By Jennifer Cerna
This is the first installation in a series intended to chronicle my first six months as a JET alum. My goal is to present a condensed, honest, and uninhibited account of my life post-JET.
“You must do the things you think you cannot do.” -Eleanor Roosevelt
I sat against the wall at O’Hare Airport, my phone plugged into an outlet far away from the others. It was July 27, 2013. I called my father, crying. “I can’t do this.” I felt that Japan was a huge mistake. My heart was racing. My idea of life in Japan at that point was that I would go out into a shallow world, not being able to feel it, nor it me. I would hear and see, experience things. But I would be stuck in a surreal, kawaii hell.
I didn’t have the confidence. I had just graduated from university. At least half of that previous year had been spent in a deep, dangerous depression. I had only escaped four months prior and my self-confidence and self-efficacy were still being rebuilt. To say that I was terrified was a terrible understatement. I was not ready.
I looked at the other JETs. All seemed excited. Why was I the only one crying? What was wrong with me?
I called my old roommate, Joe. Thanked him for the millionth time for being patient with and accepting me during those days I couldn’t get out of bed, eat, or speak. Those days when he heard me crying in the shower for no reason whatsoever. He had made us dinner, held me, and told me that everything would be okay. I felt that in a way, I owed my life to him.
I called my boyfriend, Erik. “I can’t do this,” I said again, seeking his reassurance that I was one of the most capable, intelligent people he knew. I wondered why I had chosen to come here instead of following the post-graduation plan that I had previously crafted: move back to my home state, go to grad school, and live with my boyfriend’s family so I could see him more often. Eventually I had wanted to get married to him and settle down.
But I had always known: I am restless. I knew the moment I was shortlisted that I would go to Japan.
That was the first time I did something life-altering that I thought I could not do–and I did it well. I came to love Japan. I spent four years there. Since that day, I did many things I thought I could not do- start a band, write a book, become a personal trainer, pass the N2 (I failed the most recent N1 by nine painful points), date new people, fall in love again, climb Mt. Fuji, become a translator. And I met many people who touched my life in incredible ways.
The four years I spent in Japan was a rollercoaster of sorts. So much happened to me, and I grew and changed in ways that I did not anticipate. But at the same time, I stayed the same. One of the biggest changes I have noticed in myself is that my sense of self became very strong: I grew to become more self-assured. I began to understand who I am and what I want out of life. The last four years were eventful. And that’s life. I experienced life during that time, as we all do.
I knew that it would be important to be ready–emotionally, financially, and mentally–for the adjustment to life in the United States. When I came back to Japan after three weeks spent in Texas during winter vacation, I already felt as though I had left Japan for good. It felt wrong that I had come back, and I found myself feeling detached from my friends, wanting to keep to myself. I suppose that was how I began the process of moving back. Over the next several months, I gave my things away to friends and acquaintances. I wrote a guidebook for my successor. I got rid of the things that I did not use. I looked into jobs that I could apply for and worked on my career plan. I read a lot and though I could not study every subject that I needed to due to a lack of English books at the library, I made a list of things I would need to understand better: investment, 401K and retirement, American government, law, and so much more. I studied hard and earned my personal trainer’s certification so that I would have something to fall back on if I couldn’t find a job. I educated myself on the paperwork and processes I would have to go through in order to move my life back to the United States.
I lived it up as much as I could during the last few months in Ehime. I tried to reconnect with my friends, I went out and drank, I explored the beauty that Japan had to offer. When July came around, I was ready. Mentally, I had been detached from Japan for a while. I prepared my luggage and packages and paperwork. Yet as much as I thought I prepared myself, July and August turned out to be difficult, emotionally draining months.
