A Questioning Mind


I teach English in Japan, and one of my advanced students often has questions that give me a delighted shock. The thing is, his questions are so simple that I’m always surprised as to why I’ve never asked them or thought about them myself.

Why do they say “sweating like a pig” and not another animal?

How can you be thrilled to bits? Does that mean you are literally falling apart?

He’s a university professor, which might explain his questioning mind. All the same, last night he had yet another silly yet brilliant question.

We were reading an article about racism in Australia and he wanted to know what ‘Down Under’ meant. I explained that Australia was referred to as ‘Down Under’ because of its position on a globe or map of the world. He nodded to show his understanding and then I saw his brow furrow; I knew another question was coming.

Does it include New Zealand?” he asked. “

No,” I replied and then thought, why DOESN’T it include New Zealand? “That’s a really good point,” I said, “And a really good question because New Zealand is even further south than Australia!” We paused for a moment to think when suddenly he inspired me to have a like-minded moment of wonder.

“Maybe New Zealand should be called, Really Down Under.” I suggested.

In the English language we have many idioms that to us, are just what we say. It’s not often we stop and think about the actual words and it’s rare when we question the origins of a saying. That’s one of the best things about teaching English as a second language: you learn so much about your own language.

Already this year I’ve discovered the origins of a number of idioms, including ‘in seventh heaven’ and ‘on cloud nine’. The first refers not to Christianity, but too much earlier in history when the Sumerian civilization was flourishing. According to their beliefs there were seven heavens and to reach the seventh was to be closest to God. ‘On cloud nine’ is a phrase that is believed to have come from meteorologists who often refer to nine types of clouds in terms of altitude. A cloud with the number nine is the highest in altitude and hence, a person who is on cloud nine is literally on top of the world.

I’m so thankful I have students with questioning minds, for without them, I would probably never discover so many things myself. They say a teacher is there to teach and that the teacher is the one with the knowledge. I think that teachers and students are both learning and teaching; from each other, from the world, about each other and also about ourselves. Never stop learning, for each time we learn something new, we grow just a little bit more.


State of Limbo



Why do people travel? It’s an easy enough question to answer. For new experiences, to expand their horizons, to meet new people. But what about the expat question: Why do people choose to live in a foreign country? Of course I can’t answer for everybody, but after speaking to a number of friends it seems there may be common threads which bind all expats together.

Escape is often a big factor. Whether that means escaping the everyday mundane life of their hometown or getting away from something or someone, many expats long for a fresh start in a new country.

Then there’s the opportunity factor. I was speaking to a long-term expat friend the other night who said there is nothing in his home country for him apart from family. He then went on to explain that here in Japan he is special. Here he can be someone and do things he doesn’t believe would be possible in his country of birth.

I understand what he means. People are amused by our normal, but very foreign behavior and the things we do that would ordinarily be insignificant in our home country are highly praised. This includes things like singing in a band or writing a blog. Of course, attempts to master chopsticks or to speak a few words of Japanese are seen as evidence that we are attempting to make this our ‘home’ and so we are praised even further. Then of course there is the fact that we are sometimes given opportunities simply because we are foreigners. Case in point: my Native English friend who became an acting sensation overnight just for being himself. On the flip-side though, many expats comment on the fact that sometimes they feel more like something in a zoo or a performing circus animal than a person.

All this talk got me wondering about my own situation. Apart from my mum and my cats, I have no desire to return to Australia. I once told her I never really felt I belonged there. I felt like a fish out of water. When I was living there all I wanted to do was be somewhere else. Somewhere in Asia specifically, because that’s where my heart has always been. The other day I was asked when I was coming back to Australia and the person didn’t specify whether they meant for a holiday or to live. Either way I told them I had no plans at all to do anything of the sort.  To me, it seems that they think this is just another holiday, albeit an extended one but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Here I am making my own life, living on my own two feet and immersing myself in a culture I deeply admire and respect.

