Living abroad: between gratitude and overwhelm

I’m coming up on 2 years since I moved to Japan (March 2019, to be exact). The vibrant photos and humorous anecdotes on your timeline make living abroad look exciting, and it certainly is. However, it’s not all adventure. It’s also monotony, frustration, and confusion. Living in Japan (or more broadly, living abroad) often finds me teetering between gratitude and overwhelm. Two areas in particular come to mind:

*Note*: Overwhelm is not to be confused with annoyance. If I were focusing on annoyances, this list would be longer. An annoyance (such as Japan’s overuse of plastic or unmotivated university students) is unpleasant but not to the point where I feel mentally exhausted. Of course, annoyance can lead to overwhelm but…semantics.

Japanese ability

Gratitude: Help is available to me, but I’ve been able to set up a good amount of my life here on my own with the Japanese I currently know. Immersion, in the sense of making an active effort to venture out of my English bubble and use (on occasion forcefully) Japanese, has given me ample opportunities to use and improve my Japanese. Becoming the de facto interpreter when I’m the most conversant in a group of people also helps this.

Overwhelm: The more Japanese I know, the more I realize I don’t know. Long letters or manuals, technical details for medical appointments, phone calls that go beyond basic details, words I already know that are spoken too quickly, and even some words written in katakana confound me. I avoid promotional calls from my electric company because I just don’t understand enough to be able to make an informed decision, and the person on the other line clearly doesn’t have the patience to wait for me to figure it out or attempt to look up what they’re saying.

Being a black person in Japan

Gratitude: Providing Japanese people I encounter with an opportunity to actually talk to a black person, who really is like any other person. Countering inaccurate media portrayals with authentic perspective for my students. Using experiences of feeling “othered” and turning that into lessons to expand the thinking of those willing to listen. I don’t speak for all black people, but understand that many people here think I do, so I’m mindful of the message I send when I show up. People who are genuinely interested in getting to know me, who have welcomed me, who have complimented me, who don’t see my obvious difference as a big deal.

Overwhelm: Being stared at daily, sometimes in overly obvious ways. On rare occasions, being feared (not just by kids, but adults too). Little comments on perfectly normal things I’m doing (example: in 2020, a masked Japanese person wonders aloud why I am wearing a mask). Stupid and/or borderline racist comments that attempt (and fail) to provoke me or interrupt my peace. The assumption that I must be African, as if there’s only one kind of American.

Nope, no need to justify

I thought about adding, “It’s not that I’m complaining but…” or “This is not a slight against Japan…”, but then I realized how self-defeating that would be. Of course I am grateful for the opportunity to not only live in Japan after wanting to for a long time, but also not doing so by settling. However, living abroad has its challenges and it’s okay to talk about them. Also, Japan, like any country is not perfect. You can be frustrated with the way certain things are in a country but still be fine with living there.

January’s monthly micro

Once a month I post a micro story (a story that is 1,000 words or less). Words are my own. Read and enjoy but don’t copy and pass off as your own.

Done. For good.

I can’t really take a final look around because she’s here. That’s alright, though–I’ve looked at this office enough for 4 years. I won’t be back, so nothing more to see here. Nothing more to take in. A last-minute request came in minutes before, a mad dash for my signature before I finally disappear.

I now understand how my predecessor felt on her last day. Exhaustion on her face as her due date drew near, yes, but also relief that she found her out. I now have my out, too. Not a baby but a baby of a dream I finally reconnected with.

The breeze feels all the more comforting as I step out this evening. My weekend starts with no sense of urgency as the Monday rush and grind won’t come. I have 2 weeks…how should I start? I walk down the block to the bodega with the awesome almond croissants. Bag with the last two in hand, I take the train downtown.

I am a black woman.

What came to mind when you read that title? Suspend whatever your natural inclination is for the remainder of this post. I promise you can pick it up when I am done.

I am a black woman. But you know that, even if you don’t know me. The color of my skin goes before me. When I walk into any space, you can clearly see. But where does that observation go? How does my presence make you feel? If I took a few more steps, would your heart beat faster or maintain its steady rhythm? If I don’t smile, do you think it is because I am always angry? Or do you think I am an otherwise friendly person who just happens to not be smiling in that moment? If I smiled, would that make me come across as more human, more inviting? Do you think it’s my job to make you feel at ease? Do you assume a role as gatekeeper of whatever public space we are in, your eyes focused on my every move? Do you think I will steal something or cause a scene? Or do you just mind your own business since you’re busy existing just like I am? Do you see me as a fellow comrade? Would you give a look or nod of solidarity if we were the “onlys” in this space? Or would you just dismiss me?

I am a black woman. When you hear my voice, does it surprise you? Does it not match up with what you think a black person should sound like? Would you think I am trying to be better than you, trying to sound like “them”? Do you simply think I speak well or I speak well for someone that looks like I do?

