Dreaming of Electricity

Location Map of Numata in Gunma Prefecture, Japan

Image via Wikipedia

Except from my NaNoWriMo novel.  Copyright 2011 Bahia Simons-Lane

I was sitting in a car in Gunma Prefecture staring at the scenery rushing by.  It was unfamiliar and exotic; rice fields submersed partially in water and mountains on the horizon.  The journey to my own new home was almost complete and the adrenaline I had experienced until that point was fading.  Things had quieted down and soon would seem to stop.  For the moment, movement was still happening.  I was exhausted and made small talk with my new supervisor and coworker Kyoko, but my mind was far away thinking about what had led me down this path.

It all started when I was in college with a trip to Japan.  Actually, it started much farther back than that.  In high school I was introduced to the world of Japanese animation, which at the time was so different than what we had the USA.  I guess that’s what put Japan on the map for me as a real tangible place.  From the animation, the style, the mature themes, and unique worlds I could tell that Japan was something different and unfamiliar, but I at the time I didn’t think about going there.  It wasn’t until later in college when I had a chance to visit a friend living near Tokyo that I got a taste of the incredible and unique city of Tokyo and my eyes were opened.

The vastness of Tokyo’s urban sprawl, the tall buildings and neon lights, the experience of being truly outside a culture looking in gripped me strongly and didn’t let go even after I went back to the USA.  A subsequent obsession with Japanese culture ensued, and I took every Japan related class I could, in spite of my very different declared theater major.  I took classes on Japanese history (from modern to ancient), classes on popular culture (from animation to music), and classes on Japanese theater (from Noh to Kabuki).  The only area in which I didn’t excel were my Japanese language classes, which were demanding for a theater major spending 14 hours on campus a day.  However, the more I learned, the more eager I was to spend more time in this place that had gripped my interest.

After I finished my BA in Theater Arts, I was accepted to the graduate certificate program for Theater, where I took additional classes and honed my expertise in the areas of directing and stage management and worked as a teaching assistant for several theater classes.  That year I learned about the JET Programme, which was a way I could go live and teach English in Japan.  It seemed perfectly suited for the experience I wanted.  I applied and passed the first round.

As I prepared for the interview, I dyed my hair back to a normal color and took out my piercings.  I knew that if I was accepted to the program my days as a punk rock girl were over.  It seemed to be worth it – at least I hoped it would.  I walked into a very strange interview in San Francisco and fielded questions about how I would handle isolation in a rural environment.  Again and again they tried to assess whether I would have a mental breakdown if they were to place me somewhere that I would be in the countryside and isolated from other foreigners.  They seemed satisfied with my answers, because when I got the results of my interview I found out I was accepted to the program.

Boarding the plane in Washington, DC, I was both nervous and excited.  I had moved back to my home town to spend a last month with family and friends before embarking on this journey.  I was setting off, excited and hopeful, leaving everything behind in pursuit of a dream.  I was buoyed by a great mix of feelings; hope and excitement fluttering in my chest.  Nowhere was there a hint of apprehension – I was ready for the adventure.

I cracked open the latest Harry Potter and settled back for the first leg of the trip to Minneapolis and then on to Tokyo and orientation.  The journey did not go smoothly, however.  On our layover a mechanics strike prevented us from taking off on time and we were force to delay our flight to Tokyo until the next day.  That evening, the airline put us up in a hotel and we caroused in the karaoke bar with the locals watching on.  There was a sense of camaraderie in the air; not only were we going to Japan together, but we were stuck together passing the time until the coming dawn.  By the time we boarded the plane the next day, we felt like a community.

When we finally arrived in Tokyo, we had missed most of the first day of orientation.  We were bedraggled and tired, but did our best to get on the right time zone and attend the seminars.  One evening as we ventured out to find dinner, I stood in the center of Shinjuku as the bustle of the city enveloped me and felt a strong sense of satisfaction.

The next two and half days were a whirlwind.  We sent our luggage ahead to our region and connected with people going to the same area as us.    We had our first experiences at restaurants pointing at the pictures in the menus and in the case of menus without pictures ordering strange things we didn’t mean to order.

