Small Moments

This was written for the Gunma Guide, an English language newsletter for Gunma Prefecture, Japan.

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In my opinion, there are two types of people who come to Japan; there are those who stay for a short time, and there are those who stay forever. Each of these individuals must have a spirit adventurous enough to pick up and move to an unfamiliar country. Those of us who come for a short time may have different experiences; some may have negative experiences and leave after only a few months, but I think most have positive experiences and stay longer than expected. Some become what are often known as “lifers”; those who have no plan to ever leave Japan and return to their home countries.

But what is it that these two groups have in common besides the obvious that they both live in Japan? For any person, living in a foreign country for any amount of time will leave indelible marks. We may seem calm and still like the surface of a pond; if we return to our home country we may at first seem the same as we did when we left. But like throwing a rock into the water, though the surface regains its former equilibrium, the rock stays forever, and we remain changed.

People who come to Japan may be searching for something. We may have little experience in teaching or a lot; we may be testing the waters of a new career. Some may not be used to living away from home, though some may be seasoned travelers. Some are looking for life’s inspiration. Some may have desperately craved a change of scenery and so they took the plunge. What we all share, however, is that Japan has changed us.

An increasing number of foreigners are staying in Japan. Some have fallen in love with the country: the mountains of Gunma, or the temples of Kyoto; the bustle of Tokyo or the winter beauty of Hokkaido. Some have found another form of love in a Japanese man or woman. But whether we stay or go, we have been changed.

As I sat down to write this article I couldn’t think of what to write. What were the defining moments of my time in Japan? After a few days of reflection, I realized that it was the small moments, not the big, which have had the greatest influence on my changing identity. In my time here I’ve struggled to learn a passable amount of Japanese, but I don’t feel that I’ve gained a justifiable talent; every advance is met by a plateau and I never feel that I can learn enough. I took up the hobby of photography after coming to Japan; in the new sights of temples, flea markets, fashion and Japanese culture I found a range of subjects on which to practice. My photographs will be a lasting to guide to all I have seen and experienced. My two years teaching at an all girls’ high school touched me more than I thought; I never planned to be a teacher, but every accomplishment which I nurtured and every successful class caused a burst of pride. The relationships I developed with my students, not only as a teacher, but as a mentor as well, brought forth a whole new world of possibilities for my life after Japan; I learned what it feels like to help others, and the feeling is good; a pebble breaking the surface of the water.

In my first year in Japan something special happened: I met a British man! Little did I know that one encounter would change my plans for the future so dramatically. A little more than a year later we were married. Our meeting changed the course of my life; my plan to stay in Japan for only a year changed and that year became three as we embarked on the stressful journey that is US immigration; each step a rock in succession briefly creating a ripple and then settling again.

In Gunma, every small moment threw something into the water: going to my Japanese teacher’s home in Numata and learning Japanese; eating dinner in the home of a Japanese family; the friendships I made with the English teachers I have worked with; attending matsuri in Numata, Maebashi, Kiryu, Omama and more; eating manju for the first time. Climbing Mt. Fuji with other Gunma ALTs and, though my friend’s illness prevented us from making it to the top, watching the sunrise over the lakes is one of my best memories from my first year in Japan; climbing Tanigawa-dake, and almost dying in the dark and rain, yet linking arms with the other survivors and limping home covered in mud and aching in pain; watching the yagibushi at the Kiryu Matsuri and joining in; the monthly antique fair in Kiryu; the amazing view outside my apartment in Numata and foot after foot of snow in the mountains my first winter; my first time to wear a yukata to a festival; my first attempt at snowboarding.

These are the moments in which my life in Gunma has changed me, as I am sure others have been changed. When I go back to the States I will take with me my memories and photographs, and stories of experiences both good and bad. My small moments in Gunma caused mounds of pebbles to settle at the bottom of the water of my inner-self, so in a way, Gunma has shaped key parts of my identity.

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