Finally, the Atlanta retrospective

(Yes, Moshe, this is going to be a really, really long entry. Hush!)

My left ankle is currently swollen and aching. It got considerably worse after I sprinted nearly the entire way to the train station. It was itching because some idiot mosquito bit me in the same place, too. Luckily, the ice pack I made for myself out of my lunchtime Zip-loc bag and some breakroom ice cubes rid me of the itching and reduced some of the swelling–it just hurts now when I put my weight on it and is still kind of puffy. Besides the obvious disadvantage of the pain, it also kind of stinks because it meant that I needed to sit while in the classroom, and I nearly dozed off during my second class this afternoon due to the insane humidity. It made me feel like I hadn’t showered in several days, when I just showered this morning.

Today, I bade farewell to my JTE, who’s heading to England for two months this weekend to do English education research on an exchange program via MEXT (the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology). It’s interesting that they run this program for teachers to go abroad, as well as bringing us into Japan to teach. My teacher was saying that 60 Japanese English teachers are chosen annually and sent to various universities in various countries in five groups of twelve. Because of testing this week, today was my final day of classes (and starting next week, I have two weeks of teaching classes solo at my junior high–I’m excited and nervous simultaneously, because I’ve never planned a junior high lesson before), so today was my last chance to see her. I gave her my e-mail address, so I hope she sends occasional e-mails and photos. I’m honestly going to miss her, and I hope she has an amazing time!

Also today, during my taxi ride from my Monday elementary school to my junior high, the taxi driver–not my usual one, but a guy I’ve traveled with before–struck up a conversation with me about how much crime there is in America. This was something that also came up in my eikaiwa classes on Friday, when I proposed foreign travel as a topic for the day. I can’t help but be a little irked by what a naive assertion it seems to be; due to all the bad stuff they see on the news, it just automatically follows that “America is a dangerous place,” no questions asked. I’ve actually talked to people who believe that guns are everywhere and you’re in real danger of getting shot just by virtue of spending any time in the US! (At least part of that is due to the Halloween incident with the Japanese exchange student who was shot and killed in Louisiana.) At the same time, this is such an isolated country, and a relatively safe one in comparison, and they don’t really seem to be as aware of bias in their news as we out west are (NPR vs. Fox News), so how could they know?

I tried to explain to him that it isn’t just America, and that bad stuff happens in many countries across the world, and that though it’s mainly bad news out of America that they see in Japan, there’s a lot of good that happens as well, and that cities aren’t inherently dangerous places. (I also lied through my teeth and told him that Atlanta is quite a safe place to live–which it is, if you ignore that it had the highest crime rate of any major city in the US for a while, but that’s mainly in the more run-down, inner-city areas. Kennesaw, one of the more “southern” of the northwestern suburbs, actually has an extremely low crime rate because they require all residents to own a gun.) Yeah, it may not be a good idea to walk around in certain cities or areas of cities at night, but similarly, I wouldn’t feel so great about walking around Tokyo or Osaka at night, either. When I had this same discussion with my eikaiwa class (strange that I’d go months without anybody saying anything, and then it’d come up twice in 4 days), I urged them to not be afraid, and told them that they just have to be careful with their belongings and they’ll be just fine. I also emphasized that people in the US are in no danger of being shot just by virtue of living in the US, which was something they honestly thought (this was totally not the way I’d intended for this class to go, mind you), and that it’s really not any more dangerous than other parts of the world.

And I will admit that being in Japan has made me a bit more lax about some things. I know that nothing will happen if I leave my front door unlocked, that I can go to sleep on a train and not really worry about somebody stealing from me, and that I can take my wallet out in broad daylight with no real chance of anything being stolen (while I’m in this town–I certainly wouldn’t do that in a bigger city). That all changes when I go to any big city, though–in Kobe or Osaka, I would never be so lax. And when I was back home, I certainly felt more aware of my possessions and their locations than I usually do while I’m here…but then again, my alien registration card and passport were with me, both of which were crucial for me to return to Japan, and I didn’t want to inadvertently leave anything in the US that I’d need in Japan, like my cellphone.

