How I ended up in Japan to work and live

Written in May 2012, when I was about to quit my job and go to Japanese school and then Japan:

It’s taken me a long time to figure out what to do with my life career-wise and then how to make that happen. I think I’ve finally worked out what to do and now I have to pursue it. But for a very long time I didn’t know. When I got to college I signed up as a double English and French major, reflecting what I knew to be my strengths and my favorite subjects from school up until that point, literature/writing/reading and foreign languages (and even the latter I’d only realized in high school). But I really had no idea how to turn either of those into a career. I was leaning more towards the foreign language side, though, because that seemed more fun to me and also more unique. I figured many people could work with their native language writing and so on, but it’s a rare ability to be good at foreign languages. I felt I owed it to myself to dedicate more energy to that side. That’s why the summer after sophomore year I wanted to intern at a publisher of translated Japanese comics to work with translating and Japanese, but when I got there I realized my language skills weren’t good enough so I was assigned proofreading and editing work instead. I fell in love with it. I realized I loved working in publishing and this could very well be another career goal for me.

So after that publishing and being an editor seemed like something to try for career-wise, but I was no closer to figuring out how to put my foreign language skills to use too. I had been translating Japanese-to-English (and some Spanish-to-English) as a hobby since sophomore year, so becoming a translator and/or interpreter was sounding like a pretty good dream. The summer before senior year I looked up grad schools with translation programs, and found one in Monterey, CA that sounded amazing. By that point I had decided to focus on Japanese as my language I’d translate from, and I can’t say why it’s my favorite, it just is. It’s the one I enjoy speaking, learning, and working with the most, based purely on its own merits. Plus, it also seemed like focusing on that over French or Spanish would differentiate me more from potential translator/job competition. Anyway, so I requested an application from the grad school, and it included a language test. I looked at what would be required of me as part of that test and I knew that my Japanese level as it was then couldn’t handle it. There would be no way I could expect to be accepted and go straight on to that grad school after college without seriously upping my Japanese, and there was pretty much no way I could do that in one year at school with the resources my college offered.

As senior year drew to a close, I began to get serious about trying to find a job after graduation. I had begun dating my first boyfriend ever (Kirk) that October and, despite being the same age as me, he was planning to transfer to a new university starting the next year to do a different major so he would be in school for a while longer. Because of Kirk and our relationship I decided to limit my job hunt to inside Texas; if not I would have expanded the search to places like California and NYC (especially since I was looking for publishing jobs) and I would have also applied to programs that hire English teachers to work in Japan, like many of my Japanese class peers were doing. In fact, I asked Kirk if he’d be interested in applying to teach English in Japan with me upon his graduation and he told me that he would. That became the plan going forward: I wait for Kirk to graduate and work in Texas in the meantime, then we go teach in Japan and I magically acquire Japanese language skills just from being there, then go to that grad school. That was actually the reason I wanted to do that; I needed to become fluent in Japanese and so it only made sense to go to Japan and work there doing the only job I was qualified for. After that, my plans got a little hazy (“magically” become fluent, etc), but I had hoped it would all work out somehow from there. In the meantime, work in Texas using my English degree while honing my future plans, so I searched for local jobs I could do. Some headhunters called me about Japanese- or French-utilizing jobs a couple times, but once they found out I wasn’t fluent or a native speaker they gave up on me. It just reinforced that I needed to get to a higher level in the language before I could use it professionally.

Originally I wanted to move to Austin after graduation and work there, but 2008 was also right when the economy tanked so there weren’t a lot of jobs in general. (The comics publisher in LA where I’d interned laid off half of its staff shortly after I graduated, so even if I could have moved to LA, that was out too.) I pretty much had to stay where I could live with my parents and job hunt from there; I applied to jobs in other cities but non-local applicants aren’t exactly welcomed. It took me a few months just to get hired in Dallas, as a proofreader, and I was lucky to get that. But it was a temp job and I was laid off with most of the other temps after about six months, and then a few months later I was hired at a book publisher. It was my dream job, it was exactly what I’d been wanting: an editor job, in my hometown, at a book publisher!

I started there in July 2009, considering it both my dream job I’d enjoy to the fullest while I had it and something I’d happily give up when Kirk graduated college and we’d go to Japan together. To that end I applied to the JET program for a July 2010 start date since that was Kirk’s projected graduation time; I applied Nov. 2009 and interviewed Feb. 2010. I was applying for a CIR job (which requires Japanese skills), not as a teacher, but I had said I’d be open to working as a teacher too. Kirk was supposed to apply too (as a teacher of course) but the application is very involved, with multiple letters of recommendation, and he simply didn’t get all his materials together in time. So I applied alone, and we figured that if I got it he would apply with another company and try to get placed near me in Japan. (This is an extremely difficult thing to do even if you’re accepted to the same program; this proposal was very dicey from the start.) This was also my little sister’s senior year and she was applying to the program too. Both of us also took JLPT level 2 in Dec. 2009 (in accordance with me trying to get the coordinator job); she passed and I did not.

In early April 2010 I found out that I had been accepted to the program, as a teacher. Even though it wasn’t what I originally applied for it was still an honor. I then had a big decision to make: go ahead and accept, trusting that Kirk would get his sh-t together on his own and accompany me eventually? Or decline in favor of us applying together later to one program, where we’d have greater chances of getting placed together? I was extremely tempted by the offer because, again, this is the foremost program for this and all throughout college I had heard nothing but how hard it was to get accepted by it. Turning it down was practically unheard of. My sister had also gotten accepted. In the end, however, I said no; I couldn’t handle how sad Kirk sounded when I started talking like I was going to do it. I could see this ripping us apart and me being a world away and he couldn’t manage to get to me.

Instead we decided we would apply together in the fall for a different company, AEON (which had successfully placed a couple friend of mine close together, so we had high hopes it would do it for us too). We had an interview in October all lined up. I should also mention that our whole teach-in-Japan plan was predicated on the assumption that he would have a hard time finding work. Well, he didn’t. He took a digital forensics class senior year, loved it, his professor got him a connection, and he worked at a forensics place in Houston over the summer and gained experience. By the October interview, he had been there several months and was loving the work. He was less eager to give up a burgeoning career to go and do something that would appear pretty random on his resume, and would in no way be constructive to it. But, he also knew I’d been waiting for him and he was willing to follow through on what he’d agreed. We were all set to go to the interview in Austin, but then the night before we ended up deciding to throw out the whole plan. All of it–no more going to Japan together, no more teaching together. I didn’t want to teach, really–it’s just the best way to get there–and I didn’t want him to be miserable and mess up his resume. (He was laid off from that job after a year but was able to find a new digital forensics job in Dallas and move there Aug. 2011. His career is well on its way now, and he still doesn’t want to put it on pause.)

I was also becoming more and more intrigued with the idea of going to Japan to study… not to work. It seemed like the better way to maximize my time there; if I were working full-time I wouldn’t have a whole lot of time and energy left over to study, after all. But if I were a full-time student I could progress faster in a shorter period of time. (Since the new plan entailed me going to Japan alone, this would be good for a long-distance relationship as well; it would mean I didn’t have to be away for so long.) I began researching possible ways to do this around the end of 2010, start of 2011. I found several Japanese language schools to study at, although I had no way of predicting how long I would need to be in the country to make all the progress I needed to. I had wanted to do three months… then it became six… then maybe a full year! But I quickly realized the snafu in my plan: to go abroad to study as opposed to work, you need money upfront. And I wasn’t in school, so I had no access to scholarships or loans (the private language schools don’t offer any funding help). And I didn’t have money, or at least not enough, and I certainly didn’t have it on my dinky [book publisher] salary that hadn’t seen a raise since I was promoted to editor at an already low rate in Oct. 2009. So: find a new, higher-paying job and save up until I DID have enough money to go study. That was task #1. (Task #2: Save as much of the money I earn as possible. This is why I moved back in with my parents April 2011.)

Task #1 succeeded! (Task #2 has also succeeded, though I still don’t have anywhere near enough.) This is why I quit [book publisher] to go work at [wire company] in June 2011. Well, that, and I had gotten extremely burned out (writing every day is draining for me, and there had been not one not two but THREE people who disliked me trash-talking me downstairs over the years). However, increased salary aside, my plan backfired when it turned out I hated the wire company more than [book publisher], and did not get along with my boss at all. I yearned for my old boss at the book publisher and the whole atmosphere of the office there, so when another editor quit and my old boss negotiated me an even higher salary than I had at my new company, I jumped at the chance to come back, and did in Oct. 2011. However, this time for sure I knew there was already an end date in sight.

In spring 2011, while doing all my research on Japanese language schools in Japan, I happened to find out about the IUC program, a 10-month intensive Japanese language program in Yokohama administered by Stanford for American students, that begins every September. I then set my sights on that program as the one that I had to do, and vowed to apply for it in the fall. I also decided to apply for a summer 2012 Japanese language program administered by the college that now owns the grad school with the translation program. (Kirk and I visited that school April 2011, just to make sure I’d love it. I did–and we also had a great vacation!) I figured one year of these two programs and I’d be set for that grad school, or at least I hope so. Both the programs are extremely highly recommended and sort of like Japanese boot camp; by the end of the 10-month program you are prepared to do just about anything you want to with Japanese, including work in a Japanese office or conduct grad school-level research in Japanese. Or have enough mastery of the language to train to be a Japanese-English translator. It’s exactly what I need.

So fall and winter 2011 that’s what I was doing, working on my applications for those programs (gathering letters of reference and so on). The 10-month program included a Japanese ability screening test, which I took in February; I spent Jan. and Feb. studying Japanese every single day for that. I did more to increase my level in those two months than I had in the three years since graduation. It was amazing and I’m still very proud of that accomplishment; I had no idea self-study could be so effective but I’ve learned a new discipline. (The feverish pace stopped after the test, but I still go through a chapter in each of my two grammar books every weekend now, and practice vocabulary every day.) I passed the test and have been accepted into the program. I have also been accepted to the summer program and awarded enough financial aid (grants) to cover half the cost of it.

Of course, this isn’t the end of the story. I need funding to be able to do the 10-month program; it is exorbitantly expensive and the majority of those attending it are grad students with access to university funding and grants. I have none of that. I did not receive the one outside grant I was eligible to apply for as a non-grad student. The program is applying on the accepted students’ behalf to a multitude of other scholarships, and I do not yet know if I will receive any of those awards or if I will get enough to cover what I need to. I have been saving as much money as I can, in accordance with my plans, but it won’t be enough, it can only help. There is a very real chance that I won’t be able to do the program for the 2012-2013 year.

However, I am definitely doing the summer 2012 program. I’ve paid for it and purchased plane tickets. It was scary to commit before I knew if the 10-month program was happening but I had to or I would lose my spot. But in the case that lack of funding means I can’t do the 10-month program after this summer, I have a backup plan to get me to Japan in the fall anyway. I still don’t want to teach, but as a backup plan I’ve applied to, interviewed, and received and accepted an offer from a teacher placement program. If I go through with that, I’ll continue to save as much money as I can and re-apply to everything for the 2013-2014 year, hoping to get enough funding the second time around. I’m pretty much going to keep trying until I can do this; I feel a strong conviction that this is what I need to be doing with my life to best put to use the skills and talents I’ve been given. To do otherwise would be a waste.

As for Kirk… we will be long-distance during that time. It will suck, but he’s known forever that this is on my horizon, and we feel our foundation is very strong and we can handle this. He will also visit me halfway through my time in Japan. This is, by the way, why we’re not living together or engaged like other couples together this long might be. Well, that, and both of us just don’t feel ready to settle down quite yet. Both of us like our space and our independence and we’re not ready to merge yet.

Then, after the programs, after my Japanese is as good as it’s going to be, get an MA in translation with a focus on Japanese to English, and then look for a job as a translator. Will I really get a job after all this time, money, and effort… I have reason to believe, yes. Everything I’m doing is pretty much the best in the field. The programs are top-notch, the grad school is the best for this (there are companies that recruit exclusively from that school, and the professors and admin staff have amazing connections), and it’s all just going to be exactly what I need to do to launch me on a career as a translator. I talked to a recent grad of the school who also did both those programs and he’s employed; so is his girlfriend who graduated from the school too. Maybe Kirk will get a job in Silicon Valley and join me in Monterey while I get my MA; maybe we’ll stay in California or move somewhere else together after that (I’ll try to go freelance). It’s all sort of far off; all I know is that I have a feeling it’s all going to work out.

I mean, maybe. This is all really scary, especially the part where I don’t know exactly what I’m doing in the fall but I’m still quitting my job and spending some of my carefully saved-up money to go away for the summer and do a program. I still don’t know all the facts, I don’t know when exactly I’m leaving for Japan or where I’m going within it. I don’t have many details that people would want to know, and I’m basically taking a huge, giant leap of faith here and trusting I will land all right and I won’t end up broke and unemployed with no prospects. Um, fingers crossed.

So, four years later… what happened? I still achieved my dreams, just not in the way I thought I would, and I lost that boyfriend along the way (which I don’t regret in hindsight because we had other issues, but it’s still a little sad thinking about how I planned so carefully trying not to let me pursuing my dreams tear us apart, but in the end it did anyway). I’m still living in Japan, I didn’t get any funding from the 10-month program which was devastating at the time, I ended up working as a teacher to begin with and then moved into other work as soon as I could, I loved that summer program, I never went to MIIS (it’s just too expensive and I don’t need it), I passed JLPT N1, and I’m working both freelance and full-time in game translation and localization. And I’m single. Hah…

JLPT N1 July 2015 Results!

