In fall 2006, I went up to Boston to apply to Nova Japan. I got a response back fairly fast—I was going back to Japan. The next month or so was scrambling to get my work visa application in order and to get what I'd need to take with me. Nova operated on one-year contracts, but I knew what I wanted: I was going to work for Nova for a couple of years, study Japanese on the side, and then try to move up into a Japanese company. I was ready!
This "dream future" got off to a rocky start. My parents both lost their jobs right after I graduated college, so my family and I were living off mine and my younger sister's credit cards as best we could. I had enough money to get a ticket to Japan, but that was about it. I arrived with roughly $200 to my name that I needed to make last me the better part of a month. It worked, if only because I lived off the bag of skittles my parents sent along as a farewell gift. Breakfast of champions, dudes.
Training started a couple days later and lasted three days. Three days to learn how to teach, not bad, I guess, considering Nova lessons consisted of following a very strict outline. (The trainers even timed us on how long it took us to get through the sections. Ahahaha…) I fell out of love with my company almost immediately, but I respected the job, and I tried my best.
In a way, it was like Nagoya all over again—teachers were forbidden to fraternize with the students, so I was hanging out with other foreigners after hours. We weren't allowed to use Japanese in our lessons, either, so almost everything I did was in English. Most of the students who wanted to see us outside of class wanted to do outings in English, anyway, for the casual practice and friendship.
On top of work problems, I had financial problems out the wazoo. I was making decent money, but I was sending more than half of it home every month to deal with credit card bills and student loans—and trying to help keep my family afloat. So I was in Japan—with my hands tied. In the year I was there, I took two out-of-town trips. I was as much a miser as I could be and still survive. My roommates (other teachers) went out all the time, drinking and dancing and having fun, going on trips. They invited me along almost every time, but I just laughed and said I was in the middle of a big story I couldn't walk away from. I took as much overtime as I could, to the point that I worked in 40~60-day cycles with a half-day or day off in between.
By April, 2007, I was feeling choked, so I figured it was time for a drastic change. I applied for a transfer to a school in Tokyo. I had a couple online friends who were living up there, also English teachers but with other companies, so I figured it had to be more fun. I spent the first month living in a friend's living room while looking for a place to stay. We were both broke as shit, but we figured out our priorities real fast: we'd buy groceries from the dollar store and make them last as long as possible, then spend what little extra income we had on alcohol. She was too sick to travel, and I didn't want to travel without her, so we drank and took long walks and wrote and listened to street bands play in Kichijoji.
There was only so long I wanted to crowd her space, though, so I moved into a gaijin house, a community house specifically for foreigners. I shared a room that was so small I could put my hands out and touch both walls, and in that room were two beds, two desks, and two sets of narrow shelves. My suitcase took up half my bed; I used the other half. My roommate came and went at all hours of the night. She was in Japan as a Japanese student, not there to work, so she had lots of time to blow her seemingly endless supply of money on clothes and all-night parties. I probably said twenty words to her the three months I was there. Ha.
Life was perfect—the only kind of perfect that matters, where it's frustrating and disappointing and has more downs than ups but you wouldn't want it any other way.
Then Nova went bankrupt.
It took a couple months to die, two months where our checks were late and one where it didn't show up at all. I worked overtime toward the end, knowing I wasn't going to get paid, knowing teachers were quitting left and right and students were still booking lessons. The district manager was busting his ass trying to find people to cover lessons, and every time he called he sounded defeated. I couldn't tell him no.
The day our checks didn't show up, I had to say enough. I had roughly $800 on me, money I'd been saving so I could spend Christmas in Okinawa. I could survive another two months in Tokyo and look for another job, but if nothing came, I had no way of getting back to the US again, and no one to turn to for financial help. I couldn't risk it, so I put the money into a ticket instead and flew home two weeks later.
One week later, I got a job offer in Shinjuku. Great money, wonderful location, Japanese company. They needed an office worker who could double as an intermediary between the Japanese staff and English-speaking staff—exactly what I wanted when I moved to Japan. Too bad I voided my visa and blew my money on a plane ticket home, hm? That's life, I guess, but I am still a little bitter over it, even when I try hard not to be.
Now I've been back in the US for almost three years.
For the most part, I'm doing okay. Then it'll hit so hard it's crippling—that need to go back, that need to find anything Japanese I can and hide myself deep inside it. I live practically one street away from JTown in San Francisco, but sometimes I can't bear to walk through it. Sometimes I can't stand hearing Japanese on the sidewalk below my window. I go mad, thinking I'm in the US. I start hating everything about where I live and what I'm doing. I spend hours comparing ticket prices and apartment prices and job hunting, then drink myself numb so I can't think anymore.
I have plans for my future. I have careers I want—with the military, maybe, or the San Francisco Police Department. I'm old enough that I should pick a respectable job with a steady income and get out of minimum wage. The smart thing to do is pick a solid career, pay off my debt, and save up for a future vacation.
But sometimes I want to throw it all away just to get my feet back on Japanese soil. And I'll be right back where I started, penny pinching and a sore thumb, the same credit card bills and student loan debt that made it hard to live last time, but I'll be home, and sometimes that feels like a more than fair trade. After all, I'm doing that same financial juggling right now as a barista in San Francisco. Why do it here if I can do it there?
"Luckily", I can't afford to just drop and run. When you're busy making ends meet, you don't have time to save up for international plane tickets.
Ahhh~ Stay to the course, marynoel, stay to the course. It's gotta get better than this, right?
Next time I talk about Japan, I promise it will be more shiny pictures and less grumbling.
(Disclaimer: I don't know who took this picture. Sorry for using it without permission, but it was the only picture we could get of our colleagues' protests. If somehow you find it here, and it's yours, let me know and I'll take it down/give proper credit!)