There’s a certain Thanksgiving dish that, with one bite, takes me back to my favorite winter comfort food in Asia: sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes are one of the most popular winter street foods throughout China, Japan, Korea, and basically any country in East Asia with temperatures that drops below freezing.
In the USA, we know the typical sweet potato dish at Thanksgiving as a diabetic’s worst nightmare: mashed yams sprinkled in brown sugar and baked with a blanket of marshmallows. In China and Japan, however, sweet potatoes are prepared au natural: just the potato, wrapped in foil or paper, and baked until soft and moist.read more
Working for a Japanese company actually has many unseen benefits compared to an American company. Despite what I wrote in my previous blog post, it’s definitely not all bad. While there are still many drawbacks to being employed at Japanese companies, I think it’s worth looking at the silver lining.
For the first time in my 10 year career, I am starting a job that has absolutely zero involvement with Japan. I will not work with Japanese clients, I will not have Japanese colleagues, and I am most definitely not working for a Japanese company. read more
The secret to long life for the overworked Japanese? A hot bath
It’s ironic that one of the most overworked populations in the world is also the country with the longest average lifespan.
Japan has one of the most grueling work ethics in the world, where the average employee is expected to put in more than 80 hours of overtime per month. In prior posts I wrote about a Japanese colleague who worked himself sick to the point where he came into the office with an IV drip; while another Japanese colleague sat at his desk to the point of unconsciousness, only to wake up in the ER and demand his work laptop from the hospital bed. From these examples, it is easy to see how the word ‘karoshi,’ or death from overwork, came to be part of the everyday Japanese lexicon.read more
How to Split the Check in China, Japan and in America
I think all Americans have at least one extremely unpleasant memory of splitting the check at a restaurant with friends. Let’s face it: in the states, when you go out with a group of friends and the check comes at a restaurant, it ain’t a pretty sight. You whip out a pen and a calculator, ready for the math to begin. You beg the server to swipe six separate cards, since no one ever brings cash anymore. You start fighting over who should pay for the appetizer, based on bites taken.
While Venmo and other money transferring apps have alleviated some of the headache, there is no denying one fact about splitting the bill in America:read more
How to Hike the Kumano Kodo in Japan – Nakahechi Trail
Almost three years ago I hiked the Kumano Kodo trail, one of Japan’s holy pilgrimages and only one of two UNESCO recognized pilgrimages in the world. I wrote about my experience here, but I did not follow through on my promise to write a guide.
Three years ago it was extremely difficult for me to find a blog post that detailed an itinerary on how to do the most frequented trail (Nakahechi) on the Kumano Kodo. I spent hours researching and I guessed on so many items. Even with my Japanese skills, planning this trip was tough.read more
The First AMWF Anime Ever: Tada-Kun Never Falls in Love
When I first heard of the title “Tada-Kun Never Falls in Love,” it sounded really bad–even for anime.
I only started watching it because, somewhere on the internet, I found a clip of the show that really piqued my interest. I can’t find the exact clip (dammit!), but basically it involved a foreign, blonde woman approaching a young Japanese man and asking him to take her photo (she asks in perfect Japanese).
He then begins to freak out and speak really bad English, saying that it’s hard for him to communicate without Japanese.
“Oh,” she cocks her head and looks at him. “Does my Japanese sound strange? Is it incorrect?”
“Um,” he replies in Japanese. “No. Not at all.”
My first thought after watching this clip was:
Wow, I have been the foreign girl in that situation more times than I can count.
My second thought after watching this clip was:
Oh my god! Her reply is BRILLIANT! I’m totally going to say that in Japan next time someone responds to my Japanese with really bad English.
My third thought was:
Holy shit, is this an actual anime about a foreign woman (not just some blonde anime character) and a Japanese man falling in love?
Thanks to the above clip, I decided to give “Tada-Kun Never Falls in Love” a chance. Tada-Kun basically chronicles the story of Tada Mitsuyoshi, a strapping young lad who works at his grandpa’s coffee shop and wants to someday be a photographer. He stumbles upon Teresa, a blonde foreign woman, while taking photographs in a park. Eventually their paths cross again once he finds out, coincidentally, Teresa is an exchange student at his local high school. Oh, she also happens to be living right next door to his coffee shop while staying in Japan. Talk about destiny, eh?
Anyway, it’s a very slice-of-life show that tells the story of Teresa’s time in Japan and her newfound Japanese friends (Tada and the photography club). It’s a corny show (cue the sakura petals and wind blowing in hair) and is pretty goddamn ridiculous (Teresa is European royalty–wtf?), but there are some real positive aspects to the show that I just have to highlight.
