Expat Politics

“Trump!” He announces the topic as I step into the small classroom. I groan inwardly, the news of the withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement still fresh in my mind. He gestures wildly at his companion, his best friend of nearly 30 years, and I think, yet again, how entirely opposite they are. “We talk about Trump!”
I glance at the woman. She keeps her eyes lowered, too polite to discuss with me, an American, the same thing that she had just been talking about with her friend. He has no such qualms. Spouting off rapid, excited Japanese, I can only catch the gist of what he’s saying. He pauses for breath and I nod, sliding into my seat across the small table from them.
“Trump is…” I search for the right word. “An idiot.”
They look at each other and she is no longer reserved, now having a new English word to grasp onto rather than the controversial topic. “Ijit? Idyo?”
I enunciate slowly, making my mouth movements precise so they can watch the words form. “An. Idiot.” He repeats me several times, his pronunciation worsening while she reaches for her phone and her go-to voice-to-translation Google Translate app. I shake my head. “Maybe that’s a bad word.” He quiets for a moment so I can clarify. “Trump is not smart.”
“Yes!” He nearly shouts it, fist high with the triumph of understanding. “He’s… face, no good. Brain, no good. World is not business.” Switching to Japanese in his excitement, he chatters first to me and then to his partner, once again both too fast and challenging for me to understand. His arm jerks up close to his face and quickly draws an angled line towards the ground. I catch “America” and “i-me-ji.”
She stops him, speaking slowly into her phone then turning it towards me. He is bad for America image of world.
Used to decoding Google Translate, I nod. “He’s bad for American image in the rest of the world.” It’s not a question. I’m agreeing.
With a big smile, he says, “Yes, that’s right,” then rattles off more Japanese. Our English lessons work slowly. Remembering, he changes back in the same breath, shaking his head to emphasize each word. “Trump is not smart.”

This is only the most basic of so many conversations I have had with Japanese people about the new U.S. president. It was difficult to explain, at first, how Trump made it into the running for my nation’s leader, but back then it was a bit of a joke. Next, it became hard to answer how he made it into the final two, as people across the globe realized the seriousness of our situation. Then, it became impossible to answer how he had won the presidency. My Japanese students didn’t understand. My fellow English teachers from other countries didn’t understand.
I was naïve and hopeful at the time that the repercussions of this wouldn’t be as bad as I was imagining. “Many American people want a change,” I tried to explain simply. “And Trump has promised a change. I just hope it is a good one.” The language barrier and my own confusion, disbelief, and denial made it difficult for me to fully express my opinions. But it did not prevent everyone else from expressing theirs.
I now have friends from Australia and New Zealand. I have friends from England, Ireland, Canada, Morocco, Taiwan, and of course, now, Japan. Combined, they’ve studied – and have work experience in – foreign languages, history, film, business, linguistics, education, science, medicine, literature, international relations, management, advertising, and philosophy. I have students who are businessmen, housewives, college students, lawyers, artists, salespeople, teachers, professors, landlords, translators, architects, and even the wife of a monk. A wide range of people with a wide range of experiences, abilities, and ideas. Yet they all agree on one thing. Donald Trump should not be the president.
My American friends and family members are split. Many of them agree with my foreign allies. A handful of them are conflicted because “vote Republican no matter what” never seemed to have such damaging consequences before. And a few of them stand faithfully with our nationalistic, artificial, disoriented president as he turns back the clock on progress while simultaneously turning the world on its head.
It’s time my country realized that to “make America great again,” does not mean what that man intended it to. True American greatness has never come from putting other people down, but from bringing them up. It has not come from excluding “the other” but from including the underdogs. It is not a competition to see who gets the title of World’s Best Country. And it is imperative that we stop thinking of our world as “us” versus “them.” Or else we will all lose together.

Taking Care of Business, and…

Japan’s schooling is fascinating.

In Japan, working overtime is the cool thing to do. You don’t actually have to be doing anything important. But you have to stay at work 1) as long as your boss does, and 2) long enough to tell people that you have ridiculously long hours. (Now, this isn’t always true. In some jobs, you actually have that much work to do – is it necessary work? I’m not sure. But the “overtime is cool” rule applies to almost everyone I’ve met.) The long hours have gotten so bad that many companies have to go through lawsuits based on claims of overworking their employees.

This transfers over to students in school. Being busy, ALL DAY, is the key to being (or looking) successful. I have junior high school students who come to my class at 9:00 pm, after a day of going to school around 8:00 am, going to some sort of sports club after school, and then usually going to cram school after that. They’re exhausted, physically and mentally, before my class even starts. They have a solid 14-hour day, every day. An exception here – at least in that particular class – was one boy who told me he also woke up at 5:30 every morning to study before school. Clocking in that overtime.

But with heavy competition to get into the right university, there started to be be intense competition to get into the right high school, and eventually more competition just to get into the right junior high school. So huge numbers of hours studying in order to get the right job are necessary before most students have even decided what their favorite class is.

If you pass the test to make it into one of the highly-selective private schools, you’re on the right track to a *bright future. But if not, you’re stuck in public school – which isn’t really where you learn things. Sleeping during class is okay. There are levels of respect to your teacher that must be paid, but the daily procedure is “listen and repeat.” Critical thinking isn’t required. And if you have any real questions, ask your cram school teacher. You just have to pay them a lot of money first.

