‘Going Abroad Really Changed Me’: The Year I Chased a Cliché

“Going abroad to France really changed me,” she says. Who is she? I don’t know, because she’s different now. I stand in front of the table of my last two customers for the night. My serving apron is already ripped off and my closing duties are done. 

These two ladies have been here for my entire shift. The lady on the left, who ordered the Spanish Paella, spent the entire time detailing her Europe trip to her friend on the right, who ordered the Mushroom Swiss Bliss Burger. They both sip on lemon iced waters.

“While I was there, I got to go to Germany, Switzerland, Portugal, Greece—”

Her friend laughs. “Wow, I’m going to call you Miss Europe from now on.”

“Oh my god,” Miss Europe continues, “in Spain, they have the best paella I’ve ever tasted. It was incredible!” 

“No offence.” She quickly addresses me as she pushes her Spanish Paella bowl to the centre of the table. “Pickle Barrel just isn’t Spain.” She rests her head on her french manicured hand.

“I bet,” I take the bowl off the table. “Do you ladies need the debit machine tonight?” I pull the portable machine out from my back pocket.

“No, it’s okay, I’ll cover both bills,” Miss Europe announces. She yanks her wallet out of her purse and digs for cash.

“Oh my god,” she waves a 20-euro bill at me like I’m a stripper and it’s her first time at the club. “I completely forgot to exchange all my money!” 

“It’s okay,” her friend pulls out her Amex. I type in the numbers on the debit machine and hand it to her friend.

Miss Europe turns to me, her blonde wavy hair bouncing in unison. “Have you ever travelled abroad?”

“Me?” I ask. “No, I’m not much of a traveler. I’ve only been to California. But it sounds like you had an amazing time!” I pump my cheek muscles, hoping for a genuine smile.

“You should do it. That’s what I keep telling my friend,” Miss Europe says. “I just graduated and had a job lined up, but I said screw it and booked a flight to Paris with my graduation money.”

“Oh. My. God. I bet you found your life calling there. Did you meet your future spouse there too? Are you going to move to Spain and eat paella every day? Or are you going to find a little apartment on top of a bakery in France and eat croissants for breakfast and explore little streets with quaint shops until the streetlights turn on and then when everyone is home, your lover will kiss you under the single streetlight, and your life will be magical. Y’know, I’m shocked you’re not wearing a bright red beret right now that has ‘I lived in France for a year!’ embroidered on it. You’re a walking cliché!” 

That’s what I want to say. 

“No way!” I say instead. I force my jaw to drop.

“Oui! And it changed my life! I’m ditching my business degree to go back to school for art history. I found my true passion for museums and art. My life is la vie en rose.”

I blink three times at her and pick my jaw back up. The debit machine beeps. 

 “Ah!” Her friend hands me the debit machine. I tear a copy of her receipt for her.

Miss Europe pulls out a bright red beret from her purse.    

And that’s my cue. “Have a great night, ladies!”

“Merci, merci!”

———

And that’s how it all began. That simple conversation is what led me to this tiny, cramped classroom teaching after school English to the youths of Japan. 

The after school English company I work for, Peppy Kids Club, placed me in Fukuchiyama, Kyoto, out in the countryside, just over a two-hour train ride from the major cities, Kyoto and Osaka. It would be a nice place to live if my work hours cooperated. I start at 5 p.m. and finish work at 9:45 p.m. A bit under five hours of work. It would be even better if my classrooms weren’t about a two-hour ride away from Fukuchiyama, deeper into the countryside. I could sleep in until 1 p.m, except I wake up at 10 a.m. because the trains in the countryside are so infrequent that I have to leave two hours earlier to arrive to class on time. It’d be pretty nice, if things were different.

There’s no time for meeting people, eating out at fancy restaurants, travelling to different cities, going to the Pokémon Center stores scattered across the country, or—

Mayuko’s pencil rolls off the desk and taps against my toe, interrupting my thoughts.

Clearly, I barely have enough time to think.

I pick up the pencil and hand it to her. She bows her head and silently continues to write. Lisa giggles and pokes Mayuko as if I did something funny. Kanon, Aoi, and Junsei doodle in their notebooks and laugh at each other’s art.

I sit in the kid-sized wooden chair, staring at the walls with pinned up colourful posters: Days of the Week, How’s the Weather, How are You Feeling. The works. The terrible fluorescent lighting doesn’t help my mood as I graze my feet on the cold, rough, dull green carpets. The fax machine beeps, but I ignore it. Wasn’t Japan supposed to be modernized? Where’s my next-generation iPad that hasn’t been released in Canada yet?

