the beginning we might be. I didn't say much about it because I figured some of you would worry about me - you know who you are. I figured I'd let you take comfort thinking Conor and I were hanging out all the time, that I had a close buddy. It was a bit lonely there sometimes in the beginning, but I managed to get through it. But then at Christmastime I happened to mention that Conor would be spending Christmas evening with his girlfriend, it seems many people were surprised. It seems some of you had "filled in the gaps" with romance. Maybe you were disappointed, maybe you were relieved. But in any case, that'll teach ya! :-)

Up to now, I have purposely left out some of the OTHER elements of my experience here, so some of you wouldn't worry needlessly. But then in Hiroshima I sat down to write postcards, and I found it to be a struggle to know what to write. That's unusual for me, and it concerned me. Words usually flow SOOO freely. I think part of it is because I don't know your daily lives nearly as well as I used to. But that can't be fixed until I'm back home. (And that will be VERY high on my to-do list when I do get home!) I think it's also because this website has been self-edited a bit too much - again, for fear that some of you would worry needlessly. So when I've tried to write those postcards, or write some personal emails, there's been too much to write... too much that hadn't been said here, and it was overwhelming. So I've given it considerable thought the last couple of weeks, and I've decided I need to stop the habit I have of giving into this influence - starting with this website. I've decided that it's important that this website include as many aspects as possible of this experience. After all, it's my primary connection to y'all. Besides, I want to be able to share ALL aspects of this adventure - the good - AND the not so good! :-)

So if you choose to fret, fill in the blanks, or some other forms of reading between the lines... you're taking a risk of disappointment or frustration. But I guess it's your choice. :-) There really is no need though. I'll let you know if I need help. When I was needing contact from y'all around Christmastime, I told you, and your amazing response STILL warms my heart when I think about it! (Thanks again!) Love you all!

At the Wall
Considering the above, here's a little dose of realism about my experience here in Japan that I'd edited out in the past...

I read quite a few books about culture shock before I left. I remember reading in several places about two phases to culture shock. The first is when you initially arrive, of course, getting used to all the little things that make up daily life. But then a few months into the experience of living in another culture you usually hit a wall at the second phase. And then if you can maintain your open-mindedness you can gain so much when (if?) you get over that wall. You find yourself frustrated, the foreign culture seems inane, you get tired of being isolated by language and culture, the smallest tasks are big ordeals, you feel alienated because you are different, you get sick of the stares, etc... I think I might be at this wall, and have been since about early December.

I think Conor went through this in November. (Conor came to Nagaoka in July, so he's about six weeks ahead of me in his Japan experience.) Anyway, watching Conor go through it wasn't pretty, in fact, he kinda worried me. I thought he was just gunna lose it, or pick up and go - just not show up for work one day. At that point, we still weren't very close and I just didn't know what he was thinking. I couldn't relate because he was further along in his Japan experience. Of course he didn't pick up and go, he's too smart for that. He just needed to work through it, and he's fine now. But it was good to see someone else go through it first. It gave me clues about what the warning signs might be, and has made it easier to deal with. I hope I'm on the tail end of it (hope, hope, hope) but there's no way of knowing.

It hasn't been easy, but sometimes, just sometimes I feel like I've gotten a leg up on the wall. But then I have to step back down... leg up... step down... etc. Not "fall" down, just step down, as if I'd just lost my balance a bit. It also helps me that Conor has already been through it because now we can help each other stay focused on the positives of the experience. That's the key. The positives are my students and knowing the amazing memories I'm going to have to look back on for the rest of my life. :-) Also, there are so many opportunities for learning and personal growth - particularly in the area of patience. Conor and I help each other laugh at the frustrating times. I wish I could've been more of help to Conor as he went through it, but I had no experience to draw on in that realm. I am inspired to focus on the positive, and that might make it possible for me to get over that wall.

For example, Japanese operate businesses differently than Americans, and I am working for a Japanese company. The expectations are different, and the way of doing things. The major differences stem from differences in how Japanese communicate in a more general sense. I don't mean just the obvious difference in language. There are other things. For instance, sometimes they say one thing, and do another - or say one thing, and mean something different. This is usually done because the Japanese do not like to say "no" to anyone - and they like to make sure the other person has a way of "saving face" for a mistake. But I suspect that there have been times when they were trying to tell me I've made a mistake, but never actually said it directly, so I didn't understand. So later, a misunderstanding comes from the situation of them thinking they told me, but me not "getting it" so I make the mistake again. Then they have to tell me directly which causes tension and stress for them. This way of communication definitely has it's benefits for the Japanese. There is very little conflict in daily life among the Japanese, which is very nice for everyone. But it can also be rather frustrating for us foreigners who don't know the nuances of this kind of communication. But after all, we are IN Japan, so I have no right to be frustrated, but sometimes it's hard not to be.

