Tribulations

I’ve always been overly ambitious with my goals. In high school my cross country coach would always make us fill out these forms before our races. We would have to write down the day of our meet, our previous best time, and our goal time for the upcoming race. Under this main information we were forced, almost always in jotted down bullets, to write out exactly how we would achieve that goal. I hardly ever took them seriously — or maybe I never took myself seriously. While I was young I’d scribble thirty seconds off of whatever time I’d recently passed. As I got older those drops in time were still written down, but the reality was hardly differing.

When I was in tenth grade I made the first change in my life that was actually sustainable. On the waning hours of New Years Eve, December 31st, 2007, while shopping for snacks in the local Byerlys with friends, I happened to look down at a four bottle pack of Jones Root Beer soda (or pop to Minnesotans) and decided quite decidedly that I had no need for cola in my life. Maybe I had recently heard about the uses of Coca-Cola as a toilet drain cleaner, or at least used it to justify the decision afterward. I bought that four pack of the most delicious flavored pop I’ve sipped, and as the clock neared midnight, cracked open what would be my last pop of my life, donating the other three to the fridge. I’m not quite sure what majestic spark of foresight came over me at that night, but it really was a power that possessed me. It lasted well into the next day, as I was able to rally a number of too faithful friends to start what would become the most important tradition in my life: New Year’s Day Movie Hopping. This year will mark the 11th consecutive trip to the movie theater on New Years, and I don’t even know how I’ve made it so long. (The first time I went alone in 2013, hungover like a newborn baby, I cried gallons unrelenting with empathy through back to back tragedies in Life of Pi and Les Miserables. Now, I find going alone is like a day long meditation run, fleeing my own body for the tribulations of others.)

The soda pact lasted about two years. I still drink it less times in a year than fingers on my hands, but it’s especially hard to cut out once you get to college and have to hide your alcohol with something. The bigger impact was my first conscious step to acknowledging my own health. It led to me being vegetarian for five years — a lifestyle I still try to muster, at least in my own cooking. I’ve never been one to follow through with resolutions, and yet looking back I’ve had success with simple but major choices in my life before.

Almost two years ago (two years, what the hell) I reprimanded any known attempts to make resolutions because of course, yes, they usually end in failure. I added that there was no sense in trying to drastically change an already content life. Two years is a long time in your twenties. I hadn’t even been in Japan for six months when I was thinking that. I was certainly content, but also becoming complacent. I wasn’t thinking about the future, I wasn’t planning for the things I would want to be doing. My current life was just starting, so I couldn’t even imagine how it would wind up. In that respect, I’ve had to revise my way of thinking. I’m again at a point in my life where major changes have been happening: I’ve got a new job, I’ve fallen in love, I’m still planning to move out of the countryside as soon as possible. I’ve always thought it was silly to start something just because it was a New Year, but I’m starting to realize the benefit in that. Just like quitting soda, or starting a new tradition, the new year is so easily quantifiable.

Last year, I went for a run with the indomitable Stefan Lemke. It was icy, and a Minnesota coldness I hadn’t experienced in twenty months. “I have a plan,” he started, with that terrifyingly gleeful look he gets whenever he’s been brewing on an impossible scheme, “Let’s run every day next year. Come one, we could do it, every day, no rest.” I instantly denied it. I had literally run every day of the previous October and knew it would be absurd to attempt it 12 times over. This year, however, I’m thinking again.

I think the reasons I thought resolutions as folly were always internal. Like my goal times in high school I was overestimating. I didn’t have a serious dream for myself, but only a joke. There’s the failure. I am not always going to be determined for the things that I want to do. I can make goals, but then I can decided when to give up. I especially don’t have to follow through when I don’t tell anyone about those goals.

(As an additional, I once watched a TED Talk about how you shouldn’t tell anyone about the goals you’re setting out to achieve. The idea was, that once you tell people you’re starting this goal, that mere act of sharing already feels like a reward of following through. Paradoxically you feel good in thinking, I’ve told people I’m going to do this, so I don’t actually have to do it. This is not my case.)

Instead of that, I’m going to share these ambitiously unachievable goals here where they can be as permanent and viewable as the internet allows. I’m going to find partners as willing as I am to set out for these plans, so we can hold each other accountable. And I’m definitely not going to make a notice about it whenever I fail (in my words, it’ll simply be a decision to devote time to other things).

So, here are not the resolutions, but my overestimated non-serious, but god-help me if I don’t try my best to do these everyday goals:

  • Run every day (with Stefan)
  • Write every day (@katie_barnes3 , if you’re down I’m down)
  • Study language every day (I’ve got someone to bother about this, too)

and in the long term:

  • read a good portion of The Book List  (at least some of the thinner volumes)
  • get out of credit card debt (so I can start focusing on student loans)
  • finish an art project (vague, I know, but there’s actually a plan)

of course, there are a few less stringent personal successes I have in mind, but those are better off kept to myself.

As for any of the above, feel free to bother me about them at any time. After the past months of changing jobs, travelling, and doing so much new in my life, I realized I need a little bit more consistency in my everyday. To that end, New Years is a no more important day than any other to start.

But it’s a hell of a lot easier to quantify.

 

PS // I wrote this next part in the middle of the blog, but it didn’t quite fit. I thought it was nice enough not to delete, though, so I’ll just put it here:

Last year, as the ball dropped, I was back in Minnesota. In the morning I woke up and had breakfast with my mom, I bought what is still my nicest dress shirt with my dad at Mall of America, I changed at my grandparents and went to a wedding with the people that could easily be considered as my second family, before the night was over I was able to stop by party of all my college friends, another family long lost, and then even flew into Tokyo for a few days before making the ride back home — the home of my present. I didn’t plan to have a resolution, but somehow it became one. Keep going but don’t forget where I am, because I’ll always have family. There’s a line from the Minneapolis rapper Slug that I hold in my core: “Roam if you must, but come home when you’ve seen enough.” Last year I was convinced to think about staying in Japan until the Olympics. This year I’m convinced that you never know where you’ll go.

Trials

Towards the end of my term as an assistant English teacher I would reflect by pausing in the hallway and leaning in towards the open window while walking between the toilet and the teachers room during a free period and think: this is the greatest job I’ll ever have. That is actually the thought I started to realize during the start of my second year. Truly, of course, it couldn’t be the pinnacle of my work life, and I began to acknowledge that. By the beginning of summer, as I was already well into figuring the terms of my new job, I determined that working at the school wouldn’t be the best job in my entire life — only the best job I’d have for a while.

That, I know to be true. I mean, how could it not be? Every morning I’d wake up and make the fifteen minute bike to school. It didn’t matter what I wore, because I’d change from the locker into my slacks and button down and occasional tie. Because we had started choosing our own schedules, I hardly ever had a class during the first period. This allowed the perfect to time ease into my day. I’d check my favorite new sites, and catch up on the SRS kanji reviews I had from the day before. I already had a year’s worth of worksheets, so every lesson was less starting from scratch and more ironing out the harder details.  Each class I was supported (and supporting) another teacher, it took the pressure off our jobs, gave us brief moments to catch a breath. In the back of class I’d goof off with anyone not paying attention, or subtly wake the dozing student. Between classes were the best. I was a near celebrity. From the beginning it was never hard for the students to become curious about my height or complexion. But after two years I’d become a role model, a mascot, a friend. And none the less humble for it.

If I could stay young forever I would have never left. But that’s the funnier part about schools. Every year you’re teaching another generation, the material hardly advances, but you have to figure out how to improve. Except at the end of the year one group leaves, and so quickly they’re replaced. When I lived in New York, right before I left, way before I knew what teaching was like, I was talking with a roommate who was an associate poetry professor in the upper east side.

“You’ll go on to do great things, man, don’t worry about it,” he told me. This is a guy who only six months before had picked up a guitar and six months later had performed at bars in Williamsburg.

“How do you do it?” I asked. “Every year, teaching a new class, and then forgetting them by the next summer.”

He scratched his head, but answered honestly and unabashed, “You just get used to it. I mean, some students will come back and stick out to you, but you can’t be best friends with them all.”