I am a black woman. I don’t wear my hair natural. Do you see that as a betrayal, a denial of myself? Do you think that means I hate my natural hair? Do braids make you think I must be African? Did you think I was African anyway? Does relaxed hair make you think I want to fit in with “them”? Does it make you view me as being “professional”? Or do you just see it as me doing what I want with my own hair? When you think of the word “beautiful”, does someone with my skin color come to mind as a possibility? Does it not? Do you think my shade should be embraced on the shelves and magazines? Or do you think I need to be a few shades lighter to be attractive? Are my features fine for you on someone else but not on me?

I am a black woman. Do you think that makes me cool? Do you “love [my] culture”? I do not like watermelons, hardly eat fried chicken, and listen to house music far more than I listen to hip hop. Is that not what you were expecting? Are you surprised that I have a passport with some stamps in it? That I live in Asia and speak an Asian language? That I like spelling bees and almond milk? Do you think I’ve achieved anything? That I am capable? That I have awards and honors? If I were not dressed for the office, would you question my character? What do you think my job is? Do you think I worked hard for it or was just the diversity hire?

I am a black woman. Do you think of me as tough? Do you think of me as soft and feminine? Do you think I dominate a conversation? Like to argue? That I’ll swirl my head and point my finger in your face? Do you think maybe I prefer to avoid conflict? That I aim for diplomacy? Do you think I can handle more work than others? That pain doesn’t strike me as hard? That I don’t show or have emotions? That I am “too quiet”? What if I said, word-for-word what a colleague who isn’t a black woman said? Would it somehow sound different? When you stare at me the way you do, do you think it’s harmless or like daggers piercing through my skin? When you feel the need to comment on a small thing I do, do you think it adds anything or attempts to take something from me?

I am a black woman. Does that provoke you? Does it sound unnecessary to say? Does it empower or move you? Does it not move you at all? Do you want to roll your eyes and think, “Of course she’s gonna talk about race”. Do you think race is something I want to think about or I am forced to think about? Do you think I have people around me who look different from me? Or do you think I blame them for what other people who look like them did, insisting I only be around similar-looking people?

I am a black woman. What about the tone of this post? Do you think it is an angry one? Do you feel attacked? Concerned? Emboldened? Pensive? What if I told you I was reclining as I wrote this, taking in the daylight and feeling calm? Was that explanation necessary for you? Was it not?

Words are not “just” words. Actions can intentionally or unintentionally be slights. Don’t reduce my essence into a flat “black woman character”. Find out my character for yourself and see all that I am all these things and also a black woman. Maybe you already did this and are part of the supportive presence in my life. Maybe you will start to do this.

As promised, you can pick up your natural inclination now. Or you can leave it.

Happy New Year! (and thank you)

Happy New Year! 2021 is finally here and I think I can speak for everyone by saying I hope it will come with the good news we collectively need. I took some time off after my previous post to recover from a transformative but exhausting year of teaching online. I started this blog as a birthday gift/challenge to myself back in September of last year. With it all its heartbreaks, 2020 for me represented a year to wake up. To stop thinking about doing and finally take action. Starting a blog was one of those things. I’m proud of seeing it through as well as posting monthly. I also want to take a moment to thank all of you have commented, liked, and signed up for the email list or follow me on WordPress. I hope to continue to put out content that you will enjoy.

I will be getting back to posting and exploring how I want to express the identity of this blog. I will cover a variety of topics, but it is first and foremost a writing-focused blog: proof to myself that I am a writer and that I can call myself one. 2020 saw me dive deeper into being a writer and seeking out opportunities to unflinchingly place my writing in front of more people. I look forward to expanding on this in 2021. For one, I’ve got some big (and long overdue) projects I hope to share with you later this year.

Thank you again and see you in the next post!

December’s monthly micro

Once a month I post a micro story (a story that is 1,000 words or less).

I’m standing at the edge. The waves are crashing around the weakening barrier around me. The edge is the line in the sand where my sanity resides. The waves: this assignment notification, that frantic email, pings, pongs, dings, dongs. Stop calling me. Stop texting me. I just want to sleep. I just want to be.

But I invited the waves to my beach, seeking them out, hustling for them, praying for them, longing for them. I was so sure I could stay on top of them, rather than wipe out repeatedly under their sheer force. I just want them to recede a little, so I can remember what being still actually feels like: to soak rather than sink, to submerge rather than drown.

NaNoWriMo 2020 self-report

Fellow writers–did you participate in NaNoWriMo?

NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, is a creative writing challenge that happens every November, with the goal to write 50,000 words by the end of the month. Considering how many writers (myself included) that struggle to see a writing project through to the end, it can serve as a great kick in the pants to finally get it done. There’s a variety of resources to guide you through it, such as the official blog, but my focus was just on getting something written. This year, I was inspired by a group of 8th graders that participated in the project for their English class. With the launch of my blog 3 months ago and my desire to get at least one of my writing projects done (don’t ask me how long I’ve been at it), I decided to go for it. Here’s a week-by-week report of how it went:

Week 1 (Nov. 1-7). I decided on a whim to participate on November 1st and was ready to start on the 2nd. However, I spent the entire week drowning in a sea of assignments to grade. Besides some journaling, I didn’t get any writing done for the blog or my writing projects.

Week 2 (Nov. 8-14). Much lighter load is terms of grading and scheduling. Some journaling here and there but struggled to come up with a good idea for a blog post. I had my biweekly writing club with some colleagues on Thursday and that helped push me out of the rut. The next day, I put out a blog post. I drafted this blog post to publish at the end of the month and wrote up and scheduled November’s monthly micro. I typed a few extra words for 2 writing projects.

Week 3 (15-21). Grading picked up again. Outside of journaling, didn’t get any writing down.

Week 4 (22-28). Didn’t feel well for a couple days. Also, grading dominated.

Week 5 (29-30). More grading! I was aware of the month ending and was disappointed that I didn’t write more.

I struggle with consistency as writer, and had hoped NaNoWriMo would have produced great results. Perhaps not 50,000 words, but something substantial. Instead, it was a huge fail. But of course as an educator I know everything is a teachable moment, so here is what I’ve learned from this:

1. November’s a crazy time at my day job. My co-worker and facilitator of the Writing Circle said she would not be doing NaNoWriMo, with good reason: major assignments, meetings, paperwork galore. Certainly it was possible to still find the time to write, and (amazing) people do. But I found myself mentally tapped out after taking care of my major obligations. Part of that was due to not thinking deeply enough about coordinating assignment deadlines for my different classes so I wouldn’t have a huge backlog to go through. Maybe doing NaNoWriMo in November is not a good idea and I should do it during a lighter month. Maybe, just like a marathon, I need to train more before taking it on. At the very least, I have some ideas on how to manage one aspect of my job better.

2. Building consistency happens slowly. Going from writing occasionally to frequently or daily is a huge jump I couldn’t realistically expect to happen in one month. By writing I am specifically referring to writing projects. I journal several times a week and I usually post here once a week. So I am writing, but there’s more that I want to get out, that I could get out. To do that, I should designate a time to write and build frequency from there.

3. I can’t wait until I “feel inspired”. Whether it’s going to be a side hustle or my next career, waiting for inspiration to write is not sustainable. When I teach, some days I am feeling more creative than others, but still have to teach anyway. Likewise, I just need to get some words on the page, even if they’re not good. I can always edit them later.

As classes are drawing to an end (anyone else beyond Zoom-fatigued?), I am beyond hopeful to get more writing done. I’ve had this burning desire to do so that refuses to go away.

November’s monthly micro

Once a month I post a micro story (a story that is 1,000 words or less). Enjoy!

It’s old, it’s dirty. But it’s all we’ve got. Can’t really afford to be picky, given the circumstances. I throw the money on the table and we run to the truck. Why’d I even do that? Principles don’t matter anymore…Well, I suppose I could die a principled person. Of course the truck takes forever to start up, but it finally does and we’re on the road. Matteo looks back and sees that my principles cut into our time and they’ve caught up. We’re not turning back to save that guy: my principles have cost us enough. My feet laying it into the gas is the light switch that puts me in full survival mode.

So you actually want to teach English: building ELT experience

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

A student asked me how I came to make teaching my career choice. Many people teach English in Japan, but not all of them necessarily want to, at least for very long. It’s certainly a low barrier to entry into Japan, as the JET Program and many language schools don’t require teaching experience. Participants get to earn income and live in Japan before going on to other careers. For the Japan enthusiast who is unsure of what they want to do and/or wants to get to Japan by any means, this is an option (this is neither an endorsement nor a condemnation).

But what if you are passionate about teaching English and want to make a career out of it? Perhaps, you want to teach at the university level like I currently do. But where to start? I’ll share with you what I’ve done. My field is TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages), but I’m sure it can be applied to other fields as well:

Be a conversation partner. In my first semester as an undergraduate, I signed up to be a conversation partner with a Japanese student. We would meet for one week for an hour. Half of the time we would speak in English, and the other half we would speak in Japanese. If either of us had any gaps in understanding, we would provide explanations. While my main motivation was to practice speaking Japanese, this provided me my first opportunity to work with someone whose native language was not English.