Footnote: living in a country doesn’t make me an expert on it, and I can’t assume knowledge of the entire country based on the one prefecture I teach in. But these overtime, high-pressure tendencies are hardly out of the norm.

Life is Like a Sushi Roll (or something like that)

I fully intended to write blog posts every week. But life is crazy, and nine months after beginning this blog, I’m writing post number two.

Hey, it’s a start.

Switching from life in America to life in Asia is like seeing a koala for the first time after a life full of dogs and cats. Like, who are you? What are you doing? Why are you eating that?

For one things, trains are a beautiful invention. And Japanese trains, which run like clockwork, are absolutely fantastic. You can spend what would have been an hour-long drive listening to the same radio music you heard yesterday preparing for work, sending messages, playing a ridiculous number of Sudoku puzzles, or – gasp – taking a nap. But not eating. That’s a pretty solid no-no in public.

My parents seem to think I eat sushi every day. And, I mean, I can. But this country provides a plethora of other options, as well. Many specialties include ramen – gourmet or from a Styrofoam cup; lesbehonest, it’s still delicious – pizza, hamburgers, pasta, and OH MY GOSH curry. If you’ve never eaten curry, do yourself a favor and try it right now. Indian or Japanese, they’re both delicious. Just prepare yourself for the heat if you choose the top spiciness options; you’ll feel that heat again the next day. Of course, there’s also fish jerky, tiny dried fish that you eat eyeballs-and-all, chicken neck, cow tongue, raw horse, poisonous-if-cooked-wrong puffer fish, and this weird thing called natto that’s kind of like a mix between beans and Laffy Taffy. Lastly, one of my personal favorites in Japan is this brilliant thing called “Nomihoudai” (飲み放題), which means all-you-can-drink. Kind of like a buffet, but for alcohol. Solid 10/10, guys.

You also get to prepare answers for the inevitable question: “So, uh… Trump?” To which I usually grimace and say, “I’m so sorry.” The whole world was watching us on that one. And it’s pretty obvious we let them down.

One of the reasons I moved here was to learn Japanese, and let me tell y’all – it is SO much more difficult than I expected. You get pretty good at understanding things, picking up words here and there and puzzling them together to form a main idea, but forming sentences in a language that has a grammar structure almost entirely opposite of your own is harder than Calculus and Chemistry II combined. But if you’re not challenging yourself, what’s the point?

じゃあまたね。

 

Current favorite Japanese phrase: しょうがない

“Shouganai.”

It can’t be helped; oh well.

Running Away is for Grown-ups

Dear Toto,

Just saying the word Japan makes my heartrate go up, my mind go a little fuzzy, and all of a sudden I’m so excited/nervous/terrified that I can’t think about anything else. I’m leaving everything I know. I’m leaving everyone I know. Once or twice I’ve imagined staying, but I can’t; I know what’s here for me. And I guess I’m the kind of person who chooses the mystery box.

I’ve started to think I have this made-up condition called life ADD. I’ve had so many ideas in the year since I graduated from college and I haven’t gone through with any of them. I was supposed to move to a new state with my (ex) boyfriend. But then I didn’t. I was supposed to join the army. But then I didn’t. I was supposed to get this big editing job I’ve always dreamed of. But then I didn’t. And I thought of all of these things as failures. It’s quite possible they are failures. Or maybe they’re stepping stones, like arrows pointing me in the right direction. Maybe turning down the other ideas/opportunities just gave me the chance to say yes to this one. (It’s probably just random chance, but where’s the fun in that? Life gave me lemons, so I dumped the lemonade out and decided to go drink tea in Japan.)

I’ve always wanted to travel. From a very young age, I wanted to learn languages. Of course, the plan back then was to learn about one a year, which obviously didn’t work out, but now I have the chance to gain real-life experience with at least one. I’ve never wanted to teach. But I kept finding myself in teacher positions: instructing swim lessons and gymnastics classes and tutoring high schoolers, middle schoolers, and even my peers in college. I loved it. And, turns out, I was pretty good at it. I never wanted to work with people. I never thought of myself as a people-person. But now, through a rather hellish six-month period of working retail, I’ve found myself to be very good at talking to people, making connections and friends, persuading complete strangers to smile and laugh. And I like it. Side note: I think that’s a skill I got from my parents, and from my father in particular. It used to be embarrassing, the way he would talk to strangers at the grocery store or in restaurants, just being his goofy self and trying to get them to smile. But now that I’m older, I find that to be a characteristic that I admire and unconsciously try to emulate. Oops.

Put it all together, and basically I think moving to Japan to teach English is the right move for me at this point in my life. I need a new start. And there’s nothing like jumping continents to evade a pre-mid-twenties life crisis.

See, I’m leaving because I’m running away. From an ex-boyfriend and a future that is no longer mine. From the place where I tried so hard to start a life and yet was unable to make a home. From a self that wanted everything but kept ending up with nothing.

But I’m also running toward things: new possibilities, experiences, viewpoints. I’m running to a new way of life, because the one I’m living just isn’t working out for me.

Am I ready? Hell no. Am I going to try anyway? Of course I am.

Love, Kita

 

Current favorite Japanese phrase: かのじょはビールをもらうべきです

Kanojo wa biru wo morau beki desu.

She needs to be given a beer.