Even if it’s true, I can’t agree with him. Already I’m forgetting a lot of students names, their faces stick out, but I can’t remember if they graduated last year, or are still studying for the entrance exams. They, like so many people in my life who I’ve been trying not to forget, are moving forward. You don’t get used to it. You just have to accept it.

At least in my new job I don’t have to worry about those things as much. I’ve only been working for three months, and it feels like that only should be an already. On a team of four we’ve completed an anniversary video for the prefecture university, I made ten videos of contestants for (not just beauty) pageant for a magazine, we had a photo-shoot for an eyeglasses commercial, and I’ve had the amazing opportunity to help host a promotional food and culture event in Singapore and Hong Kong (and during the former I literally mean host as an MC). It is the type of job I would look for anywhere, and I got so lucky to find it so quickly and close to the place I’ve already lived an worked.

There are somethings awful to be said about the Japanese workplace, however, they are things I never felt or recognized during my time at school. I’m trying my best not to conform, while at the same time showing my co-workers that I’m contributing. But almost every night when 6:30 comes by it seems like I’m the only one to notice. I’ve already wrapped up my work, started packing, but then feel obliged to stick it out for a little while. Once I leave I still have to make the forty minute drive in increasingly wet weather home. I usually take this time to listen to podcasts, but only that will get me so far. This of course, leaves little time to explore my own hobbies or even rest properly at night before I have to get up and do it again in the morning. Of course, I like waking up later, but the morning commute doesn’t make it much of a difference, and leaves no practical time to run, exercise, or even properly shave like I used to (although the beard is starting to grow on me).

I am really thankful to find this kind of work, but everyday is a different task, and in the end I’m still not quite sure what type of work I’m doing. Am I a producer, a video editor, designer, a photographer, a writer, an illustrator… all are things that I would appeal to do, but I’m worried about developing an expertise. I’ve had the time to get educated, and even to get the base of my experience settled. Now it feels critical to figure out what I want to do, focus on it, and make that into a career.

Recently, I’ve got that opportunity.  I’ve been working on illustrations, and replicating this specific type of style, but in that case it’s the most frustrating thing I’ve had to do in months. In school there were times once or twice a year where we’d have to stay late in order to grade standardized tests. Except there was nothing standardized about the way we graded. In some ways is was a reflection of our own teaching ability. The first time it happened I actually cried after an tense debate(/argument) over one of the smartest answers, too clever it was hard to meet the right criteria (I wrote about that once, but a bit too embarrassed to link to it here). Now it feel like that every day, except the debate is with myself over what I’m going to do and if it’s even within my bounds to accomplish what I want.

One of the wisest men I’ve met once told me near my college graduation that when it comes to your job, whenever you’re asked if you can do something respond: yes.  This is a true philosophy in my life, as there’s almost nothing I’ve had to do that I haven’t been able to learn or problem solve my way out of.

These trials have slowly building up since I left school. I forgot what it was like to be without a job, to be out of money, to start new and be away from friends. I thought it would be good to stay where I’m familiar, instead of jumping completely into a new life. Now everyday I’m away from Tokyo seems like a waste of time. Luckily I have someone there who can also say wise things from time to time: it’s all about perspective, the opportunity that I have now is better than most.

He’s right, and if I really focus, if I don’t doubt myself, then I can do it. Even after 25 years my mom still tells me I can do anything. She’s wrong, but if she can believe, then maybe I can too for a little while. When my frustration came to a head while drawing, while trying to figure out how to paint in this particular style, how to make the shadows overlap and blend so perfectly that the transition between colors is stark but seamless, I took a break, I came back to my standing desk, plugged in Hucci as loud as I could, and figured out the problem.

There are a couple of idioms that keep running through my head lately: make your bed… spilled milk… if wishes were horses. With all the work and a bit of stress through the last month I didn’t really have a time to stop and pay attention to myself. Now that it’s the end of the year, it feel like the natural thing to do. I’m not only asking the questions like where do I want to go, what do I want to be, but I’m finding answers to them. They’re answers that mean tough choices, and risky results, but I’m solid in all of them. I may be stuck now, but it won’t always be that way, and it doesn’t have to be that way. I just have to tell myself I can do it, be thankful for where I am, and blast some dubstep as loud as I can.

 

Update

It’s easier to say six months ago than half a year.

Half a year seems too far away. Half a year ago I had so much time, so many plans, so many choices yet to make. Six months ago was a bit more organized. I had the small goals to reach, the decisions to focus on one by one. For example, in January I had to decide whether I’d continue my contract for another year. I didn’t. In February I would visit Hokkaido for the winter festival. I planned for that, but not for an unexpected visitor to extend that into a week long vacation. By March, I would pay off my first student loan and use my tax return to pay off half of another. I succeeded in the first act, but turns out not paying federal taxes because I live in Japan means I don’t have enough taxes to warrant a return. The spring break was followed by a doubly unexpected visit and vacation plans that actually put me further away from my goals. I’ve gone to two job fairs, slowly polished my LinkedIn account, and have every job finding app alerting me every minute on my iPhone to some new opportunity perfect for my field. I’ve purged my closets and drawers of random socks or flyers to make a more minimalist living. I’ve looked at maps of where to go, and where I’ve been, and where opportunities might lurk waiting to be hunted down.

And I have two months. In reality it’s less than two months. If I pretend it’s two months than it will look organized. Those small goals will be met right on the deadline, but the overarching picture will be lost. If I wait until the end of July to understand what I’m going to do next I’m doomed. Instead I’ve been looking at it in paychecks. After all, those are what actually determine my safety. After the next seventy days will I have enough money to stay in Japan, continue to pay my student loans, have a place to live?

All of this I say lightheartedly, unable to muster the stubborn pessimism of my parents, falling in line more with their siblings. I’m not worried. Even now as I apply to jobs I’m finding things that I would love to do, and maybe more surprisingly that I’m qualified to do. I’m still studying Japanese, among other things, even though I can’t speak worth the time I’ve been here. My apartment is clean, and certainly warmer as the spring rolls in. I’m running more now that the weather agrees with my hobbies, and at least in the vaguest of senses back to making art. I’m not reading or writing nearly as much as I should or want to, my hair is slowly falling out, and I’m in more credit card debt than this time last year, but the wise philosopher Vonnegut once said, “so it goes.”

I think worst of all, I’m having a lot of fun. Over the past six months, half a year, several paychecks, credit card bills, burned CDs, photo uploads, anime seasons, onsen visits, and bullet trains I’ve twisted through every option of my future and where exactly I want to end up. I simultaneously don’t want this lifestyle to end, while fully supporting the drive to move on to something new.

I’m not calling this a revival, but this post isn’t very long, so if you’re still reading this don’t give up hope that I’ll write a couple more before long. After such a hiatus I’ve actually found a number of drafts more than half-way done that I never got around to publishing. Like all things in life, there’s never enough time, but in looking towards the future I think it will be good to catch up on the past. Only time, or seventy days in this case, will tell.

Election

“Our constitutional democracy demands our participation, not just every four years but all the time. So let’s do all we can to keep advancing the causes and values we all hold dear; making our economy work for everyone not just those at the top, protecting our country and protecting our planet and breaking down all the barriers that hold any American back from achieving their dreams.”

–  Hillary Clinton, November 9th

For about a year I’ve been saying the only reason I have to stay in Japan is a Trump presidency. Since then, I’ve come to find more reasons in my life, but none that seemed to compete so much with that reality. I never considered it seriously, and I never thought I’d have to. I sent in my vote a month ago with a Hillary mark at the top. I’ve been following the election more than I think I ever would’ve in America, and I didn’t think the question was ever “would she win?” but “by how much?”

Then again, I remember having a truculent debate one night in New York almost three years ago after a couple tall boys over how Hillary would never get the presidency. The only thing is I was on the side of the Republicans. Of course, Hillary wouldn’t become president, history would prove that a republican would come after Obama — it’s the ultimate form of our checks and balances.

