Yesterday, I said goodbye to my parents and start my travelling. I’ve got my house on my back. When people ask me where I’m going the best I can do is give a nervous chuckle and a “we’ll see.” I’m starting to live off the clock, and it’s a weird feeling indeed.
It’s been three weeks since I’ve finished JET life, but that time since has almost been entirely spent travelling with my parents, always making sure things are going well while planning the where to next, and so today’s the first day I could say I’m completely, unreservedly free. And I’m struck by the way hours feel now. That there’s a vague end goal—some writer quotients to meet, some areas of Tokyo left to see—that keeps me moving, and yet never makes me move very fast. Sitting on the train out to Kichioji to explore its tight-knitted alleys, time comes and leaves like the tide, where sometimes I feel full and sometimes I’m empty and that both are okay.
I’m still learning how to live off a schedule.
It’s the first time I’m not stepping into a box already laid out for me: from high school, uni, to the ideal job for a globally minded but totally skill-set-less arts grad, it’s been so easy to let the future work itself out for me. I’ve been so lucky—couch potatoeing, craigslisting days have been generally kept to a minimum.
And it took me 9 months into the 9-5 to realize just how much it was draining me. How doing a job I didn’t believe in, even when it’s in a country that’s led me to believe in so much, was bleeding me dry. Whatever amazing things I could do on the weekend always had to be weighed against the constancy of the classroom, of staring at the far wall while your students stare at nothing at all.
Being an assistant language teacher in Japan is a rough job, since as a secondary teacher, your life is always in other teacher’s hands—sometimes that’s great, sometimes soul-sucking. When you’re a tape recorder and your teacher lives life in the textbook, it becomes hard to get excited about anything except what happens after. Compared to college, where you’re always under a modicum of stress but always sorta enjoying it at the same time, the phrase “living for the weekend” went from being words I didn’t really understand, to being my creed, my chant, my existence.
The more I lived for the weekend, the more I closed myself off from special moments in the chasm between Sunday night and Friday afternoon, and the more I tried to ratchet the weekend higher and higher—it wasn’t enough to have a good weekend, it needed to be legendary, more- than the ones that came before it. And I’d try to find meaning in the dirt on the streetcorners as long as those streets weren’t Tottori; when it was Tottori, it would take something close to a meteor shower raining down on a festival to turn my head. And an intense depression would always grip me on the busride back Sunday night; my life had started, now it was over again.
As usual, storytelling was my cure. I increasingly combatted this through writing about the weekend on that bus, speaking about it like it was already in the distant past, searching for meaning and something redemptive in it. If I couldn’t find that special key to this trip, then it didn’t mean anything. And if that weekend didn’t mean anything, then neither did this year of “Okay kids repeat after me.” And then what would I be left with?
I started making a mythology for myself, holding these anecdotes close, embellishing every moment, crafting the story. I was obsessed with telling these stories to other people: the Tokyo romance, the Kyoto redemption, the Hong Kong craze, the lady of the mountains. I was even more obsessed with telling them to myself. In the middle of those desk-warming days, I’d get high off those stories. I even had a year long soundtrack to it, and damn there were some great songs on it.
And as the newness of Japan did begin wearing off, as school life grew rougher and re-trodden places didn’t have their same rejuvenation powers they used to, I started pushing the envelope. Notching on the scale of tipsy and riding off into the night to write and listen to the crickets. Making it to work a cut later and cut later till I’d be dashing in to make the morning meeting. Unshaven, frazzle haired, red throat you could no longer force enthusiasm into for the next round of “OKAY KIDS: BALL, GIRL, NICE…”
And then there was a trip in June, coming back from Koyasan. In retrospect it’s one of the more special weekends I’ve had, if perhaps special in the ways that don’t make for great barroom retellings. But when I set down, that busride back, to retell it to myself, I couldn’t get past a couple of words. I had no idea what the hell I was supposed to be doing, or why being my own sycophant was gonna help me or anyone else with anything.
I stopped believing in my own story.
And the faster I was burning out, the harder I looked for the next box. The next bullet point on the resume. When the super-fancy China scholarship fell through, I jumped for the ship sailing around the world English volunteer job; when that ship sunk, I set my sights on teaching in China. And this time, I had the opposite problem: instead of fighting for jobs, I was fighting for clarity, as every job I’d applied to offered me a position, often without an interview.
It’s quite amazing what getting exactly what you wished for will do to your psyche: often you’ll discover you probably never wanted it in the first place. I spent about a week, as I weighed out the different offers, trying to convince myself this was the right next step, that I’d have my own classes, could plan my own lessons, it was a new year with a new place and a new lease on life.
And of course I cracked. Of course I shot up in bed one night, spent the next cyclone of a 24-hours deconstructing all my plans, and finished the day by booking a flight to Hong Kong, essentially without looking for help from anybody. The radio silence I was getting on the other end from everyone I reached out to was probably a blessing in the end, since I was able to come to a decision completely on my own (my parents, as it turned out, were less-than-enthused by this plan-without-a-plan approach).
And so in the course of a couple hours, I erased the idea that another year of 9-5’s, another year of language hurdles and weekend legends, was the best thing for me. I walked out on expectations. Walked out on this idea that, at 23, I should already be making concrete, stable plans for the next thirty years. Should already be getting somewhere. And when I started listening to myself again—for the first time, probably, since coming back from Paris—I realized these boxes were never what I’d really wanted.
Because although it’s a big scary world out there, sometimes the desk is scarier.
These past three weeks have shown me just how difficult it is to get out of that workaday mindset. Since it’s not a job, that means it must be the weekend, and on my weekends I’m either gonna spend all of it in bed, or spend it manically exploring every inch of the place I set out to. And neither of those could happen, since being with my parents meant a more relaxed travelling pace. I didn’t know how to handle it. Going to new places, I was still looking for the thing that would save me, the secret that would erase all the difficulties.
At the same time, I was feeling I needed to make my last couple weeks in Japan extremely significant, somehow coming to stand for everything I’d been through this year (like that was even possible). I was so concerned with making it amazing, I was missing out on all the pleasant things happening around me.
It’s a mindset I didn’t even realize I was looking through for most of that trip. Only when we reached Kyoto, stationed there for a week because of my Dad’s conference, did I start to get it. Kyoto is the city I’ve always had the most complicated relationship with; it’ll save you, but only in the most gentle of ways, only at the exact moments you’re not looking for it. It’s a rock garden. It’s a midnight encounter. Exactly the kind of place you can’t manically go looking for… something.
I realized that four days in, as I leaned my bike against the side of the river. The scorching day had melted into a golden evening, as kids hopped across the stones, old men went fishing, and herons walked across the stream. And I realized I was allowed to just be happy to be here. Allowed to just smile and breath. When’s the last time I breathed? Is this what contentment’s supposed to taste like? I’d forgotten what a moment was. Is.
These final weeks don’t need to be anything climactic. I don’t need Japan to change me anymore than it already has. Just because I’m not sad, doesn’t mean this year wasn’t amazing, and also doesn’t make me a bad person for not being a little more emotional about it all. I can go through Tokyo, shop a little, find a free museum of taxidermy, have a coffee, and be okay. I can be excited for the next leap.
Next week it’s off to China, the place that’s still more myth than a real geographical place. After it’s southeast Asia and… maybe further. I have no idea where I’ll end up, how I’ll get there, or when it will end. I’m terrified. I’m alive. I’m where I’m supposed to be, however UBC or my family or my more successful friends say otherwise. I’ve got my house on my back.