Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Random Memories #76 - the last weeks in Japan - part 8

Among the earliest of my tribe of returning students was a woman who contacted me late in 2011. She had studied with me for about six months several years earlier and had stopped when she ran out of money. I will call her "M", and the memory of how I finished my time with her is one I've been dreading telling.

"M" was almost the same age as me and, like me, she grew up in a rural area and in far less than the best of family circumstances. At the time that I taught her, she was in contact with her mother and had a brother who she infrequently talked to, but with whom she didn't have an especially close relationship. Her situation with her father was the type that you see in movies, but people don't imagine happen in "normal" Japan. All too often, I found that they weren't that unusual and that people just didn't talk about them because of the shame involved in revealing the skeletons in the family closet.

M's father hadn't been in her life since she was in her early teens. He had gotten involved with organized crime and had some debt because of a business failure. When she told me he had made a lot of debt, I asked specifically if he had gambled and she said he had not, but had pursued a business interest that was not profitable for far too long. In order to not taint his family with the shame that he'd brought upon himself - and possibly to isolate them from any strong-arm tactics or harassment - he divorced his wife and abandoned his family. M hadn't seen him since that time and had no idea where he was living or what had become of him.

From my ethnocentric viewpoint, the father's choices were an act of cowardice. This was an opinion that I did not share with M because it really was not my place to do so and I knew it was a culturally biased perspective. She felt that he'd done them a great favor and made a sacrifice for the greater good. This was despite the fact that her mother had to work hard at a relatively menial and low-paying job to support her kids. In fact, her mother, despite being around 80 years of age, was still was doing the same job. My vague recollection was that the job had to do with preparing bento meals. I imagined it was the type of work that is behind things like the super cheap bentos (400-500 yen) sold in stands in busy districts in Tokyo.

When I was teaching M. She focused on how things turned out okay for everyone in her family, but I thought about how things would have been better if her family hadn't been impacted by her father's mistakes. She saw self-sacrifice as a bigger part of the situation and I saw her father's poor judgement which lead to the need for the choices he made. This difference in our perspectives on life illustrated something very important that was to later become an issue in our lessons.

M's  English was fairly advanced. Her vocabulary and listening comprehension were quite high because she had lived in Canada for some time, but her vocabulary since leaving our neighbor to the North had atrophied to a great extent and her pronunciation could be rather tenaciously poor at times. Her katakana English was something she was aware of and wanted me to help her correct, and I did my best, but such issues are one of the hardest to overcome. In the years between her initial lessons with me and those taken before I left Japan, this problem had only worsened. Since she occasionally needed to communicate with guests from abroad at her work, and had sought me out specifically to prepare for certain guests, she wanted to be able to speak more clearly.

M's job was one of those non-descript office jobs that Japanese women tend to hold. It was so unremarkable and she discussed it so little that I cannot remember what she did besides sit at her desk and work with office software and do paperwork. She wasn't paid poorly, but she also wasn't paid especially well and I think she was conservative with her spending because she knew she had no support system if she didn't save her yen. Her mother had no assets to leave her and her brother was looking after his own interests.

I'm sure she saved a fair bit of money by Western standards, but not nearly enough for someone who was facing retirement alone and without property, prospects, or connections. One of the other things M and I had in common was that we had no financial safety net if our lives fell apart and we had to work hard and make our way entirely on our own. Sure, I am married, but my husband was in the same boat as me. No one paid our way. No one was helping us with anything and, no one would catch us if we fell. I knew why M lived a simple life and saved. I was doing the same thing for the same reasons.

From her description, M lived an small, old apartment with no air conditioning. Her style of apartment is called a 1DK (DK = dining kitchen) in Japan. She rarely ate meat and said she was fine living mainly off of tofu because it was a far cheaper source of protein. Unlike many people in offices who went out for dinner and lunch, she usually prepared her own meals because it was so much cheaper. Sometimes she felt quite vulnerable in that place as she'd been telephone stalked at one point by a former boyfriend, but she was generally okay with living alone.

