Thursday, January 1, 2009

A Few Doors Away

(The essay I submitted to the 2009 JET essay contest):

I stand on the top steps of a hushed mountain shrine, looking through trees and bamboo to the rice fields far below. I am but 20 kilometers from my home of seven months, yet this place of simple serenity is essentially inaccessible to me without a car. “500 years old, this shrine,” says a quiet voice behind me. It is the same voice that had already led me through the birthplace of the poet Bashō, had explained the workings of a traditional carpentry workshop, and had introduced me to a fascinating English speaking priest, all in the same day. It is the voice of Azuma-san, my newest Japanese friend and the first, perhaps, that is not a friendship of convenience. He is also the first person I’ve met in my scattered village of 3,000 with whom I can really communicate, the kind of communication that goes beyond the definition of words to real connection. In the last few weeks he has taken me under his wing, my long awaited guide into the world of rural Japan. And as the wind rises up from the valley floor to gently rustle the leaves and bells, I sense it carrying change. I’ve put a lot of thought into how to answer the inevitable question “Wow, you lived in Japan? How was that?” Until recently, the response I’d settled on was “lonely.” That at least begins to hint at the details of the daily routine, the creeping surprise of real struggle, and the frustrations that seem trivialized by phrases like “culture shock” when you face a new life, country, language, food, friends; everything new. The village where I live is deep in the mountains, so deep that grocery shopping involves a 30 minute train ride, and I’ve met all of one resident who was within 10 years of my age. All this is nothing compared to friends who are buried in snow in the middle of Hokkaido, or even the semi-famous JET who lives on an actively volcanic island that is a 24 hour ferry ride away from the mainland with a population of 200. Even though the mantra that “every situation is different” is one of the great truths of the JET program, still, regardless of placement, some degree of isolation is just part of the package. The simple fact is that it’s difficult to meet people in Japan, especially if you come in with limited Japanese. Most of us in rural areas will spend more time on our own than during any other period of our lives, and a great deal of the difficulty and brainstorming will be centered on how to connect with the community. When I first arrived in Japan I had enough sense of these obstacles, and enough awareness of my need for social support, to know that finding friends should be my highest priority. I also knew that my village consists of a few thousand people scattered over 26 square kilometers of mountains and forest, and that I would be unable to communicate with most of them for at least six months. I think part of me was hoping that the English speakers in the village would come and find me! After two months of exploring mountain roads, letting out many a cheery “Konnichiwa!” and often being greeted by stunned silence, I began to realize that the finding would be up to me. I decided to go on the offensive. But how to sift through hundreds of houses and draw out the people who would like to meet and talk with me? I eventually hit on the rather obvious idea of offering an evening English conversation class for adults. After overcoming my supervisor’s concern about my work-hour limitations by assuring her that I’d gladly volunteer to teach the class (since success would help me just as much as I helped the students), she was thrilled with the idea and agreed to put an announcement in the village paper that went to every door in the area. She warned me that probably only a few people would be interested, but I felt that it would be worth it, even if only one or two relationships came from it, as that foundation would inevitably lead to others. Sometimes the smallest foothold is all you need to start feeling grounded. The first day of class arrived, and 16 nervous students sat expectantly in the classroom, ages 17 to 82, of every English level from dead beginner to fluent. This is the main problem, of course, and I had a lot to learn about juggling multiple levels in a class. I made many mistakes in the beginning, like trying to lecture and to teach level-specific grammar or vocabulary. Eventually I learned to elicit answers to general questions so everyone could input their own level of English, and to focus on conversational activities in which the more advanced students were paired with the beginners. I didn’t adapt quite quickly enough to hold everyone’s interest, however, and lately the class has shrunk to about 5-10 people a week, but naturally they are the ones who really belong in a “conversation class.” I was very conscious of the challenges from the beginning, but looking back it’s hard to imagine not taking the plunge, as the ripple effects of this class have begun to encompass all the best elements of my life here. There is of course the immediate