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Sayonara Japan!
A heart2heart with Mandy- Mand

I promised myself whilst over there that, when I returned to England, I would never ever take the English language for granted again

If you've been reading the various articles I've been churning out each month about crazy times in Japan, then I expect your wondering why the hell I left the land of Hello Kitty when life seemed so grand. This is an honest account, maybe a little harsh even and if you’re Japanese and reading this then you might not like what you read-but hey, these are only my experiences - yours may be way different and I've probably got it completely wrong.
The real reason why I left I guess was that my body told me it was time to go.

Living in a completely different country to your own, devoid of the English language can create a lot of stress not only mentally but physically too. Its amazing how tired your body can become and, after a while, it can really drag you down.
Don't get me wrong - Japan is a fantastic country with which I am so fortunate to have experienced. But, its also a lot of hard work. By not being able to speak their language you find yourself having to work harder than usual in order to communicate. Japanese is an excruciatingly painful language to learn and, unlike my many Aussie friends, I was never ever fortunate enough to have studied it at school.
So starting from scratch you find yourself plummeting back to basics as you take on the role of a child again - getting by with sign language, miming and the odd Japanese word thrown in for luck.
Everything you do becomes an achievement. Simple things like posting a letter, buying milk from a store or getting a plumber round to fix the sink . Going into a shop is a scary as hell process as you stumble through your hello's, thank-you's and goodbyes.
I promised myself whilst over there that, when I returned to England, I would never ever take the English language for granted again, and, would actually make more of an effort to talk to that insanely bored shopkeeper droning on about his ever so boring day.

But it wasn't just the language barrier that made it a struggle. It was also this whole sense of 'being different'. As every Westerner I know has experienced sometime or another - you can't ignore the fact that you look and ARE different. Western men, who come over and end up finding themselves a Japanese girlfriend or wife even, will always be looked down and frowned upon and the staring is intense.

For me, when I first arrived it was all a bit of a novelty because, what with being a typical Leo, I've always had that hankering to be centre of attention. So 'people looking at me all the time! Wow! That's great!'. But its not until you look deep into the stares that you realise its not a look of kindness but more of a 'your a freak! your not one of us' looks.
Eventually, you do get used to it as it becomes a daily occurrence and just another part of living there. It's only when your feeling a little low that it can bother you considerably; especially when your sitting on a train and you can feel six sets of eyes burning into you.

My friends and I learnt to deal with it and tried different strategies such as staring back, smiling, glaring, waving, pretending to have a fit and even getting up to shake their hand once which was quite amusing as the old guy didn't quite know what to do with himself.

One of my private students (a lovely old lady with whom I miss dearly) told me that the reason people stare is because they think we are beautiful. But hey, I'm definitely no Kate Moss and whether you think yourself beautiful or not, when your having a bad day and feel like shit - someone gawping at you is the last thing you need. You almost feel like putting a sign round your neck saying 'Please do not feed the monkey'.

So, with a communication problem and newly found paranoia with oneself as a result of being ogled at wherever you go and you end up in desperate need of a hug or some kind of special love to reassure you that your doing OK and to 'hang in there kiddo!' My friend Lou turned round to me in a bar one evening and said 'Mandy, there's just no love here' and sadly I have to agree with her.

Well, you've got your basic girlfriend/boyfriend set up, married couples and their love for their kids but, just by speaking to some of my favourite students with whom I grew an attachment with, they made me see that the love in Japan lacks in warmth.

It's a cold love, a repressed love whereby people are too scared to talk about their feelings or let their emotions go. A superficial love where external appearances and presentation of oneself is so much more important than what you really want to know and see on the inside. You can never let your true feelings be seen in public - one public tear and you've lost all credibility.
I've lost count of the number of Japanese guys that have run away from us and I promise you, we really aren't that scary looking - all of my friends are beautiful. In fact the only time men did speak to us was after a couple of beers when they were well and truly hammered (see November's article for more on that!)

Girlfriends have boyfriends for a status symbol (and a free meal ticket to the latest Lois Vuitton bag). They dress them, look after them, plan their daily lives around them, take them shopping, scowl at any girl that goes within an inch of them and in short, treat them like pets. Whilst the men spend the majority of their day working and get pretty used to this constant attention so much so that girlfriends end up being taken for granted and never appreciated for all that they do.
So many young Japanese girls, with whom I've taught in the past, eventually were able to open up to me and speak quite freely on the subject of love. It seems they all desperately want to marry a western man simply because 'they are kind'.
Another guy I knew took English classes because it relaxes him and he can talk freely about his thoughts and emotions as well as speak from his heart which he just can't do in Japanese. How tragic is that when you have to speak another language in order to say how you really feel?!

