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Deborah Lea

Falling in Love with Japan
By Deborah Lea
Mar 18, 2005 - 1:11:00 PM

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As unsuspecting as most naive horror movie victims, I was readily fooled when I met my future boss at the Yamaguchi station. She seemed the epitome of all things good and reasonable - hardly the sort of person I could imagine later saying the following words to: "I don't feel I can be your monkey." Twinges of panic played at the edges of my consciousness when I had called from the shinkansen. The husband, with whom I had till that moment had all my dealings, then informed me that his wife - the real boss - would be picking me up soon. I hadn't heard of such a set-up before arriving and worried what the pseudo-humor in his voice might mean for my experience. I didn't lend it too much credence. My instincts had led me this far, after all. It would do no good to doubt them at so late an hour.

The approximately twenty-minute drive to my new home was surreal. This was only in part because my new boss was driving on the "wrong" side of the road. While it was true I had only just learned to drive, I had spent enough years being a passenger to know that I was definitely not sitting in the passenger seat. Beyond that, there was so much green I thought I might be lost to it. My boss seemed wonderfully friendly, the day continued to be supremely gorgeous, and I was in Japan. The power of these two words to quell my fears should not be understated. Japan meant magic, so when everything else seemed sketchy, I relied on those two words: in Japan. In Japan. These two words meant possibility to me, and that was enough. Usually, both that first day and in the days that followed.

Even as I wondered during that ride about my future school, worrying it might be horrific, I told myself that, in Japan, it would hardly matter. I could just find a better school. It wasn't a rational matter. Pure emotion and wishful thinking drove me. Well, those and my new school's owner.

I tried hard not to let show my bemusement when my new boss parked in front of a bowling alley. I did a decent job hiding it even when she led me inside. An afternoon bowling wasn't the sort of reception I had imagined, but there were worse ways to be welcomed to Japan.

It was climbing the stairs to the second floor I saw the sign and began to worry in earnest. My private "academy" was located above a bowling alley. This, I told myself, could still be construed as an adventure. Who wouldn't want to tell their future grandkids they once taught English above a bowling alley in Japan? The stories to be garnered from that would surely be countless.

My thoughts - and there were many frantic thoughts this first afternoon - were none of them focused. I looked over my unsigned contract pretending to be utilizing any of the law school education I had supposedly just completed. Nothing looked too horrendous, and even that which I disagreed with was straightforward enough to be unproblematic. I signed the contract, suddenly exhausted, in the cluttered office disconnected from the single tiny classroom above the decidedly untiny bowling alley. There was no use, I felt, trying to imagine what life here would be like, so I would just let it go for the time being. Let it go and get some sleep.

There was no sleep immediately in store for me. I had too much energy - enough, surely, to have powered the neighborhood for an entire month, if only such conversions of human energy were possible. As soon as my boss dropped me off at my new split-level four-bedroom house, I laced up my shoes and set out for a run in the dusty dusk light of summer southern Honshu (Japan's main island). Within the first minute of starting, a man biked by and shouted, "Ganbatte!" I didn't know the exact meaning of this, but from his cheerful presentation pieced it together. In Japan. The words came to me without my willing them.

I slept better those first few nights in Japan than I ever have before or since. There was so much I wanted to see and do it seemed impossible I could shut my eyes to it, and yet I had to. This was probably an advantage of living in quieter Japan. If I had moved straight to Hiroshima or Osaka, I would have a much different story to tell. But living where I did, I alternately slept, ran and wandered around taking it all in with mouth agape. The tiny obasan and ojisan who beamed at me and greeted me in resounding voices unfit their diminutive statures always made me feel bursts of incredulity I was being paid to be here, meeting such people. Schoolchildren in uniforms biking slowly down the main street caught my attention more quickly than anything else; their uniforms set them apart amidst the ever-so-grey landscape. The boy's uniforms especially caught my eye. I had arrived as summer was beginning and it was already warm enough I felt most comfortable in a tank top and jeans! To see so many young-boys in body-covering dark fabrics made my skin itch in vicarious suffering.

As often as not, I saw these people in front of or on my way to 7-11, the same as its western counterpart in sign only. Each time I entered, I was loudly and repeatedly greeted with booming shouts of "Irrashaimase!" It took several weeks for me to expect the cleanliness and order of these shops, or the fact this - and the others - all had public restrooms. It would, I began to think soon after my arrival, hardly be a "convenient" store if it didn't allow access to the greatest necessity of all, after instant curry udon. If only the Japanese stores would share this bit of information with their western counterparts, the convenience store world would be a far lovelier one.

