Letting Go the Ghost

By Austin Pick

Drifting through the supermarket, among the obasans and the oddities of Japanese cuisine, I still find myself, after six months living in Japan, wondering, "is this toothpaste or foot-cream?" – "what's it gonna be with rice tonight?" – "do they really pickle everything?" – and "why are the fish looking at me?" Occasionally I also wonder, more seriously, why I left the familiarities of America for this. Hearing "Born in the USA" among the store's muzak tunes only compliments my sense of comic estrangement.

Despite earnest study, most Japanese kanji still resembles centipede fingerprints to me, which adds a certain intrigue to the simplest tasks. I enjoy adventure, and seek it out, but sometimes its nice to open a can of tomato sauce and not discover, much to the surprise of your naked pasta, that its actually ketchup. And I have questions about larger concerns as well, about where my food was grown and how it was processed. These aren't ideological issues so much as a simple desire for health and quality, but even with English-speaking Japanese people, it can be so difficult to communicate. We get turned around talking about our families, not to mention sustainability.

Primarily because of language, I exist at a distance from this culture, unable to appreciate its subtleties or participate fully in the life of the community. I'm the only foreigner in the town of Yagi, where I live and work, teaching English at the Junior High and five elementary schools. Nestled among mountains in the fertile rice basin west of Kyoto, my little cluster of villages is charming and quiet, largely unperturbed by the rowdiness of post-industrial consumerist Japan. I like it here very much. But days go by where I only speak with a parsed mix of languages, gesticulations and facial acrobatics, often without even saying much. And sometimes I simply don't know what's going on. Drifting through the supermarket, or the narrowing streets of evening, I've found myself feeling like a ghost, disconnected and rootless.

In a way, of course, I've been a member of this community since my arrival, with employment and an apartment awaiting me. I was attracted to the JET Programme because it offers participants this kind of unique and immediate immersion, which makes surprising cultural exchange possible. For instance, soon after my arrival, a takoyaki vender insisted I join him and his entourage of hilarious friends for a night of conversational bafflement and weird-food sampling at a backwater izakaya — the most remarkable welcome that I experienced until the Junior High brass band played the American Anthem on my first day at school.

This certainly isn't the Japan seen from under the eves of temples, nor what I could have expected when I accepted the position, enticed by the unknowability of the years ahead. But I chose the JET Programme because I'm not interested in being a tourist. The most enriching experiences of my previous time spent abroad in Australia were the summer months when I entered fully into the culture, working with people on farms and in communities. In my experience, this is the most profound way to foster mutual understanding and simple friendship, whereby we are gifted with new ways to know ourselves. In Japan, however, friendships don't often develop quickly. I met more than a dozen people at that first izakaya, but haven't seen most of them again, and sometimes the movement of my life here seems vaporous, floating apart from the procession of people around me.

I often feel the most disconnected, or am most aware of that feeling, among the people I see everyday. My working hours are divided among the classrooms and offices of Yagi's schools and Board of Education, where I interact with teachers and administrators. I'm always welcomed with courtesy and kindness, and generally find Japanese people to be cheerful and accommodating. But on the whole they're also quite... I'd been searching for a word until recently, when a young Japanese friend opened the dictionary to keikai, which means cautious, guarded, or reserved. My friend sympathized with this impression because she had studied abroad in America, and shared my sense that despite familiarity, it can be difficult to establish openness with Japanese people.

My fellow teachers do open up, however, during enkai, festive staff drinking parties. After opening formalities, requisite speeches, and a lot of profuse bowing, everyone cuts loose in truly convivial style, pouring drinks for one another, surprising with closet karaoke skills (of which I, we've discovered, have none), experimenting with English words, or, even more rare, actually speaking slowly to me in Japanese. Even though our conversations don't stray much from the food we're eating, it's usually a ridiculous and enjoyable time. I don't drink, however, which leaves me a little on the outside of this important social space. And what's strange is that everyone returns to work the next day as if nothing has happened, and any openness we'd established quickly collapses back into customary cheerfulness, with its careful parameters.

I've become aware, during my time here, that I am sometimes regarded as a role or function, being referred to as "the ALT" and, on occasion, being addressed by my predecessor's name. It's understandable, because it must be odd to have a new foreigner on staff every few years. It's nearsighted of me to imagine people readily forming close friendships when I am, to their eyes, just passing through. But I'd like my stay here to be meaningful, and I want to connect with people, share, and contribute. When the scheduling doesn't allow me to teach the week's classes, yet the other teachers are busily engaged, I find myself asking, what exactly am I doing here? And during class, when the JTE launches into lengthy Japanese explanations of English grammar, I question whether my presence is even necessary. Ghostlike, I pass silently between rows of hunched and furiously writing students, wondering what all the scribble is about.

