This is a very different type of blog post than what I usually post here, but it is the last entry in a series of blog posts during my time as a JET Program ALT. To read the other entries in this series, please visit A Year in Japan.
What a difference three years makes.
It was never my intention to abandon this blog. In fact, I have dozens of drafts of posts dating back to August 8, 2014; the day after I arrived back to the U.S. But I just couldn't post them.
At first, the excuse was that it was too recent. I jotted down what it was like to leave Shingu and, well, I cried. I jotted down what it was like to tour my favorite spots in Kansai for the last time, and cried. I jotted down how nice it was to meet my successor and say goodbye to some truly wonderful friends at KIX the day I left the country, and cried. It was too raw.
So I decided to give myself some time. A month? Three months? Six months later? Would that be enough time to reflect? And then I started graduate school and convinced myself that I was just too busy to decompress and compose my thoughts. Then a year passed. Surely it's too late to say anything now, right?
But it bothered me to leave things unfinished! So here I am now, at the time when had I stayed with JET, I would have earned the mystical JET Unicorn status. I've also had two full years to reflect on my experiences and my transition back to U.S.-life.
As one would assume from the paragraph above, I was more than a bit of an emotional puddle towards the end of my JET journey. If leaving for the U.S. for Japan back in 2011 was difficult, it was nothing compared to my departure in 2014. I was exhausted, tired, sick of packing and incredulous -- how had I accumulated so much junk and kept so much stuff from my predecessor that NO ONE needed in three years? It also didn't help that I broke one of my ribs at one of my schools in June and vastly underestimated how it would affect me and take to heal.
My final days in Shingu were spent cleaning, packing, closing accounts, and saying goodbye. My students waved, confused as to why I was still in town when they knew I was going back to the ambiguous "America." Some came up to me with their parents to show off their English skills or to say "thank you."
The hardest goodbye was to a woman in my neighborhood with whom I'd become friendly with, even with my limited Japanese. She was one of the first people I met while I wandered aimlessly around my neighborhood, trying to identify landmarks like my work, schools, post office, and grocery store. Unlike most who looked at me with curiosity or confusion, she waved and greeted me with a smile. Over the course of three years, she would greet me in the mornings and welcome me home after work. We talked about silly things like the weather and cooking. I taught one of her granddaughters at the nearby elementary school, and she would tell everyone at dinner about the American teacher. I saw her for the last time while I was walking home from closing my bank account. We chatted, commiserated over the humid summer weather, and said goodbye. Her granddaughter had told her I was going to America, and she wished me a pleasant trip. I instead had to explain that the move was permanent. The realization on her face was crushing. In a final act of kindness, she patted my arm and wished me the best of luck back in America, but to please not forget Shingu.
How on Earth could I ever forget my second home and the people who made my experience so rich and fulfilling?
One the day I was scheduled to leave my apartment and go to the train station, a friend met me in the morning to send me off, only to find that I was still woefully unprepared and upset. (FYI, a good friend hugs you even when you're in the middle of cardboard towers, suitcases, and a meltdown.) I'm afraid to think of the amount of cleaning I left in my frazzled, haphazard wake.
I was on the verge of tears the whole ride to the station, buying my tickets for the last time, and when my BOE coworkers made their goodbyes. I cried as I boarded the train, and the poor JR conductor was obviously more than a little uncomfortable punching the ticket of an apparently emotionally unstable gaijin. I can't have any regrets, but looking back, I do wish that my departure from Shingu hadn't been so chaotic. Unfortunately, my last memories of my home are slightly marred because I just wasn't ready to leave.
My blog posts back in June and July of 2014 focused on the things I was grateful for, and there were many things to be grateful for, but I still was utterly terrified of leaving and panicked. It was too late to change my mind, but I couldn't help but worry if I was making the right decision. Were three years enough? Was the decision to return to the U.S. to pursue graduate school the right one? These doubts plagued me as my little slice of the inaka slipped away from view.
In the days before I took a flight out of KIX back home to the U.S., I explored some of my favorite places around Kansai. It was a strange feeling; I used to count down the days until my next trip to Osaka or Kyoto, but this time around I couldn't make time stop.
And then I was at the airport.
In the span of a few hours, I met my successor, said goodbye to my supervisors and a few good friends, and made my way passed security checkpoints and customs. I thought the feeling would be bittersweet, but it felt more bitter than sweet.
I was grateful for a layover so I could see my parents for a few hours, but then I was on another flight headed for California. It was strange, being back and knowing it wasn't a vacation. This time, there was no omiyage to consider or need to restock on American clothes.
Once I was home, reverse culture shock hit me. Hard.
I underestimated how sneaky it would be. Sometimes it was things like being overwhelmed at a grocery store or restaurant menu over the sheer number of options. Other times, it was hearing crickets outside my window and faintly wishing for the hum of cicadas instead. I probably told more stories about "that time in Japan" than people wanted to hear, and I'm sure that I still do. I have a sinking feeling that it's something I'll always do.
I still think about my students and coworkers constantly and wonder how they are doing. I still think about the people I met and friends that I made, even if we don't chat as often as I'd like. I research and plan and have started saving up for a trip back, but when that happens, I have no idea. I look at photos of the places I was able to visit and reflect on those once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Again, it's bittersweet, sometimes erring on more bitter than sweet, to look back on those times because the likelihood of having another opportunity like JET is pretty slim.
If I had the chance to tell nervous me from 2011 if I should accept the offer from the JET Program(me), I would say, "What the heck are you waiting for!?" If given the opportunity and resources, I think everyone should live and work in a foreign country -- it's an experience unlike anything else. At times all I wanted to do was pack up and go home, but by the end of my three years, I felt like I was leaving "home" all over again.
By happy accident, I celebrated my Japanniversary this year with an Okonomiyaki dog from JAPADOG!
I would be lying if I claimed that still I don't get plagued with "what if?" thoughts now and then, but I've happily earned my Panda status and am content looking back on my time in Japan. I consider myself to be very lucky to have traveled halfway around the world, made it back in one piece, and have plenty of good memories to boot.