Don’t know why I gotta go
But if I don’t try, I’ll never know
- From the song Tryin’ To Get to New Orleans by the Tractors
There’s something different about this column. There’s something different in the way that it’s being prepared. The difference comes in the tool I am using. Gone is my trusty old computer, which has served me well over the past few years. Her successor is a Compaq Presario; a laptop, chosen for its portability. I’m no longer doing this with Corel WordPerfect 7, with the final HTML adjustments done in WordPad. This is coming to you on Microsoft Word XP, with a helpful assist from Microsoft FrontPage XP. It’s even such a sunny day that I’ve left the security and comfort of my basement to write this on the front porch. What then, has happened in my life for such drastic changes to be brought about? Why am I making such extravagant purchases such as newer and more portable, computers? It’s all because of something I’ve alluded to in recent columns, but have yet to take the time to acknowledge formally. I’m going to Japan.
If you’ll remember a few columns from a few months ago, I went out to Vancouver for a job interview with one of these language schools in Japan. Make a decent wage doing an easy job while seeing the world, and similar recruitment pitches. (Although, in my cover letter, I openly admitted that teaching is a hard profession and one that I am told comes naturally to me, even though I have my doubts.) I went out to the west coast, stumbled my way through a very rough lesson plan, and tried my best to be witty, yet restrained, in the interview. I came home, happy in the fact that I did my best. It was about three weeks later when I got a call from the recruiter. I got the job.
She then filled me in on the specifics. I’ll be teaching in a town called Kumagaya. It’s about 100 km outside of Tokyo; a city comparable to the Alberta city of Red Deer. In my school, I’ll be one of three foreign teachers. There are 370 students, and I’ll have to teach five classes a day. My apartment will be a 10 minute bike ride from work. It’s mine, if I wanted it. I told her I’d have to think about it and get back to her.
Teaching was a profession I had been set against for so long. I did not want to be some burnt out honour student recycling himself into the education system. I then looked around at my situation. Making slightly above minimum wage at a grocery store. Living in my parents’ basement. Stuck in a hick town that no one has heard of. How much longer did I want it to continue? This paragraph makes it seem drawn out, but the whole process took about five minutes. I called the recruiter back and said I’d take the job. That’s when I started calling people to tell them that I would be heading to Japan.
That whole evening, I phoned everyone. My brother, my sister, a few close relatives, my boss, the others who wrote letters of recommendation for me, ending with a very special overseas call to the magnificent bastards who planted this idea in my head, Chuck and L. Throughout the past few months, people have been constantly asking me if I’m excited about doing this. I can honestly say that the evening I got the job was the only time I was genuinely excited. As I slipped into bed that night, the gravity of the situation began creeping in.
When I first started musing aloud about doing this, people would say, “Why do you want to do this? You’ve never done any kind of traveling whatsoever.” I’d usually respond by pointing out that Regina is a very lovely city, and that I did visit Chuck and L in Vancouver. My friend would acknowledge this, and then rephrase. “You’ve never done any international traveling. Why do you want to do this?” OK, I’ll admit, that I’m not as well-traveled as most people I know. My only experience to other cultures has been from my German relatives who come to visit. So does that mean I should never try something like this? Does this mean that I should never climb out of my parents’ basement? Should I really doom myself to a life of minimum wage servitude? Some might say that those goals are well and good, but why don’t I do something less drastic? Move into Edmonton or something? Given a chance between the same old big city and something completely new and different, why not try something new? They ask why, I want to know why not? Usually, it convinced them that I want to do this. It didn’t do so well on eliminating my doubts, though.
My friends did make a good point in indicating my lack of international travel. It’s one thing to have a different culture visit every few summers, but to actually immerse yourself in one? And work in it? And doing a job that I have no training in? Am I up to the task? I will confess, I have lost a few hours sleep over these issues.
When I find that I have fears and doubts about things, it’s best to keep busy; just focus on the task at hand and put the fear out of your mind. Hell, in the interview, I said that that would be how I deal with culture shock. So I needed a good job to keep my mind occupied. Luckily for me, the first envelope arrived.
