Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Just visiting?

“Sometimes I question my purpose in teaching Japanese,” last year's head teacher once told my class. “When you go back to your countries, you'll probably never use it again. In five years, maybe you'll have forgotten it all. Eventually, I realised that, more than language ability per se, I have something more meaningful to impart...I'm talking about memories.”

Most of the people living in my dorm are in Japan for the first time, and most of them will never come back. There are times when you can really feel this adventurous energy in them. It's an exciting life. Every uniquely Japanese thing spotted is a must-seize, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. If you don't get out to Arayashima this weekend, you may never get around to it. If you miss Aoi Matsuri this year, you'll never see it. Get out there! Explore Japan! Carpe diem!

Years ago, that's where I was. But I've transitioned to a stage where a lot of the stuff that once seemed exotic has normalized. Those wacky Japanese are just people. They eat, sleep, live, love, study, work, and fuck like anybody anywhere. Even the things that stuck out at me when I came as a child (at which point the entire world is bizarre) have faded into the blob of daily life. “Cultural differences” are now merely the way things are. When people, Japanese or otherwise, ask me what most surprised me about the country, I have to think hard to remember.

It's not that Japan has become boring, but my feelings have certainly levelled out. As grandiose a statement as this is, I intend to spend the rest of my life here, so I have the time to enjoy myself a little more leisurely. Different goals, you see. My counterparts are giving it their all because they're fistfighting the calendar. They don't want to live here anymore than I want to live in Borneo.

Aren't they living here for now, though?

To be completely honest, and here I will well and truly reveal my deepest conceits, I'm not so sure all of them are. I struggled for a while with coming up for a definition of “living” somewhere. For some time, I couldn't quite do it.

Obviously time is a factor. If I go to Hawaii for a week, when I talk to people I'm not gonna start telling them that I used to live in Hawaii. So maybe is it the amount of time invested into a particular place? Somehow that doesn't seem right. If I backpack around Russia, I might easily be there for a year or more, but that's travelling, not living. Is it a fixed address that makes the difference, then? Nah, that's not it either. The fact that I change apartments every few years doesn't mean that I don't live in Marseilles, and besides, maybe I like the non-committal nature of a hotel.

How about the guy who doesn't speak Japanese, seals himself in English plastic wrap, and doesn't have any Japanese friends, but hasn't set foot in any other nation in the last twenty years? Obviously I'm not asserting that he doesn't live here.

Actually, yes, that's exactly what I'm asserting.

I think you get me. Obviously he lives here, of course he does. But he doesn't really live here. There's a difference between living and surviving – at some point or another, we all experience the quietly gutting realisation that we're doing no more than worshipping the clock, that nothing we currently have is contributing to our dreams or happiness, and that the days have begun to slop pointlessly into one another and we will soon die miserable and alone. So we do something about it. Change jobs, make a move on that hottie at Starbucks, take up a new hobby...move to Japan. Get off the metaphorical couch, somehow. Time and persistence don't mean you lived somewhere anymore than graduating university means you got an education. You can shack up with Japan, but when you haven't spoken in months, that's a sham marriage. I'm shopping for rings.

Lately I've started to feel like I really “get” living here. Everyday tasks are becoming less challenging. I didn't even notice at what point my internal dialogue switched “the dormitory” into “home.” I've got my place, and my space. I've more or less established myself in this school, in this city...even in this country, perhaps. I've made connections. I've got friends, contacts, and fences throughout the region. I've got Mother Russia. These days I'm feeling pretty good about my life, and the world, and my place in it.

That's why it's so painful to say that I'm going to be leaving very soon.

I think I've always made it clear that I'm here for the long haul. In fact, one of my goals at the start of the year was to find my next vehicle, and I pursued every option I had with zealous lust. First I applied for the only English-teaching position that was willing to consider hiring me without a completed four-year degree, and we conducted an interview over Skype, so I got to experience the unsettlingly silly sensation of wearing a shirt and tie in my own house. It was one of those nerve-wracking panel deals, with four strangers staring me down, spurring me through a grueling, stamina-draining gauntlet. Each question seemed designed to probe for the slightest sign of weakness, itching to expose me as a dumb college kid, an otaku FOB, a Nihon-kabure with no teaching skills or even interest in the profession (the latter of which I actually am). A combination of poor audio and difficult topics shattered my initial plan of appearing pleasant and comfortable, ensuring that instead I wore a look of intense concentration throughout.

In the end, I had no idea how well I had performed. One of the ladies I'd clearly won over, the other two seemed to be giving me serious consideration, and the guy seemed to harbour nothing but hatred for me, the world, and himself. I didn't get the job, obviously, but was several weeks later I found out – through my father's connections – that I had actually been deemed the most desirable candidate out of the five shortlisted. The youngest, too, for what that's worth. I only lost out for complicated legal reasons having to do with the timing of my graduation. Just bad luck.

I investigated other avenues. I checked for other employment options, but what few existed turned out to be unavailable to me. I threw all my efforts into a bid for language school and actually got quite deep into the process, but in the end, on top of immigration issues, the money just wasn't there. Going directly to grad school wasn't happening without a scholarship, either, to say nothing of my less-than-stellar academic record. Every single thing I tried ended in abject failure, and not even spectacular, explosive abject failure; just door after door quietly closing in my face. On the one hand, I can say I did everything I could, so no regrets there...but on the other, I gave everything I had and it still wasn't enough, and that's maddening. I had this idea that Effort x Talent = Results, but it's just another fairy tale I was told as a child, like that evil can't go unpunished forever, or that looks shouldn't matter.

I finally had to concede the truth: At the end of August, I'm going back to Canada. Probably for about a year, and possibly much longer. I can't say. But I'm already working on my plan to get back, so there's that.

What does the change of venue mean for this blog? Well I'm not just gonna let it die, that's for sure. I haven't run out of things to say about Japan just yet. On that note, rest assured that this space will not metamorphose into some strange pastiche of my personal interests, either – I mean it's always been that to some extent, and I hope that my particular injection of personality makes it more compelling, but I fully realise that people come here looking to read about Japan, not me.

The delivery method is going to change a bit, of course. As the theme of this blog up until now has been “my life in Japan,” I obviously can't continue in that vein while not in Japan. Doesn't keep me from making observations, though. Maybe comment on recent developments in pop culture. And the stories and anecdotes will still be there, just coming from a different perspective. Except a drop in frequency, though.

I've got a couple more months to come to terms with my failure, cross off a few more boxes on my checklist, and just generally make the absolute best of the time I've got left. Which is really just a metaphor for life right there, isn't it? I want to sincerely thank everyone who reads this blog – there aren't a lot of you, but I appreciate every one. If you're just stumbling upon me, please do have a look through my archives before inevitably skittering away in revulsion. And to all of you, regardless, I hope you'll consider sticking around.

We're not out of the game just yet.

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