Please Teach Me 教えてください

I apologize in advance if this seems like an unnecessary detail, but I’m writing this post in my underwear. It’s all I seem to have the energy for. Ok, true, I just came back from running, but before that, and after work, I sat down in the camping chair in my nearly empty house we nothing on me but my boxer briefs and my laptop and then I watched an episode from Season 5 of The Wire. I just moved to Japan last week, and between the difference in time between here and America and my respective language proficiency, my brain has been in overdrive and my body needs a steady stream of coffee to keep from shutting down. 

Since arriving to my final destination, Eta Jima, Japan, a small island across the bay from Hiroshima, I have, as a rule, spoken little to no English, and because it has been a month since I have studied Japanese, things have been ugly.  Because I’m white, my Japanese colleagues speak to me in English. I counter this by speaking to them in Japanese. The goal is that the more I speak Japanese, the more I will be spoken to in Japanese, which will improve my Japanese even more, and so on.  This logic proves embarrassing when I don’t understand what a native speaker is saying to me, which is often. When I tried to buy a smartphone on Sunday, the store assistant, Noriko, continued to scrunch her nose up and shake her head when I tried telling her that my mailing address and living address were two separate locations, and that I could find out my living address, and then return to Hiroshima—oh never mind.

I flew to Tokyo last Wednesday after a prolonged stay at my friends, Jack and Jenny Skahen, house in San Diego while waiting for the Navy to buy my plane ticket to Japan.  I guess there are worse things, but part of me was anxious to arrive in Japan and maintain the proficiency in the language I had spent the last year in Washington D.C. acquiring.  Another part of was glad each morning I woke up in Skahens guest bedroom to sight of their backyard pool and palm trees without a plane ticket in my email inbox.  Between the buildup for my final Japanese test, moving, canceling my Netflix account, and coordinating goodbyes to my friends and family, California was a nice pit stop on my way to Japan. But after my planned week trip extended into a week, and then a week and a half, I welcomed the inevitable flight over the Pacific.  The medicinal effect of lying around drinking coffee and beer reached a saturation point, and it was time to move on.

I have been anticipating this move since I discovered I was assigned the billet of: Personnel Exchange Officer (PEP) at the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force Officer Candidate School (MOCS). This means that I will be teaching English to the Japanese Midshipmen as well as a class about the United States Navy.  In some ways, I feel I have been telling people about the job more than I have actually preparing for it. I’m not ashamed of the job. I’m not shy to tell anyone, but in Washington D.C., where I spent a year studying Japanese 4 hours a day for 5 days a week,  people swap job descriptions as quickly as they do handshakes. Cynically, some people liken it to dogs sniffing each other’s ass.  I think it’s more a cultural thing.  DC is a transitional city for “Young Professionals”—a word almost more annoying than “Hipster”—so talking about your job can be as natural an in to a conversation as talking about fixed gear bicycles with hipsters.  Every new date I went on, or friend of a friend I met, the line of questioning would quickly lead to the reason I was in DC.  It was a great ice breaker, but the accumulation of massaging my own ego in continual succession made me feel like I was spending more time talking about studying Japanese than actually studying Japanese. The energy I should have been pooling into learning was instead being drained out into a sea of false pride and unfulfilled ambitions.

I studied Japanese for a year one-on-on, and weeks, months even, would go by where I didn’t feel confident that any improvement was occurring.  Were my Sensei’s progress reports encouraging me when it was written that I needed to learn more vocab, grammar, and Kanji, or were they indicative of a deficiency? Without any classmates to confer, I wasn’t sure.  Four hours of class a day doesn’t sound like a lot when compared with an average work day, but by myself it was draining. I probably couldn’t talk to communicate for four hours a day in English, let alone Japanese, and some days, I wouldn’t communicate in Japanese. “Speak, please!” Lee Sensei would command of me, and I would just shrug my shoulders. “About what?” I thought. I was burned out. 

Did I ruin my chances for success in Japan? My first day in Hiroshima, that’s what it felt like. Sakua-San, my handler, met me at the train station and took me by the trolley to the ferry.  We exchanged greetings in Japanese. On the metro, I asked him how long he has been living in Eta Jim. “30 years,” he said. “That’s a long time!” I said.  Waiting for the ferry, I asked him to please watch my bags because I was going to the restroom. When we arrived on the island, he showed me where my office is and he drove me to my house, which are the equivalent of Japanese Naval Captain’s quarters, and are up on a hill on the edge of the woods, overlooking the campus.  After that, he drove me to the local grocery store, where I grabbed various pre-made bags of prepares meals that looked edible and fruit, before he brought me back to my house.  “Come to work before 7,” he said.

The next three days were a blur as I met the Superintendent of the school, and more Japanese Naval Officers and Japanese midshipmen than I can count. I sit at a desk net to Sakua-San, two other Japanese Officers, whose names I cannot recall at the moment, and near Furumato-San, a female civilian English teacher, who has also been assisting my transition to the new job. I spent the next days doing my best to read and abide by the turnover document  my predecessor had written to me, while also constantly digging into my iPhone dictionary app, looking up new words or words I have forgotten, and writing them down in order to form more coherent thoughts to my co-workers.  Since my arrival, my attempts to reaffirm and expand upon my Japanese have been a constant process, like trying to reach out and touch the edge of the expanding universe. True, the amount of Japanese words and characters is finite, but in class, we never touched the level of Japanese spoken by native speakers on a daily basis. I’m doing my best to bridge the gap. So maybe you can empathize with my need to decompress, when I change out of my uniform, walk the 5 minutes up the hill to my home, and sit in my camping chair, a throne amongst the empty space and hard-line internet connection. And episodes of The Wire. The game is out there; you either play or get played. Ya’ heard?


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