One of the silver linings in the tempestuous time that was the end of my JET days was the kindness of strangers. Well, not complete strangers, but people whom I only knew in passing, or just not well enough to think that they’d do for me what they did. People who had no reason to feel a need to do anything for me at all. It made me wonder about how people tend to take those they “know” for granted, and just how bad it is to make assumptions about people.
The Ladies from the Gym
I had joined Konami Sports Club in February of 2011 and continued going there 3 days before I returned to the States. The instructors were kind, there was minimal gawking, and I made a few “gym buddies,” so to speak.
One of the first was an older woman who would go to the same Body Pump class as I. We’d exchange small talk before and after class. One time she said to me, “Don’t worry about making conversation. Just come every week.” I figured that maybe, having someone in the class other than the instructor to feel responsible to, helped motivate her to go. For me, it had that effect. Not because I had a problem with going to the gym to work out, but because just getting to the gym, which was a 15-minute bike ride away, wasn’t easy in bad weather, and a huge hassle in the rainy season. But I started thinking, “Ya-ko drives there, so she’ll be there. I need to go too, even if it means taking a taxi.” I didn’t like taking taxis to the gym because it felt weird to not exercise in order to exercise, so at least I’d walk home.
Around June of 2013, Ya-ko’s husband developed a medical condition, and she became unable to go to the gym regularly. But she’d still show up to Body Pump on Thursday nights, until even that was too much time away from her husband, who needed her to take care of him. We were talking in the stretching area, saying our goodbyes, when she handed me a small packet. I honestly thought it was a rice cracker wrapped in tissue paper. I asked if I could open it there, and she said, “Maybe you shouldn’t.” I kept on thinking it was a rice cracker until I went to the locker room after saying goodbye again. Then it hit me: if she didn’t want me to open it in public, it could only be one thing. I lifted up the layers of tissue paper and sure enough, inside was a crisply folded 10,000 yen note. A woman I’d mostly just exchanged pleasantries with had given me about 100 USD! I ran about looking for her, but she was already gone. I at once felt bad for receiving the money, and was deeply moved by the gesture.
Another woman I’d met at Konami, Yo-ko, had spent a year or two as a volunteer in Zimbabwe through the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). She still spoke a bit of English, so we’d converse in a mix of English and Japanese. When she found out I was leaving Japan, she asked me if there was anywhere I’d like to go, and that she would drive me there because she loved to go on long drives. I mentioned Mt. Aso and Amakusa, but that they were both too far away. I didn’t expect anything to come of it; the locations were both on Kyushu but very far south, and we didn’t have each other’s contact information. But then the last week of July, we ran into each other at the gym again, and Yo-ko said we could go to Amakusa on Sunday. It would have to be a day trip, but it could be done if we left early. So we finalized plans and went. She drove 8 hours in one day. It took four hours to get there, we spent about four hours in Amakusa (
I’ll write about that later I wrote about it here), and then spent another four hours on the road back to Fukuoka.
We conversed about a lot of things on that long drive, from the auto industry in Detroit, to how she liked the combination of salty & sweet flavors in American breakfast dishes like pancakes soaked in syrup on the same plate as sausages. But what really stuck out to me was what she said about something she learned in Zimbabwe. To paraphrase, she said, “Everyone was kind to me. But even so, I know how lonely it can be to live in a foreign country. So I try to reach out to foreigners living in Japan, because I know what they’re going through.”
I almost cried.
I hadn’t told her I was lonely. I had said it to one person straight out, and to others indirectly. What I was going through personally was perhaps the reason I became unable to deal with the problems at work. I had no real support structure, while I was acting as the support structure for everyone with a problem, minor or major, in my jutaku. I was a rock teetering on the edge of a cliff, and no one noticed. Yet here was this woman who only knew me from a few conversations at the gym, who knew that being kind isn’t necessarily something you do because you see an immediate need to do it.
I send encouraging emails to my former English Club students every now and then, before tests or when I know they’re going to take on some big extracurricular role. Part of me feels incredibly cheesy saying stuff like “do your best!” and “don’t forget I’m cheering for you!” But I figure, at worst, I’ll sound corny; at best, it’ll help them get through a rough patch, and it forces me to embody the spirit of fighting on that I’m preaching to them, even when it’s really hard to do so. If nothing else, everyone likes knowing that someone’s thinking of them, right?
The New Neighbor
For three years, I lived across the hall from an incredibly kind teacher. He was the only Japanese resident in that jutaku who always greeted everybody. And when I say “greet,” I mean he actually spoke words and bowed, instead of grunting, mumbling, or giving a quick shake of the head that could be misinterpreted as a sneeze, like everyone else did. One time, he randomly gave me an umegaemochi as I was walking into the jutaku and he was driving out.
As you can only live in the teachers’ jutaku for 10 years, he had to move out at the end of the school year, in March, in what was my fourth year on JET. I was sad to see him go, and thought the apartment would remain empty for a while. Much to my surprise, someone took the room about a week later. It was a young teacher, fresh out of college. I actually ran into her parents as they were helping her move in. They introduced themselves to me and called their daughter over, concerned about having her live alone for the first time. My presence seemed to put them at ease, since I’d been there for years. I was amused by the thought of being a foreigner playing sempai to a Japanese teacher 8 years my junior, but I was grateful to the parents for treating me precisely like that. They didn’t see I was a foreigner and assume I knew nothing, they saw I spoke Japanese and had lived there for 4 years and, even if only symbolically, asked me to look after their daughter.