There was so much to process my first few weeks in Yamaguchi. I could little comprehend it, and instead accepted it would be best to sit back and observe. This was the theme both in and outside of work. The two women I would be replacing had given their notice and would be leaving at the same time - exactly one week after my arrival. This gave us one week as both coworkers and roommates in our boss-owned house. After so long sharing a bedroom in Los Angeles, I was disturbed by the thought of temporarily having such an enormous house to myself, but I figured I would adapt quickly enough. It was the prospect of having only one week of training ("get your feet wet!" was the way my first week's schedule pleasantly announced this) before becoming, briefly, the school's only permanent teacher that was really terrifying to me. Finding little good in thinking about it and stressing, I watched the classes I could, grimaced to see my temporary coworkers planning their lessons at home in the mornings and wondered what it would be like when they left.

I had taught a few lessons by the time they departed. Mostly I had watched them and taken copious notes. I had been instructed to mark both my praise and criticisms, but wrote down summations of the games they played more than anything else. Critiquing, I felt, would be beautiful in a situation where I had more than a handful of hours before being thrown into action myself.

That was not the situation I found myself in, so I felt a more pragmatic approach was necessary. At least, I thought, classes at the school seemed the antithesis of taxing. It looked to me like I would be taking home paychecks for playing games with unbearably cute, genki children. English appeared incidental at best, especially since students spent so much time learning phonics before learning how to actually speak English sentences. My sense was basically that I would be paid to spend six hours a day keeping kids engaged in phonics and trying to encourage them to use the minor bits of English they picked up along the way. If I found it mindboggling any parents would pay for such an odd imitation of education, I also knew I was coming untrained into a well established school. I would, I vowed, simply take it as it came and express any concerns as they arose. My first week hardly seemed like the time to do it. Instead, I felt, I should simply watch and learn. And this was exactly what I did.

When my two roommates left at the end of my first week in Yamaguchi, I was more than a little nervous about what the future would bring. But I had already visited Miyajima and had the even more pronounced sense that, no matter what might be less than ideal, my proximity to such breathtaking places alone would help me balance out any work-related woes. At Miyajima, I had felt the rightness of the place. I had run from the crazed deers and stood in the shadow of the floating torii, which a friend had informed me was made in the shape of the character for 'heaven.' My pants were rolled up and I stood calf-deep in the water looking up at the bright orange-red against blue. Till that day, I had never thought those two colors belonged together, but since then, it seems no two colors were better suited for each other. In that moment away from all the noise, standing beneath something so different and so wonderfully distinct from anything I knew, I truly felt anything was possible!  I could not tell the specifics of what Japan would mean for my life and future, but I had the growing sense it could only be wonderful. And this time, underneath the torii, it wasn't only wishful thinking that led me to so believe. The torii spelled it out for me, as, indeed, did the whole of Miyajima. I was walking through my dreams, and looking through my pictures reminds me again of my profound, delighted disbelief at having the chance to explore and experience this island which to me represented all the vague but poetic ideas I'd had about Japan.

Visiting Miyajima my first weekend in Japan was probably the best thing I could have done. Were it not for that, I might have traded in my return-trip voucher for a ticket and taken the first available flight back when it became clear I was in fact working in the Twilight Zone. But Miyajima, having visited there, represented to me everything I would lose the chance to experience if I left. The aunties and the schoolchildren made my daily life already, but it was these majestic places so close and easily accessible which made me feel I could perhaps touch history. My own past had left me feeling history was nothing more than make-believe, a story other people told, so to feel profoundly and physically the past was something real and solid, something lived out by other people and reaachable by myself, was a remarkable thing for me. It was a feeling, a chance, I could not trade in.

So it was that, even when things became extraordinarily uncomfortable at my workplace, I could not leave Japan. I couldn't consider it realistically for even a second because I knew that, if I left, I would spent the weeks and months to come wondering what it would have been like if only I had stayed in Japan. What could I have seen? What would I have learned, about myself and the world?

If I had to play monkey temporarily to buy myself time, well, that was an acceptable trade. For a time.

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