A close Japanese friend of mine asked me last week if I saw Japan as a sort of dream, just a place to fill-in time while I waited for something ‘better’ to come along. As someone who works in a café, she meets lots of foreigners, mostly tourists who are there only temporarily, but she had to wonder for those who live here; do we really consider Japan ‘home?’ I looked at her and said that for the first time in my life I feel I belong. I feel as though despite all my excuses for not wanting to come back earlier (I was first here nine years ago), I have accepted that this is where I should be. It has taken many years, but it finally happened and it was worth the wait.

I suppose as expats we exist in a state of limbo, so to speak. We don’t belong or don’t identify with our home country, yet we will never really be fully accepted and integrated into our new and chosen society either. We always exist just on the edge. This isn’t the fault of anyone or anything; it’s just the way it is Even if we learn to speak the language, we weren’t born here, we can never fully understand what it means to be a native. Despite this, we thrive and forge our own lives, our own communities and we survive. Living in a foreign country can be a daily challenge, yet most expats would agree that the rewards far outweigh the hardships and perhaps this is why we choose to do it.





Nostalgic Revolution


The other night I had a class with one of my advanced adult students. He works as a smart phone app game designer in downtown Hiroshima and loves anything old-school or related to his childhood. I had been looking for an interesting article we could discuss during the lesson and so it was that I stumbled on one from the Wall Street Journal. It was about Lego and the adults who have quit their high-paying jobs to build models for the company. Rest assured though, that they now get paid more for one piece than they would have made at their previous job in a quarter of the year!

After reading the article we started talking about the toys we had played with when we were growing up. The more we talked, the more memories of long-forgotten toys came flooding back. I wasn’t even sure if half of these toys still existed.

We lamented the fact that with so much new technology, kids were more likely to play with a smart phone or an iPad than they were with a physical toy. Toys like Grip-ball or mini or putt putt golf were clearly outside pursuits and we both felt half the kids today barely saw the outside world because they were so focused on the computer screen in front of them. It was sad, we both agreed.

I explained about the spirograph and showed him the wonderful patterns that such a simple tool could make. We sighed about kalidoscopes and the beautiful colours that seemed to magically appear with each twist of the top. Then we moved onto card collecting and the different types of ones that had been popular at some time or another. I suddenly remembered my friends Luke and Shane being obsessed with Garbage Gang cards and how they had spent lunchtimes swapping ones they had in double or sometimes triplicate. And who could forget ant farms? I remembered preparing sand and soil for the narrow plastic containers and then scrambling on the ground trying to catch the poor creatures to fill the ‘city’ I had made for them.

Ah yes and of course, there was the Tamagochi. I was now living in the birthplace of this toy and we both wondered if somewhere in Japan they still existed. Perhaps now they were available as an app instead. I told him how I had tried to ‘feed’ mine during class at school for fear that it would starve to death and I would have to start all over again. I’d been immensely proud when my kitten grew to full size and was approaching the grand old age of 30 when my friend thought it would be funny to kill it by not cleaning up its poop. I was so angry with her that I didn’t talk to her for days. I also cried, but only in the privacy of my own room. How had I become so attached to something that wasn’t even real?!

We finished the lesson with faraway looks in our eyes and dreamy-smiles on our faces. It didn’t matter whether or not these toys still exist or not, they were preserved in our memories and no one could ever take them away from us.

I long for children today to have the chance to play with toys like this, to extract the same simple pleasure that I did. Yes, the technological age that we live in has created some amazing toys: physical, virtual or digital, but I can’t help thinking that these are simply objects, devoid of any type of soul. Do children today feel the same connectedness with their toys that my generation did with ours? Or are they easily abandoned, discarded like rubbish when something new and more advanced comes along? Maybe it’s time to introduce the generation of tomorrow to the childhood toys of generations past. Who knows…perhaps we’ll start a nostalgic revolution.



My year of self (re)discovery


Just when you think you can’t learn anything else about yourself that you don’t already know, BAM! Something happens that challenges you, changes you and shocks you to your core.

