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.


Wednesday, 8 June 2011

100 Cranes

Over the last four weeks, Harai has been very busy making little paper cranes. The bird kind, rather than the large metal construction kind.

He's been doing this because he has even less to do at school than I do; as my assistant, he doesn't even have to pretend to plan classes that are all essentially identical while everybody pretends they haven't noticed that I'm teaching the same thing over and over again. In fact, in more general terms, he doesn't actually have to assist me either: he just has to stare out of the window until I whistle at him from the front of the room to help me hold up some laminated pictures of farmyard animals. I like to think of him as the Debbie McGee to my Paul Daniels, except - thank God - wearing a suit over the top of his lycra.

When he reached origami crane number twenty seven, I asked him what the hell he was doing.

"They're very pretty," I added, "but what are you going to do with twenty seven small paper birds? Make a teeny tiny Hitchcock film?"
He looked affronted. "This is a very important part of the Japanese religion," he told me.
"Which one? Buddhism or Shintoism?"
"I don't know," he admitted. "Anyway, we make a hundred paper cranes, and then we string them all together. And then we hang them up in a shrine, and we make a....a..... how to say it --- wish."
"A wish? Like, for a new bike or something?"
Harai stared at me in horror. "This is religion, Holly, not Santa Claus. You wish for the health and happiness of a loved one. Or world peace."
"World peace? A hundred paper cranes for world peace?"
"Yes. So I am making a hundred cranes."
I looked at the desk, covered in origami. "Well, I'm very impressed," I told him, because I was very impressed. "You're just like a Japanese Miss World. Except short and male and wearing a tie."
"I'm not Miss World," he informed me soberly, and continued folding his paper.

He reached forty two today, during an origami session that I attempted to join in and failed horribly (origami requires skill, patience and attention to detail: three qualities I lack in abundance). I threw my scrumpled up bit of green paper on the desk.
"What's that?" Harai asked me.
"It's a frog." I bounced it up and down a few times. "See? It looks just like a frog. So how many have you got left?"
"Fifty eight."
"And how's world peace looking?"
Harai folded the paper again. "I've decided I want a Playstation," he said after a short pause. "They have a new one. I don't want world peace. I want a new Playstation."
"You're going to take your cranes to a shrine and ask God for a new Playstation?"
"What about world peace?"
"The Japanese government can sort that out. I think that's their business. My business is getting a Playstation."
"Right. Well, for your sake, Harai - and for the sake of your eternal soul - I sincerely hope that the Japanese government are all making cranes for world peace as fast as they possibly can."
"It's all they do," he said. "Sit around and make hundreds of cranes and string them together. Nice government. Very nice government. Japan is safe. And now I can have my Playstation."

Harai won't be getting his Playstation, though. Not if the cranes have anything to do with it.

"Harai?" I said a couple of minutes later. "If I help you, can I have it?"
"You want my 100 cranes?"
"Yes please."
"Why would I give you my 100 cranes?"
"Somebody I love is really sick, and I need to wish for them."
"Not because you want a Playstation too?"
"I promise I won't be wishing for a Playstation. Hand on my heart. Sick loved one only."
 Harai looked at his little basket full of cranes and sighed. "Okay. Fine. I guess I don't need two Playstations." And then he looked at my origami attempt. "But I don't think God will be happy with your frog," he added. "You need to learn how to make cranes too. You give him that frog and he's going to take your Playstation away."
"I don't have a Playstation."
"Then he'll take mine, and that's worse."

Starting today, I'm making 100 cranes. Because - luckily for all of us - the Japanese government have already got world peace covered.

Which means that all of my wishes can go exactly where they're needed most: to my loved one.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Being Craig

Song lyrics can be fickle things.

For me, they`re the heart of music: the words inside are what I look for first. In fact, to truly enjoy music as music I have to cut them out altogether, which is why the songs that mean the most to me are always either wordless or spoken in a language I don`t understand.

For others, song lyrics are there mainly to give the melody something to shape around. What is said is less important than how it is said, or sung (which is, presumably, how Britney Spears managed to warble her way into a fortune). Thus inserting the word `ooh` or `baby` or `yeeeeah` or `zigazigah` doesn`t cause these people to flinch, because the word is just an addition that allows the singer to add another note, and for that note the listener is happy. While, for me, I want to take these pointless padded words and throttle them - and the singer - until they`re dead and silent.

There are other people out there, however, for whom song lyrics simply don`t exist. Somewhere between the stereo, or the iPod, or the radio, and the ears of the person listening, the words of music are wiped out entirely: unecessary, ignored and unwanted. And my friend Yuki is one of these people.

"I love this song," she says at intervals whenever we play a CD in the car. "Neh neh neh neh neh neh NEH NEH yes, baby neh neh neh OOOOOOO." That`s her singing, by the way. Not a self congratulatory dance. Five minutes later she says: "I really love this song too! Neh neh, neh neh neh, neh, ooooooh, you know, neh neh NEH."
"Yuki," I said eventually. "Why are you surprised? It`s your CD. And on that topic, why don`t you know the words to any of these songs? It`s your CD."
"What words?"
"The words. You know: what the person is singing."
She shrugged. "I can`t really hear any. It`s all in English."
"But, Yuki, you`re fluent in English. And you neh neh neh Japanese songs too."
"I just don`t really hear any. Holly? Will you make me a CD of songs like this?"
"Like what?"
"Happy, dance songs to party to?"
I listened to what was playing on the CD, and started laughing. "Yuki, this is called Torn, by Natalie Imbruglia."
"Yeah, I love it. So happy and summer party."
"Torn, Yuki. Like, ripped. Broken."
"Torn? What is torn?"
"Her heart. It`s a song about heartbreak. `Nothing`s fine, I`m torn, this is how I feel: I`m cold and I`m alone, lying naked on the floor`. By no stretch of the imagination could this be called a party song, Yukes. Unless it`s a really, really sick party."
Yuki opened her mouth in shock, and then paused. "Why is Natalie lying naked on the floor? What happened to her?"
"I think it`s a metaphor for feeling vulnerable and exposed."
"Wow. This isn`t a party song at all." Then she looked at me. "Unless we`re talking about you at your last party."
"I wasn`t naked, Yuki."
"You were definitely lying on the floor though. Cold and alone."
"I was definitely cold, but sadly I wasn`t alone because people kept jumping on top of me. But thanks anyway." And then I ignored the continued comparison between a drunk Smale and a metaphorical Imbruglia and went through the rest of the song, translating for her - from English to English - and trying to explain the inexplicable (torn skies, for instance).

