The past year has been an incredible journey. Just over a year ago, I packed up my life into two and a half suitcases and a sushi-roll-stuffed backpack, hugged my mom goodbye at home, tried to say goodbye to my angry possessed demon-cat, hugged my dad goodbye at the airport, and then hopped on a plane, and left. I’ve just passed the one year mark of being in Japan. I’ve seen a lot of things. Experienced a lot of things. Some which were incredible, others, not so much.
From trying natto (don’t ever try it by the way, unless you like the taste and consistency of boogers), wearing a yukata, fumbling my way through a crazy difficult language barrier, and literally stopping a dog in its tracks because of my foreignness, I feel like I’ve done it all.
A few years ago, I never imagined I’d do something this crazy. If you’d asked anyone, they’d probably say that me moving across the world to a country completely opposite of the US was crazy. For me, anyway. I was always a homebody and liked my simple life.
I won’t lie; I’ve had a lot of ups and downs over the past year. I had an AMAZING first five months, and good times smattered in between the other 7 months. I’ve seen so many different cities. I finally achieved my lifelong dream of going to DisneyLand (and in Tokyo, to boot!). Got to teach some amazing kids. Got to try pastries shaped like fish.
But then there were the bad times. The beginnings of what I would later learn would be (up until the point of writing this, at least) seven months of chronic pain. An organ removal. The sudden deaths of two cats.
So basically, it was life. Just in a foreign country.
Given my personality, it took a lot of courage for me to come over here in the first place. After two times of applying for JET, sometimes I’m not really sure how I even got this job in the first place. I’m terribly shy, and definitely not the genki-est of ALTs. I don’t make friends easily, although the ones I do make usually stick around for life, and I like having time to myself. And my Japanese vocabulary is more or less limited to the words atsui (hot), mushiatsui (hot and humid), and samui (cold). I must have done some impressive acting to fool the interviewers in Houston.
But I’m glad that I did muster up that courage to apply. I’m glad that my friend (thanks, Celeste!) told me about the program. I’m glad that I challenged myself to try something new and have a once in a lifetime experience. Going into this once in a lifetime experience, I was positive that I wanted it to last for at least two years.
Like I said, it took a lot of courage to hop on that plane and abandon everything that was familiar to me, essentially having to build a new life from scratch. New country. New language. New job. New house. New friends. I love the life that I’ve created here, and everyone that I’ve met, and everything that I’ve done are so incredibly special to me.
That is why it took even more courage for me to decide that after only one year, it is time for me to leave.
I am fully aware that I am willingly giving up something very, very good.
This was probably the most difficult decision I have ever had to make. Honestly, I think it was. I love Japan so much. SO so much. SOOOOO MUCH!!! I love my students. And wandering around the halls seeing their smiling faces chatting with them about band performances and club activities and Pokemon makes me realize how much I love working with them, even if they were little pieces of annoying snot sometimes who somehow learned English swear words from a source other than me and had the audacity to use them in class. I love the environment (well…the environment that isn’t Kobe). I love that saying things like, “Want to go to Kyoto next weekend?” and “Want to go see a concert in Tokyo next month?” became the new normal, like I ever thought that I’d be able to go to Tokyo at all. I love being able to adult on my own without assistance from anyone else. My apartment in Japan was the first house I’ve ever lived in on my own, small as it is. But it was mine.
And yet, I feel that now is the right time to give it all up, to literally sacrifice everything I have made for myself here and go right back to square one. Not kidding, right back to where I started after college graduation, except I’m older and I guess a little more cultured and worldly now.
Some people have told me that if I leave now, I’ll regret it. I’ll always wonder “what if.” “What if” I had stayed another year? “What if” I was able to save more money? “What if” there was more I wanted to experience, and would be sad later on if I didn’t experience it? “What if” I missed my friends too much?
But see, the thing is, no matter how long I hypothetically stayed in Japan, believe you me, the “what ifs” would ALWAYS be there. ALWAYS. I definitely was not planning on ever doing more than two years on JET, and I’m sure the “what if” would be there, too. Same if I had stayed for three years. Or four. Or five.
