Tag Archives: JET

Post-JET Diaries- Part Four

November

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 Cerna

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.

Post-JET Diaries- Part Three

October

“Failing is just as sweet as success. I’ve tried them both and have no preference. So open your eyes and scan the horizon. Pick a direction and don’t stop driving.” -From Autumn to Ashes

I actually do have a preference, and that’s success. But seriously, for much of my life, I have felt almost limitless. I scan the horizon, consider my options, and zoomed in, I can see only a few prospects as someone with a degree in psychology: social work, graduate school, or a monotonous office job that I would probably hate. Zoomed out, I can choose from a variety of jobs, go back to school, and do literally anything I want. It’s never too late. I’m lucky enough to have my groceries, utilities, and rent covered so if I get a job, it would be relatively easy to find a new direction. Zoomed out even more, I could apply to schools and jobs abroad, travel, anything. Whatever I decide to do, though, the most important thing is to pick something and follow through. That’s what I do when I find myself floundering. Just pick something and stick to it.

In the beginning of October, I finally finished watching the Game of Thrones series (how could I not have seen it until now?!). I had also established a routine with Erik and Shane. On the days when Erik went to work, I would watch Game of Thrones for a few hours, take a break to clean and cook, and then watch for a few more hours. When Erik came back, we all drank and smoked and watched whatever we found interesting. On Mondays, though, Shane and I always sat down to watch Dancing with the Stars. Those moments with Shane were always so nice. Then, later in the night, Erik would come home after stopping by at a store on his way back from work and he’d give Shane and I our favorite snacks: cheese/cracker/prosciutto sets or hot cheetos for me and gummy and chewy candies for Shane. I felt as though I were a part of a family, and I felt happy and at home. During those weeks in Kansas, I experienced profound feelings of contentment. I had never felt so at peace.

By the end of September, I had already been craving Japanese food. I desperately wanted to eat salted yakitori, edamame, and drink an ice-cold Asahi Super Dry. All we had in the house were various types of IPAs. So in the beginning of October, the three of us decided to try the Japanese restaurant in the next city over. I had high hopes for it, since the restaurant was popular enough to have two stores and succeed in the college town of Lawrence.

After driving for about an hour, we stepped into the restaurant. The vibe was pretty authentic; there were booths with wooden pallets on the wall, dividers, a water fountain and a bar come sushi area. But upon closer inspection, I found the wallpaper to bear some strange combination of Japanese, Chinese, and Korean characters. I was excited anyway.

We sat down and I immediately ordered an Asahi, which the server and host (there was only one guy working in the front) misheard as “sake.” I told him I wanted Asahi, the beer, and he repeated, “Oh! Asahi,” with too much stress on the first “a,” and I nearly shook my head. I ordered tuna nigiri, tempura udon, and gyoza. The nigiri was mediocre at best. The flavor was about as good as Hamazushi nigiri, except it cost five times as much, the tuna obviously had color added to it, it was cut poorly, and the rice was dry. The gyoza was pretty good, but the sauce was wrong. Worst of all, the udon was old. It was clear that the noodles had been sitting in the soup for hours as they had turned gray, and the kamaboko was dried up. I was so disappointed, and my tempura got handed to the wrong person (and was battered with the wrong ingredients). Not only did the food fall very far short of my expectations, but it took almost an hour for our food to arrive. However, all was good when the attractive cook came out, apologized for the wait, and gave us free beers.

I’ve always hated when people get snobbish about these things, but I finally began to understand what would drive someone to be that way. Of course, I can’t expect a restaurant in the middle of Kansas to produce Japanese food as good as real Japanese food, so I didn’t say anything, but I was definitely disappointed.
I stayed for another week after our visit to the Japanese restaurant, and then on the 10th of October, I headed back to Texas. The drive was okay. It was long, as usual. I felt fine when I got home, and I had an ultimate frisbee game on Wednesday. But I found myself having difficulty breathing at the game thanks to either all my chain smoking, my allergy to Erik’s cat, or both. And I was getting acid reflux.
Quitting smoking and drinking after over a month of indulging in both was quite difficult and I found myself feeling very irritable and anxious. To add to the anxiety, Erik and I were still at a loss as to what to do, though we had discussed some ideas. I felt that we were sort of floating in limbo, neither of us knowing what to do about our relationship, but we continued to speak to each other every day.
After about a week and a half of feeling generally irritable, anxious, and blue, I began to regain my energy. My respiratory system was clearing up, I was exercising again, and I began to be more productive with my time: I studied Spanish, joined the Fort Worth Japan Society, applied to the Texas Search and Rescue, attended community seminars, read through three books, began the enrollment process to the community college, and applied to dozens of jobs. I had the rest of my money in Japanese bank account wired to me, paid my bills, and hoped that my pension refund would come by the end of November. I dug myself into my community as deeply as I could.