It was only when she got to Stand By Me, however, that I finally put my foot down. Yuki could mutilate Imbruglia all she liked, but goddamit: she would be leaving Ben E King alone.

"Ne ne NEH ne ne NEH neneneneNEH," she started, "no I won`t be a Craig, noo IIIIIIIII won`t be a Craig."
"Yuki!" I shouted, with my shoulders starting to shake again. "Who the hell is Craig?"
"You know: Craig. Famous Craig. The guy in this song."
"And what happens to famous Craig?" I asked, shoulders shaking harder.
"I don`t know, but I think nobody wants to be him."
I squeaked with laughter. "It`s afraid, Yuki. Afraid. No, I won`t be afraid."
"Ooooooh." Yuki listened to it again. "That makes a little bit more sense. I`ve always wondered who Craig was."
"There is no Craig."
"I kind of miss Craig now," she admitted. And then she completed the track, singing "ne ne ne NE NE afraid, ne ne ne NE NE afraid," and looking at me proudly, like a dog waiting for a biscuit.

Words mean different things to different people: they always do. And nowhere is that more obvious than in songs. Where, to some people, words mean everything, and to some people they mean nothing, and to some people they mean anything they want them to mean.

And maybe that was always the point of music in the first place: to give us the words we`re looking for and can`t find anywhere else, or the silence we`re looking for and can`t find anywhere else.

And to help us to not be a Craig.

Friday, 13 May 2011


The end is always hard, even when it’s right.

I’ve just handed in my notice. I’ll be flying out of Japan for good on the 12th of July; two months today exactly, I’ll be in England. And I’m finding it difficult to imagine already: finding it impossible to know what life will be like when Japan isn’t my home anymore. When my students aren’t my students, and my house isn't my house, and my scooter isn’t my scooter, and my bed isn’t my bed. When the rice fields I drive past aren’t my rice fields, and my spot on the beach isn’t my spot; when the shrine in the cave isn’t my shrine. When this country isn’t the one I come back to, and tie myself to, and dream in and about. I’m finding it hard to imagine my life without Japan in it, or what it will turn into.

And even as I start to pull away - as I start to gently tug my roots away from the land that has been mine for two years - it’s already hurting. This isn’t just the only country I have ever belonged to by choice, not by birth. And it isn't just the only country I have loved with all of me: loved the intricacies and the contradictions and the beauty and the strangeness, not because I come from it, but because I wanted to be here.

It is more than that. Japan is the country where I have learned to love children: to adore everything they are, and everything they have the potential to be. It’s the country in which I have created the strongest memories of my life - some beautiful, some painful - and it’s the country I have given the most of myself to and in. It’s the place where I have finally learned how to be alone, and how to be myself, and how to heal; it’s where I have been scared, and hopeful, and ill, and happy, and free, and in love, and lonely, and full of wonder. It’s the place where I’ve learned how much I am made of, and how little. It’s the country I came to for love, and was broken by love, and came back to so that it could heal me. It’s where I discovered how brave I can be, and how kind, and how strong. And it’s where I discovered that my world was conquerable, but that I was not.

Japan has been everything to me. It has been school, and home, and student, and whipping boy, and brick wall, and lover. And it has changed me completely, because the girl that gets off the plane on the 12th of July will be nothing like the one that got on it in August 2009. She’ll be lesser in some ways, perhaps, and more broken in others, but so much greater in many more. She’ll be someone I know much better, and like more, and understand fully. And I wouldn’t have her without love, or a broken heart, and I certainly wouldn't have her without Japan.

It’s time to do the hardest thing I have ever done and the lesson Japan has taught me: to know when to let go of what I still love and move forward. It’s time to take the strength and courage I have found here and start a new and terrifying adventure. One that will give me what Japan cannot give me, and take me where Japan can no longer take me. But as I start to separate myself from the country that has changed me, and become a part of me, I know that I will fail. Because it doesn’t matter how gently I pull, some of my deepest roots are going to break.

And when I finally leave Japan, I know a part of me will stay here.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011


As a teacher - and I`d imagine as a parent - you get to go through childhood all over again, except from the other side of it. It`s like reading one of those books, told from different perspectives, or seeing a three dimensional shape from an angle you weren`t even aware existed. What seemed to be solid and definable and understandable suddenly flips - the candle in the middle of the page suddenly becomes two faces on the outside of it - and what should be the same thing, repeated over and over again, is actually a totally new experience.

And it can be a total pain in the arse.

Every lunch time, students and teachers in my school clean for fifteen minutes. And every lunch time for fourteen months, I`ve been fighting a battle. The battle to get children to understand what cleaning actually is.