It Doesn’t Focus on “Foreign”ness
It’s hardly mentioned that Teresa is a foreigner–in fact, her Japanese classmates treat her just like anyone else. Maybe this isn’t realistic… but I really like it. In fact, I think this is how stereotypes about foreigners will gradually go away in Japan: by showcasing more foreigners in media where they are not treated like circus animals.
Tada never asks Teresa if she can use chopsticks. He never comments on her Japanese ability. He doesn’t even comment on her foreign physical features–he just LIKES the girl for who she is–not where she is from. I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to see Japanese media that doesn’t highlight all the cultural differences of how foreigners don’t fit into Japan. This anime does a great job of showing a foreign woman fit seamlessly into Japanese society…. with a Japanese man accepting that fact, no questions asked.
Tada and Teresa are Boring, but Likable
Teresa, despite being a supposed foreigner, acts like a typical Japanese girl. She’s cute, demure, polite and has a high-pitched squeaky voice. While she may not be all that interesting and a little dense, she’s definitely not a detestable character.
I’m a fan of Tada; although I do admit, he’s kind of vanilla as well. Still, he’s a good guy with dreams and aspirations and treats Teresa and his friends/family very well. Although it’s somewhat unrealistic, he’s also very open for a Japanese man. He tells Teresa his heart’s deepest, darkest secrets (despite her being a foreigner!) and she listens with a smile. It’s cute.
Hints at Japan’s Internationalization
With a declining population, labor shortage, and rise of tourism–Japan is seeing (and needing) more foreigners than ever. The amount of foreigners that I saw in Japan while traveling in 2016 is almost double compared to when I lived in Niigata in 2010.
It’s a fact that there are way more foreigners in Japan now. While most foreigners don’t stay in Japan for the long-haul, all the short-term tourists are helping the Japanese people become a little more accustomed to seeing and interacting with foreigners. To take it a step further, I think Japanese people are even starting to realize that within this crowd of tourists/exchange students/overseas workers, there are actually a good number of assimilated, Japanese-speaking foreigners–just like this anime highlights.
Honestly, if the interaction between Teresa and Tada were the norm in Japan I probably wouldn’t have left. This anime presents an alternate-Japan I someday hope becomes reality.
Finally… Should You Watch This Show?
No. You shouldn’t. It’s shojo (girly-anime) garbage–but it’s better than most other garbage. There are still a lot of eye-rolling, anti-feminist anime moments in the show; but not enough to make me quit. Teresa and Tada have sucked me in and now I must watch until the very end.
Whether you watch Tada-Kun or not, one thing is for certain: this is a show that paints a very positive image of an AMWF relationship, as well as foreign-Japanese interaction in Japan.
Tada-Kun is now airing and can be seen on Crunchyroll, if interested.
Lately I’ve been watching cheesy Japanese dramas and I started to notice something bewildering: when a young Japanese couple begin to date officially as a couple, they start to address each other by first name. The dynamic of their relationship completely changes. In one particular drama, the boyfriend told his new girlfriend that she should call him by his first name, “Kotaro,” instead of his last name, “Taniguchi-san.” She blushed and said she wasn’t ready to take their relationship to “first name status” intimacy.
Watching these dramas also reminded me of the Japanese advertisement that made headlines a few years back. In this advertisement, a Japanese mom and housewife is shaken to the core when her husband calls her by her first name. Most men call their Japanese wives “okaasan” (mother) and never by their first name.
This weird take on Japanese names and intimacy made me reflect on my own situations with Japanese people and our relationships.
Takada-san and I sat next to each other at the office. She was my boss. Despite discussing our hopes and dreams to each other, going out drinking at old Shanghai bars, working late nights at the office, and even having her attend my wedding last year, I still call her Takada-san.
Her first name is Yuko, but I have yet to call her that and probably never will. If I called Takada-san by her first name it would completely change the dynamic of our relationship. If I crossed the line and called her by first name alone, would she think I was being rude and uncouth? Would I be disrespecting her as a former employer, and as an elder to myself?
So I play it safe and call her Takada-san. Even with my host-moms in Nagano and Niigata, I don’t risk it. I still address them as last name + san.
The Herbivore Man
At my previous company there was a Japanese man who was the same age as Tohko and I. When I first saw him, two words instantly popped into my mind:
He dressed better than me. His hair was beautiful. He spoke softly and gently. He was like a delicate wildflower about to be blown away by a summer gust of wind.
