Today was the  awards ceremony for this year’s seniors. There were awards for effort (努力賞), attendance (皆勤賞), highly distinguished (特別功労賞)、distinguished (功労賞)、and best student of diligent character and outstanding grades (総合学科卒業生成績優秀者賞). I was happy to recognize the student that received that last one, which should itself win an award for being such a tongue twister (sougou gakka sotsugyousei seiseki yuushuu shashou), as the one who had asked me what my thoughts were about Hayao Miyazaki’s announcement of his retirement.

The gist of my answer was, “Let the man rest and enjoy the rest of his life! Steve Jobs worked so hard and he passed at 52!”

The next day, they had a radio show during lunch where they broadcasted my answer in Japanese, along with how this would be the fifth time that Miyazaki has mentioned retirement, and a list of when he mentioned it. Below was the script:

9月5日 (木) 学鳳ちょこっとニュース


今日は、ジブリの宮崎駿監督 引退についての話題です。











Future Immigration Officer

During my first year, and like every newbie, I was ready to make friends with EVERYONE. I said “Hi” to all the students, always greeted the teachers, and really made an effort to remember students’ names.

Of course, not everyone was reciprocal. There are a lot serious students at the school, as well as shy ones, and the feeling I got from a few of them when I passed by was stone cold. One of them actually was very adamant about not using English with me, whenever I tried to coax her into a short conversation. “No English,” she would say, with an impressive confidence, and then she would leave with her friends in tow.

Because I felt that “No English” wouldn’t do, and that my time should be a resource to the students, I looked up her name, along with many others, and began to address her whenever I said “Hello!” The school year ended and the students advanced into the next grade.

In that following school year, I was teaching the Advanced English classes, and was free to share global ideas from a Western perspective, and hold discussions. Halfway through, one student left for a 10-month study abroad in the Czech Republic, and the teacher told me another student would take her place.

To my surprise, it was the really confident student. She had asked the teacher about the class, and wanted to attend. The teacher thought the student contributes really great ideas, an outlier in her class, and gladly welcomed her. Based on my limited history with the student, and her disdain for speaking English with me, I, on the other hand, was afraid that the class would be too hard for her. I trusted the teacher, and welcomed the student as well, including her in the conversations, and giving her the time needed for her to comfortably participate.

The student did not fail to impress. Her ideas, while quite simple, were clear and often more specific than the general answers than the other students gave. Though she was a little bit slower, she definitely did her best, and even answered correctly a Jeopardy question that stumped everyone. In one lesson, I asked the students to tell me what they wanted to use English for. She answered that she wanted to learn English in order to become an immigration/customs officer and be able to speak to foreigners in English.

You have to remember that I’m out in the boonies here, and kids aren’t exposed to much, so unless they come from a very educated family, many of the students’ goals are very narrow. Much like in the states, I’m sure.

Class ended, and exam season started. Within a couple days after the date of the public university exams, students got their results, and had to choose which schools they would go to.  Things are usually quiet around the office now that the school year is coming to a close, but future immigration officer came in to tell me that she got into Meiji Gakuin in Yokohama. She was nervous because the school has a high number of returnees, whose English would probably sound much better, but English quality would be another matter. She is afraid she won’t be able to make friends.

She thanked me for teaching, even for the short time that she was in class.

I think she’ll be perfectly fine. Maybe one day she will stamp my passport.

Or interrogate me for overstaying my visa, whichever comes first!

Intersectional Loneliness

One of the teachers at school told me that I’m so brave for being in Japan by myself because when he was in America for only 6 months for work, he was really lonely. He was impressed by how I’m able to get around and do a bunch of things.

But being abroad as an adult truly is a lonely endeavor.  Especially if you are queer. And in Japan, if you can’t be easily identified as a foreigner.

As an adult, people are less inclined to help you because you’re expected to be capable of taking care of yourself. There also might be something wrong with you if you are still single beyond 30. (Sociopath!)

Being identified as a foreigner gives you a temporary pass because we are expected not to know the customs, and we probably won’t be staying around very long, especially if you’re white. As someone who looks Japanese, I don’t get this pass very often, unless I am traveling with other white people. The moment I speak reveals that I’m not from around here, so asking people to repeat is often met with annoyance, or condescension. I also get the feeling that because people here generally don’t like making mistakes, it hurts a part of them as well, judging from their profuse apologies. I also feel that the expectation is higher for me to speak Japanese, so I think people are less forgiving with me than with a white person.

And as a queer female, in ways that are not only related to gender and sex, but to gender-defined behavior and proclivities, I find myself never able to go beyond superficial topics, and I feel as if I’m being deliberately distanced. I own the way I present myself to the world, but of course, I do wonder if it affects the way others act around me when I feel like I’m missing out.

I knew these 3 characteristics about me would cause obstacles I’d have to face coming in and I think it saved me from culture shock, so I’m not angry about it, but sometimes I still feel defeated. But all this time also gives me a chance to think about how to handle these “micro-aggressions”, and really reflect on how I can behave more effectively with others.

So I’ve discovered some tips to overcome these 3 factors.

To confront the “single and over 30” judgement and question, answer that you have someone you like. During one of my kyudo winter picnics, the question was asked whether I had a boyfriend 彼氏, a lover 恋人, a fiance フィアンセ, and finally, someone I like 好きな人. Whatever sexuality you flow with, I think knowing that someone has someone they like means that you have the capacity to empathize, and can work with others. (And yes, I do have someone I like)

Not being recognized as a foreigner often times gives me a chance to step up and use my Japanese skills, as well as realize how much I need to learn. The higher expectations are only more motivating, and the pressure would make me ask better questions.