For me, the most important “what if” is what would happen if I stay. “What if” the chronic pains that I’ve experienced for the past seven months don’t go away? “What if” the doctors here still can’t fix it, no matter how much I plead with them to look again and look from a different angle? “What if” I keep waking up every morning terrified because my chest hurts? “What if” something happens that prevents me from getting home? “What if” I die here?
These are thoughts that have been plaguing me each and every single day since the mystery chest pains started around Christmas. The mystery chest pains that morphed into mystery headaches, which morphed into chest pains and headaches, which morphed into mystery pins and needles feelings, which morphed into the great migrating burning feeling, which morphed into eye pain, which morphed into back pain…This is what I have been dealing with for seven months, which might not sound that long when you read it on paper, but feels like an eternity when you have been experiencing some degree of pain for every last day of it. Pain that has only been increasing in intensity, range, and occurrence. I would give anything for just one pain free day.
There’s really only two ways that I can describe the pain in a way the average healthy person would understand.
- Like bees. Dozens and dozens of bees, like I am constantly getting stung in different places around my body throughout the day.
- Like a cat bite. Sort of. Story time. The summer that I turned 21 years old, I worked as a veterinary assistant at an animal hospital. There was a cat named Wolf who I wasn’t handling correctly. Wolf bit my middle finger (which I really wanted to flash his way after he bit me). He got my finger so bad that it pinched a nerve. For weeks after that, every time I touched something, pain would go shooting through my fingertip into my hand. Took weeks before the pain subsided into numbness and then eventually went away forever. My fingers and toes are starting to feel like that. Except I also feel it in other places. Like my chest. And face. And shins.
Then there are the other “what ifs.” “What if” something else totally unexpected happens to one of my two remaining cats? “What if” I stay in Japan and screw myself over in the long run by making my life stand still?
I love Japan. So much. SO SO MUCH. I cannot reiterate that enough. And I’m sure that I will continue to miss it for a very long time after I leave, just how I missed Boston immensely for many, many months after I returned to New Orleans. I still miss Boston, and I can genuinely say that Boston is the only place that I would be perfectly happy settling down for the rest of my life in, if I were unable to ever move anywhere else again.
Yes, I will have regrets about leaving.
But for me, I feel like I would regret staying more than I would regret going home. I would regret waking up and going to sleep every day with dread over the pains. I would regret it terribly if something did happen to my remaining two cats; hell, I already do, given that my otherwise seemingly healthy seven year old cat died very unexpectedly and that our older cat also died very suddenly two days later. I was, and still am, utterly heartbroken that I will never see my sweet little baby Elvis again. He was my baby. Buddha is even more of my baby. And after losing Elvis and Yuki, losing him while here, and Dave of course, because I love my dum-dum, is no longer a gamble that I’m willing to continue making.
The only true regrets I would have about Japan would be if I never got on the plane to begin with. That would be the big “what if” that would haunt me for the rest of my life. Or, if I was one of those people who get accepted to JET, accept their placement, get to Japan, only to go running back home two days later without really giving it a shot. Staying for a few days is not giving it a shot. But sticking out the whole year is. Plenty of ALTs only stay for one year. And I gave it my shot. I wanted to go home so many times while I was here, but I stuck it out the full year. I didn’t go home early. I stayed. I made it.
I came. I saw. Maybe I did not conquer, but I sure as hell did try.
Do I feel guilty about leaving? Absolutely. I’m putting my school in a difficult spot. I am making a lot of people at my school and the BOE angry. To that, yes, I am sorry, but I gotta do what I gotta do, so sorry school, but suck it if you can’t understand my position. Because I couldn’t make up my mind soon enough, they’re not going to be able to find a new ALT until September, despite there being an alternate candidate list (granted, they’re being a little picky about who the next person is, and let me just say I’ve learned some new insights into how it is decided which ALTs get sent to which schools), and there were quite a few projects and plans that we anticipated doing. I’ve been working with two students on the speech contest, and it breaks my heart that I won’t be there to help them after they’re done writing their speeches, or that I won’t be there to see if they can achieve their dream of getting a prize this year. It breaks my heart that my school isn’t letting me say goodbye to the students that I’m close with because it will make them upset. Ugh I hate that I can’t say goodbye. But at the end of the day, this is just another job, and I have every right to leave if I deem it necessary.