I had been having difficulty in one of my friendships as well as my relationship with my partner. Eventually, he and I went our separate ways and I cut off communication with my friend. The next day I climbed Mt. Fuji, and it felt like a cleansing, spiritual journey. I came back to Ehime a few days later and tried to keep my head down, desperate to leave that place where so many things had memories attached to them. I went to work, came back home, and grounded myself in my relationships with my friends, who stepped up like heroes in my time of need. Less than two weeks later, I woke up to a text message: “aunt passed.” It was a while before I was told more information: my Aunty Yoshi, whom I felt closest to, had fallen and hit her head for a second time. I was relieved to learn that she was surrounded by her children and their families when she departed, but it was a strange sadness that I had not experienced until that point. What really hurt was that she had planned to come see me after I returned from Japan. That would have been ten days after her passing.
But mostly, I felt numb. Between her passing and my ending a relationship, I had also witnessed a young woman attempt suicide and heard worrying news about one of my parents’ health on top of the countless goodbye parties, ceremonies, and informal dinners. Emotionally, I was not able to process very much until a few weeks after I returned to the U.S.
When I landed in the Dallas-Fort Worth airport, I was greeted by my family: my father, my mother, my visiting younger sister, and her partner. I was so relieved to finally be home. I had no more paperwork to worry about, my luggage was all together, and I felt as though I had come back ready to start a new life.
My plan for my transition back into the United States was to stay with my parents for a while, apply to the Fort Worth Police Department, and find a job during the lengthy application process. I would pay off my student loans, save a comfy sum of money, and make a down payment on my very first fixer-upper. I would go back to school. This was my five-to-seven-year plan.
Living with my parents did not prove to be as difficult as I had anticipated. Though my mother and I have opposing personalities, we still get along fine. My parents, much to my relief, treat me not as an over-grown and maladaptive teenager, but as an adult. I am not a patient person by nature so sometimes I need to remember what enormous act of love and kindness my parents are showing me by letting me live with them to put things back into perspective when I disagree with the way things are done at home.
I was jetlagged for at least a week and a half, and I dealt with a drawn-out cold for longer. Coming home did not feel weird in the slightest. I would later get on Facebook to find that other returnees were feeling strange about the lack of Japanese, the lower quality of customer service, anything. But I never felt that initial shock of returning. I didn’t feel as though I needed to adjust anything more than my sleep schedule. I was glad to be away from the things, people, and places that had in the last few months caused me a lot of pain. I could finally relax and do what I had been wanting to do: eat healthily without spending too much money, exercise a lot, and learn endlessly about everything I wanted to know. At least, that’s how I thought I would spend the first few weeks.
I found myself feeling lazy. It took me three days to unpack, sort through the life I brought back from Japan, and put all of those memories away in boxes. I slept a lot. I only put on my running shoes twice. I ate when I could. I accompanied my parents to soccer games and grocery runs.
Exactly a week after I returned from the U.S., my parents and I started our trip to California. It was strange. I had always liked road trips, and I cheered as we pulled out of our driveway before I realized that the reason why we were making this trip was to go to my aunt’s memorial service.
I had never been to a memorial service, and I didn’t know what to expect. It took me a while to realize that the box surrounded by the innumerable bouquets contained the incinerated remains of my aunt. I cried a lot that day: more than I had in a long time. My aunt was present in my first memory. She was the one who quieted me in my days of cholicky infancy. She was sweet and generous and strong. She had overcome so much in her life, and I could not believe that all of her fit into a small box. An image of her tiny, lifeless body being consumed by flames, becoming a shriveled, unidentifiable black crisp, and turning to ashes burned in my mind’s eye, and it made me feel sick.
I was heartbroken to be where I was, but what hurt me the most was seeing my mother cry. We all cried, but for some reason, seeing and hearing her sob was unbearable to me.
I was relieved when the service was over and my parents, other aunt, her daughter and her partner, and I went off separately to have a late lunch. We talked fondly of Aunty and reconnected. It had been years since I last spoke with my Aunt Suzie, and over a decade, if not two, since I last saw my cousin, Cecilia.
After lunch, we went our separate ways and my parents and I began making our way back to Texas. That night, we stopped in Arizona, where, by coincidence, one of my good friends from my time on JET lived. I sent him a message and within an hour I was meeting him and his Japanese girlfriend for a drink at Starbucks. It was so crazy, how we had only known each other in Japan and yet, here we were, having a drink at Starbucks as if nothing were different. I hadn’t seen him in a year by that point, and I was so grateful to be able to see and speak with someone who was a testament to the existence of my life in Japan.
After we returned to Texas, I spent the rest of the week with my family. I tried out the nearby YMCA, which I decided I did not like, so I signed up for a CrossFit class instead. I accompanied my father to his school and helped him decorate his classroom door to accommodate the school’s theme this year: Dr. Suess. I went grocery shopping with my mother and had my family try eating clean for an unsuccessful week. I went on a Tinder date with someone who ended up being a little too clingy. I spent my birthday with my parents, and went to a concert with my dad. The next day, I packed up a carry-on sized bag and drove nine hours to see my sister, Justine, and her long-time partner, Chaney, in Kansas.
I had planned on having an uneventful, relaxing week with Justine and Chaney. We were going to hang out, watch movies, and drink when they were not working. When they were, I was going to play with their cat, Gypsy, work on writing and translations, submit things I’ve written to journals, and study Spanish. At some point, I wanted to reconnect with my high school best friend, Kiersten and my other friend, Ryan, and get my things back from Erik.
The week was not uneventful. Justine, Chaney, and I drank a lot my first night there. We had a great time and I finally presented to them the EP I had recorded two years in ago in Matsuyama with my bandmate, Scott, and his friend, Chris. A couple days later, I drove an hour to the city where Erik lives, just to “catch up” on the last four years and (covertly) butter him up so I could get all of my things back and be done with it.
Ever since Erik and I ended our relationship three and a half years ago, I had always wondered what seeing him would be like, if it ever happened. Would I be hit by nostalgia? Would I instantly fall back in love? Would I feel disgusted? Glad that we split? Would I feel nothing? I have heard of people saying that when they see someone they knew a long time ago, they are instantly taken back to that time when they were younger.
We agreed to meet at a local cafe, but I ended up arriving quite late. I didn’t feel any of the anxiety that I thought I would, but I drew in a deep breath before opening the door. I scanned the room. I was shocked and at a loss for words when he turned around and we made eye contact. I tried really hard not to let it show on my face because last time I saw him, he was wearing his hair down to his shoulders. Now his head was shaved, save for the top, where it was pushed back in a pouf. I never took Erik to be someone who was interested in style. But I guess we all change. We sat down, ordered our drinks, and recounted the past four years. What had we done? Whom had we met? What did we experience and how did it change us? As Erik and I spoke, I realized that he was no longer the young college student that I had left behind. He had become a man.
After the initial shock and awkwardness, relating to one another felt as though nothing had changed. Interacting with each other felt as though we were seeing each other after an extended holiday. But our experiences over the last four years took their toll on us, how we grew, our worldviews, and drew fine lines on our faces. And somehow, watching him speak was just as mesmerizing as it had been four years ago, and I had to remind myself to pay attention to the things he was saying.
I ended up visiting him regularly during the week I spent in Kansas, dividing my time between him and my sister. During that time, Erik and I fought quite a bit; we often realized that the person we thought we were talking to had changed. My sister and I also fought. And there were strange silences between her, Chaney, and I for no reason that made me very uncomfortable. Towards the end of my stay, after seeing some of my old friends one night, I realized I didn’t want to be friends with them anymore.
I headed back to Texas on a Tuesday. On the way, I stopped in the small town of Durham, Kansas, where I used the bathroom. I was nervous. In small, midwestern towns, I am sometimes looked at with curiosity and suspicion, and occasionally treated with a little more hostility than my lighter-skinned countrymen. This was the only gas station for miles, and it tripled as a car repair shop and run-down convenience store. I figured that since I wasn’t getting gas, I should buy something. So I picked up a bottle of water and made my way nervously to the cashier, trying to act normal, friendly, and confident. I was met by an attractive young man who was very courteous to me, and I felt joyful walking out of the store. It’s a strange thing, to sort of hold your breath in some parts of the country, but I always feel relieved when an interaction with a Caucasian person in the countryside goes well. I remembered the time in Iowa where the entire store openly stared at me as I made my way through the aisles. And the time in Oklahoma where the clerk who seemed nice and friendly suddenly became silent and cold when I approached the counter.
