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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Write, Reflect, Repeat

On The Importance of Journaling Abroad

     About two weeks ago, a fair-sized group of us were enjoying dinner at a restaurant called Steak Gusto down in Yonago. We dined and caught up on the latest happenings from our respective schools and lives. During this dinner, talk of writing and journals came up. I mentioned that I keep a journal (which I write in almost daily) and even shared a bit of it. I'm sure most people are tired of hearing about it, but I wanted to spend some time talking about how invaluable keeping one has been. And perhaps the best way to do this is to explain what not keeping one was like.

So let's go back in time.
     In 2007 I came to Japan for a study abroad program. It was a lot of firsts for me. It was the first time I was away from my family for a prolonged period. It was the first time I came to Japan. It was the first time I flew in an airplane for that matter. We spent five weeks in southern region of Kyuushuu, wherein the bulk of our time was centered around Fukuoka. I love Fukuoka. It's one of the best cities (if not the best) I've been to in Japan, and easily trumps more popular choices like Osaka, or Tokyo. The trip overall was an amazing experience, which is probably obvious since I once again found my way back to Japan. Reminiscing aside, we did a lot of stuff. From Fukuoka we ventured out into almost all of Japan's southernmost region, exploring Kagoshima, Kumamoto, Beppu, Mt. Aso, Sakurajima, Amakusa, and more.

    I like to think I have a pretty decent memory, but I know too well the trappings of relying on something that inherently prone to failure. Eventually I reasoned that my experiences in Japan would be no better than the dream they used to be if I couldn't remember them. Everything simply felt too good to be true and perhaps the heart of my fear was that it might vanish completely. I wanted to somehow preserve it while I was there, and so I photographed everything. If memory serves correctly I used four SD cards and took just over 4000 pictures.*

     There was plenty to remember - and plenty of things to remind me - but still, I spent more than a few nights worried that I might one day forget elements of the trip. If you asked my roommate at the time, the talented Dustin McCurdy, he probably would remember at least one or two late night conversations about this. For the next few years after I returned home though, I could easily recall and retell any singular experience from my time overseas.

Then those years passed.

     There was a day when I wasn't able to remember something about where I'd gone. It was a relatively small detail, but even after scanning through my pictures I only recalled the itinerary - the place and a general sense of what we did - but something was gone. It was an awful feeling.

     Fortunately, there's still plenty of it left in my head. When I went back to Fukuoka with Mitsuko - a full seven years since the last time - I was able to navigate with the utmost of ease. I knew what stops to get off at, which corners to turn on, and where my favorite spots were. I feel however, that these things I remembered so well were routines. I learned them through rote memorization as a result of living there for a short period of time. Some of the more fascinating things I did have become only a single picture with no information attached. As I mentioned earlier, when I look at those pictures I can easily remember that portion of the trip but the specifics are sometimes a wash.

     When it comes to memory it's quite easy to make exaggerations, or even worse, fabrications. Ask yourself now if you've ever recalled a story that wasn't exactly true, contested by a friend who was also there, or even called out for being slightly to completely false.   

     I brought a journal along but I wrote in it only a few times. I knew people would rather see pictures (if they were at all interested) than listen to - or worse, read - my visually challenged recollections. I rediscovered this spiral notebook many years after the trip, and had a read. There wasn't much. An old drawing of Link from Majora's Mask (likely because I bought the Japanese manga), a few notes and email addresses from the students I met (none of whom I managed to stay in contact with), and a single entry about a page long.

     You can read about that entry right here but for this post I'll say that it was an amazing thing to look back on. I suddenly became so upset with myself that I hadn't written more. It was dated, which sort of locks it down into a certain event (one would think) but when I had a look at the pictures around that period I couldn't find anything which would've inspired that entry. I made no reference to it in the spiral notebook, only claiming that whatever had happened was changing my life - for the better.

     I promised myself after that point I would do a better job of writing things down should I ever have a similar experience like that again. When I spent six months in Kofu, with Mitsuko, I filled up an entire volume (around 256 pages) mostly because I had a lot of time to myself and my thoughts when I wasn't talking with her wonderful neighbor, Keiko-san.

     Now four volumes in to all of my Japan experiences, I can say that it's been the single most rewarding thing I have ever done. Everything has been documented. My highs and lows. There are times I have already forgotten because there were so miniscule in the grand scheme of my life right now, but important enough for that day. Those tend to be the richest thoughts that I write. From making note of an instance when I was frustrated or reflecting upon an opening/closing ceremony to preserving a touching or even silly moment I had with a student, these are the moments worth remembering.

     It might be a bit scary, and it's definitely something hard to be consistent with, but if you really want to know who you are I would recommend that you get a journal and start writing.