Sometimes it happens that you discover it yourself, but more often than not, someone else sees it and points it out for you. These kinds of friends are important as they challenge you to grow and to see that you do change through life. What you never saw before is suddenly apparent and sometimes the actions you’ve put in place to survive a certain time in your life are still being clung to, long after the situation has passed. In other words, the walls we erected to keep ourselves safe, now serve as a cell.

At the age of 31 I thought I knew everything about myself that I was going to learn, but learning is a lifelong process and so is finding out about who you are as a person.

Sometimes it takes a very special set of circumstances to make you realize that you’ve been missing out on life. Maybe you’ve stopped doing something you enjoy simply because you read an article about the apparent health risks that may be a part of it. Perhaps you’ve been channeling your energy into something or someone who is not worthy of the effort or you’ve stopped allowing yourself to love another simply because you’ve been hurt in the past. Whatever the case, these decisions often mean that you aren’t really ‘living’ you’re simply existing in the world.

Last night I did something I haven’t done in a long time; a very long time in fact. Last night I had my first drink in over 13 years. Why did I stop in the first place? What made me decide to finally break the pattern last night? The answer is a very special set of circumstances and of course, the essence of everything in life: timing.

I’d had a bad day, I needed to get some things off my chest and a friend suggested I come over to his place for a drink. I accepted. I told myself, “Jade, it’s time. You need to deal with this and you need to do it now.”

As I pulled the lid on the can and heard it gasp with a satisfying “ah”, I settled back on my friend’s couch and let loose with all my troubles. In between talking I sipped my drink and it was when I was about halfway through the can that I suddenly thought, what’s wrong with my muscles? They feel so relaxed. Ah yes, the wonderful effects of alcohol and how it just relaxes the senses; numbs the senses in some cases. Then again, was it the alcohol, or was it my subconscious that was aware I had let go of things that no longer served me? Perhaps I will never know. In any case, muscles that had been bunched in knots for over three years suddenly loosened and I wondered why I hadn’t done this earlier. I knew the answer to that, that much I did know about myself.

“I used to be fun,” I said to my friend.

He looked at me and said, “Yeah, you used to be.” “

What?!” I retorted. “You don’t think I’m fun?!” I screwed my eyes up at him and looked at him critically.

“I didn’t say that, I’m just saying what you said; ‘used’ as in past tense. Don’t put words into my mouth.”

I considered what I’d just said and even in my alcohol-muddled mind the realization hit me. This was my BAM! moment.

At a time in my life many years ago when I was a student at university, I’d stopped ‘living.’ I felt that many parts of my life were spiraling out of control due to external factors and the only way I could rectify that was by focusing on things that I was directly responsible for. Looking back now and talking or writing about it I can see how ridiculous it was, but at the time it made perfect sense, at least in my mind.

It began with giving up certain items of food and of course, alcohol. Alcohol gave me the ability to be free of all inhibitions and that often meant I was more honest with both others and myself than I would normally be.  I figured if I stopped drinking I would have more control of my feelings and wouldn’t have to face them if I didn’t want to. I deprived myself of everything enjoyable because I knew that they could be taken from me at any time. I figured that if I didn’t have them in the first place I wouldn’t be losing anything.

I erected barriers around myself, walls so high and so thick they could not be penetrated. I distanced myself from anyone that tried to love me because I didn’t want to get hurt like in the past.

There was no joy in the world or in living. In fact it wasn’t living. I was starving myself, both literally and figuratively: for food, for love, for pleasure, for enjoyment. To live a life like that is exhausting.

The truth is that life is a risk. In living we extend ourselves, we face our fears and realize they were never really controlling us in the first place. We are only controlled by ourselves unless we give our power to others. It is up to ourselves to allow or not allow ourselves to feel or experience certain emotions in times of hurt or risk.

I wanted to start living again, in every possible way. I wanted to grab life with both hands and be the person I always was, the one who was locked away from the world, afraid to lose control if I let myself feel anything.

So I had a drink and I realized that I was in control, or at least, as much as anyone can be in life. At the age of 31 I finally understand that trying to control everything in life is not only pointless, it’s impossible. Life is to be lived and not to be bound by our own restrictions or by others we allow to restrict us. Life’s just too short for that.