I was curious about how much my perspective of the city would change in my absence…but to my surprise, it felt like I’d never left. It was astonishing how quickly I settled back in–even on the drive from the airport back to our house, it hadn’t felt like it’d been nearly a year since I’d been on the connector (where I-75 and I-85 merge as they go through the city) and the major Atlanta interstates, and while it did feel wonderful seeing the house again, the next morning it felt like I was just back home for a week, as if I were on break from school and had come up home for a brief leave from Georgia Tech’s campus. I felt a shade of the same dread that had gripped me the night before I left for Japan hovering over my head, and I was worried sick that I would feel even more homesick upon returning to Japan than I did before I left. I was back in a place where everything just worked in a way that I was really familiar with, where I had a choice of vegetarian food options, where I could drive with no problems, where I felt a keen sense of “home” and had a keenly intimate knowledge of the small details of the city, in a way that I know I just don’t and can’t have here. I’m no outsider in Atlanta, the way I always am here–as much as the community has welcomed me in and made me feel at home, I’m still the special guest, and they’ll just reminisce occasionally about me to the next ALT who comes along once I leave, the way they reminisce about my area’s predecessors to me.

I think the biggest surprise of all, though, was that when I got back to Japan, it felt like I hadn’t even been away. I mean, I felt a lot more relaxed and at ease than I did in the weeks leading up to this trip–I miss my family and friends, but my homesickness is pretty much gone, replaced with fond memories, relief and happiness upon seeing my friends, and the knowledge that the 14-15 hours on the planes back home actually go surprisingly quickly in the event that I ever do find myself needing to go home. That’s all I could have hoped for, and I’m really relieved that it’s fallen into place like that.

Some things did catch me by surprise, though. When Ethan and I went to Publix to buy ingredients for the dinner we were making at Bela‘s house, I actually was shocked by how huge Publix was–I’d forgotten the massive difference between our supermarkets back home and the relatively smaller ones in Ikeda. Even our Sunshine, which has a nice selection of foreign foods, doesn’t come close to matching up. I also was mesmerized by how freaking enormous the Atlanta interstates are, particularly on I-75 just north of the perimeter, where it’s 8 lanes wide going north, and around that many going south. EIGHT. I also had forgotten about how prevalent SUVs and those horribly ridiculous Hummers are, and it’s been a while since I’ve seen so many pickup trucks. That was actually my motto for the entire week–“it’s been a while.” I found myself saying it again and again every day.

There were a ton of highlights of this trip. The best part was definitely seeing everybody…my family; Terry and Ryan on Monday; Carol, Jason, and Laura R. for lunch Tuesday; Laura B., one of my best friends, for dinner and frisbee Tuesday night; Jenn on Wednesday; Ethan, Bela, Erik, Matt, and Kati for dinner Thursday; and Miles for lunch on Friday. I also got to talk realtime with Caroline, and my aunt Pradipa and my grandmother in Houston, though I wasn’t able to see them. The food was also quite nice–homemade Indian, restaurant Indian (SAMOSAS), homemade Italian, Chinese, Chili’s, Willy’s, IHOP, vegetarian Rice Krispie treats (!!!) and brownies, and Fellini’s pizza. And of course, the clothing and other shopping. (I’m so glad that Louise clued me into baggage shipping–I packed my carry-on with everything I’d need for my first several days back, but they ended up delivering my suitcase to my apartment the day after I returned.) The weather was hot, but the humidity was so low compared to Japan’s–yes, Atlanta folks, that’s how humid it is here–that my skin actually dried out a bit while I was there!

One thing that struck me after living for a year without driving is what a huge difference public transportation makes, and what a disadvantage Atlanta is at because it depends so heavily on its residents owning cars. MARTA doesn’t really get you where you need to go, and even if it did, our idiot county didn’t want “the wrong sorts of people” coming in (e.g., Hispanic, black, and poor–keep in mind that this is the same county that slapped those humiliating evolution stickers on its science textbooks several years ago), so they never extended the rail lines into the northwest suburbs. I know that once I return, I want to move to a city with a really good public transportation system.

