So about “Genki…”

When I first arrived in Japan, I was told that being genki is a sign of a good teacher. Having no clue what that entailed, I asked an English teacher at an International Association Festival and he rolled his eyes and said, “It means they want the happy foreigner to always be happy.” His face showed anything but enthusiasm at the thought.

Nowadays, I can usually tell if a foreigner has lived in Japan for over a while if I say the word “genki” and their face gets this constipated look of suppressed disgust. The American man I met all those months ago was the first person to show me that face.  The thing is, “genki” does not just mean “energy, happiness, full of life.” Genki is also a way of life.

The American man went on to explain that in Japan it’s considered good manners to be genki. Worrying other people about your problems is seen as kind of a selfish thing to do. Instead, one should always think of others. Therefore, stay genki and smiling and happy looking so that you appear fine. If you’re in real danger, of course, seek help. However, if you’re tired or feeling burned out, you’re not supposed to show it.

In a vain attempt to try and explain the genki lifestyle, it’s kind of like pretending you’re happy when you’re not. If you’re having a bad day, don’t let people see it, especially at work. Most people in America who are over the age of twenty one and have held a job might say, “Oh, well that’s just being professional. The whole world doesn’t have to know you’re having a bad day. Just do your job and go home.” Well, alright, but here’s the thing. Imagine it’s not just for the boss. Imagine having to wear your masking smile that’s for your boss around all the co-workers, staff, your acquaintances, anybody who makes you angry ever, and possibly even your own good friends. This is an oversimplification, and I apologize that I can’t think of a good way to explain it better.

Some foreigners have issues with the genki lifestyle. For me, it’s hard to do something that kind of feels like lying all the time. I have been taught since I was a kid that it’s not only a good thing to express your emotions but that it’s also honesty. I know that logically I wouldn’t tell the whole world my business, but at the same time if I’m not feeling so good I don’t have to smile and laugh.

I got a small lecture from one of my JTEs when I was suffering from an illness one month. She essentially said that people were worried and maybe I should try to “not worry them.” I wanted to yell, “Well excuse me for being sick!”  But I shoved down that anger and just kept listening. I learned that the teachers and the students were upset that I wasn’t happy. They were thinking the worst case scenarios, and so that’s why she was asking for me to try being genki.

The problem is I’m not really a genki person. I’m just not built that way. I’m made to chill. Chill people don’t smile and talk and be all energized when there’s nothing to smile or talk or be energized about, you know? Still, I decided that since I’m in Japan, I might as well give it a try. Maybe there was some hidden genki in me I just didn’t know about yet?

Also, I didn’t want to worry anybody, so I did it. I made myself genki for the students and tried my best to be genki around teachers. It was exhausting, but for the rest of that month, I pretended my life was full of sunshine and daises. When I moved over to the other school, I tried on this genki thing and found myself breaking a little bit under the strain.

The thing is I have also gotten advice from other more experienced ALTs and English teachers to be careful about genki. I remember the American man in particular warned me, “They will try their best to make you as un-American as possible. Don’t let them do that. The genki thing is Japanese culture. Stay true to your American self.” At the time I thought he was just paranoid and full of bitterness, but now that I got into that situation, I could start to see his point.

After about a month into The Genki Experiment, I was in class and walking around students’ desks. I was smiling, but inside I was cursing up a storm. About five or six students didn’t bring their notebooks to class, and when I tried to ask about why, they just waved their hands and said, “Eigo wakaranai (I don’t understand English).” The notebook thing didn’t really get to me. Instead, it was the blatant rudeness that just made me kind of pissed. I tried to tell myself that it wasn’t a big deal, that really I’m lucky to have students that weren’t rebellious and mean monsters like I’d heard about at other schools.

But the genki got to me. I stomped up to the front of the class, replaced my smile with a deep frown, placed myself in front of the board with my arms crossed and possibly fire shooting out of my eyes. My JTE looked at me funny since I’d never done something like this before. I said with a very calm voice, “Six students do not have their notebooks today.” Slowly, I informed them, “I am very disappointed.” My JTE gasped dramatically and translated for me.

