Another Indian or Bangladeshi or Nepali or Vietnamese at a cash register punching away at another story of us But not before heartbreaks and mixed feelings and remittance slips pile up like concrete blocks for houses of trust and dreams on show Not before strange freedom then confusion and at last mastery of the ways of a new land Not before bone tiredness and itches for something still more known all become like clothes (the fabric of us) shall the first word be written
Many days I leave work as an English teacher in Japan wanting to hold a reasoning with my high school Spanish teacher. In a reasoning, you ask your partner searching questions, listen to their honest answers and opinions, and you yourself are equally frank and open.
I really want to reason with Senorita Blake on many things like the taste of words in a foreign language, when she first got interested in Spanish, her experiences in Spanish speaking countries, her favorite Spanish words, and so on.
But most of all, I really want my high school Spanish teacher to tell me how exactly she got through every class teaching a language to students who just didn’t understand that they were being taught a language.
How come you didn’t tell me to try tasting the words? I might ask her. To become so intimate with this language so much so that I could decide by taste that I didn’t like some words. Like I just don’t like the taste of the word ‘boob’ in English, so I don’t use it.
Maybe she would tell me that she did tell us those things, that I just don’t remember. And she would probably be right. In Spanish class, all kinds of tastes were on my lips– patty, or bun and cheese or rice and kidney for dinner that evening. Many things, but not Spanish.
What was Spanish? Spanish was the subject I chose instead of geography. Spanish was something my dear friend was good at, but I wasn’t. Spanish class time was a time I felt lost. Spanish was songs or performances in Spanish by bright students at school events. Spanish was a thing. It was many things, but it wasn’t a language. It was not something used by people somewhere to organize their lives. It was not something actually used for communication. It was like a code. A code that if I could decipher I would get high marks on the CXC exam. Like Maths.
I live in a country where I’ve mastered daily conversation in the language. In
Japanese, I can order my food, tell the doctor what’s wrong with me, buy sugar
instead of salt. It often feels like a bothersome set of rules and patterns,
but it’s not as indecipherable as I saw Spanish, and I don’t associate it with Maths.
Most days. The obvious difference with this situation and my Spanish class is
that here, I am immersed. The people around me speak the language I am aiming
But it’s neither my fault nor Senorita Blake’s that I never actually met and spoke with Spanish speakers all the five years I studied Spanish. Or that I was never in a setting where Spanish was the only or primary means of communication. That didn’t even occur to me as a possibility. Because, like I said, I didn’t even know I was studying a language.
How Senorita Blake must have felt like she was on a failing mission sometimes. Or perhaps it was enough for her to be able to use a language she loved every day. Of course, all students weren’t like me. For some, Spanish was Spanish, not Maths. Its sounds were musical, its rules logical, its patterns predictable, and where they were not, caramba, that was exciting, not frustrating. Maybe those students went on to meet Spanish speakers in their lives.
eventually did meet one Spanish speaker, who was my second Spanish teacher. He
was from Cuba. One of the benefits of my teaching job at the time was that you
could enroll in one course per semester. I chose a beginner Spanish course.
this time, fear was worse than anything. Fear of speaking up in class. I felt
that what I said would sound completely wrong to this native speaker. Plus by
that time, I had already lived in Japan for a bit, and all the foreign language
signals sent to my brain were Japanese. So a lot of Japanese came out in the
Spanish class. Now Spanish was like Japanese. Again, I’m sure not all students
were like me. But I think for a good number of them, for whom it was a
compulsory course, Spanish was like Maths. But I was in that class with the
understanding, finally, that Spanish was a language. However, I still had no
practical setting in which to try using the language.
Similarly, my students don’t use English outside of class, unless they are super motivated and have some goal they want to achieve like studying abroad. But some might go on to work in jobs that require them to use English. Some might end up with friends or even family from English speaking countries. Some will eventually find relevance for all this English.
contexts are different, but there is also a lack of practical opportunities for
people to use Spanish or French, the two main languages taught in Jamaican
schools. I would ask Senorita Blake what she thinks of this. Outside of
becoming a Spanish teacher, what other jobs are there where you can use Spanish
in Jamaica? A smattering, maybe. In a previous job, I was asked once in the two
years I was there to read an e-mail in Spanish. I have one friend who uses
Spanish in his job. Spanish he learnt while studying in Cuba. Or maybe you can
become a teacher of teachers, like Senorita Blake did.
the hundreds of thousands of students who study Spanish and French each year,
how many will go on to become Spanish or French teachers? And is the sole
purpose of (language) study preparing one for a job? I don’t think so. But when
it comes to practicality, that’s the low hanging fruit.
