The world does (not?) revolve around America

At the beginning of March, I started writing a blog post. I had just recently passed my one year anniversary of living in Japan and had been jotting down notes and observations here and there to report on. Topics ranged from the tediousness of Japan’s bureaucratic government, breaking down Japanese stereotypes, and this map on the wall of a Japanese school I attended for a few months. It was a map of the world with Japan kind of centered along with the massive Pacific ocean, like this one: 

I don’t think I had ever seen a map from this angle before and at the time it did well to epitomize some realizations I had been having recently about how America is not the center of the world. So back in March I came up with this tentative blog title “The world does not revolve around America.”

I had noticed that, when living abroad, you are constantly reminded that just because something is important or famous in your home country doesn’t mean it is worldwide. For example, famous athletes, musicians, actors and movies that my generation has come to think of as common knowledge are often completely unknown to many foreigners (with the exceptions of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, here pronounced “Brado Peeto”).

A simple game of 20 questions to practice “wh-” question words proves near impossible, with Kim Jong-Un and Donald Trump being the most common answers. I was surprised and relieved to find that when I polled several twenty something year-old girls, none of them had heard of the Kardashians (or to my horror, NSYNC).

But then March happened and, like the rest of the world, my life got sidetracked and the blog post went unfinished. Fast forward six months and another WordPress subscription fee and I decided I didn’t want to pay for this blog site anymore. I wasn’t using it, I didn’t feel motivated to write, after all it’s a travel blog and I can’t travel. But I didn’t want to lose my content so I set to work printing the website to pdf. Meanwhile, I came across a half finished blog sitting in draft titled “The World does not revolve around America” and realized I wasn’t so sure I agreed with the title anymore.

In early April, as I watched the COVID-19 cases in Japan slowly increase and started worrying about my income, I applied for a position with an online English company called Cambly. Cambly is a website that gives its worldwide users instant access to English speakers through its video chat platform. The site doesn’t require the “teachers” to have any sort of certification as most users just want conversation practice. So you can imagine the massive influx of job applications they received in March and April as millions of native English speakers around the world lost their jobs.

So despite my TEFL certification and teaching experience I wasn’t accepted until mid June. By this point I had managed to gather several private students to supplement my income enough, so at $0.17 cents per talking minute, I wasn’t really interested anymore. However, Japan had recently reopened their economy at warp speed 🙄 and with a second wave of infections upon us, I figured I’d give it a shot.

It’s been one hell of an experience.

  • After starting with two wonderful students (from the Dominican Republic and Egypt) I answered the third caller to find him masturbating on camera. I have since learned how to keep the camera off for students using their “free 5 minute trial lesson” and it’s never (at least to my knowledge) happened again. Gross.
  • I had to get used to teaching non-Japanese students! In fact, the majority of Cambly users are from the Middle East so in many cases I don’t know much, if anything, about their country or culture. I had not realized how heavily I had been relying on knowing about the country where my students lived. While the majority of callers are from Saudi Arabia, I’ve also talked to students from Afghanistan, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, and the UAE, to name a few. My Middle Eastern geography has really improved!
  • It’s amazing how people from every corner of the globe are dealing with the same massive problem at the same time. I can ask someone from Morocco, Russia, and Vietnam “So…how are things there?” and they know exactly what I’m referring to. Within an hour a six-year-old in South Korea and a 70-year-old in Brazil can tell me about how the corona virus is affecting each of them.
  • I’ve had several students start the conversation by asking if I’m a Trump supporter. So far they all seem to be screening to ensure I’m not one, as they had all had bad experiences with “them” in the past. It’s interesting how being a Trump-supporter has become synonymous with your opinions about the corona virus, mask-wearing, vaccines, the BLM Movement, looting, and a million other issues they might want to discuss.

Which brings me to how the world kind of does revolve around America and why I was second guessing my blog title. The US’s complete failure in dealing with this pandemic has impacted English learners across the globe. Beyond cancelled jobs and plans to study abroad, 99% of the topics they want to discuss stem from the US. My 22-year-old Afghani student asked me if Andrew Cuomo will run for president. A Vietnamese student asked me about something Anthony Fauci said. I’ve been asked why they keep calling these racist white women “Karen”, or what will happen if RBG dies before the election. When comparing case counts, everything is looked at in comparison to the US, which I use as an opportunity to teach the phrase “you’re comparing apples and oranges.”