I really don’t think I would’ve minded a Republican winning this year. I was always more Hillary than Bernie — and than other option — but I wouldn’t see such a dismal future had someone like Rubio, Kasich, or dare I say Bush been elected. The GOP party platform is so far away from aligning with my views of the world, but actual republican systems of smaller local government is something I prefer on most cases. The thing is this time it isn’t a Republican leading the country, and it’s not really a wolf in sheep’s clothing (that title can go to Pence). I feel we’ve elected an entertainer because in the end the American body wants to be entertained. The concepts of efficiency and solving problems have been disregarded for pure showmanship. Wanting to change the system is not a bad thing, but defining it in a vote for a man as crude as Donald Trump might as well be like ordering off the dollar menu at McDonald’s in order to save money.

All day yesterday I tracked the results. Being fifteen hours in the future and a day where all my students had standardized test, I had the convenience of being awake and present for the whole thing. I had multiple websites tabbed up in my browser checking the plots, maps, and down ballot results. I refreshed at least once a minute. I watched as the 538 website varied around 78/24, to the Pennsylvania & Michigan stalemates that brought them to 52/48, and then the plunge as Florida was called and New Hampshire was still undecided. I held out all sorts of hope as her chances reached 15%, readying myself for a Arizona win. And then I finally had class, and went away defeated.

The hardest part was returning to the teacher’s room, and having all my Japanese co-workers ask me for the results. Now, everyone has their own reasons for supporting their candidate, and there are certainly a few valid ones for choosing Trump. But Japanese people (as I suspect most parts of the world outside of Russia) on a whole did not want Trump to win the election. They are worried about what it means for their country. They’re worried about the leadership in their own government, and how American relations could influence the populous into a negative cursory change.They follow this race at the same level I say any reasonable person should. That’s where this result really impacts me.

Every time there’s an election in my life (this would mark the fifth) I hear people saying they want to move to Canada. They say they’re getting out before the place goes to hell. In the end I actually think that’s counterproductive to their cause, and most don’t actually fly north for the four year winter. Except I have the actual excuse of being out of the country. I have to choose now whether I should go back, and I don’t know if I feel safe doing so.

I also think people tend to overestimate the drastic changes that will happen. Remember back when Obama won the first time and everyone (on the winning side at least) had such a feel good outlook that the Bush years would be immediately remedied and systemic inequalities and discrimination would be solved? Or that baffling movie put out by the conservative right that discussed how Obama’s anti-colonialist upbringing would lead to America’s demise by 2016? The thing is both of those outlooks, positive or pessimistic, didn’t really pan out how people expected. Obamacare is getting extreme (or eradicated), as is Syria, and George Bush tried to fix education while isolation the poor, but both of their plans only strained a system that was already running. My point being Trump might be sickening to some and a savior to others, but I’m not completely convinced he’ll be able to do much to the extent of what he says anyway. I still have faith that Paul Ryan is as sane and pragmatic as they come. I believe Hillary and Obama and Bernie and Elizabeth will cultivate support and change on their own. I think the machine that is the American government might need some repairs after four years but it will keep revolving.

So now I’m stuck, having to introduce myself as a Canadian at least for a couple of months, while I decide what to do. Frankly, I’m not comfortable going back to a country that has Donald Trump as president, or a majority that would elect Donald Trump as president. I really wanted to consider going back to America. I’m going to see what happens in the next two months. It could depend if all the global markets compete against the dollar, or if the yen falls into another recession with the lot. It’ll depend on American living and increase in job potential. It might have to depend on what civil rights will be revoked.

Until then, I have the privilege to carry on, worrying about it a little less because I’m in one of the safest places on earth.

To sum it up, or at least to give a little bit of sunshine, I’d like to point to Stephen Colbert’s conclusion to his live show on Election Night. I insist you watch it all the way through. I think his feeling is the most accurate state of America. His rare candor through the whole segment inspires hope that no matter the turmoil of the past months the humanity beneath it all will still be able to laugh together…

Renew

A first impression of this post’s title might be misleading. I should start out by explaining this isn’t the type of renewal that you’ll see on the side of face creams, but instead more like the renew that you’ll inevitably do three times for the library book that you brought home on a whim and will return without ever reading. This renewal is about the start another trimester, the end of summer, and the second year of me being in Japan.

Summer vacation was a bit latent in August, but came on full force with the last week. There were moments in the morning where I realized I was just falling asleep, and moments at night when I wondered if I was just waking up; I saw plenty of fireworks, both in the air and out of my hand; I did my own workouts swimming in the outdoor community pool, and relaxed swimming out into the sea. There were few moments involving alcohol, except for those when I would drink wine and grill on my neighbor’s porch.

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The real take away came September 1st after missed connections home and a resignation to stay out of America for longer than a year was the new direction I needed to look towards. Mainly, whatever I would be doing after another year. I mean, I’m literally fourteen months and counting living outside of America without ever being back. This is the longest I’ve gone without contact home and sometimes it doesn’t seem more than a blink. Another blink past and I could be leaving this job and in the midst of an unknown.

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I think this feeling first came with the end of the summer seminar. It finished, and the next day I woke up wanting to go in and continue working on it. I suddenly had a ton of free time, but wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with it. The last time I’d really thought about the future seriously was applying for this current position. Re-contracting came pretty suddenly — without much thought, really, because I knew I was happy enough. But now after an entire year, I feel I’ve finally gone through the whole cycle, I know what’s coming and what to expect.

It really dawned on me after a morning conversation with Stefan, my roommate from college. He’s probably been working since I visited him last year in San Francisco on convincing me to move out there. It doesn’t help that I was already leaning towards the West Coast (Seattle), another friend of ours just moved out there, and most jobs that fit my professional aspirations exist there in some form. After an hour of talking, I kept thinking. My final destination was hardly certain to be San Francisco, but the horizon of the next step seems to approach at a dauntingly steady pace. I’m not quite settled on leaving my job come next year (I still have two months to decide), although, if that happens I don’t want July 2017 to come without any plan or destination.

So I’ve renewed my position. At the same time, everything has changed. The Sports and Culture festivals this year were not nearly as fun as last year and if anything bordered on nostalgic. They also seemed over in a flash. Teaching has been easier to manage, but at the same time I can quickly scrutinize the parts that are wickedly flawed or inefficient. It’s certainly more demanding because a lot more can be expected from me.

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After the summer respite I really began to look around at what to do next. Or at least try to figure out what I want to do next. I’m so torn between writing and design, and a mix of other things. I kept telling myself if Trump wins the presidency I would be able to narrow down the next step to places outside of the United States, but now it seems like all those options will (thankfully) still be in the mix. Add onto that my friends are currently spread out so far across not only America but even the globe, and I have no clue where I want to end up. Last month I ended up visiting Carmelo, who left the neighborhood for good and moved to Tokyo. I ended up having a fantastic time. I’ll end up writing about it soon, so I won’t go into detail, but Tokyo has ended up towards the top of my options for what’s next. I feel like I’ve started to invest a lot into this country and language that I can’t just give it up now.

At first glance of this post’s title I wonder if you thought it meant the type of renew you use to describe the smell after rain in April when spring flowers are finally blooming. I’m not entirely convinced it’s the type of automatic renewal of your Netflix subscription you never think about but still exists there on the credit card statement you never see because you do all your banking online. Maybe it’s more like the renewing $10 I give each month to Minnesota Public Radio. It’s not something I feel bad about doing, and I’ll definitely continue supporting the cause, but when I leave, the system won’t fall apart and I’ll still contribute to the connections every now and then.

I guess this is just a mid-millennial crisis way of pondering: what the hell am I doing with my life? For now I’m here, and I’m content, but an impermanence that has always been present is finally speaking up to ask: what next?

 

Overtime

If you’ve questioned my existence in the past couple of months, don’t worry, I’m right there with you. Truth is I’ve got a backlog of drafts to posts because I have been doing a decent amount of adventuring. On top of that, however, I’ve also been working. Really, at this point it’s hardly working and more like living. And although for the longest while it was mostly like riding a storm, I think there’s finally a rainbow in the sky.

