As I wandered around the Osaka International Airport, jet-lagged and just a little lost, it suddenly occurred to me: I was now illiterate.
Having recently graduated from the University of Toronto’s English program, I was certainly not used to being unable to read. Thinking back to the fear I had felt at being jobless after graduation just a few months before, I realized that my decision to move to the other side of the world to find work was quite a bit more terrifying. If only this thought had crossed my mind before signing the contract, committing myself to an entire year of teaching English as a Second Language in a far-off land…
I had boarded the plane dry-eyed, while my mom, dad, and older brother watched, teary and still somewhat shocked. As brave as I must have appeared to them, I admit that there were times leading up to my departure when I woke up, panicked, wondering what I had gotten myself into. It didn’t help that Lonely Planet described my soon-to-be city as a place to pass through—not to visit. (And I had chosen to live there?!) Being a city girl, I wondered if there would be anything to do in this “countryside” town.
Nothing to do while living in a completely different culture? Obviously I had never lived overseas before.
At the airport, I made my way through seas of Japanese faces and felt myself drowning in words I could not understand. How was it possible that I had not enrolled in a Japanese course before making such a huge move? How terrible was it that I only knew how to say “hello,” “goodbye,” and “thank you” in the language of my host country? Lucky for me, the airport staff spoke English and kindly guided me through the purchase of my bus ticket to my next destination: Yonago, Tottori. Not only that, they made sure I was safely in my seat before leaving me to complete the rest of the four-hour journey to Yonago on my own.
As the bus lulled me to sleep, I thought everything was going just fine—until I woke up to a stopped bus. Other than a few streetlamps in the parking lot and an empty-looking convenience store across the way, it was very, very dark outside. Half asleep, I gathered my bags, sloppily slung them over my shoulders, and made my way down the way-too-narrow aisle. It wasn’t until I had reached the door that I realized no one else on the bus had budged. The majority of the passengers were asleep. Others were texting on brightly coloured cell phones that looked like they were from the future. (This was 2003. I didn’t own a cell phone until I moved to Japan.) I looked outside and realized there was no one there waiting for me. Bad sign. What if this was the wrong stop? Or, even worse, the wrong bus? If I got off, would I be stranded in the middle of nowhere, unable to communicate who I was and where I was going to the locals?
I turned to the bus driver in a panic: “Yonago? Yonago?” I half-yelled, limited by a language barrier that was just hitting me now. The bus driver vigorously shook his head, and I headed back to my seat, drained, embarrassed, and yet relieved that I had avoided what could have been a very messy situation. Strangely, I also felt kind of proud. If I had made it this far on my own (and had survived this mini emergency), I was pretty confident that I’d survive the next year. Little did I know, I’d enjoy my time in Japan so much that one year would quickly turn into four… But that’s another story.
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