“Ishi-san,” I bowed slightly. “Hajimemashite.”
He did likewise. Instead of addressing me by using last name + san like I did, he called me Mary-san (I’ll explain why later).
Ishi-san and I, along with Tohko, hung out a few times in Shanghai. We went on the company trip together to Jeju Island and had a good time. He was a nice guy and, in my mind, the epitome of a modern Japanese man. Beautiful, delicate, and subdued.
When I visited Tokyo two years ago, he took the two hour train from Yokohama to come and see me for dinner. When he visited LA last year, I drove up from San Diego and took him around to see the LA sights (as a fan of La La Land, he was touched seeing Griffith Observatory in person).
As we chatted over dinner in LA, it hit me:
Holy shit. What is this guy’s first name?
I am embarrassed to admit this, but I had to look him up on Facebook to remember his first name. When I saw his first name, I simply could not fathom ever calling him by it. I could only imagine the reaction this herbivore man would have if I suddenly addressed him by his first name (minus ‘san’). He would probably go into instant shock and stop talking. Maybe he would even block me post-meeting, since I so quickly intruded into his personal space by addressing him by first name alone. The herbivore man does not take sudden intimacy well.
In other words, calling Japanese people by their first name alone is a huge penetration into their personal space.
The Foreigner Exception
I think I mentioned that all Japanese people, including Takada-san and Ishi-san, call me Mary-san. In my many years in Japan, no one has ever addressed me as “last name + san.”
One of my favorite bloggers wrote a scathing blog post against the Japanese, saying their inability to call foreigners “last name +san” is an insult and degrading. When I was a teacher in Japan, all of the students addressed the Japanese teachers as “last name + sensei.” I was always “Mary Sensei.” Never Last Name + Sensei.
I believe Japanese people are aware that, in western cultures, we address each other by our first names (especially in the USA). We like to keep it casual. Japanese people address me by my first name because it’s ‘normal’ for my culture, but to call me ‘Mary’ without a ‘san’ attached would denote too much intimacy for their comfort. The first name+san is their hybrid way to be casual like a westerner, yet keep that Japanese distance they value.
The Westernized Japanese
My hyper-westernized Japanese friend Tohko had more western friends than Japanese ones. In fact, she was so westernized that Japanese people often mistook her as a foreigner in Japan.
When I first met Tohko, our conversation was so casual (and conducted halfway in English) that the thought of calling her ‘san’ didn’t even pass my mind. Our relationship started out in English–a language without all the Japanese formality–so we addressed each other merely as Tohko and Mary.
In the USA I met another good Japanese friend, Manami. From day one I called her Manami and she addressed me as Mary, and it’s because our conversation started out in English. If we were in Japan and met for the first time in Japanese, I probably would have bowed, introduced myself, and called her last name + san. The English language combined with western cultural dynamics already elevated our relationship to a whole new level.
The thought of calling Manami or Tohko by their last name is incomprehensible to me.
When I first met my Japanese friend K, I thought he was one year older than me. It was tricky to figure out what to call him, because while he was older than me the two of us didn’t have any other professional relationship to set the boundary. He wasn’t my coworker and he wasn’t my classmate. I decided to call him by his first name followed by “san” to play it safe. K-san. First name + san is usually used for someone you’re acquaintances with, but still not quite close to yet.
I kept this up for about two months until, finally, K could take it no more.
“Mary,” K rolled his eyes. “We’re close friends now. It’s weird having you call me K-san. Just call me K.”
It only took seven years (yes, seven years), but I was able to address a non-westernized Japanese person by first name alone. It made me realize that opening up to a Japanese person–and achieving that first-name-basis relationship–was not impossible.
Going to Kyushu, Japan? Why Visiting Yakushima is Worth it
When I told my Japanese friend Tohko that we were going to be in Japan, she said she would meet us in Kyushu on one condition:
We go to Yakushima.
Yakushima? Where and what is it?
It’s the greenest and wettest place in the country, receiving more rainfall than any other location in Japan. On top of that, the island has a strong reputation for being a spiritual and mystical retreat, and rightly so; it did, after all, serve as the inspiration for the animated film Princess Mononoke.
I always told myself that, someday, I just had to go to Yakushima (similar to my desire to go to Kumano Kodo). Not only is Princess Mononoke my favorite Studio Ghibli movie, but when I googled Yakushima and looked at the images, the greenery blew me away.
But first, we gotta get one thing straight: Yakushima is not an easy side trip. It’s far away. Really far away.