This may seem silly to many of you. You may be thinking "Well, if she knows it is like this, why does it surprise her? Why does she get frustrated? Why not just learn to expect it, work with it?" All I can say is on a daily basis it has a deeper effect on you than you might think. And when you think you have it figured out for the most part, there's another instance that illustrates that you really don't have a clue at all! But it's not so bad. When I get frustrated, I take a deep breath, and tell myself "it's the Japan way" and who am I to think they should do things any differently? And then again, I focus on those positives, and how lucky I am to be having this experience. And then I can smile and feel good. :-) So far, so good.

Last month (during the crisis with pop's heart attack) and up to last week, I was feeling as if I just had to endure the rest of my time here, as if I was trapped. But this weekend, I've managed to get to a place where I don't feel like that anymore. I can now do much more than just endure. I can get back to enjoying myself, my new friends, and my time here - a significantly solid leg up on that wall. Hopefully, I can keep this leg up. Hopefully, I can actually get over the wall. When (if?) I do, I'll be sure to share the view from there. :-)

Contract Renewal?
In a few weeks I find out if the company I'm working for will offer me another contract. There's no reason to think they won't, so I have been thinking quite a bit about whether I want to renew or not. Conor has decided not to. (He was offered a contract a few weeks ago.) He's quite the roamer, on to the next adventure for him. :-) I've gone back and forth on this question. But just now, as I write this, I feel one year will be enough. And this feeling has remained with me for a while, and still feels strong. In fact, just this weekend it occurred to me that no matter what I do, I will miss people. If I stay in Japan, I will all of you in America. If I go home to America, I will miss all my friends here in Japan. Hmmmm.... So that can't be a real issue. Instead, I've tried to focus on two things when I consider this decision - my life in Japan, and my life in America.

  • Life in America: It's SO difficult being away. I miss all of you so much. Life is going on over there, and I'm missing it. Sometimes I feel like I'm losing touch with all of you, and your daily lives. Of course many of you have been great about sending emails and some of you have even made phone calls! But I miss friendly hugs (Japanese aren't very big on hugs.) Unfortunately, you can't send those as an attachment to an email. :-) I hope someone is working on that technology somewhere in the world. On a grander scale, America is going through a rough time. Part of me feels like I've jumped ship. Enron, Iraq, etc. And so many of you tell me how you've been laid off, or your spouse, or a family member, etc. And those of you lucky to have jobs are overworked, and some are frustrated. I get the feeling things are changing in America, hopefully for the better in the long term. But for the short term, during this change, as with any change, things are difficult. Of course, having written that, I wonder if I should consider leaving a job here.

  • Life in Japan: It feels like I have already made enough wonderful memories for a lifetime! I've seen some wonderful places and met some wonderful people. :-) I'm tempted to make a list but I'm afraid I'll forget someplace or someone. And that would be quite ungallant, eh? And most importantly, I've seen the world from a different perspective and learned a ton as a result. My English grammar knowledge has increased, and my geography, my people skills, all sorts of things. And to think I'm only half way through! Although as I mentioned above, it hasn't been all rosy. There are difficulties that come with living in another culture. The smallest problems become much bigger when language is a partial or complete barrier. And sometimes you must just endure problems because you have no choice. That is a humbling experience, and helps you see what is really important in life. I've also learned that some difficulties transcend culture. In every culture there will always be selfish and controlling people, just like there will always be kind and open-minded people. Maybe that's stating the obvious for some of you, but it's a huge discovery for me. One that calms my spirit quite a bit. These are the things I came to learn.
So after the final analysis, my instincts are telling me it will be time to go home in August. When I am home, I will deal with whatever problems may come my way as best as I can. :-) This how I feel as I write this, but it could change. We'll see what happens.

Political Epiphany
I had an epiphany the other day. I was reading about Islam, and fundamentalist Muslims, in an attempt to understand what's going on in the world these days. I want to think the US is doing right in this whole thing, but it's difficult to believe that. Anyway, the thought occurred to me that maybe it isn't a question of who is right. It's a question of east meets west, and the inevitable conflict that must come from that relatively new contact. It's a question of how we (humanity) will choose to handle it. The fundamentalist Muslims have chosen violence, and Bush is stepping right in with them. But there are non-fundamentalists Muslims, and there are Americans who don't agree with Bush. So there are multiple forces at work. Who will prevail? Time will tell...

Dewa sono uchi ni
"See you in a little while"

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on to January 26, 2003