Breaking contract (yes, technically I am a few days into the new contract) comes without many of the luxuries that the other leaving ALTs have. I won’t be able to say proper goodbyes to my students. I won’t get the free flight home (or most of the way home at least, since they would have only paid for me to get to Houston anyway). I won’t have contact with my successor or be able to sell them my things. I have to somehow find a way to get everything out of my apartment despite the fact that I have no car to deliver it and don’t speak Japanese well enough to find other arrangements. I really don’t have any time to physically prepare, so far as packing up and wrapping up my life goes, or emotionally prepare, because I was expecting to have another 30 days left at school, and I’ll only have a couple weeks. Heck, I was expecting to have another year here, but life happens. This was such a difficult decision to make, and I will probably be praying that I made the right choice for weeks and weeks after this. After all, I am giving up a huge new part of my life. Great friends, a great, well-paying job, great experiences. But there’s no answer key to life, so I’ll never really know.
As soon as I gave my school the official notice of my resignation, all the feels started happening. “Oh God what have I done?” “Why am throwing away such a great opportunity that I worked so hard to get?” “Am I sure this is the right move?” As guilty as I feel, and as sad as I feel about having to abandon this nice little life that I’ve built for myself, at the end of the day, my mental and physical health have to take priority, and between daily stresses of living in a foreign country, stresses of things that happened back home, and doctors not being able to give me an answer here, I feel like I am not able to prioritize my health as long as I stay in Japan. As long as I stay in Japan, I feel like I am always going to feel uncomfortable about my health. Maybe whatever’s wrong with me is something simple and easily fixable; maybe it’s not. Maybe it really is just “stress.” Even if it is something simple, if I go home, I’ll know that at least I’ll be listened to and have the potential to finally start feeling well again, which I don’t feel like I have here.
I know that a lot of ALTs who move to Japan and stay more than one year that say the second half of year one is always the hardest. If what I was feeling was strictly emotional, I think I could live with that and stay. That I could handle. But those ALTs are not living with the physical. I took a gamble on Japan. But whether imaginary or real problems, my health is not something that I am willing to gamble on.
Additionally, from the beginning, I also told myself that if anything ever happened to the cats, I would head back home. My animals are without a doubt the most important thing in my life. Ask anyone who knows me and they will tell you that animals are basically my identity. They are all I know. And I left them behind to come here. And I paid the price for that. In hindsight, I should have only planned to stay here for one year anyway, because my animals are not young, and while Japan will always be here, whether I live here or just visit, my animals won’t be. Losing Elvis and Yuki so abruptly made me realize that I’d rather cherish whatever time I have left with Buddha and Dave. Maybe that time is a year. Maybe it’s eight years. Who knows. Now I truly understand that I will never know, because I honestly expected to have Elvis for at least another decade, and look what happened. What I do know is that I want to love my babies while I can. What I do know is that if I ever move back to Japan in the future, my animals are coming with me next time.
And hey, not like Japan was a total waste. In addition to all of the things I’ve already mentioned, I’ve realized that I really don’t want to teach again. Nope. I thought I did when I came into Japan, and not that I don’t like teaching, but not working with animals for the first time in my life, and for so long, has made me realize how much I miss working with them. I’m not really sure how I want to work with them, but I’ll find a way. Also, I hate being bored out of mind for half the day sitting at a desk inside having nothing to do. I would much prefer to have a job where I can be outside to some degree and move around.
I’m a worrier. Yes, you read that right. Not a warrior, nope, not at all, but a worrier. I’ve never really considered myself an anxious person before now, but I definitely did worry a lot about the future before. Thing is, because I am a worrier by nature, I will always have regrets about my life. What if I had studied a little harder in college? What if I had followed my life plan exactly and had been in my fourth year of vet school by now? What if I had bought the red 3DS instead of the blue one? (yes, that actually haunted me for months) No matter how important or how, frankly, stupid, the decisions I make are, I always worry.
