A different light

I am useless when I’m hungry.

When I was a student, I volunteered for an organisation called The Oaktree Foundation. They run an annual fundraiser called Live Below the Line. The fundraiser is for an undoubtedly good cause – aiding those living under the poverty line and empathising with their situation – but it’s also a special kind of torture, if we’re going to be honest here. You see, participants need to spend a week or more where their meals can add up to only $2 a day.

That’s a week or more of agonising over every gram and every cent of every meal. A week or more of having my saliva ducts set off by anything and everything from the fruity scent of my shampoo to the spelling of my surname. A week or more of savouring every bite, every flavour, every moment my stomach was full.

The first time I participated was in its inaugural year so I made the mistake of doing that week alone. My manager was so fed up (ha pun) with my grumpy disposition within our first shift together that she begged me to let her feed me.

“Donate to my page instead,” I huffed.

“But you can give food to the poor,” she reasoned. “Why can’t I do the same for you?”

“Because, ok? It’s just… That’s not how it works!” I cried out, scurrying off to fold more jeans before I snapped at her or burst into tears.

As it turns out, hunger makes me surprisingly emotional. At the time, it was also hard to identify what those emotions were exactly on an empty stomach. Was I angry? Was I sad? I couldn’t pinpoint anything beyond feeling “not good.”

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The deep end

“久しぶり!(hisashiburi: long time no see!)” I heard as soon as I walked through the door. “How have you been?”

“Good, good,” I smiled.

I caught up with my old office over the weekend for dinner. I used to see these people almost every day for the past two years. So after going a month cold turkey, I had half expected it to be a little jarring to catch up with them. As it turns out, it took about twelve seconds before we fell back into our old routine.

I asked about the office and their families. They asked about my new …everything: job, house, life.

“Well actually, this is nice. This is the most English I’ve spoken all week,” I laughed.

My former manager smirked at the computer screen where she was trying to focus half her attention. You have to understand that they were – and still are, I suppose – very likely to laugh as soon as I attempt to speak any Japanese. Without malice and with good reason, I’ll grudgingly admit.

“That’s good, though,” said お兄ちゃん, ever the teacher. “It sounds like a great learning environment.”

“I guess,” I said. “I just feel so stupid. Every day. All the time.”

I tried to speak a sentence or two in Japanese a few minutes later. Sure enough, both of them snorted almost immediately.

So I guess it’s official: after two years of living in Japan, I am now immersed. I haven’t moved to a different country, or even a different city, but it feels very much like it.

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In other words

Oh Twitter, you misleading bird, you. 140 characters? So short! Finally, a social media platform that won’t suck the time from your life… Wrong!

I have Twitter. Mind you, I only tweet about myself and about television shows. Well, I’ve only just gotten access to TV in the first time in two years so…I only really tweet about myself. Occasionally. Ok, fine. I don’t really tweet.

I wish I could use Twitter proficiently and join one of the many Twitter communities. But let’s be honest here: for such a small character limit, its nature of instancy means that it involves a lot of time commitment. Even on a non-participatory spectating level: if you refresh the page as soon as it’s loaded, there are sure to be new tweets already. It’s impossible to keep on top of it all.

So as a wise meme once said, “Ain’t nobody got time for ‘dat!”

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“Dang it!” *Blitz…*

I didn’t realise there’s a real life equivalent: being immersed in another language.

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Silver lining

“I hate to tell you this,” started お兄ちゃん.

I braced myself. “What?”

“You were rejected for the apartment,” he said.

“Are you serious?”

He tilted his phone so I could see the message for myself.

It was the end of a very long week. I had just missed my last train and was in for a long and expensive taxi ride home. On top of that, I was already dreading the 6AM start I had the next morning for a new job in Tokyo. Bad news never has good timing but at that stage, I was a bit too tired to hold strong.

“Well,” I started, scraping the bottom for any remaining wit or positivity. “Well… that sucks.”

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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.

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Foreign concepts

When I was still in uni, my mum and I visited Japan as tourists.

“Mum, when we get to Japan,” I said on the plane, “I’ll be tempted to buy everything. I’m not allowed to buy any clothes before I imagine what they’d look like back in Australia, ok?”

“Ok,” said Mum. “Why?”

“Because I’ll think it looks cool in Japan because everyone else is dressed the same. But it might make me look like a Fob in Australia.”

“Yeah, yeah, ok,” she said.

With a response like that, I’d assumed she wasn’t really listening to me but a few days later, while shopping, she held a jacket up to her chest.

“What do you think?” she asked. “Does it make me look Fob?”

I laughed. “Mum, you’re allowed to look Fob.”

She cocked her head to the side. What do you mean?

“Mum, you got to Australia on an actual boat. You are a Fob. Literally.”

I’ve always known the phrase “Fob” (short for “Fresh Off the Boat”) to be a derogatory term that was deemed acceptable for me to use because I’m Asian. And so I did. Playfully. I used it to describe accents and dress sense and cultural references.

And, as it so happened, what went around came around.

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Life in transit

“Do you think we’d still be friends if I didn’t live in Japan anymore?”

The question had been agonising me for a while. But when I finally picked up the nerve to ask it – after work when everyone else had gone home and the shopping centre was dark and silent – I tried to keep my tone as casual as possible.

I looked up from my phone to find my manager looking slightly bewildered.

“What?” she asked sharply, and then carefully, “why?”

I shrugged. “You know…” – No, her expression told me, I don’t know – “like, not that I want to go back to Australia yet, but I don’t know how long I’ll be in Japan for… you know, in the long run. And neither of us are great at messaging so we only really talk when we see each other. And I don’t know how quickly I’ll forget Japanese if I don’t use it every day or whether you’ll still understand my accent… Yeah. I dunno. Think we’ll still be friends?”

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