"What are you doing?" I`ve said approximately 278 times at precisely 1:45pm. The child in question - a different child every week - looks up and points at the broom they`re holding. "Yes," I say in English because my Japanese isn`t strong enough to be faecitious yet, "I can see you have a broom. But waving it in the air doesn`t make the floor clean does it."
The child pats the floor with the broom a couple of times, looks at me again and then gazes out of the window. Sadly, I do not incite terror because I give out too many Winnie the Pooh stickers. So I grab the broom. "You have to actually sweep with it," I tell them with decreasing patience, showing them how a broom works. "Like this. Where dirt collects because you have swept it into one place."
I do a quick sweep, and then hand it to them. "Now show me."
And they get the broom again, pat the floor a couple of times look at me and then gaze back out of the window again.

In the last year one of the children has worked out how to make a sweeping motion, but now just sweeps at random in vague circles: scattering the dirt and leaving it in different places and then looking at me proudly. And they all do the same with flannels, which just sort of get flicked at random parts of wood work, and mops, which get duly soaking and then the water just gets flung around the room. Because - and I remember this clearly - when you`re a child, cleaning isn`t about making the room clean: it`s about pretending to make the room clean until everyone leaves you alone and stops trying to make you clean rooms. And there`s no concept of cause and affect - no awareness that if you don`t actually remove the dirt the room will stay dirty and it`s you that will be sitting in it, and not the teacher - so `cleaning` just involves holding the right equipment for ten minutes and assuming somebody else will do it for you if you can just wait it out long enough.

Which they will. Because every single lunch time, for a year, I`ve had to wait until they`ve gone and then clean the bloody room myself. In case the little ones get tetanus and I get sued for it.

In my struggle to get children not to be children, however, I have never lost my temper with a kid the way I lost it yesterday lunchtime. The humidity is horrible, the floor of my English room is continuously wet and brown and slippery, and even the boy students are refusing to sit down in case they get their trousers dirty which wreaks havoc with my lesson plans. And yet when I walked in today, this week`s lethargic and resentful student was standing in a brown puddle, slowly wiping the board. The already clean board.

"You have got to be frigging kidding me," I snapped, and took the cloth out of her hand. "Look at the floor!"
The student - at least thirteen years old - looked at the floor with total incomprehension. I could actually see her thinking: floor? what floor?
"Eh?" she said.
"The floor," I snapped even harder, and grabbed two cloths. "You can`t just pretend it`s not there, you know. Every single lunch time you pretend it`s not there. It is there. The floor is there. Not looking at it will not make it go away."
I gave her a cloth, pointed to the floor, and then knelt myself down and started scrubbing. After a few minutes I looked back up. She`d gone to the edge of the room and was vaguely dampening one of the windowsills.
"Oh my God, the floor!" I almost shouted in exasperation. "That is still not a floor!"
She glared at me, squatted down and started dabbing at the corner under the window.

I opened my mouth to shout again, and then gave up. For whatever reason, this student was clearly going to maintain her position on cleaning - namely that it was the details that counted because they were much, much easier to do - if it killed her. And it might, I decided as I scrubbed the whole floor yet again, for the 251st time. It just might.

"It`s too late," Harai said as he walked past and saw me on my hands and knees.
"What`s too late," I hissed at him, totally seething and covered in brown liquid.
"The Prince, Cinderella. He`s married now." And then Harai started laughing.
"Ooh, clever man, well why don`t you just -" and then I stopped. Because cleaning might not be a habit a 13 year old girl will learn, but you can bet that the words I was about to use probably are.

And I was furious up until I got home last night and started tidying my own house.

It`s okay, I thought as I swept around the rug. Why move the rug? How would dirt have got under there anyway? Exactly. And... no, the broom doesn`t fit underneath the fridge, and I can`t be bothered to move the fridge, so why don`t I just... well, you know. Leave it as it is. And the futon doesn`t really need airing today either. Because... well, how many times does a futon actually need airing, anyway? Exactly. I reckon over-airing is worse for it than under airing. It`ll get bugs in it. And as I went round the house, I found myself taking more and more short cuts, and making more and more excuses. To myself, of course, because there was nobody else to make them to, but doing a damn good job of it nonetheless. "There," I said when I had finished, putting the vacuum down and talking to myself again. "Good job, Holly."

And then I realised that it wasn`t a good job at all, and it was much, much worse than pretending to clean because somebody else was making me. I was pretending to clean because I was making me, and I was pretending to myself. And then I remembered a particular afternoon, when I was fifteen, watching my dad laboriously vacuum around a sock.
"Are you going to pick that up?" I had asked him, purely out of curiosity.
Dad looked at the sock as if it had just leapt at him, and then at a point somewhere behind my left ear.
"It`s an awfully long way down," he admitted after a pause, "so I don`t think I will, after all." And then he continued vacuuming around its little smelly socky edges.

The problem is, I think, that the reality of dealing with childhood all over again is that the picture hasn`t changed at all: it just looks like it might have done sometimes. We`re still the same inside, and the candle flips back again just as quickly as the faces flipped out. And maybe - I thought as I dragged my fridge out into the middle of the room in a fury - that`s part of the reason why adults get mad: because we`re not allowed to be kids anymore. And maybe that`s part of the reason adults got mad at us all those years ago: because we were.

Or maybe it`s just because the room was still filthy and when we walked away somebody else still had to clean it.

And pick up the sock.

And so the picture flips back again.

Monday, 2 May 2011


A year ago, I bought a beautiful old kimono to replace the wall hanging the ex had bought me, and at the time it represented to me hope in freedom, and in recovery. And it still represents hope, only now I think it is finally hope for the future instead of for the past.