Around June, I learned that my successor was married to another ALT’s successor, and given the water problems my apartment had, I recommended that they move into the other ALT’s apartment. Unfortunately for me, that meant I had to completely empty my apartment. One of the harder things to dispose of was my little TV. Other ALT’s didn’t want it because they either didn’t watch Japanese TV, or didn’t want a TV that was only 19″. So I took a shot and offered it for free to my new neighbor. I knew that she still didn’t have a TV, and I explained to her that if she wanted it, she’d really help me out by taking it. I told her everything about it: it was made in 2010, I’d bought it new, it was a 19″ HD Toshiba Regza, the headphone jack was a bit messed up, but otherwise it worked perfectly. Knowing all that, she still slipped me a pretty envelope and apologized that it was “such a small sum” when I took the TV to her apartment. I told her she didn’t have to give me anything, she was helping me out, after all, and it was such a small TV. She insisted, so I thanked her and accepted the envelope. I thought it’d have 2,000, maybe 5,000 yen, tops. Instead, I was greeted by yet another crisp 10,000 yen note. Considering that was one fourth the price of what it had cost three years prior, I thought it was very generous. I was quite blown away.
I made sure she knew who the new ALTs moving in would be, who lived nearby and who worked at her school, to try to repay her kindness that way. I really wasn’t expecting anything for the TV, and I didn’t want to throw it in the trash, the way I had to do with an incredible amount of the things I’d amassed in 4 years’ time.
Everyone Who Came to The Mayhem
“The Mayhem” is what I call my last days in Fukuoka. Even though I had to turn over the apartment that week, I still had a lot of stuff in the room.
That week, the building manager had decided to get stupid with me. It’s a long story and I don’t want to ruin the vibe of this post, so suffice it to say that I was massively short on time. Of course, I was partly to blame for not getting rid of things sooner as well, but it didn’t have to play out as horribly as it did.
Anyway, about three hours before the building manager was supposed to come and inspect the room, I called the school and told the secretary, “there’s no way I’m gonna make it in time.” To my surprise, she said she’d come and try to help. She dropped what she was doing at school and went to help me put stuff in the trash! The school secretary whom I’d only known for a few months, and had only spoken to for discussing paperwork and taxes. She even gave me a small bag of cookies, and thanked me for always giving the office their own box of omiyage. I apologized for not traveling often like other ALTs (thus making omiyage from me very rare), and for not getting the apartment ready in time.
Another person whom I recruited to help with the Mayhem was a new ALT who had just moved in about a week prior, to the apartment above mine. I was going to give her some of my stuff the day I left, and had gone to leave it in a bag on her door. When I finished sweeping my apartment and went up to leave the broom by her door, I saw that the bag was gone. So I rang the doorbell and was surprised to find she’d come home while I was running around like a headless chicken. She offered to help and I accepted quickly. At least, I had taken her to an Indian restaurant the night she came. Otherwise, what a terrible welcome to the neighborhood!
Then there was the metal scrap collector I’d called on short notice. Granted, I was paying him to take away some of the wooden furniture no one wanted, but then he took it upon himself to seek out metal objects I hadn’t thought of. I told him, “if it’s still in here, it has to go.” And that was all I needed to say for him to set to work.
Lastly, there’s three people who were certainly not strangers. Still, I thought they went above and beyond for me that last stressful Friday in Fukuoka.
One was a (then) first year ALT, who had offered to let me stay in her apartment after I had turned over mine. Her husband and in-laws were also visiting at the time, so I decided to ask my co-ALT if I could stay at his place instead. Still, she had been willing to take me in, even with her house full as it was. And when I went up to give her some leftover cleaning supplies, and broke down from the stress and stupidity of the day, she gave me a hug and let me cry on her.
Another was a former ALT who had stayed in Japan after her JET tenure. In my last week, she had been helping me take boxes to the post office, she took me to sell my manga at a manga buy-back place, and when I called asking for help on the last day, she told me she was meeting someone for lunch, but would go to my place immediately after that. She helped sort stuff and throw it away, and even vacuumed while I was talking to the building manager. She and her boyfriend drove me to the post office in downtown Fukuoka City at 10 o’clock at night to mail one last box of stuff. Without her, a much greater fraction of my Fukuoka life would’ve ended up in the trash, and I would have felt pretty abandoned.
Lastly, there was my former co-ALT. He let me stay in his apartment after I turned over mine, even cooked me dinner at midnight after he found out all I’d eaten all day was a stale melon pan and a jug of green tea. He told me I was working too hard to get the apartment clean, and while I wanted to leave the place spotless, I figured it was better to listen to him. When I had returned from the night run to the post office, he made me fajitas and let me watch Star Trek: The Next Generation on his Apple TV. Even as he himself had to get ready for a trip to China.
The Mayhem was one of the most stressful days of my time in Fukuoka, and the people who came through for me were people I either didn’t know very well, or didn’t expect would end up helping as much as they did. It was a bittersweet experience. I suppose it’s like Björk says: “Maybe not from the sources you have poured yours / Maybe not from the directions you are staring at.”