I've come to accept that my position here exists within the constraints of the education system. But being among coworkers is only one aspect of my position, and when I'm with my elementary school students, it is impossible for me to be a ghost. I have momentarily, and quite happily, disrupted entire classes simply by passing them in the halls. The mere fact of my existence seems to amaze them, and it took time, of course, but I've learned to channel that energy into our activities together. The more free and spontaneous I am, the more enthusiastic and responsive the students become, and we communicate, not only in English, but also in gibberish, goofy dancing, pantomime, and frequent fits of laughter. Perhaps my greatest success as a teacher thus far was getting an entire class of "too cool for school" sixth-graders up and singing Head Shoulders Knees and Toes with hilarious, arm-flailing speed. And one of the songs I first taught younger students, full of expressive gestures for different feelings, has become a sort of theme song, my most-requested number. The students often begin singing at the sight of me.

Once or twice, students have even started singing in the supermarket! Their parents always remain cordial and reserved, and the students are often shy, but playfully so. They peer into my basket or duck between the aisles, seeing no reason why I shouldn't join their play. I first met some of these students during the blazing heat of summer soon after my arrival, when I was invited to Day Camp. Still jet-lagged, bewildered by the humidity, and unaccustomed to children speaking a foreign language, I was slightly overwhelmed. Sometimes my students don't understand that I can't speak Japanese, but as we've warmed to each other, it doesn't really matter. On those occasions when we meet around town, on those occasions where adults only offer a slight bow and slim smile of recognition, my students' openness has made me feel more a member of the community than any ceremony or formality.

Like my Junior High students, the adult students of my eikaiwa, or conversation classes, which I teach twice a week, were reserved and slow to speak when we first began gathering. It's obviously a little difficult to conduct conversations when everyone is hesitant to say anything, and for the first few months I found myself dreading the 90-minute classes. I couldn't seem to get a line on what their expectations and interests were. I experimented with different lesson formats, but was often met with blank stares, or, just as a conversation was developing, a sudden lull and silence. Again, I asked myself, what exactly am I doing here? Gradually though, we've settled into a natural rapport; the silences are less awkward now, and the class has actually become my closest link to the community.

The members of these classes are a diverse group, most of whom are older than my parents, yet we've discovered we share some of the same concerns about the environment and the quality of our food. Japan is known to have some poor environmental practices that aren't often discussed, but I've begun to learn how to ask the right questions. And my eikaiwa members seem to find a venue for expression in English that isn't so readily available to them elsewhere. We are beginning to communicate these deeper threads. We are beginning to become friends, too. I've gone on several outings with various people, and we've had dinner parties together. They seem to thrive on the perspectives and curiosity I bring to their culture, and they help me to understand what I'm observing as I settle into my life here.

Despite the reservations and affected distance of so many Japanese, and despite the challenging barriers of language and culture, I've been the recipient of extraordinary kindness and generosity during my short time here. In the first few weeks the local librarian brought dinner to my door twice, and members of my conversation classes have often gifted me with vegetables from their gardens. I see now that much of my sense of ghostliness emerges from a frustrated feeling of inadequately being able to express my gratitude. With only a few clumsily spoken words, it's difficult to convey the sincerity and depth of my appreciation for the help and support I've been given, for the humility I've learned in this journey of acculturation and adaptation. I've also begun to learn, because elementary students are such good teachers, the importance of speaking through actions. I held a dinner party for members of my eikaiwa classes, with which I tried to convey my gratefulness, but the Japanese like to keep things light and cheerful, and I've begun to see the charm in that too.

With everyone I'm fortunate know here, our internationalization, our process of enriching each other's lives with our differences and our similarities, begins in these simple spaces we share with one another, week after week. It is a grass-roots growth, centered in the soil of our everyday experience, and I now feel more connected and less rootless with each encounter.

This experience of ghostliness has illuminated the incredible intimacy possible among people who share language and culture, and has deepened my appreciation of sustained relationships with family and friends. But this ghostliness has also enabled me to value and honor the fleeting, singular moments that enlighten our days. Like the jazz Konishi-san played from his computer one day in the ever-quiet Board of Education office, after learning that we like some of the same music. Or the obasan who stuck her tongue out at me a dozen times in the middle of the street, trying to explain that she wanted to give me some candy like the piece she had there. Or the fortune-teller I met while hiking, who carefully explained my entire future, in Japanese. These simple, striking moments dispel the spooks of supposed separation, and, in letting go the ghost, I feel more at home here all the time.


Kyoto, Japan Winter 2005

Japanese Terms :
obasan – middle-aged or old lady
kanji – ideographs, adapted from Chinese, used in writing Japanese
takoyaki – fried dough-ball with octopus; popular at festivals
izakaya – Japanese style bar and restaurant
keikai – cautious, guarded, reserved
enkai – dinner party or banquet
eikaiwa – English conversation class

Letter to English Teachers (36kb)(Linked PDF) "amounted to a turmoil act": This letter, which I received from an Japanese official serving the Japan Exchange & Teaching (JET) Programme in some capacity, demonstrates the often perplexing communication difficulties many foreigners experience while working in Japan...

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