I PASSED!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Yessssssssssssssssssssss. This has been my goal for a very very very long time, especially ever since my little sister passed it first in 2011 or something and I’ve been infinitely jealous ever since, but finally I’ve caught up. Mwahaha!

I thought I’d compare my scores from this time and the first time I took it (in Dec. 2013).

Dec. 2013 Results (Fail):

(Score Breakdown)
言語知識 (文字・語彙・文法)
(Knowledge of Language [Characters, Vocabulary, Grammar])
38 / 60
読解 (Reading) 12 / 60
聴解 (Listening) 31 / 60
Supplementary Information (*) 文字・語彙 (Characters/Vocabulary) B
文法 (Grammar) B
総合得点 (Total Score) 81 / 180

* B: Percentage of correct answers above 34%, less than 67%

July 2015 Results (Pass): 

(Score Breakdown)
言語知識 (文字・語彙・文法)
(Knowledge of Language [Characters, Vocabulary, Grammar])
40 / 60
読解 (Reading) 35 / 60
聴解 (Listening) 34 / 60
Supplementary Information (*) 文字・語彙 (Characters/Vocabulary) A
文法 (Grammar) A
総合得点 (Total Score) 109 / 180

* A: Percentage of correct answers above 67%

The first time I took the test, I knew I’d failed the first section (kanji/vocab/grammar/reading). (I actually passed characters/vocab/grammar with 38/60, but failed reading dismally with 12/60). Actually, I hadn’t brought a watch and they’d covered up the clocks in my room, so I wasn’t able to gauge my time well. I panicked as the questions were a lot harder and were taking a lot longer than I expected (I hadn’t studied for this test as much as I should have, even though I was seeing a weekly tutor paid for by my work at the time) and by the time the reading section rolled around I had no time left and was too panicked to make much use of the little time I did have left. I didn’t finish that section before time was called. My company at the time was paying for the test, which was the only reason I didn’t leave at the break after the first section and walk out. I was sorely tempted to. But I’m glad I stuck around for listening as it was surprisingly easy and restored a lot of my confidence (and I did pass it at 31/60, which shocked me as I thought it had been so easy I’d have gotten a near perfect score), even though I know I’d still failed overall, and I was right.

The second time, just last month, I knew I’d done just fine on the first section. I’d finished it with a couple minutes to spare and felt confident about my answers. (This despite the fact that I really had not been studying as hard as I would have liked, but I reasoned that I’d been working in an almost entirely Japanese environment for almost a year and a half, as a translator, creating one-slide PowerPoints in Japanese and giving 1-minute speeches on them once a month, and had acquired a lot of advanced vocabulary in that time, so I probably didn’t need to study that much – and I was right. I passed vocab/grammar with 40/60, a slight improvement over last time’s 38, and passed reading with 35/60, a HUGE improvement over last time’s abysmal 12 points). However, I was very worried about listening as I hadn’t studied for it at all, since it had been such a breeze the last time and I figured that my whole life in Japan is one big listening test anyway, but then it ended up feeling more difficult than I expected, and I wasn’t as confident about my answers as I would have liked. But it all worked out okay in the end! I even improved on my listening score from the first time by a few points (31 -> 34 out of 60). And I was able to get A’s in vocab and grammar this time around, when I’d gotten B’s before.

So, yay! Now I have bragging rights and my Japanese ability has been officially measured and assessed and I can level up my resume with it.


Well, it has been a while, but let’s wrap things up (better late than never). So, my last days at my old job did not really get any better. I did learn however that when my manager told me he monitored all his employees’ breaks, that was a lie – he was only monitoring mine. And it wasn’t on the orders of the CEO, who was upset when he found out (at my exit interview, which was held a few days before my last day), although he didn’t stay on my side for long. Anyway, long story short, I was very glad to finally finish working there.

I also had a lot of side freelance work going, but it’s all actually over now. Writing profiles for my old employer (the book publisher) turned out to be a big headache; I had to send them out for approval and then get annoying nitpicky comments back from the clients, and it was just a lot more work than I realized for what I was getting paid. Also, I was having flashbacks to all the frustrations I had when this was my full-time job. So, while I’m not proud of this, I quit in the middle. I still feel really bad about that and I should never have agreed to it, but I forgot how impossible dealing with those clients is…

The Viz thing is also over, and I’m fairly annoyed about it even though the decision to end things was mutual, so I’m going to rant about it a little. Basically, just about everyone who was an editor at TOKYOPOP when I was there as an intern does not take me seriously as a professional, and I’ve had it with trying to keep up with them. So, when I was doing the Japanese summer program, I took advantage of the location to go to the Viz offices and see two editors I know there who used to be TP editors. I was basically doing this to try and get freelance work of any kind (same reason I went to Comic-Con in 2011). One of them offered me a position as an intern to replace one who wasn’t working out. Okay, what? I had just quit my job as a senior editor at a book publisher. And you want me to be an intern? Pathetically though, I was so desperate to get my foot back in the door in that industry that I considered it briefly, but in the end it wouldn’t have worked with my class schedule. But yeah. And then that same editor assumed I was doing the Japanese program at a beginner level, and wouldn’t take seriously that I’d already had like 7 years of Japanese by that point. He also closely observed me speaking with some of the Japanese-speaking staff in the offices and decided my speaking/listening skills were subpar (because I had to ask them to repeat themselves a few times), which is annoying because those people weren’t speaking very clearly, the environment was loud, I wasn’t prepared, and I was nervous because he was watching me.

Sometime before or after that point, that editor sent me a translation trial to audition to fill in for someone. I didn’t participate in plans with my family in order to spend an evening working on the trial. I worked very hard, sent it back and – received lukewarm feedback. A line I had purposely rewritten to sound more natural instead of literally translating it was deemed a “mistranslation” – but I hadn’t misunderstood the line, I just thought that the literal translation didn’t sound natural. Anyway, no job resulted. Now, fast-forward to January of this year, when the other editor contacts me to say that one of their translators is going on maternity leave and she’d be interested in having me fill in during that time. I’m excited and agree, and the job begins in March. That agreement came to a close after only three weeks (3 chapters). Basically, the editor (who’s in charge of doing any localization/rewriting to the text after it’s translated) said I just wasn’t creating a translation she could work with, and she had to do a lot of editing to the text to get it to a good place.

Honestly, translating a shounen manga I wasn’t at all familiar with chapter by chapter in the middle of the storyline was a huge challenge. I feel like everything was stacked against me from the start, and I really did do my absolute best but it just didn’t work. First of all, I realized what a huge pain it is to create a translated script of a manga – you have to write out the panels, number them, and then number the bubbles/narration/sound effects inside each panel, and name each person speaking. To do all that from scratch, even for a 20-page chapter, is a HUGE pain and takes up a lot of time. I had a translation guideline spreadsheet to work with that named a lot of characters and also gave preexisting sound effect/etc translations, and I did refer to it a lot, but it didn’t cover everything. So there was that, and then there was the fact that I was coming into an incredibly complicated story with approximately a million side characters on chapter 54 or so, and I definitely didn’t have time to go read all the previous 53 chapters. I tried to catch up on what I could, but it wasn’t enough. I was totally lost on the story, which I also wasn’t interested in at all – the previous three manga titles I adapted were BL, shoujo, and… moe fanservice-y seinen, respectively, but I found them all basically interesting and easy to follow. This was my first time with straight-up shounen, alien monsters attacking in a dystopia world stuff. I found it so hard to follow and even harder to translate. There were several lines I just wasn’t sure about because I couldn’t grasp what was going on in the story at all that probably counted as mistranslations. Oh, and then the sound effects!! There are just so damn many of them!! And while a lot can be looked up online, every so often you find one that has no definition anywhere online and you just have to figure out 1) what it means; 2) how best to express the sound IN ENGLISH.

Then there was the schedule: the chapter would come in Saturday night Japan time and I would need to be done with it by Monday night. Usually, this meant me coming home Monday after a day of work and getting right to work and working for the next 5-6 hours to finish the chapter. It was so stressful and such a pain.

So, when it became clear that the issues the editor had with my translating just were not getting better even though I was making real efforts and putting in serious time to fixing them, I said “Are you sure you want to keep working with me?” and she took me up on it and let me go. At least I made $300…? Which I haven’t been paid yet, but…

It doesn’t really matter though, because I LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE my new job, and it’s in the game industry, so I don’t really need manga translating as my foothold back into that industry anyway, because I’m firmly established in a sort of parallel/related one anyway. Ahhhh, I don’t think words can even express how much I love my job and how it’s such a perfect fit. Basically I’m translating the stories for one of our games, and I also do random translations and/or English checks for the other people in my department, and I help out with the proofreading of already translated scripts. There are about 10 people in my department, I’m currently the only non-Japanese (although two others are native English speakers and one is conversational in English and generally uses it with me – some others are probably conversational and can understand a lot but never speak it with me, and everyone else except for one person has fairly good English aptitude), and most of the time I use Japanese to communicate with everyone. I like all of my coworkers a lot and we laugh and have fun often, but we also still work hard together as a team. There have been a few rough patches (like when I wasn’t writing formally enough in my communication to other team members – using ritual workplace phrases and stuff – or when I was told I was defending my translations too stubbornly if the person who’d asked me to translate their Japanese didn’t think my English fit what they wanted to express well enough), but I think I’ve basically figured out what I need to do now. Aside from those bumps, it’s really been like I was a fish placed in a pond and started swimming right away, easily. The company is full of young people and we can wear casual clothes to work, so it all feels pretty relaxed (sharp contrast to the uptight dress code and atmosphere of the last place). Oh, and I also developed a terrible crush on someone at work right from the moment we met that I’m trying to get over, but I don’t really need to get into that…

What still amazes me is that I did it. I came to Japan to get my Japanese to translator level, thinking I’d have to go back to the US and go to translation grad school to be able to work in that field, but I was actually able to move to Tokyo and then get hired as a full-time in-house translator – and not only that, but at a company that makes smartphone games with romance themes, so I’m actually translating FUN stuff and not dry, boring scientific or technical or legal texts. I still want to pass JLPT N1, but otherwise, I’ve actually accomplished my original goal, and I didn’t have to do as much as I thought I would in order to do it. It’s just insane. (I’d still like to attend that grad school – I’d like to have a master’s degree – but it seems a little pointless now, plus grad school is expensive and I’d rather not rack up more loan debt, plus it would also require moving away from Tokyo, so I’m pretty sure I won’t ever go there, even though I had my heart set on it since 2007…)

Maybe getting that job used up all of my good luck for the year though (and if it did, I accept that because it’s worth it), because my love life currently SUCKS. Since breaking up with Mitsu in February, I’ve gone on a lot of dates with a lot of guys and had some new experiences, but still haven’t found anyone I want to date exclusively who also wants to date me exclusively. And I’m at the point where I’d like a boyfriend, not anything casual. It’s just really hard to find someone I like on every level and vice versa who wants the same things as me, and it’s back to the same conflict: fellow non-Japanese, or Japanese guy? Guy who’s probably here temporarily vs. someone from a different culture and different expectations? Physically I’m probably more attracted to Japanese guys at this point in time (and I also enjoy being able to LINE message them in Japanese which is somehow more fun), but I also want someone who can speak English somewhat well, and it seems so hard to find someone who’s not a slave to his job and who will understand where you’re coming from as a minority in their country but also treat you like a person, not a nationality/race. With another non-Japanese, things are superficially ‘easier’ in many ways but there are lots of other issues too. Sigh. I’ve gotten pretty discouraged and it’s tempting to get jaded but I’m trying to let this be an opportunity for me to practice feeling uncomfortable. I don’t like feeling uncomfortable and if I do I usually try to identify and execute a solution immediately so I can feel like I’m doing something about it, but this is the one arena of my life that can’t just be solved by my will alone. Meeting the right person is dependent on so many things, and you also have to accept that maybe you won’t ever find that right person. And even if you do, the connection may not be sustained longer than 5, 10, or 15 years. “The One” and “your soulmate” is probably just a myth, a fairy tale. It sucks because I’ve always believed in it and hoped I would find mine someday (and even thought I had for a while), and I really do want to be deeply loved by someone else (again) and of course love them deeply in return. And I don’t want to settle for anything less than… this sounds douchey, but… what I feel I deserve. So, the search continues, but I’m trying not to obsess about it, and just be open to opportunities and try a lot of stuff.

If I don’t stand out like a star among the moons,
if I am always late and he always backs away too soon
How will he find me
with no one’s arms to gather me together?
How will he ever find me?