There is a lot of paperwork involved in accepting a job overseas, and my new teaching position proved that. The recruiter soon sent me the first package, containing the contracts and agreements I had to sign, plus a copy of the employee handbook. I had to start shopping for a plane ticket, and some new clothes to go with the new dress code. I even started thinking that I needed a laptop, with a DVD-ROM, so I could keep writing the column and bring along some of my favourite DVDs. I started pricing stuff out. I buried myself in the company’s paperwork, firing off questions to the recruiter. When the scripted recruitment drive answers didn’t satisfy me, I’d fire off the same question to Chuck and L to know the reality of the situation. I had no time to worry about my lack of skills or going insane from being in another culture. There were things to do. When I looked at going to Japan as a life experience, it would scare me. But when I started looking at it as a series of tasks that needed to be done, tasks that I could do, suddenly it became manageable. The words of one of my old math professors came back to haunt me. “When a problem looks incredibly complex, quite often it can be broken down into a series of simple problems.” There would be times, though, when I’d step back to look at the larger picture, only to have the fears and doubts return.
They always seemed to resurface with the recommended reading. The company sent me a book called Culture Shock: Japan, which they said would help me adjust to a different culture. I was greatly assured when the first line in the book was, “Those most likely to experience culture shock are those who have never left their home country before.” I had never been presented with the instruction manual to a culture, and going through it brought back all my worries tenfold. If the book is to be believed, the average Japanese person will just smile politely rather than say: yes, no, please, thank you, go to hell, I’m madly in love with you, or anything else. I could see that, with the large emphasis the Japanese place on non-verbal communication, there would be a huge cultural gap to be bridged in teaching a language. So, I’d naturally fire off an e-mail to Chuck and L asking them how they’ve adjusted. More often than not, they would say, “That book makes so many big deals out of little things.” If Chuck and L are to be believed, then the non-verbal communication is not as large a factor as the book would have you believe. I see the authors of that book also have one called Culture Shock: Canada, so I’m really curious to see the instruction manual for my culture; to see how many little things are overemphasized. Still, though, the book would remind me of how big the big picture is.
My bursts of productivity on this job tend to be spaced out by large areas of procrastination, in which I’m just sick of preparing for Japan. I don’t want to reread the employee handbook, I don’t want to read more of Culture Shock, I just want to curl up in the safe cocoon of my sheets and wait for the world to go away. Usually, my procrastination gets directed towards the tapes. Chuck and L’s largest suggestion was, “Get one of those ‘Learn to speak Japanese tapes’ and at least learn the basics before coming.” So, at the premiere of Spider-Man, I bought a series of ‘Learn to speak Japanese’ tapes. The box bragged “Be a confident speaker of Japanese in just six weeks!” Since there were just six weeks before I had to go, I thought that this would be perfect. I bought the tapes and, after Spider-Man, figured I’d be ready to start learning a new language. The plan was to spend my afternoons reading more of Culture Shock, then turn on the tapes. It was also around this time that my parents got a new computer, and Darmok gave me a copy of Jedi Outcast: Jedi Knight II. After reading a chapter of Culture Shock, learning Japanese didn’t seem as important as saving the New Republic. It wasn’t long before reading Culture Shock didn’t seem as important as saving the New Republic. I leave for Japan in two weeks, and I’m only half-finished Culture Shock, and tapes still sit untouched. It looks like I’ll have to bring my walkman with me so I can keep attempting to learn the language.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about this trip is how final everyone is starting to make their good-byes. For a day away from all of my preparations and procrastination of preparations, I’ll set up something with a friend in Edmonton. And, when the movie is over and it’s time for me to head home for the night, they’ve begun saying their farewells with, “And if I never see you again, good luck in Japan.” It just sounds so final. They all think that I’ll move on with my life, and never see them again. That, of course, is a falsehood. If Chuck and L’s time over the past few months is any indication, I’m sure that, when I go to Japan, all of my friends will quickly get sick of me, as I have yet to stop the steady stream of e-mails and good ol’ fashioned letters to Chuck and L. I’m fairly certain that the stream can go the other way. And besides, I’ve always known that I’ll be back on Canadian soil for Episode III.
But, on the upside, most of my friends believe that this will be good for my love life. Most of them believe it’s a cosmic certainty that I’ll be getting a girlfriend over there. I, personally, have my doubts, as I have enough trouble talking to women who speak fluent English, thank you very much. But the future is not set. We will see what happens.
I still have my fears and doubts. All I know is that backing out now would be a bigger regret than going. Life over the next few months is going to be a lot more different than simply typing columns in Word XP. I’m certain that no amount of preparations can fully prepare me. Am I strong enough to survive this? Can I do a job I have little experience in? All valid questions I’ve had over the past few months. The only way to find out is by doing it. And if I don’t survive, at least I’ve got a new computer.