Monday, November 10, 2014

Inaka != Isolation

Three years ago, I spent an amazing year studying abroad in Tokyo. I met friends and had experiences I couldn't have had anywhere else and after I returned to the US, I was convinced I wanted to live and work there. One of my reasons for joining the JET Programme in the first place was to use it as an opportunity to gain experience and a high enough Japanese skill to get a job in Tokyo or Osaka.

Lately, I've been wondering if I was aiming for this for the wrong reasons...

I fell in love with Tokyo the moment I stepped out of Shinjuku Station and saw the sleek, elegant skyscraper buildings balanced with beautiful parks and shrines. Walking through the city at night was like walking through a fever dream. So many sights and sounds and things to do and so little time to do them in. Tokyo was a great distraction from my crappy part-time job and trying to pull the credits together for a diploma I wasn't sure how to turn into a career. And Tokyo is the grand metropolis of distraction. Karaoke bars everywhere, events and concerts going on every day, huge museums, expensive clubs, and one of the best railway systems in the world. "I could walk these streets for days and know not even half its wonders." (Yes, I just quoted Assassin's Creed, don't hate...) Compared to reality back home, getting lost in the city with a generous stipend from the government was paradise.

Yet whenever I had time to myself or walked down the crowded streets alone, I was amazed at how lonely one could feel among so many people. Besides the usual stare foreigners get every once in a while, people just pass by. No one cares. They had their own lives to worry about. The problem was that I didn't really have one.

Even in Milwaukee, I had started to feel that way. My close-knit circle of friends were graduating and moving on with their lives. And now it's happening again: my friends at Seijo are graduating and moving on. One of my best friends now lives in Nagoya and most of my international friends are back in their home countries moving on with reality. My social group has all but scattered and my social safety net is left in tatters.

There comes a point in our lives that we realize that nothing is truly permanent and that's hard concept to get used to. Most of us grow up in the same neighborhood with the same kids, the same neighbors, the same teachers. But all of that changes when you leave home to build a life apart from that safety net. Even those who stay with their family find everyone else going away. This cycle has repeated many times for me now and it doesn't seem to get easier.

However, when the dust settles on your social situation, you get to look back and see which relationships are still standing. You did have true friends all along, but you couldn't see them among the multitude of people you were trying to maintain connections with until people started moving out of your life. These are the people that are there for you no matter how far apart you are. The ones you can go months without speaking to and then strike up a conversation as if no time has passed at all. And it's worth the pain of losing those you thought were good friends.

Each time you repeat this process, the weak ties break, and you weave new, stronger bonds into your safety net.

Starting your life in Japan on JET is another iteration of this process. Most of us are recent graduates leaving the college life behind when we leave our home countries. We leave friends and family behind to start a new chapter and this can be especially challenging for us big-city folk since most us are placed way out in the countryside.

The abundant landscapes and mountains are gorgeous. I don't think any JET can deny that. However, after a whirlwind month of introductions, classes, conferences, eikaiwas, and other obligations being thrust upon us, we take a look around and think, "Is this it?" Let's be honest- the countryside isn't known for it's thriving nightlife or other such distractions. There aren't a whole lot of people your own age besides your fellow JETs.

Then the boredom sets in and the stage two culture shock takes hold and all you want to do is stay inside and re-watch The Office over and over. You feel a bit resentful because there's no one at work that understands what your going through and you have to carry on like nothing's wrong. You crave real pizza and burritos the size of your head, but there's none to be found.

But then, when you feel up to it, you start to reach out. You start that martial art you've always wanted to for the first time. You share a nice conversation with a fellow teacher and find you have things in common. You start to realize that there are people out there who care and want to help. You stop seeing events and enkais as obligations and more like opportunities. You take hobbies back up you didn't have time for before or start new ones. Slowly but surely, your social calendar starts filling up again.

We look inward and realize that while we can't do much to change anything outside, there is something inside that we've been ignoring for a long time. They say that the hardest person to live with is yourself, and you'll experience this firsthand on JET.  Because when there are no lights and sounds and crowds of young people to distract you, all that's left is yourself and you'll be shocked to feel like a stranger in your own skin.

One of the fifth-year JETs who left this year told me something that had to do with "creating a version of yourself you can take anywhere". Many people come here to leave behind a dreary life, but remember- you'll always have to live with your own demons no matter where you are. Escaping from them to a hedonist's paradise like Tokyo is just that- escapism. If you're looking for a brief distraction, great, but don't let distractions become and control your life. Don't become a hollow shell of a person that's only working for that next buzz alcohol and club music will bring.

One of my remaining close friends in Tokyo Skyped with me recently and she always asks me every time: "What is there to do there? Isn't it boring?" I laugh and agree there isn't much "to do" here. The problem is she means clubs, restaurants, amusements parks, etc. The truth is that I have a ton "to do" here in a different sense: I have kyudo, kendo, knitting, gaming, a mountain to climb in summer and ski down in winter, cultural events to see, community English events to participate in and I could go on. And if I do need more of a distraction, there is a huge Round One in Akita City...

And I've been surprised to realize that I'm just fine with the way things are. It may not be the most exciting, but life is pretty good. I've never felt more at peace with myself. Most of them may be over the age of 40, but I do have stable friends who won't be moving away. I've lost over 20 pounds and have never felt better about myself or my body. My relationship with my husband is the best it's ever been. He seems happier than he has in a while and we both have our share of issues.

JET is an opportunity and you have to grab onto and make the most of it if you want to get anything out of it. Don't waste away inside your apartment praying for time to accelerate to next summer so you can get the hell out of here. Try new things. Explore the area. Talk to people. Spend time with yourself. Take a mental inventory every once in a while and think about who you are and who you want to be when you leave the programme.

If February comes around and you decide it's time to go, make sure you can look back and say with satisfaction that you made the most of your time here. The countryside can be an experience in despair and isolation or magnificence and community. There are no obstacles, only challenges and learning experiences. Walking away and hiding from your problems doesn't solve them or make them go away. Don't hide away from the boundless opportunities in front of you. Don't hide away from yourself.

Break out of the cocoon and fly from the JET programme a better you.

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