For the past 19 days I’ve gone into work. It started on June 6, a Monday, but an unusual Monday because I actually technically had the day off. The previous Friday all the students had gone either Kyoto, Tokyo, or a campground for school trips (while me, my co-American, the secretary, and vice principal were stuck all day in the school’s teacher’s office), and since the trip would overlap into Saturday, we got the consecutive school day off. I thought I’d go in to work on the blank bulletin board outside our language room. I did actually pump out a couple of posters (grammar mistakes aside), but I also signed on for a much bigger project.

As part of my job requirement, during the summer I’m put into two English day camps. Last summer my experience with these were mixed, by the end of the day I was comfortably enjoying my time, but completely exhausted and not at all thrilled at spending half the day sweating in a humid gym full of teenagers. Turns out this summer there was even more to dislike. One of the English teachers at my school had been designated as director of this year’s camp, which handles the duty of going organizing materials and meetings. I suspect this is usually an easy process of distributing the materials from last year, tweaking the cover page, and the endless supply of typos. In fact, going over a binder that was passed down to me from the lead ALT from last year I found out that in the past 7 years nothing has changed. From the crappy WordArt text to the even worse and borderline racist/sexist clipart, it seems the only thing that had been shuffled around were some of the games for one of the workshop. So really, the collective of schools coming to this meeting each just had to approve this ancient text of DIY 90s design and be on our merry way.

However, there’s a flaw in this design because although the Japanese teachers a liable for the camp, they rely almost solely on the dozen or so ALTs to take charge of the groups, motivate the activities, and make the day a success. The fact that we ALTs are almost entirely not of Japanese culture and thus don’t accord to Japanese bureaucracy also means we don’t sit idly. As an American I tend to question everything, and as a person I’m typically the worst when it comes to agreeing with anything neutral. So, hardly flipping through the poorly contrasted pages of this mono-colored document I knew this year would be different. Even outside of the fact that I’m a control freak who doesn’t work well with others, this f-ing camp hasn’t been changed in SEVEN years! On top of that, each year there are pages of feedback precisely listed out for each moment of the camp. It’s like they looked at it, nodded a bit, and said whelp we’ve already got the material so no need to change it.

Now, I’ll take a breath and admit to being a bit crass. These camps are always extra work for teachers who are already working enough, and I can see the full reason why they would just want to get it over with. Especially since ALTs are typically not expected to do any work with the planning of the camp. But really to think that over the past decade no one has been capable to come up with some improvements or just try something new seemed like the perfect opportunity for me to step in. Here’s where I’m also really glad that I’m so chill with my English teachers. They don’t have a problem asking for my assistance or advice, or the way I want to be involved with the school just like every other teacher. So on that Monday afternoon when I was at school even though I didn’t need to be (with practically half the other teachers) and I turned to my neighboring English teacher poured over papers on his desk like he was filing taxes to ask “What’re you working on?” his short reply of “Oh, just the summer seminar.” got me wrapped up in this biz that I’ve only temporarily levied.

Usually I make it to at 7:15, not the first person but usually in the first crowd. I need this time to unwind. At the start of spring I actually was the first person to arrive, overestimating my biking time, and just hung out on the grounds watching the sunrise until someone else arrived and unlocked the doors. This behavior wasn’t planned entirely. I’d just slowly gotten in the habit at going to bed at 9 o’clock, and as a result left me waking up at 5 the next morning. Eventually I started naturally moving the time even earlier, and instead of being cooped in a small apartment decided I needed to just start the day. For a while I was running, until one time I went a mile into a run and got soaked in the heaviest torrent of biting rain I’d least expected. When I made it home three miles later I found my kitchen turned into a pool and my mattress was a sponge. I rushed to shut the windows and whipped out my space heater and recently acquired fan while draping bed-sheets and towels across desktops and counter-space.

I’d finally nailed the average of waking up, making scrambled eggs while listening to MPR/All Things Considered, showering and shaving, making a PBJ sandwich, dressing, and eating said sandwich, heading out the door, and arriving to school at just the right time. From there I’ll pull up three tabs on my computer: WaniKani for quick studying, Lifehacker for general well-being, and Bloomberg currency rates to see just exactly how much (until recently) I’ll suffer when I send money home. Then we have a morning chat for about twenty minutes.Each morning one class gets split into ten groups of three students to talk with me or my co-ALT. Usually it’s great, but it’s quite monotonous and if I’m unlucky the three minutes we talk will be a grueling roll of fishing for answers. Hopefully when the first bell rings, I’m not going to class, and if I am I only pray I don’t have class back to back. Any planned class activities or even periods are regularly changed which leaves me with a heap of last moment adjustments and worksheet creations. If my version of Microsoft Office wasn’t entirely in Japanese, I would be a pro by now.

At 3:30 there’s a bit of respite: fifteen minutes for mokudou, a traditional style of of the regular “cleaning time” ripped from zen monasteries where the students wipe down the floors and walls of school silently. It’s a brief relief since after that and a sort of cool down meeting they all zip off to their club activities and I gather with the track team outside the school. That practice usually lasts over two hours, yet we still only manage to run between 5 to 7 miles every day. I forgot how easy I used to have it with running. Our fastest guy can run a 4:30 1500m but most of them are struggling to break 5.

At least when it wasn’t June, now would be the time I go home. Actually, I’d rally a bit of studying in, mope around on Flipboard to figure out what global events I’ve missed out on, stop by the grocery store and then make it home around 7. Lately I’d gotten into watching Japanese anime (as “listening practice” for my upcoming test) while waiting for the next season of Mr. Robot to come out, but I’d also been trying to sit down and make sure I write for at least an hour each day. Well, that was before I signed on for this summer camp.

Every night for a week I stayed past 10 o’clock, and always left earlier than at least one of my co-workers. Then the following Saturday after an awesome start to the day with track practice — something I’ll write about later — I wound up staying at school until 11 o’clock. For the next week that became my new norm, but I didn’t exactly mind. I found out a lot more about some of my co-workers who’d go in and out throughout the night. A majority of nights someone brought in ice cream treats or snacks from the nearest conbini, and over such a span the workload became manageable. Except that was for me, the boy who started packing his dinners, got to exercise halfway through the day, and didn’t really have any responsibilities waiting at home. I figured I’d really be wasting my time watching TV shows anyway, so I might as well stay and be productive. Most of my co-workers, though, have lives. This is especially true of the English teacher leading the seminar (the same free spirit that took me surfing in January). He has two young boys at home and can hardly get the chance to see them before they go to bed at night any given week day. Apart from last Tuesday, the final marathon where we both were the last to leave a few minutes after midnight, I’ve never seen him leave school before me. That is the aforementioned bureaucracy I’m trying to combat. The mindset of overworking is embedded in almost all job I’ve come across in Japan, but that is especially true of Junior High School teachers. They act like surrogate parents, but to the extreme that they are more responsible for a lot of things the students do. So they stay at school and work because working from home is still a milestone many parts in Japan have yet to reach. It’s actually such a problem that the prime minister is rapidly working to change the culture. My guess is he hopes if more people can go home early then maybe more people will start having babies and solve the current population conundrum between the generations.

But, it’s really easy to fall into. Without really meaning to I just fell into the system. I’ve had Rhinna’s “Work” running through my head for the past week, and it’s sort of a sadistic meditation. I was averaging 12 hour days, seven days a week and thinking that finally I would make a permanent change.

And then we had a meeting for the summer seminar.

As I mentioned, it’s rare that ALTs have any part in the planning of the seminar and so showing up to the meeting was probably an uncomfortable surprise for the other teachers. I remember in high school and college hearing the foreign language teachers talk together in non-English while going down the halls and thinking how awesome they were. Here those instances are fewer. Of course, whenever one of the ALTs are around at my school all the teachers are well equipped to discuss in English, but I feel like the majority default to Japanese. So the meeting went, with awkward exchanges as some of the teachers tried to encourage the use of only English, and other stuck strictly to Japanese. I get how intimidating it can be to sit in a room with an official meeting of important things surrounded by your peers who can immediately judge your skill by comparing it to their own, but both me and the other ALT at my school (both far below the level of Japanese used here) were present so the lack of any effort was a bit annoying.