To be honest, I thought the inconvenience of going to Yakushima wasn’t worth it; but then again, I really wanted to see Tohko.
In the end, I’m glad Tohko gave me the extra push to go to Yakushima. It was my favorite part of Kyushu–and here’s why:
Where to Go
Cedarland (Yakisuki Land) 屋久杉ランド
When the tourism office told us to go to Cedarland, Tohko and I were super skeptical. It sounded like a corny, cedar-themed amusement park for kids.
But don’t let the name fool you. It’s a protected natural par… and it’s stunning.
To say Cedarland was lush and green is an understatement. It’s a rainforest. There is moss and growth everywhere. The water is clear, transparent and fresh. It’s extremely wet. We were constantly slipping around on muddied trails (in fact, I even fell in a mud pit!), but the added hurdle only added to the excitement.
The main trail is well-maintained, but if you venture off into the lesser-traveled routes you’ll find trails in disrepair. While it’s exciting to go off road, travelers should exercise caution: its extremely slippery and one wrong step will send you sliding down a muddy hillside. Be careful!
Seaside Hot Springs (Yudomari Onsen)
Japan loves hot springs, so it’s not surprising that people are willing to strip down naked in public to hop into a seaside thermal bath.
That’s exactly what we did at Yudomari Onsen. I have to admit, even I was self-conscious about the teeny-tiny two foot bamboo wall that attempted to separate the male and female hot springs. Although the water was lukewarm, it was an experience: who else can say they bathed in a seaside hot spring watching the sunset?
So, we saw a lot of epic waterfalls–and trust me, there are a lot of majestic waterfalls all over the island. You can’t go wrong.
I highly recommend Senpiro waterfall. It’s a quick stop and the observation deck not only provides the perfect photo opportunity of the gigantic waterfall, but also gives you a stunning 360 view of the villages and surrounding island.
Plus, there’s picnic tables up there. Bring some bento boxes up to the top and enjoy lunch in the bliss of a perfect waterfall view.
Where to Stay?
If you’re staying in Yakushima, I just have one word for you: Minshuku.
As I wrote in my Kumano Kodo post, minshukus are my absolute favorite type of lodgings in Japan. They’re basically the Japanese version of a British bed and breakfast. You can also think of them as as a more intimate ryokan.
Tohko reserved a room for us at a minshuku called Shiki no Yado….. and wow. I cannot recommend this place enough.
Not only is Shiki no Yado located beneath a dormant volcano, but the rooms are spacious; wooden and clean. Plus, the staff speaks great English.
The Japanese family running the minshuku are wholesome and kind. The wife told us she’s originally from Yakushima, but went to Tokyo for about 15 years to work until she said–enough. Now she’s living the simple life, running a minshuku in rural Yakushima… and I can see the appeal.
Where to Eat
At the Minshuku
Minshuku meals are Japan’s cuisine at its finest. At Shiki no Yado the owners not only prepared the meals fresh from scratch everyday, but they used locally sourced ingredients from their own farm (!!!). This food was legit farm to table, and at a stellar price.
Iso no Kaori
Tohko’s friend also recommended a place called “Iso no Kaori.” It’s a tiny teishoku (set-meal) establishment on the side of the highway that loops around Yakushima. It’s fresh food at great prices. Definitely worth a visit.
Yakushima Travel Tips
Watch the Weather: Yakushima weather is unpredictable–ensure that you avoid the rainy season when going to Yakushima. We were unable to go to Yakushima’s most famous site (Jomon Sugi) because of the heavy rains. Keep this in mind.
How Long Should I Stay? We were only here for two days and one night. While we were able to have an enjoyable vacation, I would say three days and two nights would be an ideal time frame. If you’re looking for a place to relax for a long stretch of time, such as one full week, this would also be a good destination to kick back.
What to Bring? Pack good hiking gear and water resistant clothes! I would also bring an extra pair of shoes in case you trip and fall in the mud, like I did.
Get a Kyushu Rail Pass: If you’re going to have an extended trip in Kyushu ONLY, I recommend getting the Kyushu rail pass. It’s like the nationwide JR rail pass, but only for Kyushu. It’s an all you can ride, 5-day pass for about 180 USD.
According to the news, China is about to rule the world and the Japanese are poised for extinction via low birthrates. With an ever-rising China and a Japan on the decline, one has to wonder: Will learning Japanese actually get me a job? And more importantly, will learning Chinese get me an even better job?