I was generally feeling better, but the anxiety of being unemployed and not knowing what to do with Erik still weighed on me a bit. I also found myself having difficulty getting along with my mother. Though I understood that she was coming from a place of love, I couldn’t help but feel irritated, as though she felt she needed to help me with literally everything, and I felt bad for feeling that way.

I stopped missing Japan as much as I did in September. Of course, there are some things that I’ll always miss, such as the fall leaves (fall barely exists in Texas), seasonal foods like nabe, and friends.

For the majority of the month, I thought about what I wanted out of my life. What would I want my life to look like a year from now? I had a pretty clear idea, and several options on how to get there, but there was still so much uncertainty. Not having an actual job for three months, I began to feel almost like a failure. I knew what I wanted, but I still felt directionless as police applications still hadn’t opened. None of the jobs I had applied for in the last three months had accepted me.
But then, at the end of October, I finally got a job as a server at a really nice restaurant in one of the most expensive areas of the city (can somebody say TIPS?!). At first, I felt nervous, almost trapped. Would my social skills be good enough? What if I’m not cut out to be a server and I get fired? Would I be able to make enough money to pay my bills? What if I end up being a server for the rest of my life? Now, there’s nothing wrong with that, but I just really wanted to be a police officer.
After I got the job, I went home and thought about how I felt. I was anxious because the restaurant was so trendy and everybody working there seemed so much cooler than me. It reminded me of when I worked at a clothing store in college. I felt that I wasn’t cool enough, or fashionable enough for the job, and the customers often intimidated or ignored me. I really disliked that job, and I was starting to wonder if I would start to feel the same way about my new job. I journaled, and the more I wrote, the better I felt. I really needed a job and was not in a position to turn it down. And there was no reason for me to feel so trapped. Everybody I met working at the restaurant was really nice, and Texans in general have been really friendly. I could also still keep applying to jobs, maybe get a full-time office job and work as a part-time server. I could definitely use the money. I reviewed my goals. I would apply to the police department as soon as I could, though getting into police academy would take almost a year. There was no need to feel trapped. I’m just doing what I have to do.

I began to feel relieved, and then I began to feel really excited. How amazing it would be to work a job or two in this open part of my life before police academy! I began to think of all the things I could finally start buying now that I would have an income again: a new phone (my current phone is from 2012), clothes, makeup, shoes, that amazing $400 Dyson hair dryer (yeah, in my dreams!), a fireproof safe for important documents, CrossFit classes, Spanish classes, Japanese classes, the list goes on! I began to look forward to my first day of work.

That week was a good week for me: I felt as though everything was starting to come together. I got a job and was invited to a Stranger Things Binge-watching party at a lake with several other ultimate frisbee folks. I also volunteered at a Japanese festival and met some people at both events, and I had a few more events scheduled.
So I have a few directions now, and I’m not about to stop driving.

Jennifer Cerna

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.

Post JET Diaries- Part Two

September

“People tell me slow my roll, I’m screamin’ out ‘Fuck that!’ Imma do just what I want, lookin’ ahead, no turnin’ back.” – Kid Cudi

I guess this period of time straight out of JET–no job, no school–was the first time I’d been truly free as an adult. The only responsibilities I had are the ones I made for myself and chose to recognize. They consisted of my family, my health, educating myself, and eventually getting a job. Other than that, my life felt open, uncomplicated. I felt like a recently emptied house, all the windows wide open. Life passed through me, unhindered.

During the last few weeks with JET, I spent a lot of time thinking about what I should do. What is appropriate? How am I expected to act? Is this socially acceptable? And every time, I realized that the best course of action would be to follow my gut. Just do what I wanted to do. So when I came upon a problem that I couldn’t solve with “What should I do?” I changed it to “What do I want to do?” This change in thinking freed me in many ways.