"You know," Kristin said to me on Skype yesterday, "I think it`s time you thought about dating again. At least casually. It`s been a year now since you`ve seen anybody, and it seems such a waste."
"Pff," I snorted all over my keyboard. "A waste of what? Honestly, I`ve thought about it, and maybe when I leave Japan I`ll go on a few dates. But it`s not long before I go travelling, so really it seems a bit pointless: you can`t hold down any kind of relationship when you`re never in the same country, so why start one?"
"At least put yourself back on the market, Hols. Give somebody a shot."
"Dude, do you have any idea how many times I`ve been Back On The Market? I`m not sure the market is going to take me back again. Or if it does, it`s going to cover me in little stickers telling the public what all my faults are so nobody makes the mistake of touching me again."
Kristin laughed. "Frankly, I think you put the stickers on yourself. Maybe you could go wholesale?"
"I`d be lucky to get Recycle Shop. Actually, I think - all things considered - I`m now heading for the bottom of a bargain bin somewhere in the storeroom." Kristin laughed again - because true things are always funny - and then I thought about it for a few seconds. "Actually," I said, "hold there for a second."

And I abruptly ran off, ripped the kimono off my living room wall - where it has hung for the last year - and dragged it to the camera.

"What do you think of this?" I demanded, waving it in front of her.
"Wow, Hol, that`s gorgeous." I held it a bit closer so she could see the yellow silk and the gold autumn leaves. "That`s a really incredible kimono." And then - knowledgeably, because she`s actually Japanese - "I think it`s a wedding kimono, actually. Where did you get it?"
"From the local Recycle Shop," I said, and sat down. "At the bottom of a bargain bin. For two dollars."
"Are you kidding me?"
"No." And then I looked at the beautiful kimono I`ve loved every day for a year. "Do you know how I felt when I found this, Kris? I was so excited and so happy. I got butterflies in my stomach and my hands started shaking, because it was so perfect, and so beautiful, and so exactly what I had been looking for. And I couldn`t believe how lucky I was that some moron had been stupid enough to throw it away, and a whole heap of idiots had been stupid enough to walk past it every single day without picking it up, and another moron was pretty much giving it away. I was literally shaking at my own good fortune that nobody else had seen how beautiful it is and what it is worth. And I immediately stopped shopping because I wasn`t interested in anything else, and I couldn`t let go of it: I clung on to this kimono for dear life in case somebody tried to take it away from me. And then I paid the money and raced out of there before anybody could fight me for it, and I`ve loved it ever since."
"I don`t blame you. It`s amazing."

"But don`t you see, Kris? Even if I am in the Recycle Shop, it doesn`t matter. It doesn`t how far into the bargain bin I slide, or how dark it is, or how long it takes, or how hidden I am, or how many other things are covering me up, or how many times I get given away or handed back: one day somebody is going to feel about me the way I felt about this kimono. They`re not going to believe their luck that somebody stopped wanting me, or that everybody else saw me and walked straight past. They`re not going to believe their luck that they found me and knew what I was worth when nobody else did. And they`re going to be so happy, and so excited, that they`re going to hang on to me for dear life and never let go."
Kristin welled up, because she always wells up: it`s one of the reasons I love her so much. "Oh, Hols. Somebody is going to be so excited to find you. And maybe you`ll feel the same way about them too."
"I will. No matter how many times I have to take them to the laundrette to get the smell out."
Kristin laughed. "Hey - the past always takes a bit of washing, right?"
I thought about it for a few more seconds. "It`s hope, isn`t it? This kimono: it`s hope."
"It`s more than that," Kristin said in a wobbly voice. "It`s a future."

For the second time, my kimono has taught me something. It has reminded me that you don`t have to be brand new to be loved, or hung out at the front of the shop. It has reminded me that it doesn`t matter if I end up in the bin a million times, or covered in a billion little stickers detailing my faults. It has reminded me that it doesn`t matter how far down into the pile I slip, or how many people walk past, or if I get put in the storecupboard behind the shoes filled with mould for the next twenty years. It just matters that one day I`ll be found by somebody who knows straight away that I`m exactly what they were looking for.

And that - when they do - I`ll never be put down again.

Friday, 29 April 2011


It's all over. Mum's long cherished ambition of her eldest daughter becoming Princess of England is now officially caput. Kate has married William, and ten years of my mum ending every conversation about my love life with "if you'd just taken that place at St Andrews Uni instead of going to Bristol, Holly" have all come to nothing.

I'm not a particularly big fan of weddings - buying a contract phone brings me out in commitment hives - and yet something made me watch the ceremony live this evening. And that something is Yuki. Who is more of a British royalist than anyone British I've ever met. Despite being 100% Japanese.

"We need to be home by 7" she told me while we were lying on the beach this afternoon. "I have to see the wedding. I need to compare my wedding dress with Kate's wedding dress."
"Your wedding dress?"
I stared at her. "Yuki, you're not even dating anyone."
Yuki stared back at me. "So?"she asked in confusion. "What's that got to do with my wedding dress? It's my dress, isn't it?"

She then spent the entire wedding hour sighing. "I want a dress with lace, now," she told me emphatically (or, as she later emailed me, "race"). "Lace all over. I have to change everything. It's so confusing. I thought I wanted one like Diana." And then she sighed again. "It's so beautiful. Just like a Disney wedding."
"This is a Britney Spears track, you know," I told her as the choir started singing.
"Really?" Yuki leant forwards to listen more carefully. "Wow. Which one?"
"I think it's Hit Me Baby One More Time."
Yuki leant forwards a little bit more. "I can't make it out," she said.
"That's because it's been adapted for Westminster Church," I explained, biting my bottom lip.
"Ah." Yuki nodded knowledgably. "It's beautiful. But I don't want Britney Spears."
"Lady Gaga?" I suggested. "I think they do Westminster versions of that too," and Yuki finally worked out I was winding her up and smacked me.