Be a teaching assistant. I was an undergraduate teaching assistant for two ESL courses. I helped out the teachers with their lessons and even taught lessons of my own. This was the deciding factor in my becoming a teacher. From this experience, I learned how to give and receive constructive feedback, to always have an answer key prepared, and to give students a chance to arrive at the answers themselves. I also gained experience that I used to get teaching jobs after graduating. ~Side note: A school once told me that this did not count as experience. I refused to buy that and applied elsewhere.

Take a course. My undergraduate school did not have a TESOL major, but the Linguistics department did have a TESOL teaching course. This gave me an opportunity to gain background knowledge on various teaching pedagogies and refine my lesson planning skills.

Volunteer. My graduate school, The New School, has a wonderful outreach program that provides free English lessons to immigrants in NYC. This especially helped me build teaching experience while still having the flexibility to do my full-time job. Also, talk about inspiration: I have not had students more dedicated or determined than the ones I had in this community-based program.

Present at conferences. Attending conferences is a great way to network and gather some ideas from others in the industry. But don’t just go to conferences–try your hand at presenting at them as well. Answer that call for papers/presentations: it is a way to show prospective employers how you are contributing to the field (important for teaching).

Network. Not every opportunity is advertised. This is where having a network comes in handy. Your alumni network is a good place to start–I got a private tutoring gig because a fellow alumnus posted the opportunity in our Facebook group (not a job site).

Get whatever job you can to start. I started out as a teaching assistant for a summer program run by a company I interned for when I was in high school (network, people!). I also taught English at a private language school. These jobs provided income as well as experience that helped me identify the age group I wanted to teach.

Diversify your experience. Having experience that is not only teaching-related can open you up to opportunities to teach specialized courses in business English, tourism English, hospitality English, etc. My business background (I worked in international education for 4 years) helped me get jobs teaching business courses offered by my university.

I’ve been avoiding publications for academic journals/organizations (I’m still research-papered-out from my master’s thesis), but know it is necessary for longevity in the ELT field. Clearly, I’m still working on building experience, but here you can see what has carried me this far.

Language: Just use it

「まもなく帰ります。」(Mamonaku kaerimasu; I will humbly be returning home) I told my host mother over the phone. Even now, I still appreciate the repetition of train announcements for helping me pick up vocabulary words. But during my study abroad in Shizuoka, I didn’t quite have a handle on 敬語 (keigo; honorific language used with superiors/customers) to know what and what not to use in daily conversation. まもなく(mamonaku) was a word I often heard as the train would approach stops, and I understood it contextually to mean “soon”. So I naturally thought I would immediately apply my newly learned word when the opportunity came. I wanted my host mother to know I would be home soon, so I combined the verb for returning home (帰ります; kaerimasu) with まもなく. My host mother didn’t correct me and I felt proud of myself.

It was only a couple years later that I realized that what I had said was strange, even though the meaning made sense. Of course it was natural for train company employees to say it, because they were addressing passengers. However, my relationship with my host mother is more like family, so to use a formal word like まもなく came off as stiff and awkward. I should have said 「もうすぐ帰ります」(mousugu kaerimasu; I’ll be returning home soon), as もうすぐ (mousugu) is used in daily conversation.

I’ve made several errors like this that I eventually noticed or was corrected on. I officially began learning Japanese 14 years ago. I admit that I have not always been consistent with my studies, but I’ve passed the JLPT N3 and navigate daily life with what I know (more on my Japanese journey to come in future posts). One thing I have certainly been consistent about for a long time is my eagerness to use Japanese when I see an opportunity to do so.

What if I say the wrong word? Sometimes I do.

What if I forget a word? In a recent video chat with my aforementioned host mother, I briefly blanked on the word for last year (去年).

What if my grammar is not correct? As long as you can be understood, it doesn’t matter.

Reading about Japanese matters, but only by applying it do I know if I truly understand how to use it. It won’t happen if I stay in my head, worrying about getting it right. People for the most part are patient and just happy to see you trying. And if they don’t understand what you said? Just try something else. Another time during my study abroad, I didn’t know the word for envelope (封筒; fuutou) and proceeded to make a rectangle with my hands, describing a “white thing you put letters in”. Eventually the bank teller got it.

Gesture. Show a picture (I do this more often now and will ask students to do so as well). Whatever it takes. If nothing else, it’s just another opportunity to learn. The people whom you are studying in order to communicate with have a lot to teach you.

October’s monthly micro

Once a month I post a micro story (a story that is 1,000 words or less). Enjoy!

I’ve wasted two years being what I’m not. All that money down the drain. It made sense at the time: just follow the conventional wisdom.

Do what’s “safe”.

Do what “makes sense”.

So I went for it, gritted through it, sweated for it. Yet now, two years later, I couldn’t do it. I needed out. The next day, I walked into the office with a timid air. I asked the ladies at the front for the paperwork. I didn’t even have the courage to tell them upfront. But I filled it out, filed it in, and was free from that major.