Yesterday when I was invited to join a road trip around Mount Fuji, I opted to decline. At noon today when I met a friend for lunch, I picked out my best excuse and said I had to leave early.
With empty stands at the National Stadium, the Olympic cauldron will be lit tonight, and today is a national holiday. Also, today is Friday, and paralyzing guilt in my body prevents me from feeling I deserve to enjoy this long weekend. While stay-at-home measures amid this COVID-19 bubble are a valid reason to minimize socializing, the idea of not working on a Friday is fundamentally why I feel conflicted to go out. Earlier at lunch when I met a friend to try some vegan pasta in Jiyugaoka, worries of schoolwork lingered at the back of my head as I twirled spaghetti strands between the prongs of my fork. Despite the hearty meal and the good company, I made up an excuse and left earlier than promised, bolting straight to Ookayama Campus.
Others do not realize how much extra effort we must put into our daily lives as international students in Japan. In addition to understanding school lessons, we also need to immerse ourselves in the Japanese point-of-view to avoid feeling alienated. On top of this, we need to master their language if we want job security after graduation. Inevitably, the future is always a constant worry among us. “You can’t find a job without at least N2-level of Japanese”, “How do you avoid mediocrity when you have research, classes, job-hunting, and language-learning to juggle altogether?” and “Why did you even choose to live here?” are common dinner table talk topics of conversation. For any foreign student who strives for success in this country, those who have not mastered the art of hard work and resilience are the first ones to exit. At times, it even feels like being a workaholic is not a choice. And exactly because of this, I have come to develop an unhealthy habit of feeling undeserving to take a break.
This inherent guilt also made me doubt my bigger life choices. The times when I questioned my decision to stay in Japan have been countless and yet arriving at a clear answer has been few and far between. In my darkest hour, my mind will be occupied by what-ifs and doubts. What if I had moved to Canada instead where everybody speaks English, just like my original plan? What if I can’t find a job before my student visa expires? What in the world am I doing in this country in the first place? What makes it worse is when your friends – your adopted family in Japan – start leaving one by one. The friend that I met for lunch earlier today also wants to leave the country, and she is Japanese. She, unsure like many of us, jokingly said “I might as well just decide my life choices through a coin toss.”
The moment I arrived at our research lab in Ookayama, I was immediately greeted by a Japanese Language Proficiency Test N2 book sitting on my desk. I will take the exam in December and although there are two thousand Japanese words to memorize in just five months, at that very moment I was strangely motivated to learn every single one by heart. Thoughts of being able to read all the kanji characters in the train elated me. Visions of being able to argue with snobbish bank tellers in perfect Japanese left me feeling smug. The heavy guilt I was trapped in earlier transformed into hopeful visuals that I was so eager to study right away. Quickly, I cleared my station and prepared myself a cup of coffee.
As I poured scalding water onto a cup, I could not help but recognize my life choices in the vanishing steam of the coffee – those coin-flip life decisions that I previously made brewed in my mind like coffee, sugar, and water – all now mixed-up. While I gently stirred, the teaspoon clanked the cup – like piano keys playing for all the life choices that I did not make. “Where do the choices that we didn’t make go?”, I mumbled calmly, as if my doubts had now turned into wonder. I looked out the window and saw the sunlight spilling all over me. Out the window is where everybody would want to be, but I rather stay in – in the comforts of my coffee and my choices.
To stay or not to stay – that is the question among international students in Japan. Whether we remain or relocate, the decisions we make are personal and the journeys we take are deeply individual. After all, the end will always be justified by the way we take ownership of our choices.
I leafed through the N2 book where I left off and grabbed a pencil. The coffee was still too hot to drink but I drank it anyway because that is what I do.