It was lovely, watching the event through the eyes of someone else. It's true that a little bit of the event seeped into me too, although millions of screaming fans don't exactly epitomise romance to me: it was a little more like a Beatles concert than a sacred and intimate event between two people in the eyes of God. Nevertheless, it was very pretty, it was very British, and they seemed genuinely very happy, so I was pleasantly touched and surprised at myself for being so, although reassured by the cynicism I felt over the blubbing strangers who had camped out for seven days to watch a carriage drive past (I wouldn't camp for seven days to be a part of my own wedding).

Through the eyes of the enraptured Yuki, though, I saw an entirely different event. I saw the climax of a dream: the way life should be. Life as a beautiful Disney movie, where we all meet a Prince, wear lace and live in a castle. And nothing bad ever happens again.

And the fact is: it's what we all need now and then. Not the truth - nobody ever wants the truth - but a version of it that makes reality go away for a little while. And so what if it's covered in lace and we've never met it before? It just makes the dream that much easier to believe in.

Me though? I might always be the little kid at the front of the balcony, with the scowl on her face and her hands over her ears (the kid who made me laugh just at the point where Yuki burst into tears). But it doesn't mean I don't believe in love, or in happy endings. It just means it can be a little overwhelming sometimes.

And maybe that's exactly what this wedding was supposed to remind us. That in a world where horrible things happen all of the time, love is the only thing we all stop for. That we can plough through death and hunger and war and cruelty and broken hearts and recessions and keep moving, but love is still the only thing that will make us all stand still. All over the world. English or Japanese; French or Chinese or Mexican or Russian or Australian; anywhere. Overwhelming, elaborate, glorified, gold coated love.

Or - perhaps more specifically - the little bit in the middle we all know is simple.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

The Never List

When I was a teenager, I walked to school every single day with the same girl. We had little in common apart from form teacher and the direction of our houses, but these two factors were enough to tie us into half a decade of tired conversations that both of us enthusiastically forgot a few seconds after they were finished.

All, that is, apart from this one:

"Are you revising for our exams, then?" I asked her, a few months before our GCSEs. She laughed.
"No way! Are you kidding? I just sit and watch telly every night."
"Really? You`re not revising at all?"
"I`m so bad, I know, but I just can`t find the energy after school."
"Me neither," I agreed, and - comforted that it wasn`t just me who was using my maths books as foot rests - went home that night and watched telly with a sense of peace I`d been missing for weeks that had been filled with my mum`s anxious nagging.

I checked in every week or so after that: was she studying yet? No, she consistantly told me. She was not studying. She never studied. And - just to be sure - I checked in with a few of my fellow schoolmates. Were they studying? No, they all told me. They never studied. Who could be bothered to study? Who had nothing better to do than study for stupid exams? And, they implied with a few raised eyebrows, my fierce questions about studying were making me look deeply eager and uncool, and so it was probably a good idea if I stopped so that I didn`t slip even further down the Geek ladder. So I relaxed, and - slightly ashamed that I`d been so worried - also refused to study. We would all fail together, I decided. It might even make me more popular, if I got the same grades as everyone else. Perhaps people would stop writing things about how Geeky I was in the school toilets.

And then came the day of our first exam, and as we walked to school - batting the same inane topics backwards and forwards - out came the revision cards. Hundreds of the buggers. Colour coded, printed, notated, filed in a little plastic box. Worn down by busy little thumbs.
"Eh?" I said, still confused. "Where did they come from?"
"Oh," she said, looking shifty. "I threw them together in about ten minutes."
I looked at the cards - a ruler had been used for all of the straight lines - and immediately suspected she was lying. And then I looked at the dates on them. Four months previous. And I knew.
"You`ve been studying, havn`t you," I said in a flat voice, panic rising up my windpipe. "You`ve been studying for ages."
"Not really," she said, without making eye contact. And then she lifted her chin and looked at me defensively, as if it was somehow my fault for believing her in the first place. "But, you know, Holly, these are our GCSEs. They`re kind of important, after all."

I`m not sure I ever got over the shock. When I said I wasn`t studying, I meant it. My not studying had been part of a greater plan to make me like everybody else. But the fatal flaw I hadn`t foreseen was: everybody else had been lying. When we got to school, everybody had revision cards. I was the only moron who had decided to tell the truth because it hadn`t occurred to me I`d get further ahead by keeping quiet. And the only thing I could do to save myself was hope and pray that I had studied hard enough for the last five years to be able to smudge through on long-term memory instead of short term (I did, but that`s not the moral of the story).

I`d been Nevered, I finally realised, and I didn`t forget it. Throughout life, it turned out, there are always people who will pretend never to do something because it makes them look better, look cooler, look less bothered, and because it fools everybody else into not doing it either and therefore gives them an edge over the competition. Because let`s make no bones about it: everything is a competition. Life and everything in it is a competition: to win, whatever the topic, even if it`s just to stay alive when everybody else is dead. It`s just a question of how seriously you take it, what you`re prepared to do to win, and exactly how you want to play it.

After my first Nevering, the list grew quickly. The Never Studyers continued all the way through Uni - sneaking in ten hours of essay writing time a night and then playing table football in public all day so nobody could ever guess - and then morphed into the Never Really Workers (the I`m on Facebook All Dayers, who absolutely were not). The Never Savers were the next big gang: the people who pretended that they didn`t have four pence to rub together and then bought houses with the 15 grand they`d accidentally saved on the quiet and looked a little bit smug when everyone asked how the hell they managed it. Then there were the Never Eat Vegetablers, who claimed to feast on kebabs and yet stuffed their faces with broccoli when nobody was looking, and the Never Do Exercisers, who pretended they could barely lift themselves off the sofas and yet ran 15k as soon as everybody looked in the opposite direction. There were the Never Drink Enough Waterers - insinuating that the only thing that ever passed their lips was beer and vodka, and secretly rehydrating - and the Oops, Never Use Contraceptioners, who were somehow never the ones who got pregnant. There were the Never Look After My Skiners - with AHAs and RetinAs and a Harry Potter cabinet full of potions and lotions to keep them looking pretty - and the Never Watch Calorieers who somehow stayed 4 stone forever, and the Never Dye My Hairers, whose locks remained gloriously and expensively highlighted.

