Happiness now

From the end of March up until now (or ahead, more precisely 3rd June) I bobbed along. I wonder whether it is more appropriate to think of myself as a jetsam or flotsam. The former being something intentionally flung overboard and the latter just something adrift… unintentionally, I guess. It just ended up there. Sometimes I think I must be jetsam, because I consciously chose to return from Japan and dive into the sea of inbetweeness. Then I fancy myself as flotsam, circumstances swirling around and sweeping me out into the distant reaches of the ocean.

Perhaps some of those words or metaphors have negative connotations. Maybe it felt like that at first. Rushing up and down the breadth of the country, my last pay packet withering away, always a welcome house guest but never feeling like I’d arrived home. To my home.

Amore and I headed to London. Caught in icy fistfuls of rainy spells, enduring hoity-toity accented estate agents around. It didn’t matter though. We steeled ourselves for a hard slog with the knowledge that this was going to be our place. It just so happened that our home was the second viewing we had. Old town house, looking out onto green, central, two (one and a half) bedrooms… even an outside terrace. Built in wardrobes, bath, separate washer and dryer, wooden floors, big windows, third floor… the rest of our allotted viewings were really more of a formality. We had decided.

So that was my anchor. It took me a little while to realise it but the pressure was off. This second run in Scotland has let me settle into my happy adrift bobbing. The difference now is that I know I’ve a harbor to return to, this great expanse of time is contentedness. Pleasant.

The air is thick and sweet, seems syrupy almost as I drink it in. The lawn is more daisies than grass, lambs bleat in the distance and starlings dart around the hedgerows. I spend at least an hour in the woods each day. Some days I start with the NHS couch to 5k runs, but my favourite part is bundling up the headphones and pushing them deep into the pocket of my red waterproof. Its sounds a bit 70s and obnoxiously ‘out there’, but I like the sensation of knowing I am a part of the earth. I get to take in things I might miss if I was rushing or bundled up: tiny fragile cases of broken shells, discarded from treetop nests; a red squirrel with tufty ears; birds of prey angling themselves against rising plumes of hot air… everything really.

I think about how much I love him and plan little things for when our life starts together in earnest. Towards the end of the walk, ambling along pine shadowed pathways and stepping through dusty shafts of sunlights, I always think about writing down this filling-up good feeling. I roll through different titles and decide to settle on perhaps ‘Happiness Ahead’.

I finally got round to it today and I’m not guilty about it at all. Writing needs to happen at precisely the right time. I’m sat bare footed at the garden table at the front of Mum’s cottage. I haven’t got any clothes prepared for this Scottish heatwave so it’s a horrific mismatch of a black and white speckled loose shirt and Adidas joggers. I don’t really care though (although who wouldn’t prefer being draped in flowing garments from Versace, Chanel, Gucci… I digress).

The main thing is when I pressed my fingertips to the keys, the title didn’t fit any more. Well, it did fit but it was an unfull true. There is happiness ahead. But it’s right and accurate to say that there is happiness now.

The Necessity of Doing Nothing

After all this time away in Japan, you’d think my world would have expanded. Instead it’s shrinking sharply. From the first sting of realising I had to return home to the numb gnaw of Gatwick International Arrivals empty of anyone to meet me, my world folded inwards like precision origami. It condensed so rapidly I was certain that the 7 times only rule was sure to apply: there was surely only a finite amount it could continue. But, as unflinchingly as Britney Gallivan, the initial few days disproved what I carelessly mistook for fact.

There was an ugly pit of anger as I stared down into my (as always) disappointing Costa soy latte. The good emotions are always the first to disappear. I’m left with the dull ache of frustration, annoyance. This is compounded by an hour wait as actually he got the wrong airport. I know it is an innocent mistake but it feels like proof of what is to come.

I didn’t realise how much I have always wanted to be greeted by a cardboard sign with my name on it. It is not the way my family has ever done things. There are no discernible occasions to mark life events. This in a sense turns them immediately into non-events. In an uncomfortably quiet drive back to Gloucestershire (uncomfortable for him because he thought I was angry at him being late – uncomfortable for me because I’ve just passed the 7th fold threshold), I developed the ability to see the future.

I saw immediately that I would walk into the house that nothing will have changed. The crushing sense that the worst thing is not that nothing here has changed but that I had not changed. It bundled tighter and tighter into my chest.