Of the hundreds of students I have taught and will teach, how many will ever meet another English speaker? How many will actually use English to communicate outside of a classroom? Of course English is different from Spanish in global use and Jamaica is not Japan.
The baby turned one recently and we bought a smash cake. He played around with it a bit, but he didn’t smash it like we thought he would. Surely, if we had put it out of his reach and told him not to touch it he would have tried everything to smash it with all his might.
In true birthday weekend style, the following day we went to have lunch with some family he hadn’t met before. It was in a private, tatami room at a shabu-shabu restaurant. Very Japanese set-up and quite comfortable. They even prepared a little futon for baby where he enjoyed a nice long nap while the rest of us, 11 in total, ate.
Before going to the restaurant, I didn’t really mind shabu-shabu. But I think I can now say I don’t care for it. My husband drew the same conclusion, and when I was telling another gentleman that we went to a shabu-shabu restaurant, he said he doesn’t really like it. I later asked a colleague and she didn’t like it either. Who loves shabu-shabu? How is boiling strips of unseasoned pork yourself and then eating it with sesame or citrus-based sauce so popular?
Anyway, the tempura, sashimi, mochi soup and bean paste ice cream were good, especially the soup and the ice cream.
Because of uncertainty about my life’s path, I spend a fair amount of time with ‘what ifs’.
Recently, a short trip into central Tokyo gave me the opportunity to ponder a bit, what if I worked in the heart of city?
I live in Tokyo, but in what could be considered the suburbs. Where I work is even sometimes thought to be another prefecture, though it is still Tokyo.
I go in the opposite direction of the city centre at rush hour, so I’m never squeezed up against anyone, fighting to maintain the illusion of personal space by defiantly struggling to read a book or use my smartphone.
I also work in a school that’s quite removed from any commercial centre. No business district, no high rises, no lunch specials in dozens of restaurants, no lunch crowd.
The crowds I saw on my outing had mostly men wearing variations of light blue shirts and grey trousers.
Nowadays, there’s a lot of talk about increasing the number of women in the workforce.
There were many women too. Walking in pairs or small groups, the kind of causal but slightly urgent walk one assumes on a timed lunch break. Many of the women carried little bags on their forearms. The bigger, real work bags left tucked inside some drawer or locker or sitting on a desk.
Most of the men carried no bags. Their salaryman bags no doubt waiting patiently to be picked up in the evening to accompany their owners on the commute home.
Obviously, these things are not work. They are just made up frills around the edges of work. But I felt that these things form an important part of the sense or scene of work in a city.
Even though it felt removed from my current reality, it was nostalgic in some ways. Reminded me of a time I worked in downtown Kingston. When I was one of those women in a small group heading to a cookshop or sometimes a real restaurant. I enjoyed that part of work back then, even though it wasn’t work itself.
Still no clarity about my calling, but it looks like I like lunchtime at work. In a city. Now on to figuring out what to do before and after lunchtime.
I put it off for weeks. Then I sat down with my object, so I could get my one point for posting to the discussion. As I wrote the last line and thought of the many things one thinks about when thinking of herself as ‘foreign’, I felt an unexpected urge to cry.
But no one cries in Starbucks. Least of all a black woman wearing a burgundy sweater and a headscarf with all the colors in the world, in this winter of navy, black and brown.
Some once perfect spirals
Now broken from being shuffled around
Then cramped inside
This blue drum with three different blades pointing down the middle
Which of these flakes made way for the perfect point to write 質
To help execute the mild flourish for the thin upper strokes
What dust was shed after erasing and rewriting れ for the fifth time
And still seeing that a sixth would be necessary
Black dust stuck to the blades
Black dust in the corners of the blue drum
Black dust in the crevices of the screws pinning the blades to their white holdings
Is there a perfect pencil to write kanji
Lol, no. But I think you can try No.2
Rows and rows of packs and packs of No.2 pencils
No fewer than 12 in one pack!
One row of sharpeners
Choose quickly before the baby wakes up
Blue because not pink
Three-way because, well it must be better than one-way
Yesterday I was reading some brochures and pamphlets– mail advertising. My husband said, “You look like a housewife.” Or “You look bored; like a housewife.” He didn’t like that look. I’m in the last month of pregnancy. I’m on maternity leave. I stay home all the time except for when I go to cafes by myself or with other women, or when I go to the doctor. I’m effectively a housewife. But I guess my husband doesn’t want to see me that way. I didn’t pursue it.
Perhaps I wouldn’t mind seeing myself that way if we didn’t live in this country. It is very common for women to be housewives. They either have never worked or stop working as soon as they get married, or later, after having children. Of course, many women work as well.