satisfaction of getting to plan and teach my own lessons all in English, and here more than anywhere else I feel like I’m truly contributing something. One member of the class is practicing her English for a trip to New Zealand (to visit my predecessor), another would like to communicate better with his British son-in-law and English-speaking grandchildren, while a third has maintained an international correspondence with a number of well-known photographers using a very limited English vocabulary. In many cases I can see the small difference that an extra word or two of English makes for them individually, even in a place as rural as this. I also have the opportunity to share insights into America and other countries I’ve lived in, meeting their affirming curiosity about the world outside Japan with my own curiosity about the world inside Japan. The secondary benefits have often come in the form of unexpected blessings. Gifts of food, friendly support, and even the offer of a car for my private use have been sources of constant amazement and gratitude, while tips about shopping, services, and sights in the area have been essential to a comfortable “settling-in.” Perhaps most significantly, whenever I run into a class member in a shop, train station, or while out on a walk, I experience a budding sense of having a place in the community. I’ve also been thrilled to find that many of the students have extensive experience abroad, and I get to enjoy countless amazing stories during class. But it wasn’t until we started spending time together outside of class that I realized just how lucky I was to meet Azuma-san. He was a career sailor for most of his working life, and at one time or another set foot on just about every country that touches the sea. He worked for a Japanese construction company in Iraq for 10 years during the war with Iran, and told me stories of near-death experiences when his work camp was bombed by Iranian artillery, or when he was confronted by wild dogs in the desert. A year in Manila gave him a dangerous brush with the Mafia when an employee made trouble in the wrong nightclub, and returning to a busy office job in Tokyo showed him a side of his home country that he couldn’t quite relate to. He chose early retirement for his emotional health, and now lives in this tiny village, tending a small house and garden, just a few minute walk from my home. Azuma-san loves meeting people, all people, and given his experience he has as much in common with foreigners as with his fellow countrymen. He loves discussing modern Japan, travel, culture, language, religion, and he brings to every subject an amazingly objective sense of inquiry and search for truth. “What you think about Buddhist temples?” he asked me suddenly one day. As I prepared the standard compliments of Japanese architecture he continued, “You are Christian, so what you feel around temple?” It was a question I hadn’t asked myself, and I had to think, harder than I have in months, before I could begin to find the answer. Conversations with him, just as spring is arriving in earnest, have been like sunlight breaking through the winter clouds. As he drives me home we pass his house, just a couple of rice paddies away from mine. I think about my 5 predecessors who never met him, how isolated I know some of them felt, and how Azuma-san talks so often about wishing he’d known sooner that this house, shouting distance from his own, has housed internationals for ten years. I think about how easily I might have missed meeting him, whereas now the experiences he’s making possible for me are quickly becoming the most impactful of this year. It’s not that the little mountain shrine is more impressive than Kiyomizu-dera, or that the carpentry shop is more interesting than the Tokyo fish market, but with Azuma-san I no longer feel like a tourist, an outsider. I am being involved in everything, made to feel that I am part of it. Now I have to restart my search for a word to summarize my life in Japan. Only time will tell what word fits best, but I think “memorable” will be a strong contender. Under the tutelage of such an individual, we might even make it, sincerely, to the ultimate cliché of “life-changing.” It’s astonishing what a difference one person can make. Every one of us is going to experience times of isolation during our stay in Japan, some for days and some for months. I think the most important thing to realize from the beginning is that we are the newcomers, and especially in the context of Japanese culture it is incumbent upon us to put ourselves out there and find creative ways to make ourselves useful in our communities. I cannot even count the number of times I’ve failed to live up to this idea, but taking the initiative to start this adult class has proved to be the best thing I could have done, both for the community and for myself. If your first few months in Japan leave you feeling disconnected then I highly recommend trying something similar. Chances are that your village is also hiding a life-changing person or two, and maybe just a few doors away.