Then I whisked away to Scotland, to the Mother-Land. More flurries of the same. None of it should have hurt because none of it was new, but the snipping dsyfunctionalities furthered untethered me. Two sibling disagreements later, I find my routine has reduced to the following list:

Daily Positive Things (I scrawl, in black biro, on the back of an empty envelope)

  • Brush teeth x 2
  • Healthy brunch
  • Shower
  • 30 minutes Wii Fit

As an afterthought I add:

Extras

  • Wax 27/04
  • Ring doctors

Sometimes I watch Australian Masterchef. If it isn’t on the Sky whatever-it-is channel, then I watch a prerecorded Masterchef (UK). I don’t enjoy it as much since reading that Gregg and John don’t get along – although, this is not as distressing as the time I discovered that Jools Holland’s Hootenanny wasn’t live for the NYE countdown.

Mum and her partner flick over from Classic Radio (switching off mid-Baker Street sax solo – sacrilege) to a C-rate horror film they’ve recorded. There was a toss up between Attack of the Lederhosen-Zombies (yes, real) and Dark House. They’ve gone for the latter.

Next I’ll go and make a hot chocolate. Always in the oversized Simpsons mug, there’s some sort of pun about donuts. 5 teaspoons of mixture, boiling water to dissolve the powder, two thirds almond milk and one third water. Microwave for 1:10. I scoop out a teaspoon of nutella and suck on it like it’s a lolly pop, it’s a pretty good timer. Takes me until 14 seconds usually. Enough time to throw the spoon in the sink and grab a handful of little pink and white marshmallows to scatter on top. I’ll be honest, it doesn’t taste that good. The marshmallows turn to gloop and underneath is a watery imitation of hot chocolate.

Later I’ll sleep. And maybe tomorrow I’ll go through the same routine. Except with the lederhosen zombies instead.

Goodbye to The Watanabes

6:24am. I hadn’t been able to sleep until gone 2am, same old pre-travel nerves fizzing in my skull and preventing me closing my eyes. I lay still and let the sounds of The Watanabes seep through to my consciousness. There was the defiant bellow and snuffling cry of their son, whilst she hushed him over the whistle of the kettle. I could hear the scrape of forks against plates, papers rustling as Mr Watanabe readied his bag for his moped journey into work. Just a little longer, I thought listening as hard as I could and gripping the edge of the pillow, just a little longer let me be a part of The Watanabes.

9:49pm. The Watanabes insisted on accompanying me right up to the security gate. They were there right up to the point of no return, the divide that abruptly sloughed off the end of my Japanese venture. Watanabe had gone to Canada for 2 years and had returned for her job. She often half-jokingly said she regretted not being able to find a Canadian husband in time to allow her to stay in her dream. I wondered if she saw herself in me, a second chance to try and fulfil her dream. So perhaps I was not completely surprised as her face crumpled in on itself and her always  shining happy eyes this time shined with salt water instead. Neither was I overly surprised as the well in me began to spill over, rushing up in my chest and heating my cheeks, blocking my nose. Were we grieving at our parting or at one of the little sparks inside our most secret, hopeful selves sputtering out of existence? 

But, as I looked over her shoulder,  I was shocked to see the glistening streams cutting through the 6 o’clock shadow of her husband, collecting at the edges of his chin. He had, as always, his eyes widened comically and a grin stretching from ear to ear. He gave an exasperated laugh ‘もおおおいいいいいね!’ (mou ieee ne! = enough already!). 

A howl alerted me that their son had joined in. So we stood and lamented together. The she and he and younger and me. Perhaps I just conveniently acted as a cathartic release for some other stress. No, even that’s too cynical for even me. 

Although, of course, Japanese style, the whole thing was captured on their family camcorder. 

Saying goodbye to Japan. Saying goodbye to my attempt at an independent venture. Saying goodbye to The Watanabes. 

ALT Tip #1 : Worship False Idols

As I walked along Dotonbori for what I realized would be the last time before I head back to the U.K. tomorrow, I got thinking about what knowledge I could have done with when I first arrived. You always hear the same old insights -‘take and give with both hands’, ‘bow at this angle’, ‘never do the thumbs down gesture – it means death’, ‘don’t walk and eat’. Well, once you get here you realize that those aren’t really that important. In fact, rigorous compliance to Japanese etiquette in an awkward, put on way really just draws attention to how un-Japanese you are. As these little rules are put in place to make social transactions go more smoothly, you’d be better off being aware of them but not indulging in them until you’d sufficiently mastered basic manners – for example, how loudly you speak. I’m always astonished at how unaware people are of their own volume, or the contrasting volume of the situation around them. But, that’s just a general useful tip. As an ALT, what would have really helped me… knowing more Japanese pop culture. 