Even more annoying was the inevitable fact that I didn’t want to back down from any of my ideas. I was extremely dismayed and bolstered at the shudder that went through the meeting room at the mention of change. Sure, I was biased toward my ideas, but some of the members were also biased against them. The part of the camp I was most critical towards was a moment were the students “travel the globe” and learn about other cultures. On the surface it’s not the worst idea, except this year 7.5 of the eight ALTs who can help with preparation are white Americans (myself included), while the remaining Jamaican — upon finding out she’d have to talk about her country’s culture — replied, “Oh, please don’t make me do that.” So the deepest concern is accurate representation. Especially from the current climate of American cultural politics ethnic stereotypes are something to avoid at all cost. When you combine that with a group of people who freely left their country for more than a year and add in the already abstruse diversity of American culture it’s really hard to figure out where to start.

In the end, the duel was worth more than the victory. I learned a lot about forming a compromise, how I could’ve approached my ideas more effectively, and accepting that maybe my ideas weren’t all that anyway. We did end up changing all the games to well rounded activities that focus on spontaneous uses of English in a group dynamic, and gave the student more freedom in creatively forming original ideas for a skit at the end. The cultural aspect remains, but I’ve given into an over-representation of part of my heritage can still be done respectably. I still have doubts about if teenagers from a country who’s 98.5% homogenized ethnicity can really grasp the fact that I’m Irish-Swedish-African-Native-American-and-some-big-unknown, but it helps that my area has a decent minority of Brazilian and Asian immigrants and even a few random ex-pats from Her Majesty’s colonies. If I really wanted to get into I’d point out how even that raises a problem because so often assumptions are made towards any given class of students as being entirely Japanese (like, “Let’s find out about another country’s culture.”), which even further alienates the ethnically mixed Filipino and Thai students in the bunch.

That meeting was the straw. Over the next week I amended the changes being made and my co-American ALT (who’d been gone over the weekends to meet her friends visiting from America) finally snapped me back to reality with a poignant, “Go home, man.” It was a bit of fun taking on the role of a true Japanese salariman, but also deeply disturbing that a significant portion of people live that way. Sure, I don’t really have any responsibilities in my life apart from work, but I certainly have better things to do.


So, with that I’m back. At least for now. I do have a couple of posts just waiting to be updated, and in the next couple of days I’m being visited by a friend from America and taking my first vacation days in order to show him around Kyoto and Osaka. If you’ll remember I foolishly let my camera get stolen which is why lately the posts are lacking in photos, but I’ll make a point of snapping some memories from now on. You still have yet to see my new haircut. Also I moved. Come to think of it, a lot has happened before I started this working streak. Look forward to it.

Mac

www.halfwayanywhere.com

All the way back in the late fall you may remember me following a whim and taking an incredible weekend to hike and camp with a master. That was a highlight, but throughout my time here I’ve really come to count on two veterans, Mac and Carmelo, to help me pass some of the unbearable moments of living in rural Japan. Usually it was just an evening for beers and conversation, sometimes it’d include Karaoke, and even the occasional bowling-izakaya-all out party. If I needed to know something: “Do I really need to wear dress shoes to this ceremony?” “Is the bonenkai worth the price?” “How should I spend my winter vacation?” “Would a snowboard be a good investment?” Tyler was always the one with the correct answer. As I recently just messaged him about which type of camping supplies I’d need for weekend hikes in the summer, he still is a pretty good standard for advice. The only unfortunate thing is he now lives in Australia. Well, unfortunate only for me and anyone who lives within a 50 km radius of Fukui.

It seems after hiking to the top of the nearest and furthest peaks in Japan, the ultimate in between of monotonous grading and demeaning lesson planning finally became enough. Again it makes me thankful for having another ALT at my school, and  six fantastic and competent teachers to work with. Not everyone is so lucky. After venturing to Everest base camp for the second time over winter vacation Mac announced he’d be moving on to the next great thing.

Apart from a small tribute, I wanted to recognize that this is the first in presumably many departures that I’ll have to get used to. Come the end of the school year a month from now all the third years will graduate to high school, as well as the mystery of which teachers will switch schools. See around here (and I think most all of Japan) the teachers are bound to the local board of education and can be shuffled around any given year to other schools in the district often without notice. It’d be like a junior high school teacher working for an American county, but then add in all the elementary schools as well. Thankfully the likelihood that any of my teachers leave is low, but six is still a lot for this school.

From there three months will pass and then a bigger mixture of ALTs will leave. From the eleven foreigners who live by me,  at least five will move out. Honestly I haven’t thought like this since I was back in high school, paying attention to school years. Mac has started the inevitable impermanence we must face while being part of the JET program.

For me, Mac was a great rally cry to turn toward whenever the man (in this case multiple agencies) got me down. He really worked as a foundation for the community I’d developed, so it’s tough to see him leave.

I remember when I left New York one of my roommates who was a poetry professor explained it like this, “every semester you get new students, and every year you say goodbye. There’s nothing you can do to stop it, but sometimes you recognize them on the L train and they say ‘hello’ and it’s just something you get used to.”

It’s funny cuz this is a short guy with a beard and rock climbing fix, who biked across Manhattan back to Brooklyn on the hottest day of the summer to pick up an acoustic guitar, he would sing folk songs all throughout the day and discuss Cormac McCarthy at night, he was vegan by default of our other roommate, and took in the feral cat that his ex-girlfriend left with him.

For a lot of reasons Mac has the same vibe, and will be the spirit I’ll try to imbue as I continue the often mundane life I’m living. I’m already considering taking his bigger apartment in order to host people more often, and scouring the net for any references to hiking in Japan (of which Mac has already written some of the best). I’m already dreading the time that Carmelo leaves, but I’m also working to be the adventure I want to have in my life. Off of Mac’s model I’ve written out a list of things for me to accomplish in the coming seasons and years. Hoping they’ll continue to keep me from mindlessly bingeing on Netflix and Imgur, and become a little more self reliant.


If you didn’t check the link at the top here’s your second chance:  www.halfwayanywhere.com . Mac’s got a really neat website that I highly reccommend. Also if you’re planning on buying any outdoor gear he’s got plenty of deals, and if you use his links you’ll also be helping him when you check out.

Debt

Fresh off the indulgent heels of the New Year vacation, my post paycheck raid of Costco, and endeavors in Nagoya, I started to notice a big trend in the way I was spending money. Particularly the way I was spending too much of it. With a week left until paycheck all my good times had worn thin, and the budget I’d put in place was stretching beyond limits. After months of living paycheck to paycheck, I realized I finally needed to put into action some sort of plan to become financially free.

Last year I’d used a handy online service called Mint to keep track of my purchases. At the time it wasn’t really too difficult — half my paycheck went to rent while the other half went to student loans — but it was still nice to check-in and see how much negative my net worth could be on any given day. My post graduation stint in New York had stacked my credit cards to their limit which I barely managed to reign in after 0% credit card transfers and a plump tax return. When I came to Japan my credit cards (thankfully I only have two) were back to being maxed out as I had to pay for move in fees, furniture, and food, and wait it out until the first month’s paycheck. I stopped using Mint entirely because I had no idea what to budget and the yen was especially weak against the dollar. Unfortunately, Mint has yet to enable foreign currency, and since I was still paying student loans I was using both the yen and the dollar.

I got pretty good at handwriting my expenses on scraps of paper in my free time. They would include the easy essential like rent and utilities, but then the difficult questions popped up like, how much money should I send home? and, what are the chances that I go to a big city for a weekend? As one is want to do around New Years, I decided it was a good enough time to revive smart habits and keep track of my spending. In this case, I literally mean every cent I get and spend. It’s pretty easy to do because there’s also a cell phone app I can use. Before everything would plug into my debit/credit card accounts and automatically get marked in my budget. Now I have to consciously plug in each time I spend money: on food, bills, clothes, games. I use a 1:1 ratio for yen to dollars which also means that I’m technically saving money while all my trends seems more expensive, too.

february budget

By Valentine’s Day I was broke and finally coming down with the unavoidable cold that had stricken at least half my students. Stuck inside on the still cold weekends (a wet and rainy winter) straining my stock of groceries with dinners of rice and whatever canned goods I could find, I found a sort of resolute second wind to analyze my future even deeper. When it came down to figuring what I wanted to do — after having contracted for another year, meaning I’ll be in Japan until summer 2017 — the more pressing question seemed to be how I would be able to do it.