I was sucked into all of them: partly because I`m stupid, partly because I`m incapable of detecting a lie, or a falsehood, or a smudged truth, and partly because I wanted to. I knew - deep down - that everybody I knew probably wasn`t broke, lazy, full of fried food, smoking and drinking chocolate milkshakes all day (the way they pretended they were), and surfing the internet, but I preferred thinking they might be, because I was. And it took me a very long time to realise that the only not to lose in every single way was to ignore what everyone else was saying and get on with my own plans. Like saving money. And looking after my skin. And eating vegetables. And drinking enough water. All of which I try very hard to do, incidentally, and I`ll happily admit it to anyone who asks, however uncool it makes me. Exercise is the last on the list: and that`s what I`m tackling now. And while I don`t like it much right now (it hurts), I`ve been amazed by the amount of Never Exercisers who have admitted to exercising regularly now that I say I`m trying to.

It will never end, of course: the claims will just start to shift. And they always come out in the end. The Never Wear Sunscreeners? Let`s see just how unwrinkled they are in fifteen years, when everybody who actually wore none looks like handbags. The Never Started a Private Pensioners? I wonder how many will be jetting around the mediteranean when everyone else is dividing their baked beans in half. It`ll be interesting to see just how many of the Never Do Weights group fail to ever get bingo wings, or how many of the Never Eat Non Animal Protein Equivalents have incredibly low cholesterol. As for the Never Do Exercisers: just how many will inexplicably still be able to touch their toes past the age of 50? Quite a few, I reckon.

And hopefully - with a little bit of effort now - I might be one of them.

I just won`t be pretending at any stage that I can`t.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Little Ones

Fear is a strange thing: absolutely none of it is proportional.

I can go through any number of natural disasters, any number of miles, any amount of strange countries and languages and people, any number of muggings and threats and violence, and still nothing scares me quite as much as a little emotional rejection. There may have been a lot of earthquakes during my visit to Tokyo, but it was visiting my little students in Yokohama that set the fear of God into me. And it was with some sense of irony that I trembled at the entrance to a restaurant with cartoon pandas on the walls, knowing I`ve had my wallet taken at knife point and felt nothing. Never in the history of the world has a smiley faced potato croquette been so scary.

I didn`t expect them to remember me. A year`s a long time, even for an adult: for a three year old, it`s a third of their life. I expected tears, hostility, suspicion, shyness: I prepared myself for a lot of Why are you making me play with this strange lady, mum? and Why does she keep trying to hug me? Tell her to leave me alone or I`m going to kick her. I was ready for the most painful of all things: approaching a person you love and having it made clear that they do not feel the same way, except with the eloquence that only a four year old can have. I was ready for rejection in the most open, screaming, loud way possible. And I was frightened.

And so - because I approached the situation behaving like a small, scared child - they responded by doing likewise. When they pretended to ignore me and hid behind their mums, I barely noticed because I was so busy doing the same thing. When they scowled at me, I scowled at them back. When they refused to make eye contact, and stared at the floor, I was too busy staring at the floor to see it. When Shion`s chin started wobbling, so did mine. And when Kou tossed his head and marched off to a distant seat - punishment, for leaving him for so long - I tossed mine and did it too, except I pretended it was because I was putting my handbag in a safe place rather than that I needed to be far away and safe from his rejection.

Three or four minutes later, when the children had established that I was far more immature than they would ever be, they realised that they could never win - that three or four or five years of experience was nothing in comparison to my twenty nine - and buckled. Suddenly, they were pulling at my shorts: "Hollllllyyyyyyy. HoollllllLLLLLYYYYYYY. Loookkkk attttt mmmmmmmeeeeee." They were fighting each other to get on my lap. They were ripping up tissues to present to me, and offering glasses of water until nobody else in the water had anything to drink from. They were showing me their new chopsticks, and their new karate moves. They were asking me if I liked soccer any more now than I used to (the answer? no. And it`s still football). And, with things exactly as they used to be except one year later, I relaxed and started behaving like a small, happy child, instead of a small, defensive child: playing with my food and turning the napkin into a beard and the chopsticks into horns. And - for the record - they can practice as much as they like, but not one of them has a `funny face` yet to rival mine. I know this, because we tested it. They have a lot of work to do, but they`ve got another twenty four years at least to reach my standard of facial flexibility.

They haven`t changed at all. That`s what surprised me the most: in one year, they`ve not changed a jot. They`re a tiny bit bigger - and quite significantly bigger than when I first met them, nearly two years ago - and their hair is longer (and some of them have more teeth), but they`re essentially the same. The same movements, the same ways of making them laugh, the same things that make them cry (having a piece of your smiley pancake stolen, for instance, in Shion`s case). They eat the same: Tensho still pulls his meal apart, and Shinnosuke still works his way methodically around the plate, and Kou still attacks his from the middle, and Shion still defends hers like a small tiger. Some of them have grown up a little (more than I have): Shinnosuke is a little less cripplingly shy, Tensho no longer chews his own feet and Kou has a love for his new little sister that is protective and defensive - just as his love for me has always been - but they`re exactly the same little characters. And when I tickle-attacked them in the ball pit and they defended themselves by throwing balls (very hard: I got bruised) they did it the way they always have done: Shinnosuke, in a fit of giggles, Kou, with a little set chin and spark in his eyes (and the little damp fringe I know so well from when he was a toddler and needed a towel down the back of his t-shirt), Shion with perfect aim and Tensho, permanently hugging my legs.

I had missed them so much, and - honestly - the two hours I spent with them was two of the happiest hours I have ever spent, even if a large proportion of it was spent being ball-pumelled by fifteen toddlers (my kids totalled five: another ten decided to join in the fun of beating to death a big blonde girl). And what was amazing was the realisation - for the first time, really - that people don`t change. That the essence of each of these incredible children was the same as it was two years ago, when I had to sit one year old Tensho in my lap because he fell over when sitting on his own, and the same as it was one year ago, when I left them, and will be the same in years to come. That they`ll get bigger, of course, but Kou will probably always get pink cheeks and a sweaty fringe when he`s over-excited, and Shinnosuke will always work round his food in circles, and Shion will always growl like a fierce little cat if you try and touch her food. They`ll be the same people, but larger and more complicated versions of them. And the big things that scare them now will probably always scare them: just as they scare me, they way they always have. And they`ll love the same things they love now, just as I do too.

When I left them for the second time, I managed not to cry. I`ve promised to see them again - how, I don`t know, but I`ll do it - and the mums and dads have all emailed me since to say that they hope I come back for them. But of my entire time in Japan, my departure from my little ones this time was one of the moments that will stay with me the longest.

"Tell Holly you love her," Kou`s dad told him firmly in English as I said goodbye.
"No," Kou shouted, embarrassed and furious.
"Kou, you won`t see her for a long time again. Tell her you love her."
"No, I don`t," Kou yelled, hiding his head in his dad`s shoulder.
"It`s okay," I said, finally managing to behave like the adult I am. "Kou, it doesn`t matter. I love you."
"No," Kou grumped again, without moving his face. "No love."
And so I patted him on the back, gave the others a cuddle and walked away, fighting the bit inside me so silly and hurting.

I got twenty metres before "Hoooolllllllyyyyyyyyyyyy" started echoing around the packed shopping mall. Every shopper stopped and turned - as I did - to see five little people hurtling along the corridor towards me. "Holllllllllyyyyyyyyyy" Kou was screaming, followed by four smaller "Holllllyyyyyyy"s (Kou is the oldest).
I knelt down on the floor and watched them pushing through the crowds towards me, parents still standing where they had been left.
"Are you coming with me?" I asked them, laughing.
"Hollllllllyyyyyy I love youuuuuuuuu," Kou yelled, and then all of them hurled themselves on top of me.  And when they`d been eventually pulled off by their parents, I got barely another twenty metres before they were all screaming "Hoollllllllyyyyyyy I loooooveveee yyoooooou" and hurtling towards me again. Three or four times, until their mums held on to their little arms and told me to run in the opposite direction or they`d chase me all the way home and I`d never get away. And a hundred shoppers stood, mouths open, staring at the only foreigner in the entire shopping centre, being chased by a herd of tiny, English-screeching Japanese kindergarteners, as if it was the strangest thing they`d ever seen. Which it may well have been.

These little children will always be who they are now: in one form or another. And the knowledge that I have been a small part of that - that I have been a part, in only the tiniest way, of who they are growing into - is one of the best experiences I have ever had. And of my two years spent in Japan, being chased across a shopping mall by a group of tiny children shouting in my own language is one of the highlights.

And that fear: the fear that they would no longer love me? It never had to be there. But it`s okay that it was, because that`s who I have always been too. And it`s who I will always be.

And - as tiresome as it often is - the people who love me probably wouldn`t want me to change either.

Friday, 22 April 2011

Smales Do Japan

I`m back.

Not with a vengeance, because a vengeance is a very silly way to write, but back nonetheless. I`m rested, I`ve been fed on things other than my own burnt offerings, I`ve laughed a lot, and I`ve had my self-induced hermit-status blasted into smithereens. Frankly, it`s amazing what ten solid days of your parents will do. By the end of the visit, I didn`t know whether to hang on to them with my fingernails or boot them out by their bottoms, because my mum and dad are simultaneously the best people I know, and the most frustrating. I`d cleaned my house from top to bottom before they turned up, and they still managed to find ten or eleven things wrong with it and then give me a stern "Holly, you will always be single if you don`t learn how to pick up the post from the doormat when it`s delivered" talk. It turns out that you can be as old as you like, and as independent as you like, and as far away and as much missed as you like, but the first thing your mum will do when she sees you is still wipe her finger along the top of your shelves and announce that you`re a slob (okay, the first thing she will do is cuddle you and cry, and then she`ll hunt for evidence that you can`t survive without her).

It was a fantastic holiday. Dividing the time between Tokyo and Nichinan meant I`d done everything before, obviously, because I`ve lived in both for a long time, but it was a glorious, surreal thing to be able to repeat it all with people I loved. And - strangely - they didn`t respond the same way I did at all. The things I initially found difficult to handle - the crowds of Tokyo, the unknown language, the strange food - were taken entirely in their stride: literally, in the case of my mum, because she got run over on the famous Shibuya crossing, which resulted in my dad losing his temper and kicking the crap out of the poor cyclist`s bike. The food was of interest but only from a distance (in ten days we had two MacDonalds, a TGI Friday, five Starbucks and a billion tuna sandwiches) and the language wasn`t really an issue because I did all the talking. All of it. Every single word, apart from a few pinked cheeked "arigatos" thrown in by mum for good measure. And yet we still had an amazing time. Evidence, perhaps, that I made it rather more difficult for myself than I probably had to the first time round. Which, I think, comes as no surprise to anyone.