The thing about the Japanese (here, please imagine a vague waving gesture of one non-committed hand as The Watanabes, my other Japanese friends and the lovely Japanese I have yet to meet that don’t fall into this wide sweeping statement)… that was a long proviso, let me start that sentence again with aforesaid proviso set in place. Ahem. The thing about the Japanese is that they love themselves. Japan is in love with the notion of Japan. They dedicate TV programmes to themselves, touring up and down the country for Japanese only products, Japanese only experiences. Japanese history lessons focus on the samurai era, the Meiji Restoration… other areas, receive a sort of ‘oh and then….er *WW2* and the horrible west bombed us for no reason’. A true anecdote from a co-worker: second graders were set the essay topic ‘which country would you like to visit?’ – 95% chose Japan. Tell the kids about your country… they’re not interested, they just want to hear about what you’ve tried in Japan and that it’s better in Japan. So there I was, trying to be ‘down’ and ‘hip’ with the kids (truly a sign one is aging) but failing miserably with my pop culture references. I thought they’d be interested in Adele, Eastenders / [insert other crappy soap set in another area of England]… nope. But, if I mentioned Kyary Pamyu Pamyu to them – they’d go wild. Big Bang, Watanabe Naomi (not related to The Watanabes), Exile, HeySayJump!, Piko Taro… Suddenly I was ‘in’ and interesting. Basically, just validate that the corporate manufactured pop entities vomited out by the Japanese entertainment industry are leading revolutionaries. Perpetuate the Japanese #1 propaganda. Of course I want to be liked by my students (it’s not supposed to be a popularity contest but it’s amazing how much more receptive to learning they are if they do), I’ve just never been a fan of shit music. 

The thing is that over here idols have a lot more to do with their look than their talent. Even their looks aren’t unique, their personalities and appearance are decided by talent agencies. Now, I’m aware that is the case for every individual whose career is built on media attention. The thing is the vulgar obviousness of the lack of talent, then how quickly mass-produced a concept is. PPAP being a prime example. Suddenly there were literal pineapple-apple pens, CDs, costumes, figurines, snacks, wristbands, phone charms, mobile games -Justin Bieber even got in on an advert with Piko Taro. And the mob lapped it up. I’d like to think we’re a little more discerning in the U.K. Even if we indulge a fad, the companies wouldn’t go *too* crazy on the follow-up merchandise because they wouldn’t insult our intelligence. But the Japanese (remember the proviso)… only one question: is it a Japanese produced marketing gimick? Great. We’ll go all in and carbon copy ourselves. 

It’s about the look, not the content. Contrary the whole ‘Japanese has so many layers, so many deep meanings behind every act’ – no. Modern Japan is vanity embodied as a nationality. You may have guessed from previous posts that I loathe vanity. 

Why do I hate vanity? 

I guess it’s because I’ve always hated how I look. Therefore, the notion of being overly enamoured with myself is not only inconceivable but  repulsive. I vary what parts of myself I hate the most. It’s easier when it’s something tangible. Let’s say my teeth. First they were crooked, then I hated my brace-face, then I hated how big they looked without the braces on. A fondness for sugar, black coffee and red wine combined with an aversion for brushing my teeth at night is the cause for my current dental dislike. 

Oral hygiene. I know that’s what just crossed your mind. But let me stop you there. Just because I hate how they look does not mean I’m a fetid creature.

First, there are the exceptions. If I brush my teeth an hour before I go to bed, it’s fine. Strong mint flavours have a caffeine-like effect on me and it’s impossible to sleep straight after. It annoys me that I’ll be perfectly sleepy but then in the routine of getting ready for bed, I do something to counteract the desired end result. Second exception, I’m drunk. In an inebriated state, I stick to the logic that if I have the foresight to brush my teeth then I cannot have totally disgraced myself. Also, there’s nothing worse than the sweetness of cocktails draining away and leaving a pure alcohol coating over your tongue. 