When we boarded the bus to Gunma, we were jostling and joking.  We were instructed on what would happen at the other end where we would have an official ceremony when we met our supervisors.  That experience was the one where I first realized how different things were to be living and working in Japan compared with just being a tourist.  The very formal ceremony in a school gymnasium required us to walk across the floor when called and meet our supervisor and then bow.  I quickly learned that this is pretty typical of Japanese ceremonies, but at the time it seemed incredibly foreign – not to mention that bowing does not come naturally to one who hasn’t lived in a culture where it is the norm.

I was interrupted from my thoughts when we entered a giant tunnel that took us through a very large mountain – I knew that my new city of Numata was pretty far from the major Gunma cities of Maebashi and Takasaki, but I hadn’t realized just how isolated it would be.  On the other side of a mountain is pretty isolated…  I later learned that it was a 45 minute train ride to Maebashi with at least one train every hour, but the journey by car was much further.

We pulled up into the parking lot of the school where I would be teaching to pick up my luggage that was sent again.  It was an all girls high school in a small city of 50,000 and it didn’t feel like much of a city.  When we walked in the main entrance I was greeted by rows of shoe cubbies where the staff store their indoor shoes.  I shoved my feet into green guest slippers and shuffled behind Kyoko to meet the principal and present him with the gift I had brought from Washington, DC.  He was an intimidating man with a square face, thick black hair and a smell of cigarette smoke.  I later learned that he was somewhat of a tyrant and intimidated the staff.  Fond of tirades and chain smoking I was fortunate to not need to interact with him much, especially because of my non-existent Japanese at the time and his non-existent English.

Next we went to the teacher’s room, which is where each teacher has their own desk that they use as their home base between classes.  The vice principal’s desk was at the front of the room and we went to meet him first.  I also gave him a small gift from Washington, DC.  Then I had the chance to meet several of the English teachers that I would be working with, many of which had good English just like my supervisor.

My luggage was stored in a storage closet downstairs and we grabbed it and loaded it in the car before driving over to my new apartment.  I had seen pictures of the apartment on my predecessor’s blog, but they had only included the inside of the apartment.  When we pulled up I was surprised at the drabness of the pink building.  Dusty steps and huge green spiders in webs greeted us as we dragged the luggage up three flights to my apartment door.  Kyoko opened the apartment and then gave me the keys.  She told me that one of the nearby ALTs would come by to take me to a festival that was happening that weekend and that she would come and get me the next day to help me get a phone and internet.

When the door shut behind her I was hit with a moment of desperation.  I looked around the apartment.  My predecessor had left a note for me: “You must be tired from your journey.  You may be feeling a little homesick, so here is some stationary to pass the time.”

The apartment was full of blue pastels and old furniture provided by the landlord.  The colors and the decor felt wrong – the apartment didn’t feel like home.  When I opened the fridge, which was off, there were relics left – spoiled mayonnaise alone on a shelf.  The refrigerator was unplugged and it needed to be cleaned and was missing some shelves.  The closet was big, but had no bar for clothing.  Creeping over me was a feeling of unease.  What had I gotten myself into?  Here I was, completely alone in a new country.  I couldn’t speak the language.  I didn’t know anyone.  I didn’t have a phone or internet.  I didn’t have much information about what the job ahead of me would entail.  I started to cry.  Exhausted from the journey and the overwhelming feelings, I lay down on the couch and fell asleep.

The feelings I had after just arriving to my new home was the only moment in Japan where I had such a strong feeling of isolation and “what am I doing here”.   The first night in my new place where I was completely alone was such a contrast to the first few days from departure from the USA.   When you arrive in Tokyo for orientation, there are many other people and you’re all in the same place.  You’re all excited and you buoy each other with that excitement.  When you finally stop when you arrive at your new home it is so quiet and alone that you don’t know how to react and so it’s very easy to break down.

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  1. […] That year I learned about the JET Programme, which was a way I could go live and teach English in Japan . It seemed perfectly suited for the experience I wanted. I applied and passed the first round The rest is here: Dreaming of Electricity | Bahia Portfolio […]



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