After class, I fully expected to get another lecture. I was not genki. I was the opposite of genki. I was a dragon lady for a moment there. I braced myself as my JTE came over to talk to me.

To my amazement, she said, “Thank you so much! I think students needed to hear that.”

Say wha-?

Turns out that my non-genki self was just the thing she needed from me. I felt kind of thrown off kilter at that point.

I decided to try and figure out what exactly I was going to do about this genki business. Did I really want to put on a mask every single day? What was the line between professionalism and genki? Where did the responsibility to myself end and the responsibilities to others start? I did not like looking at the murky grey areas of multicultural living and wondering what made me American or Japanese.

In the end, I made my decision over coffee. I was in the teachers’ break area when a teacher came up to me with a small smile and asked me, “Genki desu ka (How are you)?” I looked at him for a moment before replying with a small smile, “Genki desu (I’m fine), but I’m tired and busy.”

“Oh!” He smiled back, “Me too!” And then we spent about ten minutes bitching about everything we had to get done before the end of the day.

I finally just came to the decision that genki wasn’t really for me. At the same time, I was going to do my own version of genki for my students. Basically, it involves appearing energized and getting all fired up for them. Yet, in the teachers’ room, I would be work with an expression that conveyed how I felt, and if they were worried, well they’d just have to deal. I think most people are actually happy to see me back to the older model. I think I was freaking out a couple of the other teachers who knew me better, anyway.

I’m not going to bash the genki lifestyle, though. If anything, I admire anyone with the ability to do it. I cannot muster enough energy to keep something like that up all the time. To the people who can not only do that but also make it an art art form, I tip my hat to you. It’s simply a cultural difference, and I accept that it’s one I simply can’t assimilate into my identity. To each their own.

It’s all good 🙂

The Reason Why

I get asked this question so many times! “Why did you come to Japan? Did you know about the earthquake and the radiation? Weren’t you afraid?”

Here are the answers to such questions and more!

To answer the first question, I’ve wanted to go to Japan since I was eleven years old. Initially, my interest started by reading manga. My school’s social studies textbook really only discussed Japan when it came to World War II and that’s it. And so, I started reading about Japan’s history and culture on my own at the public library.  I became fascinated by a world that seemed so different from mine. It became my dream to go and learn about Japan first hand.

In 2010, I studied abroad in Japan because a friend told me about the JET Program. She recommended that I study abroad first to see if I would like Japan as it really was and not as I imagined it to be. She warned me that I would be disillusioned and most likely would find that the country’s differences would be irreconcilable with my own Western ideology.

When I studied abroad, I fell in love with Japan all over again. I try to explain why, but it’s so difficult for me. I had a hard time speaking in Japanese (and still do) but I liked the sound of it. I also discovered things about my own language and culture that unless I studied Japanese I would’ve never even thought about.

For example, I realized that English is a fast paced language. I never really noticed it’s made for quick conversation until I spoke in Japanese. For Japanese, the conversations are meant to take their time. Words are, usually, really crisp and clear and people take their time to get the message across with the best clarity possible. I hated it sometimes because I just wanted to know where the damn restroom was and the person I asked would take forever to tell me where to go! But when I was at home with my host family, I loved it.

I also just got to see the religious aspects of Japan first hand. I took a Buddhism class before I went over there. I liked the ideas of Buddhism and Shinto. I really liked how Japan simply takes in both religions and makes them into one. When I performed a prayer in front of a Shinto shrine, I felt so peaceful. The open sky made me feel more connected with God than any church ever did. Hearing the wind blow amongst the trees, I could sigh and just release all of my burdens. It was a wonderful experience for me.

Spirituality

At the Inari Shrine in Kyoto

I also liked the circular idea of time. Honestly, I never liked linear time. It made little sense to me when I knew that time worked in cycles. Eastern philosophy speaks to me. It basically just tells me things I believed in already but my Western world didn’t like. It was comforting. People would tell me that I was odd for thinking that way. I was glad to find a place that understood me in some small way.

