*About the writer*
Mamta Sachan Kumar was a participant on the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme. She lived in Hasami in Nagasaki Prefecture from 2nd August 2017 to 30th July 2018 and worked as an Assistant Language Teacher at Hasami High School as well as Minami Elementary School.
I have one of those clicker counters as my calendar. Like a rolodex numbered from ‘1’ to ‘31’, with a discreet dial at the bottom to adjust the month? Yep, that kind. Mine sits smartly reclined on my bookshelf, baller in black and white. Stark. There’s no mistaking the ‘30’ in big, bold, black digits and a more modestly sized ‘7’ at the base that’s equally inescapable. “30th of July”, it reads. “30th of July, 2017”, is what it signifies, to be precise – the coat of dust will attest to that! That’s when I left home to begin my journey on the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme. And I haven’t changed the date since.
I’ve walked past it; hovered by the glass panel through which it eyeballs me; have found myself warily staring back at it – several times, in the seven months since my return. And I’ve often wondered why it is that I continue to do nothing about flipping the date. Sometimes, I pretend it doesn’t exist; at others, I’m painfully aware of my foolishness to want to freeze time. It doesn’t make sense because freezing time would suggest not wanting anything to have changed from how I had left it, when I think, what I actually want, is to have that moment, that very moment of my departure, endure. Then, every day would be a reminder that I did indeed leave; that JET and my entire experience of the Programme did indeed happen, and that Hasami – the magical pottery town in the outskirts of Nagasaki where I was placed – is indeed real.
As time travels, it has become more pressing to have time stand still.
Did I mention, that on my final post office run in Hasami – the very last one before I wrapped up life in the countryside – I had sent a postcard to myself to my home address in Singapore? Yes, I sure did. My supervisor, who’d accompanied me on that last visit, was polite enough to feign a mix of mild delight and amusement at the idea but seemed to me to be perplexed by it more than anything else. I wilfully chose to ignore her concern. It had felt like a brilliant plan at the time, to shake off my disbelief at the plausibility of having just lived such an adventure.
It had felt brilliant.
It was terribly premeditated.
It didn’t work.
“Hai, ima pergi daigaku.”
“Oh! You belajar yah?”
“Ī ya, tak belajar. Saya working.”
An endless list of residuals – my accomplishments in fact, of the language, of punctuality, of payouts – struggle to be sorted. I continue to work on code-switching, over half a year in. There continue to be occasions where I find myself tongue-tied across two or three languages, of which my mediocre grasp of Japanese is now somehow, the star. Singapore has a stellar public transport system and yet even a few minutes of waiting meets with disgust. I’m not proud – my little blue book accounting my pension has aged, flattened between files full of mandated ‘thank you’ notes, penned by my students. And pouches remain pregnantly intact under my desk, with the essential oils, medical supplies and random accessories I’d armed myself with, into the wilderness of the unknown. A departure at this point would be swift. I can’t unpack; I can’t bear to sieve through the memories without a knot of nausea (or is it nostalgia?) gutting my core. I’ve gingerly kept aside videos of the latest performance at Cultural Festival Day by the International Club – once in my care, now led by my successor. My girls were kind enough to send them to me via LINE and I’ve treasured the videos, like we treasure the many books we buy that go unread.
“Kanojo wa bijin da yo ne!” (“She is beautiful!”)
“Watashi wo wasurenaide ne…” (“Please don’t forget me…”)
Did I mention, that in the final weeks of my stay, I’d wake up in tears and cold sweats, having dreamt of the worst?! I’d been separated from my students – my kids, and they’d forgotten me! It was coming, that day, and I had begun to feel the anguish in the depths of my exhaustion. Even the brattiest ones had managed to tug on my heartstrings – they were but the howling winds that brought to focus the looming silhouette of the mountain range, and the mountains are utterly majestic as much as they are formidable. The good, the bad and the bratty – they are inextricable.
They say it takes a year on the Programme just to settle in. They say two years looks better on the resumé; one somehow implies an unpleasant or dissatisfactory experience. Likewise, you’d think just a year abroad, say, compared to five, might likely mean a more seamless readjustment.
They also stress, “ESID” – Every Situation Is Different.
I lived a full life in Hasami for the better part of 365 days and as quickly as I’d realized that my true value lay in exposing the kids to even a little of all that lies beyond the rice fields, I grew as widely open myself, to their embrace.
Time is funny: it travels swiftly even as it deludes us by standing still in the sealed face of a counter clock. For me, time warped and a year cycling by bestowed upon me the magnificence of four beautiful seasons, a full harvest and grains to sow for my enlightened future.
I teach now, at a Japanese school in Singapore, and it’s wonderful. There’s a sweet girl in my first grade class who bears an uncanny resemblance to twins I’d taught at Hasami’s Minami Elementary. I occasionally allow myself to immerse in the absurd tale that she must be their long-lost triplet.
Raise your arms and spread them out wide, open up your palms to the sky, and gently close your eyes in response to the breeze that greets you. I beckoned so in gratitude one Hasami afternoon, as I glanced off and on at the sulking green giants, staunch in their position along my route home from school. I remember knowing then that I was enjoying the last of such a refreshing breeze, before summer stuck itself onto my back.
I no longer walk on uneven tar flanked by luscious paddies, abuzz with dragonflies. My walk to school is now on paved concrete, interjected with stop signs that control the traffic flow but do nothing to curb its polluting noise. I ran into a cobweb this morning and smiled to myself – Hasami never had to play dress-up for Halloween.
Mamta Sachan Kumar
8 February, 2019