I’m also finally far enough removed from Georgia Tech to come back to a campus full of fond memories that far outweigh the more trying times I had there. Tech is a campus that has a real reputation for breaking its students down and then building them back up, so I really knew very few people there who were truly happy in their classes–and I never was, and I hated hating what I did, until I switched majors, which drastically improved so much for me. This time around, I could totally gloss over all the politics and all the struggle that went with my two absolutely miserable years as a computer science major. The Swann Modern Languages building has been renovated and is beautiful. The school of Literature, Communication, and Culture, where my major was situated, is doing fine. The music department’s…well, it’s hanging in there. I got to spend several hours there on a couple of days, just wandering around and taking photographs and reliving the nostalgia, and seeing how campus has changed, and remembering the fond memories that accompanied so many places on campus.

I also realized, upon talking with my thesis advisor, that the reason I never had a lot of close friends in my major was because the LCC department was their one big cause and they could be a bit overly militaristic about it, whereas the music department and the orchestra were my cause. (I like to think my devotion to the GTSO and Georgia Tech music was a lot more positive, though. And in my brief time there, I think I did make a difference in some ways. It helped that nobody went out of their way to bash the symphony orchestra or the music department–except for this one arrogant idiot I ran into in line at the bursar’s office once, but anyway–while I did get a lot of flak for daring to be a “humanities” major at an engineering school. And what did it get me? An amazing cultural experience in Japan, which I can fully appreciate because of my culture and the awareness my major instilled in me, and which I may not have gotten if I’d let computer science completely run me into the ground.)

Generally, the culture in Atlanta also feels different, after living around people from the Pacific Northwest and from around the world, though this area of the prefecture in particular mainly has ALTs from Oregon, Washington, and Canada, with one from Hawaii (who went to college in Portland) and two from the UK (who I don’t hang out with often). That’s due to their sister-city relationships with various towns in the northwest. But I never realized what a cultural difference there is between them and us. I do enjoy Atlanta, I enjoy the warmth of the people and the atmosphere…but I do yearn for something a bit more world-aware, which I’ve gotten when I’ve visited other cities in the US. I can get that when I’m in Midtown and around Tech’s campus, by far my favorite part of Atlanta…but I can’t really get it anywhere else. At the same time, when hanging out with Miles (who’s spent a large chunk of his life in the southeast, though he’s lived a few places, and is now in Santa Barbara for grad school) a week from this past Friday, he mentioned that there are plenty of ignorant people in California, despite it being a markedly more liberal state, and that you just can’t escape stupid people. That’s true, but you can place yourself in an environment that generally agrees with your outlook on life and the world.

This was a trip for me to immerse myself in familiar surroundings, and it felt so wonderful to be back. I could already see that my views on and of some things have changed, though, and I wonder what would happen if I live in Atlanta in a long-term capacity again. It’ll always be my home and where I’m from, and I’m proud of it–it’s a great place with a lot of spirit and warmth. I just wonder where I’ll be after I return from Japan, and if it’ll fit the person I’ll be when I return. The lack of permanence of this situation is hitting me, since we’re coming up on the time of year that signifies a massive transition for the ALTs and the JET community, and seeing the preparations the departing ALTs are making is giving me an idea of what’s in store for me this time next year. It was a year ago that I was prepping to come over here–I still am not sure how much I’ve changed, or if I have at all (I’d be really interested to see what the friends I saw in Atlanta think), but looking back on that now, I do see how far I’ve come and how much I’ve learned. You can’t not learn while you’re here–this is just one of those Big Life-Changing Experiences. I’d be interested to see exactly how life-changing it becomes, and whether I’ll still be seeing the ramifications of my decision to come to Japan and my time here in the years and decades that follow.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *