Beyond the sea

Last week, one of my seven year olds stormed up to me between classes, ignored the girls I was playing with and huffed.

I bent down a little. “What’s wrong, Monkey?”

And at that, he released a rage of Japanese. Thankfully, his mother stepped in before he got to the end of his tantrum and raised her hands in apology.

“先生 (sensei: teacher)…ええ (ehh: umm)…go,” she explained, gesturing to me with one hand and continuing to soothe his shoulders with the other. “Shock.”

And suddenly, the first sentence of his rant clicked into place: “Why are you going back to Australia?”

At school last week, we started announcing to the students that I’m leaving my teaching post mid-June.

There are a few reasons, but none relating to the school community – which I openly love – and none that I care to go into today.

But, as soon as we began announcing it, everyone wanted to know: “Are you going home to Australia?” In fact, most people in Japan just seemed to assume it. So much so that I’ve overheard mothers asking each other whether they’ve heard the news that I’m going back to …America? Australia? They’d forgotten.

But for now, the question of whether I’m even going back at all isn’t guaranteed yet. It certainly is a possibility, but hopefully not the eventuality.

Australia will always be my home, my country, the centre of my world. But, just as my current school community is not the reason why I’m leaving my job, my family and friends waiting for me back home is not the reason why I’m hesitant to return.

As much as I wanted to make this post a large list of reasons of why I am, it really boils down to the fact that I’m not ready. People are generally dissatisfied with this answer so let me try to elaborate.

To start with, I’ve changed a lot in the last couple of years away from home.

I went home to Melbourne last year for a week in December for my brother’s wedding. And from the first day of my arrival (excited, but dead on my feet), to my plane’s departure (even more exhausted and much less excited), many of my friends said the same thing: “It feels like you never left!”

I could see why they said that. Between my brother’s wedding and visiting cousins from the States, I wasn’t left with much time to catch up with anyone at length. I also haven’t changed anything about the way I look or dress. Having brought home a suitcase consisting of mostly souvenirs, I was even wearing my old clothes that I’d left at home.

And all this was great, don’t get me wrong. It meant that conversations still rolled on effortlessly and personal spaces were still invaded – in fact, the day after the wedding, I woke up from an afternoon nap to find my childhood friend/new sister-in-law sleeping on top of me because apparently, there wasn’t enough couch space for the two of us.

This is the norm in my friendship group. In Australia, obviously. This would likely cause a scandal here in Japan…

But between that and the last time we saw each other in person, I had moved into my own apartment for the first time, started working full time in a new profession, and navigated through a foreign world without the necessary language skills. A lot is the same but a lot has changed.

I still hate being the focus of attention but I no longer cower from the camera like I once did. I still love kids but now I know how to earn their affection. I still yearn to explore the unknown but I’ve learnt to appreciate familiarity more than ever. I still want to facilitate conversations between different cultures and now I’m finally starting to accumulate the right experience to do so, including the experience of being foreign.

Being so out of place has been a terrifying but exhilarating experience and not one that I’m ready to let go of just yet.

Which brings me to point two: I’ve still got so much to learn.

“Priscilla can be very mature,” お兄ちゃん said when my mum visited Japan and asked about me at work, “but in some ways, she is such a child.”

Ironically, birthday cakes are a trigger to release my inner child.

Sometimes I forget that I’m in my mid-twenties. Sometimes it still feels like I’m seventeen.

Not so much the terrible awkwardness of it all (although, there’s still quite a bit of that) or the relative lack of responsibility (even though I’m sure there’s much more where that came from). More that I still feel like I’m still learning so much and everything shapes the person I’m becoming and the person I want to be. Who I am now isn’t the same as who I was even at the start of the year and hopefully not the same as who I will be at the end.

While it’s not as if I’d lost the chance to keep growing after I finished school, there also isn’t much of a push or expectation to do so. Added to that, being in a community that I’ve grown up with and being in an environment of complete comfort made it so much harder to dig myself out of complacency.

If I’m going to be honest, I don’t want to rely on anyone to challenge me. I want to be the one who initiates it. But I know that it’s going to be much more likely to happen if being out of my comfort zone is the default.

Here, I have to be aware of every sentence I speak. Here, mundane tasks like riding the train are opportunities to practice listening and reading. Here, I’m excited by how little I know, how much more I have to learn.

There are many things I can still learn in Australia, but they’re not as confronting – or exciting – as they are in a foreign country.

So again, what all this really means is that I’m not ready to come home yet.

I haven’t even seen all of Japan and I’m excited to see what else there is beneath the facade it offers short-term tourists.

And to think, there’s still a whole world out there…