By Jennifer Cerna
My first day of work as a server was on November first. I trained for the first two weeks, learning the ins and outs of my role. To be honest, it was the last thing I wanted to do as a college graduate and JET alumna. But the truth was that I needed a temporary job that brought in a decent income. Many of my close friends are or have been servers and they recommended the job to me, so I decided to go for it.
I didn’t really think that I would enjoy my new role. A few years ago, I was a hostess at a breakfast chain restaurant and the servers always seemed to be in a foul mood. Yet here, I always found myself looking forward to the next day that I had to work, and most of all, I looked forward to seeing and chatting with my co-workers (not just because some of them are crazy attractive).
It was quite fun, finding myself in this new environment, trying to figure out how to fit in. As is my custom, I was quite shy at first. But as I got to know my trainers, I felt myself coming out of my shell.
One thing I worried about in regards to returning to the U.S. was my social skills. I had never really been social or outgoing, but somehow being on JET changed that in me. I was worried that if I returned to the United States, part of my personality would be left in Japan, but I managed to bring it with me, and I am so happy that I was able to. It brings me so much joy to be able to interact with my co-workers, guests, and ultimate frisbee counterparts and have a good time with them, feeling the human connections forming.
Another cool thing about working at a restaurant is that many of the cooks hail from Mexico. Many of them started speaking to me in Spanish before they realized that I understood none of what they said. I felt bad, being half Mexican but being unable to communicate at all. It was a stark contrast to my near fluency in Japanese. I felt ashamed, a failure, as though I neglected half of myself.
I tried online language programs for a while and was about to enroll in a beginner’s Spanish class at a community college before I realized that it probably wouldn’t help me much. I read about language acquisition online and found that the best way to learn a language is just to go for it. Carry a pocket dictionary and actually talk to the people who speak your target language. So with that knowledge, I decided to do my best and try making friends with the chefs.
Trying to learn Spanish also made me think about Japanese. I almost passed the JLPT N1, but I didn’t register for the December test before the deadline. Unfortunately, the test is only offered in the U.S. once a year. Did I really want to spend a year studying for a language that I didn’t even use anymore? A language that had nothing to do with my career plan? It was difficult, but eventually I decided not to pursue Japanese anymore. In doing so, I felt that I closed one of the doors to one of the most important chapters in my life.
With every day that passed, Japan seemed further and further away. I spent four years there and four months back but the memories from my life in Japan were fading really quickly. I found that I tended to feel uncomfortable when my life in Japan came up in conversation.
Many times, people ask me if I’m from around “here.” I reply with no, that I just moved here and then they ask where I was before. I know I could lie, but that always makes me feel uncomfortable, so I tell them I was in Japan. So they ask for how long and what was I doing there and it feels so strange to tell them. In a weird way, I feel like a fake telling them. I don’t know why. It’s not that I don’t believe I was there–I know that I was. I also feel as though I am shoving my privilege in the faces of the people who asked. “Oh, look at me! I could afford to just drop everything and move to a new country for four years. I had a college education. I got to travel and see more of the world.”
I have also never wanted to be that annoying “Well, when I was in Japan…” person that people are sick of hearing speak. So when people start asking me questions I try to answer concisely and segue into a different direction, preferably one that shines the spotlight on my conversational partner.
Another thing that I noticed in myself was that I started to miss traveling. I wanted to travel like I used to: just for the day, for the weekend, or for a week or two. I always felt that traveling would be difficult in the U.S., but I never really considered why. One day while cleaning my bathroom, I realized that there was no reason for me not to travel. Sure, it might be more expensive, but with my student loans, it’s not like I was ever drowning in yen while I lived in Japan. And sure, it would probably be harder to find LCCs around here and the trains are less reliable, and the country is much larger, but there is also a heck of a lot of variety. We have deserts, canyons, rivers, mountains, mountain ranges, really cold places up north which are full of snow and countries that share our borders. We have pueblos and skyscapers and tiny homes and converted vans. The possibilities are endless! With a serving job, it’s not hard to take time off as long as I have the money saved up. The thought that I could probably start traveling again next year if I play it smart excited me.
I didn’t realize how much time had been passing until talk of Thanksgiving began. I found my father in the house on a Monday and it turned out that he had the whole week off for Thanksgiving break. How could I have forgotten! Thanksgiving has always been my second favorite holiday and it had completely blindsided me this year. I think that having lived in Japan for four years, I had come to rely on Japanese markers of the season: sports day, culture day, school culture day. Not to mention, it didn’t really look like fall outside.