But, if I focus too much on those what-ifs, if those “what ifs” had actually played out, I remind myself that that a lot of great things in my life never would have happened. Had I gone to vet school right away, I never would have worked at the animal hospital, made such great friends in New Orleans, or gotten my sweet little Potato, or fallen in love with Sad Lilly, the canine love of my life who does not belong to me (I am a strange person). And, I never would have come to Japan in the first place. I wouldn’t have done all these incredible things that come with living in a foreign country, and honestly, I probably never would have in the future.
Yes, I will always have worries, I will always have regrets, it’s just a matter of what I want to regret. Ten years down the road, I will be glad that I sacrificed my life in Japan in order to prioritize my well-being and be reunited with my babies.
And the year is still young–during New Year’s, I drew two fortunes that both said I would have “big fortune” this year. And yesterday, I drew a third fortune that also said I would have good luck! So maybe the first half of the year hasn’t been so fortunate. Surely, that means that whatever choices I make for the rest of the year, my “big fortune” is yet to come, right? Those fortunes also said I would have great luck while traveling! Maybe they meant traveling home? Maybe I’ll stumble not into a series of unfortunate events like I have here in Japan for the past seven months, but a series of fortunate events. Come to me, fortune, come to me!
And it’s not like my Japan life will disappear completely because I’m going home. I will always cherish the friends that I’ve made, the things I’ve accomplished, and the memories I’ve created. I will always be grateful for being able to come. So, SO grateful, because I know that there are so many people back in their home countries who wanted to come on JET but didn’t get accepted. And believe me, you people, I know that pain because I, myself, was rejected the first time. I know that there are some people who love Japan who will never be able to come here, and I am so blessed to have been able to live out my dream, at least for a little while. I will always feel proud for having done something so wild and out of character. I will always appreciate the fact that I can now speak in front of groups of at least 40 people without blinking an eye, whereas the very thought of doing that used to give me panic attacks. A year ago I could barely teach a class of 10 people. I also never thought that I would give a speech in front of over 1,000 people, but I did that. Never thought that I would jump off a small cliff into a river, but I did that, too. Never thought that I would couchsurf my way through another country, but I’m going to do that in a couple of weeks as well.
It’s weird thinking that life in Japan is going to move on without me, but it also moved on without me before I even got here. I don’t want to think about what I’m giving up by leaving Japan, but about all of things I’ve accomplished, all the things I’ve gained (and I’m not just talking about cute souvenirs), and all the ways I’ve changed. Because I am not the same person that I was one year ago when I left, and I’m proud of that. I’m very proud. Is it weird to say that you’re proud of yourself?
I MADE IT, I SURVIVED IN BASICALLY AN ALIEN ENVIRONMENT FOR A WHOLE FREAKING YEAR!!! I WANT TO SCREAM IT FROM THE IMAGINARY ROOFTOPS!!
The thing is, Japan was always meant to be just a memory. One big, crazy, wonderful memory. But my health, my sanity, and my life back in the US, are not just a memory. They are the foundation for all the years to come.
And maybe I don’t know where I’m going yet, but I know that it’s all part of the game. I will tackle life one boss battle at a time. College? Defeated. New country? Not defeated. But there will always be a second chance to try again. Bring it on, life, BRING. IT. ON!!
So here was to an amazing year in Japan. Yes, it ended much earlier than I had anticipated. Yes, I had a lot of roadblocks along the way. More than most, I would like to argue. I mean, how many people sacrificed an organ after they came to Japan? No one? Really? Nobody turned to the Black Market of organ selling to get here? But I’ve made my choices. And I’m going to live with them. I’m going to choose my regrets wisely.
This isn’t just the end of one adventure, but the start of the one that will last for the rest of my life.
The end is where I begin.
And I’m just getting started.
Peace out, Bean Sprouts.