Today is my last day in Takikawa before I leave for the States. I’ve been behind on blogging as I prepare to leave, but I have a lot to write about once I’m back. For now, here’s an essay I wrote for the Hokkaido JET newsletter.
It’s a Friday night in Takikawa. It’s June, and it’s stopped raining for an hour. I sit under my kotatsu, decommissioned since April, with a movie on and a can of Sapporo next to my laptop. In two hours, I will have dinner with two teachers, one of whom moved during the April turnover. They’re both Japanese. I failed N3 in December and am preparing to fail again in July. In July before I return home in August.
The first time we went out, I had a drink first. Alcohol helps you speak foreign languages and so on with the clichés. That night at a yakitori restaurant, I saw how I could manage in Japanese, often by making a caricature of myself, but as we hung out more, I realized I didn’t need it. And now, months since our last hangout, I can’t help but wonder if this is something I will miss.
Our time on JET is constantly marked by our contracts. We wear our number of years on the program as badges, evidence of how deeply we’ve connected and how invested we are in our communities, in our students, in Japan. At Tokyo Orientation, people talked about their placements in terms of their predecessors’ stays. If their predecessor had been in town at least two years, that was good. If only one, they wondered what had gone wrong and what they’d be getting themselves into.
And then once we’re here, we talk about recontracting. And once we don’t recontract, we talk about going home. By and large, our role in our communities is a temporary one, and we make it more temporary through how we rationalize our time here.
Thinking about The Return from January through August means there are a lot of ways it will sit with you.
You go for a walk during your lunch break. You just submitted your paperwork to your supervisor. You say sabishii a lot, and you learn you’ll be saying it a lot more. It’s cold outside, so there’s not as much room for drama as you’d like because your hands go numb.
You avoid talking to your family and friends back home. They made you do this, you think. You ask the prefectural advisor about changing your decision.
You make plans with friends.
You make plans to travel.
You make a bucket list.
You make a list of all that you will accomplish before leaving. Food to cook, JLPT to pass, books to read, grad schools and jobs to apply to.
Winter thaws and gives way to spring. People in town know you’re leaving. They ask you what’s wrong and why you won’t stay longer. Your answers are trite and short.
“I love it here.”
“I don’t want to leave.”
You know these answers well and start to wonder which are true.
You realize people start to assume things about you because you’re leaving. You don’t like your students, you hate it here, you’re squandering the opportunity they’ve given you. At first you assure people that you love it and don’t want to leave, but soon you stop fighting it because you don’t feel like you need to defend all that this time has meant to you.
Teachers leave, and you lose some friends. You’re reminded of your own departure. You feel removed from your school because you leave in the summer, and you remember how you’re different and don’t quite fit.
Some teachers let it slip to students that you won’t be here for the next English camp or next international exchange event and that you’ll go home. You figure it’s an open secret, like everything is.
After Golden Week, you have some months. Three becomes two becomes one. You find a job or you don’t. You get into school or you don’t. You’re nervous. Your time left is too short. But then you put on rose-colored glasses. Inaka life and home both look good. It’s the sweet spot, and you wonder how you’ll feel once you pass it.
You get in touch with your successor. You answer questions. You reflect. You reflect a lot. You remember how it was when you came. So you go for mindful walks at night alone. Foxes scream like dying babies, and students bike past you on their way home from their club activities.
You start thinking about the letters you will write. Who will get one and what you will say. And you start to wonder if you’ll be seen off or get on a train alone to the airport with your luggage, just like a lavender-peeping tourist or the Couchsurfer you hosted a month ago. Just like someone who has hardly been here, which you start to think is you.
Tonight, there are fireworks at Homac, and police cars travel around town in packs of fours, bad luck. My plans fall through and I spend the night under the kotatsu. It doesn’t have a blanket, so it’s a low-table by now. But it doesn’t make a difference because it’ll soon belong to the next ALT.
Far is Tokyo Orientation and far is the day I turned in my papers saying I wouldn’t renew my contract. With friends back home, I talk about time. How the one year since our college graduation went so fast, but I lie through my teeth as I know how long, raw, and wonderful this year has been. Lacking discussion about recontracting and by now knowing how my last weekends here will be spent, I move to the future. To the next city, apartment, job, and group of people. At night before I go to bed, I wonder about goodbyes and wonder who will be the people I will never see again. I wonder if I’ll miss living life as an ALT in a small town where I will always stick out. I wonder if I’ll miss the mindfulness of each day abroad. I wonder if I’ll miss pregaming alone.