The Thanksgiving that I was craving was slightly different from the one that I experienced. I was hoping for something more intimate and family-oriented with the traditional foods: turkey, stuffing, cornbread, mashed potatoes, gravy, casserole and cranberry jelly. I wanted my sister to come visit with Chaney but she didn’t, so I wasn’t sure what we were going to do. The thought of Thanksgiving between my parents and I seemed small and a little depressing, so I was relieved when my father announced that his former students’ parents had invited us to their homes.
We went to two separate houses, and it was quite nice. At our first stop, we joined a party which included an extended family. We had turkey, mashed potatoes, and tamales (a traditional steamed Mexican dish that usually includes pork inside dough, wrapped in a corn husk). At first, I thought that the tamales were there because we were at a Mexican family’s home. I later found out from one of my coworkers that his white girlfriend also had tamales on Thanksgiving– so I guess it’s a Texas thing. The second house had a much more jovial atmosphere. People were taking shots, playing Loteria (basically Mexican Bingo), and eating Mexican food. It was nice, but I didn’t know anybody, and I didn’t understand the primary language spoken there. So I sat with my parents, trying to pick up what Spanish words I could until some of the guests asked me to do shots with them (would I ever say no?).
Later, someone from ultimate frisbee invited me to his Fakesgiving party on Thanksgiving weekend. I had a lot of fun there eating more “traditional” Thanksgiving food, drinking a little, making gingerbread houses, and learning about the app that he helped develop.
My pension refund came towards the middle of November. I had been fantasizing about that chunk of money since I learned that we would get it four years ago. I had daydreamed that I would immediately put everything into my savings account and watch it grow, like a child, over the years. Instead, I immediately put a considerable portion of it into student loans, beginning my CrossFit membership (finally!), paying for a ticket (car accident–oops!), and, I’m ashamed to say, beauty products!
Because of a stew of circumstances, I began to obsess over beauty, style, and general lifestyle cultivation. I soaked up endless information and bought so much–new shoes, the new iPhone X, updated my wardrobe, and bought name-brand makeup products. Did I feel better about my appearance and gain confidence? The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is yes. We are taught that those sorts of things won’t make us any happier, that they won’t add value to our lives. That they will make us poor and miserable. I found the opposite to be true. Having grown up in Kansas, the standard of beauty isn’t very high. One of the bigger aspects of culture shock when I came to Fort Worth was that the standard of beauty was much higher–perhaps because the population is larger, and there is more socio-economic diversity. Living in rural Ehime, I wouldn’t say that I experienced anything resembling pressure to look good, unless I ventured into Ozu or Matsuyama or attended some party.
The pressure to look my best was strongest at work, where many of our clients come from an affluent background, meaning that they have the time and money to exercise, get regular haircuts and colors, manicures, and piece together an attractive, up-to-date wardrobe. Of course, that doesn’t mean that I jumped head-first into credit card debt. I took stock of what I had, kept what I could that would fit into my new look, and rounded it out with stylish but classic and durable pieces. I do feel as though I have made a good investment. I feel better about myself and I look better, and I expect most of the things I bought to last for five years at the very least.
So now, as I write this less than a month after I received my pension refund, I only have about two thirds of it left. Oops.
Though I enjoyed working at the restaurant, I soon began to realize that I would not be making as much money as I thought I would. Some of my co-workers managed to pull off four to six hundred dollars in a week because they were more experienced and got scheduled into busier time slots. As a brand new server, most of my shifts were in the mornings or in the dining area, so I could only manage one to three hundred dollars a week: not enough to pay anything but my CrossFit membership and for the gas to get to work. Maybe some drinks on the weekend. So the job hunt started again.
There was one unexpected good from the situation, though. My restaurant offers fifty percent off for employees within an hour before or after their shift. So I decided to try the miso soup and sushi from the sushi bar. OH MY GOD, you guys. It tasted authentic. Fresh. Amazing. Tears flooded my eyes when I tried the tuna nigiri for the first time. I ordered quite a bit of food and was amazed to find that my bill was over twenty dollars after the discount. Wow! I sure do miss those Hamazushi prices.
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.