Giving, Receiving, Sharing

We are taught from childhood that it is better to give than receive.  As a result, most of us spend the rest of our lives endeavoring to live up to this ideal.  We volunteer, we philanthropize, we try to make our lives “mean something,” which is really just another way of saying that we want to leave things better than we found them. 

Recently, Kim sent an update about her work in Vietnam and how she felt that she was getting more than she was giving.  I have always felt that way here, and while I did not come to Japan thinking I was going to revolutinize English education, I did think that I would have been able to teach them more than I did.  Looking back, I don’t really regret resorting to Japanese in the classroom, or the exclusive use of Japanese in the hallways or at lunch.  I don’t regret spending 20 minutes instead of 10 answering questions about myself and America in Japanese when I did my self-introductions.  I don’t regret it, but I do feel kind of guilty.  I enjoyed my work here, but I worry that I didn’t give anyone anything tangible or permanent.  I always felt that I was always on the receiving end of things and that nothing I could ever do would even come close to returning the kindnesses I have received. 

E and I talked about this on his last night here.  He said that while he felt the same way, that sometimes we can’t help but be on the receiving end of  things and so we should accept the kindnesses and gifts of others with grace.  When he said this, I thought briefly of how I’ve never won a bow-off in Japan.  Bow-offs are usually preceded by two people arriving at a door at the same time, or trying to sit in the same seat, etc.  When this happens, the two people begin bowing back and forth at each other murmuring, “douzo, douzo,” “please, please.”  The end result of a bow-off (who gets to go through the door first, who gets the seat, etc.) between two Japanese people is usually determined by things like age, gender or determination.  However, I have yet to hear of a foreigner who has been able to out-bow a Japanese person.  I have been out-bowed trying to give little old ladies my seat in a waiting room, or while trying to hold the door for my boss.  And always, I feel a little awkward because I know that if I’d been Japanese, it wouldn’t have played out like that.  It comes down to the fact that despite being young, despite being female, despite having a less important job, I am above all a foreigner, and therefore their guest.  Of course there’s a lot of bs surrounding that mentality, and oftentimes I wonder if it’s not a little self-serving, but I cannot help but be touched by people’s constant efforts to make my time here as wonderful as it’s been.  The last two weeks have been nothing but free food and parties and gifts and last minute new experiences.  Each time my thanks seems inadequate, my bows not low enough.  I get a desperate feeling when I realize I don’t even know how to express my gratitude in English; when I can’t believe that after two years of receiving too much, I am now receiving even more.  I think of my mother, who knows something about grace, and wish that I had paid more attention so that when I found myself in situations where I could not give, I would at least know how to graciously receive. 

More than anything, I am grateful to the people here for sharing their lives and their home with me.  I’ve always thought that sharing was a good compromise between giving and receiving.  It allows someone to receive without feeling like they’re imposing too much.  And perhaps that kindness (allowing someone to save face) is the real gift, as opposed to what is actually being shared.  I’m grateful to the people here for letting me feel as if I were a part of something, even if it was only for a little while.  I’m not sure how much of a mark I will leave, or even what kind of mark it is, but Tanegashima will always have a place in my heart.  As I drove Slim around this weekend, I kept thinking about how beautiful Tanegashima is and how lucky I am to have been sent here.  We had the option of choosing roughly where we wanted to go on the JET application, but I didn’t choose anywhere, instead deciding to let Fate choose for me.  Fate was kind, and sometimes I worry that I used up all my luck in that moment.  I told Slim how amazing it was to end up in this place that I might never have otherwise known existed.  It felt good and fitting to be able to spend my last weekend here sharing with someone else what has been shared with me. 

::sigh:: I wonder if it is human nature to feel inadequate.  I wonder if everyone feels that they get more than they give.  I can only hope one day to be better at both.   

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One Response to Giving, Receiving, Sharing

  1. I found your blog a year ago when I learned I would be placed somewhere in Japan called “Tanegashima.” I wondered then how I would feel about living there, and especially I wanted to hear the thoughts of someone who had been there (namely, you, dear predecessor).

    Back then, I first read this post sometime during my third month living on Tanegashima, when I was finally starting to unload my tensions and get used to life there. I marveled at the eloquence of your words, and wondered if someday I’d be able to express myself the way you express your thoughts (I don’t think that will happen).

    I wondered if I would feel the way you did, on the receiving end of an infinite well of kindness. I wondered how I would feel about my year there, when I had gotten to the point that I’d be looking back at it.

    As I try to read this post now, I can’t stop the tears streaming down my cheeks. Maybe I am just a sucker for people being kind to me. I cannot think about Tanegashima and my time there without crying. I am not sure if it’s because I miss it, or that I feel inadequate, or grateful, or guilty for not doing more, or a mixture of those and more emotions that I can’t start to explain. Perhaps, I tell myself, in a few weeks or months I’ll be able to think and talk about my time there without breaking down. For now, though, I’m not going to try to stop the tears.

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