How did Miss Europe convince me to move to Japan? Her cliché fantasy life clearly isn’t something I can find here in Japan.

“Okay, time’s up!” I shout and stand up. All of the sixth graders look up at me, except for Kanon, Aoi, and Junsei.

“Now,” I gesture to the poster on the board, “Which do you prefer, living in the CITY or the COUNTRYSIDE?” I point at each word as I say them.

“I prefer living in the CITY because I like TALL BUILDINGS!” I mime a building. “I prefer living in the CITY because I like SHOPPING and DRINKING COFFEE!” I pretend to shop and drink my iced soy matcha tea latte with light ice and no syrup. “I prefer living in the CITY because it is FUN!” I try to act it out, but I just hop around like a rodeo cowboy. Everyone laughs, even silent Mayuko. 

“Now, your turn!” I point to everyone’s notebooks. “What did you write?” I gesture first to Lisa.

“I prefer living in the countryside because I like stars,” she says.

“Wow, good job!” I clap. “Next!” I point at Mayuko.

“I prefer living in the countryside because it’s quiet,” she mumbles while picking at her nails.

“Wow! Amazing!” I give her a thumbs up, but she continues to stare at her paper.

 “Next!” I point at Kanon. She looks around the room.

 “Kanon!” I wave my hands to pull her attention. Which do you prefer?”

“Which do you prefer,” she responds.

“No no, I prefer…” 

“I prefer…”

I point at the poster again.

“Countryside…” She drags out each syllable.

“Good! Naze?” Why?

“Hoshi!” Stars. 

I sigh. “Okay! I prefer the COUNTRYSIDE because I like STARS!”

She repeats the phrase back to me and then goes back to her notebook to doodle.

“Okay, Junsei!”

“STARS!” he shouts. Everyone else giggles and Kanon bursts out laughing.

I sigh louder. Is that all they have here? Pathetic.

“Cool! Next, Aoi!”

“I prefer living in the city because I like shopping at the Pokémon Center.”

I pound my hands together and shake my head. “Perfect! Perfect! Yes! Amazing!” Finally, a good answer.

After class, I speed-walk to the train station to catch the next train on time. The main road is small, and cars rarely pass by. There’s no sidewalk, so I walk on the edge of the road. Music from the small karaoke bars and snack bars blasts through thin walls. I look up at the sky to find the so-called stars that the kids talked about, but all I see are clouds. Suddenly, I walk into a huge spiderweb.

“Are you kidding me!” My voice echoes through the empty road. 

———

“I took this job because I wanted to explore Japan while making money, and maybe get some teaching experience because, well, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life after graduation. But I don’t think that teaching is for me. I get stressed and anxious even though the job is easy. On top of that, with these hours, I don’t get time to do anything. Osaka and Kyoto are almost three hours away by train. When I start work at 5 p.m., there’s really no chance to go to the city unless I get a day off, which I rarely get because I’m constantly doing make-up lessons. I’m lonely in the city because it’s hard to make friends, the other three teachers here never talk, and it’s just not working out for me. So, I’m sorry, Blake, but I have to quit.”

Blake is silent on the phone. I hear a sigh. 

“Alright, I get it. But two weeks isn’t enough time. Can you please give me at least a month?”

A month? A MONTH? One more month with terrible trains, big scary bugs, and kids that ignore me and stress me out?!

“Yeah, I can do that. I’m sorry. Thanks for understanding,” I say.

———

“Yeah, that sounds rough,” Alex digs his tripod into the sand. “But at least you got to meet JJ and me and were able to come on this awesome trip to the Tottori Sand Dunes with me,” he flicks his non-existent hair extensions. 

During the day, the Tottori Sand Dunes, found along the coast of central Japan, look like they were ripped out of the movie Aladdin. Now, at night, the bottom of the hill looks like a black hole. The only sources of light come from the moon, the stars, and the locals’ cell phone screens on the other end of the dunes. The crashing waves below us barely drown out the music from the black hole. 

 “I think it’s night yoga,” Alex says while tinkering with his camera. “If you didn’t leave, you’d be stuck in the country bumpkin land. Don’t you like living in Osaka now?”

