By Lauren Salisbury
Fuji City, Japan
I’d spent a packed weekend with other teachers playing volleyball, eating a gluttonous steak dinner and squealing out multiple hours of karaoke. In the prefecture-wide volleyball tournament I’d injured my thumb; at the steakhouse I was the only one who chose steak instead of hamburger, potatoes instead of rice; and in the karaoke room, only four songs in four hours were sung in a language I could understand. Yet when the pictures were developed and circulated through the teachers’ room, I smiled inwardly at the undeniable expression on my face: in this place so far away from home, I was happy.
With little time to recover after a busy weekend, Monday was challenging. The third-year students were preparing for college entrance exams. With test day looming, they wrote short English compositions that I was responsible for correcting each day. The afternoon was spent with my good friend and fellow English teacher, Mayumi, as we struggled to come up with a grammar rule that explained why you can say “this summer” and “in summer,” but not “in this summer.” My grammar knowledge is strong, but as a respected language teacher you must limit the use of “because it sounds right” as a satisfactory explanation.
By that evening I needed to unwind alone, outside of my apartment. I wanted a coffee-shop atmosphere, but as I live among tea fields in the suburbs of Fuji, Mos Burger was my best bet. It was a rare occasion and I decided Japan’s native fast-food chain, along with a good book, would help me relax. I ordered oshiruko, a kind of sweet, red-bean soup with rice cakes, and pulled out a novel.
A few minutes later, two uniformed girls plopped down in my booth. I looked up to greet them with a shocked face — I was amazed they sat down without even speaking to me first. Usually young students are too shy and polite to approach with such nonchalance. But in Mos Burger the girls were more willing to speak English, as if being off school property gave them more leeway to make mistakes.
We had a great discussion about pet rabbits, cram school and traveling in Australia. It was a special opportunity to know the students better, without a list of rote phrases for them to memorize. The girls downed their burgers quickly before biking to cram school. We said goodbye and once again I was alone with my book.
About two hours later, I felt someone staring at me. So many people stare outside of Tokyo that I didn’t take notice, until the man did something no stranger had done before: he spoke to me in English. “Excuse me, may I talk with you?” the man asked politely.
He was a fairly attractive, middle-aged businessman. In his tailored, expensive suit, he looked out of place behind a burger wrapper and a crinkled paper cup. I realized then that he finished eating some time ago, and had been staring for longer than I thought. My reaction to strangers who approach me unsolicited is to totally reject them, especially if I am alone and the stranger is male. I’ve never felt unsafe in Japan, but I’m not one to throw such caution to the wind, so I was annoyed and nervous when this man spoke to me. Who cares how nice or affluent he looked? I’m a young, single female; can’t he see that I’m alone? How rude of him to put me in this uncomfortable situation. His language skills were far too advanced for the “I just want to practice my English” excuse.
“Actually, I have to finish this,” I said, pointing at my book with urgency. I made my expression as pained as possible. “I’m sorry.”
“Oh, I see,” he responded, looking incredibly disappointed, and worse, lonely.
Turning back to my book, I started to feel guilty. Guilty! Why did I feel guilty? I began to rationalize. All the kindness you have been shown by strangers in this country, and you can’t even speak to this man in a well-lit, public place. Maybe he looks lonely for a good reason. Maybe he was just trying to add a little variety to his boring night at Mos Burger. Maybe you should put down the book and talk to him. Besides, your bus comes in 30 minutes, so you have an excuse to leave if he’s awful. I looked up at him then, debating whether or not to get his attention after turning him down. But soon the man glanced back at me, made eye contact, and said, “May I just ask you one question?”
So I agreed, and ended up having a very pleasant, entertaining conversation with this man who had just moved from Tokyo. He missed the big city, and he was bored. Although he had never lived abroad, his English was superb and he was obviously an intelligent, well-spoken man. Towards the end of the conversation he asked my name. The fact that he never asked for my contact information made me feel safer. So I told him my name was Lauren, and then I sang a tune just loud enough to reach his ears. Japanese people tend to pronounce my name like “rolling,” and during more than one introduction, men have burst into song with, “Rollin’ rollin’ rollin’, rawhide!” When I sang the chorus I was hoping to make this man laugh. But instead, he seemed quite serious, almost sad, and said, “What does that mean, anyway, ‘rolling’? I know it means moving on…” he made a forward-rolling motion with his hands. “So that must mean you have a wandering spirit — never in one place for too long.”
And for only the second time he looked straight into my eyes. I didn’t say anything but just smiled at him. I felt oddly exposed after his comment, as if he’d unexpectedly pegged my character 20 minutes into the conversation.
“Wandering spirit,” I repeated. “Yes, maybe so.”
While the idea made me happy, it only seemed to make him sad. In my experience, the Japanese barely express their emotions in public, much less to someone they hardly know. The secret is to watch their eyes. Even if they don’t make eye contact, you can gather a lot of information not only from inside them, but also from around them; for many Japanese people, stress or sadness will show in the delicate skin around the eyes. And I could see, just barely, that his muscles tensed when I said that.
