Exodus, Abridged

It’s finished. I am writing this from my new interim home with Negishi’s family in Yokohama. This will be my base for the next three weeks while I do a little traveling around the country before returning to Atlanta at the end of August. I’ve spent the last three years teaching English at a public junior high school in rural Myogi, Gunma Prefecture, and generally having a great time. The people in my town have mostly been fabulous, and my teaching gig was undeniably the high point of my working life thus far. It’s been a great ride, and I plan to come back several times as a guest, but I’ve determined that I do not belong in Japan.

There’s lots of reasons for this. Ironically, i’ve been able to do a lot less Taido than I usually did in America. I had assumed prior to moving here that I would be able to find a nearby dojo and practice at least a couple of times a week, but that has not been the case. The nearest dojo to my home was a two hour drive away, and the dojo I most enjoy practicing at required a four hour train ride – I just can’t make that trek too often. Compared to a couple of hours everyday, 10 or so hours a month isn’t much, and i’ve missed being able to go to Taido anytime I wanted to. However, my experiences with Japanese Taido have been incredibly interesting and unique, and I would not trade the time I’ve spent meeting new people and sharing ideas for anything. I haven’t been able to to do a lot of actual practice, but i’ve had the chance to expand my Taido horizons far beyond where they would have been had I stayed in America.

For another thing, it’s tough dating when you’re on a short timeline. Half the women I met in Japan wanted to get married and move to America with me – after two or three dates. Some girls here just want to have sex with a foreigner. Neither extreme suited me all too well, so most of my relationships have been of the “she’ll do for now” variety. It’s actually been a little sad. Though I don’t expect to step off the plane in America and bump into my soul mate, I imagine that I’ll have much better luck finding a true partner minus the cultural and geographic complications of “international relations.”

Then there’s music. I love playing music, and in Atlanta, I played everyday. I was able to play with a variety of musicians in a variety of environments and shared some of my most beautiful moments improvising in front of small audiences. I brought a guitar to Japan with me, but it’s difficult to be inspired playing alone in my living room. I’ve written some good songs while I’ve been here, but it’s been a little lonely not having the opportunity to play them for anyone. I tried to form or join a band, but most Japanese musicians come in one of two flavors – sucky or way too serious. So, instead of pursuing my own musical growth, I’ve spent my most rewarding musical moments over the past three years teaching a few kids at the junior high how to play bass and drums.

… And besides all that, I’ve decided that I don’t want to be an English teacher anymore.

“But you said you love teaching…”

And I do love teaching. Many of my colleagues seem to misunderstand my desire to be other than an English teacher. They ask me what better plans I have in America, and I honestly can’t answer. I love my English teaching job, but that doesn’t mean I want to continue it indefinitely.

The thing that sucks about being an English teacher in Japan is this – most of your students will never really get all that good. Do I sound like an awful, pessimistic, and negative excuse for a teacher? Well, I’m not; I’m actually a great teacher. I’ve reached students that nobody in my town had been able to reach. I’ve made students love English. I’ve helped shy students open up and share what’s on their minds. I’ve inspired, gently prodded, and facilitated. I’ve done a damn good job.

The problem is not the teachers, nor is it the students. It’s the situation. Japanese people live in a country in which everyone speaks Japanese. Think about how many Americans studied two years of a foreign language in high school and can’t speak a word. The reason is that we all and only speak English in America (sure, this is beginning to change in major cities, but we are a far cry from being international). If you don’t practice, you don’t get good – no matter how much you study.

That’s the situation here. To make matters even more severe, many Japanese people are very rooted – that is, they spend 99% of their lives within a very short radius. They may take a vacation to Hawaii or Korea for a few days, but they do so from inside the safe bubble of Japaneseness via tourism. Some Japanese people may attend university in a large city, possibly even a major city, but tend to return to their hometowns, or nearby, for employment. When your entire life is going to be spent within a fifty kilometer radius, you don’t have much motivation to learn the ways of the “outside world (why do you think the word for people from other countries translates as “outsider”?)”.

It’s truly sad that, even if students have the desire to learn English, they won’t have much success unless they live abroad. This is an opportunity that few Japanese feel is available to them. Students can study day and night, but they will find that they have nobody with whom to practice. Everyone around them will speak Japanese and expect them to respond in kind. The students in my school have only three or four people with whom to attempt english conversation, and all but one are Japanese (which doesn’t make them bad teachers, it just means that conversation with them will naturally be in Japanese).