–Deb Talan, “How Will He Find Me

It also makes the workplace crush all the more painful and annoying because it’s someone I share a lot of interests and tastes with, who is very very similar to me in certain regards, and sometimes it seems like we’d get along so well and have so much fun together, and I just wonder if he knows that… and he probably doesn’t, and he’s probably too focused on [x hobby] to be a good boyfriend to anyone anyway, and he might have some emotional baggage, and also a workplace romance is not a good idea anyway… but he’s very cute and easy to talk to so it’s hard to remember all that…

Then there’s my cat, who was successfully brought over to Japan in May. I had been so worried for so long about all the procedures and paperwork and the flight itself – what if they turned us away after we’d already landed in Japan? – but all the advance prep (the ISO microchip, the two rabies shots, the blood titer, the final vet check officially verified by the state vet, authorizing her for export) paid off and it went pretty smoothly from start to finish. My sister drove us to the airport and my cat was unusually quiet during the ride – usually she HATES car rides and cries nonstop, but maybe it was the TSA-friendly harness we’d put on her. Carrying her in my arms through security went fairly well, and then it was time for two flights (one only 45 minutes) to Tokyo. She was pretty stressed by the flying and moving around and I had to keep changing the pee pads in her carrier every few hours, but she was able to ride in the cabin with me both times and I was even able to put her carrier on my lap, unzip it a little and pet her through that for several hours. Then we landed in Tokyo and after I’d re-entered the country myself (man it feels so good every time to break away from the tourists and the Japanese people and go to the shortest line – visa re-entry!! Also, I think it’s funny that all this happened with a cat in a carrier next to me) and picked up my luggage, we headed for the animal processing counter next to baggage claim and got her checked in. They already had her paperwork and all they had to do was check her microchip to make sure it matched the info we’d already submitted. At this point, since she was out of her carrier but in an unfamiliar room, she did what she always does at the vet’s and tried to hide anywhere she could and attempted to go behind a storage cabinet… Poor baby, she was so scared, I think she liked it better in her carrier.

Then we rode back to Tokyo in style on the Narita Express with my 1500 yen non-Japanese-passport-discount ticket, rode the Chuo rapid one stop from Shinjuku, then took a taxi to my apartment. We got in the door and she ran under the couch but within the hour she was out exploring and even purring (although I just learned that cats can stress-purr too and it doesn’t always indicate happiness. Who knew?!). Basically, she survived and now seems totally fine in her new home now than 3.5 months have passed. Sometimes I worry she was just as happy with my sister and there was no need to uproot her for basically selfish reasons (although I justified it by saying I could guarantee her a home with no other animals in it, the way she prefers it, which I’ve never been able to give her before), but she loves being with me and bugging me and sleeping right up next to me even in the summer, and seems really really happy even though she doesn’t have a bird/lizard-watching window here, so I think it’s okay. And needless to say, I love having her here, and coming home to someone (even if that someone proceeds to meow at me for food, and bugs me even after I’ve filled her bowl with dry food because what she really wants is wet food), and sleeping and napping with her, and feeling like part of my family and my life from the US (I’ve had her since 2007) is here with me in Japan. She’s almost 10 years old, so I’m worried about her aging even though she still seems plenty young, but… anyway, enough cat talk.

The last thing is my new apartment, which I moved into in mid-March. I’m pretty happy with it too. It’s definitely small, especially once I brought furniture in, and I can’t have any parties here or anything (basically 2-3 guests max), but there’s a retractable ladder up to a second-floor loft where I sleep, and it’s a corner apartment so I have two windows downstairs and one upstairs (which also opens onto a roof ledge so I can sit out there – with a guest if I have one – and chill/drink), and of course it’s pet-friendly which is not exactly easy to find here. Also, the neighborhood and the other people in my building are generally very quiet, which is wonderful. And after moving to this part of Tokyo I discovered I know two other people living in it, so that’s awesome. And after living in a sharehouse, it’s nice to have my own washing machine and my own fridge for my usage alone right in my place without having to go outside. I’m also pretty happy with the rent, especially considering there’s a pet fee built in. I think I’ve made this place very comfortable (I have a TV I can hook up to my laptop, I have a kotatsu that’s going to keep me so warm in the winter, I have a couch that folds back so people can sleep on it…) and it’s a good place for me and the cat. Yeah, I’d eventually like to live somewhere bigger, but it’s really hard to find a good, affordable place when it’s just you – it’s a lot easier if you have someone to share the rent. So, I might be here for a while, but that’s okay.

In my last post I wrote:

I just want to hurry up and move completely, start my new job, get my cat, and enjoy a fun yet relaxing life in Tokyo with my friends. I’m so impatient for that. I hope I can be happy with that. Please let me be happy with that.

Now, almost a full 6 months later, has that come true now that all of those things have happened? Well… I think so, largely. I like my apartment, I love my job, I’m so happy my cat is here, and in general I have fun with my friends here (there was a bit of drama with some people from one group that’s left kind of a bitter taste in my mouth, and sometimes it feels like outside of 1-2 people I don’t have anyone I feel a real connection to, but…). My money situation could be better, mostly because my loans have been draining a lot of money out of my US account so I keep having to send money home and the bulk of my income comes from bonuses twice a year, but with this December’s bonus and if I’m able to do some good saving this fall (I did get my monthly payment lowered so that will help) I should be able to pay off most, if not all, of my remaining student loans by early 2015. So that’s exciting, and that will help my peace of mind a lot too.

Oh, and anxiety. I’m currently coming off my meds after being on them the previous year (after my more or less meltdown last summer). As with before, they made it very easy for me to gain weight and so I’ve been trying to stick to a good, healthy diet and run at least once a week to lose at least half of the weight I gained (enough to fit into some of my lower-size clothes again) and it’s working, I think, but slowly. I should be okay without the meds because I feel a lot better now that my life has calmed down. Hopefully I don’t start wanting to “fix” this or that part of my life I’m uncomfortable or unhappy about with another drastic life change, which would undo all this nice calmness I’ve got going. (I did recently entertain the idea of getting a transfer to my company’s SF office, but in the end reconfirmed my desire to live here for the next several years.) We’ll see. I think I need some practice being comfortable right where I am without plans for drastic change on the horizon.

Some rants

Once again, I should be going to bed, but I’m going to write a little bit first. First of all, I am mad because I bought a Pocari Sweat Sunday evening (a brand of sports drink and my favorite because it’s the only one that isn’t grapefruit flavored – it’s meant to help you rehydrate after exercising and/or sweating a lot, and because it’s so hot, I buy one anytime I’ve been out and sweating all day), opened it, had a few sips, open the fridge Monday morning, pull it out, AND SOMEHOW IT’S ALMOST GONE. ???????????? This is Japan, you don’t just DRINK other people’s stuff! It was the only one in the fridge, how could you have mistaken it for your own!? And even if you were secretly sneaking a swig, wouldn’t you know better than to drink almost the entire bottle so obviously?! There are only 6 of us in this house, 3 people denied doing it, 2 at large… I’m really annoyed still. Grrrr.

Also, this morning on the train (Marunouchi Line, one stop for me but always jam-packed during rush hour) we were all packed into the car and this old lady decided that wouldn’t stop her from opening and reading her book, which meant her elbows were akimbo and one was digging into my stomach. What if I was pregnant??? I ask you. Rude!

Mostly, I just want to rant a little about annoying coworker habits. On the whole, my coworkers are great. The Japanese staff are now familiar with my Japanese ability and almost always speak it with me (or a mishmash, which I also enjoy), I have made some good friends among the other foreigners, and generally I really enjoy it there. But. There are some people, who are also American, who have a habit of inserting random Japanese words into their conversations, even with the other foreign staff. Okay, it’s just this one guy. Unfortunately his voice is kind of loud so I can hear him even if he is across the office. When he’s talking to a Japanese person, his 口癖 (word habit) is “Sou, sou, sou” [Yes, yes, yes/Yeah, yeah, yeah]. So he says that. Every. Minute. Or “Daijoubu” [大丈夫, okay]. First of all, he doesn’t need to say those things in Japanese. It’s the only Japanese he says the whole conversation practically, and I’m pretty sure the other person could understand the English. So I can only guess that the reason he says it is to sort of prove “Hey, I know some Japanese.” I think this guy’s lived here a while, probably has a Japanese wife/girlfriend, but he still hasn’t shaken that “I must prove myself and my Japanese knowledge!!!” attitude soooo many foreigners here (largely male) have. Which always bothers me no matter where it’s coming from. That alone would be bad enough, but he’s not really using the words correctly. This is Japan and this is a workplace – we use polite speech. “Sou, sou, sou” and “Daijoubu” are stripped of all polite nuance, they are highly casual. “Sou, sou, sou” especially is more for casual conversation. “Daijoubu” should be followed by something when using to mean “I’m fine” or “This is fine”, which is what he’s trying to say – it should be “Daijoubu desu” (polite) or “Daijoubu da (yo)” (casual). Usually the only time you hear just “Daijoubu” is when it’s a (casual) question – “Daijoubu?” [Are you okay?]. So yeah. Not only is the random insertion of Japanese words into his otherwise English speech just clearly a pathetic self-esteem boost, he’s not even doing it correctly or speaking politely enough for the workplace setting. So why even bother.

And not only that, but he does this with the native English speakers too. No. Just no. We all speak English. Use English. Don’t give me this bullshit about how “Oh, I’ve lived in Japan so long, I only hear Japanese at home, I forgot all my English!” No you didn’t. You are humble-bragging. It takes a lot of courage to get by here without shoving your Japanese “ability” (because his accent is horrible anyway) in people’s faces every 5 seconds to make sure we all know, but just try to live in a world where every other person you meet doesn’t have to know that you know a few words of Japanese but can’t even use them appropriately depending on the situation. Seriously, just try.

Tokyo life continued

Ahhhhhhhhh I don’t even know where to start. First, my room is no longer a mess. It now looks like this:

which is so much better! The room came with the bed frame and a small mattress as well as the desk and chair. I brought my bedding and then bought another futon set (for guests), a small bookcase, a plastic chest of drawers, and a hanger rack (AKA the closet).

Work is going really well. I am very much enjoying my job and, I believe, doing well at it. I had my one-month performance review and it seemed to go wonderfully. I have stopped worrying about getting let go because I can’t handle the science stuff after all (as the company head warned me was a possibility when I was hired) and now I’m just looking forward to making it to three months, which is the official probationary period. I have also learned more about the hierarchy of the office and my department DOES have to vacuum too. I am really glad though that there isn’t cleaning every day like there was at the school. I have also been assigned a mentor (which is supposed to be a super secret thing), a Japanese woman from another department, and we are required to have lunch regularly. We had our first one and it was great; I don’t think they paired us by personality but they might as well have because her hobby is reading, she owns two cats, and her phone case is purple. Done, I’m in love.

I have even gotten used to the bathroom etiquette and I use the stupid Sound Princess if someone else is in the bathroom with me, I try to remember to knock on the door before I go in, etc. And more and more staff have discovered I speak Japanese (my lunch with my mentor was all Japanese) but it still really bothers me if I see one in the hallway and she switches to English and says “Sorry!” or something. Just. Don’t. I am discovering that what I hate most of all is special treatment and special treatment that calls attention to me. “We got a foreigner over here, gotta speak English so she understands! Listen up everyone, we’re speaking English to the foreigner here!” No, I don’t need that, leave me alone and just treat me like anyone else.

I did have a realization that helped me be okay with that extra attention. Basically, the notion that everyone is curious about me and everyone wants to talk to me and find out things about me, and everyone wants the boost in social status/perception by those around them if seen talking to me and hanging out with me. The idea that I am a social bonus to a Japanese person. Sometimes, yes, it’s an annoying concept (I don’t want to be like a zoo animal, an object of curiosity) but it does help me feel better sometimes knowing that it’s not negative attention – quite the opposite. That allows me to bask in it a little, and feel more confident, and thus more able to easily brush it off. Also, getting spoken to in English by service people has become a rare occurrence (probably because I am not going to tourist places – of course it happened at Tsukiji, in Kyoto, etc) and it always helps if I greet people in Japanese first to establish that.

Ironically, the one place NO ONE tried to speak ANY English to me was at… Tokyo Disney!!! Ry and I went to DisneySea, had an amazing day start to finish, and were thrilled that no one tried to speak English to us. His Japanese is better than mine (N1… so jealous) and he gets just as annoyed as I do about the speaking English thing (Ty on the other hand doesn’t mind at all – if only I could be that carefree too). So funny that you have to go to Tokyo Disney to find the one place where service people are not going to immediately speak English. That was also just such a great day; we explored the park thoroughly, bitched about the popularity and ubiquity of Duffy, rode all the major rides twice, ate too much bad food, didn’t annoy each other, took lots of great photos, and just generally had a magical day.

The transition has been rough, as it was when I first moved to Matsue/Japan, and my anxiety/OCD is flaring up bad again, and again it’s unexpectedly rough – this was the best decision for me personally and professionally, so why should I have to suffer? No, I hate this! Same as before and it’s really sucking. I want to think I’m moving past it by this point but I probably have another month at least to go experiencing it at this level. But this time I have access to English-language therapy and I have found a therapist who is a native English speaker. I can walk to his office and while sessions cost $100, it’s worth it. I’ve been twice now and both times have left me feeling better about issues that were previously tying me up, and he’s had some really, really, really good insights that I wouldn’t have come up with on my own. Like: when I start worrying obsessively about some sensation in my body which could be a symptom of something serious, or start panicking thinking I’m about to die in some way, and how this flares up majorly when I’ve just moved or am in a new and unfamiliar situation – I am using those behaviors as a security blanket. The situation is scary and new, but that thought pattern isn’t, so I engage in it to “comfort” myself even though it actually makes me extremely UNcomfortable and unable to calm down. Wow, just wow. It’s so true! I mean, just knowing that isn’t enough, it doesn’t stop anything or make it better, but I feel like just realizing that is a breakthrough that has the potential to help.

