A (Miserable) Christmas Tale
As Christmas approaches, I’m on the verge of proposing to my girlfriend. It stands to be one of the most happiest and memorable nights of my life.
Of course, not every Christmas has the happy, It’s a Wonderful Life ending.
To my fellow Gaijin who find themselves in Japan during December, or may one day be in a position to be in Japan come December, I really only have one piece of advice for you: GET THE HELL OUT. GO NOW, GO GO GO. As an American, Christmas was always my favorite time of the year. Presents aside, it was just a nice time to come together with family, and the ones that matter most.
Needless to say, Japan’s a bit different. Christmas isn’t even a real holiday, and is more or less a day for couples. However, the Japanese population that isn’t working their butts off probably goes back to their family and loved ones anwyay, and as most other Gaijin use this time as a perfect travel opportunity, Japan can be a very lonely place come Christmas time. Which is part of why I recommend not staying. The other part is that Japan has the annoying habit of repeating George Michael’s “Last Christmas”/Mariah Carey’s “All I Really Want For Christmas” approximately 15 billion times. Seriously, if you even liked these songs before (do such people actually exist?), you won’t after a winter in Japan.
So really, don’t stay in Japan during Christmas unless you have a really, really good reason to be here. This year, I can safely say I do. As I said before, it stands to be one of the best moments of my life. But once…well…it was the worst.
I’ve never really talked about my ex in detail…and I don’t know why I’m about to now. For the curious, read on.
I met my first girlfriend not long after I arrived in Japan. We dated for a year, and then she went to America for study abroad while I remained on JET. The plan was that we’d do long distance for a year, then I would go back to America and we’d re-unite. Long-distance turned out to be a lot harder than I’d thought. At first I appreciated the new-found freedom, but it wasn’t long before I just missed her more than anything else.
I ended up taking two trips back to America, one in October and one in November. In October, I returned to San Francisco for various reasons, and she came out to see me for a weekend. Our weekend turned out to be less than stellar. Because of this, and how she’d constantly been saying she didn’t know what she was going to do for Thanksgiving, I decided to go out to see her specifically in November. Unfortunately, this trip proved to be a disaster. The times we weren’t fighting, she remained distant and aloof.
As a result, I ended up stuck in Japan for Christmas. My original plan was to be in Japan during December anyway – she’d be back for winter vacation for a whole three weeks, and we could spend Christmas together. But now, I really didn’t have a choice. Traveling internationally is expensive, but doing so twice in two months? I had no money left. Not like “Oh, I want to see a movie but I can’t really afford to…” broke, like “I have no idea how I’m going to find enough money to buy rice” broke. Money problems aside, I knew our relationship was hurting, and I thought that her three weeks in Japan would be a good time to start the healing process.
The week before she was due back, I was platooned at the Ghetto School. With most of the major term exams over, classes had for the most part winded down. I had little to no classes, and nothing better to do than to sit at my desk. I planned to meet her at the airport when she arrived, so inspiration struck me and I decided to make her a “Welcome Home” sign. I got supplies from the storage room and working on my project on my desk in the teacher’s room.* I wrote “Okaeri” in Japanese, and drew various pictures representing things she likes and things we’d done together. I’m no artist at all, but if I really concentrate and dedicate myself to the task, I can create something passable at least. The teachers would come by and see my project, and I would explain what I was making, and they’d all call me a sweet and wonderful boyfriend.
One teacher, I believe I christened her Ultimate Nag in an editorial past, took a look at my work and found a problem. “Your ‘e’ is a little flat”, she says. “The end curves up a little bit.” Now, that’s all well and good, but I’d already colored and outlined the letters by this point. Trying to fix this minor problem would have just made things messy. I smiled and said I’d get right on it, with no intention of actually doing so. However, she comes back a few hours later, and again points out my sub-standard “e”. “You should really fix that, it’s not technically correct” she says. And you wonder why I call her “Ultimate Nag”.
*During my early years on JET, I was inexperienced and didn’t realize that you shouldn’t really do things at your desk that betray the fact that you’re not working.
Anyway, I finished my “Okaeri” sign, and on the Saturday she was due to arrive in Japan, I headed for the airport. She’d bought her tickets a few months ago, and then a schedule change allowed her to come back 3 days earlier than the original ticketing. At first, we planned to keep the schedule change a secret – she’d come and spend the time with me, and then go back to her family. However, her parents ended up finding out about the schedule change and, none too happy, demanded she come straight home after her flight arrived. She told me that, in light of this, I didn’t have to meet her at the airport.
