In a place that perhaps you’ve seen in your dreams
The other day, I went by the Asian supermarket in West Edmonton Mall and I treated myself to a bottle of melon soda. I got hooked on this stuff when I was in Japan. It’s a soft drink, a deep green in colour, and it tastes like a honeydew melon. Or a cantaloupe. A melon of some kind, hence the name. I cracked open the bottle and took a whiff. Perhaps what I’ve missed the most was the smell. It smells sticky-sweet, but in an artificial way. It smells smooth and plastic. The odour brings to mind a strange mixture of chemicals that no one in their right mind would take into their body. But it is a sweet scent nonetheless, one that simply demands you drink it. And that’s exactly what I did, and the flavour brought back a flood of memories of hanging out with my coworkers after work in a Kumagaya Italian restaurant.
Though I try, I keep forgetting
I constantly seem to notice that that Japan is the different-culture-fad right now. Saturday morning line-ups are filled with Japanese cartoons, and we’ve reached the point where they don’t even bother giving the characters English names. About every week, I’m finding another article in the paper trying to analyze the culture of Japan; especially it’s pop culture. Getting tattoos of Japanese characters hasn’t reduced in popularity any. And it’s this filtering in of Japanese culture into pop culture that troubles me somewhat. I see the tattoos, I read the newspaper articles, and I can’t help but think, “This is not the Japan I remember.”
In their enthusiastic cloud
Granted, my experience as an English teacher was much different from the average person who does it. The average person will spend several months before leaving attempting to master the language, and then, upon arrival, do whatever they can to assimilate into the culture. They try their hardest to become Japanese. But I didn’t do that. I thought of what I was doing in Japan as just another job. My parents lament that I still haven’t told enough of my experiences in Japan. But what’s to tell? I got up every morning, went to work, did my job, then went home. I spent my weekends just hanging around town and getting into mischief, or heading into the city to foolishly blow my paycheque. A friend once asked me why I wasn’t working to assimilate into the culture. “Do you really want to feel like an outsider for your whole time here?” he asked. I responded by telling him that, as a friendless nerd for most of my life, I’ve always felt like an outsider, so I failed to see how going to another country should change things.
There’s something very wrong.
I guess what irks me the most about all the articles trying to explain Japan to the average Canadian has to be the little facts that they always miss. Like the fact that it rains. A lot. Especially in the rainy season. Or that, yeah, the bullet trains are fast and comfy, but they’re freaking expensive. Every time I read an article explaining how the cartoons are all so mature and meant for an adult audience, I always laugh uncontrollably. No matter how many times you tell me that, I always go back to a student of mine. We were talking about Japanese cartoons and she turned to me and said, “You do know that it’s all meant for kids, right?” It’s all meant for kids. Keep that in the back of your mind next time one of your nerd friends who’s never left the country goes on a rant about the brilliance of Sailor Moon.
My hopes, my dreams, my fantasies
Or perhaps it’s because reading these articles brings up a lot of unpleasant memories. People are always surprised when I tell them that going to Japan was one of the biggest mistakes I’ve made in my life. I came back having made a lot more enemies than friends, and that’s always a sign that you did something very, very wrong.
An emptiness began to grow
It all stems from how I ended up in Japan. I never wanted to go. I had no interest in going. It was a belief that caused a rift between me and a friend who chose to go right out of university. Well, the rift started because, when I was bitching about how my life was going no where, she said, “Well, why don’t you go to Japan and teach English?” That was good for a 10 minute rant from me about how people who do that fresh out of university are nothing but nerds afraid of the real word, unsure of their hopes and dreams, and figure that they can find comfort in a live-action version of all those Astro Boy reruns. She didn’t speak to me for three days, and it was finally her boyfriend that told me that she had already chosen to go to Japan after university, and that I really offended her with my rant.
A longing that I’ve never known
But then, it wasn’t too long before she left for Japan. And then her boyfriend. And then my best friend. Suddenly, I was alone in Entwistle, sick of my dead end job, and dearly missing all my friends. My life was going nowhere. I was very depressed and, quite frankly, really messed up emotionally. I had become a nerd afraid of the real world, unsure of my hopes and dreams, and suddenly thought that I could find comfort in a live-action version of all those Astro Boy reruns. Mainly because that’s where all my friends were. Three months later, I was in Japan.
Take a chance and roll the dice
Ride with the moon in the dead of night
I arrived, got settled, and promptly found that all my friends were so busy trying to become Japanese that they didn’t have time for me. So, I set out to make new friends, which were mostly my coworkers; fellow foreign English teachers. We were like the characters on MASH, thrust together in an extreme situation and forging friendships to survive. Which was great…until the company refused to renew my contract. My co-worker friends started avoiding me, mainly because there’s a real stigma against people who are unable to get their contract renewed. Plus, it didn’t help that I was filing formal complaints to the company about the reasons as to why I was getting renewed – reasons which are still a mystery – and I was just getting angrier and angrier. Hell, the only reason why I even got a good-bye party was when there was an unexpected outpouring of emotion from my students when I started announcing that I was leaving. Turned out I was a lot more popular than the administration thought.
Knowing what you know now, knowing what you knew then?
I think that when I say going to Japan was the biggest mistake I’ve made in my life, I think that the true mistake was me going when I did. As I’ve already acknowledged, I was never really interested in going. But now, as I sit back, I still read about Japan. My friends eventually came home and sought me out when the wanted to become Canadian again, and they told me stories of their experiences. I’m still amazed whenever I read or hear something about Tokyo. Granted, I was very close to Tokyo and I went about once every two weeks, but Tokyo is just such a massive city. There’s so much I didn’t see that I want to see now. Right now, at this point in my life, I am actually interested in going.
But I would have never gotten interested unless I went in the first place. Funny how that works.
And by God, I really tasted something swell
I’ve been home for almost two years now, but I still think of my experiences in Japan quite often. Until I actually do get that career in radio, it’s probably the most significant thing I’ve done in my life. Actually, I think it’s good that I think about it often. The further I get from the time I was in Japan, the more my memories become dream-like. And then I read another article in the paper, and I get confused. How come my memories of Japan are different? How come these travel writers say certain aspects of the culture are front-and-centre, when I know them to be forgotten and ridiculed?
My memories become like melon soda; sticky and sweet, but artificially so. But what’s the artificial part? What I experienced, or what others tell me I should have experienced? What is the real Japan, the pop culture highlights the women tattoo on their lower back, or my mundane days walking back and forth from Kumagaya station?
And at least I left some stories they could tell
I’ve always been a believer that it’s impossible to truly know someone. We all have those parts that we keep only to ourselves; that we let no one see. Perhaps cultures are similar; there are parts that we know are there, but no one sees. All I know is the sticky-sweet scent of melon soda, and a group of Japanese, Americans, and a lone Canadian, sitting in an Italian restaurant in Kumagaya, discussing life, the universe, and everything.