However, via this particular post, I received multiple emails from young college students asking for even more advice. What kind of jobs can I get with these language skills? What level of proficiency do I need? And most of all: Are learning these languages just a massive waste of time?
The combination of these questions, and my recent job hunt, has led me to the following conclusions:
Japanese is Not Useless
When I first started learning Japanese, it was still the number two economy in the world. Japan was going places. They had Sony, Hitachi, Toyota, and a bunch of other recognizable and respectable companies. I thought knowing Japanese would really take me places.
Then China surpassed Japan economically, took its spot at #2, and totally stole the country’s spotlight. My graduate program not only slashed the number of Japanese courses in half, they fired all the Japanese professors until there was only one left and cut the Japanese foreign language track. Just to spite Japan even more, they hired three new China professors and added an entire major that was wholly China focused.
Japan’s birth rates are low. Their economy is sluggish. Prime Minister Abe is kind of a jerk. Earthquakes. High suicide rates. China.
All of these events led me to believe that my Chinese skills were going to get me that big job.
But guess what? After applying to dozens of jobs, both of which needed either Chinese or Japanese, I was hired at a big firm for my Japanese skills.
Japanese Skills Are Great For the Private Sector
China’s growth may be exponential, but it is still a developing country with a relatively unstable market. China still has yet to produce reputable corporations and stable businesses to attract widespread investment. Aside from Lenovo, there are few Chinese brands that households recognize and trust. China, despite taking the number two spot in GDP growth, still has a way to go if it wants to stand on par with Japan as both a stable and trustworthy economy.
Japan’s economy may be sluggish, but its corporations are not. I could write an entire post about this, but let’s just say a fair number Japanese corporations are rather profitable. Softbank acquired Sprint. Suntory acquired Jim Bean. Uniqlo is rapidly expanding. Japan is still making money and, most of all, is a huge driver for business.
All Japanese jobs I applied to were, largely, in the private sector. Despite Japan’s “decline,” there were still a high number of jobs that not only demanded Japanese language skills, but also Japanese cultural aptitude. Whether its linguistic or cultural, companies are constantly on the lookout for individuals who are familiar with Japan.
Why is this? Well, I think it’s lack of supply. It is very hard to find talent both bilingual in Japanese and English. This could be due to Japan’s education system, the vastly contrasting linguistic differences between English or Japanese, or perhaps even the lack of Japanese immigrants. Despite the reason, this lack of bilinguals creates huge demand from private corporations.
So just how good does my Japanese need to be to get this job?
I’ll be blunt: your Japanese needs to mind-blowingly good. Like, you can watch Japanese news, pick up a Japanese newspaper, and talk Japanese politics with a local–and all without picking up a dictionary.
At the bare minimum, I recommend passing JLPT Level 2. However, as I wrote in the Japanese or Chinese post, Japanese is WAY HARDER than Chinese. Passing JLPT 2 could take years of your life.
Chinese, on the other hand, is great for the public sector
I lived in Shanghai for four years. I met Chinese people from everywhere. Anhui, Guangzhou, Wuhan, Sichuan, Ningbo, Beijing, the list goes on.
What did they all have in common?
Their English was AMAZING.
In general, Chinese people speak better English than their Japanese neighbors. I don’t have evidence of this, it’s all from personal experience, but it was overwhelmingly evident during my stay in both Japan and China. In Japan I only met a handful of locals who could speak English well. In China, there was hardly anyone I met who couldn’t speak English. In fact, some of my friends were so good they could pass as American Born Chinese (ABC).
And what do most Chinese people want to do with their English fluency?
Make money (aka work in the private sector).
Where does one work not for money, but for stability and a good cause?
The public sector.
When I was job hunting I found dozens of Chinese-speaking jobs for the US government. I often wondered why these jobs were not being filled or how I had a chance in hell to even interview for these high-ranking positions.
But then it hit me: Only US nationals can apply for (most) federal positions.
And while the US has no shortage on ABC US nationals, many of them did not grow up fully bilingual. In fact, beside my husband, I don’t know any ABC who can read and write Chinese characters. They are in short supply.
So if you speak baller Chinese and want to work for the government–then I say your odds are pretty good.
So just how good does my Chinese have to be?
When I interviewed for jobs that required Chinese, they didn’t just interview me in Chinese. Oh no. It was much worse.
I wrote a three page marketing plan in Mandarin. They still didn’t hire me.
I had to translate a four-page, hand written document on rubber tariffs from Mandarin to English in one hour. they didn’t hire me.