When I left St. Olaf, and before I really went, I had no clue what money has to do with anything. My family (including the many friends of my family) has always taken care of me, and there was no limit to supporting the things I wanted to do. With it was the facade that none of my eccentric interests from nordic skiing to running camps, volunteering with church, and gallivanting internationally with a youth choir  or study abroad programs came with any difficulty. Even the federal loans in my name that had been taken out for me for school went untouched all for years of school. I had no clue that when I got my first job outside of my work study that I should be saving for the future. And even when my college roommates mentioned it’d probably be a good idea, I still had no knowledge of the real price I was paying for tuition, or the fact that I could’ve started paying off my loans before I graduated. I should say that I think St. Olaf has made substantial improvements to increasing student awareness of post-grad life and employment opportunities, but for me, who was already a it stubborn and naive, it was three years too late. At the end of my senior year I had a brief session where my loan paperwork was put into a file and the dates of repayment were explained to me, but even that I couldn’t make heads or tails of. Instead, I connected my bank accounts, automated my payments (which would start six months after graduating, or January 2016), and set everything aside.

Until now, that is.

over time network

Many of my friends were lucky enough to graduate without debt, and I often become envious when talking with them. With only $40,000 in loans even I can’t fret too much, but it’s still at least $500 out of the bank each month. When calculating the interest by meeting just the minimum payments I was looking at paying $10,000 more than what I’d taken out. Even divided over a decade, a thousand dollars a year that I could instead save and put elsewhere didn’t seem nearly worth it. What about my emergency fund, inevitable housing down-payments, that thing they call a 401k?

So, the first big questions are answered: How much do I owe? How much will I pay? and when will I have to pay it?

The next questions were the real challenges: When do I want to be debt free? How much money can I afford to budget? What’s the snowball method everyone talks about?

The ideal date, of course, would be before I leave Japan. I feel there’s no use in saying as soon as possible because that has no tangential goal to it. Although, with the plan of only staying twenty four months in this country, and already being through six of them getting rid of all my debt which well over a year’s worth of salary even before taxes will probably be unlikely. So instead I’ve set an arbitrary five years as an absolute, with the formal plan being three years from now. I still want to live comfortably, but within my means. I’ve discovered that creating sound financial habits seems to be a better goal than constantly wiping away debt only to watch it grow again.

With that said, there’s the extremely meticulous task of figuring out how much money I can throw at my pile of debt an when I’ll be doing it. Since I’ve been here I’ve been focusing on getting rid of the credit card debt I racked up in the past months. It’s finally at its last couple hundred which means by next paycheck I’ll toss in the amount in my savings and unshackle that chain. Except if you remember I have two credit cards. While the one with the most expense on it is currently at 0% APR it also had double the amount of the other, remnants from New York, my junior year of college, or even the first time I’d gone to Japan. The fact is ever since I’ve had it, it’s always had a charge on it. This was definitely the mountain I’d been chipping away at.

As I mentioned before, I really had no clue what to do about money. A big reason for that is still letting my mom work as my health insurance and tax advisor, but those also come with the perks of taking care of my co-pay and getting an early tax refund. Such is the case for next month as my taxes have already been filed. There is so much that I fantasize using that money for: camping gear, a Playstation 4, even getting a car or at least upgrading my bike. However, now is the time for self control. I’ve looked at my debt as a game, and I definitely plan to win. My tax return can almost single-handedly take care of my last credit card, so it’s going towards nothing else.

Getting rid of credit card debt also means I could put the almost two hundred bucks I was spending every month, to the bigger behemoth of student loan debt. So, $200 added to the $500 seemed good enough, but there are still plenty of factors to consider. Every month of living in Japan has been a bit of a puzzle because of the exchange rate. When I first landed the yen was up to $1.22 to the dollar. That meant I lost more than a fifth of what I sent home. Thus the dilemma: should I send money home at a constant rate, or should I save over here and wait for the yen to get more even? The correct question is the latter, as the yen is finally dipping towards the $1.10 mark. But even then, can I trust my habits yet to conserve any surplus of money I’m hanging on to? At this point I’ve settled on sending the Japanese equivalent of $1000 home. It’s rough and arbitrary, and maybe once I see how all this planning unwinds I can reassess it, but for now I like the safety of knowing  I’ll have a meager cushion in my American bank account and an even point to work with over here.

monthly trend

Reaching the final stretch of financial figures — or at least my horizon line — the ultimate question was which loan to pay of first. I’ve got a private loan from St. Olaf that is the most expensive individual one (9%), a loan from Discover for when I studied in New York (8.5%), a federal loan through St. Olaf that I pay off quarterly (5%), and then an accumulation of federal loans that were distributed each semester equaling half of my total (avg. 4.4%). I’ll spoil it here and tell you that I’m paying them off in that order, but it was a decision with some thought. Economically it’s the best decision to pay off the loan with the highest interest because that results in the lowest overall interest cost. However, there was plenty of research to persuade me to take on the “snowball method” of paying off a small loan first. The idea is with the elimination of any debt no matter how small you become more motivated to stay on track. Except, in my case, I would already be clearing my credit cards which was already a sort of snowball in itself. Instead, I took the “stacking method” without the worry of self control or necessary motivation.

It certainly is slow progress, but it seems everyday I read some new article about personal finance, login to my Mint account, or draw up another budget for the next month which inspires me to continue the debt-free path. Especially as I turn toward considering what I could and want to do when I leave Japan, not having to worry about student loans keeps my options open. A scary part about living here is knowing that the salary is limited. Maybe I can be an artist in the future, but will have to take on unpaid internships, or consider myself a freelance writer without a steady income, and probably likely I’ll wind up in another city with absurd costs of living. Now I’m relatively safe (far from the reaches of Donald Trump’s presidency) and while I’m safe I might have to do the safe thing.

You hear a lot about the student debt crisis, and I definitely don’t think enough is being done through the government to regulate it. How can we expect higher education to be a necessity in entry level jobs without providing students the means to survive while having that entry level salary. I’m certainly glad and shaped by my experience at St. Olaf, but I applied to college as this issue was burgeoning across mainstream media. I guarantee my choices would’ve differed had I been smart enough to figure out the true cost of college.

Gavin asked me while we were discussing this at lunch the other day, “Wouldn’t you rather use that money to have fun now?”

Yes, of course I would, but I used to always think, what if I die tomorrow? All that saving would be for nothing. Although I still like to apply that thought to many aspects in my life (writing, travel, friendships), money is one where it can’t apply. With money I have to think, what if I don’t die tomorrow? As much as I don’t want to face the fact that I’m growing older the fact remain that I will eventually turn thirty. By then there are plenty of things I’ll want to finance, least of all being student debt.

Magic

Only a small amount of people who know me (mostly those who’ve lived with me) will know one of my nerdiest and strongest interests. Indeed even when I subtly tell people that  one of my hobbies includes Magic, they often only think of it as the Penn & Teller version that junior high school boys get into one summer and then hopefully give up in pursuit of sports or even theater. Alas, my Magic is much more functional, geeky, addicting, and always concluded with “: The Gathering.”

After an early departure from President, archaeologist, and astronaut — goals which even at the age of five I could tell were not as fun in real life as in the movies — there have only been a few futures that I’ve really ever been passionate about in my life. Sitting right between writer and artist, somewhere before lottery winner and globetrotter, comes the dream job title “Professional Card Player.” It’s not too hard to imagine where this would come from. Before I learned to count in school I was playing card games like war with my Grandma. From there it graduated to complexities like Canasta and somewhere around Junior High my Dad taught me the ins and outs of poker. After solving a Rubik’s cube while waiting between races at track meets, Kelson and I quickly went to conquering counting cards in Blackjack with eighteenth birthdays looming.

