Friday, October 23, 2009

Great Expectations

I went by my old language school today to order some transcripts and found my eyes starting to sting with tears as we neared the station. If I had to put my finger on it I wouldn't call it nostalgia, it was much more like getting a whiff of a smell that you associate with unhappiness or anxiety. I immediately recalled the feelings of awkwardness I had going to school in the mornings and the unshakable feeling of loneliness that was so palpable I could roll it around on my tongue like my old piercing. Let me remind you that I was 22, not 6 at this time, and yet I still called my mom after school on that first day and cried to her. The school had turned out to be such an unforeseen disappoint for me on that first day and I was left wondering why I had just spent $7000 of hard-earned money on tuition for this school in Tokyo, where I had returned by myself to nothing and no one with an optimism fueled by fond memories of my exchange year at Waseda. I had gotten myself into a major year-long fuck up.

I chose this school on the basis that it would hook me up with a one-year visa (very few language schools will do this), it is rigorous and everything is taught in Japanese and most importantly perhaps, an African guy I was "involved" with and his friends had gone through this school and ended up in university and graduate school in Japan in Japanese. As an exchange student at Waseda I had yet to see any non-Asian foreigners that had mastered Japanese and seeing this group of cool guys from Senegal, Kenya and Malawi doing university courses as regular students impressed the hell out of me at the time. Actually, I recall thinking it was impressive that they could banter with the bronzed Japanese girls who hang out at First Kitchen on Center-gai in Shibuya after clubbing all night. If I had had a menu in front of me I would have said I'll have what they're having.

As with everything here in Japan, I had to send this school everything short of a vial of my blood for inspection and their application process made it extremely difficult to apply as a private individual (many students are sponsored or on government scholarships). Possibly as a result of the make-up of its student body, there is sparse information online and the school itself offers very little concrete information on timetables, rules, courses, etc. until you physically show up to the school to register before the year begins.

The first day I showed up for the placement test I was a little nonplussed by the third-world squatting toilets and sparse hallways. "We're not at Waseda anymore, Toto," I thought. I did however, hold back my final judgment, saving that for the first day of school when I later went crying to my mom. Maybe I just haven't seen the whole school yet. Maybe this isn't the whole student body. I repeated these assurances to myself as I walked to the train station after the test was over.

The first day of school confirmed my suspicions; I arrived to stares far past a length that could be deemed polite and giggled whispers. There were no North Americans, no Europeans. I was being gawked at by students from Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, Laos and Turkey. It felt at that moment that every culture on the globe was represented at this school except for mine. Oh that's right, there was me. It wasn't just a cultural thing though, a lot of these students had never left home before, many had yet to enter university and I had arrived back in Japan to pick up where I left off at university. Clubbing in Shibuya, I believe it was. Possibly hard to believe, but I'll add "difference in maturity levels" into the mix.

Today I left the school to stares I've long since blocked out, and comments. The comments were a first. I don't speak Arabic but paraphrasing from the looks, nudges and tone with which they were said, I'd say the comments were along the lines of look at that hot mama.

I did become friends with some of my classmates but we never met up outside of class. Explaining concepts like gay marriage and affirmative action turned out to be a lesson in my own cultural history and arguing with people in my class that a woman dressed sexily doesn't mean she's asking for it wasn't something I had come to Japan to accomplish.

Lunch time was the worst. At the beginning I somehow found myself eating with a quiet girl from China whose Japanese I couldn't understand because she wouldn't open her mouth wide enough so I ended up preferring to be alone rather than force conversation. I had too much pride and would have been mortified going up to random people and asking to have lunch with them. I even lied to my friends in class when asked what I did for lunch. To avoid a piteous stare on these occasions I gave vague answers like "met up with a friend" or "had to do some errands." In retrospect how easy it would have been to swallow my pride and allow myself to enjoy connecting with another human, even if not on the level I would prefer, to balance out the cramp-inducing fear I had of being called on to read in class and not knowing how to pronounce the kanji. As I walked through the clustered residential streets on my way to the school today, I recognized the narrow lanes I would walk down at a geriatric pace, if only to make lunchtime feel shorter than it was. I would never allow myself to be seen eating alone so I would either hide in the library and scarf something down, inhale chocolate along said narrow lanes or sneak an onigiri between the warning bell signalling the end of lunch and that telling us class had started. How do you say social eating issues in Japanese?