I think the main thing that’s been on my mind though is how much things have changed, how much my circumstances and reasons for being in Japan and future plans have COMPLETELY CHANGED. That’s really the scariest thing; I keep thinking “Do these changes invalidate my previous reasons with which I justified this move, which made my relationship super long-distance?” I dunno. Some of you might know this story but I’ll summarize anyway. Basically, I spent every year since college graduation (2008) scheming ways to get back to Japan. First I thought I’d teach, ideally with JET, and Kirk was interested in going too but I had to wait for him to graduate college too and since he had transferred schools and changed majors, it took a lot longer than both of us anticipated (not until 2010). Then he got a job in his field right out of school, which meant he didn’t want to take a break from a budding career to go do something totally non-constructive for his resume in Japan. So that left me on my own, and I decided I’d rather be a student than teach. Well, that meant I needed a lot of cash upfront, that I didn’t have, so I made some life decisions to be able to save more money (get a new job, move back home) and worked hard at that. However, the scholarship committee for the program I wanted to do saw that as more of a reason NOT to give me money and in the end only coughed up 1/5 of what I needed, leaving me on my own for the majority, and I couldn’t finance it. I was however able to pay for and get funded for a summer Japanese program, which turned out to be completely amazing. Then I finally returned to Japan to teach.

Here’s the important part. My reasons, from the very start, from 2008, fueling EVERY desire to return to Japan? Wanting to be a translator. I’d wanted to be a professional translator since college. I had a grad school in mind and I wanted to go there and then get hired somewhere. But my Japanese wasn’t at the pro translator level yet so I had to work on that first and, to my mind, the best way to do that was to go to Japan. In the meantime, I worked jobs in my hometown related to my English major and love of editing/proofreading. So, when I came to Japan in August, it was all with the goal of improving my Japanese to be a translator. Translator translator translator. I thought for sure when I was hunting for jobs in Tokyo to justify a move there after my teaching contract ended in March, I’d need Japanese skills. I thought I’d likely find a job that required N2+ Japanese. In the end, though? I got a job that doesn’t require any Japanese knowledge, and is in fact done all in English, and ties more to my past experience editing than my desired future experience translating. So… huh?

Have I completely lost sight of the reason I came here??? Or is it okay? Because I really like this job. And I really like the idea of taking the experience I gain here back to my home state and using it to look for science/medical editing jobs, which will likely have NO connection to Japanese. So… is all this Japanese study pointless in the end?! What about translating???

Indeed. I don’t know. I have gained some “professional” experience translating, in that I was accepted to a Japanese first-come-first-serve translation commission website, and was able to snag and complete maybe around a dozen jobs, but aside from that, no pro experience, which makes it very difficult to get hired for real translation jobs. And… I’m not even sure I want to work as a professional translator anymore. Yeah! That’s the really scary part. As a hobby, it’s great fun. I can do everything my way, my rules, no one else edits it or changes it, I have the final say, and the topics are always interesting because it’s song lyrics or interviews connected to things I care about. Pro translating… does not sound like it will be as much fun. It sounds like it will be translating things and topics I don’t care about, that are often frustrating to decipher and render in English, and my work will be subject to editing and changing by others and dealing with the client will always be difficult in some way. I mean, yes, I think I have a unique and strong gift for translation. I want to bring my ability for blending beauty and accuracy to a wider audience; I want it to benefit people and the world. But I also don’t think translating for companies conducting business is going to do that. Literary translation is more my jam, but there is NO way I can just break into that with no real pro experience and no higher academic degree (you ever notice how a lot of literary translators are also professors?).

As my day job… I’d actually like to just keep editing. I like editing/rewriting/proofreading and I’m good at it. Pro translation, if I could someday be able to do it on the side (preferably of the literary bent), would be nice. But right now, it doesn’t sound appealing as a full-time thing.

And yet, that’s the whole reason I came to Japan!!! But if I’ve discovered a new reason that’s just as good… because I doubt I could have gotten this medical/science editing experience back home, which will get my foot in the door of that field hopefully… is it okay? I think it’s okay. But I’m still making my peace with it. It’s kind of a shock, but at the same time, I think that’s just life.

I’m planning to move back in a year. So the question remains: once I am back, if my job doesn’t use Japanese, and I don’t live in Japan, and I’ve achieved the highest certification possible (ideally I’ll pass N1 in December) so have no further study motivations/objectives, how the heck am I going to keep up with it???

Go back in a year. Sometimes, it doesn’t feel like enough. I still have so many shrines to explore! At least I found a place with good coffee where I can study, because I was really slacking on that N1 studying since the move (and since I switched to a job without built-in study breaks). And I have joined a gym which I love – it is the best gym I have ever belonged to – and I am getting into a fitness routine which should help a lot with anxiety. I have also joined a running group which is a good social outlet with a good mix of people (about half Japanese, half foreigners) and lets me explore a different part of the city every week while getting exercise and increasing my endurance. I am getting to see all these people who also live here that I know from basically every phase of my life (we’ve got college people, BTX people, Matsue people, online people, new people…), I’m getting to know my sharemates (we had a dinner out that helped a lot in getting to know them and no longer feeling like I live with strangers; the girl I don’t like also moved out which was great although so did a girl I did like!), I’m learning my area and realizing I live in an amazing location with so many good things within walking distance, and I work in a great location too. I’m discovering favorite places and making lists of where I still want to go. I even made up with my sister and she’s visiting me in a month. So all the pieces are in place to have a great next year here, and hopefully for me to stop feeling so anxious about everything despite that promise. I just gotta be patient and stick out the last of the rough transition period…

Summer program

Well, it has certainly been TOO long. I really didn’t mean to abandon this blog for so long, and I wanted to post in it so many times, especially this summer at Japanese school, but English was forbidden and considering how often I broke the rules on the weekends when out with my friends, I thought it would be best to at least be good with online stuff.

So, since the last time I posted, I had my last day at my editor job in June, went to the Pacific Northwest for a week to visit Lil (who I met in Japan when we did the same study abroad program, then we were roommates in LA for my second summer with TOKYOPOP) and we went to Canada (my first time there!), then I went to the north of the second-largest state in the US (I’m being careful since I don’t want to get listed in any search results) for the Japanese program.

The program! Oh… how to even express it. It was hands-down one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life, and I am so happy that I finally bit the bullet and went through with it. I had just the absolute best time, met so many great people, both fellow students and teachers alike, and it was an experience I’ll never forget, even if time dulls our bonds (as it has with most of my Japan study abroad friends). I regard it as nothing short of incredible luck and fortune that everything aligned to bring me together with those people in that place at that time. I’m serious. It was one of those times when you don’t feel any fear or worry about your life, because you know you’re doing exactly what you need to be doing and it’s directly accomplishing your goals. I don’t have that feeling very often, and I miss it already.

We lived in a dorm on a college campus and had our meals in the dining hall. Getting from the dorm to anywhere else always involved walking up and down steep hills; we said at the beginning we’d be used to it by the end but we never were! I was always happy when I could catch a ride with one of the bilingual language assistants (sort of like RAs) in their golf cart to the dining hall.

We had a few days to meet people and get used to things in English, and then the pledge came down and English was forbidden. Sometimes, I still can’t believe that for eight weeks, I communicated with other English speakers (well, and a good handful of exchange students at American universities whose first language wasn’t English) only in Japanese. There are people I met after the pledge began who I hadn’t spoken with in English until the very last day, after the pledge was lifted at our final banquet. It was such a strange feeling! There were people I liked better in English, and people I liked better in Japanese!!

Somehow I fell into a great group of friends. Our rooms were close to each other in the dorm so we originally met in the hallway before walking to get food together, but over time a core group of four emerged, and I was lucky enough to be one of them. I was the oldest at 26, and everyone was two years apart: 26, 24, 22, 20. All at different stages of life: one in college, still figuring out life and majors and careers; one just graduated and about to begin a master’s/PhD program through grant funding; one fresh from grad school and about to start job hunting; and me, just quit my job and about to move to Japan and try and start a new career. Pairs of us were in the same Japanese classes; the 24-year-old (Kris) grad school graduate and me were in upper intermediate, and the 22-year-old (Ai) and 20-year-old (Mon) were in upper beginning. We’re all different skin colors, which is hilarious and we’d always joke how photos of us looked like a college brochure. Ai is black, but her grandmother is Japanese, so that’s her connection, and she has a fabulous grant that will sponsor her studies. I am positive she’ll be incredibly powerful and successful someday. She’s also very athletic and competitive and got so hilariously upset about a girl who didn’t try hard enough on our sports day that just thinking about her righteous outrage brings a smile to my face today. Mon is half-Egyptian and wants to focus on Japanese in her future career, but she speaks Arabic too and kept getting distracted by the Arabic school students sharing our campus. She’s also hilarious and had us cracking up all the time. Kris is Korean by birth but adopted by a white family; she loves to send letters and packages and is so responsible and passionate about her academic/professional pursuits. After the summer ended she got a job as a high school Japanese teacher! Everyone is so beautiful, ambitious, and impressive. I was so happy we fell in together.

And, as I said, we’d escape on the weekends (Mon had a car) and as soon as we got in the car, the language pledge was forgotten. I sort of feel bad about this, and sort of don’t. My Japanese still progressed even with these regular breaks, and our Japanese levels were pretty different, so it was hard to fully express our thoughts and feelings to each other when restricted by the pledge. If we hadn’t had those breaks, we wouldn’t have gotten to know each other so well, and it would have been a real shame. I sort of assumed that everyone who went off campus was doing the same thing—forgetting the pledge—and a few people we knew were, mostly those who were in the complete beginner class, but all of our upper intermediate classmates were so dedicated to the pledge and even when they went out in groups into town, they’d still keep up Japanese. Amazing! I admire them, but that wasn’t for me. So we explored the cities around the college, we went to see fireworks on the Fourth of July together and had late-night doughnuts on our way back, we snuck out to go see The Dark Knight Rises, we had ice cream and dinner and shopped together.

On campus we met in our dorm hallway every morning to walk to breakfast together, and we’d have most meals together too (but as the summer wore on not everyone was present at everything together). Some of us would go to the gym or run together, and the more advanced students would help out the others with Japanese. Of course we all had friends outside of the core 4 who joined us sometimes too. I liked most people at the program, enough that if I went to a meal alone I could find a group to join and sit with (one weekend brunch I sat at a table for hours, leisurely chatting as friends came, ate, stayed, left, and were replaced by new people!), though there were many I couldn’t stand too. Let’s not talk about them; I’m already happily pretending they don’t exist now that I don’t have to interact with them anymore.

We would also have nights in on the weekends in the dorm, and we’d flagrantly flout the rules then too. One night we holed up in Mon’s room (it was during a Japanese program party—that we’d attended for about five minutes before deciding it wasn’t worth it—so no one was around to hear us) and drank and painted our nails and had the best time. Another weekend night we took over the dorm’s common room porch, closed the doors and windows, and kept a sharp eye out for passersby, ready to switch to Japanese if anyone came near. That was deliciously devilish and fun—it was like hiding in plain sight. In a lot of regards our tastes didn’t always align, but our equivalent of a pair of traveling pants was a brand of apple cider we found; everyone loved it, even those like Mon who usually found bitch beers too sweet. That night in the common room porch we worked our way through a pack of it, talking freely and honestly.

So I had the best friends, and I also had the best class. Except two people, I loved all my classmates, and I loved my teachers unabashedly. My class was ten people, and it was the perfect size. The Japanese level was also perfect for me; I’d hoped at the beginning for the very top level, advanced, but upper intermediate suited me well too. Sometimes I feel like after eight years studying this (damn) language I should have gotten past upper intermediate already, but sometimes I realize it’s impressive that four years after my last formal Japanese class, my level is still just as good as it was upon graduation, if not better. Kris was always impressed by that.

Oh, speaking of Kris, she had also applied to everything I’d applied to as well, the 10-month program in Japan, and she’d also gotten accepted and—get this—gotten the whole cost of the program paid for with scholarships! All she had left to take care of was the cost of living! But she still decided it was too expensive and had already rejected it by the time we met on campus! She’d gotten last-minute funding from the summer program only a couple weeks before it started, which made her decide hurriedly to attend, so that’s crazy that we almost could have missed her. Anyway, her decision about the 10-month program definitely affected mine. After thinking it over for a week or two, I ended up deciding to withdraw from it too, and go ahead on the teaching plan. I did get about $11,000 in scholarships in the second round of funding, but that’s only a fifth of the total cost, and I maybe only had another fifth in savings, which still left two-thirds up in the air with no way to fund it. I realized I hadn’t done as good of a job with my essays as I could have, and that it would probably be best to re-try for next year, and hope I got more funding then. It felt like the right decision, and honestly I didn’t have any other options. I’m still not thrilled to be teaching English, which I had really hoped to avoid one way or another, but I’m proving my dedication by moving to Japan anyway, and hopefully that will positively impact my applications for next year, which I’m beginning to prepare now. Of course, I’m still at a giant disadvantage because I’m not a grad student which makes me a very unattractive candidate (to scholarship committees) in comparison, and I still don’t know how I’m going to successfully convince them that I’m just as worthy of funding too (and that yeah, I might be a professional, but that does NOT mean I could pay for this out of my earnings!) but it looks like I’m going to try regardless and see what happens. I’m also going to try to get a non-teaching job starting in the spring, which I’m currently feeling pretty pessimistic about, but I have to try.