Much later, I remembered a conversation I had with Mayumi. We were running through a temple garden like children, excited by the discovery of such a beautiful place so close to our school. The grounds were green and lush even in winter, fed by water that trickled down from the clean snow atop Mt. Fuji. Bright green moss fell over the smooth stones like a long velvet gown.
“Look,” I demanded. “It’s so beautiful.”
“Mm-hmm,” Mayumi agreed. Then she knitted her brows. “Don’t you say, ‘A rolling stone gathers no moss?”
I smiled at her and laughed as the peaceful landscape blurred with my visions of Mick Jagger and that huge red tongue.
“Right,” I said, returning my attention to the green fuzz. “That’s one example of how our cultures can be totally opposite,” she pressed. “You think it’s good to keep moving, because gathering moss means you’ve been in one place for too long.”
“Yeah,” I blinked. “Moving is adventure, and adventure is exciting.”
Movement and adventure are a crucial exercise of freedom. At least, this is my Americanized, individualist point of view. Leaving everything behind to live someplace new was in large part why I came to Japan. My main goal was to learn more about Japanese culture — what motivates these kind and generous people in a world so different from, yet so related to, my own. But the other reason I moved to Japan was because there was nothing holding me in America. I wanted to take advantage of that freedom, so I accepted the challenge, and I moved.
Every day I try to appreciate the immense privilege it is to be here: to step inside another culture and immerse myself in a different world, all the while knowing that I possess a very special trait perhaps Japanese people do not: if I start to gather moss, I can choose to roll. I can leave Japan for another place the same way I left my home for Japan. As a JET participant, this is ultimately what distinguishes me from others in Japan. Many times I’ve thought that I could settle in Japan, because I’m happy enough to consider it a home. And many times my friends in America have asked me, “How do you do it? How did you pick up and move to this place where you knew no one, where the customs were different, and the food was unfamiliar? You’re so brave.”
Perhaps the strength to jump into something new comes from the knowledge that I can choose to leave it. And I ask myself, is this actual bravery? Have I earned a badge of courage? The rolling stone may seem impressive, but the truly courageous rock is the one that gathers moss.
This was never as clear to me as when I sat in zazen (Zen meditation) at the same temple. With a modest knowledge of Zen Buddhism and a far cry from any stage of Enlightenment, I learned something during meditation that might have never occurred to me otherwise. My third time sitting in zazen, I finally noticed a pattern. Very soon into the meditation–indeed, within the first three minutes–I would begin to panic. The temple interior was quiet, the monk was kind and the rain outside was soothing; yet in those initial moments of sitting still, my heart rate would increase, my breathing would become labored and my head would scream with the desire to wiggle, shift my weight, clear my throat, scratch my nose — anything to move. It had nothing to do with comfort, because I would sit immobile for another twenty to thirty minutes without any lasting problems. On the contrary, it had everything to do with a fear of sitting still. I feared the chains of immobility and the (albeit temporary) suspension of freedom; I feared time moving too slowly and even stopping; I feared that 30 minutes would become an eternal commitment I could not escape…in short, I feared I would gather moss.
Surrounded by old monks who couldn’t speak my language, one of them carrying a large stick to whack anyone who moved, I had no choice but to accept it and sit still. Eventually, I could simply watch the panic rise in me, knowing that it would subside, and that sitting still would later bring a deep sense of peace. Before I could make this connection, however, Mayumi had to teach me something.
“In Japan, we think the moss is beautiful. We have the same expression, but with a completely opposite meaning. We also say ‘a rolling stone gathers no moss.’ But we want the moss. If you never stay in one place, you’ll never grow any. Sometimes it’s good to just be still.”
I gazed at the stones, lost too deeply in her words to respond. I thought moving to Japan required courage, and to a certain extent, this is true. But perhaps the real test will come when I leave Japan, when I commit to a career and a place, perhaps a significant other and choose to settle. It will be another form of adventure altogether: I must forge a lifestyle that incorporates the knowledge gained from rolling down foreign hills and from gathering moss elsewhere. Perhaps that part of life will be more painful than sitting in zazen — but I hope that it will be equally rewarding.
It wasn’t until much later, relaxing at an onsen, that it occurred to me why my “rolling” joke may have dampened the Japanese man’s spirit. Maybe he was hoping I would just sit still.
Since teaching English in Japan, Lauren has pursued a career in the fragrance industry, which has enabled her to combine her love of travel, art, and science. She is a contributing writer to the perfume blog Bois de Jasmin and also offers fragrance reviews on her website, The Little Nose.
English Teacher with Schoolgirls: gwaar
Woman Reading in Cafe: Lordcolus
Mt Fiji: jt3776
Woman in Meditation: Hartwig HKD
Rolling Stone Gathers No Moss: Kate Ter Haar