When I first appeared in Itako, people gawked, stared, and even took some not so discreet pictures with their keitai (cell phones). I felt like I was on display in a zoo some days, with everyone talking about me in whispers here and there and everywhere. Thankfully nowadays everyone knows who I am, or if they don’t know who I am they know at the very least that I’m a teacher living in the city, the weird looks and double takes have decreased significantly. Still, the small town celebrity status can be really interesting to live, but other times it can be a bit stressful.
I love that all of my students know who I am. I walk home every day through throngs of cute little elementary school kids shouting, “Jessica-sensei! Hello!” I wave back and smile as I respond, “Hello! How are you?” They repeat back to me, “How are you?” because they don’t actually know what it means just yet. It’s so cute! I walk on by and head home. Home for me is scant minutes away from where I work at the junior high school. I live right across from the elementary school. On the weekends, I wake up to the sound of children laughing and playing instead of an alarm clock. It makes me smile when I get up to start the day.
When I go to my local grocery store these days no one really gets shocked to see me anymore. Some people will even ask me how I’m doing as I walk around the aisles. Sometimes I will run into my JHS students with their parents, which can be fun or super awkward depending on how the parents and students react to seeing me. On the other hand, it can be really fun to get the chance to talk with the people in my community, and even sometimes discover some of them actually learned English in university way back when.
Because of my small town celebrity status, sometimes I get discounts or service things done for me. When I went shopping for groceries at a nearby market at the Michi-no-Eki, a lady recognized me as a teacher and an Ayame Musume (Iris Princess) from last year so she gave me some free strawberries. I could lie and say that I didn’t eat them all at once, but lying is wrong, so yeah. Also, at a sweets shop I once bought a huge package of variety sweets for the men at Hinode JHS because it was Valentines Day and women at the office always give the male teachers sweets. The ladies at the store loved me for buying that much and also recognized who I was, so they threw in two ichigomochi (strawberry rice cakes) for free. I could once again pretend I didn’t those in one sitting…but I’d be lying.
Sometimes I even get complete strangers coming up to me. It was rather shocking to me when an older lady asked me straight up, “So you’re the American ALT? Jessica, yes? My name is ______ and I lived in Hawaii for many years. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” I was so shocked it actually took me a minute to respond, for one reason because of her amazing English ability, and for another having known exactly who I was. I think I gave a half-hearted response like, “Oh, nice to meet you, too.” and then we moved onto some small talk.
And that’s one of the small problems of being a small town celebrity. Everyone knows who you are, and that means even people you don’t want to know anything about you. This problem can even be a bit dangerous. When I first got to Itako I went through a little bit of a scary situation with a man who followed me around a bit, kind of stalking me but not to my apartment or anything. Then, my predecessor Lauren told me that he’d done the same to her too and he did in fact know where I lived. That freaked me out a bit, so to this day my door is always locked up tight and my windows as well. He’s not bothered me for some time so I think he’s lost interest, but as you can imagine the dangers of a woman living alone in a foreign country by herself sometimes hit me hard and that was one of those times.
On a less dramatic note, because people know me they will report me if they think that I’m doing something “untoward” or “not benefiting of a teacher.” Many an ALT living in the inaka (countryside) areas of Japan will speak of a similar experience like mine, wherein a mother of a student told the school that I was drinking too much at a summer festival event during summer vacation. This was ridiculous for two reasons: 1) It was the summer vacation, and thus she had no right to tattle and 2) I was drinking with the principal of my school. A train attendant once called the school on me because I was heading off to Mito for a business trip and he thought I was skipping school. I was abolsutlely floored when my JTE informed me with a laugh, thinking it was funny. Meanwhile, I was flabbergasted that he actually phoned my school like I was some wayward child.
As a side note, in my town the train attendants do call up the schools if they see a junior high school student walking around outside of school. They will even approach the skippers and try to talk them to go back to school. It’s not that often that students miss school at the JHS level, but it does happen. High schoolers don’t fall under this strange system since attendance isn’t mandatory for them.
The fact is ALTs living in a small town should expect to be on constant surveillance. No where is safe from the peering eyes of the gossiping mother hens, and we will feel the weight of their gazes judging our movements no matter how slight the movement.
