Shimada is a beautiful city, and I’ve only seen parts of it. When I arrived I was told it was a typical Japanese town. I don’t know how true that is, but I’m excited to get to know my new life here. Shimada is written with two characters. The first one, 島 , means island or isle. The second, 田 , means rice field. So altogether, 島田 means island of rice fields, or island in the rice fields, or something like that. Water is everywhere in Shimada. From the Oi River for which the town is known, to the small canals that run down and in between streets, you can almost pretend that Shimada is its own island. There are fields lining roads and on street corners that seem to be the last soldiers holding out against the encroaching buildings. The fields are bright green and wet as I ride by them, the smell of water and growth blowing onto the sidewalk.
In the mornings as I ride the slightly rusty bike the school has leant me the roughly 2 miles to school, I pass by super markets, drug stores, a bicycle shop, and many students from other schools heading the other direction that eye me suspiciously. Along the way I am cheered forward by a screaming choir of cicadas that seem to just be a part of the air. Their song is already a kind of ever present background noise that colors my life with a sort of throbbing, insecty urgency.
Right now, the first week of August, everything is hot and bright. People walk the streets with towels around their necks and fans in their hands to fight off the ever present sweat. My poor, weak, pale skin has stood no chance in the week I`ve been here. Acne has sprouted across my face from the combination of the heat and stress, only cementing the idea that the new, young ALT is probably too young and inexperienced. The acne contributes nicely to the general diseased appearance the 30 some odd bug bites currently covering my arms and legs presents. Mosquitos patrol the area constantly, and I had a brief run-in with dani (dust mites that live in the tatami floors and the futon and bite you in your sleep).
No one has lived in my apartment for five years, and I have my work cut out for me to make it feel homey. Everything grows voraciously in Japan, including mold and mildew in an apartment without AC. The days get up into the 90s, and the nights barely sink below 80, forcing me to open my windows as I sleep. The air from the windows and the fans I bought this weekend should help keep things a bit better, but the ever present humidity from outside comes in during the night and attaches itself to anything it can find. Already spots of mold have started appearing in the tatami, and I know it will be a battle for a long time yet. When it cools down I`ll be able to close the windows and buy a dehumidifier, but for the time being I`m going to try and find some vinegar to naturally kill anything that grows in the floor or on the walls.
Despite the disrepair, I know I will grow to love this apartment. I fully understood the condition it was in before moving into it, and I chose it because it felt right. There is something special about moving into a blank slate and making something all your own. With each purchase I make, I already feel more at home. It will take a while, and a few pay checks, for me to really feel moved in, but I’m moving along the path.
This weekend I was able to buy, with the help of two very nice people, a curtain for my living room, a new cover for my futon, and a washing machine. Already the small piece of decoration and the promise of clean clothes has made me more comfortable. Many people have gone out of the their way to give me things and help me to move into my new space. The rest, I think, is on me.
The phrase I have heard most often said around me since arriving in Japan is “かわいそう” which means “poor thing”. From the moment we arrived at Narita, a passing family said it as they walked by the line of us waiting in the sun for the bus. Since then I have heard it about my lack of AC, my bug bites, and the general emptiness of my apartment from everyone who has come in. People are in fact very concerned when I tell them I don’t have an AC. Usually this conversation happens right after my bike ride to school in the morning sun when I am good and sweaty. I hope that one day my entrance into a room will not inspire a chant of “poor thing,” but who knows when that will be. More than anything I do appreciate their concern. I am surviving without an AC, but of course it is not the ideal. Once my bug bites heal, and the weather cools down, hopefully I can be less of an object of worry.
I have to admit that I have not been very brave since my arrival in Japan. Instead of struggling through the little Japanese I know and can remember when speaking, I have been relying solely on the help of others. On one hand, I think for my first week this is completely excusable and possibly even necessary for me to transition here successfully. On the other hand, I know this will have to end soon, and I will be thrown to the Japanese wolves, as it were.
A part of me is thrilled to experience the inevitable struggle and failure to communicate at times. It is, after all, an integral part of this experience.
The other part of me hates failure and will do anything to avoid trying if failure seems like a definite possibility.
So far all of my pitiful attempts at communication have been met with patience and an appreciation for my effort. When I say things wrong or don’t know what to say, people offer suggestions or corrections so that I can learn. One of the cashiers at the grocery store, for example, is incredibly kind, and was thrilled when I was able to tell her that I was okay without a bag for my things. Speaking Japanese is not a requirement for the JET Programme because, at the end of the day, we are here to teach English. That being said, a certain level of Japanese proficiency not only makes your life easier, but can help with teaching as well as building relationships with the people around you.
The truth is I have no idea what to expect from here. I`ve just been in the country for a week, and only in Shimada for 5 days. Anything could happen, and that excites and terrifies me. What happens next is both dependent on me, and out of my control. This is hard for me to live with. It`s summer break, and everything about my life seems to be in a sort of limbo other than the fact that I am somehow living in Japan.
As I was riding along yesterday morning, the screech of the cicadas pulling me forward, I realized that I`m only 22 and somehow actually here in this moment in Japan. I have an apartment, and a job, and even though everything is new and occasionally uncomfortable, that doesn`t have to be a bad thing. Everything in life is inherently temporary, because our lives are temporary. Right now my life is hot, and scary, and difficult to understand, but maybe it’s time to sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride.