As time goes on, it becomes clearer and clearer to me that what really defines a place is not its physical location, but the people who live there. And as someone who writes about places, foods, and cultures, I feel like it's just as important (if not more so) to include a bit about some of the people I've met along the way who have helped to shape my experiences.
As I was deciding to do this, I tried to look into what other bloggers had written for inspiration but found that most of the writing about people out there was just bloggers interviewing other bloggers. Which is cool and all, but social media influencers are by no means the only people worth talking about, and it definitely seems like a huge part of life's narrative is missing. So, I hope that through this ongoing series of short introductions, which you can find collected under the shiny new People tab at the top of the page, I can help to fill in the gaps if even just a little.
Without fail, I can rely on my days at O Junior High to begin with a chirpy "Good morning, Jackie-sensei," coming from the right side of my desk. Turning towards the voice, I'm greeted by the smiling face of Mr. Tanaka, one of my colleagues. "How are you today?" he continues before updating me on something about his life or asking if I'd heard about a recent world event. It's a short interaction, but it always manages to perk me up a bit.
Perhaps by nature of his position, Mr. Tanaka is the person I talk with the most out of all of the people at my various schools. Though he had a full career as an English teacher and was allowed to retire, he chose instead to continue on, assisting in English classes where he observes the students and helps those who are struggling. Much like myself, he doesn't have too many lessons to plan, and so we end up with a good amount of time to chat between classes.
He's currently studying for the highest level of the Eiken, one of the main English language proficiency tests in Japan, and has this notebook full of obscure and complex vocabulary words. He pulls out unfamiliar words from news articles and adds to his book daily, drawing from it in conversation with me trying parse out the subtle differences behind each word and really understand them. While having coffee the other day, he was telling me about a school he used to work at, describing the children as "rambunctious," and if that doesn't tell you just how serious he is about English, then I don't know what will.
What really sets Mr. Tanaka apart from the other English teachers that I work with though is the fact that he's genuinely interested in the English language and sees it as a means to better understand the world rather than just as a school subject. He reads a number of English language newspapers not just for language practice, but because he wants to see things from a different perspective. When something major happens in the US, the first time I hear about it will often be from him as he hands me a print out of a BBC article and asks if we can talk about it later in the day.
It can be draining to be the only American around now that we live in a world that includes a President Trump, as it sometimes seems like people think of me as The American and assume that I somehow represent the opinion of the entire country. But I know that when Mr. Tanaka comes to me to talk about politics or world events, it's not necessarily because he wants an American point of view, but because he's interested in hearing what I think and wants someone with whom to share his own ideas.
Besides teaching and studying English, Mr. Tanaka also leads an incredibly varied and balanced life. He's got a small vegetable garden that he tends to after school, goes into the city to watch movies and see exhibitions on a fairly regular basis, and is involved in all of his community's events. He's firmly rooted in rural life but doesn't see it as something that limits him or his interests. As I get to know him, my respect for him and the way he lives only continues to grow.
I know it might sound sappy, but I feel incredibly lucky to have him around and to have been able to become friends. As an ALT, especially one who is assigned to multiple schools with no real "base," I'm kind of on the outside of a lot of things that go on in the staff offices. The other teachers are engrossed in their own responsibilities and don't have much time to pay attention to the person who doesn't really have to know about what's going on. Which is fine, and I understand that completely, and 99% of the time I'm totally happy to do my own thing, but on a bad day or when the winter's really got me down, it's nice to know that I've got someone within arms reach who cares.