“But it’s strange,” I continue. “I started my life in Japan living in the countryside, only two hours from here actually, and I hated it. I thought it was boring and—”

“Oh shit,” Alex interrupts, “perfect timing.” The last cloud in the sky disappears, revealing a distant diamond sky. “Now I need to fix the aperturrreee, adjust the shutter timmmeee, annnnd,” he clicks his camera. “Sorry, you were saying?”

“Coming back here now, I can see its charm. It’s relaxing, quiet, and the stars! I’ve never seen so many in my life.”

“Yeah, it’s awesome how there are so many different sceneries in one country.” Alex tilts his head to the right and clicks his camera. “You have mountains all around, huge cities like Osaka and Tokyo, beautiful shrines in Kyoto, sunny beaches in Okinawa, and a fucking desert in Tottori. Where the camels at?” Alex tilts his head to the left and clicks his camera. “Bitch, come see!”

My knees creak as I stand up. “Oh shit, I’m old.” I squint at the tiny white dots scattered on the camera screen.

“You should come to China one day before you die of old age,” Alex says, grinning. “It’s like Japan but better. And the food is better too. I’ll show you around my hometown.”

I glare at him. “I can push you down this hill, you know.” I plop back down on the towel. “But yes! I’ve never even thought about going to China, but now I’m dying to.” I stretch my arms and let out a relaxed sigh. “Do you think we’ll catch any meteors on camera tonight?”

“We betta!” Alex snaps his fingers like a drag queen. “This is the night of the Perseids Meteor Shower where the most meteor will be visible. I didn’t come all the way to country bumpkin land of Japan for nothing. I can’t believe buses and trains stop running at 9 p.m.”

Japanese people gasp, chatter, and clap.

“Where?” I analyze the sky.

“I missed it! Fuck!” Alex shouts. “Okay, I’m not blinking anymore.” He presses the button on his camera again.

The night sky looks like white paint splattered on indigo wallpaper. The hazy, milky way galaxy almost cuts the sky in half. I take a deep breath and listen to the sound of the waves sliding along the shore down below. Behind me, the bell chimes again. I breathe out. Ahead of me is just sky. It feels closer than before, and it comforts me like a blanket. I close my eyes for a moment. 

Alex crashes next to me on the towel. “I’m done. I think I missed 20 meteor. Want to come back tomorrow? It’s the last day of the meteor shower. There won’t be as many meteor, but we should be able to get a good pic.”

Before I have a chance to respond, Alex is on the phone with our hostel to extend our stay for one more night.

“All right,” he puts his phone in his pocket. “Let’s enjoy the view.”

“Sweet,” I say. “We should go back to that ramen shop near the downtown area. The decor was perfect, the food was delicious, and the server had a nice ass.”

“Um, no,” he says. “The cicada outside the restaurant literally jumped on my face! It was stuck on my glasses, and all you did was scream. I’m never going back there again. Plus, there are tons of ramen shop down the other street.”

“Oh yeah, the cicada!” I laugh. “You’re right.”

Alex grins. Looking back at the sky, he points to a cluster of stars. “See that there? That’s the constellation, Perseids.” Alex makes a box with his fingers and puts it over my eyes. He zooms his fingers out, putting the constellation into focus. “The meteors will be spewing out from here, so you’ll be able to see them flying from this direction, and this one, and this one.” Alex draws invisible lines in the sky.

We sit in silence for a moment, gasping and pointing at the meteors that fly by. All the ones we’d seen so far had been small.

“Thanks for coming with me, by the way.” Alex rattles my arm. “We literally just met two weeks ago at the bar with Keita and JJ. What if I tried to kill you?”

“I probably look more like a murderer than you.”

“True.”

“Honestly, I think this is the most fun I’ve had in Japan since I came here.”

“Really?” Alex turns to me. His eyes are soft through his thick-framed glasses. He flashes a dorky smile at me. “Yeah, it’s actually really nice. I think I may come out here more often to take photos of stars next year.”

“There was one lesson I used to teach when I was working. I’d ask the students if they’d want to live in the countryside or the city. So many of them said they’d stay where they are in the countryside, and I thought they were insane. But they said they liked the stars.”

“Yeah, it’s beautiful.” Alex turns back to the sky. “But I’d still pick the city.”

“Yeah, me too.”

Just then, a huge, burning, bright red meteor rips through the night sky.

———

The plane finally bursts through the clouds, and the ascent is complete. I let out a sigh of relief.

“You okay, boo? You’re quiet.” JJ asks.