M's social life wasn't vast and mainly seemed to involve the occasional meet up with old friends for lunch, but she complained to me that her life had become incredibly "small". She expressly said that she felt her life was stagnant and wanted badly to "grow" beyond her little life, but expressed fear at ever doing so. She couldn't bring herself to strike out in ways that might have improved her quality of life. She didn't have a cell phone (nor did I at that time) nor did she even have internet at her apartment. Her free time was spent doing daily chores or reading books, mainly second-hand English books that she purchased at a dingy old shop in Koenji.

It's important not to mistake her saying her life was "small" with seeing her as "small". She was not only physically larger than most average Japanese women - that is to say, somewhat taller and with bigger bones - but she was no wilting flower. M was much more assertive than the average Japanese person when speaking to me. She never mentioned much in the way of difficulties with her Japanese compatriots, and I suspect she knew where to draw the line with various people, but the fact that she had lived abroad for some time showed in her personality.

M was a curious mix of rigid Japanese mentality with Western assertiveness. I'm sure it got her in trouble from time to time with people, but it likely caused her more suffering than anyone else. She knew the box that Japanese culture expected her to live in, but she also had the impulse and energy to want to break out of it This is what happens when one has lived outside of that box for some time and knew what it felt like to be free of such thinking. I know this feeling well since I also lived abroad long enough to feel like an alien in my home culture. It creates internal forces that make you constantly feel at odds with everything around you, but you cannot act on your feelings without appearing strange or even crazy.

I've written before about women who dream of landing a Western husband, and M's path in life was an example of what happens when such hopes do not play out as planned. The reason that she had lived in Canada for some time was that she had been co-habitating with her Canadian boyfriend. They lived together for a number of years, but the relationship fizzled out. There were some cross-cultural issues, some of which I experienced with M in discussions in our lessons, and ultimately he ended it.

The problem with what happened to M was that Japan, at least at that time, was an especially unwelcoming place for women who allowed themselves to be "sullied" by consorting with a foreign man. She was essentially "tainted" after years of living abroad with a foreigner and she came home at an age that was considered too "mature" to be appealing. Keep in mind that the idea of "Christmas cake" (no good after the 25th - in the case, a woman lost her appeal after she passed beyond her 25th birthday) was still in play when M was younger, so she was fairly well past her sell-by date by the time her Canadian relationship had fizzled.

M invested a lot in a dream of marriage and life in Canada and I think she gave up to some extent after coming home to Japan. Part of the smallness of her life was likely related to pinning her future on the wrong person in the wrong place and finding the window of opportunity for a conventional path to happiness tightly sealed. She lacked the confidence or the personality type to strike out on an unconventional path. She knew the limits she was putting on herself, but didn't have whatever that special something is that makes people take risks - or she once had it when she moved to Canada and was burned sufficiently badly that she decided not to take such a chance again.

When M got back in touch with me, I told her immediately that I would be leaving soon. In the first lesson, she told me that she admired how I'd changed my life since she'd last talked to me and wished that she could take the risks that I was taking to move ahead with life and expand my life and experiences. I told her that I thought she could do it, too, and tried to encourage her as much as possible. She said she wanted to do so, and that my situation inspired her to want to try a bit more to branch out.

Since M only wanted to take lessons with me for a finite time - again - because she didn't have the money to do ongoing study, she didn't mind that I was leaving soon. She told me that she really thought I was a good teacher and was very happy to have the chance to study with me again. The truth was that she was one of the very few students who I'd taught who I saw as a true contemporary and the only Japanese person with whom I thought I could have been "equal" friends with had we not gotten to know each other at first through a business relationship.

When I say that we could have been "equal" friends, I mean that I felt there was a chance that I could be, at least to some extent, the "real" me with her instead of the me that was carefully designed to cater at every moment to the needs, wishes, interests, and limits of my students. In fact, I entertained the possibility that she and I might have a distance friendship of some sort after I had left Japan. Unfortunately, I blew it.

