Some sad and beautiful things about temporarily teaching in Japan

The view from Nakatsu castle, Oita prefecture, Japan
The view from Nakatsu castle, Oita prefecture, Japan

At school, you’re a novelty until you’re not. Students swarm up to you giggling, in awe of your blonde hair and “small face,” attempting English questions about how old you are, whether you have a boyfriend, and some surprising ones like whether you’ve ever seen a ghost. But then you show up for weeks, months, and years, and at some point you become just another teacher. You’re less newfangled and cool but also a little more like family. You befriend many, some by name and others by face (Smiley Tennis Girl in Class 4). You care about their happiness and well-being, perhaps far more than you ever expected to care. In the back of your mind is an ache that, when you return to your country, you may never see them again. There will never be enough time or energy to dedicate as much attention toward every student as you’d like, just as you will never be capable of repaying the million various kindnesses you’ve received in Japan. You know you will leave with a warm heart but with an itch that somehow you could have done more.

Your life is meticulously segmented by season, event, hobby, and social obligation. You kick yourself for looking forward to summer during the winter, because now it’s summer, and it’s terrible, but soon it will be fall and—before you know it—winter again. The only place where time stops is the onsen. You sit in the hot water, listen to the bubbles, and think nothing but, “I am here now, in the bath.” But then you see the naked bodies of a child and an old woman and realize that you used to have a child’s body and before you know it you will have an old woman’s body too.

You panic with indecision about how much you should be living your life versus how much you should be documenting it. If you don’t write, you might forget your time here, but you won’t do anything cool if you’re too busy writing. Likewise, you panic about how much you should be preparing for your departure, for your “real life,” a real life that you’re constantly building toward, but that might just turn out pretty mundane and filled with sad, fond reminiscence about your time in Japan.

Weekends used to be designated to exploring. You have to make the most of your time here after all. But you grow tired from work, the language barrier, and just general Japan-ing. You sign up for a video rental card at Tsutaya. You feel less and less guilty binging on Netflix. Sundays you run errands at the mall, just like everyone else, because that’s what you do in the town you live in, and for now you are home.

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