All the while my generation grew up on Pokemon, with a slew of cards to collect and a somewhat functional gameplay I’d try to figure out with the other boy who lived in the apartment above me. When I finally moved in elementary school I met another neighbor who turned me to my first otaku habit: the Saturday morning cartoon show and card game imported from Japan known as Yu-Gi-Oh! Really it was more like the Pokemon for teenagers and I became engrossed. My past times included waking up early on Saturday mornings to catch the latest episodes; delving over all my cards and makings lists of decks; walking the block to my local game store to play on Friday nights (ironically next to all the MTG players); forcing Mom to get me the PS2 and Gameboy spin-offs; not to mention towards the end writing my own fan-fiction that poised me as a finalist in the Battle City Tournament. If you haven’t looked it up yet, the Japanese word otaku is almost always synonymous with obsessed, and recalling it now it’s really unbelievable how much of a passion it can still stir up in me. Ah, the good ol’ days.

Upon entering the hurricane that is High School, however, those hobbies got replaced — or oppressed — as I focused on all the new things a burgeoning hipster has to discover. Occasionally I’d sort through my Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh! (and Harry Potter) cards, I’d even briefly learned the basics of Magic with Kelson (using a starter deck Dad had bought me and X back in 2000), but really my overall appetite for the game became subdued. Although I should probably mention for the last two years of high school I got decent into WoW becoming a pretty heavy player over the summers, so maybe I only replaced the physical of strategy with a virtual one.

Then college happened and my MMORPG time was limited. I met a guy we called “Lucious” who ran for Olaf who shared my enthusiasm (at the least) and basically became my instructor for the intricacies of rules and gameplay. It was a lot easier to find time to talk about the game when you’re on an hour long run. Then an app came out for the iPad which made it easy to play, as well as an increase of material on their website and Youtube channel. What originally served as a distraction from homework has turned into a way to stay connected and social after college. When I was in New York with hardly any friends not named Kath, I was able to go to an awesome game store for some FNM where they even started to recognize me by name.

It’s quite popular in Japan, but I never really sought it out because the language difference. Instead I still find it easier and more convenient to play online (I focus solely on limited formats anyway), although, that still didn’t stop me for signing up for a huge tournament for February in Nagoya way back in December. I figured it was a good way to get me (who dislikes travelling alone) to go out an travel alone. When Gavin, who himself had sought out the Fukui MTG community, brought me to a pre-release tournament with a little over a dozen people at our local shopping mall — all in Japanese — I took it as a sign I was ready for the big leagues. You see, the biggest problem would be understanding the rules. Since everything is in Japanese, and there are over 200 cards in the set, I basically had to memorize the art from each card and then remember which rules and effects applied to them. Really when you’ve played through a new set each year, it’s not hard to follow intuition, but with each set comes a new group of mechanics which can sometimes throw you off balance.

Alright, the adventure begins:

I signed up for the event in late December, even though I’d been considering it since before the fall. That gave me well over a month to make of some sort. Since in half a year I hadn’t drifted very far from Fukui, I’d never been to Nagoya let alone really knew it’s relative location. My former roommate Yasushi had always said he’d lived close to Nagoya, but I couldn’t remember, did he mean the city or the prefecture? I was a little lacking on the details, so assuredly I’d reach out to the JET community and find someone to stay with, probably someone else who’d be going to the event, too. That’s what I thought, at least, and unfortunately anyone who knows me knows that I’m a class S procrastinator. The week of the tournament approached and livin’ on a pray I just decided to wing it like most things. Remember only the weekend before I’d gone to Costco and stretched my budget a little bit more than I’d wanted. A hotel was certainly out of the question, but a capsule was something to look forward to. A lot of this trip hearkens to my experience in Tokyo last September, so I figured if I could do it there than Nagoya would be a piece of cake.

Luckily enough, about two days before the day I was planning to leave by God only knows what kind of transportation, I got a message from Gavin connecting me to one of the guys who runs most of the the local Magic events. Through my elementary Japanese and broken English we figured a way to meet and car pool with another local to Nagoya. About the same time my last minute pleas to various couch surfers were finally answered and it seemed like I had a place to stay.

The rain as we left on Friday night had been pouring for hours. It seemed like a perilous plan to make the two hour drive with limited view in a kei car, but then again our other options were naught. For an hour we drove smoothly making a merciful attempt at awkward conversation, or otherwise cruising in silence. He had switched off a playlist of what I thought was hardcore videogame music (think Castlevania), probably out of assumed embarrassment. We picked up our third companion and he drove the rest of the way. During that point I was only glad to be in the back seat, trying to ignore the speeds that he was flying at. We stopped briefly for dinner, but were still a bit lost on time. All the while I messaged my host giving him estimates that kept creeping later. When we finally made the outskirts of the city we detoured from a huge traffic jam, adding some more time.

With the map on my phone we slid down side roads, a bit turned around, until finally I decided I’d be able to find the place. They dropped me off, and I waved goodbye glancing up at the stories of apartment buildings surrounding me. As I closed in on the pin I messaged my host hoping I had the right place. Thankfully the rain had stopped in the city, so I loitered a moment at the bottom of some buildings until one of the various doors opened to a lighted hallway.

“Hey, Dillon?” a fluently English voice called out.

My eyes adjusted to see my unexpected host as we went into the elevator. I don’t think he’d mind me posting, but I’ll just say from his profile name alone I could tell two things: he was Japanese, and he wasn’t. That fact was reaffirmed as soon as we began talking. He was shorter than I expected (though, I should really just readjust my expectations in this country), with sleek black curls on his head that reminded me of my older brother. His skin is a light shade of cream like everyone else during the winter, but among his features I can see what’s characterized as Japanese and what isn’t.

“I’m sorry, am I pronouncing that right: Dil-lin? Dee-lon?”

“Don’t worry, even I get it wrong sometimes. But you’re gonna have to help me with your name.”

“Well,” he pronounced his name, “but you can just call me Vyn.”

I was happy to see his apartment wasn’t too larger than mine, just a bit more modern. If I’m living in the country and I can’t even boast about how much space I have, at least I get be proud about how freaking fortuitous my subsidized rent is, right?”

“Yeah, I pay a decent amount for this place, but I used to have a roommate who left about three months ago, and thankfully the landlord just hasn’t charged me differently.”

He opened a door that could’ve led to a closet and showed me my new room for the night.

“So now I’ve just been using it for friends and to host couch surfers. Usually I have to tell people how to use the air conditioning and lights, but I guess you already known how to do that.”

It was probably the same size as my room, with just a cheap bed, blankets and pillows.

“And the place looks a little weird right now because I’m actually moving out tomorrow, which is why you can’t stay on tomorrow night.”

Right, he’d mentioned something like that before. This last moment savior seemed more like another twist of fate to introduce me to another world’s version of myself (Gavin being the former). At first I didn’t understand what he meant by “a little weird” because it looked pretty normal to me: shelves of books, and kitchenware, and shampoo. Except I’ve moved from tiny room to tiny room more than a couple time the past years, and it dawned on me that he was seeing what tomorrow would bring: how to carry the bookshelf with the books still in it; stack the plates so the forks will fill the between; and mix the shampoo with the videogame controllers. He was super accommodating, ready to let me do my own thing and call it a night, but from what bits I’d already found out about him I had to ask, “Mind if I stay up and talk a bit?”

After confessing my commitment to Magic as the reason I’d be leaving so early in the morning, he spit out a slew of nerdom mostly in the form of videogames to even the playing field. I found out he was from the prefecture, but one side of his family had Brazilian heritage. Being that a large population of my town  consists of Brazilian immigrants, I asked how it was for him growing up as hafu looking for some insight on how my students might feel. Also a bit of a coincidence that we could compare my experience being racially diverse in American school systems. It was easy to understand how he knew bother Japanese and Portuguese languages, but the English was still a mystery.

“Well, I learned it in school.” Yeah, my purpose of being here, but also none of my students learn to speak so fluently. “And then I also watched a lot of American TV shows.” Some of which I watched, but he was way more versed in prime time television.

He’d moved to the city first to go to college in computer science (he’d graduated about the same time as I) and was moving again because of a job. In the interim he’d be going to Amsterdam, to do enjoy what Amsterdam has to offer, and was planning to leave the following Tuesday.

“Yeah, I’m not really Japanese,” he said with a laugh.