It just might surprise you. 


*Who else remembers back when it took that many SD cards to get that many pictures. We weren't rocking these 32 and 64 gig cards. I still remember paying $120 for my first 1 gig card.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Tales of the Shokuinshitsu (The Exciting Conclusion)

Tales of the Shokuinshitsu

Volume 3: It Melts Like Sugar In The Rain

     Today something quite magical happened. The person who has been the bane of my work existence took another knee today to explain something to me. She started with her usual insincere apology about not telling me earlier. Then she told me something that she will never have to apologize for: She is no longer an English teacher. I couldn't believe it. She had hurt herself, or suffered some kind on injury that meant she wasn't able to come to work for a while, and those were the most refreshing days of my time here since those all too precious first few weeks - before I met her. I wasn't happy about her injury of course. I don't wish injury or illness to those I don't like but rather for them to carry on their ill will elsewhere. In any case, I was pretty content at the thought of simply recharging my harassment batteries, but when she laid that on me, I was all kinds of happy. Naturally I made a note of it in the journal and I wanted to share that with you right now:

3:10 pm
She took to her condescending knee and told me that although she's a staff member here still, she doesn't teach English and will instead work with various handicapped students at other schools in the area. I was really done listening by that point and in those few seconds after she uttered the words, "not an English teacher," I wanted to stop time, or maybe just slow it down enough, to the point where I could have a small party atop the mountain of her failure as an English teacher, at the end of which we could light the hills on fire, basking in the the amber glow, knowing that whatever demon had up until now forsaken the foreign language department was enjoying the sweet release of death. I wanted to do that. Instead I said, "Okay," and quietly, happily, carried on about my business. 

 Let's have a goddamn party.


Thursday, April 2, 2015

Once A Spring

There is little else better in life than to tell a true story whilst being idle on a stormy day.


     Yesterday, Tottori Bokujou was the picture of spring. The gnarled roots of cherry trees gave way to twisting branches which reached across from either side of a small road and created the most brilliant mixture of soft pink and white flowers, gently bobbing in the all too pleasant breeze that followed us. I had stopped in the shadow of one such tree; blossoms within reach dangled over the car. A few other patrons were parked along this strip, blankets out, food at the ready, perhaps already a few drinks in, enjoying the company of friends in mirth.
     After exiting, I threw on my gear (for there would be pictures) and as I walked away to commence my Hanami, a man came from the next picnic spot over and struck up a conversation with me. He first noted that he had a similar camera, and we talked about that for a minute. Then we went into a few minutes of small talk about various things from the weather to the flowers. He paused abruptly through one thought and asked, "Haven't I seen you on TV?"
      I thought for a second, "Maybe, I'm the ALT at the junior high school. Sometimes I'm on TV, I think." His eyes widened, but I could see that my answer only sparked more curiosity. I followed up, "I teach English." That did the trick.
     "You're not Japanese!?" He took a step back in surprise. "This whole time I thought you were Japanese!" He stepped back further then examined me in full. My mere presence was blowing his mind. I informed him that my grandma is Japanese so that probably helped a bit. He made a pinching gesture and brought that to his eyes before explaining that mine fit his template. I laughed a bit.
     "I'm from California." I explained. I'm not entirely sure he heard me amidst his bewilderment as he asked about my origins immediately after that.
     "Where are you from?"* He inquired. I explained again.
     "America," which I followed up by returning to Japanese, "アメリカのカリフォルニア出身です."He was awash in excitement telling me how much I looked and sounded Japanese. Around that time, Mitsuko walked from the other side of the car - having been busy organizing Koebi and her own camera. I could nearly hear the man's heart palpitations at the sight of someone else, possibly Japanese, literally turning the corner on him. He asked about her and we explained Mitsuko's case as well. He looked at her a bit too long before saying she was cute (thank you, I know, less creepy next time though!) but ultimately redeemed himself at the end when asking me to speak a little of English. It seemed to make him happy, which was a bit endearing to be honest. Eventually he shook my hand and said his goodbye.

And we still had Hanami to do.


* Asking where a person is from comes in various flavors. Sometimes it might be more like, "どこから来ましたか?" (Doko kara kimashita ka? lit. From where do you come?). Other times it's quite direct in their assumption that you are not from Japan, which leads to being directly asked, "What country are you from?" though I'm not sure how common or polite that is. Yet another way though (and the way this man asked me) goes like, "どこの出身ですか?" (Doko no shusshin desu ka? lit. Where is your origin?). It really only translates as "Where are you from?" but there's something far less presumptuous and poetic about it. It's a common phrase, but it feels more like the way we (in English, that is) might ask where one hails from.