Due to the watchful eyes of the citizens of my community, I haven’t dated much in Itako because I felt too exposed to do it. News of something juicy like that spreads faster than a wildfire, and it doesn’t help that every man I’m seen with in public is automatically assumed to be my boyfriend/husband. I have several friends in and around the area that are guys, and on the weekends I hang out with them sometimes. It’s not unexpected for me to go to work that following Monday or Tuesday to have cute little inquiries about who I was seen with that weekend.
Another problem I face happens when I go clothes shopping. When I got here I brought over some clothes, but I soon realized I couldn’t just walk around in sweat pants and sneakers like I did in college. With everybody staring at me, I couldn’t blend in with the crowd in a frumpy outfit, and besides that I knew all of my clothes were old anyway. My wardrobe got revamped to a more nice selection with nice shirts and t-shirts with some cute pants or skirts instead of just blue jeans. Even though I’m a woman so I should stereotypically love shopping, I don’t, especially if I have to do it by myself. I can shop with other people and enjoy it because there are other people to distract me from the fact that everyone is staring at me as I shop and try things on. I know I should just shrug it off and continue onwards, but it’s a really weird experience to come out of a dressing room and everyone’s heads turn to stare at the new thing I’m wearing. I know I’m not really exposing anything, but dammit people let me change clothes in peace!
And dear Lord, the gym. I go workout at the Kashima Fitness Center two to three times a week now. I was doing it off and on for the past year…Alright fine, more off than on, but I’ve hit the gym hard for the past three months trying to get back in shape. The looks I got at the gym when I first went there were owl-wide eyes just full of shock and surprise. I started going with my friend Ai Muto back when she lived in Kashima, but she’s off in Russia so now I go alone. By the way, I highly recommend that if you want to join a gym in Japan to bring someone fluent in both English and Japanese because you can get price jacked without someone there to help you.
When Ai left, there was no buffer between me and the pointed looks from the people in the gym. I felt seriously self conscious because I was one of the few heavier set ladies going there. But the worst experience by far was when one guy about a year or so ago just watched me do my entire workout without even bothering to pretend to workout himself, which was highly uncomfortable. Over time, I built up a nice repertoire with the staff and regular attenders, so things like that don’t happen as much anymore. The staff people actually go over and talk to people so they’ll stop gawking at me, which is really sweet of them. Just recently I got up the gumption to try the specialized classes, like Zumba, Body Combat, and Hip Hop, and I’ve got to say that’s really helped to kill some of my kind of “mystique” and bring me down to a more approachable level for the gym goers. No one looks great after they’ve endured an hour of Body Combat, they just don’t, and you gain a sense of camaraderie for having survived it.
As an Ayame Musume I get even more recognition because of the posters around town and the Ayame Matsuri (Iris Festival) events. People all over the country come to the park, as in all the way from Hokkaido and Kansai for this event, so I’ve actually been featured on more than a few blogs. Luckily, though, I’ve yet to reach the unfortunate celebrity statues case where I have a stalker come to the park and take pictures of just me like some of the other Musume have. I have, however, had my tush pinched more than once by some random old man who drank one too many beers and doesn’t realize that my threshold for violence is something they don’t want to test. I have my American moments, and they usually come out in forceful bursts. Unfortunately, my job is to just smile and bear it.
However, I will admit that I sometimes abuse my foreign features and celebrity status to my advantage. I have been back to that sweets shop specifically because of the ichigomochi and the fact that almost every time I’ve been back I got a free one. The attention can be nice in small doses, too, and rather flattering. In America I was a kind of “plain Jane” character, but in Japan I’m a little bit exotic, in a way. I am not really a fantastic beauty by either country’s standards, but I don’t really want to be one anyway. Too much effort, mendokusai. Yet in Japan I stand out whereas in the U.S. I just blended in, and sometimes I miss the ability to be a wallflower, the small town celebrity status shoved me into the spotlight and challenged me into this new role. Although college helped to kill most of my ability to be shy, now I’m hardly ever shy around anyone (the biggest exception being an attractive men in a nice suit). In Japan I’ve really come out of my shell, and I owe it to this city for helping me to gain a new found confidence, even though it can be a small pain sometimes to handle it, it’s all a part of the living abroad experience.