Somehow, I Got Here.
Like a lot of people on the internet, I like to call myself a writer. Still, I’ve never been the “blogging” type: structuring my thoughts into well-organized paragraphs and sections is much less appealing to me than screaming my thoughts and feelings into the ether that is social media. I’ve done copywriting for previous employers, but it was always purposely impersonal; there’s only so much personality to be injected into an article on best practices for maintaining a web presence for their business or the best apps for last-minute holiday shoppers.
I’m a writer of fiction. I say this, of course, having never published my work and showing it to only a handful of people. That’s for a lot of reasons.
As a teenager, I wanted to be a published author before age 20. That didn’t happen.At the start of 2018, I decided that my goal for the year would be to have a working manuscript for a fantasy novel ready to send to potential literary agents. That likely won’t happen. I told my partner at the time about this goal, stars in my eyes at the thought of finally achieving a goal I’d set eight years ago. Listening to me, they grimaced.
“I don’t know,” they said, “it just sounds like a bad idea.”
“Why?” I asked, assuming they would say something about how writing an entire novel in one year is a lofty goal for a casual writer. I knew that, but I was feeling ambitious and foolishly optimistic.
“You said writing is something you do for fun,” they clarified. “I think trying to get your writing published when you’re just doing is a hobby is pretty vain.”
I sat there for a moment, crushed under the weight of that word - vain. I’d been open with them about my dream of being published, how I’d written an entire novel and sent it to dozens of literary agents, how my plans to rewrite and edit that manuscript and my story were eventually stalled because life got in the way, only for them to now see that passion re-ignited… and call me “vain.” I stared at my open file, many weeks' worth of work suddenly meaningless testaments to my vanity, and my passion for the project began slipping away.
I have a friend who is really into making customized dolls. One process involves using an already-painted doll, removing anything distinct like face paint or hair, and building a new doll with the new, blank base. Each time a part of myself was stripped away – a part of my personality, an inconvenient interest, a key thing that made me “me” – I felt like one of those dolls. I knew that if I kept up like this, if I let myself be rebuilt in the image of what others wanted me to be, I wouldn’t really be able to call myself “me” anymore.
I knew that in 2018, I had to rebuild myself. Or there would be nothing left.
“I’m gonna have to let you go.”
I’d never been fired from a job before, but after a year at a little Austin web design company, I was let go.
“Do you want me to write you a letter of recommendation?” My manager asked, taking my work laptop from my hands.
“Maybe,” I said, holding back tears. “I was researching a program that sends Americans to Japan to teach English.”
Eventually, anything related to teaching English abroad and loss would go hand in hand. I spent the next month in tandem applying for jobs and writing an essay about why I wanted to move across the world to teach English to grade schoolers in a foreign country. I landed a job at a marketing firm, where I did a little bit of everything, and learned a lot.
The day after I found out that I’d passed the preliminary screening stage, my coworker was fired.
The day before my interview, I was fired.
A few days after my interview, my relationship of five years ended.
I moved back to my hometown, and got a job at the corporate office of a furniture company. Two weeks into the job, I found out I’d been accepted into the English-teaching program. A few days later, my position was eliminated.
Excited about Japan but still in need of money, I took on a part-time job at a coffee shop and immediately regretted it. All of the employees except me were in their teens or early 20s. I was emotionally terrorized by more than one stressed-out teenage manager and spent every shift covered in espresso and a sticky layer of syrup. The day after I learned which town I would be placed in, I was fired from that job, via text.
A door opening to my future in Japan meant another door closing on my life in Texas. I came to love and hate getting news; on one hand, I was excited to learn more about what the future held for me in Japan, on the other, I knew something bad was on the horizon for me.
So, why Japan?
I wish I could give a more profound answer. I wish I could say it was because I love teaching children and I want to help them succeed and grow and further their pursuit in achieving Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s dream of globalization. That’s partially it, and I’m holding on to a shred of hopeful optimism that I’ve somehow maintained during my hellish year. But my real answer is this:
Because somehow, over everything else in my life in 2018, this plan didn’t completely fall apart.
“So what do you do for fun here?” I asked my predecessor before I moved to this small town in Northeast Kyushu.