Back to Japanese school! My classmates and teachers. We really were the best class, and I think everyone knew it. Other classes (lower intermediate in particular) might have thought they were the best, but they weren’t. Class was every weekday for four hours/periods. For us, it was usually reading comprehension, grammar, conversation, and more reading comprehension, each subject ideally taught by a different teacher. We had four teachers, and I came to love all of them. Three of them were professors of Japanese at American universities during the rest of the year. My first favorite was T-sensei. She was outgoing, fun, and interested in all the students, so she was easy to love. I also liked I-sensei, an intern still in grad school who was Kris’s age; we both recognized her as the sort of person we would have become friends with during study abroad if we’d studied at her university, and at first we nurtured hopes of getting drunk with her and eliminating all the stiff boundaries we had to respect instead since she was our “sensei” (using polite Japanese and so on).

M-sensei and O-sensei, I was lukewarm-to-neutral on at first, because they weren’t immediately as interesting. Then I realized O-sensei had kind of a wry sense of humor, and I liked her better; at first she had seemed too rigid and her clothing style (she would usually wear shapeless dresses that resembled sacks of potatoes in shape and material; she looked like a straight-up Harry Potter professor) was off-putting. She also seemed like the world’s most typical, traditional Japanese woman, but later I learned she had left Japan in part to escape the glass ceiling of careers for women there, and thus shared my views on feminism and other such non-traditional concepts. In her words (translated), “I was coming to hate my own country, so I left it in order to come to love it more, from a distance.” Also, she was a big cat lover (on the first day she told us she liked the smell of cats, haha!) so I liked that about her too. I could always ask her about her cat to keep conversation going in the dining hall (the teachers ate meals with us).

M-sensei, I hadn’t thought much of until the halfway point of the program, and for the past four weeks I was totally all about him (platonically, of course; I also strongly suspect he’s gay). He’s been with this program for more than 20 years, and he’s also the assistant director (“vice principal” since we call the program director “principal”), so he was the first or second person to speak at orientation, when everything was still English. I had no idea he would be my teacher, and my first impression was: gay. This guy is gay. But since he’s also Japanese, I wasn’t 100% certain. (I’m still only 97% certain, and I have a lot more evidence now.)

Then I started having class with him, but I really didn’t take much notice of him or seek him out outside of class (except to repeat with Kris in an imitation of his voice, good-naturedly, some of his more amusing verbal tics, like 「じゃ~あ~あ」which never failed to make us crack up) until our summer festival. Then Kris and I noticed the perfectly festival-themed T-shirt he had chosen to wear, and I realized how he seemed to be hovering awkwardly around the edges of all the booths, unsure whether to join conversations or not. Then I realized: he’s socially awkward! And yet he’s been a teacher for so long, doing exactly what goes against his nature! And he’s a really good teacher, explains everything so well and makes it interesting. I was instantly impressed and charmed. Kris shared my feelings, and Ai and Mon also got their first taste of him too, and were just as enchanted and wanted to get to know him better, especially when we told them about 「じゃ~あ~あ」 and the other not-intentionally-funny things he’d say.

From that point on, Kris and I sought him out any chance we could get. Most of the time, our timing just wouldn’t match up and his table in the dining hall at lunch would fill up too fast or ours would, but every time we did manage it, the conversation was just so amusing and perfect and we found out so much good stuff. We got him to tell us about how he can see/sense ghosts and hear a few stories about his experiences (learning in the process how a lot of the Japanese teachers had felt a presence on campus and named it Michiko), we found out there had been a crossdress party at the Japanese school one year and he had participated (!), he talked about working as an interpreter in Canada, he was astounded that I don’t eat any seafood (“So no fish. What about shrimp? Eel?? Crab???”) and proceeded to make wry jokes about it later, we learned that he and a few other teachers jogged to the “scary” gas station outside campus some mornings to buy lotto tickets, etc. There was also the amusing revelation in class that as a kid, he’d thought the people on the Titanic died because before they went into the water, they didn’t do 準備運動, or warm-up stretching every Japanese person is conditioned to believe must be done before swimming or there will be dire consequences (including a heart attack). There was so much more I wish I could remember now, or had recorded!

In the first week or two of school, we had had a Japan-style sports day, and one game had been everyone vs. everyone, a sort of cross between the hokey pokey and rock-paper-scissors: music plays for the hokey pokey—in Japanese though, and with the moves not exactly the same—and when it stops, you play rock-paper-scissors against the person you’re facing. Whoever loses has to go stand behind the winner, holding onto his/her shoulders, and you have to do the dance steps together (there’s hopping involved). As the game went on, lines got longer and longer, and the number of champions at the head of lines (now competing as a line of people headed by one person versus another line) shrunk. Somehow… I kept winning! Along the way, I beat M-sensei, and then I just kept winning, and eventually won the entire thing!! It was so insane; it’s not like I’m particularly good at rock-paper-scissors or anything. To my surprise, I was then awarded a special prize: a meal of my choice cooked for me by the director/principal!

I was a mini-celebrity for a little while after winning it; it was mentioned in class, and teachers I didn’t know would mention it right off when we talked in the dining hall. They would always assure me that the director was a great cook. I soon talked with the person himself about this meal, and I asked him if I could invite my three friends, since my first instinct was to share it with them too. I also requested katsu curry as the meal pretty early on. He agreed to both requests!

We didn’t get around to actually scheduling the dinner until the second half of the program, and once we did, an idea occurred to me: we should invite M-sensei too. By that point, I’d realized the director and M-sensei were good friends (one of those friendships between a socially fluent, affable person and a shyer, more awkward person). I knew this because when the director visited our class when we had a guest once, and asked each of our teachers to tell us about their experiences on a theme, he almost referred to M-sensei by his first name. The first mora of M-sensei’s first name came out of his mouth before he corrected himself and called him M-san instead! I was dying inside. Anyway, that made me think M-sensei could attend our dinner too, so I asked the director if he could via email, and hadn’t heard back from him when finally M-sensei told me, looking adorably pleased/flattered that he had been specially requested, between class periods that he would be じゃまする-ing our dinner. Yes!!

Dinner was pretty fun, and definitely tasty, and it was a great opportunity for the director to get to know each of us, but the best thing was how much it felt like having dinner with a pair of gay uncles. Kris and I fell over each other cracking up as soon as we were out the door, giggling about how it had felt exactly like that. Of course, the director is married and M-sensei is also in a relationship of some kind (he wears a thick-banded ring, and he once brought banana bread to class made by someone he referred to as his 大事な人 or “important person”—which I’m pretty sure is code for “gay partner” because if not, why not just say “wife” or “girlfriend”?), but we just love how much they are bros. Once a classmate commented on it too, saying 「二人はbro」 — another thing we repeated, endlessly amused.

At our last karaoke party, all the classes had to prepare a song to sing. But what we didn’t know is that each class’s teachers had also prepared a song! And in our case, it was something unexpectedly hilarious and great, and ultimate proof of how our teachers and our class were the best. We watched and discussed (ad nauseum…) two movies over the summer, and we were halfway through our discussion of the second one when the party rolled around. One of the characters was a guitarist/songwriter, and his song figured prominently in the movie. They had taken the lyrics to that song, altered them to fit the school and our class, and made a video with their lyrics and the karaoke version of the song! Which they sang in front of everyone, wearing identical sunglasses. Oh god, I was dying, we were all dying, every new line was hilarious and fantastic. “What’s love? What’s life?” became things like “What’s a conclusion? What’s grammar?” And it just didn’t stop, it was all so perfect. Absolutely fantastic.

We also had a class party at M-sensei’s apartment, with food and alcohol, and it was so much fun. My favorite moment was when I tried the shochu the teachers had steeped in lemon all summer, and exclaimed how good it was, and M-sensei responded giddily “でしょでしょ!” (Right?!?).

On the last or second-to-last day of real class, one of the other students brought the teachers’ song from karaoke night full circle perfectly: faced with a sentence to read that started もうすぐに just like the beginning line of the lyrics they had re-written and sung, he recited the lyric line instead of the sentence, with a perfectly straight face. I-sensei was our teacher that class period, and she was so confused at first! Then we all burst out laughing. It was wonderful.

On the last day of class, we met one last time, just to chat and eat snacks and sort of say goodbye. The teachers were all late and the pledge had just been lifted the night before, so we had a lot of time to wait for everyone to arrive one by one and talk in English with each other, in many cases for the first time. Then we went into the classroom, arranged desks in a circle, and went around sharing our impressions of the class and our experience. (I had to break mine off early because I was on the verge of tears, and then interrupt someone else beginning to say the rest of what I wanted to say, haha. One girl, one of my closest friends in the class, did end up crying through hers.) Most of us students spoke English, or mostly/partially English, although all of the teachers except M-sensei refused to let us hear their English and spoke Japanese instead. I was so happy that M-sensei indulged us! We had all heard his English at orientation, but since I didn’t know who he was then, I barely remembered it. His English is of course very natural and good. He talked about how he knows he’s 不器用 (awkward) which was just even more charming.

Then our class broke out the thank-you gifts that Kris and I had made for the teachers (the other students contributed financially, and some sent us photos to use). We had printed out photos of the teachers, and photos of the teachers and us, and photos of the group of us taken throughout the summer, and placed snippets of the lyrics next to the photos. We had hoped for some waterworks when the gifts were received… but unfortunately, that did not happen. I think they were moved anyway though.

I also enjoyed exploring the college campus over the summer; I started jogging around, either with Kris or by myself, and got to know some of the scenic trails scattered around. I also visited the on-campus outdoor pool a couple times, and tried to make it to the fitness center once a week. By the end we were all sick of the cafeteria food, and complaining about it often.

I’ll say again that the best thing about the program was feeling like I was doing exactly what I needed to be doing: studying Japanese and watching my skills noticeably improve in every way. This was one of the best environments to progress your Japanese, even more than living in Japan. And the way everything aligned for me in terms of friendships, teacher relationships, and so forth just enhanced that, and made me convinced that even though I’d waited four years to finally do this program, it had all been worth it for me to eventually decide to go at that time if it meant I could meet those people and have that experience. It’s rare that you get to experience something that feels so right; I hadn’t felt like that since summer 2007 working in LA or study abroad in Japan fall 2006. I can say with no reservations at all that while there were stressful parts too, I truly had a blast.

In contrast to all the cheating I did with my friends, I was better in comparison about online stuff. Before this, I’d used my work day to write on-and-off, alternating spurts of work with reading articles on a series of favorite blogs, many of which I’d check daily if not weekly. Of course, all these were in English, so they had to go. It was hard to suddenly quit them cold turkey for two months when I’d gotten into such a habit, but I was able to do it. Well, mostly; I had a couple weekend moments of weakness where I just checked out the main page of some of them to see what was going on, but I never stayed long enough to get caught up. The midpoint of the program was also a period of leniency; as a much-deserved break/treat, I did more online browsing in English then than I’d done in a while.

I really didn’t do a lot of replacing this English media with Japanese media though. Japanese sites are so text-heavy, and most of them don’t show you a lot of articles on one page (my preference), you have to click on a title to read the full article, and faced with a long list of article titles, it’s just overwhelming. Even if you can read them if you try, which I can, it’s not very fun, and just not how I wanted to spend my free time. I also never found a good Japanese news site (I don’t think it exists, and it’s hard enough for me to read news in English—or watch it—so I might have to give up on this, much as it’s often cited to me as “what to do” when studying a language) so nothing replaced my previous regular reading of Japan Times articles to keep up with Japan news. What I did do successfully, however, was replacing my before bedtime reading with Japanese reading. I made some good progress on my book of Haruki Murakami short stories, and I also read and re-read a lot of the manga volumes I’d brought. Sometimes I would study from JLPT textbooks instead. I also thought maybe I’d watch anime, drama series, or movies, but I didn’t do any of that either. I was a lot more idealistic about how rigorous I’d be before the program began than after I got into it, but I was at least stricter about some things than other students were, like music: I did successfully only listen to Japanese music all summer. Well, unless I was out and about and it was playing somewhere, or in Mon’s car.

I feel like I received so much luck having such a great summer, it’s possible nothing may ever come close again. But it’s all right because I’m so happy with my experience. This really doesn’t happen often in my life, that I feel such undiluted happiness—no misgivings at all—about an experience. I will treasure it forever and I’m forever going to have a heart full of sheer gratefulness that I got to have it.

And now I’m living and working in Japan. I arrived here August 18, and it’s been a whirlwind since that’s only just calming down, finally, to my relief. More later.


Time for an update… I paid for the summer program so we’re full speed ahead on that. Last Wednesday I put in my official two weeks’ notice at work and my last day is in a week (what the) so now I am above board with everyone in my life about my crazy future plans, which is something that was not happening for a really long time. And after the summer, I’m moving to Japan… to teach English. Because I didn’t get any funding from the 10-month program.

I didn’t get anything.