Knowing this, I try my best to provide as many opportunities as possible for my students to have real, non-course-content conversations with me – simple conversations that are not graded and are not intimidating. But it’s just not enough. I’ve had students with loads of desire to learn, who show up at my house to chat, and write me emails for practice but have a hard time bridging various gaps in their skills. It’s saddening, and as a teacher, it’s soul-sucking.

I love teaching, but I feel that Japan will have to make some fundamental cultural changes in order to allow students the opportunity to really master English. And honestly, Japan has more pressing problems than that (though I believe that many of them are very connected). Thus, I don’t want to be an English teacher in Japan right now.

And that doesn’t give me many options. I really like various aspects of living in Japan, but as far as employment goes, there are only a very few professions in which foreigners are considered acceptable. Japanese society gives me the choice to be an English teacher or an entertainer of some sort. As funny and cute as I am, I don’t have any more desire to be anyone’s dancing monkey than I do to teach people whose culture prevents them form learning.

Of course, if I truly wanted to live in Japan, I would find a way to do so in a manner that suited me. I’m resourceful, I have lots of friends, and I have a knack for doing the things I want to do. However, I do not wish to live for much longer as a foreigner in this country.

Why I really don’t want to stay

Many Japanese people ask me why I am leaving. I have a hard time answering. For one thing, I would feel bad telling them the truth – Japan has, on the whole, a relatively unsophisticated culture.

I know that’s a broad and seemingly pejorative generalization to make, but I’m making it nonetheless. I’m sure plenty of people will tell me that I just don’t understand the subtleties of Japanese culture – that I just don’t appreciate Japan because I am viewing it’s splendor through my own distorted lens of American cultural bias. To those people, I say: lay off, punk. I know of what I write (and my grammar ain’t bad neither).

I’m not saying that being in Japan for three years makes me the arbiter of what is and is not of-quality in Japanese culture. There is plenty I don’t know, but you’d be lucky to find any Japanese people who could adequately explain their culture to you either. That’s not the point though. Believe me – I know as much about Japan as I need to know. I love Japan, but that doesn’t mean I find it above reproach. Hell, I’m leaving here to live in America again, and most folks who know me can vouch that iIm pretty outspoken on my opinions about what’s wrong with America. There’s no sour grapes going on here, and there’s no misinformation. I know what’s up, and Japan is not for me in the long term.

When I say Japan is unsophisticated, I’m not saying the people here are barbaric, idiotic, or unrefined. I love Japanese people. I think they are cute (not to sound patronizing). I’ve very much enjoyed most of my experiences with Japanese people and have even shed the odd tear when they’ve done extraordinarily wonderful things. But there are some exceptions, and these exceptions point to a cultural shortcoming rather than a personal failing. Japanese culture reminds me of how I imagine the middle of America. To quote David Bowie, I’m afraid of Americans.

To be clear and fair, I should mention that I find Japan very refined. In contradistinction to sophistication (which spirals up and away from center, towards the new), refinement works by gathering innovation about a locus and reducing or removing what is unnecessary. The result is streamlining – whittling things down to their absolute core necessities and creating clean-running, efficient versions of whatever is needed. This is the “zen” aesthetic that Japan is famous for. I think that this is great for industry and economy, but perhaps not-so-great for culture and society. Though America is an obvious example of a society gone crazy with expansiveness, Japan makes the opposite mistake (in my opinion).

A few examples

Since it would be difficult to pithily sum up the reasons that Japan doesn’t suit me as a permanent home, I’m going to make a list of some small annoyances that should give you a feel for what’s “wrong” (for me) with Japan.

Foreigners have big noses

I’m tired of people saying I have a big nose. I don’t. I’ve seen some honkers, and let me tell you, I have a really nice nose. When I got kicked in the face and my nose broke a couple of years ago, I had to listen to about a thousand people (including my doctor) joke that it was because Americans have such big noses. What bullshit is that? I got kicked in the nose because my face was in front of a fast-moving foot.

But it’s not just me with a giant, protruding, cucumber nose – it’s anyone of non-Asian extraction. In cartoons and comics, Americans (a catch all designation, which also includes anyone from Europe, North and South America, and non-tribal Africans) are depicted with huge noses and big eyes. The big eyes are considered beautiful, so people are complimenting you when they comment on that, but the noses are a sign of barbaric inferiority. There is no escaping the big nose thing – it’s everywhere. For three years, I taught English out of a set of text books (that should honestly be consciously designed to promote international understanding and discourage ethnocentrism) in which all of the non-Asians had noses the size of small animals.

