Saying Goodbye To Japan

REPOSTED (with permission).

There have been countless blogs written by those visiting Japan for a short time, a long time, or just long enough to write a blog. The longer you’re in Japan, the more jaded one tends to become about the things that make being here so interesting in the first place. This last entry from a teacher who left here a year ago, struck me as capturing much of what I would miss if I left this place forever.  The author of the piece was experiencing a bit of “reverse culture shock” after moving back to the US.  Hopefully, she’s now integrated back into rude but sometime friendly US life.

There were things that I didn’t need to do anymore but wanted to do, like taking off my shoes when I walked inside a house. There were things that I had to stop doing, like bowing to people in restaurants and department stores, or beginning every sentence with, “Well in Japan…” How they do things in Japan is fairly immaterial when you’re living someplace like America; you might as well start extoling the virtues of living on Mars.
 Reverse culture shock comes in waves. Take today for instance, five months after leaving Japan. I was walking along the street, and there was this nice-looking older guy, a city worker, and I smiled at him. He smiled back, we exchanged greetings and wished each other a good day, and that was it. And it felt weird.
Here is her nicely written oddly touching goodbye to Japanland.

SAYING GOODBYE

It turns out that when you leave a country after two years, people take note.  I would have been content with a handshake, or if I wanted to be really demanding, a hug, but that would defy the unique level of pomp and circumstance that characterizes farewells in Japan.  As a result, the process of leaving was a marathon; my bon voyage events started in June, even though I wasn’t leaving until August.  Friends, colleagues, neighbors and grannies all wanted to make sure they fit me into their busy schedules before I left.

There are several key elements involved in Japanese send-offs: feasting (which includes copious drinking), costumes, and gifts.  A word about gifts in Japan.  They are exquisitely and intricately wrapped in layers of beautiful paper, bags and ribbons, each redundant layer further dooming our planet to global warming.  The treasure inside might be a pair of plastic chopsticks or a priceless picture frame.  The Spartan PS, overwhelmed by the steady flow of offerings and the clutter that resulted was heard to remark indignantly, “The wrapping is usually nicer than the gift!”

Play your cards right, and you too could be the proud owner of a plastic ground cover with a recumbent Sento-kun.

Presents are also inescapable.  If a Japanese person gives you a gift and you reciprocate, you will immediately receive another present, igniting a never-ending cycle of gift-giving, which you, the foreigner, will never, ever win.  It’s a bit like nuclear brinkmanship, if you replace high-tech weapons systems with food or Japanese souvenirs.  Sometimes the giver bestows upon you an envelope, and you open it in relief, thinking it’s a nice card in which they’ve scrawled, “Good luck,” only to find that there is “going away” money inside.  Which is a really uncomfortable gift to get from anyone who is not your grandma or your aunt or your mom, back in the day when they might slip $5 in a card to you on your birthday.

I don’t want to make it sound as though I’m disparaging these gestures, because the truth is, I am touched.  I was (and am) overwhelmed by how much I owe these people- not because of the physical things they gave me, but because of every smile and kind word and bit of advice.  The offers of help, the jokes shared, the food given, the warmth and camaraderie.  No one was obligated to reach out to me or make an effort, but so many people did.  As the phrase goes, it’s the first gift you can never repay.

A traditional Japanese yukata given to me by the faculty at my school.  I wore it to closing ceremonies for my speech at the student assembly; one of the teachers taught me how to put it on.
The yukata from the back.  One of the teachers had harbored a desire to braid my hair for over a year.  On the day of closing ceremonies, she finally got her wish- and did a great job, I think!

In a country of stoics, it’s shocking to see an overt display of emotion.  It’s even more astonishing when the display is unattractive. Put bluntly, I am an ugly crier.  Some people seemed not to notice as they too were swept up in the sentiment of it all.  Others seemed to find my sadness amusing and flattering.  One young security agent stared at me with undisguised fascination as I waved a final goodbye to my escort at the airport.  Though I think I managed to keep it together fairly well overall, there were several moments where I had trouble.

1. On my last day of class, a Friday, I taught a double period with my lovable, unruly, and totally apathetic third year students.  When I returned from the break in between classes, I found the doors to the classroom shut, and everyone sitting in their seats with an aura of perfect innocence.  I knew something was amiss, but didn’t figure out what it was until I saw what they had done to the chalkboard.

blackboard 1

 
2. Saying farewell to The Grannies was probably the most wrenching goodbye.  Of all the people I came to know and love in Japan, I’m most uncertain as to if and when I’ll see The Grannies again.  I fervently hope I do.We didn’t get much done after that.

3.  The teachers at my school, including the principal and vice principal, followed me out of the building to say goodbye on my last day, and waved as my supervisor drove me away.

4. On my last day of class, the girls from my favorite class showed up at the teachers’ lounge.  They looked as though they were visiting an ill or dying friend.  One of them silently handed me a manila envelope on which was written, “To Eri from class 2-1.  Please treasure.”  Inside was a photo album that featured a picture and message from each student in my class.  The joviality I had fought to maintain all day vanished, and our small knot of people turned into a sobbing, hugging scrum.  Later, their homeroom teacher told me that they had been working on the project for three months.  I didn’t need the prompt on the wrapping; the album is absolutely my treasure.

5.  I count this as one of my teaching successes. One of my students is a budding illustrator, and one of her characters is Gachico.  Last year when she started as a first year student, Gachico’s speech bubble read, “I don’t like English.” I teased her about it a little bit, and eventually we started chatting more and more outside of class.  This year  when she turned in her English folder at the end of term, Gachico’s old remarks had been erased, and this was written instead.

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