Ugh. I’ve accepted it now, but it was really rough when I first found out. It was mid-afternoon on a Friday a couple weeks ago, and I got an email with two attachments. At first I was scanning them so frantically I couldn’t parse where the award amount was listed and emailed the stateside program administrator back in a panic. Then I located the line: “I accept the award of: NONE.”

None?? None? Nothing at all? But… I had been told that once you get into this program, they work really hard on your behalf to get you money. And I thought I was a great candidate, and I’ve been working towards this for a year, and preparing so hard. And this was my last chance because I’m ineligible for most other awards. How could I get… nothing? And how come they were telling me about it without any “I’m sorry to inform you…” or anything like that normally used when hard news gets broken to you in a formal letter? How come they used the same template as if I had gotten an award?

I was so confused I sent a few more emails to the administrator asking her to confirm that this was real… and unfortunately, it was.

I went straight to Kirk’s after work and burst into tears pretty quickly. Fortunately, he was wonderful, and just listened to me until I calmed down somewhat, then said he’d take me out to dinner wherever I wanted to go, his treat (even though money is tight for him right now despite the fact that he makes twice as much as me since he’s been working on his car project). And we went out to one of my favorite places and had a great dinner, and we came back and watched Iron Man per my request and I felt a whole lot better by the end of the night. He’s the best.

Over the next week, I took stock of things and made some decisions and had some realizations. I had already accepted the teacher job, but it was still a Plan B until this news. Now it’s Plan A, and it actually feels right. I’m going to work for a year, saving money (and getting even more when I convert from yen to dollars!), and re-apply for everything again, hopefully a lot smarter this time around. I re-read my essays and realized what I did wrong: I didn’t talk enough about how me achieving my personal goals is going to give back to Japan and the larger global community. I just talked about how it’s good for me, so I should deserve to get it, and blah blah. Um. Not what scholarship committees want to hear. So I know why I didn’t get anything, and I just hope the next time around I can do better. I talked to a pro translator who did the program too and he gave me some good advice–including a suggestion that I might not even need the program after all if I can do enough self-study, since not everything the program makes me do (giving speeches and writing essays) will be what I do as an actual pro translator, and that’s true. So, we’ll see. I do plan to self-study, I’m hoping to get N2 in December and N1 in July. If that happens it’s true that I might not need the program. In any case, I need to get to Japan and figure things out from there, and I’m doing that.

It still stung to find out that the one other accepted student for the next year that I could track down and contact online, a graduating college senior who also wants to be a translator, got $23,000 in funding. And she admitted I sounded more prepared and committed to this than her.

There are a few more rounds of awarding (mostly, I think, re-distributing awards returned by people who decide not to accept them) and I suppose there’s a slim chance that I could get something then. That will run until July so I’ll be sort of waiting until then. But even if I do get an award, which I probably won’t, I don’t think it will be enough. So I’m not holding my breath for that. At this point, starting the program next year doesn’t feel right anymore. I wouldn’t feel like I deserved any awards because my essays weren’t properly reflective of what I have to offer. Weirdly enough, at this point I would rather go to Japan to work, even as a teacher which has never been my favorite prospect, and spend the next year formulating a stronger plan of attack. I understand everything so much better now, and unfortunately I didn’t before. It might also reflect better on me if I demonstrate that I’m proceeding with my goals and living in Japan regardless–who knows. Although I know the separate full-ride scholarship is so image-conscious and “prestigious” that there’s no way they’d want to award to a mere English teacher, especially someone not even doing JET. Short of going back and getting an Asian Studies BA at Harvard before grad school at Ohio State researching the fascinating topic of 16th-century woodblock prints for my thesis (when not practicing the koto and writing award-winning haiku in my spare time, of course) there’s no way I can hope to get that scholarship… but I’ll try again anyway.

So this is it… six years later and I’m finally returning to Japan. Does not seem real yet, but it also seems like I never thought it would be this long before it happened. Of course, everyone wants to know when I leave and where I’ll live, but I know none of those things yet and won’t until closer to the end of summer. I’m excited for orientation in Tokyo though. Funny that this will be the first time in my life I have my own apartment. It’s also strange to think that I’ve basically been working towards this since college graduation in some form, and that was four years ago by the way. The plan has changed a lot over the years–fortunately Kirk and I stayed together throughout that time–and some might say I’ve taken too long to make it happen but now it’s finally happening. Better late than never I guess!

And I have about eight days (!) left here in town before I leave for the summer program. I’ve been trying to finish things up, but it still feels like I have so much to do. I’ve had two going-away parties so far. One was organized by one of the Japanese women I’ve met volunteering, and it was for me and another Japanese woman who was going back to Japan (just about all these women are here because their husbands have been transferred here for work, and a few are just married to Americans, but they are all married, so it’s interesting). It was held at my favorite Japanese restaurant and it was a Japanese-only conversation. I had a really great time, and Aro was there too. There were so many silly moments, so much giggling, and I kept up with the conversation well (except for a few moments when I’d missed the initial topic) and left feeling pretty good about my Japanese and so grateful that I could participate in something like this locally. I also learned some things, like that ochazuke (one of Kirk’s favorite dishes) comes at the end of a meal, not the beginning. And that the sight of croquettes can bring back childhood memories. At times the conversation turned to “There’s no good English translation of this Japanese word! How would you translate it?” and such things, which as a translator I enjoy instead of minding. At the end when we were splitting up the check they were like “Warikan… what’s that in English?” and I was like “Splitting the check” and they were like “Not ‘go Dutch’?” and I said “No… that’s uncool,” and Aro was like “Hey! I say it!” and they started calling Aro an oyaji (old man) and nodding and agreeing. Hilarious.

So it went much better than the last time I attempted a Japanese-only dinner a couple years ago (with the same woman who organized this party, but different other Japanese ladies, and another white girl whose Japanese was better than mine) when I remember feeling miserable and out of my depth. Also, I love talking to Japanese people living in the US, because even though you’ve just met they’re not shocked by every little thing you can do (there was no “Jouzu!” when I spoke or used chopsticks or anything). What a difference a couple years have made, and it’s all been self-study! I haven’t even gone to Japan! (Can’t overstate how much we can credit that to the two months of literally nonstop studying I did earlier this year, and the more relaxed but regular weekend studying I’ve kept up with since.)

The other going-away party I had for my friends here last Saturday. We went to a Korean bathhouse/sauna and had sooo much fun roaming the place in a large pack and taking over sauna rooms where we’d make jokes and giggle. At one point we went to a quiet room that wasn’t too warm, and I fell asleep and had an amaaaaaaazing nap. I woke up to an empty room and went out in search of everyone, to find them all sitting at a table and I joined in the conversation seamlessly. It was awesome. Of course soaking in the baths was great too. Then we went to Vi and her boyfriend’s apartment and had pizza and cupcakes (from some of my favorite places of course). They had made me a laser-cut wooden Pusheen magnet and a cute purple banner! Awwwww it was great. And then on Sunday I went to yoga (gave my instructor the last of the cupcakes and told her I was leaving soon! Now we are Facebook friends!) and then had a massage and the therapist got into all my knots and left me sore in the best way. I wish I could get massages like that regularly. Before the massage, which was at a fancy gym I am not a member of, I got to use the fancy outdoor pool area where there are body slides. You can bet I rode them twice… I love water slides (and water parks). And then Kirk’s parents had me over for dinner in anticipation of me leaving, and it was lovely and I really appreciated their gesture. So it was a wonderful weekend! After baths/saunas, yoga, swimming, a massage, and too much good food, I was super super relaxed. Trying to keep the returning tension at bay for as long as I can now…

Last week I also attended a going-away party for a former coworker, went shopping at the Anthropologie semi-annual sale with some friends (and had dinner at another favorite place), and on Friday (after getting let off work at 1!) I had margaritas and dinner with my parents and then my mom and I went shopping and I got to hit Anthropologie again, another location this time. It’s been a long time since I let myself go shopping and I got some good stuff (all on sale; I never buy Anthro full price) so I am happy. Looking back on it the whole past week was fantastic and I couldn’t ask for more. Kirk and I are going on vacation this weekend so that will be fun too! My last days here are basically going to be so jam-packed I don’t know when I’ll pack… not that I’m looking forward to that, or hauling my giant suitcase full of bedding around…

Other things… super into The Avengers lately, holla. And listening to a lot of new music as I try to cram in everything I’ve put off listening to and organizing or deleting as necessary. Also my favorite artists are pretty much all releasing new stuff this year so I am swimming in music lately. Wish I could go to several summer shows but pretty much can’t since I’m moving around too much and/or need to stay on campus where I am immersed and busy with activities anyway.

It’s really happening!

“I am not American!” — on speaking English to the French in Japan

Probably one of the most frustrating things about being a westerner in Japan is that people see you, notice you’re white (or not Japanese/Asian), and assume you’re a tourist/outsider, that your stay is short-term and temporary and thus you have not learned Japanese. Even once they find out you’re a student of Japanese, they still probably assume your Japanese must not be very good. (Because Japanese is such a special and esoteric language that it’s almost impossible to learn for non-Japanese! Of course!). Their next assumption is that you are a native English speaker, and based on that most people will avoid you because they are shy, ashamed of what they perceive to be their poor English (despite studying it for years in school–but speaking is the skill least emphasized there so many are weak at it) and don’t want to have to speak English with you because they might be embarrassed. Or, although this is a minority, they do want to try speaking English with you to improve their abilities so you are accosted for free English conversation practice/lessons.

To throw a personal anecdote in here, once I attended a fall festival with my host mom and sister where my host mom was performing with her gospel choir (I know!). After the performance, she introduced me to some of the other ladies in the group, most of whom were older, like 40s-50s. Several of them were the type to pursue English as a hobby, and evidently wanted to speak to me in English, so they did (even though it had already been established by that point that I had come to Japan to study abroad, studying Japanese, and they had heard me speak Japanese). This was maybe one of the first times this had happened to me, and I didn’t know what to do. What I did know is that my brain was in Japanese mode. I had been speaking nothing but Japanese with my host family for a day or so by that point, and I was enjoying the immersion. To just switch to English because some older ladies wanted to practice their English with me–because I’m non-Japanese and different!–seemed ludicrous to me at that time. So, I responded to their English questions in Japanese. I wasn’t trying to be rude; I just honestly didn’t know what to do, and I was in Japanese mode, so I spoke Japanese. Maybe they did think I was rude because their interest in me seemed to fade after that point.

Thinking back on the whole situation makes me feel crappy, because–did I do the right thing? If not, what should I have done? I feel like I was rude by speaking Japanese to them when they wanted me to speak English, but if I’d spoken English it would have negated the whole reason I came to Japan–to practice my Japanese! As the person spending the money on the abroad experience as opposed to the person who is just taking advantage of free opportunities from home, shouldn’t I get to dictate the terms? Or is that just typical American selfish thinking? I really don’t know. Maybe I will write a Japanese entry on lang-8 about this and see what kind of responses I get from Japanese people. In any case, as my story demonstrates, it’s sort of a lose/lose for you as a westerner in Japan (whether you’re avoided or too-eagerly approached as a presumed speaker of English), especially if you do want to interact with Japanese people and speak Japanese with them.

It couldn’t possibly get worse unless… you’re non-Asian and yet you’re not even a native English speaker… and you may not speak English very well at all! I suspected this might be the case for nationalities like French; I figured many French people had visited Japan only to meet with the expectation that they speak English when many do not (let’s be real, largely out of that French-language-superiority pride). It’s often occurred to me to consider answering anyone who insists on speaking to me in English instead of Japanese with, “あ、フランス人です [Oh, I’m French]” and see if that gets them to switch to Japanese (sometimes people are so flustered by the sight of a foreigner that they will answer your Japanese query in English). (This could backfire if the Japanese person turns out to also be fluent in French, but those chances are slim, and besides I do speak French, more or less, just am obviously not a native speaker.) I was curious to see if I could find French people complaining about this phenomenon happening to them, so I did a Google search using some key French terms… and I hit paydirt! I uncovered some really interesting stuff. We don’t read a lot about this in English because, naturally, those it happens to (non-English-speaking non-Asian-appearing people) are not going to write about their experiences in English. I thought it would be cool to translate some of it so all can enjoy the French perspective on the assumption that all westerners in Japan speak English. Naturally, there’s a lot of complaining!

First I found this thread (active from 2006-2007) on the France-Japon forums. In a subforum entitled Japanese Society, someone started a thread called The Japanese and English. (I translated the below into English.)

I have a little problem sometimes in my relations with Japanese people – or I should say in my meetings with Japanese people, as this doesn’t happen anymore with those that I know.
There is a reflex deeply implanted indeed in the Japanese consciousness: when they see a foreigner, they start to go off in English. That irritates me, that irks me, it puts me off and that’s only the beginning: I am NOT AMERICAN!!!!!

For some reason I’m ignorant of, but which is maybe linked to the American occupation after World War II, the Japanese developed a complex which borders on paranoia about English and that makes some of them particularly aggressive. As a foreigners, we find ourselves approached like this by two types of people on the street:
– those who will ask the time with no Japanese on hand…
– those who will try and get free “English lessons” through contact with a foreigner.
The second category is – by far! – the largest.
And it’s incredibly exasperating when English is not our mother tongue and when, like me, you speak it very badly. One time, fine, two times, okay…
By the 150th time in 3 months, you start to want to take swipes – which have escaped from me the few times I’ve reached my limit…

Again – I am sure of this – for those that speak Japanese easily while not speaking English, these “approaches” by Japanese in search of English teachers can give way to friendly meetings and eventually continue as friendship. The problem is that the aggression about English is so developed that these people will fall all over you until they understand that you don’t speak English well and, in any case, it’s exhausting for them to make the effort to come practice it regularly with you (this has often happened to one of my Filipino colleagues).

