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Home Again

I woke up this morning not to the sound of 1,000 cicadas bent of the destruction of every human eardrum in the vicinity, nor to the paper boy marauding around on his motorbike at 3 in the morning. Nor did I awake to the heat of 12,000 suns bearing down on my flat and threatening to melt the very fan that kept me alive. No. This morning I awoke to the sound of silence, but for gentle birdsong and the whisper of a cool breeze that brushed past the curtains carrying the sweet scent of the country air. “Welcome back,” it said, and I slid out of bed, made a nice cup of coffee and began to write.

When I came back to England in December it was sincerely worse than Japan. Apart from the few lovely days I had in and around Salisbury, the trip was mainly a disaster; I’d split up with my girlfriend a couple of weeks before, there was snow clogging all the transport systems, it was freezing and dark, my best mate broke his arm and couldn’t come out for drinks, and everyone was grumpy and sick, which subsequently gave me the flu and made me bed-ridden for 5 days. Going back to Japan at the end of it was something of a blessing, and I was rewarded with uninterrupted blue skies for 2 months, a skiing holiday, and a trip to the wonderful city of Sapporo during a snow festival. Life since then has gone from good, to better, to great; I got more involved in the language, more involved with my students and the culture, and met some new Japanese friends separate from the big group of wonderful gaijin friends I already had. I had come to a point in July where there were so many people in Japan who I loved, and things that I cherished, that leaving was both something I couldn’t contain my excitement for, and something very sad that I won’t fully understand until it sinks in properly.

And it hasn’t yet. Outside of the comforting bubble that is my father’s house, the world that was once so familiar is now rather surreal. Everyone is white, and as tall or taller than me. It’s unnerving. I can no longer walk around in large crowds without having to stand on tiptoes to see what is ahead which is, let me tell you, a huge advantage when you’re sucked into the myriad of people wandering through Shibuya, or scoping for hot girls in a club. Also, everyone speaks English (stop me if I’m stating the obvious here) which means that I am constantly tuning into other peoples’ banal conversations without any conscious decision to do so. In Japan I had to make a very conscious effort to understand what people were saying to me, and so background conversation was usually just a comforting, somewhat familiar string of syllables used as a backdrop to my English thoughts. Not so here; there I am in Burger King (shh, it’s been over a year) having a meaningful chat with my dad when the young lad behind us proclaims “…well now I feel like shit,” after he finishes his XL Bacon Double Cheeseburger. I knew where he was coming from – the “XL” part always seems so right until you’ve finished the thing, then your stomach starts to question whether you really needed a 933 calorie burger, a large fries and enough coke to put out a house fire – I just really didn’t need to hear it. There I was thinking I’d become a better listener this past year and all it really amounted to was the lack of other conversations for my over-excited brain to tune into.

The social differences were always going to be difficult to revert back to, but one thing that has taken no effort in reverting to is the English countryside. It’s beautiful, there are no two ways about it. Miles and miles of rolling hills and fields only give way to the occasional village populated with thatched stone cottages, churches, local shops and village greens. Motorways connect towns and cites rather than just running through them, and are bordered on either side by green fields, while in Japan you have the pleasure of staring at a 30ft wall for the duration of your journey. I’m not saying a motorway is a particularly inspiring place in any country but still, anything that makes it more bearable is welcome.

My plans for this week are simple; relax, spend time with the parents, then make my way to London to spend time with my friends. It remains to be seen how much I’ll be affected by the dreaded Reverse Culture Shock, but initial reactions are good. I suspect the coming weeks will be subject to a lot of reflection and adjustment.

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Eighteen Days Left

As he struggled to think of the word ‘sky’ and then scribbled an incomprehensible version of said word on the board, the student next to him thrust up his hand, straining on his tiptoes as he proudly displayed the word ‘sea’, gaining the first point for the other team.

“No! Sea is green!” the first boy protested.

“Sometimes blue,” I replied, and at that he stalked off to his desk muttering the word “green” under his breath before staring at everything as if he wanted to murder it all with a blunt spoon.

Such is the emotion you can generate from a game of Scattegories apparently, where I summon a student from each of the 7 makeshift groups to the board, tell them a letter and a category, and have them write a word beginning with that letter and related to that category. Cue the noisiest lesson I have ever supervised. I’m actually amazed none of the other teachers came to protest.

There’s a reason for this madness of course; I am doing my last lesson with all my 1st years. This, as it turns out, is proving to be a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Usually, trying to get anything out of the students in two of my classes is like trying to draw blood from a particularly dead stone, yet both of them have woken up a bit in my last two lessons. People often say that you should have no favourites, but classes are so inconsistent anyway that it’s almost impossible for one to be on top the whole time, and others are always moving around the rankings. How well a class goes depends on so many factors, only a few of which you can control. You can only make your lessons so enjoyable (or try, anyway), but in the end you’re dealing with 42 independent personalities who might be tired, run-down, happy, genki, clinically depressed or a mixture of them all. One week you’ll have a lesson filled with joy, hard work, chatter and playful banter, and the next it’ll be like a tramp just climbed into the window, crapped on all their desks and told them to f**k off.

So the usually quiet classes have livened up. What else? Well the great classes have got better. And I mean “better” in the most self-indulgent of senses in that they were visibly and audibly upset when I said that this was my last lesson with them, oohed when I left them my email address, said “thank you Bobby!” in unison, and clapped before I left the classroom. My head swelled up so much I could barely fit through the door.

Outside of school things are moving very, very swiftly towards my departure. The plane ticket is (nearly) booked for the 1st of August, all the furniture in my house needs to be got rid of, I have to fill in a billion forms, send boxes back, practice a Japanese speech for next week, look for a new job, make sure I say goodbye to everyone, etc, etc. Fortunately I have received a replacement passport for the one I lost in January so I’ll at least be able to leave the country.

It’s the life outside work that I’ve enjoyed the most, and if I didn’t need to save money to set up back home I would certainly be staying until the end of August doing some travelling, sightseeing and “famous for” meal-eating. I didn’t get to see Osaka or Hiroshima, and I would have liked to go to Hokkaido again on account of how much I enjoyed it the first time around. One of my goals for the future is to take the train from London to Japan, and on that trip I’ll be sure to visit everywhere I meant to this time around. But that is a long way off. In the meantime I’ll keep as many connections with Japan open as possible. I have many friends here of course, and I’ll be sure to keep in touch with them, but I will have to make efforts while I’m in the UK too.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what it will be like to surrounded by “foreigners” again. The Office for National Statistics estimated that in 2009 there were 34,000 Japanese people living in the UK, which is approximately 0.05% of the entire population. 0.05%! I knew it was going to be hard to stay in touch with the culture but seriously; needle in a haystack. I may have to rely on hanging around major tourist attractions accosting people who, because they are Japanese and hence some of the most efficient people on earth, don’t really need directions, but forcing them to listen to my migis and hidaris like an excitable geographer fresh out of a month of solitary confinement. There are meetup groups in London too, so I’ll try and get to a couple of those.

I really have no idea what to expect when I get home, but I’ll be sure to post my thoughts and ramblings here as and when they come to me.