Thursday, June 3, 2010

Nothing In Vain

This is a long one. There is much hypothesizing and rhetorical questioning, that's why.

What Are You Going To Do After JET has been a hot topic of coversation recently. News of layoffs, other former JET participants going jobless for a year or more, and the threat of getting stuck teaching for real (because I have no other marketable skills) all make staying in Japan an attractive deal. One morning I read this article by a former ALT on reverse culture shock. She says that her years in Japan sometimes seemed like they were from an alternate reality, largely because no one around her could relate. This frightened me.

I like it here. No matter how much I complain about the price of Mac&Cheese or the frustrating cultural differences or the seeming impossibility of this language, I'm glad that I'm here. I've met some wonderful people. I'm learning how to be an adult, and what that means. The importance of maintaining a strong relationship with Christ has never been so clear to me as it has in Japan. Would I lose all of these defining years of growth if I were to move "home" to America?

My two worlds don't connect. My friends and family on the eastern side if the Pacific don't know my friends here and vice versa. Save for the people Hannah met, Facebook pictures and the rare Skype session when I'm in someone else's apartment, there remains a disjointedness that I have no idea how to fix. There are people who care for me here; what can my parents know about the two different men who have claimed to be my Japanese dad? Or about Yoko-sensei, who makes me curry and lets me play her piano? It's tough to compare my relationship with these men and women to those I have with my aunties and uncles in the states (who've known me since birth), but the roles are very similar.

My friends in the States are irreplaceable and I miss them daily. However, God has given me a fantastic social group here, who understand why I whip out my mobile phone whenever I see foreigners wearing backpacks and/or hiking boots. These folk will miss me when I leave, and I'll miss them. If I leave, who's going to make me laugh so hard I almost fall off my bike, just by saying "gay anal region"?Anyone who isn't Margaret will have no idea [why that's even funny]. With whom will I be able to sing that song about eating worms in turn-of-the-century voice? For whom will I write screenplays about pistachio thieves or muppets? Oftentimes at church I intend to leave immediately after the service, but end up staying for nearly an hour extra, chatting with the goodly folk there. I don't regret a second of the time I "lost." When I leave I'll miss them terribly.

As of July 2011 I will have lived in Japan for three years. Sure, in the grand Circle of Life (HIMEELLAMAWEEMELAMAWAAAAY!) it's not that long. I could have had three babies in that span of time. Four babies, if I pushed it. I'm not sure why the number of possible offspring is my measurement for time passed, but it is. Anyway, if I return to the U.S. after Japan, that's all I'll have to talk about unless relating tales of my youthful folly before age 23 (and a half). I've been told before that it sounds pretentious when I begin every sentence with "In Japan..." At first I thought it was a logical complaint. Now I don't know how else to talk to people who've never lived here. If I were to make a visit home and someone asked what I usually do for lunch, would it make sense for me to say, "I usually just have an onigiri and some cheddar Jagabees, unless I eat kyuushoku at an elementary school" without explaining the jibberish coming out of my mouth? I don't know what's happening in pop culture and barely keep up with politics. I may be following 30 Rock faithfully, but I thought that the reference to Hot Tub Time Machine was a poorly-titled joke that they made up for an episode of the show. Not until I glanced at a list of recent movies did I realize that it was real. And I thought, fantastic. Now everyone's going to be quoting a bunch of movies I've never even heard of when I get back. No one's going to care that I know which member of SMAP was once arrested for screaming in a park while nude and intoxicated. It was Kusanagi, by the way.

How the aich am I going to relate to people? Should I refrain from sharing stories or perspectives because talking about living overseas is annoying? i see myself apologizing at the start of every conversation. "I'm sorry if I sound pretentious, but my only frame of reference for the past three years is my life, which happened to be in Japan. Forgive me if I talk about it."

Already I converse in a strange kind of Japanglish (it happens to every foreigner at some point), throwing commonly-used words like taihen and ganbatte into English phrases. It'll be a hard habit to break, but I know I'll end up sounding like a pompous windbag to the people at home. Here, you look like an insensitive idiot if you pronounce manga or karate improperly. Back in Tulsa people think you're a know-it-all if you pronounce Tokyo or Kyoto with two syllables, i.e. correctly and without an American accent. Is living in Japan dooming me to be seen as some vainglorious cosmopolitan wannabe, waving a brandy snifter in the air while pontificating on when I was in Japan?

Thinking about the future rarely fails to bring a writhing knot of anxiety to my belly. What'll I do if I leave Japan? I thought I'd go to France in the near future, but after spending over three years without studying the language, how will I be qualified for any decent job? Will employers think that I was just playing around, since I stuck with a job that offered no opportunity for advancement in pay or position? If I go "home" to the U. S. where will I live? Where I live, how will I find people who won't tire of me talking about my life abroad? What will spending three or more years in Japan have meant in my life? Am I just wasting time?

A couple of weeks ago there was a guest speaker at church. The man was a missionary from the Philippines to Afghanistan. He told us about how he felt when grenades exploded near his house, how life was constantly interrupted by the international troops' hunt for Taliban members. He told us about the toilet an sewage situations, how there's no guarantee that the nan they buy at the market isn't flecked with dried waste that the wind blew from the gutters that run down the middle of the street. He told us about how he has nothing--no retirement plan, no house of his own, no assurance of safety--and his wife and children, one of whom has special needs, are in just as much danger as he is. Then the missionary reminded us of 1 Corinthians 15:54, which tells us that nothing, absolutely nothing that we do for Christ is in vain.

Ah, yes. God brought me over to this land. I have a purpose now, and I'll have a purpose wherever He takes me next. I may be a stranger in my own country, but I'll be a stranger with a purpose. I may be adrift for a while as my future unfolds, but I can know that God will be guiding me to what's best for me, because that's how much my creator loves me. What a restful realization.


  1. ...simply beautiful.

  2. Melissa McKnightJune 30, 2010 at 2:53 AM

    This is really funny because I graduate in December and have already started imagining my life in Japan. I already feel isolated from most of the people I interact with (outside of my friends)because I DO make references to cultures different than the one I'm surrounded by on a regular basis! I keep telling myself, "Don't worry, just get through this, the JET program will be awesome." I guess no matter where we live the future will always be uncertain and we have to stay connected by trusting in the benevolence of God. Hang in there Laurel <3