After the exceptions, come the cleansing routines of my boyfriend. At once exasperating and endearing, The Freshen is a highly specialised and sacred ritual. I’m not party to all the secrets but there’s over two products and a separate hand and face towel involved. I appreciate the metrosexual phenomenon – especially as my significant other tempers it with a healthy love of rugby, Liverpool FC and inherently male blindness to beard trimmings around the sink. The Freshen was compounded by the opening sequence of American Psycho. It may have been on dubious grounds before but after the cult film became one of our mutual favourites (I YouTube ‘Try getting a reservation at Dorsia’ every few weeks for an instant feelgood), The Freshen became a real life parallel of the Batman-donning-suit montage. 

Where this left me was the stark contrast between post-Freshen him and loathing-late-minty-molars I. Obviously it’s intolerable so my only option is to do a feeble imitation to reduce the distance between us. 

Here at The Watanabes, it’s my last night and it’s just gone 12 past 12 midnight. I brushed my teeth hours ago. 

ALT thought. When revising body parts, reference AKB48’s Totomi Itano

Staying with The Watanabes

It is coming up to my second night at  The Watanabes. For the second night in the row, I was offered ‘you can go to your room if you like’, which is just one of the odd ways in which British and Japanese etiquette are alike. It might sound uncomfortable but I rather like it. I can hear the hair dryer buzzing and their toddler’s heavy footfalls as he tries to evade capture / bedtime. From here, with the sounds and smells of a home that is not my home, I can be part of and apart from The Watanabes. 

It would be strange to call them Mr and Mrs Watanabe with Watanabe junior. I have know them only as ‘Watanabe-san’ – Japanese style there’s no genderfication of titles. Strangely they only call each other by different titles, never by their first name. He calls her Okaa-san (mother) or by her maiden name and she calls him Sensei (they used to work together as teachers). 

It’s gone quiet now. They must be settling their son down. Ah, I spoke too soon. I can hear him shouting for his mum to hurry to bed. They all sleep together upstairs. Now it’s quiet.

The Watanabes have welcomed me into their home. I’m feeling a comfortable shade of a little less me and a little more Watanabe. The quietness is unfurling into more of the house, soaking into the corners, filling up even the forgotten spots (under the bed, inside the wardrobe,  sighing down the drawn curtains). Even my thoughts are tuning down to a background static.

I’m looking forward to another day with The Watanabes tomorrow. 

The Golden Pavilion

As the saying goes: it never rains but it pours. Never had the truth of the statement struck me as keenly as the dismal slog between Kitano-Temangu and Kinkaku-ji. 

I’m quite sure a Heian poet would have beautifully detailed the way droplets rolled over the delicate plum blossom petals, romantically captured the hazy grey mist darkening the gnarled bark, somehow conjured up the resolute nature of these precursors of spring – the forgotten predecessors of the more popular cherries. Undoubtedly, there would have been some underlying moral message about endurance or… something, something noble. 

But my shallow, physical self was only fixated on the freezing clammy grip I had on my failing umbrella. I lost an inch or two of height as I hunkered my head down vulture style. Everywhere tourists defied reality, banishing grimaces and hurling off ugly cheap ponchos – posing, posturing, pretending for holiday photos. I refused not only in disgust at the sheer vanity but also because I think it might have been physically impossible to prise the umbrella from my hand. 

As the standard unconscientious mob of selfie-takers surged and pushed thoughtlessly ahead, a bubble of space opened up ahead of me and I was able to take in the famed Golden Pavilion. Firstly, I was quick to note that this wasn’t the Golden Pavilion – it is in fact a replica made in the 50s. (remarkably common for Japan, in small print you’ll see most historical sites have the grand age of 40 or so years…). Secondly, it was yellow.

An astute reader will gauge I was at my limit. My long-suffering partner seemed to have noticed I was too. He put an arm around my shoulders,  gave me a gentle squeeze of reassurance. 

‘It’s yellow’ – I declared. Although this was perfectly obvious. Yellow, yellow, yellow. It was raining, it was cold, and this gold was definitely a yellow.

He pursed his lips for a moment, or maybe I’m remembering it wrong and he said that actually he thought it did look gold and impressive. But my thoughts were already lurching on. Not only was it raining and cold and yellow but there were these vain idiots milling around, obsessed and blinded by creating their own self-centered self-propaganda, but in fact I was worse for being bitter. And not only bitter, but ugly and small-minded and with no future plans and no money and…

I either blacked out in my monologue of misery or instead the shroud of it became so dense that I simply became numb to anything but the endless negative listing. 