The rest of the month was quite slow-paced. I watched Wonder Woman and absolutely loved it. I went to my first CrossFit class and was sore and tight for days. I started watching Game of Thrones and Westworld. I somehow managed to pull off a translation job worth half of my monthly student loan payment. I started reading again, applied to more jobs, and studied Spanish more intensely. I rented books from the library (six whole books in English!) and watched the news with great sadness as Hurricane Harvey spread its devastation.
I played my first game of Ultimate Frisbee in four years on the thirtieth of the month and had the time of my life, and an added blood blister as a bonus. I was worried that four years of (relative) inactivity would make me a dispensable part of the team, but I was wrong. I scored a few points and made some good assists. My sprinting is still on point, though now I realize that I am, in fact, getting old because I definitely felt something pop in my calf. Afterwards, I went home and took a bath. That’s where reverse-culture shock finally dug its nails into me.
Bathing was one of my favorite rituals in Japan. I love the onsen, and during the colder months, the bath was my only respite from the constant chill of winter. It was the activity I looked forward to most, several times a week. I didn’t realize how much I was taking it for granted. I filled up the bath tub with hot water and epsom salts to soothe my tired muscles and realized: I am still dirty. Was I supposed to shower first, and then wait, naked, while the tub filled up? That seemed silly. So, then, was I just supposed to soak in my own filth? That also didn’t make sense to me. It frustrated me that I couldn’t shower and bathe in two different spaces. I decided to soak in filth.
As I soaked, I realized that the water only came to waist level. I pushed myself down as far as I could and was mostly submerged. Until I started breathing and my stomach exposed itself to the air. I was frustrated and disappointed. How is one supposed to relax and actually soak their bodies if they can’t even fit it in the water? I’m fairly petite compared to most other American individuals. How do they bathe? The water wasn’t even high enough to cover my 23.5-centimeter foot! I struggled to soak, and remembered the good old days when I could sit in my Japanese bathtub and be up to my chin in water. To make matters worse, there was a drain half way up the bathtub to ensure that the water did not get too high. I realize why this is important: to prevent children and drunk idiots (like I almost did once) from drowning in their bath, and to ensure that the water does not spill over in case somebody forgot that they were drawing a bath. The latter could be solved by installing a Japanese-style shower/bath area. As for the former, well, I don’t have kids so that doesn’t concern my particular home. And if I drunkenly drown myself? Natural selection, I guess.
I sat, half-submerged and half-exposed, fuming and promising myself to get rich so that I could have a custom built Japanese-style bath in my future home. Afterwards, I exited the tub and waited, cold and naked, for the tub to drain so I could actually clean myself in the shower.
During that week and a half back in Texas, I had a lot to think about. As I left Erik’s house towards the end of my stay in Kansas, he promised me that we would figure something out this time around. So after a lot of back and forth, we decided to give us another shot. I don’t have a job, and I don’t have commitments right now. I’m the youngest I’ll ever be and I’m free. So, why not just do something crazy? Just drop everything, go back to Kansas, and spend some time together to see how things go, if we could really make this work. Better to know now and move on if it doesn’t work out than to do nothing.
I was nervous about telling my parents what I was planning. A lot of my family and friends saw the toll it took on me after Erik and I broke up over three years ago, and I would understand how they might react negatively to the news. But they were supportive. It’s one of those things. I have to know. I have to try. The only thing I could regret would be not trying.
Jennifer is a JET alumna currently living in Texas. She is the published author of novelette My Imagined Pregnancy: A Daydream Gone Wild and several flash fiction and narrative non-fiction pieces. In her free time she enjoys exercise, food, and movies.