Friday, May 09, 2008


I had always assumed that when people talked about making big plans and radical life changes that they never really meant it.

It's one thing to talk about wanting to shake things up. It's quite another to actually do it.

When I was living in Japan, I became friends with a young Japanese teacher who worked at the same junior high school I did. Tomoko was one of the few teachers who spoke her mind and whose emotions always bubbled close to the surface.

She loved her students but she hated her job. I found her weeping in the staffroom more than once.

The first time Tomoko burst into tears at work, some of the teachers got angry. When it happened a second time, they started to give her the cold shoulder.

To me, she just seemed like a normal 29-year-old stuck in a career she didn't enjoy.

In a way, we were both outsiders and I think that's what drew us together as friends. We started hanging out together after school and on weekends.

Tomoko was refreshingly open and honest. While most of the other teachers kept me in the dark about what was really going on at school, I could always count on Tomoko to give me the dirt. She told me about the kid who got suspended for biting a teacher, the kid who got busted for shoplifting hair spray and the teacher who was on the brink of divorce thanks to a pachinko addiction.

Tomoko was one of the most openly subversive Japanese people I'd ever met. She didn't like Japan, she didn't like the cultural emphasis on hard work and long hours, she didn't like her job, she didn't like Japanese men.

It's not that she was a negative person. She just felt like she wasn't living the kind of life she wanted to lead.

"I'm sick of Japan," she'd say. "I want to go to Canada."

She wanted to quit her job, move to Canada, work in a sushi restaurant, study English and date a Canadian man. Before I left Japan, she told me was going to apply for a one-year working visa.

I knew she was serious about wanting to come to Canada but I didn't think she'd actually do anything about it. It's not an easy thing to trade comfort and familiarity for risk and uncertainty. It takes a lot of courage to change.

So imagine my surprise when an email from Tomoko popped up in my inbox last month saying she had quit her job and booked a plane ticket to Vancouver. She had already lined up a host family, an English school and a possible job. And she was arriving at the end of April.

Talk about guts!

Tomoko has been in Vancouver for about two weeks now. Having her here is both weird and wonderful. It's weird because the context of our friendship has been reversed. Now she's the one adapting to life in a foreign country and I'm the one stuck in a career path I'm not sure I want to be on.

Having her here is wonderful because it's a reminder that my time in Japan isn't just a collection of photographs and memories that will fade over time. I made real friendships with people who will continue to be a part of my life for years to come.

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