I visited schools, too. An elementary school filled with adorable children made me really want to teach. I felt that just by being there I was influencing the students. Whether for good or ill, I can’t say, but I’m hoping for good! I talked with teachers who already worked in Japan, and they were adamant about really thinking it through. They warned me that although the one class seemed wonderful, that the challenges of living abroad and working abroad can be too much for some people.

I did feel some doubts, I won’t lie. I wondered if I was cut out for completely leaving America and everything familiar to come back. By this point, I was aware that Japan had some, in my eyes, negative aspects. For example, Japanese people are friendly, even when they hated your freaking guts. I grew up in the South, so I’m used to people talking behind my back. However, if you make someone mad, you might never know. Imagine an invisible bomb getting passed around and you can’t even guess when and where it will blow up. It’s that kind of fear and frustration. I was told that “someone” (my teacher wouldn’t say who) didn’t like how I was holding my chopsticks at a meal and thought I was being rude on purpose.

I will never know who that person was, and I will never know what I did in the first place to offend. Never. That’s just one example. There are other cultural differences that I couldn’t quite reconcile with the way I knew the world to work, so I was worried.

But then I visited Hiroshima. If you ever get the chance to visit the memorial, I highly recommend it. They’ve got English translations for everything. If you’re studying Japanese, like most of my study abroad group was, it’s a great opportunity to practice reading and listening skills. My heart broke from reading all the stories. I felt awful being an American at the sight of where my forefathers killed so many people. I’m well aware that Japan bombed Japan first, but that doesn’t change the fact that Hiroshima and Nagasaki are tragedies that must be prevented from happening again.

Hiroshima Memorial

Hiroshima Memorial

After that visit, I decided for sure that I wanted to come back and teach English. I wanted to be a part of an international community, a community I was already a part of but never bothered to participate. I wanted to actively engage in helping my country and Japan understand each other. It’s my hope that through understanding we lose fear of the unknown, and with that we can move one step closer to acceptance. Not tolerance, but full on acceptance of others different from us.

In the end, we’re all human.

Answering the second question, when the March 11th earthquake happened I wanted to go back. I felt that Japan was like a friend that had been hurt. I don’t abandon my friends when they need my help. I go and see what I can do to make them feel better. And so, I wanted to come back to Japan and help in any way I could. It was torture waiting to hear from JET. I was trying to think of ways to go back. I had applications for Fulbright and Red Cross at the ready if I didn’t get the job.

Luckily, I did get the ALT position. I felt so relieved that I was going back. My mom wasn’t worried. She saw where my city was on the map and basically said, “Oh, yeah, you’re fine.” My family’s been pretty supportive of the whole thing. I noticed that the radiation levels around my city were minimal, and even then, I would’ve gone had the nuclear incident spawned a massive Godzilla outbreak.

I wanted to help, no matter what I didn’t, and still don’t, want to be an ally in just name only. I want to be there for the country that stole my heart so long ago in good times and bad. I don’t want to just show up when it’s convenient. I want to be there for all of it. I want to be here when the earthquakes happen (and they do, almost every day or every other day, it’s no big deal). I want to be here when the typhoons hit (although the recent combination of typhoon and earthquake was terrifying, I wont lie). I want to be there when its boring, interesting, exciting, awful, miserable, great, amazing, just okay, and all the rest. I want to be there for Japan.

Now, I am living the dream! I want to continue to be a friend to Japan and to the people of Japan. I want to help those who want to understand my culture, and I want to learn about Japanese culture very much. Although I am a teacher, I still want to learn. I take any opportunity I can to have a cultural exchange, even though the language issues still pop up.

I am afraid sometimes, but not of radiation or earthquakes. I’m afraid that I’ll mess up and get sent back home. I’m afraid that one day I’ll wake up and it had all just been some weird dream. Losing this job would be my worst nightmare. I was homesick for a moment, but I don’t want to go back. Not really, not when there’s still so much to do. I try not to let the fear control me, because I want to be strong.

TTYL!