And being an unconventional female… I’ve been told a few times by other JETs that Japanese people don’t really care and probably wouldn’t tag me as a lesbian if I identify as a woman. And to some extent, I do believe this might be true, as I’ve met a middle-aged lady who often comes off somewhat masculine, but gives a very grandma-like vibe. (Personally, I like giving off a young grandpa-like vibe.) So now my problem has evolved to one of maturity: if a cis-gendered woman does not conform to defined ways of femininity (ie cooking skills, beauty skills, nurturing skills), is she considered less of an adult? But that’s another conversation.

I think that, as open and enthusiastic as I am with others, people are really polite and don’t want to ask prying questions that might offend the other person, or receive an answer that they are now responsible for taking care of.  I, on the other hand, will presumptuously ask and get my curiosity out of the way. This is a total mirror image of how my mother asks me questions that I myself feel are presumptuous. This leads me to remember how I often react irrationally with her because I’m thinking, “Where are you going with this? Probably the wrong direction, and now you are judging me.” While my mother can be brash at asking these questions, something that I think is influenced by being from a business-minded family, I imagine the same question being asked in Japanese to be very nice and flowery, respectful, and open to learning more (or I could be reading this all wrong)

Regardless, taking the initiative to engage is one way of overcoming the loneliness. And I am thankful for those who have and continues to engage with me!


Picnics at kyudo

On Tuesday and Friday nights, I go to the city’s kyudo dojo by the castle for a couple hours to train. Before winter, I committed myself to walking through the snow in whatever weather as much as I can in order to practice and be ready for my first test in the spring. It’s about 20-30 minutes to the dojo depending on how deep the snow is or icy the roads are.

Before the snowfall, I’d gone and bought a uniform to wear for practice. I didn’t want to practice with thick clothing on, and the uniform is surprisingly warm as long as I’ve got long sleeves and leggings underneath (Uniqlo heat tech!).

When I get to the dojo, I change, grab my arrows and set them in the stand. Then I pick out my bow and put on my bowstring. This isn’t necessary since all the bows available to borrow have strings on them, but someone had suggested I get my own bowstring, so after doing so, I’ve learned how to put on a bowstring on a Japanese longbow. This requires having to bend the longbow for the string to reach one end to the other, so I was really scared of snapping the bow when I first did it.

After everything is ready, I put on my chest protector (for women only, darn boobs), my glove liner, and then tie on the leather glove over that. Then it’s time to practice form on the straw barrels before the actual targets.

I’m going to spare all the boring details on perfecting the one form in kyudo, and fast-foward to the best part of practice. Since it’s winter and cold, we have an electric carpet on the floor, and heaters and stoves turned on in the center of the room. A kettle is boiling water on top of the stove. An hour into practice, the club boss brings out a tray of cups, tea bags, and other powder drinks, along with rice crackers and a variety snacks that people have brought.  The hot water is poured, we share the snacks, and chat.

In this time, I learn quite a bit:

  • Which snacks are good
  • The Aizu dialect
  • What jobs that people in town have
  • How an old man is able to flirt innocently with young ladies

Every morning

Every morning, whether on a bike or on foot, I pass by a private high school that’s really close to my apartment. And almost every morning I’m greeted by some of the school’s administrators, who are out making sure students arrive at school safely, stopping traffic on the one-way street for students to cross, since the side where the school is on doesn’t have a proper sidewalk.

For about a year, they greeted me, a new neighbor, with neutral expressions. I felt that at some point they would tire, but they kept it up without fail.

One day, I got a text out of the blue from my neighbor. She wanted to ask if I would be able to come to the school and help a student.

The high school is private, and perceived to be the worst in the city, where students who couldn’t pass their high school entrance exams to enter a better rated public school, or afford to go to the other private (Christian) high school would  attend. Many students drop out before even graduating. But this year, the school’s student president was applying to a 4-year university in Tokyo, the first in the school’s disreputable history, and she had a good chance of getting in. The school can’t afford an ALT, so there wasn’t a native speaker for the student to practice her English interview with.

My neighbor works in the school’s office, and was asked to call on me for this favor. All I needed to do was listen to the student once, which would give her the confidence she needed to go into her interview.

It was a busy day at work, but I didn’t have anything planned afterward, so I was happy to help. I didn’t think it would be such a big deal, but I was greeted by a big group of people. When I entered the room where the student was waiting, they surrounded us.

It was a bit intense, as this student was holding all the eggs for the school to raise their reputation. After listening to her speak, I was impressed with her rhythm and naturalness with English that I don’t often see even at my school, so I really had nothing to add besides a few pronunciation tips that any Japanese person learning English would have and told her that she would be fine. Even her sentence construction was grammatically fine.

I left the school with my neighbor, and as we chatted, she told me that when they found out I was the one she was calling for help, it was the principal who realized it was me he saw every morning, and that I say “Good Morning” every day without fail.

The student got accepted to her choice university. Now, the morning greetings are a bit warmer and more familiar.

“Imma eat all your potato chips!”

My supervisor is one of the kendo club advisors, and he sits next to me in the office. His co-advisor likes to come by and meet up to discuss club matters and students. They love to make jabs at each other. Today, they decided to include me.

<chatter chat chat, a jab here, a jab there>
Supe: Cat, this guy is crazy
Me: <playing along, but not culturally and socially adept enough to escalate> Craaaazy.
Supe: Crazy, 気狂い
I recall my high school Japanese teacher saying this was a bad and rude thing to say, but I’m an adult now!>
Co-advisor: Cat, you should tell the principal that this guy is so loud that you can’t do your work, and request to be moved.
Me: I see!
Supe: Cat, if you say that, I’m going to eat all your potato chips! <points at my snack drawer>
Me: My limited edition chips!