February is the annual JET contract renewal decision month. My supervisor asked me with a hopeful smile on her face that I would stay another year. Actually, if I wouldn’t mind, they would allow me to stay the full possible five. She’s been telling me this since November, and since November I wrangled with my heart and mind over what to do.
Many former JETs told me when I got here, “Don’t wait too long to leave. If you feel it’s time to go, then go. Don’t stay where you are just because it’s comfortable. You will regret it.”
I always hated the vagueness of these words of wisdom. What does the feeling entail? What does too long even mean? How is comfort a negative thing? I asked these questions and more, but none of them could accurately tell me.
They just said, “You’ll know.”
From experience now I understand what they meant. The feeling isn’t just one feeling, it’s an accumulation of different feelings attached to certain things associated with working and living in one area.
I’ve lived in Itako for two and a half years now. If I let it sink in, that fact astounds me. Didn’t I just arrive yesterday? Where did the time go? Unbelievable, and yet true. I made a home in my 2DK apartment, putting up pictures of friends and family. I rearranged the entire place ten different times, added my own little touches here and there, tried to put my identity in a cozy space. I went on several amazing adventures with countless inspirational, caring, and beloved people. My Japanese skills improved with time, to the point I no longer need aid when it comes to complicated tasks like getting a new phone. I owe all of this happiness and warm memories to Itako.
What I didn’t expect was that the feeling can be a misnomer, because for me the big part of my decision came from a lack of feeling. I realized in December that the thought of not renewing my contract didn’t inspire feelings of panic or sadness at all. I felt excited at the prospect, and even started looking online at jobs in other areas. I knew on a cold December evening a few days before Christmas that I wanted to move to Tokyo.
Nostalgia goggles are tricky. I knew that come next year things that bothered me in the past wouldn’t change. On the weekends I’ll probably be left with few options for entertainment, probably opting to leave town to go to Kashima, Kamisu, Mito, or Tokyo to meet up with friends. Most likely, I’ll be watched, talked about, and monitored by everyone in my community. For dating, the options are limited in a country side area where there isn’t much dating material, and dating means “with intent to marry” and I don’t want to get married.
I now understand that staying too long means deciding to put your mental well being at risk of stagnancy instead of pushing for growth. I heard from many an ex-JET and ex-Interac how easy it can be to “get stuck” in the same place every year until it’s time to go. A routine is vital when living abroad. It gives stability when in all other situations we ex-pats feel out of control or lost. Going to work, teaching the same textbook year after year, I felt like I wasn’t in a routine anymore but instead getting into a rut. I tried to mix up the lesson plans, but even that didn’t make me feel like I was actually pushing my limits. I realized when I came back from winter break that staying and doing the same thing every single day for two more years could do more harm than good for me.
And that’s how I discovered how comfort can be a trap. The comfort of a routine, of daily activities and habits, means I can feel safe in the knowledge that I know what to expect. I see the same people every day, and I can usually predict how they’re going to behave. When I first arrived in Japan, I felt extremely unbalanced because I didn’t know what to expect for the first few months. The idea of starting all over again is scary, and that fear can be paralyzing. What if it doesn’t work out? What if my new situation is worse? What if I mess it all up? A thousand doubts pop up, but it’s easy for me now to say, “I did it once. I can do it again. I’ll make it work.”
I felt no urge to return to the United States. Even though I missed many people I love dearly, I couldn’t imagine going back home. Honestly, I can’t imagine leaving Japan for another couple of years at least, because in my heart still resides in Japan. I might return someday in the far future, but for now I’m not ready.
When I told my supervisor, she seemed disappointed, but she understood. Three years was a good run, after all, and she wished me luck. After she left, I felt guilty for leaving her with the chore of finding my replacement, but I knew I couldn’t say yes. I went back to work, determined to get things done.
In July, I will move on to a new life.