After we graduated, I came to Japan to teach English and my friend B. went to Tanzania to teach Math. When we met up again a year later I mused as to how someone with his famously offensive sense of humor had fared there. (He once came to a Halloween party dressed as a nazi, and a Jewish friend there, dressed as a pirate, almost ran him through with her cutlass.)
“I’ll let you know,” he said, “that it has taken me a month to get back my paranoia around black people.”
That’s B. for you, he is the Colbert to my Stewart. I think, honestly, it had more to do with how, in another country, you just stop making jokes of any kind – there’s no point, no one will get them. Even if they speak your language, they won’t get the background. People read Peanuts here, they think Snoopy is cute – they have no idea why it’s supposed to be funny.
Something the other day made me wonder if I also haven’t misplaced a certain paranoia in the last two years, and whether I am better or worse off without it.
Japan is famous for being safe – if you lose your wallet it can be found at the nearest police box with all the money intact, elementary school children take the train after dark by themselves, a murder is guaranteed to be on the news because it is so rare here. But even in America I had a bad habit of putting myself in unsafe situations. I’ve realized it probably has something to do with the anxiety/panic disorder – when absolutely everything in the world is terrifying even in broad daylight, then walking down a dark alley doesn’t seem that bad in comparison. I’ve gradually figured out how to judge situations by pretending someone else is with me – instead of WWJD, it’s what would I do, say, if my pretty friend C. was with me?
That sense of responsibility I’ve found myself lacking. Who, exactly, do I owe protectiveness to now?
I’ve been taking a local Japanese class just for two weeks. At the first class I met N. a friendly young Australian man that works for the same company at another JHS in the same town. The rest of the students are from the Philippines or China, and the teachers are volunteer Japanese locals. I was glad to be in the same group as N. – even though an Australian isn’t quite as familiar as another American, there’s a great deal more of shared cultural awareness. For example, when he said that his grandfather kept alligators, I could have made a “ Is it too soon to make a Steve Irwin joke?” joke, but I realized it will probably always be too soon to make a Steve Irwin joke, especially to an Australian. As I had to walk half-an-hour back to the train station, and as he lived only a few minutes from it, he kindly volunteered to drive me back. Being exhausted I accepted, but determined not to put him to the same inconvenience the following week.
The next week, we were joined by another Japanese volunteer, a college student named T-san. She and I bonded over being the first ones in the meeting room (half an hour early), both having studied Russian in college, and – as the class lasted until after the last bus – agreed to walk back to the train station together. When N. realized we were walking, he said he would drive both of us. (I thought he seemed much more eager to drive me when I came as a package with T-san, but I couldn’t blame him – she’s really sweet.)
In the drive to the train station, we learned that T-san actually lived near N. So he said he would drop me off at the station, and then take her to her house. This is where I start to wonder. Because while my thoughts at the moment were for the bond as two foreigners - “I’ve inconvenienced him once, I should make sure I don’t do it again, but he volunteered so it should be okay” – the literal second I stepped out of the car I felt the sting of having ignored the bond of being female.
See, while I was in America I would never have left another girl alone with a man both of us barely knew. I would have “checked in” with her if she felt safe, if she was sober enough to feel safe (I lived in a slightly crazy house my senior year), and would have checked in the next day to make sure she’d been all right. Even if we didn’t know each other well, it was an instinct that above all things we had to watch one another’s backs. I fretted and paced up and down the train platform – what if he was actually a murder or rapist or thief? What if she didn’t turn up at next week’s lesson? Of course it’s only my usual “considering the worst possible scenario” – he’s probably a perfectly decent guy and his name and address are on record with the Japanese class.
But I still felt uncomfortable all the way home. Is Japan making me complacent, so that I’ve forgotten even though many people and places are safe there are still some who are not? Have I forgotten the creed of “better safe than sorry?” Or have I let a giddiness at meeting someone else who speaks my language – not only in the words but in the culture behind the words – cloud the other allegiances I hold?
After two years at my first school, I had gotten so comfortable there – even complacent – that I had to force myself back into formality where I am now. I couldn’t wave cheerfully at the students at first – they weren’t my students yet, and would only stare. I couldn’t casually tease the other teachers – we hadn’t reached that level. It might be easier to ignore one’s status and act like we’re all friends, but in the long run I believe it will be disastrous. I’ve never understood why older expatriates like to deride us newbies for supposedly avoiding other foreigners. “You like to believe that Japan is a special place just for you, and you don’t like others intruding in your territory. You look the other way when you see another foreigner.” I don’t talk to every Japanese person I see, either. Why, I wondered, would I speak to every foreigner I meet? Do I strike up a conversation with someone wearing the same color of shirt? Should we have something in common besides our language or country of origin? I still think that way, I still think it’s ridiculous to assume our skin makes us kin. But also, it’s so easy to slide into that pocket again, that close world of someone who looks and speaks like me after two years without. Easy, Emily-baby. Not best.