My Japanese friends jokingly called me sararimanppoi (サラリーマンっぽい), or “like a salaryman.” Supposedly, I fit the salaryman image fairly well. I had a tendency to wear button-up shirts instead of something more casual from Hollister or GU. I carried my things in a satchel bag instead of a backpack, at least until the clasp shattered and I had to carry it like a suitcase. Perhaps most surprising for my friends, I knew how to sing several older Japanese songs that their parents listened to. And to complete the image, I was always busy.
I mean, I was really busy. To start things off, I signed up for a full load of courses. I initially signed up for the minimum 15 units of courses, but as opportunities to take a few more courses came, it didn’t feel like it would hurt at all. A class about writing letters and emails in Japanese? Sounded useful, so I added it! It also felt strange studying abroad in Japan and not having any Japanese classmates in my IES Abroad courses, so I decided to take a 1.5 unit KUIS history course as well. And every Wednesday, I would go to Tokyo for my Field Placement, from 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM.
As the weeks went by, I steadily amassed more responsibilities. I was voted to the 6-member Student Council, and organized several events for everyone in the program. There was a meeting every Monday at the IES Abroad Center, but to make it on time it was always a rush from campus to the skyscraper the center was in. We often scrambled to get everything ready for events, whether it was setting up the center for a screening of Howl’s Moving Castle or searching for volunteers for a talent show. Council was a great responsibility, yes, but it was worth it to see everyone in our program having fun and smiling.
Not very long after I was elected to the Council, I began volunteering as a one-on-one English tutor for students at KUIS. In the first few weeks few people would sign up, but later on I would have many students schedule meetings for help with assignments or just to practice having conversations in English. The students usually had a lot to say, so I always had fun while tutoring. It would become repetitive and stressful at times, when a large wave of students (all with the same assignment due!) would come in on the same day. But there was always room for surprises: one student sat down with me for the first time and said, “Hey, I heard you were from LA!” She then showed me the business card of the mayor of Gardena, a city that borders my hometown. She had visited as an exchange student, was eager to talk about her experiences.
Just as I would meet Japanese students every week to help them practice English, I would meet a Japanese student every week to practice my Japanese. This student was Haruna, my Kaedemate. The Kaedemate program matches foreign students with KUIS students for weekly meetings, where the KUIS student acts as a friend and Japanese tutor. Haruna was kind, cheerful, and always did her best to help me learn. Those weekly sessions helped me significantly improve my Japanese language skills, especially given the diverse range of topics we would discuss. One week, we would be talking about travelling and all the places we wanted to go. The next week we talked about President Trump’s border wall, as Haruna (a Spanish major) had read an article about it in class. It was on that day that I learned I was capable of maintaining a policy discussion in Japanese.
Although I am thankful that I chose to take on all this work, it did catch up to me by the end of the semester. Those last few weeks in Japan were perhaps the most hectic of my life. I was able to balance my six classes fairly well, but as the departure date inched closer, I found myself overwhelmed with essays and final exams to study for. Student Council was busy as usual, planning the farewell party and making individualized awards for every IES Abroad student and epal. Haruna’s schedule was also busy during the last two weeks, so coordinating a time for our last meetings was very difficult. But after shuffling times about several times, we managed. And of course, along with all my usual work I also had to worry about departure. I had to set time aside to clean my dorm room, pack, and visit the local government office. Unfortunately, I had to cancel my last week of tutoring in order to visit the office and register my departure and pay off my (by American standards) incredibly cheap health insurance bill. There was so much to do, and I’m amazed I was able to balance it all.
In those last weeks though, I often thought about what I learned about salarymen in my classes. Work expectations for men in Japan are very demanding: often, a salaryman will work long hours and be largely absent from his family. As I stayed up late writing papers or decorating the student awards for the farewell party, I thought that maybe my “salaryman” reputation was finally catching up to me. I glanced at social media and saw all my friends making plans to go out or have fun, but time to do so was so few, and so precious. Having a seemingly endless tide of business to attend to when I wanted to be with my friends… I imagined it to be like the most diluted taste of a stereotypical salaryman’s experience.
I don’t regret signing up for everything at all: I treasured every experience I had because I learned something from every moment and task. But when I remember all my rushed goodbyes, I think to myself, “could I have balanced things better?” That is the past now, however. All I can do is cherish all the moments and accomplishments I made in Japan.
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<p>Timothy is a third-year East Asian Studies/Diplomacy and World Affairs double major from Occidental College in Los Angeles. Prior to studying abroad, Timothy’s studies have centered on historical and contemporary East Asian and Asian American experiences. He further focuses on social movements and minority rights, and is Vice President of Asian Pacific Americans for Liberation, a cultural/political student organization at his home college. He will be spending his time in Tokyo learning about Japan’s unique history and culture, visiting cat cafes, working hard to improve his Japanese language skills, petting cats, eating as much curry rice as possible, and purchasing cute cat-related items.</p>