HOLLY MIRANDA SMALE

Writer, photographer, "rapper" and general technophobe takes on the internet in what could be a very, very messy fight. But it's alright: she's harder than she looks, and she's wearing every single ring she could get her hands on.







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Saturday, 3 April 2010

Back to school

Being a foreigner in Japan sometimes feels a little like being back at primary school. There are so few of us, and we're all so isolated, and so far from home, and are so easily distinguished from a distance, that most of us have the slightly vague, wide eyed, excited, scared look of five year olds, no matter how long we've been here. There are a few, of course, who have gone the other way completely - there are always a few who go the other way completely, in everything - and who loudly drop Japanese words and phrases into English sentences, as if to prove that they are, in fact, pretty much one of the locals and have no idea what you're saying unless you put the word 'ne?' on the end (a sort of 'isn't it?' or 'y'know'). But, for the most part, we gaijin generally tend to constantly look a little bit out of our comfort zones; not quite sure about the language, not quite sure how to integrate into local situations or customs, not quite sure how to order food unless there's a picture to point at, and not quite sure if the toilet is going to flush itself automatically or not when you stand up (usually: yes. But there's always a few seconds while you have to hover around to check).

Because there are so few of us, therefore, we all stick together in little, soggy clumps: just like at school. It doesn't matter whether you've just seen someone on the street, or sat next to them for three seconds on a train, or in a training room: it's perfectly natural to go to the pub with a total stranger and decide much later whether or not you want to actually be friends. And - just like at school - you can then spend the next couple of months avoiding them in the playground if you realise you've both come to different conclusions. Except that, this time, you're not five. You're a fully grown adult, in a suit (or whatever I can find that looks vaguely like one), with a job and your own house. Which makes it even funnier when you have to dodge across the park to avoid the weirdo who talked at you about aeroplanes for three and a half hours.

The school experience, though, is about to become very, very condensed for me. Tomorrow, I move to Nichinan: a teeny tiny little place at the bottom of Japan, next to the sea. From Tokyo, with 8 million people, to Yokohama, with 3.6 million, to Fukuoka, with 2.6 million, my environment has been getting smaller and smaller, but it's about to get as small as it gets: Nichinan has 57,866 people, spread out over 536 kilometres, and only seven of them are native English speakers. I therefore have seven probable friends in my immediate future (unless my Japanese improves vastly on the bus journey down there), and it feels like I am moving to the world's tiniest new classroom.

Usually, when you get a new job and move to a new area, you have to start again: you have to start building around you. Friends, hobbies, supermarkets, food in the kitchen cupboards; all accumulated piece by piece, little by little. The strange thing about my new position is that - because it's in the middle of nowhere, because it's a rare position, because my predecessor inherited everything from his predecessor - everything is already there. My flat is included, with my brand new grey car - apparently - sitting in the driveway waiting for me, already insured up, and pasta in the cupboards and detergent on top of the washing machine. I know - and will be shown in person - where everything is: my supermarket, my gym (2 minutes away), my beach (2 minutes away). I know what my school looks like, and what the children I will teach look like, because I've already seen photos and worked out who the trouble makers are. I know what the waves next to my house will be like tomorrow, because I've looked online. And, most importantly, most terrifyingly, I know - pretty much - who my new friends are, because I've already stalked most of them on Facebook a little bit (just enough to see what they vaguely look like: not to the extent where I know what their favourite kind of cheese is and where they went on holiday in 2008). Essentially, I'm taking a life that's already made up for me: I can just paste a photo of my face where the old teacher's face used to go (I haven't actually done that, obviously. It would be extremely weird. But I'm just pointing out that I could if I wanted to).

Which, in a way, is great. The last six months have been so different from that - every single thing I've had to struggle for, find for myself, work hard to maintain - that it sounds pretty nice, to be able to walk in to a new life and have everything already laid out for me (I'm half expecting my first day's work clothes to already be on the bed, waiting for me). But in another way it's terrifying. If these people don't like me - and there's every reason that they won't, because they didn't like me at school either (my mother once told me that "if I ever went on Big Brother I'd be voted out in about three seconds by my housemates and general public, because.... well, let's just leave it there, shall we?") - then I'm in a very tiny city, surrounded by people I don't understand and people who are ducking in the supermarket aisles so that I don't see them and throwing pencil sharpeners at me if they see me on the beach. As Brian says in Starter for Ten: "you know those people you befriend in the first term and spend the second one avoiding? I think I'm one of them."

It has started well, luckily: they're all taking me out to dinner on Monday night (I made no bones about contacting them immediately and asking them to like me: it tends to be the best way to get people to like you). What happens from therein, though, I have no idea. From that point on, I have to rely on my own personality, and that didn't work out too well for me 23 years ago: I can't see why it would suddenly become easy now just because I'm bigger and I can buy people drinks as bribes. I might have to resort to offering people the use of my new fountain pen so that they keep talking to me.

I'm nervous, and I'm worried, and I'm excited, and I really, really want people to like me. I've worked out what I'm going to wear, and I've got my pencil case all packed, and I'm working out what a good greeting gift would be that will make them all think golly, isn't she just the nicest thing in the world? before I open my mouth and ruin it. And I'm already deciding on a few witty anecdotes to introduce myself with, in case I get asked to introduce myself (I will certainly have to do that on my first working day, although it will have to be in Japanese, which could be somewhat tricky as all I know how to say is where is the elephant). Basically, I'm this close to either peeing myself a little bit or holding onto my mum's hand and crying.

The irony is, of course, that I'm moving to Nichinan to start my new job in a school, teaching little children. And - frankly - I don't think I've ever felt so much like one in my entire life.