This morning again, there was one who came up to give me his little spiel (hello, how are you etc. I am sooooooo happy to see you… I want to speak english but…), and it almost took my entire cup of coffee before I contented myself with asking him if he knew how to speak Japanese. Like always, that stunned him for one whole minute, then he asked me where I came from, a little polite conversation for 10 minutes and goodbye…

This attitude isn’t flattering to the Japanese or to the foreigners. I’m aware I have an all too French perspective on this, but I find it particularly depressing to see Japanese people self-destruct in the way they “stoop” to speaking English to any old foreigner. As if the Japanese didn’t value their national language in any way and as if it were normal for a foreigner to live in Japan for 2-3-5 or 10 years without learning to speak the first word of Japanese (and there are some like that!).
In France we wouldn’t imagine for a second that someone would come to live more or less long-term to work or study without learning at least the basics of the language. But the Japanese seem to find that natural.

Moreover, their attitude is so simplistic compared to the outside world, which has been reduced to an English-speaking country. You really get the sense that in the Japanese mind it’s “outside Japan, it’s America, and if it’s not really America, it’s the same because outside Japan the whole world speaks English (that’s a fact)”.
See how that’s not flattering to Japanese culture (there was even one – just one, I’ll emphasize – who asked me if France was in Europe) and is particularly insulting to the Russians, Arabs, Greeks, etc. who are not necessarily seasoned English speakers but who have a separate language that is also worth studying!


My “problem” is that I speak Japanese or Arabic or Italian but not English (or a little…), so it has a strange effect on me to be categorized as “English speaking” just because I’m white. Especially because the opposite is false, when I was in France and I saw an Asian person on the street, I didn’t really think he was Japanese. He could have just as easily been Chinese, Korean or Indonesian and would not really have appreciated it if I came to speak to him in Japanese!

Of course, it’s relatively innocent but it’s still very urusai!!!


What I find shocking is that the Japanese find it normal for a foreigner, even one living in Japan for 5 years, not to speak Japanese and they beat themselves up because THEY don’t speak English in their own country. I would understand that attitude from a Japanese person who lives in the US or even in England but I don’t really see why English should be “THE” language in Japan.
I’m not talking about tourists, they won’t invest in learning Japanese for a 15-day vacation. But in my office (and this is just an example!) there’s one guy who’s worked there for more than 5 years and, except for “konnichiwa” and “chotto matte kudasai,” he doesn’t understand the first word of Japanese. It turns out that this guy has two school-age kids and he berates the teachers because they don’t know how to speak English. I swear, any French person in the same case would throw this idiot out, but since they’re Japanese they apologize, saying they’re sorry, and go out to accost the first foreigner they see to try and improve an English they don’t have.


A guy comes and speaks to me in English, so I explain to him gently (this was at the beginning of my time in Japan, before it bugged me) that I am French and that I don’t speak English. He keeps going in English, so I repeat myself, insisting that “eigo ga dekinai,” I ask him if he understood and he answers “I understand” and continues in English – which must have been very good or very bad because I didn’t understand a word of his speech!
If his English had at least been at my level, somewhere between bad and passable, or if he’d spoken to me in his language or in mine, maybe we would have understood each other. But there was nothing to be learned like that….

Responses in the thread range from “true, but what can you do?” to “English is THE language of international communication, and the Japanese know this” to “this has been happening to me for 25 years, and it doesn’t bother me! Then I give them a lecture on how appearances can be deceiving, because I’m not a foreigner even though I look like it!” — and someone even proposes a humorous “counter-attack” that entails speaking Chinese to Japanese tourists in France!

Someone else chimes in:

Yes, let’s not confuse “foreigner” with “Westerner” at least! The vast majority of foreigners in Japan are Asian and the languages most spoken by foreigners are Chinese, Korean, and certainly Portuguese and Spanish, rather than English…

Yes, it’s true that they automatically speak English to us. Whether in thinking that we’re actually American, or in simply thinking that we naturally speak English. Even worse, there are even people who come talk to me (in Japanese) about this or that random fact about the USA for 5 minutes without even asking me if I come from there…

To me there are two reasons:
– They think that Westerners in Japan don’t speak Japanese (and they are unfortunately often right!)
– They think that all Westerners speak English

I don’t know more but I read someone who said he’d answer, when someone spoke in English to him automatically, “And would you like it if everyone spoke to you in Chinese when you were abroad?” I think I’m going to test this argument some time… 🙂

And again, we are rather well served being French. Everyone knows France, and most of the time people really LOVE the country. I have friends who are asked if their country is really found in Europe, if “that’s a country?!” etc…

I can’t conceive either how you could live in a country without trying to learn the language.
But we also have to tell ourselves that it’s also a little our French culture that makes us have this reaction: in France, for us it’s inconceivable for foreigners to emigrate without learning French. But in other countries there isn’t really the same implicit “requirement.”
Let’s think also of all the immigrant communities in the USA where only the second generation speaks the language – when they do speak it…!

Another perspective:

I don’t think it’s worth getting upset over, let’s give them a good image of France by keeping our calm and our good manners! And by doing so, that will make several more Japanese aware that not every foreigner speaks English.

I would add that the French have the reputation of not liking anything but their language, and of refusing to employ English out of loyalty. I’m not at all like that, as I love all languages, English included, but I didn’t know that we have a reputation for also being narrow-minded.

The French are, on the other hand, very inclined to confuse Japan with China, when you return to France, your kids will automatically be labeled “Chinese.” And when you go to Spain it was “Chinos”!

The OP responds to that:

There, I am absolutely in agreement, last year when I returned to France for my brother’s wedding, I wore a kimono for the ceremony. All my family congratulated me on my elegance but on the street between the church and city hall, I couldn’t count the “Ooooh, what a pretty little Chinese costume.” I tried to explain to several of them that the outfit was Japanese and not Chinese but I was hit with indifferent looks and “Ahhh, it’s all the same!”
It may be, moreover, that the French become unbearable in the eyes of foreigners by their refusal to speak in English, but as I am French myself and totally schooled in the language, I have a little trouble realizing it. We need the perspective of a foreigner who lived in France.

In my case, they find that I really don’t speak English well, so I have to say “sorry” again when someone bumps into me on the street, that’s not a big deal, what exasperates me is the number of people who, after having chatted for 2 minutes, ends by saying to me “pliiiiiiiize, teach me english.”
The cherry on top was this winter in the Hiroshima region. It was really cold and I was struck with a desire to go in an onsen. I get to a hotel and ask the man I see at reception (in Japanese) to tell me where the baths are. And he answers me “nanakai, second floor.” Stunned, I ask him again, because I’m really bad at English, I understand “second floor” anyway and I get the same response. Assuming he spoke better Japanese than English, I found the baths quickly enough on the seventh floor but what to say to him then about forgetting English…
I heard it said – but I don’t know if this is true – that the Americans never went to the baths, maybe because they were being directed to the wrong floor at the same time!

And someone else hits the root of the issue right on the head:

What I don’t really like is when I’m put in a box right away, a stereotypical category (whether American or French) I would just like to be taken for me, with my level, my body, as a human being, to be able to exchange natural things from everyday life, to adapt as much as one can from one to the other in order to evolve based on that. But for that, their image of the foreigner would have to change, and apparently that’s not happening tomorrow.

The OP also says:

If by chance I run into a foreign tourist in town (which never fails to happen in summer), instead of going to talk to a Japanese person that everyone knows doesn’t speak a word of English, he will come talk to me just because I’m white! That’s happened to me many times and I hated it, but not more or less than if it had been a Japanese person…

Initially, and this is why I started this debate, what stunned me was the Japanese complex towards English. The French, totally known to be monolingual, the majority of the time had no reason to know or speak English in daily life. While a Japanese person, even if he finds himself in a professional and personal situation in life that will never ask him to use English daily, will have nightmares at night because he doesn’t know how to speak English. I’m exaggerating a little but I don’t think it’s far from the reality in which I see them coming towards me, desperate and pleading “teach me english”…

On the contrary, in France if a foreigner comes to stay 5 years to live and work in France, the average French person will not imagine that this person doesn’t apply himself to French. The average French person will find it totally normal that all the administrative documents be in French (and in the case of “This is France, you understand” it’s likely you’ll get it!), the butchers won’t know how to speak English and the school delivers diplomas in French and not in English or Moldovan (something that might change – at least I hope – with Europe and you’ll maybe have a choice between European languages).
On the other side, the basic Japanese person, so quick to say “ここは日本だから” at every turn, will find it normal that a person who lives and works in Japan for 5 years doesn’t even know how to say konnichiwa, goes to help him every year to renew his visa, every month to pay his electricity bills, and every day to his classes saying it must be “tsurai” for this poor man!

When it comes to English, there’s no more “nihon dakara,” it’s “sumimasen,” “gomennasai” and “shippai.” There are many ways to answer – or not answer – when you are spoken to in English and you don’t like that. In French is one and returning “nihon dakara” to them is another. College kids ask me often why I speak Japanese and I answer that it’s for the same reason as them. They are always very disappointed because I think they were anticipating very elevated, Zen philosophical reasons (but maybe I’m kidding myself, I haven’t had a lot of success yet in closing in on the problem).
You can also not answer if you’re tired, as far as with people you’ll never see again. But if it’s teachers at your kids’ school or your gym buddies, it’s worth the pain of explaining once and for all, right?

This remark was also very interesting:

In the end, you will also realize to what point the Japanese person is an American colony from a cultural point of view. It’s something harmful, as you would like for them to declare their independence, but there are certain Japanese who don’t want it and others who can’t. Those must be taught the idea of patriotism in a cultural sense.

(Also in that thread, hilariously, a French person calls a Québécois out on bad French! Damn! Typical French bluntness, I love it.)

I also found a Japanese who speak English thread on another forum, Forum Japon. But I think it says mostly the same things as above, so I’m not going to translate excerpts.

Then I came across this: Je ne suis pas Américain ! [I’m not American!], a journal essay by one Alain Delon accompanied by a drawing.

For most Japanese, France is an American state somewhere between Kansas and Idaho, and French people in Japan are inevitably American. Usually American tourists.

It’s very hard to speak Japanese with a Japanese person.
Believing it will please you, and too happy to be able to put to use two patient years of night classes with Nova, a Japanese person will always do what he can to respond to you in English. Don’t bother telling him that you don’t understand anything Anglo-American, he will be totally lost. But tell him you’re French, and maybe things will start to clear up. “Sasuga furansujin!” (“Just like a French person!”) he’ll say, “Amerikagirai!” (“Anti-American!”).

What’s never occurred to any Japanese person is that if the French balk at speaking English, it’s not because they hate the United States or England, which are their allies, but very simply because they love their own language. What the French refuse at the core is very naturally what no English speaker has ever accepted for himself throughout the world: to change languages like you change shirts.
Also, how could the French be able to hate the English, since England doesn’t exist…

But French speakers don’t just love their language, they also love all languages. A Frenchman in Tokyo, if he’s enlightened, will want to speak Japanese above all, and French on the side (despite all there are some lying dormant, and I know a certain number of French-Japanese couples who persistent in loving and fighting in English… It’s very sad).
The Japanese, for their part, well, they clearly make less of a fuss: you can count today infinitely more Anglo-American words in the neon signs of Tokyo than German phrases on the walls of Paris during the occupation, and the announcements of certain train lines, like the Toei Mita, are in Japanese and English (but the New York subway announcements are maybe in English and in Japanese?).

In short, this is not the time to be French, Italian, Greek, or Swedish living in Japan. To do it well, you’d almost have to be able to wear two T-shirts nonstop: one “Boku wa kankôkyaku ja nai! Nihon ni sundemasu!” (“I’m not a tourist! I live here!”) and the other “Boku wa beikokujin ja nai!” (“I’m not American!”).
With a little luck, the face of your interrogator will clear up: “Naruhodo! Aran Doron ni niteru!” (“I see! He looks like Alain Delon!”). This will signify that the message is passed, that in their eyes, finally, you are not just a mere American in Tokyo!

I also want to say that I really enjoyed discovering my ability to read these French forum threads and understand the vast majority without once consulting a dictionary! I also learned some new words and phrases that amuse me, such as abbreviating c’est à dire [that is to say] with c.à.d. — hee! (Those cute colloquialisms are always what I love learning best, no matter the language!) I can only credit this to completely throwing myself into French spring 2007, reading only in French, doing my best to talk to my host family and express myself as best I could (even though I failed miserably so many times). I arrived in France only a month after leaving Japan, so in many respects I was experiencing culture shock not from the U.S. but from Japan (such as wanting to continue to have totally impersonal shopping/dining experiences, whereas in France it is extremely rude not to greet people in the service industry with “Bonjour” when you first come up to them–something I unfortunately didn’t learn until after I left), and I missed my wonderful experience there terribly especially when my time in France began shaping up to be not as ideal. Nevertheless I did my utmost to immerse myself and the fact that I can still read easily in French today is proof that it was worth it. I do enjoy many aspects of French, and learning and reading about the relationship between France and Japan, in any of those three languages, is one way to keep my interest in it alive despite my need to focus the majority of my attention on Japanese, the language I’ve finally chosen as #1.