I had to write a hand written essay in Mandarin about the Chinese economy in 45 minutes. They didn’t hire me.
The demand is high, my friends. HSK Level 5 or 6. Minimum.
The Most Important Job Hunting Advice I Have to Give is….
Foreign Language will not get you a job (as I wrote in a previous post). Foreign language is a supplemental talent. If possible, first focus on a primary skill, a hard skill, and use foreign language to make that skill even more desirable.
I made the mistake of focusing purely on language, and I paid the price for it. While my language skills have gotten me jobs I never even dreamed of, I would be fairing much better if I had gotten a law/medicine/engineering/business degree and then studied a language.
Even if you do just study a foreign language, though, I have to say… you will be ok. Japanese and Chinese (and Korean!) are incredibly useful languages to know in this day and age. They both clock in at #2 and #3 economies respectively, are hard languages to acquire, and can provide work in both government or business.
In the end, I just gotta give my cheesy advice again: go with your heart. These languages are crazy hard to acquire. You gotta love it to learn it.
To me, Chinese and Japanese just aren’t languages. These languages represent food, culture and friends. These two languages have given so much joy and excitement to my life that, hell, I probably wuldn’t have met my husband without them.
So, go with your heart. You won’t regret it.
What Has Gotten You Ahead in Your Career?
A Slice of Life From Japan: The Japanese English Teacher (JTE) I Will Never Forget
Today, I found a memoir-like post hidden away in the depths of my hard drive. I thought this little piece perfectly conveyed what it was like to teach on the JET Program, as well as introduced some unforgettable characters all JETs are bound to meet on the journey. It’s a long post, but if you can slog through it, it perfectly summarizes my unforgettable experience working with my Japanese English Teacher (JTE).
“You have to meet Uchida-sensei,” all of the staff at the school told me repeatedly. “He’s going to be one of the English teachers you work with. Plus, I think he’s about the same age as you.”
The last sentence was always said with a wink. The whole school, faculty and students included, were hellbent on bringing myself and this Uchida person together. Although I had yet to meet him, I could already feel butterflies in my stomach. Not only was he the only teacher in the town my age—he was male, and he lived next door. Although I wanted a friend more than a relationship, I couldn’t deny the very slim potential that perhaps maybe, just maybe, we’d click.
All of those dreams went out the window when I saw him walk into the office.
“Oh Uchida-sensei,” the secretary shuffled to him. “Mary-sensei from America is here, she’ll be your assistant language teacher (ALT).”
He was on crutches. His foot was bandaged. He wore a tracksuit, which I quickly learned was regular attire for Japanese school teachers aside from the standard suit. He had long, flat hair in a conservative cut. For a Japanese man he was freakishly tall and stood a full 6”2’, towering over the other miniature Japanese faculty and students like a friendly giant trying to fit in.
We smiled and exchanged a handshake. I found out his desk was directly across from mine. He told me he was from Sado Island, one of the most remote places in Japan. He was a fresh graduate like myself with a bachelors degree in German under his belt. Although teaching German was his ultimate goal, he remarked, toward the end of university he decided to become an English teacher. I smiled and complimented his English—it was actually pretty damn good.
Later I learned that Uchida was a strange character no one really understood. He was using a crutch because he ran barefoot on black, hot tar to chase his student, which literally burned the skin off his feet. At his welcoming party he shamed the principal by drinking too much and hurling on the train, repeatedly, in front of the entire faculty.
To me, Uchida felt like a clumsy Japanese person trying to fit into a strange society that seemed to naturally reject his somewhat naturally obtuse and eccentric personality. Much like his height and size, Japan and the education system had a hard time figuring out where he belonged.
Yet he tried so hard, so endearingly hard, that I knew someday he would become an excellent teacher—the stuff stories are made of. He was soft and forgiving, a pure and natural soul from the depths of the Japanese countryside that made him lovable, yet full of fault in his untouched naiveté. Although he didn’t always fit the mold that the Japanese school wanted, his determination and persistence is what kept him going—and was what drew my respect.
Uchida’s desk was directly across from mine. In Japan, there are no cubicles or walled offices—everyone is on one team, out in the open, exposed at their desks.
Although we were working at a Junior High School, there were moments where Uchida and I acted more like adolescent teenagers than teachers. Sometimes we’d accidentally lock eyes when looking up from our desk work, to which we’d quickly break our gaze and stare the other way. At first Uchida used to give me a ride to work (since he was my neighbor), but the cat calls and taunts we got from the students on arrival at the school felt like some sort of walk of shame in which our non-existent relationship was exposed.
