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True Stories of Life in Japan, pt 10: All Good Things

My contract in Japan specified that I would stay one year at that company, and that nine months into the process both the head office and I would determine whether the contract was worth renewal. If we both decided that I should stay, I would get a raise of about $1000 annually and an automatic visa renewal. Otherwise, I was free to do whatever I wanted with the money I had saved and the few months remaining on my work visa.

Around the end of January, seven months into my stay, I started thinking seriously about whether or not I should renew the contract. I wasn’t worried at all about whether corporate would decide to retain me; both the area head teacher and the parents who came in during open-house week had given me very positive reviews. I couldn’t complain about the compensation; I was paid a full time salary for less than 20 hours of work weekly, and it was enough that I was saving about a third of it in an average month. I got along well enough with my coworkers, liked my students, and loved living in Japan.

The only real problem was my job itself: teaching. I dated a woman for a year and a half who was training to be a teacher, but that was as close as I ever got to formal qualifications for the job. Over the course of my stay in Japan, I learned enough to perform adequately, but the the job just wasn’t fun. I don’t know if, with the proper training, I could have been a dynamic teacher investing a lot into creating unique lesson plans and working to truly develop my students; I do know that without that training, I was just teaching straight from the book and desperately inventing tactics on the fly to try to keep the students engaged. Despite the feedback from the parents and the area teacher, I felt underqualified; despite the assurances of my coworkers and my adult students that I was doing well, I couldn’t help but notice that every few months a student would leave, and it took a lot longer for new students to enroll. A decline in the customer base, no matter how gradual, is a bad thing for any business. It was hard to escape the conclusion that, as the only actual teacher in that school, I had something to do with that decline.

Once the time came to notify corporate, I had decided not to stay at that job another year. I would attempt to stay in Japan if possible–there aren’t very many options for people of limited Japanese ability there which aren’t teaching English–and I would also look into other options in the US. On 15 April, I sent an email to the Army on a whim asking if they had any options for a direct path to flying helicopters. Flying helicopters sounded like it might be cool; I actually expected them to say that no, I could enlist in the hopes of earning flight but there could be no guarantees. I was startled and pleased when, two days later, they told me that I could get a guaranteed pilot slot if I was willing to become a Warrant Officer.

Exactly one week after I sent that email, my immediate boss died. A month after that, I was informed that his heir was going to shut down the business at the end of July. Technically, my contract expired a month earlier, but I wasn’t going to stick the bereaved with the responsibility of finding a replacement teacher for a single month. All of a sudden, there was a definite end point in sight. I found myself scheduling a return flight, and making decisions as to how to dispose of my stuff. My experience moving to Japan taught me that the less I tried to bring back, the happier I would be. I ended up selling my bicycle to a tiny Japanese woman who could barely reach the pedals; one of my adult students volunteered to interpret at a pawn shop so I could sell those miscellaneous things I didn’t think worth the price of shipping home.

In the meantime, the only fruitful job leads were to be English-speaking tech support in Japan, or to go with the Army to fly. There was no question about which was the better deal; while I wanted to remain in Japan, it wasn’t a higher priority than the opportunity to become a pilot. The decision to leave, when it came, hardly felt like a decision at all. It was just the natural course of things; I follow interesting opportunities the way water follows the lowest path. I had about as much choice as the water does.

People react to endings in various ways. When my students found out that the business was closing, some of them quit immediately. Some, including all of the adults, decided to stick it out through the end. Some stayed exactly long enough to determine which other English school in the area they preferred, at which point they transferred without any duplication of service. For my own part, it was an intensely bittersweet feeling to realize that there would be nobody to train up as a replacement; that shortly after I left, there would be nothing left of the business but memories. Despite my lack of training, I was doing my best to teach well and improve the school in whatever ways I could think of; all of that effort, in the end, turned out not to mean very much at all.

With one chapter of my life closing, I turned almost instinctually to the next one. I counted down the days and hours to various final events in Japan. Even as I said any number of fond goodbyes, I was already thinking of the upcoming hellos. I’m not a real fan of the emotion of loss; perhaps that’s why I concentrated so very hard at that time on looking forward to upcoming adventures.

As it turns out, moving internationally is a lot easier the second time, despite all the TSA’s efforts to ensure that every year flying is more annoying than it was the year before. I shipped the majority of my luggage to the airport in advance, I took some final photos of the area where I lived, and I cleaned the place. The morning of my departure was beautiful: sunny, cool, scattered clouds. Somehow, 16 months after the fact, I can’t remember the bus ride, or the trains, or the flight. All I remember is locking up my apartment for the last time, checking carefully to ensure I hadn’t left anything behind. I adjusted my backpack, and then I moved out.

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Comment by anonymous
2008-01-02 21:35:17

Now write 10 essays on the surprising oddities of living home for 9 months.

Comment by coriolinus
2008-01-02 22:02:03

Sure, one sentence each:

1. The first thing I did upon getting to the US was take a vacation.
2. It was pretty awesome!
3. I went to visit my sister in Seattle, then spent a week at the beach of NC with a good friend of mine from college.
4. I figured I’d stay with my parents while waiting to finalize the Warrant Officer application process.
5. The recruiters had told me that process might take a month or two.
6. Actually, it took until the following May.
7. My parents are nice people, but they didn’t want me just hanging around indefinitely, so they charged rent for the room and board.
8. This necessitated my getting whatever jobs I could scrounge under the constraint that I might only be there a month or two.
9. Note my error: I trusted the recruiters.
10. I wasn’t the only guy glad to be in basic training just to be out of my parents’ house, but I was the only one in my class who had previously lived overseas on my own.

