I once had an apartment in Sapporo…
Sorry, I share with Betty White an unreasonable fondness for the movie Out of Africa. But that’s how I always think about my short time in Japan–this huge journey to another land, a journey that taught me quite a bit but which was, in the end, a bittersweet experience. To get to that story, though, just as the movie had to get to its heroine’s coffee plantation, we have to go back in time a little–in this case, ten years before the fateful day I boarded the plane.
When I was thirteen, my family moved to Alabama and I discovered misery and depression for the first time in my life. Not like life had been easy before moving there, but dangit, at least I’d been happy. I’d been this little forest and beach nymph, barefoot and frolicking, outdoors as often and for as long as I could manage it or riding my bike everywhere or making tree forts out of whatever I could find. That changed when we moved to a boring, sweltering Southern state where everybody seemed to hate me and where I had nothing to do outside except be miserable and hot. I quickly became a recluse, discovering a new internal world of marathon reading, Atari video games, gaming on both tabletop and board, and… anime.
I still remember the first anime I saw: Space Cruiser Yamato, which called itself at the time Star Blazers. The idea behind it was utterly different from anything else I had ever seen: this retrofitted old Japanese battleship had to fly to another far-away planet, get the cure for a plague on Earth, and return before the damage became irreversible. The crew had one year in which to save their world. At the end of every episode, there’d be a timer ticking to show how many days were left.
I was hooked from the very first episode of it that I saw. The big problem at that point was that the show came on every weekday at 3:30 where I lived, while school let out at 3:00. I lived a solid 40 minutes away from school. If I took the bus home, that time became an hour, though at least it’d be a comfortable hour reading; if I walked on the approved route to get home, even at brisk pace it’d take 40 minutes reach the house–and every minute spent enduring soul-destroying heat. That meant I’d miss almost half of the show, which was obviously unacceptable.
The other option was a washed-out huge pine-forest gulley right behind my school that lay directly between it and my home. It was regarded as a slightly dangerous place; there were no roads through it, only footpaths. You could walk into it and find ancient trilobites and other such fossils in its sandy red dirt, but you could also find people doing nefarious things. But because I could beeline through it, I quickly discovered that taking the gulley would shave about 10 minutes off my time.
The risks didn’t matter. I needed my fix. So I dragged my sister through that gulley every day, running at breakneck speed as long as we could, to get home by 3:30. And usually, we did. My parents, who both worked regular day shifts, never found out just what we did to get to the show. I don’t know if my little sister cared about it half as much as I did (she was, to borrow the phrase from Good Omens, built like a cheerful little football and largely oblivious to almost everything), but she very good-naturedly let me drag her at a sprint home every day to watch it, and sat with me while I did. I devoured this series every chance I could. In the summers there were re-runs, which let me fill in any episodes I’d missed earlier.
But after Mobile, my family was stationed in Houston, and that old adoration faded into the background as I rediscovered a social life and extracurricular activities. It’d take college to re-spark that affection. I found out there was an anime club on campus, and I decided I wanted to see more of the stuff I’d loved as a child. I dragged Biff to its weekly meetings like I’d once dragged my sister through the gulley, but he got hooked too. For the first time I had a partner who actually enjoyed the same nerdy, geeky thing I did. And it was awesome. (See, he wasn’t totally awful at first.)
At the time, there wasn’t a whole lot of anime available for English speakers in America. Bilingual fans who could translate would get their hands on Japanese-issued series and movies and subtitle them for their friends, and these were what we were watching. I cried along with them at Video Girl Ai‘s travails and metaphysical growth. I watched in horror as the Lodoss War unfurled (though much of it was a mystery because only half of what we got was subtitled). And we all laughed at the end, when these same fan-subtitlers would re-create fake and hilarious dialogue for the characters to put a whole different light on some very serious scene. Nobody seemed to care if I was dressed in the Pentecostal Burkha or if Biff wore his stupid handmade “fly or fry” buttons (btw, that’s not an exaggeration; he was famous on-campus for wearing one that said that, and other similar slogans beside). I’d found a community–and it wasn’t religious in any way.
And of course there were actual Japanese students among that the club’s members; sometimes the club would have these potluck dinners where Biff and I met some of these foreign students, learned about Japanese food, which was both generally good and completely new to me, and chatted up folks who’d traveled both ways and back. I’m pretty sure one of these meetings was where Biff got the idea about teaching English in Japan.
I don’t remember exactly when he began talking about it. We had been into Japanese food and culture for a while by then (I turned out to be really good at making okonomiyaki, a sort of seafood-and-cabbage snack pancake, though I didn’t like the taste of it much–I did mention I’m not much of a seafood fan, right?). It was around 1993 that he began making noise about moving there, not long after the Waco confrontation with David Koresh’s cult. We’d been married a few years and I was graduated from college and working full-time at something I liked–network administration and graphic art. Biff was having trouble graduating (he was two years older than me, but it seemed like he’d never get out) and finding his place in the world. It shouldn’t surprise me that he thought this new idea of his would turn out to be that “angle” he was always talking about, that “angle” that rich and successful people all seemed to have. See, he thought that if he could just find the “angle,” he’d be rich and successful too; it took luck and being aware of trends, and he thought that this new one was a surefire winner–but we had to jump on it before everybody else figured out that it was the angle.
Coincidentally, our god entirely agreed; he apparently began telling Biff in prayer that we needed to move to Japan immediately to teach English. In fact, our god also told him we’d become fabulously wealthy doing this, be able to do outreach to heathen Japanese people, and eventually live there forever and run a Christian dude ranch with horsies. Biff had gotten way way way into the Asian game go too, and he thought of Japan as this wonderful quaint place that loved white people and where he could learn go at the feet of true masters.