“When are you two going to get married?” the class clowns would shout.
While I smiled and tried to joke about my Uchida love affair, he turned beet red and shuffled to the teacher’s room as quickly as possible.
Out of respect for Uchida, and to clamp down on any sort of suspicion that we were dating, I gradually refused his noble gesture of driving me to work and walked instead.
I can never forget my first class with Uchida, because it was that bad.
I knew nothing about teaching—and neither did Uchida. We were both teaching virgins, and when we were thrown in front of 40 adolescent junior high students, we were at their complete and utter mercy.
I had no idea how to grasp the attention span of 40 children for one hour. After yelling at the students to shut up and sit down, I was finally able to start some sort of English introduction lesson—which lasted only fifteen minutes. With twenty minutes to spare, Uchida and I had no choice but to tell them to read chapter one of their English textbook in silence—which they didn’t. Instead, the Japanese version of “Uchida and Mary sitting in a tree…” ensued, and we were thoroughly humiliated.
As the classes continued and we began to understand the overall concept of keeping a child entertained via English learning, the Uchida & Mary team was born. Our silly English skits kept the students entertained, and eventually they began to view us as this young and awkward duo that, although difficult to explain why, were meant to teach together.
Uchida and I never stepped over the teacher or friend boundary, but we had a special relationship that was hard to put into words. As time passed we began to smile at each other rather than blush and look away, and gradually we learned more about each other. He loved German and spoke it fluently, but he had never been to Germany—although it was definitely a lifelong dream of his. He soon found out that I was a Japanese major and, though taboo to do in our school, began to speak Japanese to me outside of the classroom. Even today I can vividly remember all of the words he taught me:
“Mary, your Japanese is bacchiri!” he gave me a powerful thumbs up with a smile.
“Bacchiri?” I cocked my head.
“Uh… that means you’re even better than sugoi (amazing)!”
“Hey Uchida-sensei,” I asked during one of our lunch breaks. “How do you say ‘depends on’ in Japanese?”
“That’s a tough one…” he put his hand on his chin in deep concentration. “There’s ‘nani-nani shidai’ and then there’s ‘nani nani ni yoru’… it really depends on the context.”
He took out a piece of paper and began to explain these grammar concepts to me in Japanese.
“Oh I don’t want to bother you,” I smiled and waved his gesture away. “If you’re busy it’s fine, just wanted to ask.”
“Don’t worry Mary,” he smiled back. “This can be considered teaching practice.”
The longer I lived in Niigata, the more I learned about Japanese society and the more I began to withdraw further into myself. Japanese people were absolutely selfless in their actions and poured all of their efforts into upholding a society of rules and honor that literally ruled their lives.
I was baffled the teachers at my school worked until 11 PM every night.
When I discovered that many of my teachers were living alone in temporary apartments five-hours away from their families—and for three years at a time—I was at a loss for words.
In America I was taught that nothing was impossible. That family comes first. That you work to live, not live to work.
Uchida always got stuck driving me to different seminars around the area, mostly because he was the English teacher and thus it fell under his duties to chauffeur the foreigner. Still, those few moments in the car were the only times when Uchida and I were alone and we could talk openly, without the other teaching staff or students listening to our conversations. It was liberating, I could feel, for the both of us.
“You work until midnight every night!?” I shouted, alarmed.
“Yeah, there’s just so much work to do. I work on the weekends, too.”
I worked in the school and I was quite positive there was not that much work to do.
“So every weekend when I see your car gone from the apartment parking lot, you’re just at the school working?” I asked, bewildered.
“Yes, there are so many club activities and tasks to take care of. I’m truly exhausted.”
“You can’t take any vacation?”
I thought about my life in Japan, how utterly lonely it was. Although I befriended many teachers, their lives were so wound up in their work they had little to no free time for themselves—and heaven forbid they spend what precious time they had to accompany me, the foreigner, outside of the classroom. I was frustrated at the whole Japanese concept of life: living so far from family, working so hard and so long, essentially throwing away all joys of your life…
…and for what?
“Why?” I asked, frustration deep in my voice. “Why don’t you take a holiday, why don’t you take a break from your work and get a masters—or go to Germany? Isn’t going to Germany your dream? Just go, even for a month, a few weeks, a year…!! This is your chance, your life! In America I was taught that we can do anything, that life is full of opportunity and if we work hard enough we can achieve our dreams—and that’s exactly what I’m doing here. Japan was my dream, and I’m here! You can do the same!”