I’ve heard this from a number of Japanese people, but none with more candor. After breaching midnight, figuring the long day ahead of me, and the amount of packing he may or may not have spent all night doing, I decided to call it a night.


I really wasn’t expecting to say so much in this post but to keep things concise I think I’ll call it there. After all, most of the magic from the weekend actually happened in getting there, and the tumult that follows will probably be an equally long story.

 

Elementary

Look, whatever follows, I’m not saying I don’t like little kids, I’m fine with taking care of them, they’re super cute and imaginative, but I will never again want to educate them, and I hardly think I can manage to believe they’re all anything but demons in disguise.

After meeting with a teacher from one of the two elementary schools I would visit in the coming week, I woke up around 5 o’clock to get a jump start on the day and make sure any final lesson plans I had were taken care of. I’m not exactly sure when we said to meet, some point around 9:45 I’m sure, which would normally mean I get to sleep in a little. Without having car, though, I didn’t want to risk underestimating the amount of time it would take to make the 5km walk to the school. So naturally I left before nine o’clock bag packed with scissors paper and crayons.

Early would underestimate how quickly I got there, and even though punctuality in Japan is stereotyped towards the ten minute beforehand  arrival, this was awkwardly coming in at over thirty minutes. The teacher I’d previously met greeted me at the door and brought me in and showed me to an empty desk in the teacher’s room. I felt pretty proud of myself for figuring out to introduce myself to the vice principal who then in turn showed me to the principal’s office, a stoic man who was a bit more intimidating than my vice principal which is like comparing Jack Nicholson to Robert Deniro.

Then I got to work cutting out the remaining props for my plan. They were to provide me with an oversized version of Eric Carle’s Brown Bear, Brown Bear. It’s kind of creepy to see my education finally come full circle where that book was being used back when I was in kindergarten and now I’m teaching it to kindergarteners.

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They weren’t much, but I must say (off the tail of my Batman outfit) that they’re little you can’t do with a couple of crafts from the dollar store. Finally the bell rang, the door to the teacher’s room opened and what can only be described as the most adorable interaction I’ve had thus far in Japan commenced.

Imagine yourself for a moment being six years old again. Probably hard to do, I was even struggling after today, but just think about how little you know about the world, how fun and exciting each experience is, the longing and jealousy to just be older like everyone else. Then, imagine you’re in a homogenized society where virtually everything you see conforms to a single cultural lifestyle (plus or minus a few) so that anything that is ever out of place is magnified disproportionately. OK, so you’ve got that situation, and you’ve got this tall (ginormous by their standards) (handsome) opposite skin color guy who doesn’t speak your language, and you’ve been commanded to fetch him from the teacher’s room and bring him to your classroom. Remember, you’re six so your grasp of anything let alone the language you speak is just barely becoming functional.

Thus I was put, as three kids waddled in through the aisle between the desk wearing their red track suits (gym uniforms) and boshi (caps) practically sucking their thumbs and stopping in front of my desk staring at the ground. The teacher accompanying them flapped her hands and whispered in broken English, “Please come with us.”

They rocked back and forth and then together in a squeaky accordion call repeated, “Please, com-mu, withsu, us.”

And then I stood up, and realized that if I wasn’t careful I would trample them. They barely made it past my knee.

Once we got out in the hall, their territory, they livened up a bit. One girl grabbed onto my pant leg while a boy instantly put his hand between mine. The questions were equally as flurried but I found them easy to answer. Finally a group of students on my level of Japanese. I made it to the classroom without stepping on anyone and my guts still in tact.

I guess now’s as good as anytime to mention that this first class I was teaching was special education. I had been told this beforehand, but really didn’t have much to compare it to apart from my own junior high school’s group of ten students. Really, it was nothing like what I expected. Along with the teacher who came with the students, five other teachers were in the room to greet me with a horseshoe of desks with a dozen students. That was almost one teacher for every two students! Seemed like incredible resources and certainly made the class more fun. I started by asking each student their name, and had them ask me questions. Pretty fun, pretty simple, and almost all of them were involved. Then we went over the characters of the book–going through names and colors. I read through it once, and then had them (attempt) at repeating me and take turns at guessing which character would be on the next page.

I realized about halfway that I had know clue how long the class period would go, and so while I stalled for time at the end I pulled out the always (but hardly) faithful “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.” I don’t remember it being so simple, and really it’s a terrible song to captivate little kids for any amount of time. Or maybe it’s not, but I just felt like after three times, and then going slow and going fast, no time had passed at all and I was still on the clock for their attention. Luckily just as I stumbled for time, the bell rang, and they all jumped up to carry me back to the teacher’s room.

And that’s where the highlights of the day end.

I mean, not really, at least, at the time I didn’t feel that way.

So, I’m back in the teacher’s room where I started, and the bell rings, and another group of students slink into the teacher’s room and bashfully warm up to me as we walk to the next classroom. Only this time I enter a classroom with one teacher, who doesn’t speak English, and about thirty more of these shrilling minions.

I read somewhere online that kids are just tiny drunk adults, and that’s never been more clear to me before today.

Really, it’s more like their classroom was a rock show and I was Def Leppard. Probably even worse than fans at a Def Leppard concert, maybe Poison is more accurate.

I walked in to a literal rush of screams as the tiny devils leaned over their miniature desks with mouths blaring and eyes squinting together. Once I calmed them down the first time, anything I did or picture I showed would incite the squeals again like the tsunami after an earthquake. It got to the point where I looked down at one girl who was plugging her ears, while the girl behind her screaming full force also plugged her eyes then continued to scream louder. An hour of that happened, and I ran out of time again resorting to playful songs and handshakes. At least this time I took more questions and was able to understand and functionally answer in Japanese.

The time passes eventually, and I wind up with another ten minute break before I have to prep myself to do it all over again. The second time was with third graders and a bit more manageable. I made it through my introduction slideshow with my ears ringing, answered most of their questions successfully, and made it to the end of reading “Teacher, teacher what do you see?” just as the bell rang. So, overall not too bad. But now it was lunch time. And I was so confused.

A couple of students rushed out the classroom to come back donned in the most typical outfit of a white apron jacket and chef hat. The rest of the students either organized a table at the back of class or moved their desks together to form small groups. So, I supposed I had to find my place to sit. One of the boys waved me over to a open desk by the window, so when everyone was being directed to take their turns and get in line at the main prepped table, I decided to go and sit over there. Not exactly a perfect fit when a guy over six feet tall tries to cram into a desk chair made for pint sized devils. My back ended up bucked against the window, and there was little way I would’ve been able to chopstick my food to my mouth sitting parallel to the desk. Instead, I grabbed a chair and sat between the group of desks next to the little brother of one of my first years who is on the track team.

Anyone with experience with kids, puppies, or drunk adults will probably already understand why that was a terrible idea, and it wasn’t long before I looked back at the group of desks I’d left to see the defeated face and bubbling eyes of the boy I just left. Of course, as time goes on those bubbles bubble over his eyelids to be a steady stream of abandonment and betrayal and I was faced with the fact that out of many of the potential stumbles I made that day, the worst came unexpectedly and within the last half hour.

After lunch I tried reassuring the kid that it was not in fact him that made me move, I signed his textbook, I drew him a picture, I played with him at recess. Ever time the essence of a smile would creep up on his lips, though, his eyebrows would furrow and I’d be shut down. Oh well, win some lose some.

I did have one of the best moments of my time living here so far when the lunch bell rang and the students were getting ready to go out to the play ground and one of the students tugged on my hand and ask, “Ani, will you come and play with us?” using the Japanese term for older brother and in the cutest voice you could imagine a little kid using.

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So, they’re not all bad, but definitely not enough to get me to ever want to do it again.



Update: So, as it turns out it’s was only a week later that I had to go to another elementary school. This time it was with fifth and sixth graders so they’re energy was a bit more controlled and they were definitely used to being in the classroom. I made sure to have extra small games and activities in case I ran over time, but it never happened and their English was actually pretty impressive compared to my junior high first years. Most importantly I didn’t make anyone cry, but I did have to assist when during recess a kid got blasted with a soccer ball to the face. Seems like these visits will be a once or twice a semester thing, so I can only hope the next one takes its time…