I craved friendship that year. If asked by people how my year at the language school was, I am hard-pressed to come up with anything more descriptive than "scary." I had come back to Tokyo knowing that there was no one left from the previous year but confident I would start again at this new school, build a new group of similar-minded friends and go from there. When faced with the impossibility of this, I completely shut down, and became unable to create a Plan B. After three years of an extremely sporadic social life, at this point it seems laughably easy to have walked up to people at the School and ask them to have lunch. At that time I preferred to hide in the streets surrounding the School rather than risk looking like a loser. Now I tell people that I am a loser, but only because I don't know how else to explain my non-existent social network of people after three years here without seeming troubled. People laugh it off or think I'm being modest but I have had an extremely hard time building up any kind of network of people here and I trace the beginnings of it back the the School, followed by the Kaisha where I am the Lonely Whitie as you know, with nary a chance of meeting other foreign females.

I have eventually learned however, to not worry so much about what others think of me and to stop analyzing conversations and situations to try and figure out why someone hasn't pursued me as a friend. I can't stand "networking" so that's not really an option for me in Tokyo. On the occasion I meet someone who seems cool I will not feel weird asking for their contact info and seeing if they want to hang out, something that would have been hard for me when I was at the School. Often, however, people are busy with their own established lives and don't have time or motivation to go out of their way to include you in that, which sometimes is disappointing.

Last year at this time I was stomping around Kabukicho with the Cowgirl and Other Whitie, and I am truly grateful to have met them and had the chance to pass the time with them in this frenetic city. As the Japanese know, all good things do pass, and both of them are now off in pursuit of new things. So here I am, looking into the window of my 26th year and hoping that it's a little less lonely, with a little more laughter shared with friends. I have big plans for this year and am excited to get started. I hope those of you here in Japan do not feel alone, or if you do, that you feel a bit more encouraged to go out and find some people to share your time with. As for the School, I haven't finished discussing it, and you can look forward to the second installment of this which will include stories of my part-time job where I took my clothes off for money but not as a stripper. Till then gentle readers, have a drink this weekend for me!


Ryan said...

A great piece of writing, and one that I feel I can relate to from my own scholastic experiences. I was a hearing person produced from a hereditary-deaf family, meaning that at my school, that was mostly deaf people, I was the odd one out.

A bizarre situation, and one of those times when you realise that the tables off which you normally eat life, have somehow been completely turned.

'Scary' is most definitely a word I would have used, and one that still haunts me in the dead of night. Things got better though, and I now look back at that time like it was another life, another world, and another person. I hope the same applies to you.

illahee said...

is this your round-about way of saying it's your birthday? if you mentioned it before, i missed it (i'm pretty dense, though...) happy birthday!!

you write really well, i enjoyed reading this, and really sympathized with you. can't wait to hear more stories!

janellemac said...


Rocketing story of emotional layers unravelled. The very way that Japan shapes our thinking, moulds our identities, and questions even our strongest confidence shield of survival.

Finding friends REAL and TRUE is often hard; especially like you said, because people are already busy in LIFE, and have their own established core of favourite people and activities.

Of course as foreigners living in Japan, we often have to deal with the beloved friendships we have made here ending, as people return to their homelands. So many airport 'sayonaras' I have witnessed in my time here.

Even friends who have returned to their own countries after living in Japan for extended periods, have talked to me about the difficulty of finding new friends once home.

All I know is that finding people who 'speak your tongue' in core to core understandings complete, are priceless. Living in Japan has given me a few gems. Some forever-after gems too.

Not many considering my length of time here, but I want to believe that quality is better than quantity sometimes. It soothes me.

Again, Again please write.


Miriko! said...


I havent been in Japan for very long, but I can relate to the story.

I am working in a government office, where everyone is Japanese except the bosses. There are only three Canadians, and two of them are much too important to mingle with lowly little me.

The Japanese on the other hand talk with me on occasions but its sooo superficial. There is no real human contact:( So I am having a hard lonely time, where back home I have many friends, here I have some friends but most are too busy or finish too late to hang out.

And since my office doesn't have a lunch room, everyone eats lunch at their little cubicle or desk. And then the girls cut fruit and eat some together, but never offer me some:( Well except once, or twice when I happened by the kitchen while they were plating the fruit. I think this is a sad situation, and I don't know how long I can do this for...

I think both of you are really brave for sticking with it for so long!

Lisa said...

This was great writing, but I'm so sad you had to write it!

I'm 29. I can empathize. I know how hard it is and how much it hurts. I'm sorry that the last 3 years have been like this for you.

NapoleonsLunch said...

wow - Hi there I'm a random reader just popped on in to your blog - this is wonderfully written. I started to think back to the time I was an exchange student in French Canada about 8 years ago. I am from Australia and they flew me over to La Sarre, a tiny town in the middle of nowhere that spoke only French. The first month of school there frightened me, no one spoke English, my french was crap and I worked out ways of how I could hide in the library and make it look like I had to be there for real. I hated lunch hour.

anyhow, Love your blog - it's awesome

Linda from Australia.