Comment by silversliver
2008-01-02 22:18:50

This has been a really neat series of essays. Thanks for sharing them!

Comment by pnolan
2008-01-03 15:07:55

I read your essays about living and Japan and related to them heavily. You put some of my experiences into words so well!

What I don’t understand is why an educated, sensitive person like you would want to go into the armed forces at this point in time!

Am I the only one who thinks this is weird behavior for an intelligent person?!

Don’t you realize that you will probably be in Iraq or Afghanistan before you can say “what?!” Or do you really think those wars are defensible?

However you feel about the politics, don’t you think you might just be throwing your life away?

Comment by anonymous
2008-01-03 19:09:27

Weak! This is just 10 numbered sentences of a paragraph!

Comment by coriolinus
2008-01-03 21:30:26

What it comes down to is that for me, flight has been a dream since I was tiny. The Army was offering a path through which they would pay me a decent salary, while learning to fly, and then guaranteeing a few years of experience at it. It was pretty much an unbeatable deal. Consider any childhood dream: maybe you wanted to be an astronaut, or maybe a combined stuntcar driver/fireman/baseball player. Now, imagine discovering that the Army will pay you to do exactly that job, with their only requirement being that you do it for them for six years. Could you honestly say you’d turn it down?

I’m not exactly looking forward to actually going to war. On the other hand, flight training lasts a very long time. There is a very real chance that by the time they’ve got me trained to their satisfaction, the new administration will have set in place troop reductions sufficient that I might not actually have to go. Given that, the risk of going to war is sufficiently low that I’m not terribly bothered by it.

Am I throwing my life away? There are times when I bitterly resent the fact that I’ve committed years of my life to a particular objective; there are so many other opportunities and possibilities I could be following. On the other hand, I had echoes of that same sentiment when I was just starting college. In retrospect, college took almost no time at all. I’m thinking that military service might end up being the same way.

Comment by coriolinus
2008-01-03 21:32:30

No argument there, but there’s not a whole lot to say about that time. In general, I was bored, frustrated, poor, and just waiting for the Army to give me a straight answer as to whether I was accepted into the program–I would have been happy with either one, so long as it ended the waiting.

Comment by coriolinus
2008-01-03 21:32:43

You’re welcome! I’m glad you liked them!

Comment by pnolan
2008-01-05 14:42:10

Hey, coriolinus! I hope you weren’t offended by my comment, but I wanted to get a reaction. Sounds like you have very rational reasons for joining up and learning to fly. If you don’t get killed, you could have a great career afterwards!

Seriously, I don’t trust the military one bit and after hearing about all the methods they are using to recruit and (illegally?) keep people in Iraq, and the care the GIs are NOT receiving when they return with their legs, arms and minds gone, I just worry about you. Are you SURE they won’t send you to fight? And if they do, do you have any WRITTEN contract to protect you legally?

I know I am from a different generation and we learned during the Vietnam era to question authority!! But that attitude comes from experience, not just paranoia. So beware!!!!

And please write some more about your adventures in Japan. The little details are what I love to read about.

By the way, on my journal page I have an essay I wrote about my experience teaching there-mostly about educational ideas. See what you think.



Comment by coriolinus
2008-01-07 12:06:11

Heh. Yes, the whole risk-benefit analysis which makes it worthwhile to have joined the Army is predicated on the assumption that this job doesn’t actually kill me.

I am not sure that they aren’t sending me to fight; all I have is the hope that our foreign policy will be significantly changed before I’m through with training. I’m not particularly worried about my chances even if I do get sent to combat, though; helicopter pilot is one of the safer career fields the Army has to offer.

I’m not sure when I’ll write again about Japan; one of the side-goals that I managed to accomplish in the writing of this series was to express the majority of my thoughts on the experience of living there. When I go back, I’ll be sure to write more, but until that time, I’m a lot more likely to be writing about current events.

Comment by pnolan
2008-01-08 09:26:21

Hey, coriolinus! Thanks for the considered response, although it did little to allay my doubts. I remember helicopter pilots as being especially at risk in Vietnam and that’s before they had such sophisticated hand-held rockets!

I thought you said you were GUARANTEED a flight training position if you became a Warrant Officer? Please tell me what a Warrant Officer does?

By the way, when do you have to start your training?

I understand your desire to become a helicopter pilot, but regret that you have to do it this way. Oh well, none of my business. Just take care of yourself!


Comment by coriolinus
2008-01-08 10:10:08

Part of my enlistment contract stated that, unless I failed out of prerequisite training for some reason, I was guaranteed flight training. All my prerequisite training has been completed without incident; I’ve been waiting for flight training to start for a few months now. In theory, it’ll start Real Soon Now.

The Army definition of a Warrant Officer is about three paragraphs long. The short answer is that traditionally, regular officers are supposed to be generalists whose only focus is leadership and management, and enlisted people are supposed to actually do what work needs doing. Warrant Officers were invented to fill the gap and do jobs which require more responsibility than you’d want to give an enlisted person and more focus than you’d want to give a regular officer. We’re helicopter pilots, we’re boat captains, we’re air traffic controllers; that sort of thing.

Comment by margokennedy
2008-01-14 02:29:06

hey, thanks for posting these~ i think they’re all very reflective and interesting. good luck in the military.

Comment by coriolinus
2008-01-14 04:42:41

Thanks. They were fun to write!


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