There’s no easy way to say this, so I’ll just say it: I’m going back to California.
Before we even came to Japan, this was a decision that my husband and I had talked about and came to an agreement on. Two years ago in 2010, we got married in February, found out we were both hired in April, and then moved here together in August. Since 2010, we’ve had quite an exciting life and our first two years of marriage have been indescribable. We are so lucky to have had the opportunity to work and live in a foreign country, to experience Japan’s rich culture and history, and to have made so many amazing friends along the way. But of course, being away from home also meant being away from our family, our friends, and.. well, home. We watched our first niece grow up over Skype and Facebook, and congratulated the birth of our first nephew over e-mail. We flew back twice for the Christmas holidays, but we also flew back an unexpected third time to attend the funeral of my husband’s uncle, whom we were very close with, and were saddened that we weren’t around to have spent more time with him. Neither of us have any regrets about coming to Japan, and neither do we have regrets about leaving. But I will say that it is hard to leave, and I expect that it will also be hard to come back to America.
I love my job. I love my city. I love my workplace. I love my coworkers. I love my students. I can genuinely say that I have loved every day in my office and classroom, even on the really tough days. The thing about being an ALT is that, it’s not a permanent job. There are no raises, no promotions, and there is a limit to how many times you can renew your contract. But the other thing to consider too is, how many people who choose to become an ALT plan to continue their careers in the field of English education? I, for sure, didn’t, and it was clear in my application that being a teacher long-term was not one of my career goals. And while some ALTs come to Japan and intend to stay here long-term, I’d say it’s still the minority. Most ALTs return to their home country after one year, two years, five years…
I’m in a strange place now, where I’m not sure what place to call home. California is where I grew up. It’s where most of my personal belongings are. It’s where my friends are, and where my family lives and waits to welcome my return. But Hamamatsu is where my husband and I rented our first home as a married couple. It’s where we shared plenty of good memories and made several new life-long friends. It’s the first place where I truly felt “on my own”.
What saddens me is that if the day comes that I ever return to Hamamatsu, it may look the same, but it will never be the same. Teachers at my school will have rotated to other offices, students will have graduated, and the friends who I met here will be living in various places around the world: Canada, Australia, the UK, Amsterdam… It truly is a special thing, to be in this place together at the same time.
What have I accomplished in two years? Did I reach my own personal goals? Did I make a difference in my students’ lives or education? I hope so. It may sound strange if you’ve never been abroad before, but I feel like I understand my own country and culture more after having spent time away from it. And I’ve come to realize there are a lot of things that I don’t understand about my own country and culture, and now wish to know. As far as my accomplishments in English education… well, I don’t think a single ALT can truly make a difference in the grand scheme of things, and I think English education in itself needs to be reformed. But in two years, I have helped several students pass their English licensing examinations (which they need for further education, or for use in the workplace), positively changed some students’ attitudes towards learning English, and maybe even inspired some students to consider going abroad.
I don’t think fluency in English is important for everyone in this country. Neither are studying, working, or traveling abroad. But I do think it’s important for Japanese to be able to speak and understand basic English for communication purposes. Many of my students have told me that they don’t want to, or don’t expect to, use English at all in their future workplaces, especially because I don’t teach at an academic-level school, and the students expect to work in service jobs or factories, rather than as a salaryman or executive at an international company. However, I was always surprised whenever someone unexpectedly spoke English to help me. For example, policemen, shop clerks, train conductors, etc… But even more so, I think it’s important for people to be able to think critically about their own country, and to compare their own lifestyle to others. Through studying English and foreign culture through an ALT, they have an opportunity to do just that.
My contract is coming to an end here in just a few more days, but I feel more strongly about cross-cultural relations than I ever have before. Of course, my dream has always been, and always will be, to work on my art and photography and live a creative lifestyle. But I hope that I can also get involved with and stay connected to Japan in some way or another. Being here has changed me in a way, and it has truly been a rewarding experience.
I’m goin’ back to Cali... and it’s a mixed bag of emotions. I’m happy, I’m scared, I’m worried, I’m excited. I’m looking forward to finally using that Kitchenaid Artisan Stand Mixer we registered for, and savoring an In-n-Out Cheeseburger. I’m looking forward to L.A.’s sunny beaches, the cool fog of San Francisco, my friends who I haven’t seen in two years, my family, and a vacation to Hawaii we’ve planned together in September.
And I will miss you, Japan. I will miss your freezing cold winters, and your sweaty, humid summers. I will miss the sound of cicadas chirping in the trees, and of my school’s brass band doing drills from morning through the afternoon. I will miss cheap, fresh sushi; limited edition flavors of ice cream, candy, and drinks; Crunky Mint (I miss it already!). I will miss hanami, and hanabi, and all the festivals, holidays, and events. I will miss the comfort and safety I felt walking home, no matter where I was walking from, what time it was, or whether I was by myself. I will miss the まもなく “We’re arriving shortly!” messages on the trains and buses, and running across platforms as to not miss a train. I will miss Narita Airport, which I’ve surprisingly been through at least ten times. I will miss my cozy apartment in a quiet neighborhood and the supposedly most-polluted-lake-in-all-of-Japan which is just a 2-minute walk away. All of it, whether good or bad, was my life for two years, so I will miss everything about you, Japan.
So for now, I’m saying sayonara to Japan. Thank you for all of the good memories and for making one of my dreams come true. However, I do think that I’ll be back again someday. では、さようならではない。More like, また、ね。I’ll see you again someday.