And perhaps it would have been wise to stay at home. From where I lived, a round-trip to Kansai International Airport costs 4000 yen. I had about 4500 yen to my name. I could stretch 4500 yen into basic meals for 2, maybe 3 weeks. But, I wanted to meet her at the airport. I knew all too well the sadness of arriving at an airport and having no one be there to greet you. I wanted to at least ride the train back with her to Kyoto. I’d worry about eating some other time.
I arrived at the airport a few hours early. She probably didn’t think I was coming, I didn’t want to take the chance of missing her flight. I sat down with my sign in front of the gates and patiently waited. It gave me a chance to observe a lot of things. For example, cultural differences. Watching flight attendants for Asian airlines come through the gates, I noticed that they were all young, attractive women. Thin, shapely, in their neat uniforms with scarves and high-heels and pressed skirts. American airline flight attendants were much older, not quite as thin, and quite a few were male.
Airports are both the happiest and saddest place on Earth. Sitting at the gate, I watched a lot of tearful reunions. The weary traveler would come through the gate, and upon seeing their loved ones, dash straight to them and embrace. Fathers scooped up their children and twirled them around. Lovers embraced and shared a kiss, oblivious to their surroundings (this was mostly foreign couples though). I couldn’t help but to think of my own wounded relationship – what kind of reunion would we have?
A few hours later, I got my answer. As passengers from her flight began to filter through the gates, I stood up with my sign. I was the only one with a brightly-colored welcome home sign. It was a little embarrassing, but it was okay. From her stories, she’d had a rough time in America, and I figured this was the least I could do for her. She came through the gates, looked up, and recognized me – she smiled, waved…and then proceeded to head straight for the currency conversion booth.
Needless to say, it wasn’t the reunion I was expecting.
I waited while she passed through the line, getting her US dollars turned into Japanese yen. When she finished, she came over to me and said something to the effect of “Oh, so you came after all? Thanks! Well, shall we get going?” “What, no hug?” I ask. “Oh yeah” she says, and gives me a cursory hug.
Perhaps it was a result of the break-down our relationship had been going through for the past few months, or perhaps it was because I’d spent the past few hours watching tearful, loving reunions at the very same gate…but this was so far detached from what I’d been expecting, that I began to cry. This was the first of only two times that I would actually cry about the whole miserable situation. She asked me what was wrong – I just couldn’t find the words to say anything. “Don’t worry about it, I’m fine.” I said.
As she always does, she began to get angry at the thought of me being upset or otherwise not happy. On the platform to catch the train back to Kyoto, she verbalizes her discontent – “That’s not fair to me you know, obviously there’s something bothering you and you won’t tell me what it is.” I told her that that was my line to her. Over the past few months our relationship had been peppered with lies, with inconsistencies, detachment, and secrets. She’d done a good job of pushing me away, and now that I was troubled she was upset that I wasn’t sharing? Seriously?
She said “We need to have a serious talk. But not here. Not now. Later.” I don’t know how or why, but suddenly I gained an almost Jedi-like sense of clarity here. Literally, it was like someone turned on a switch in my head, and suddenly I knew. I really should have known before, but now everything was crystal clear.
“There’s someone else, isn’t there?” I ask her.
Her head drops. “Yes.” She says softly.
“And, you like him more than me?” Though I phrase this as a question, really, I know its not.
Her head drops a little more. “Yes.” she says.
The train back to Kyoto is substantially less than pleasant. I have her tell me about this new guy – she lies to make herself look not as deceitful as she’s been. Either way, its a guy she’s only known for a month, two at best. “Are you really ready to throw away our relationship for a guy you’ve only known for a couple of months?” I ask. “It’s not like that!” she says. In other words, “yes”.
One excruciating hour later, as the train arrives at Kyoto Station, I stand up and walk off, never looking back. If things had truly ended here, I don’t think I would have had the contempt for her (and subsequently for Japanese girls for awhile) that I did. Of course, this sadly was not the end of the story, and things got so much more unbelievably fucked up and incomprehensible. Faithful readers may remember that the final nail in this coffin happened on my birthday in mid-January. I received Moeko’s Owl a few days later.
Of course, this year is different, markedly so. As I gear myself up for my plans this year, I couldn’t help but to think of my Christmas in Japan just a couple of years back. Sometimes, it helps to see where you’ve been, to help you get to where you want to go.
I think a lot of guys come to Japan with inflated notions of Japanese girls and dating and romance here. Sure, you might find someone special, but then there are also plenty of opportunities for gut-wrenching heartache as well. This makes Japan no different from any other country. If I could impart no other message to the young men coming to Japan for the first time, it would be this.
I hope you all have a warm and happy holiday with those who hold dear close to you in your hearts. As I’ve brought you all this far, I will be sure to include a proposal update/outcome after I’ve done it. Also, once I’m on vacation time, I’ll have time to write about things that are far, far more interesting.