Street on Taketomi Island, Okinawa

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Growing Old?

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“How old are you?” is a typical question that’s asked by many of my students. With the whole emphasis on student participation, I usually reply with “how old do you think?”. A big mistake. After gesturing “lower, much lower” for an extended period of time, it quickly dawns on me that no one has said a number below thirty-five. I feign frustration which gets a laugh. But do I really look that old? Am I not the epitome of the modern twenty-something year old?

Of course after thirty minutes someone eventually gets it correct, by which time the school bell rings and the class ends.  “Yes. I’m twenty-five years old” I say, and a barrage of comments like “really!” and “that’s a lie!” are hurled from around the class. I continue to feign shock and horror, which continues to get a laugh. The real kicker is that my teachers and people outside of my job often appear surprised to find out my real age. I’ll admit that physically, my appearance doesn’t exactly screams youth or good-looks, except for my beard (yeah!). My pudgy exterior, slowly receding hair-line, the first signs of grey hairs, and my weight continuously fluctuates, contradict a relatively active lifestyle. Just two months ago I successfully climbed to the top of Mt.Fuji. My image is not a huge concern of mine. I’ve never really cared about how I look, never straying away the beard, medium length hair, jeans, t-shirt and a jacket. I could care less about fashion. Shopping for clothes was more a case of comfort rather than appearing in an issue of GQ. I’ve always been more of a judge character and personality rather than looks.

Maybe it’s not entirely a physical observation but also a mental one. I’m frequently told by co-workers, family and friends that I’m mature for my age. My daily conversations with friends back at university would be about films, T.V, music, games and stupid crap that we found funny. Now, they’re more about the English language, education, politics and other intuitive thoughts (I think). My manner of speaking has changed dramatically. My grandparents frequently comment on how my Yorkshire accent has weakened, and my speech has become more deliberate and measured.

I feel that my thoughts have changed also changed. The sense of independence and responsibility required to live and work in Japan has forced me to focus on being an adult. I’m thinking about my future, career, money, and health with much more mindfulness. The constant profanity still rears its head when talking with my brother or friends, or when I’m annoyed. But it has subsided in general, primarily because of my current employment, I can’t really be swearing at the students though sometimes it feels deserved.  And while this blog was created as a space for me to rant and critique things in my life, it’s evident that I’m still holding onto my cynical way of thinking and conceding to negative thoughts too often.

Maybe it’s a trait of people from the Asian Continent, in that they find it hard to guess a person’s age. My mother often says that its true about Japanese people. About 10 years ago, my father, brother and I arrived at Nagoya Airport, and a Japanese “Custom Declaration” officer asked “Are these your grandchildren?” to my father. He wasn’t amused. But do I care about growing old and the thought of my elderly, wrinkly self? No, not really. But I sometimes find it interesting to hear what people think about it. In the end, it’s an inevitability that people try to prevent, but ultimately fail in a pile of expensive surgery, and a toxic slurry of anti-ageing cream. And I have no intension of doing any of that. So for now, I’ll gracefully accept the “mature for your age” remarks, and just go with it.

My Summer Holiday in Hindsight

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Hirakubo Lighthouse in Ishigaki

I’m currently sat in the teachers’ office, while the students practice for their sports festival in 30°C heat and 90% humidity. It’s still very much summer over here in Japan even with Daiso (100円 store) and various supermarkets displaying Halloween decorations and autumn colours. I begrudgingly came back to work last Thursday, tired but tanned. And as soon as I reached to open my shoe locker, I was bombarded with questions from my teachers asking me “How was your Summer?”

I wrote a blog post back in July complaining about my “Summer Holiday Blues” while stuffing my face with ice cream and watching crappy Michael Bay films, the epitome of happiness. “Oh the humanity!”. One and a half months of holiday, “Oh, the pain of it all!”. A true punishment from the powers above. But in hindsight, I actually did have a pretty eventful summer holiday in Japan despite my initial outcry;

-Bought a new camera.

-Climbed to the top of Mt. Fuji.

-Went to the beach twice.

-Travelled to Ishigaki in Okinawa.

-Canoed amongst the mangroves.

-Trekked up a waterfall.

And had plenty of ice cream

Of course, I was instructed to give a talk about my “Summer Vacation” to the students.  So I presented a selection of photos that I had taken during my trips with my superb narration. While many were in disbelief over my “professional” photography skills, the frequent phrase uttered was “いいね〜” (“how nice” or “lucky”). Consequently I asked the students, in English, “What did you do during your summer vacation?”. There were a couple of prominent answers; 1) Studying  2) Going to the Fireworks Festival and 3) Nothing.

Unlike many fortunate Brits back home, most Japanese families don’t travel to another country or fly to the beaches along the Costa Del Sol. My father was a solicitor and had the benefit of a large chunk of holiday time, so we would often go abroad during the summer. We flew everywhere from America to Norway, we were very fortunate enough to travel regularly. It’s clear that Japanese people can’t indulge in that luxury. It’s a case that the average office worker struggles to get consecutive days of time off, and is forced to persevere through the excruciating heat and banality. Not even teachers are given the comfort of a real summer holiday. Instead they continue to march to school, fill out paperwork and complete training. Obon is Japan’s real summer vacation during August in which families return to their ancestral relatives’ homes in order to pay their respects to the departed. But with only four or five days off, and living on the other side of the world to Europe or America, many only venture short distances. The lack of time-off is one of my fears of working in a real, Japanese environment.

In regards to homework, I can’t recall it being as brutally intense as it is over here in Japan. In fact at junior high school level, the students are expected to come for a week of lessons halfway through their vacation. Many students actually go to summer schools and cram schools further showcasing adolescent Japan’s stressful education period. I remember writing an essay or two, but nothing that induced the sheer hardship experienced by Japanese students.

So yeah, in the end I did have an enjoyable summer holiday. Sure my exercise regime fell through; hard to imagine when you travel to a region famous for it’s yakiniku barbecue and Blue Seal ice cream brand. And I failed to watch a fireworks display, a quintessential event in Japan during the  summer. But I can’t really complain after hearing the exciting tales of adventure from the students. I’m sure it won’t be long until the “Post-Summer Holiday Blues” will hit, along with the cold weather.