Anybody reading this post who has even the faintest bit of real-world experience on the subject of emigrating to Japan is wincing right now. I know. It gets worse, trust me.
When Biff broached the idea to me, I was already smack in the middle of deconverting, but I still had this firm idea that I should let him “lead” us as a couple because I still mistakenly thought that all couples needed a leader. My dad would ask me a few times after our breakup, “Did you really want to move to Japan? You can tell me honestly.” And I’d always tell him, sincerely, that yes, I kinda had; I’d had no real objections, or else I could have put my foot down. I had done so before, after all, when Biff had had crazy ideas. I could have stopped him if I’d wished. This idea wasn’t even the craziest thing he’d ever suggested. It all sounded like a real adventure, and I knew we were young and with relatively few things to risk. I didn’t seriously think we’d get rich and I really didn’t think our god had told him anything about moving there, but I thought at least we’d do something that most people never get to do. And if we were going to make the attempt, it would have to be then, while we had so little to risk. I thought, also mistakenly, that I didn’t care where I lived, so if Biff wanted to move to Japan, I was game to try along with him.
Biff really had no idea what was involved in moving anywhere, much less relocating permanently halfway across the world. He’d lived in one house his entire life and had only ventured out of his home state a couple of times under fairly carefully-controlled situations, though he nonetheless thought of himself as a seasoned world traveler. I was a military brat and thought I had considerably more experience on the subject, and could see a lot of places where things could go pear-shaped. I took on the role of Designated Adult as we planned how we would dispose of our things, put others into storage, acquire visas and whatnot, and survive once we were there. We decided to move to Sapporo, a fairly Western-style city on the northern island of Hokkaido, because it seemed like it’d be less of a culture shock to us. Er, sorry, I meant that “God” told Biff that it was totally his divine will that we go to Sapporo.
The matter of immediate employment was supremely important. We had a car payment and I had student loans that we intended to honor, and we had zero savings. Biff thought that if even one of us worked, we’d survive, because he had this idea that English teachers made like $60k/year, which turned out not to be the case even back then, but I didn’t know better so I took his word for it. The way he figured it, if both of us worked… we’d be totally rich! I did some job interviews in Houston before we left and had a couple of second-call interviews lined up in Japan, so I was confident I’d find a job, but we already knew that having a degree was important–it wasn’t essential or mandatory like it seems to be now, but at the time, it was still important. Biff did not have a degree, however. He was one or two semesters away from graduating. But not even his scientist dad could talk him into staying in Houston till he’d graduated; he wanted to go now, and he said that our god had told him he’d find a job just fine.
I should probably mention that neither of us spoke beyond a word or two of Japanese in case that fact wasn’t completely self-evident and y’all weren’t already cringing hard enough to hurt yourselves.
Biff’s solution to the zero-savings problem was to sign us up for every single credit card he could get his hands on. I’m not even exaggerating or kidding here. Our god had apparently totally told him to do that too. He saw the entire preparation for the trip as one divine miracle after another and one clearly-laid-out divine-will step after another. In practical matters, I think he saw the trip as a gamble, and the debt he was getting us into was just part of the entrance fee to the game. I’m still not sure why I didn’t stop him, as reluctant as I was to see all those cards in his wallet.
So on one wintry-cold morning, we packed our car with two cat carriers–our kitties were coming with us, of course; we already had their shots and papers ready, and we had studied Japan’s fairly loose entrance requirements for cats–and a bunch of essentials and set off for his dad’s retirement cottage up north. He’d keep our car safe for us till we could send for it. From there we’d fly to Los Angeles, then I think to Hawaii, then to Seoul, then to Shin Chitose Airport in Hokkaido, where one of my potential employers’ representatives would meet us. We had a hotel lined up already, the name of which I thought was “Weekly Mansion” (which I think was actually a type of extended-stay hotel, not necessarily the name of it at all), where we’d stay until we could find a more permanent accommodation.
We got our passports, which was quite a kerfluffle in itself as I’m half adopted by my mom’s second husband, so all that had to get ironed out, and then we got our visas in order. We’d go on a tourist visa, which troubled me quite a bit as we were seeking employment, but apparently this was how you had to do it; I told Biff that if we had not found regular employment–both of us–by the time the visas expired, we were coming back home, and that this was not negotiable. He good-naturedly agreed–because why in the world would we not find jobs? Japan loved white people and jobs were everywhere for us!
I want to stress that Biff had no backup plan at all here. He would have been indignant over the idea that he might ever need one. He was still one-hundred-and-crazy-percent invested in Christianity and was completely convinced that “God” had told him to do this thing, and he didn’t think that there was any way a god-given plan could ever fail (though I think a few Republican presidential contenders could fill him in there). He put up with my questions and preparations, but got noticeably twitchy if I began talking about what might happen if we failed. We had arguments about how little I seemed to trust “God.” He didn’t even want to try to make any plans for the worst-case scenario, because he thought it meant he didn’t trust “God.” Moreover making such plans might make “God” cause us to fail, since it was well-known to folks in our church that this deity did that kind of thing when he got peeved. (Scare quotes because, obviously, I don’t think anything going on here involved any real deities.)
I had a lot of misgivings about this trip, but when I joke about calling my autobiography It Sounded Like a Good Idea at the Time, this whole adventure would be just one case in point demonstrating that title. I look at this post and just have to laugh at how naive I was and how many innocent but catastrophic mistakes I made.
But there was one thing I understood immediately: just like the starfaring crew of the Yamato surely understood in that anime that had first gotten me hooked on the genre, Biff and I had a ticking clock that would be in the back of my mind at all times while we were there: tourist visas lasted 90 days, if I remember correctly. So we had 90 days to accomplish our goal.
Every single second was going to count.