All Americans have guns

People are always asking me if I have a gun. I don’t. Guns are outlawed in Japan, and owning them is a serious crime. Japanese people are fascinated and frightened by the idea that anyone in America can have a gun, so they often ask me where I keep my gun. I tell that that it’s in the car, or at my house, in the closet. You should see the scared and worried looks on their faces as they try to “help” me – “but Andy, it’s bad. You can’t have guns in Japan”. And my response is “No shit – then how would you expect that I managed to get one?” Of course, I don’t have a gun here. It’s illegal, and it would be near-impossible for me to subvert the controls that prevent people form having guns here – not that I would want to. I never owned a gun in America (though I do know how to shoot them) and have no plans to own one in the future.

Can you use chopsticks?

The most famous stupid question to ask the foreign guy is the old “can you use chopsticks?” Yes, I can. It’s not upsetting to be asked this except when the inquirer is someone who has actually seen you eat with chopsticks on many occasions. It’s doubly annoying when someone makes a big deal out it, saying “Wow! You can use chopsticks? That’s fantastic!” Well, no really, it’s nothing to get all excited about; iIve been using chopsticks from about the same age at which Japanese children begin learning to use them.

Some Japanese people have informed me that there is actually a proper way to use chopsticks that is more difficult and polite. Apparently, many Japanese people don’t do it correctly, so I shouldn’t think it strange for people to be surprised that I can. No, I should feel honored that people hold me in such high esteem that they even ask me. Whatever. I’ve never heard one Japanese person ask another whether or not he or she could properly manipulate eating sticks.

In case you were wondering, I can hold them “properly,” and I can hold them the easy way. I can do this with either hand. I demonstrate this to people, and then go on to explain that we foreign barbarians also have such a thing as proper table manners and etiquette that are not followed by most people in their day-to-day activities, but are generally expected in formal situations. When people have really irked me, I’ll take them through a crash course in the correct way to hold a knife and fork correctly, how to cut meat without making scraping sounds against the plate, how to sip a beverage without slurping or gulping, etc., in order to demonstrate that there is more to claiming a rich cultural heritage than eating with twigs.

About driving

I’m also asked by otherwise nice and intelligent folks if I find it difficult to drive in Japan. I ask them if they find it difficult to drive. Since I’m from Giant America, it seems that people expect that I should have a hard time driving a small car on small roads. They are stunned to learn that my last car in America was actually a Toyota. They also seem to think that driving on one side of the road is significantly different form driving on the other. I have to explain to them that, provided there is a steering wheel, the driver of a motor vehicle can (regardless of his cultural background) point the vehicle in whichever direction he should choose. They are blown away with the revelation that I learned how to drive in Japan in five minutes. Apparently, my ten years of practicing in America isn’t relevant.

Sometimes people ask me, “Andy, do you sometimes screw up and drive on the wrong side of the road?” Usually, the temptation is to much for me, and I reply by saying “No. Sometimes I drive on the wrong side, but that’s just for fun.” Then I walk away and leave them to wonder.

“But wait! There’s more!”

And there are lots of other similar questions I get asked all the time. Questions to which the answers are obvious. Really stupid questions that I get asked explicitly because I am not Japanese. However, really stupid questions are not reason enough for me to want to leave Japan (I mean, I grew up in America – I’m used to having to answer stupid questions), but the above are simply meant as an indication of the types of specific stupidity to which I am subjected to because I’m not Japanese.

And that’s the real problem. It has nothing to do with stupidity and everything to do with cultural retardedness. I’ve heard it claimed that Japan is a racist culture, though I think insensitive and oblivious are more accurate characterizations. In either event, I now think I understand what it must feel like to be black in America. Being foreign here for a long period of time can be a pain. It gets old and annoying, and I’m ready for it to be over (none of which is to say that being an American in Japan doesn’t also have its privileges and advantages).

The long and short of it is: there isn’t much I can do here that will leave me fulfilled and satisfied for the long term, and the people here have no idea how insanely stupid/offensive some of their ethnocentric generalizations are to people from other countries.

I know that I am loved and respected here. I know that I am valued. I know that I could manage to have a good life here, but I do not belong here. I will be missed, and I will miss the places I’ve spent time and the people with whom i’ve worked and played, but this is not my home. I don’t know where home is going to be either – maybe Yokohama or maybe someplace i’ve never been before.

I’ll have to find out. Got any suggestions?

For more insight into what it’s like to live in Japan if you’re not Japanese, I recommend you read some of Mark Groenewold’s articles on his excellent Karate the Japanese Way website. Mark is much smarter than I, but after many conversations on related subjects, I can say that I am in 98% agreement with all that he writes in his articles on Japan and very envious of his ability to express his thoughts so eloquently. Please do check it out.