In the end of August, I had decided, with my new-found freedom, that I would go visit Erik for a few weeks. I got to his house on a Monday night. He was still at work, and I spent time with his roommate, Shane. Though I hadn’t spent a lot of time with Shane before that point, it was a nice opportunity for us to bond. I asked about the video games he had, and I watched as he played through a few and explained their story lines.

During the month of September, I did very little that I would boast about. I woke up in the afternoons, cleaned the house, and watched a popular HBO series or worked out. When the sun went down, Erik, Shane, and I would drink and smoke cigarettes.

But we did other things, too. We cooked food. We went shopping. We worked out and played sports. I got two auricle piercings. I visited my sister and her partner. It was a nice, relaxed, and hedonistic month. Sometimes I felt as though my life lacked purpose. Other times, I felt that it was okay because this was a break that I had wanted. This was my extended vacation.

The thing about having nearly nothing going on was that it gave me a lot of time to reflect. I thought about two things. The first was about what I wanted to do with my life and what direction I wanted to take to get there. Though my long-term and mid-term goals were pretty much the same, I found myself unsure of my short-term goals and whether I wanted to stick with the plan that I had thought out a year earlier. The second was that I found cracks within my psyche that I had been trying to deny. With nothing taking up my time, no worries or stresses, I felt as though they were large, glaring at me. So I took mental note of the things about me that I wanted to improve on and wondered about how to go about improving them.

In addition to this new space for introspection, my mindset towards my transition to the U.S. had changed. I am not sure of whether this change had been brought on by a lack of work or by the passing of time, or both.

I still found myself enamored by the friendly general public while waiting for a seat at a restaurant, buying food from the convenience store, seeing the alcoholic neighbor walk out his door. They were all willing to talk and joke, even for a little bit, and that’s something that I absolutely love about the culture here. I still found the beauty of rural Kansas breathtaking–something that I had missed since I left for college in Des Moines. This was my first September in Kansas in nine years.

But sadness had also begun creeping in. More and more often, I found myself looking at my Facebook feed, feeling as though the friends I had made in Japan had forgotten about me. I grew up a military brat, and the coming and going of friends became normal to me. So, when my friends left JET before I did, I felt sad, but I quickly stopped thinking of them. I didn’t know if that’s just me, or if everybody is like that. I began to think that it may be the latter.

I looked at photos of my friends making new friends and wondered how often they thought of me. Did I leave an emptiness or did my successor fill it seamlessly? During my more dramatic moments, I felt as though I was watching, through photos and status updates, people slowly forget about me.

I had also been having some difficulty with a few things. First, I had been applying to jobs but got nothing in return. Part of me began urging myself to actually move to Kansas, rather than visit, because I know more people there who can get me hired just so I can keep my head above water. Then, I could apply to more jobs and wait for police officer applications to open.

Second, I often found myself behind in culture. They’re very small things: a movie here, a song there. Celebrity mishaps. New words and nuances. I had no idea what had been going on in the Game of Thrones universe while I was in Japan. But other people, despite not having watched it, knew exactly what had been happening and what the spoilers were. That made binge-watching the entire series a very lonely experience. And apparently there’s a new kid on the block–basically the next Justin Bieber, I was told.

Third, I was beginning to feel the small frustrations of reverse culture shock: I couldn’t buy liquor whenever I wanted. It’s funny how the land of the free has such strict limits on when a person can buy alcohol as well as where it’s sold. Just let me drink and leave me be! Tipping was also a bit annoying. I’ve always tried to tip well, but I found that it began to really add up when I went out to eat. But it hasn’t been all bad. Parking had always been a headache of an issue in Japan. In rural America, there was so much parking available, and not all of it had to be clearly marked! I felt timid at first, constantly asking paranoid questions like, “Can I park here?” Eventually, after being told “yes” enough times, I became excited. Look at all the places where I can put my car!

That’s how September went. It was nice, but by the end of the month, I had realized that all of this freedom that at first seemed like a blessing was now beginning to feel like a burden. I had no money, no job, and no structure. I hoped that October will bring something that I needed: direction, work, my pension refund. Any two of those would be great.

Jen Cerna

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.

 

Post-JET Diaries- Part One

August

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.

Jen Cerna

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.