I blinked and we were sat in a tea house, our shoes were off and forming neat little puddles by the sliding doors. A gas heater crackled pleasantly, casting a synthetic orange tinge. A kimono’d attendant pressed a hot matcha into my hand and motioned that I should eat the sweet wagashi before drinking. Kinkaku-ji was still in view across the lake, impassive. 

‘Things always seem worse when you’re cold and hungry’ he ventured, blowing off the steam from the matcha and defying orders by taking a sip – sweet untouched. 

I nodded. I had to concede I embodied a Snickers advert. As I gripped the cup, my blue tinged finger nails began to fade back to the palest of pinks – probably that of the predictable sakura, not the admirable stark hue of the plum. 

As I looked across the water, in the warmth and dry, I must admit the building had the glint of gold after all. 

Kimo-no she betta don’t

It was hard not to be transported back to ancient Edo (although edicts of the time would have made it illegal for me,  as a foreigner, to reside in Japan during Sakoku – its 200 year long ‘closed country’ policy). There was over familiar tugging and pulling as my personal dresser put on the fifth and final layer of the kimono. The women around me discussed the types of flowers on the long flowing silken sleeves. Tree peonies, cherry blossoms (bien sur) and a final one they could not identify. I was informed I should walk like a lily. That is, with my feet pointed inwards at 45 degree angles. The language was flowery. I had some minor misgivings, wondering if me dressing in traditional Japanese clothes for the students’ graduation effectively amounted to cultural appropriation. 

I reassured myself by remembering I was in my current situation at the insistence of my Japanese superior. I have to admit the effect was breathtaking. Quite literally, as the fitter fastened the obi (big bow around my sternum). 

With every new layer, every knot, I became less myself and yet simultaneously more comfortable in my skin. Perhaps my insecurities were being bound down, crushed beneath decadent materials, subdued by string. 

In the end, I became neither Japanese or British. I’m not sure I would feel comfortable doing it again. But I’d like to lock away the curiously calm, detached sensation being dressed in a kimono evoked in me. 

You could have been anything that you wanted to be… 

I should be sleeping but instead I’m lying, eyes glazing and picking out patterns from the flecks in my ceiling. Possibility gnaws at me.

You would think it’d be a pleasant sensation. Emblazoned, proudly paraded, chin jutting out – the modern world declares:

‘You can be anything to want to be! Want it enough and it will be yours!’ 

I once remember sitting during an assembly at secondary school. The entire contents I cannot remember. But, somewhere between pulling at a developing hole on the cuff of my sleeve and shifting between cross legged and knees under chin, I do remember hearing about the evil of complacency. Never be complacent. Complacency as a sin. It shook me to my core and over 10 years later it continues to reverberate somewhere within. 

Do something. Just do something. But don’t just do it. Love it. Be inspired and inspire by it. Be fulfilled but also continue to stride forwards so you can swell out your fulfilledness. 

If I shut my eyes for long enough then perhaps these possibilities will stop picking at me. Keep hurtling after all these white rabbits with pocket watches and soon all that’ll be left is a pile of bleached white bones.

The Betwixt Times

You’ve done this before… the coy, inner self-saboteur whispers to me. Yes, yes. How many blogs in am I now? At least a handful. A weakly grasping, clutching, clasping handful all fizzled out to zeros and ones out there in the vast interweb.

There is something shamefully wasteful about creating an online concept and then hacking it away like some gangrenous growth. In my (tentative) defense, I had grandiose ideas of capturing a life phase. You never see what is happening to a caterpillar inside the cocoon. It’s a vile grub and then it’s a beautifully patterned winged creature. There is something in me sickly fascinated by what is happening between, although I imagine it makes for gross and uncomfortable watching.

So I decided this time around to have no concept at all. It’s dangerously floaty and unformed. Fans of Stranger Things will understand the ominous meaning attached to The Upside Down. I have my own version. This is not so much the dark antithesis to all that is good and light as it is the discomfort of uncertainty.

The Betwixt Times.

I’m further along than when I started. I’ve almost 28 years under my belt; dropped a career choice; dabbled in an alternative one; left the country and now prepare to return from Japan. London looms.

But currently I sit adrift in Osaka, head stormy with hundreds of possible versions of my future self. All I can do for now is hunker down and prepare, tap away and watch font flicker up on an LED screen.