“Yeah, I just hate flying,” I say.

“Not that. I mean during the last day in Okinawa you seemed very distant.”

“Oh, sorry. Honestly, just thinking about that night, Keita introduced me to you and Alex, and now we’re so close. All within a few weeks. It’s crazy. Earlier this year, I was struggling so much with my job, I had no idea what I was doing here. I felt so lost. Now, I should be more lost, right? No work, no hobbies, just living every day by going out, meeting friends, and exploring Japan. Sometimes I write. It sounds a bit cliché, but I feel like I’m on the right track in life by being here.”

JJ examines me with his hazel eyes. I look back and forth, avoiding his gaze. 

“You know, babes. I get it, really,” JJ raises his bushy eyebrows. “There are times I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing too. Especially when I’m in Malta, I feel like a stranger or like the life isn’t for me. When I’m in Asia, I feel comfortable and more like myself. It’s my home.”

“You’re right. Maybe it’s not what I want to do, but who I want to be.” My eyes fixate on his tattoo sleeve. The rising sun tattoo, crashing waves, cherry blossoms, and an empty patch that he’s saving to add a crane. “And Japan feels like home now because I have you and Alex.” 

“Aww, babes.” JJ puts his muscular arms around me and squeezes me tight. “I’m going to miss you. Truly. I don’t want to go back to Malta.”

I don’t want him to go back either. Moving to Japan pushed me out of my comfort zone, but JJ really shoved me into the spotlight and made me comfortable with who I am. If there’s something JJ likes or doesn’t like, he’ll make it known. He’s so confident, even in a country where he doesn’t speak the language.

“Please don’t,” I say. I think back to the time when the cashier at Taco Bell was rude to me, so JJ threw his drink on the floor. “Who else is gonna stand up for me!”

“Oh my god, I swear.” JJ’s eyes widen. “That cashier was being so rude. But you’ve gotten better. Did you forget that Japanese lady who was hitting on you at the bar in Okinawa? Aggressively. In a gay bar?!”

“Oh yeah.” I thought I told her ‘I’m not interested’ in Japanese, but Alex told me that I said fuck off. And the bartenders thanked me for getting rid of her.”

“You got us all free drinks for the rest of the night, and for that, I’m grateful. Truly.” JJ smiles at me.

“At least we have two more weeks together. Promise we won’t lose touch?”

“Never, babes. Between you and me, I feel so close to you, and I love these talks of ours. Once things settle down, we will stomp the streets of London, New York, Toronto, and South Korea. I need to find my Hyun Bin, thanks.” He bats his eyes like a princess.

“Oh yeah, what a mess,” I mock.

“Excuse!” JJ’s mouth drops into a smile. “You’re a mess of a mess.” He peeks over my shoulder.

Alex is passed out on the other side of me, still sunburnt from the last day at the beach. His mouth is wide open, and he lets out a cute little snore.

“I can’t believe you have a crush on this mess,” JJ whispers. He pulls his camera out and takes a picture of Alex. 

———

The plane lands, and I eagerly stand up first and rush off the half-empty plane. The crisp midnight air is about 10 degrees colder than it is in Japan. I rush to baggage claim to get good Wi-Fi. My phone lights up with texts from JJ and Alex. 

JJ: Babes, are you back in Canada yet? I’m falling asleep but text me when you land or I’ll fly over there and beat you. Thankz.

Good, this bitch didn’t forget.

Alex: Get home safe! I’ll send you the Osaka pictures we took this week.

I’ll no longer have a personal photographer. I might as well delete my Instagram.

Back at Toronto Pearson International Airport, the security rushes everyone along. They’re especially rude to those who don’t speak English well. I stand around the baggage claim conveyor belt, with nine other people, but I’d rather be sitting at a sushi conveyor belt in Japan with my friends. I don’t think I’ll be able to eat sushi in Canada again.

“Excuse me,” A small Japanese man taps my shoulder, holding out my passport with both hands.

“Ah!” I bow up and down like a bobblehead. “Arigatou!” 

The small man smiles and slowly bows, and waddles away with his wife. My phone rings. René, my old co-worker from Pickle Barrel, is here to pick me up.

“Hello?”

“Hey, I’m here at gate C,” he says.

“Alright, I’m just getting my luggage now.”

“How was the trip?”

“Oh my god, I have so much to tell you. It really changed me.”

“Wanna grab a late bite and talk about it?”

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