“I go on lots of walks,” she told me.
I think my predecessor and I are two very different people. She’s an outdoorsy person, someone who likes going on long bike rides and hikes in nature. She’s mentioned the best places to buy hiking boots, bikes with more than one speed, every time I dig through the closet I find more of the outdoor exploration equipment she left behind for me. For someone with her interests, this town is a gift; living here is a constant nature excursion.
I’m not that kind of person.
I thrive in a concrete jungle; my roots take well to asphalt and pavement. I like clustered, crowded streets lined with shops and restaurants and bars. I’m not a physically active person, but I can be persuaded to walk down the block or across town to try a new coffee shop or meet people at a bar, or riding my bike to and from train stations on my daily commute. It might describe the nearest big city, an hour away by car. But none of these things describe my town.
According to Wikipedia, my town has a population of around 30,000. I'm pretty sure this number accounts mostly for cranes and crows. Nothing is within walking distance of my apartment - everything else is a 20-30-minute drive away. There are two types of attitudes people who grew up in small towns have once they're adults. Some love them and find charm in the slow pace and nostalgia in the silence, while others hate the vast expanses of nothing and will do anything they can to escape. I’m firmly in the latter camp. After clawing my way out of my little country town and moving to Austin, I initially felt like coming here was a step back.
So, what do I do for fun?
I ask myself this in desperation, my ears ringing from the constant hum of cicadas.I’ve been scouring HYPERDIA, plotting JR Kyushu routes to other areas of the island. I have SkyScanner and Google Flight alerts activated for cheap trips to all the hotspots of Japan tourism: Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Sapporo, all of these places too far away for a quick trip on a shinkansen. I have a lot of three-day weekends coming up in the next few months; I’m going to use my time and money wisely and see as much of Japan as I can for now.
So, what do I do for fun? I plot my escape.
It’s not all bad, of course; my morning commute takes me through mountain passes and along the ocean, through rice fields and the charming main thoroughfare of town. Everyone in my contracting organization is incredibly helpful, from my direct representatives who I communicate with mainly through Google Translate to the salarymen who clue me in on festivals in the area. The other Assistant Language Teachers are nice, all of us first-years, all of us struggling with culture shock and isolation in our own ways. Plus, there’s plenty of toriten and karaage here, and our town mascot is cute.
The most important thing that I’m holding on to for now is the fact that, for the first time in half a decade, I’m on my own. I’m going to summer festivals and sweating my ass off, frantically Googling how to say important things like “Do you have these shoes in a larger size?” and “Can I pet your dog?” in Japanese, drinking with people from Australia and the Philippines and other countries I’ve never been to… and I’m doing it on my own. I’m rebuilding myself, bit by bit, finding out things about myself I didn’t even know until I was the only person around to tell me who to be.
It’s scary as Hell. But God, it also feels amazing.
“Is this an Eat, Pray, Love thing?”
I haven’t actually read the book or seen the movie, but I read the Wikipedia. People like to bring up Eat, Pray, Love any time a woman travels by herself to a “foreign” (re: not predominantly white) part of the world. Maybe, except with some amount of actual work. I am earning a salary, you know.
“Is this a How Stella Got Her Groove Back thing?”
I think I get where you’re going with this, and I’ll allow it. I’m not opposed to it. My “groove” has been non-existent for a long time. The last time I was single, Tinder didn’t yet exist, so as you can imagine I have a long way to go in figuring out how to date or even meet people. For now, I’m leaving it up to chance - we’ll see.
Right now I want to meet people, have new experiences, and make a good impression on the locals. My Japanese is rusty at best, abysmal at worst, but I have a handful of study guides and mobile apps to help. The English-teaching program has a well-established social safety net of people I can reach out to for help with everything from navigating paperwork to feeling homesick (or if I want to go shopping for clothes at the mall in the city). All in all, if my plan was to go to the other side of the world to “find myself,” this is the best possible scenario.
For now, I’m just trying to be a better version of myself. And if that includes fumbling to learn a new language and teaching elementary-age Japanese kids Texas slang like “howdy” and “y’all,” then that’s just how it goes.