In my lessons with M, she was fairly candid with me in ways which other students were not. She would tell me that I was being impractical or unrealistic about what was possible in life and needed to simply accept what was rather than complaining or asserting that things could or should be different. At one point, during her next to the last scheduled lesson with me, we had a conversation about the medical system in Japan and America. This happened naturally, but it was a time in my life when such issues were very much on my mind. At that time, my sister had been diagnosed with stage 3 cancer and had lost her health insurance at work due to down-sizing. She was staring down the barrel of enormous medical expenses and her prognosis was uncertain.

M was lecturing me about how the medical system was what it was and that I should just accept that there were economic limits and some people simply couldn't get the best care. She was telling me how we had to live with what was rather than complain about what should be. I wasn't in any state to put up with her compliant Japanese mentality and instructing me with an air of exasperation to just placidly accept what was without complaint and I rather emotionally (holding back tears - not shouting or angry) told her that my sister had cancer and that, for some people, the issue was not just an academic topic. Real people were sick. Real people might die. Real people's lives were destroyed or damaged by such things, and my sister was one of them.

The truth was that I lost it and the way things turned out was all on my shoulders. She was being insensitive, but she didn't know that was what she was doing as she had no way of knowing what was going on with me. I allowed my real life and feelings to intrude on a lesson and, unsurprisingly, this put her off rather badly. She felt guilty for what she'd said and apologized at the end of the lesson. I could tell that she was very shook up and wasn't surprised with she cancelled her last lesson with me.

We also had arranged for a "goodbye dinner" at a local curry restaurant at which she was going to meet my husband. She apologized for not being able to make that engagement as well and gave some flimsy excuse that I'm sure she knew I wouldn't believe. She didn't say that this was because of what happened in the lesson, but I knew that it was. When I e-mailed her back, I told her little more than "I understand." "I understand" is frequently code in Japan for 'we're both lying to avoid the unpleasant truth and to spare embarrassment on someone's part'. If you ever deal with a Japanese company, "I understand" is a pretty loaded statement most of the time so consider reading between the lines when you hear those two words.

I left it at that, because, though I could emotionally justify what had happened, I could not do so professionally or humanistically. I closed the distance between us when I should have kept it intact. It may have happened because I had hopes of being friends with her after I left Japan. It may have occurred because I was on edge due to my sister's cancer and extremely tenuous situation. It may have been the result of my change in attitude toward life in Japan as the date of departure drew near. It was probably all of these things and more, but this memory of how I messed up has stuck with me and made the thoughts of the end of my days even more complex.

It's important to make it clear that I wasn't upset about what happened because of the lost chance to be friends with M. Chances were that not much could have been built through correspondence anyway. I'm not even especially angry with myself for a lapse in professionalism, though that is a tiny piece of it. I did pride myself on being able to keep my interests at bay with students and my feelings in check, but this was an unusual situation on my part. I don't often have my only sibling and closest family diagnosed with a potentially fatal disease and facing complete economic ruin. I still wish I'd done things differently, but I can "forgive" myself such a lapse as I would forgive anyone else in a similar situation.

The biggest piece about this that I'm unhappy with is how I left things with this woman with the small life. I'm concerned that she felt bad about herself for what she said and how it made me react. I'm unhappy that I could have been a small conduit through which she could have found the courage to make her tiny, boring life bigger and that was lost because I lost my composure in a situation in which I had no right to do so. One of the messages that I took away from my time with students in Japan was that, for the most part, my presence changed their lives for the better. In this case, I left with the sense that I certainly left M no better, and may have left her slightly worse. I'll never know for sure. (to be continued)


  1. This is one of the most moving things I've ever read about life as an expat anywhere. I eagerly await more. Thank you.

  2. Thank you so much for such a poignant and honest reflection on your last days/weeks in Japan. I, too, look forward to what is to come.

    As one who taught English in Japan as well I could readily empathize with your feelings of simpatico with this student. As loved ones of mine have struggled with cancer I can relate to your circumstances from that particular perspective. I hope you will let us know what happened with your sister as well.

    best wishes


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