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!