My family fell in love with Japan too, I think. Or, if not in love, then definitely in crush. I did everything I could to make them: showed them as much as I could that would make them love it the way I do. And it worked. They loved the excitement of Tokyo, and the incredible natural beauty of Nichinan. They loved Baba, who continued as only Baba can and chatted away to the whole family as if they had any idea of what she was talking about - and shouted at me for a million different reasons, including leaving my washing out again - and they loved Jiji, who set himself up with some ume-shu and grinned at them in silence for half an hour. They loved the amazing customer service, the politeness and sweetness of strangers, the amazing shrines and temples. Dad was made very happy by Mount Fuji, and mum managed five earthquakes a day from 35 stories up with amazing dignity and aplomb. They loved the rice fields, and the sea, and the mountains, and the high rises: we all very much enjoyed our Posh Dinner at the top of the Park Hyatt, aka The Lost In Translation Restaurant, during which we all pretended to be much cooler than we actually are.

And my current school behaved impeccably: namely, the children threw themselves at me with so much love and genuine enthusiasm that even my dad welled up, and my sister announced that she was leaving England so she could teach in Japan and be "loved like that" too. Apparently - according to Tara - I`ve not only passed on my accent to the little ones, but also my unconscious lifelong habit of touching the finger tips of the person I`m talking to: as my sister pointed out, every child approached me with their hands held up, and it was "like watching a hundred miniature Hollys". Which is a terrifying thought, but also an incredibly satisfying one. As my dad pointed out, after a little five year old formally marched up to him with no fear whatsoever and started a conversation about the weather, I`ve "really made a difference". And I`d never felt it quite so strongly as when the people I loved could see it too.

It was just what I needed: my family, being allowed to fall in love with Japan all over again, and not being on my own anymore. Ten days of love, and laughter, and company. It has re-set me: when they left, rather than hiding in my bedroom as I did before they came, I immediately organised drinks with friends, and planned a full weekend. I feel more relaxed, more happy, and more normal than I have in a long time, simply because allowing my family to see my life has made my life feel real, and has made me feel real, and has made everything feel less far away. Because I needed that love and support to reboot me. When I walk down the road now I know that my sister has walked down the same road, and just that knowledge makes it easier to walk down it and not feel so alone.

The irony is: now that my family have seen Japan, they want me to stay. They love it so much they no longer want me to leave, and they understand why I didn`t run away when everyone else did (we were the only foreigners in Tokyo. It was embarrassing, how Fair Weather the gaijins are. Last year it was full of them). They can finally see why I gave Japan two years of my life, even when it took so much out of me. And they can see it, just as I`m getting ready to leave.

I`ve got three months left in the country I love, and will always love. I`ve got three months before I leave Japan behind to start on my next life adventure. But with the new energy, new calmness and new happiness I have now, I think it`s going to be a wonderful three months. And I`m ready to enjoy them totally.

And that`s what a good family does. It strengthens you while they`re with you, and leaves you stronger when they`re gone.

Friday, 8 April 2011


I`m so excited that Harai keeps asking me what`s wrong.

"I`m excited," I tell him every time he asks.
"But why are you singing?" he demands. Or "why are you bouncing up and down in your chair?" or "why do you keep making peep noises like baby bird?"
"Because I`m going to Tokyo tomorrow and I`m seeing the toddlers I taught in Yokohama, and then my family arrive on Sunday morning. And I haven`t seen the children for a year and I haven`t seen my family for eight months. So I`m excited."
"Yes," Harai confirms, still confused, because he knows this. I`ve told him every day for the last two months. "But why are you singing?"
"What`s not to sing about?" I squeak, pulling my hood over my head and dancing.
"Please stop," Harai says, and then goes back to doing whatever it is he`s pretending to do on his little computer just because it`s better than watching me dance.

I`m so excited. I never thought I`d see my little Joyland class again: when I knelt on the floor of the classroom in Yokohama one year ago, covered in kissing three year olds and crying my eyes out, I thought I`d have to imagine them growing older and never be a part of it. That`s the way of teaching, and especially in a foreign language: teachers are replaced too frequently to form real attachments, and ties are never deep. I`ve taught nearly five hundred children over the last eighteen months, and yet only five children have stuck: Kanata and his brick banging, Shion with her Minnie Mouse hood pulled over her eyes, Shinnosuke and his sniffles (hayfever), Tensho and his beloved red fire engine toy, and the inimitable Kou. But, while they`d stuck with me, I never for a minute thought I`d stick with them.

Apparently, I have. When I told their mums I was visiting Tokyo they said the children still ask about me, and have said they want to see me. Every single one of them: the whole gang, plus sisters, brothers, mums, dads, and - possible - grandparents. We`re all going for lunch, and - frankly - I`m terrified, because I`m not sure I believe the kids remember me at all. It took them four weeks to stop screaming with terror every time they looked at me the first time round, and I don`t have four weeks this time. I`m just hoping they can get their inevitable shyness, fear and shrieking out of the way in the space of an hour and a half, so that we can all have a lunch that doesn`t resemble some kind of Hannibal Lecter tea party except from behind their mum`s skirts. Failing that, they`re two, three and four years old: I`ll take a huge amount of presents and aim to buy their love back as quickly as possible. That will probably do it.

And then - even better - I get to see my family. My beautiful, dishevelled, sleepy and grumpy after a 14 hour journey (Tara) and tail wagging (dad) and scared of Tokyo radiation and earthquakes (mum) family. And I can show them exactly what I`ve been doing for 18 months: where I`ve been, what I`ve eaten, what I`ve seen, what I`ve experienced. I can show them the country I have loved so much - and hated with nearly as much passion - and it will all finally be real. And we can all spend ten days doing our best to get mum to eat something other than pizza.

I`ve not been truly excited for a long time, but now? I can`t stay still.

And if that`s not something worth singing about, I don`t know what is.