PS - im dying to visit Japan.. im learning the language... well just starting out for the first time!

Green-Eyed Geisha said...

Thank you all for the thoughtful comments, I'm not even sure where to start!

Ryan: That sounds like an incredibly difficult situation, one I can't even attempt to imagine. You're right, things do get better and I agree that you (hopefully) end up looking back with the perspective of a different person. I don't know that I would have done it differently, except to have tried to be more proactive in making the situation more tolerable.

illahee: It was my birthday, so thank you :) I began this post far before my birthday and didn't intend to link the two until I procrastinated and the post finally got finished!

janellemac: Thank you for your thoughts. Finding people who "speak your tongue" ARE priceless and I feel lucky to have made the friends here that I have, and those overseas with whom I can pick up with right where we left off, even if it's only by email...

Miriko: Sorry to hear you are having similar struggles at work, do you live in a big city or out in the countryside? I feel a little jealous of the camaraderie between the secretaries but I have definitely given up hopes of becoming friends with any of them. The only advice I can offer is set your sites on something else or make your non-work life so full that those hours at work don't matter so much.

Lisa: Thank you, I felt a little sad writing it but it was nice to get it out. It's been a strange 3 years but I have a lot to be thankful for and enough laughs to keep me going! Don't you have a trip to Japan coming up soon??? You must be getting excited!

NapoleonsLunch: Thank you for commenting. How did your time in Canada end? Do you speak French now? Hiding in the library was truly my favourite pasttime at the School, we have a similar area at the Kaisha and I have been tempted to use it on several occasions! Good luck with Japanese, if you visit here it will certainly enhance your stay!

Miss Neesh said...

Another random Australian who's stumbled upon your blog here.

What a well written (if heartbreaking) story. I can't imagine how isolated you would have felt and I'm very sorry to hear that you had to go through that.

It takes a very strong person to come out and be so frank and open about experiences like that, so I applaud you, perhaps someone will decide to give an outsider a seat at the lunch table after reading this?

Even though I have no idea who you are, from reading your blog (and especially that post) I think I would have wanted to be your friend at school :)

I'm looking forward to your next posts (and the rest of your archives which I'm now looking through).

Miss Neesh

Jen B said...

I'm feeling this post on so many levels... :-(
(joyeux anniversaire)

Kathy said...

Is this a meeting place for random Australians? Lol.

*puts hand up as another aussie*

Reading this post brought back some memories of my language school days. I was the only whitie in a class of thirty Koreans & Chinese and they'd all talk to each other during breaks and I'd be left all alone. The teacher would also gloss over kanji practice because "most of the class" i.e. everyone but me, had no problems.

In my ten years in Japan the only 'friends' I made were former students. Then, when I came back to Australia, everyone I knew had moved on and I couldn't make friends here either.

Actually, I still haven't made what I'd call a real friend.It's a tough lonely world out there.

Green-Eyed Geisha said...

Miss Neesh: Welcome! Thanks for the sweet comments :) I think it helps to have some perspective on it a few years later, I probably would not have been able to articulate this when it was actually happening. I've still never told anyone all of the fun details so I suspect only my mother and the beau ever got a sense of how I was actually feeling.

Jen B: Thanks :) I hope it doesn't ring too true!

Kathy: This seems to be the hot spot for Aussies! I love people from down under, having been one myself at one time. What is it about language schools here?! I know for myself if I had chosen one in Shibuya with pictures of European-looking students in the prospectus I probably would have had a more social but academically unproductive year. It's a toss up. As for the loneliness...yes, I certainly understand.

Masafumi said...

Hi, I arrived here via Jen B's blog... This post somehow caught my attention and I loved it. Thanks for sharing your experiences and feelings!

It reminded me of my first few years at university in... *ahem* Australia. I'm Japanese, born and raised, but I had decided to study abroad many years ago, which I did.

I'm not sure if there was anything to do with my being a Japanese man in philosophy as well as anthropology classes, but I didn't make any friends at all from those classes. At least I tended to be the only Asian guy who was an international student (i.e. not an exchange student) in those places. I guess I can somewhat relate myself to your situation at your Japanese school... though I did make friends from other places.

I look forward to reading your blog from time to time.


Green-Eyed Geisha said...

Masafumi, thanks for commenting and sharing your experience abroad! I'm surprised you were the only Asian guy, although as you said, your choice of classes may have had something to do with it! What doesn't kill us makes us stronger right? At least that's what I've been telling myself...