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This endless cycle of goodbyes

I said goodbye to my friend on a drizzling winter's day. After many years in Japan, she'd decided to return to South Africa.

I will miss her. When I was a stupid, bewildered and at times angry new arrival, she was my main practical and emotional support. She took me shopping for curtains and for an electric blanket when Tokyo's winter turned me into a shivering bundle of misery. She poured (English!) tea and explained about Japanese men, their mothers and their office hours.

She was my senpai, a veteran who had arrived before me, had sustained a successful marriage with a Japanese man, had mastered the intricacies of aisatsu,¹ toilet slippers and garbage disposal.

"No, you're not insane," she reassured me.

"No, you're not unreasonable, but perhaps … "

Thelma and Louise

I visited her home, explored Tokyo with her, bought her baby boy his first book. I watched the child as his Japanese reading ability caught up with mine and exceeded mine. The woman who read him books about trains now listened as he read her books about insects.

It's for his sake that his parents decided to move to South Africa.

This endless cycle of goodbyes is part of a foreigner's life in Tokyo; especially, I suspect, in eikaiwa. New teachers arrive, stay for a year or two, return home. Some get married, some get divorced, a few turn into lifers.

Once they get that "OMG I'm in Japan!" bug out of their system, too many turn bitter when the country cannot live up to their anime fantasy. Others try to be more Japanese than the Japanese themselves. A small minority understands, accepts and loves the country for what it is: not weird, certainly flawed, not uniquely unique but a pretty damn special place nonetheless.

I have an eikaiwa colleague, a grizzled gray-beard, who point-blank refuses to talk to any teacher who's been in Japan for under ten years. That means he doesn't talk to me either. I find this both hilarious and admirable.

Now it's my turn to be the senpai and to gently disillusion the FOBs, but it's a tedious never-ending samsara, and … do you really want to invest so much energy in a person who's going to bugger off in a year and won't stay in touch?

No.

I find myself ignoring the youngsters and limiting my interaction to other lifers, the ones with the scars and the quiet smiles. It's also a function of age, of course, but if you're more interested in scoring with your students than calculating your shakai hoken or discovering a new quirky temple, we won't have much to talk about anyway.


The day also arrives when you realize you've got more Japanese names in your telephone contact list than non-Japanese, and that you're mailing more nengajo than Christmas cards, and that is perhaps the day you realize that you are, indeed, an immigrant.

But – and you're welcome to disagree with me – but life in Japan has its own tricky challenges for a woman from a Western background, where gender equality is emphasized, and it certainly helps to share your thoughts with another woman from a similar background.

Fortunately I haven't lost all my lifelines. I know a few other umeshu-quaffing females in Tokyo who'll probably have a wheelchair race to the nearest temple with me one day, and to them I say thank you and … kanpai!

1) Aisatsu can be translated as "greetings", but it's much more than that. You can read more about it here, but note it's a PDF file.

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