Being a fairly tactile person I enjoy hugging and kissing people very much and so it was all very interesting when the time came to say goodbye. I've realised that hugging is something you just don't do.
Without thinking anything of it I went to give some of my good Japanese friends a hug goodbye and noticed that their bodies seemed to completely seize up. It was all so stiff that you didn't know whether to continue in order to save any further embarrassment, or to release yourself and bow in apology.

As mentioned before, crying in public is a big faux pas in Japan, so it kind of shocked me when I broke the news to one of my students that I was leaving to go home. She suddenly broke down in tears asking what she was doing wrong and why, no matter hard she tried to do things to make us feel welcome, we always ended up leaving. She wasn't doing anything wrong at all and if the whole country was made up of a thousand identical clones of that wonderful lady then I would, without hesitation, have remained in Japan, extremely happy for the rest of my life. But it isn't like that.
It isn't a Country where you can feel like you belong to because at the end of the day - there's always that constant reminder in some shape or form telling you that your different and you'll never fit in, no matter how good you are at speaking Japanese or how much rice you eat.
Knowing that its not your Country to belong to makes you think about home a lot more especially your family, friends and loved ones. I was fortunate to have a phone with e-mail (thank the Lord for Japanese technology!) and so I was able to mail my friends constantly.

With England being 8 hours behind time wise it was especially good because it meant I could mail my friends late evening and they would be in work at their desks with e-mail on hand so were able to have pretty steady conversations with one another.
I remember getting really excited every day at 5.00pm because I knew pepeople ack home in England would be getting in to work so we could chat. Those mails got me through some pretty tough times during my year away but when your thinking about home every night for the whole time away then its quite obvious that something's up.
I don't think I really slept in Japan. I usually averaged four hours a night with the rest of the time lying wide awake in bed desperately trying to sleep but with too many thoughts of home spinning around my head.

As a result of this I ended up with quite a serious rash caused by stress and so ended up spending time in a Japanese hospital. Standing in front of five Japanese doctors in a tiny room all jabbering away in Japanese whilst simultaneously prodding and poking me made me realise that this wasn't the greatest situation to be in.
Sleeping pills soon put me right as did the day I handed in my notice (the same day ironically I got promoted!)
The decision to come home led to the first proper nights sleep in eleven months and I remember going to bed with the biggest smile on my face. A months rest and relaxation in Australia also helped to put me right as I began to finally unwind.
Since being back in England I've slept like a baby and the rash has finally cleared up. Its been tough but Mandy-Mand is finally on the mend! Hurrah!!

The only difficulties I'm having now, being back, is the whole speaking English thing! I keep forgetting I don't have to speak Japanese anymore.
A recent trip up to London left me so spun out that a market researcher, who had stopped me in the street, actually turned round to me whilst speaking very -very slowly and asked
'Do you speeeeaaak Enggerrrlish??' to which I gave a very confused look and replied 'Eeehhhhh??'

But after reading all this I don't want you to think I regret going. On the contrary - I can't believe I did it and although I can honestly say that I have no plans yet to go back, I'm incredibly grateful for the chance to have experienced something completely different and to say I've Just about survived and come out a much better person for it.
Friends will always be the most important thing in my life and whilst out in Japan, I met some of the very very best. All being in the same boat, it was a case of supporting each other and helping out when times got rough.

I guess because of the 'being different' issue we kind of clung together and so it was like living in our own little world - isolated from the outside because that’s what we were used to. It’s also probably why saying goodbye to the group was one of the hardest emotional experiences I've ever encountered. From being in such a strong circle for a considerable amount of time it was hard imagining what things would be like on the outside, surviving on your own and away from the group.
People come to Japan for different reasons be it for travel, experience living in a different country or paying off your student debts. But one of the main reasons, usually, is to come in order to build on one's self.

By living in Japan not only do you discover who you actually are as a person, what your at, where your going in life and your strengths and weaknesses but you also build in confidence as you face a different hurdle everyday l - like mailing a letter. You become much more focused on your goals and who you want to be, where you want to end up in life and who you want to end up with.

Many people back home told me how brave they thought I was for doing it and at the time I dismissed it. I didn't see myself as very brave - it was just something you got used to. Now I look back on it, though its only been two weeks, I've realised that it was an incredibly brave thing for me to do.
Five years ago I never would have guessed I'd have done what I did. I'm ashamed to admit it but I didn't even know where Japan was on the map!
Without trying to sound toooo pretentious, it's all about trying out new experiences I think and facing challenges, having a tumble but then picking yourself up, brushing your self off and moving on to the next. You learn by your mistakes and experiences which is a good thing because in the long run it makes you a better person. My only problem is, and always will be, goodbyes - I just can't do them.

© Mandy - Mand 2003

Mandy Mand’s adventures in Japan can be found on Hacktreks and Hacktreks 2

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