My burst of emotion was very un-Japanese and even Uchida looked alarmed. He pulled the car to the side of the road and stopped with a sigh. After a few moments of silence, he turned my way and looked me dead in the eye with a smile.
I’ll never forget the next sentence that came out of his mouth:
“I can’t, Mary.” He spoke softly, sadly. “Unfortunately, I was born Japanese.”
I had nothing to say. I wasn’t mad, or sad, or even surprised at his short, yet concrete statement. It was like all of my frustrations and conflicts were explained with that one sentence and there was no possible way I could counter-argue it.
“As a Japanese person I have duties that are required of me. What I want doesn’t matter now,” he said firmly.
“I’m sorry,” were the only words I could mutter after my immature outburst. I was humiliated—and more than that, I felt guilty. Guilty of understanding so little about this place.
“It’s ok,” he smiled. “Anyway let’s go, we’ll be late for the meeting.”
I was extremely nervous. I hid in the hallway ten minutes prior to the most important class of Uchida’s career. The ministry of education was here to watch and assess his lesson–in other words, see if he was worth keeping as a teacher or not. A horde of government officials stood tall and harsh at the back of our English classroom, clipboards and pen in hand. I could feel my heart pounding.
“Mary,” Uchida found me. “You ok?”
“Yeah,” I took a deep breath. “Are you sure you want me to teach this class with you?
“I’m sorry I wasn’t more honest with you,” I started to ramble in my anxiety. “I should have helped you more with classes in the past, should have told you upfront that I don’t actually have an education degree. I’m sorry if I,” I paused. “If I let you down.”
“Mary, to be honest with you,” Uchida said warmly. “I’m only relaxed in the classroom when you’re there with me. When you’re by my side, I feel at ease.”
It was then I realized it. That he needed me not as a native speaker or even entertainment for the classroom. He actually needed me as a partner, as emotional support, as someone to lean on. Although we were a stupid amateur duo, we were still a team.
“Ok,” I pulled myself together with a smile. “Let’s do this.”
Uchida passed his test. He became a homeroom teacher. As the days drew on, Uchida began to receive more responsibilities and I somehow started to resemble an English teacher. During my final year at the school Uchida watched over his class like a father watches his own children. I befriended all of the students in the school and mentored children who were being bullied or suffered from domestic issues. Uchida and I finally laid down the foundations to teaching English, and our once haphazard classes were now stable, firm, and smooth.
“Will you sing with me at the English talent show?” Uchida asked me out of the blue. “I’m terrible at singing and I don’t want to do it alone.”
“Sure, that helps me out too,” I laughed. “What song?”
“A Whole New World.”
I flushed red.
Although our student’s never let us live it down, Uchida and I sang Whole New World together in front of the entire school. I’m sure few foreign teachers can put that on their resume.
On the last day of my two-year career at the junior high school, I gave a speech to my students in English and Japanese. I diligently hid the fact that I spoke Japanese from my students for two years, and when they heard me speak fluent Japanese at the podium many of them were in shock.
I choked back the tears during my speech. I could see my favorite students crying. It was an assault of emotions.
After the assembly I ran to the teacher’s break room to get a grip. I took deep, long breaths. I looked out the window to the empty school grounds, to the hot and humid blue skies of June.
“Mary,” Mrs. H, the other English teacher, came in with Uchida trailing behind and held a neatly wrapped package. “Uchida and I put some money together and got this for you.”
I carefully unwrapped the package to find an expensive, brand name travel sachel. It was in a color I often wore to work: red.
At that moment, it became too much for me. The break room was now a cloister of memories. The secretary teaching me how to make fried eggplant in the break room kitchen. The vice-principal and I nursing a cup of coffee to recover from the hangover from the previous night’s drinking party. Catching Uchida taking a nap in the lounge chair after lunch. I could hear my students laughing, the teachers shuffling around in their everyday routine to arrange classes, and the echoing halls of a school that had seen generations of students come and go. It was almost as if the school was bidding me farewell.
I began to sob. I apologized for crying in Japanese and Mrs. H told me it was ok. When I looked up I saw her crying. She was hard and stern, like a drill sergeant, so seeing her cry on my behalf was so out of character I was forever moved by the moment.
I looked up to Uchida. He looked lost, bewildered, like a deer in the headlights. He was the kind of person who never did the right thing at the right time. In his eyes I could see his emotions conflict with words to say, or not to say. Like we did two years ago, I broke the gaze in humiliation, tears in my eyes, and I let Mrs. H hold me as I cried. Uchida left the room.