It’s my third year of welcoming the New Year here in Japan. It’s truly unlike the noisy, rambunctious festivity it is in the Philippines. As the Japanese went about their business, I often wondered how fun it would be to be home for the holidays with my big family – all eight members, plus our cousins, aunts, uncles, and Grandma.
Altogether, there would be about twenty people. It truly is a riot with all of them – what with the games, the singing, the exchanging of gifts, and later the unboxing. I was often away from home starting in high school. But no matter how busy I got, I made it a point to be home for the Christmas and New Year holiday. It’s a different matter, though, now that I’m living abroad.
However, this year, it was like having a piece of home with me as I welcomed the year here with Mom. For the second year in a row, my favorite Principal invited us as well as my fellow ALT (who came with her Mom as well) to a New Year party on the first day of the year.
We spent most of the day eating – the osechi ryori (Japanese New Year food), sukiyaki, salad, and ice cream. His sons from the city had interesting stories to tell while we played with his other son’s charming baby boy. Having spent the last New Year with them, their house and their company have become a lot more familiar. So did another dear friend who invited us for dinner that same night with her family and treat us like her own. It’s beginning to feel a lot like home.
Our beloved Principal has done a lot to make us feel we belong and to keep us from getting homesick. In Japan, this gesture means a lot to foreigners who often feel like outsiders. As I struggled to make friends, he was the first person to reach out and make me feel I wasn’t alone. I’m not the outgoing type and I don’t really need to hang out with friends a lot but living in the Japanese countryside and not being fluent in Japanese is a recipe for being shunned by most locals. Two years ago, on our first few months in the job, he organized a gathering for us with the teachers and school staff. To have a respected figure at work organize something and invite everyone was comforting because coming to Japan was like starting from scratch.
No one knows about your background. Being respected back home doesn’t mean you would be when you work abroad. In fact, in some countries, Japan included, they’ll probably doubt you and wait until you’ve proven you’re a competent employee and a trustworthy person. It seems like it took a year for many co-workers and friends to open up. Unfortunately, teachers and school staff get reshuffled each year so it’s like starting all over again after a year.
In the three years we’ve worked with our kind-hearted Principal, he regularly organized a gathering at least once a semester, often enough to make me feel like I’m regularly catching up with old friends. We ate to our hearts’ content, chitchatted a lot with me speaking a Japanese word or two, and sometimes went to karaoke. Even if more than two years have passed from the very first gathering and many of them work in different schools, the sight of their familiar faces remind me of the difficulties of my first year here and the friendship that they offered me.