Tuesday, May 06, 2008

The A Part of the Q & A Part Two - Maggie Goes to Japan Edition

Today is smoke-free day 323. A couple Fridays ago in my Hai-Q Haiku, I offered the chance to ask any questions. I've been slow to answer, but I'll keep trotting them out here and there. I'm still grateful for all the excellent questions!

The A Part of the Q & A Part Two:

Q: Mz Diva asked: What made you decide to go teach in Japan?

(Grab coffee, I'm feeling wordy. The Japan topic does that to me.)

A: This starts back on the weekend before the first day of college, when all the freshman get to pick their first classes. I needed either a foreign language or a science. College level science scared me to the point of palm sweats, so I opted for the foreign language option.

I asked for French. I'd taken 2 years in high school and knew something like 2 sentences - the same two I still know - so it was familiar. French class was full.

I asked for Spanish, figuring it would be useful. Boy, was I right, even if I had no idea I'd grow up the rest of the way to shop in some stores (in America) where all announcements and signs are in Spanish. Unfortunately, I'm screwed at such stores because Spanish class was full.

Being both super smart and tired of this game, I asked, "OK, then, what exactly
are my foreign language choices?" Turns out that there was an Asian Studies Program brand spanking new (think guinea pigs) that year, and so Chinese and Japanese were both options.

Honestly? I'm not even positive I realized that they were two separate languages. I wasn't very worldly and had never left the United States at that point, not even visiting Canada or Mexico. In fairness, Japanese writing did come from Chinese and still uses Chinese characters
(kanji) to this day. But I didn't know that then, either.

So, I flipped a coin.

Yay, Japanese it was! My professor was cool, and she got us started writing on day one. Some theories of teaching Japanese emphasize speaking before writing and just using
romaji (basically, the alphabet, like if I write the word "sushi" like this, for example) until moving to the teaching writing stage, but it was the writing that seemed so very cool to me and made me fall in love with Japanese right off the bat.

So, I stuck with Japanese all four years, heard about the JET Program(me) somewhere in there early on, and I knew that it was exactly what I wanted to do when I graduated, to live and work in Japan.

(Grab more coffee for the bonus section. Maybe a donut, too.)

My language skills suffered during the 1 year hiatus between my junior and senior year when I was helping my family to take care of my sweet mother who totally did not deserve to get
Lou Gehrig's disease (aka ALS or Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis), not that anyone deserves something so cruel. A whole book could be written about that year helping to care for my mom, but the short answer is that eventually a live-in nurse moved into my sister's home to provide most of the round the clock care required by a patient completely aware of everything but also completely paralyzed (I wasn't kidding when I said ALS sucks; still hurts to write those words), so that the family could focus on just being family.

When I returned to college for my final year with rustier Japanese to a class of 4 students (each level the classes got smaller and smaller), my professor (a different one but very cool) sent me for a weekend homestay with a newly arrived Japanese family in the area, and it gave me a taste of what life in Japan would be like and gave my Japanese an instant boost. All year long I looked forward to Japan, and suddenly studying Japanese took on even greater meaning, though we often sidetracked our professor by getting her talking about culture and daily life. Often I brought donuts to class since it was so small, starting a donut theme that would follow me to Japan.

In the early spring when the reps showed up on campus from the JET Program(me) and our class of four was to give them a tour, I totally overdressed in a suit and had my hair done in an updo. I looked ridiculous. But eager. And I was eager, indeed.

When it was time for interviews a month or so later, I showed up at the Japanese Consulate in Chicago one hundred thousand kinds of nervous, dressed in an even fancier and brand new (but more appropriate) suit and put my hair up in a neat bun by myself instead of being tacky and overdone. I aced the interview. Aced. It. All I had to do was seem eager enough, I think, and while no Japanese language skill was required at all, taking Japanese classes helped show genuine interest, regardless of talent.

I got the acceptance letter weeks later (not sure how long, but it seemed like an eternity, I'm sure), and thrilled doesn't even begin to describe how I felt. On a visit home, I told my mom the last bit of great big good news I'd ever get to tell her, and though her cruel disease had robbed her of her great big smile, I could see it in her eyes that she was proud. At some point later she was given a letter board for communication, used by looking at letters and spelling out words with her eyes (things were still pretty low tech back in 1995), and I'm told that even though using the letter board was a hassle and therefore not something she bothered to do without really wanting to communicate something, she spelled out for someone "Maggie is going to Japan."

My mom died on March 14, 1995, something that still hurts.

I graduated college in early May, 1995, something that I'm glad I did but that means less than I thought it would.

I left for Japan mid-July, 1995, something that has shaped my life and is the coolest thing I've ever done.

From there come all of my Japan stories, like the arrival in Tokyo for the first time ever and the haircut story, and so many more stories that I should share and also my friendship with my dear friend J, who I met standing outside the hotel hours before departure (smoking then, now both quit because he told me about Chantix). Our friendship was firmly cemented within a few weeks when I was open about my still very raw grief, and he could relate to the toll of this disease more than most because of parts of his story that are his to tell. His friendship is like a gift from my mom and an awesome but lasting and non-cheesy souvenir from Japan, too.

If Spanish or French class had been full when I signed up for classes freshman year of college, if my first Japanese professor hadn't held my interest by immediately teaching us to write the language instead of just speaking and listening, if...


  1. It's always so amazing to me how something that seems like such a small little happening at first can grow up into something big that ultimately helps shape who we are. What an amazing story. And I'm so sorry about your Mom.

  2. Incredible story and another plus to being multi-lingual.

  3. What an awesome story Maggie. I have a question to contribute. How is it that you are so freakin' cool AND when are we ever having that cup (vat) of coffee together???

  4. "Sometimes it's the smallest decisions that can pretty much change your life forever." - Felicity
    I always say, everything we need to know in life we can learn from Felicity.

  5. It really is weird how we end up where we are supposed to end up. I would have tried to sign up for the more practical language too and I have actually taken Spanish more than once and dropped or failed. I actually opted out of attending UCLA because there was a language requirement that I was unwilling to study or participate in.

    I never talk about it but I can relate to the losing your mom story. I lost mine when I was 20 I think. We hated each other and I was totally loaded and a lot of it is a fog that I just let float by. Even thought we did not have a good relationship, it still hurts to see someone you love get really sick. I am sure it is still hard for you since you were so close.

    Keep telling more of your stories!

  6. Hey Maggie,
    When you get a minute pop by my blog and help me do my homework teacher!


Talk to me.