The Silver Birthday

I recently became a quarter-centurion, and my feelings about that fact are a little conflicted. I’m one of the youngest teachers at my school, as well as among both my Japanese and foreign social circles. I can’t exactly go around lamenting to any of them that I’m beginning to feel the weight of my years! 25 is still young, I know. But it’s not quite as young as I once was.

Image by Kurayba on Flickr

When I was 20, I felt young. I was in my second year of college and the world was my oyster. My only real concerns were soaking up as much knowledge as I could during those 4 years of higher education and trying to not eat too much cake while coping with the stress of that academic pressure.

5 years, graduation, a year working part-time jobs to scrape by, and a move across the planet have changed my perception of my age. The years used to seem long and slow. I remember my parents telling me that time passes more quickly the older you get, and I also remember thinking “Pffft! Yeah, right. How long until I can get my driver’s license again?” Now I find myself entering a stage where time slips through my fingers like fine grains of sand. I blink and a year’s gone by. Not to diminish anything that’s happened within that year, because the funny catch is that I can still remember everything, good and bad, and feel the effects of each experience just as clearly as before. But the once mysterious and elusive *future* isn’t so far off any longer. Instead it’s right around the corner.

I find this particularly unsettling because of my current situation – working a job designed to be temporary, a stepping stone into a career, and living in a country that can make it quite hard for a foreign person to settle in with any sort of permanence beyond a few years. To stay in Japan long-term would mean a lot of life changes and sacrifices. For starters, I would have to invest more time, energy, and potentially more money into studying the language. While I can live my life here efficiently and (most of the time) happily, I currently don’t possess the communicative ability to sustain the rest of my life here.

I know I can’t be in this position (assistant language teacher) for my whole life, or even much longer than a few more years. I am chomping at the bit to have more to do, more challenges, more responsibilities, more autonomy. Regardless of whether I stay or go, or which direction I choose to take my career, I need further education and training. My route into the field of teaching has been an unconventional one, thus I have some catching up to do if I want to climb the ladder. To stay in Japan would mean obtaining that education in Japanese. Right now that would be impossible, as I am not even fully literate (damn kanji…).

While career is definitely my current driving force, the future of my personal life is also important. I miss my family in the States, and I don’t want to be so far from them forever. One day I’d like to have a family of my own, and recently the pressures to get moving on that endeavor (both internal and external) have started to pick up. Single and working hard with no “settling down” in sight is fine at 25. But will I still be fine with it at 30? Maybe. But after years of not putting any weight behind that aspect of my life, I can’t help but wonder if maybe I should at least put in a little effort. That train of thought inevitably brings me crashing right back into the fact that, oh yeah, I’m in Japan. Most people in my dating pool are also busy working, and not English speakers. And it doesn’t help much that all I want to do when I’m not at school is vegetate on my couch with Netflix, coffee, and chocolate. I need to work on getting my ass back to the gym on a regular basis before I can dedicate any energy to a romantic life (I find the process of modern dating cringe-worthy).

Returning to the States introduces a whole other blend of challenges; finding a new job, readjusting to American school and work culture, getting a Master’s degree, dealing with missing Japan and the life and relationships I’ve built here. These all may be inevitable, but no less daunting to consider. I worked long and hard to get to Japan, and the thought of moving on and letting it go is not something I’m ready to tackle quite yet.

All this going on about getting older, and at the end of the day I still feel very young. Sure, I pay off my bills and student loans every month, I can cook myself dinner, navigate foreign lands with confidence, wrangle classrooms of rowdy adolescents…and still there is some part of me that feels very much like a kid myself. The inner child is still going strong despite all the pressures of adulthood. For every dollar adult-me tucks away in my student loan and dental care funds, child-me squirrels away something for that new camera or that dream vacation to New Zealand. For every hour I lay awake at night worrying about the future, there is an hours’ worth of silly conversations with my students or crazy karaoke with coworkers and friends.

Amid all the confusion, doubt, and insecurity, I enter into my 25th year of life with hope and positivity. If there is one thing I have learned in the last quarter-century, it’s that even the best of plans can be dashed to bits in an instant – but going forth with a level head and a strong heart, things generally tend to turn out alright. Young though I may be, I’ve weathered some storms in my time. And dark as the sky may seem, most clouds are pretty good about having silver linings.

Here’s to my silver birthday! 25 years and counting. 😉





Life, Death, and my International Family

On this, the eve of my 24th birthday, I have two very important people on my mind.
The first, my maternal Grandmother – in this photo, sporting a not-too-enthusiastic smile while surrounded by 4 of her obnoxious grandchildren (take a guess which one is me…).


My grandma immigrated to the United States from Ireland as a young woman, younger than I am right now. She packed up what little she owned and hopped on a boat and sailed across the Atlantic. If my own experience moving across an ocean has been any indication, I’m sure she was both incredibly excited and horrifically terrified. I hardcore struggled through the 15 hour flight to Japan without power outlets or seat-back entertainment. I can’t even begin to imagine how on earth she made it through however many days on a boat. That’s an awful lot of time to get sea sick and sit around thinking “Dear God, what have I done?!”

I couldn’t properly appreciate my grandma’s sacrifice and achievement for a long time. In February of 2013, I was a junior in college and 9000 miles away from home, my first time ever outside of the United States.

Now, I have to back-track a little further to get to the significance of this story. A year prior, in February of 2012, my grandmother passed away. I was away at school in Chicago, and the day of her passing just so happened to be the day of my 20th birthday. My mom decided to spare me the news until the following morning.

My grandmother passed away peacefully in her own bed, surrounded by her children, at approximately 3pm. At almost exactly that same time, 300 miles away in a dorm building in Chicago, I met the only Irish exchange student at my university. And by met, I mean we nearly collided in the hallway and scared each other half to death.

My new Irish friend and I enjoyed a brief chat, then went our separate ways. Having not interacted with many Irish folk outside of my own family, I thought fondly of my grandma. I wouldn’t find out about her death until the next day. But I can’t help but feel, even after all this time that she (or God, or the universe, or a gaggle of benevolent space aliens) was sending me a wee message that day.

Now let’s jump forward again to February 2013 in Vietnam. It’s once again my birthday, and also the biggest holiday in Vietnam, the Lunar New Year (colloquially known as Tết ). My Vietnamese roommate had invited me to spend the ten day holiday with her family, who quickly adopted me into their ranks. I was carted around and introduced to every family member and was massively overfed. It was ten days of constant bowing and pantomiming and trying to say “No thank you, I’m stuffed” but ending up eating two or five more helpings anyway. I wouldn’t trade the memories from those ten days for anything.

On the night of my 21st birthday, instead of going out and partying like an animal as most college kids in America are wont to do, I had tea with an old lady.

Ba Ngoai, my roommate’s maternal grandmother, was a tiny, frail little woman with a giant toothless grin. She didn’t speak a word of English. Instead, she spoke her own language; an amalgam of Vietnamese, French, and your general old-lady gibberish. I adored her from the moment I met her. Fortunately for me, the adoration was mutual. We sat down and she took my hand, and didn’t let go of it for the remainder of our visit.

ba ngoai1

I listened and smiled and nodded as she prattled on about her life, through the French occupation and the American War and the raising of her children, my roommate trying her best to translate what she herself could barely understand. Her grandma’s years were beginning to show not only physically, but in the pauses in her speech, the reorganization of her history, the random omissions and additions. At one point she started singing a French folk song, one she had learned in elementary school.

My grandma used to sing Irish folk songs while she made tea, while she bathed us as children, while she gave us foot massages in front of the TV. In her later years, she suffered from various ailments, and sometimes she’d launch into muddled and disjointed monologues about her life. I’d sit and listen and react appropriately, just loving her for who she was – the woman who’d sacrificed so much to travel across the world, who raised my mother and helped to raise me. Who, before I even grew conscious of the wide world beyond my backyard, was my strongest connection to it.

Suddenly, before I could register what was happening, tears were running down my face. Have you ever not noticed that you were crying? It was a first for me, and a startling one. My roommate and her mother noticed a few seconds later and were just as confused as I was.

Some base part of my consciousness had remembered it was my birthday and thus the anniversary of my own grandmother’s death. Something about that struck a chord. It hit me like a ton of bricks, as I sat there with my newly dubbed “Vietnamese Grandma” that I was on the other side of the world. My grandmother had made just such a journey once upon a time. Was she up there in the heavens, looking down on me now? What would she have thought, had she been alive to see me hop across the globe?  She probably would have thought I was crazy. Maybe she would have been proud.

At some point I gathered my senses enough to explain to my companions that I wasn’t having a mental breakdown, I was just remembering my grandma. They understood quite easily, because unlike in the U.S, the anniversary of a loved one’s death is a highly venerated holiday among Vietnamese families. Ba Ngoai patted my hand, grinned, and said something that my roommate translated as, “I love my American Granddaughter.”

I think of both grandmothers as I go about my day teaching a school full of rowdy Japanese youth. Both women, in their own ways, have had tremendous influence over the woman I am today and the way I see the world. One is hundreds of miles away and the other is across another figurative ocean that I hopefully won’t be crossing any time soon – but neither will ever be far from my heart.