And precisely because of the fact that I live in this context, perhaps I shouldn’t mind if I am perceived as a housewife, by self or anyone else. And what is wrong with looking like a housewife anyway? Or was it the suggestion that I looked like a bored housewife? Does that mean all or many or some housewives are bored? I know many who aren’t. Or maybe my husband just has an image of what he doesn’t like a housewife to look like. Or his wife. If I feel like it, I’ll bring it up again.
Thirty-four weeks pregnant with my first child in a foreign country. I don’t know how different the experience would have been in Jamaica. But I have read many things in English about foreigners’ experiences being pregnant in Japan. And in terms of procedures, etc., a lot of it has been the same for me.
Nevertheless, I am feeling now, for the first time since being pregnant, a need to document something of this experience. Anything. For memory can be so unreliable.
I want to remember the father-to-be in our hospital prenatal class who listened closely to my less than perfect Japanese, and filled in the gaps when I couldn’t come up with the right words fast enough. I want to remember how amused I was by the silence in a roomful of expecting mothers just before the start of the maternity classes offered by the city. I don’t know why I was amused.
I want to remember some the things I found interesting or were grateful to Japan for having. Like these classes. Or my six weeks of leave before the birth, eight weeks after and up to a year of childcare leave thereafter.
On a personal level, I want to remember things like the baby’s first fluttery movements or my overwhelming desire to just sleep on my belly. And I want to remember my life before a baby. But I’m 34, so that might not be so hard to remember.
I went to a clinic about nine weeks in to confirm my pregnancy. The doctor gave me a bit of paper to present at the city office. There I received a mother child handbook in which all details of doctor’s visits are to be recorded until the child is about six years old, I believe. I also received some vouchers to be used at each doctor’s visit, and a bag with all kinds of baby related literature and some baby goodies.
At about ten or eleven weeks, I started going to the hospital where I intend to give birth for my appointments. It’s called Kyorin Daigaku Byouin. Large hospital. On my first visit, the doctor spoke to me in Japanese. The second time, English. I was surprised. Since then, it has been a mixture of both.
I’ve attended two sets of prenatal classes that cover everything from changes in your body to how to bathe a newborn to how to know when you’re in labour. At the most recent hospital class, we got a tour of the maternity ward. Everyone oohed and aahed in front of a big glass window of the room with the newborns. Soon one of those little things will belong to us, we might have been thinking.
I’ve been going to the hospital every two weeks. Most times, the appointment is with the doctor. The last two times it’s been with midwives. My weight gain came up early on in these visits. The last time I was told that I’m ‘over’. I have gained about 12 kilograms so far. The recommended upper limit is 15 kilograms. The midwife repeatedly said I shouldn’t diet, though I should be careful. Short of dieting, I don’t know what else to do. So I will carry on for the next six weeks. I am not sure this is something I want to remember, but I feel I won’t forget anyway.
I’ve finished shopping, my hospital bag is packed, and the baby’s bed is made. We are just waiting. I really want to remember this waiting feeling.
Once again a renewed commitment. Rereading some of these older posts, I see that renewal theme emerging a lot in my thinking. I am who I am.
Maybe this renewal has something to do with the fact that I’m leaving Japan in two months for Jamaica, where everybody knows who run tings. But that is another post.
For sure though, the direct push for this renewal came from my friend, Monique, as we discussed my absence from the book of faces. Thank you, Monique.
Signing into wordpress just now, I forgot my password and pulled up that first e-mail to retrieve it. I was shocked out of my mind. Ex-boyfriend’s name. Of course, he was not my ex when I started this blog. How long did it take to build Rome? Time.
I wrote about benefiting from an overwhelming clarity back when I’d been here for a few months… don’t know how clear I am on anything these days.
I decided I want to go home. So I’m clear about that. ish. I know I don’t want to be in my current position, etc in this country for longer. I also know I want to go home. I know I want to help change Jamaica. I know how I want to do that. But sometimes I have to remind myself of my resolve, given that when I read about my country… it’s like a strange fiction.
I decided, too, that I’m going to make the most of my last few months in this country. Well, I’d been making the most of it from the beginning, so it’s not like I’m on some kind of amazing race now. Just trying to spend time doing things I like doing. The only ‘must’ I will do is climb Mount Fuji. And that doesn’t appear like it will take place until a few days before I go home.
In the meantime, it’s the rainy season. So I look forward to, over the next couple of weeks, having complete conversations about rain and hearing at least one new word for one particular kind of rain per day.
And as a teacher I used to work with put it in an email the other day, “breathe in this green-dripping air.”