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Deborah Lea

Leaving Okayama
By Deborah Lea
Apr 23, 2005 - 2:47:00 PM

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Sometimes it seems to me there are only ever goodbyes. This afternoon in rural Okayama, I sit at my desk noticing distantly how light outside falls easily around clouds of many shades and hues. As with so many afternoons preceding, the beautiful sky is not at the forefront of my mind - but neither is it far away. The light of this office has welcomed me every Friday for six months, and if that isn't a long time, in rural Japan time, it's a heartwarming, laughter-filled eternity.

There have been many an afternoon where I was loathe to leave this school. Ask my sister and she'll tell you I've never before had a job I didn't want to leave before I'd even walked in the door. I've worked since I was fifteen and have run the gamut of jobs. Some were tolerable, but even the more tolerable ones were distraction from my real life... not that I knew what said beast really was.

To find myself making ways to stay later at a job was not just rare - it was unheard of. I didn't know such a thing was possible, and if it had occurred to me someone might suggest it, I would have either laughed or spontaneously combusted at the sheer preposterousness of the idea. Love work!? I'd wager there are laws against that in some places, and where there aren't the laws of the penal variety, some sort of scientific laws must cover the improbability of actually wanting to be at work.

I enjoyed my students at the eikaiwa. I would have had to be inanimate not to be engaged by my boisterous, hypergenki students. And yet, for how much I looked forward to that one hour every week where I got to see each student, the joy I felt in that place never paralleled that which I feel here. The eikaiwa was segmented off from daily life. Once a week, it was a playtime where I got to see a small peek of my students' lives and try to impact that with phonics through games. English, I mean - English. I relished that without understanding how gratifying it would be to see the same students through the course of an entire day. While I still only see my students one hour a week, they often attack me throughout the day with hugs and the bits of English they've acquired. Some students show off and others hide, but even the hiders smile shyly and try to say a few words. When we are not in class together, I am surrounded by them in the hallways. Their laughter is the music of my workdays, and when they are gone at the end of the day the school seems haunted by the silence left in their wake. I was not built for silence to begin with, and this is especially true when the sounds outside the quiet are such gratifyingly sweet ones.

Even the frogs singing me to sleep every night in Yamaguchi have none of the power or resonance the simple sound of laughter here has had on me. There is no sound I have loved better or would rather hear, To hear my name called with laughter and delight, to have children following me out to my car practically singing my name and have them arguing over who gets to sit next to me - well, is there any reason for me not to love my work? Can there be any wonder why I feel there is melancholy in those familiar clouds, this comfortable light at a comfortable desk which bears under its clear plastic thin sheets of paper reflecting the life I lived before?

These reminders on my desk are of a place much further away than my new home will be. The places I acquired these mememtos are an ocean removed from me, and it is very likely my new home will be only one town over. I will no longer have a car to make such trips, but a twenty-minute bike ride is nothing. I'm out of practice, that's for sure, but the hours I have spent walking every day since I moved to Okayama surely have prepared me for a sweat-free twenty-minute bike ride. The distances simply bear no comparison, and the move certainly feels much less significant for the discrepancy in miles, kilometers, feet, or burlap sacks. Whichever unit of measurement you use, it adds up to the same thing: I'm just not moving very far away.

As with the other moves I've made, this was my choice. This one, though, was so much more difficult than the ones that came before. I have experienced moments of intense loneliness, feeling so distant from anyone I can really express myself to or understand fully. Internet has been a once-weekly deal apart from the short e-mails I can receive on my cell phone. I have spent bitter, lonely nights and wondered how I could possibly have chosen such a life. I felt disconnected and lost, distant, wounded.

These nights bound me to the place as much as all the joyous moments did. They might have even bound me tighter. I didn't stay because I was mad - although some might argue it's so for independent reasons, it's surely not the source of my stay - and I didn't stay because I have masochistic tendencies. For once, I knew the good that would come of a place and an experience outweighed anything I might endure on the other end. And I knew far better than I ever had in earlier days that these moods always pass. Once past, what they leave behind is a greater sense of self, of strength and accomplishment at being able to tough out even the most difficult spots and see light where it is to be found. I have learned so much about myself here, in both the laughter and the tears. Here I bought my first curtains - green, of course - and my first refrigerator. Granted, it's a tiny thing that I can barely fit a fist into, but my sense of elation at driving my new refrigerator away in my "new" car was immense. That memory, too, is part of what binds me to this place.

For all the places I've lived before and all the crazy experiences I've had, though it's trite to say, I've never till now felt I've actually lived. Certainly I've never lived with the intensity I have here. Every emotion there is, I've had some occasion to feel here, from wonder to self-doubt to anger to exuberant, irrepressible joy. I've sang along to my favorite songs while driving and come to love a landscape impossibly greener than the one I grew up surrounded by. I've found a sense of myself that I learned through difficult times and, happily, at the hearts and hugs of small children. I have been alone and anything but alone. I have loved for no reason than to love and been loved for no greater reason.

So it is that, before I have even had a chance to write about the experiences I have had here in my first public school position, I am writing about leaving them. Perhaps that is for the best. Perhaps this way, instead of chronicling the past, I may instead turn my thoughts to the present, and carry these memories and this joy with me, undiluted by sharing their bulk with the world. I'm not a selfish person, but it seems right that it should be so, that for once I should be content to hold onto these things and feel them only for myself.

It clearly is not the physical distance between new and old, the places once lived and those soon to be lived in, that defines our most momentous moves. Twelve hours by plane seems nothing compared to the twenty minutes by bike I will soon be removed from my current life. I know I will love my students at my new schools. The laughter of children is never a sound that aggravates me. I know I love my new town. I have driven there once or twice and almost wrecked the car while gazing up in awe at the mountains that will soon be my daily landscape.

That new town will never be my first. It will never be the one where I started to study Japanese practically in earnest, where I taught my first fumbling lesson, where I blushed to be informed quietly but politely my clothing was maybe a little too provocative for "simple country children." The children in that next town will not be the ones who accepted me even when I took those first unsteady steps before a large classroom, or squealed and shouted with joy when they saw me, elevating me from moments where I wondered what kind of joke it was I should call myself a teacher. I have cried the worst of my lonely tears and I have had my only first Christmas in Japan, in the loving company of a good old friend, further connecting now and the once-was. I have taught and I have learned. I have experienced life a way even I, in all my "adventurous" ways, never imagined it could be lived.

There will always be goodbyes. But with them, it's true, will always be hellos. I now stand prepared to say my last goodbyes to this place as my home. I will visit, but it will never be to me then what it is now. When I come back, it will be back as a memory.

Even now, the squeak of shoes in the hallway and the shouts of children at recess tell me this is not the time to mourn. They whisper to me that perhaps, with such joy as I have felt here, there should never be cause to mourn this, even in goodbye. I have done my time with melancholy. I will leave that to those clouds of shifting grey outside, and - for once - continue living here while this is the place I am graced enough to live.

Deborah Lea may be reached at

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