Ahhh. Future plans are starting to come together more and more. I need to pay the rest of my summer program fees (never came off the waiting list for the scholarship, but financial aid still covered half the cost), and we’ve also been sent literature that makes it all feel a little more real. We have to sign a language pledge vowing not to use English (or any non-Japanese language) except when strictly necessary (this basically means when communicating with family, and in my case boyfriend) and that includes reading English. Um, yikes. I mean, I knew all this going on, but it’s just hitting harder now. I read tons of things daily, and I’m going to have to give all that up. Checking a multitude of blogs throughout the day, Facebook, Twitter, webcomics at night, sometimes a fic or scanlated manga or two, reading from a library book before bed–none of that. Do you know how much media we take in every day, and how much that eliminates when anything in English is completely out? This means no progress on my to-read list, falling behind on celebrity gossip and my favorite blogs and webcomics, not being able to chat daily with my friends on Gchat and Skype, not getting to read my friends’ tweets and family’s status updates OR post any of my own… including on this blog! It’s going to have to lie completely dormant from mid-June to mid-August. This also means listening to music in English (or any other foreign language, for that matter!) is out, so I am going to have to reconfigure my iPod and music library to only hold my Japanese music, and only listen to that for two months, which is going to be hard because sometimes I feel like a particular style of music and the language is not Japanese. My guided relaxation recording, which helps me de-stress when I need it, is also in English and would technically be out. I was also planning to get my yoga teacher’s DVD and do yoga to de-stress as well; obviously her narration is English. But, this just occurred to me, they let you go to church and stuff if you’re religious and obviously those services are going to be in English. Perhaps I can consider yoga and guided relaxation my religion, and therefore the English is okay? Ha, I’m pretty sure I’m going to need all the sanity-saving techniques I can get; it’s a year’s worth of study crammed into two months, and I can only communicate in Japanese. All of this is going to be hard.
(Yes, no one is going to be checking my iPod or what I read/look at on my computer in the privacy of my room–except my roommate but I doubt she’ll be out to tattle on me–and anyone patrolling is mostly going to be checking to make sure I’m speaking Japanese to the other students and teachers, but I do want to get the most out of this program and I’m interested to see how well this full immersion thing actually works. Even if I get to attend the intensive program in Japan, there will be a language pledge when at the center with other students but no restrictions outside those walls, and I can just tell you now I’m not giving up non-Japanese music and literature for 10 months. So this is probably the one time in my life–including the times I spend living in Japan!–when I have the opportunity to live in a completely, fully immersed Japanese-only world. It’s two months, not forever, so I’m really going to try to stick to it as much as I can even though I know I could easily get away with less than total commitment. I’m going to try to make the extent of my English maintaining communication and my relationship with Kirk, as well as staying in touch with my parents–maybe my sister and I will start emailing in Japanese instead–and let that be it. I just don’t want this to be like the language house in college, which was supposed to be immersive but I can tell you we only spoke nothing but Japanese when we had to, mostly because we were all lower intermediate level and it was just too hard.)

I am sort of excited though to put as many computer programs as I can (including my laptop itself) into Japanese… my iPods are already in Japanese so that’s done… and I have several Japanese books, magazines, and manga I can bring with me to read, although it’s going to be hard as several of them are translation projects and I quite obviously won’t be able to translate into English. That’s another thing–no translating. Just like reading and consuming media in all forms, translating is something I do at least several times a week, and not doing any (and thus not updating my website) for two months is going to be hard. I’m just glad TV shows will naturally be on hiatus over the summer so I wouldn’t be tempted to watch those. There will be TVs with access to Japanese programming there so I’m looking forward to catching some dramas. They also screen Japanese movies weekly and I’m guessing there will be newspapers and stuff too.

I really am looking forward to a lot about the program, not just the fact that it means I can quit my job and not have to work. It will be fun to live on a college campus and in a dorm room again. Meals are totally covered and we all eat from the cafeteria buffet, so for two months I don’t have to worry about buying and/or preparing food, which sounds like such a luxury to me now. Although until I find a group to sit with–and learn who I want to avoid, because I’m sure there will be some–going to meals is going to be nervewracking. There are a couple summer festivals, so I’m going to bring my yukata and geta. There’s a lot of interest clubs you can (okay, pretty much have to) join, and while most of them revolve around things that have always bored me (tea ceremony; calligraphy) there are a few I’m interested in checking out. I can tell you I’m going to arrive at the program and immediately seek out the other people who speak fluidly with good accents to be friends with, as much as I can. Hopefully others will feel the same way about  me. I do hope I can make some good friends there, and I also hope I get a roommate I can deal with who won’t hate me. I have only shared a room for two school years, and the last time was in 2005-2006. I also only had to share a communal (not attached/en-suite) bathroom for one of those years, so that’s another thing I’m not thrilled about. Shower caddies! I got rid of mine because I thought I’d never need it again; how wrong I was! Actually, I’m not excited about all the typical dorm room furnishings we have to bring when I’m flying there from halfway across the country. It was different when I could jam-pack my car and drive an hour north with all my crap; not so easy when I’m boarding a domestic flight with a giant-ass suitcase that will incur charges. I will probably have to ship a big box of extra stuff to myself too (and then back home at the end), which is not going to be fun since big boxes are not cheap to send! Also, from what I understand the campus is more or less in the middle of the ghetto and I won’t have a car so I won’t really be able to make emergency runs for any supplies I  need, so I have to make sure I have everything I’ll need with me when I start. Fortunately, however, an old classmate from Japanese and someone who went on the January Japan trip with me lives in that city now, and I’m hoping at the very least he can give me a ride from the airport to campus.

In many ways I’m sort of preparing for this as if I’m about to join a convent and take a vow of silence. And I guess in some ways, I am! At the same time I’m going to miss my boyfriend and my cat terribly. I will miss my friends and family too, but I’ll miss those two the most. I love that my cat sleeps right next to me every night, sometimes even sharing my pillow. I love that Kirk lives here now so I can go over to his place pretty much whenever I want and see him often, and I am giving that up (temporarily!) with this.

As for what I’m doing after the program, it is still not ironed out, and at this point I’m just trying not to think about it so it doesn’t cause me more stress. Program scholarships will be awarded over the next month or two, and I can’t make any decisions until I know those results (soooo worried though). In the meantime, I now have two English teacher job offers to choose from, although I have to accept or deny one soon or lose it (the one I interviewed for last month–glad I got an offer out of that!)… and I have no idea what to do there. We’ll see. It does look like one way or another… by hook or by crook… I am headed for Japan in the fall like I’ve been planning, which is good because I’d hate to quit my job, do the summer program, and then have nothing! But until I have a plane ticket, it still doesn’t feel real; it’s like it could be snatched away from me at any moment. At least the summer program is very real and becoming imminent.

With all of these thoughts comes an increasing sense of senioritis and impatience at work. I have about five weeks left and I’m ready for the end–although at the same time I want to maximize the time I have left with people here, so it’s hard! Conflicting emotions! As we saw when I tried to change jobs and hated the new job more than my old/current one, it’s not that the work itself is bad or hard. I don’t just want to quit and find a new job in the same field because there’s no guarantee it would be any better; chances are it would probably be worse. As spoiled as it sounds, I still just don’t want to be here anymore! I’ve been here so long now, seen so many people come and go, and if I wanted to I could probably keep doing it until the company folds (something I see as an inevitability) which is a thought that’s terrifying in and of itself.  But really the thing that’s gotten me through so much until now has been the thought of my pursuit of my next career awaiting me at the end of all this. If I didn’t have that in front of me it would have been much harder to deal with stuff like coworkers trash-talking me over perceived (imaginary) slights, almost everyone else in my department leaving including my mentor, ridiculous policy changes, getting lectured by someone not even in charge of me for not doing every little thing perfectly, the realization that I don’t respect or believe in what the company does… even the constant toilet issues in the upstairs women’s restroom (apparently we’re too cheap to buy new toilets which are like $100 each!). The thought that something better or at least different is waiting for me after I’m done putting in my time here has propelled me through all of that. I can’t possibly imagine staying here indefinitely, but I also know there’s a limited number of (non-teaching) jobs in my city for someone with just an English writing/editing background, and not many of them are appealing to me as something to do for the rest of my working years. I also know that I never wanted to graduate college only to end up right where I started. These are things I have to explain many times when people ask me why I want to do this.

It’s funny how long this post-grad journey has gotten, and how many times my plans have changed over that period. First it was teach in Japan (just to be there and pick up the language by osmosis, apparently–I hadn’t really thought that plan through beyond “get to Japan”) with Kirk, then it was go to Japan by myself to study, which led to the discovery of the 10-month program which now seems like the only and best way to do this. In some ways I wish I’d had it all figured out sooner so I could have planned for this since age 15 and made much better, more informed choices. But I can’t deny I’ve had so many great experiences along the way, and of course met some people I wouldn’t have met otherwise, while I’ve been working it all out and waiting. I’ve reconnected with my high school (and earlier) friends, I had a fabulous time being roommates with Aro (the night we stayed up until 4 a.m. inadvertently and had no choice but to go out for freshly made doughnuts will go down in history), I’ve dealt with my anxiety/OCD issues that cropped up, and Kirk and I have built an extremely solid relationship foundation that means I can leave without worrying (too much) that our connection will fall apart with the distance. It’s all been worth it, though just a little vexing when I think about how long it’s taken. I’m impatient for the rest of my life to get started.

Translating “hanami”

It’s the time of year for hanami in many places–the cherry trees at our local arboretum bloomed last month, but Japan’s are now in full bloom, or will be soon, or just bloomed depending on where in the archipelago–and I am simultaneously happy and deeply jealous of everyone taking advantage of it. Unfortunately, while I know all about it, I have never attended hanami. It is absolutely something I want to do and will do as soon as I can, but I have never been in Japan in the springtime and somehow have always missed opportunities to participate in any of the makeshift hanami events held near me stateside. My senior year of college the Japanese TA and some Japanese students held a faux-hanami under blossoming (not cherry) trees on campus, but it wasn’t quite the same and I didn’t attend it. This year I was planning to go to a combination hanami-3/11 commemorative event under our local cherry trees, but it got rained out. Next year it’s happening though–my first hanami, in Japan, will take place! And it will be great! Because what’s not to love? Hitting up the conveni, then drinking and snacking under a canopy of gorgeous cherry blossoms. Ostensibly contemplating the transience of life, but more just enjoying a fun time with friends (perhaps coworkers). I love the whole idea of hanami and it is sooo frustrating that I haven’t gotten to do it yet.

Since I can’t discuss my personal hanami experiences, I’d like to talk about how we commonly translate the word hanami into English… and, okay, why I think that way is wrong, and my suggestion of an alternative. Also, the other possible -mi events/actions! I find them all pretty fascinating. For example, I may not have ever been to hanami (yet!!) but I have been to tsukimi, many times.

The word “stargaze” first set me off on this path. It’s interesting but there’s no word for “stargaze” in Japanese; apparently everything else can be looked at and get a special term–the moon, cherry blossoms, even plum blossoms–but not the stars. In any case, wouldn’t you say this is our go-to term in English for an activity centered around looking at something? “-gaze”? So why shouldn’t we translate the 見 (mi; look) in 花見 (hanami), 梅見 (umemi), 雪見 (yukimi), and 月見 (tsukimi) as “-gaze” too? Blossomgazing, snowgazing, moongazing? I know it sounds a little strange, but so does “flower viewing” or “snow viewing” or “moon viewing” to me. “Viewing” just seems too much like a dry literal translation. I also don’t like “flowers” instead of “blossoms”; in this context 花 (hana) refers directly to cherry blossoms, not flowers in general. I vastly prefer what I’ve come up with… even if I’m the only one who chooses to use it! Yes, I’m stubborn; see how I chose to write conveni instead of conbini because it’s more accurate to the English word it came from. I do what I want!

There’s also an interesting phrase that applies when it comes to hanami: 花より団子 (hana yori dango). This means “the dango more than the [cherry] blossoms” and refers to when people attending hanami care more about the dango and other snacks and drinks than looking up at the blossoms, the reason the event is happening. (It’s also a figurative metaphor admonishing those who value practicality, the food, over beauty, the blossoms–or, if you prefer, championing practicality over beauty.) I think we’re all probably guilty of enjoying one (or in my case, the thought of one) more than the other. It’s also interesting that the dango is a traditional snack for these sorts of -見 events; there are tsukimi-dango just as there are hanami-dango. Mmm… dango. When I do finally get to attend hanami in Japan, you can bet I am going to buy some hanami-dango and some sort of hanami/cherry/spring-centric-flavored canned chū-hi and do it right!

My little sister is currently an ALT with JET in Kyūshū, and I got to see some of her pictures of her local park covered in drop-dead gorgeous cherry blossoms; she also had a hanami there with friends in a nearby park. I can’t get over how beautiful it looks!

I wrote this as part of the April 2012 J∙Festa!