Keeping up with the news has become like homework for me so that I can speak intelligently about any American issue that might come up in class. So while 20 somethings in Japan may not know who the Kardashians are, what happens in the US, for better or worse, has far-reaching affects on the world.

Meanwhile, in moving abroad I feel like I’ve gotten more than I bargained for. Living and working abroad was supposed to be adventure enough, I didn’t sign on for experiencing a global pandemic in a foreign country! But as the Japanese (and Trump?) say, しょうがないよ (it is what it is). So, here are some observations about life as an expat in the year 2020:

  • I know the grass is always greener on the other side/always want what we don’t have and all that, but I’ve never been more jealous of people who are living with their families during this time. As such, I’ve found myself drawn to keeping up with other single friends living alone through this ordeal. I almost feel like traveling solo for a year was my training for living alone during a global pandemic lockdown. At least then I had some control over when I wanted to be with people or alone. Thank goodness for FaceTime (Zoom, Skype, Messenger, Hangouts, Line, Instagram, etc.) and for my family and friends for making the effort to do it!
  • Despite the virus having a presence in Japan probably well before the US, I think because it hit the US so much harder I immediately felt a sense of guilt for not being there. It’s not that my being there would make a difference, I know it’s an illogical emotion but I feel it nonetheless. Maybe contributing to this guilt is that a lot of people seem to assume I would return to the US. As international flights started to disappear, I’ll admit I gave it a fair bit of thought. There was (and still is) the chance that I could be stuck here for some indefinite period of time. If the plan for Japan were always “stay for about a year” it would make sense to call it quits now, but that was never the plan. Maybe if there weren’t a ban on foreign residents re-entering Japan I’d consider returning for a while, but Japan is where I live, so for now I plan on riding this one out here.
Emails like this from the US Embassy in Tokyo didn’t help…
  • The other day a student asked me what the hardest part of teaching was. For me, it’s having to put on a good face even when I’m not feeling it. Even before the pandemic I found this to be true. We all have those days when we just want to go to work and keep our heads down, but with teaching that’s really not possible. The pandemic has added another layer to that as, in addition to my unpredictable mood swings, my students are also dealing with a myriad of frustrating and depressing issues themselves. There are times when I feel like I’m doubling as a therapist, or when a student asks me a question that unknowingly to them (I hope) puts me on the verge of tears.
  • My emotions have run the gamut (thanks mom and dad for rolling with them) and I think along with everyone else I’ve been experiencing various forms of anger, fear, and sadness. As the months slip by I think most often I feel stunted. I started a new job one week before Japan declared a state of emergency, I was just starting to make some really good friends and had plans to do a bunch of fun stuff with them, I really felt like I was hitting my stride in this strange country when life came to a halt. For someone who has always struggled a bit with finding a direction in life, it’s been especially hard to hit the pause button.
Ooooh the good ol’ days of January 2020.
  • And lately I feel a lot of jealously. Through Cambly I talk to students from other Asian countries like Taiwan, China, Vietnam, and South Korea, which have seemingly contained the virus and largely returned to life as usual. I’m angry that Japan and the US’s mishandling of the virus has kept me from doing the same. And maybe even more so because, actually, it hasn’t. Despite a second wave of cases in Japan, and perhaps because of this apples to oranges comparison to the US, a lot of people feel the risk in Japan isn’t very high and are going about their life as usual (plus a mask). I feel like I’m having to constantly defend my choice to stay in, while simultaneously feeling jealous of those who aren’t.
  • I ran into a neighbor in my building’s lobby a few weeks ago. I hadn’t seen her for a while because I stay in my room, and she asked me “What have you been doing for fun?” I was immediately annoyed by the question. I thought, “Is that a joke? How can anyone be having fun right now?” But the question stuck with me for a few days and actually ended up motivating me to find some corona-safe fun. So here’s my answer:

I’ve been creating mini tourist adventures to neighborhoods I can reach by bicycle. I never owned a bicycle in San Francisco but it’s hands down my favorite purchase in Japan. I love the feeling of freedom and fresh air, and my mood is immediately lifted when I go for a ride. Mostly I go to parks and Japanese gardens.

I’ve been following the flower seasons in Tokyo (cherry blossoms, roses, wisteria, tulips, hydrangeas, and sunflowers):

I’ve developed a deep and slightly dependent love for podcasts which have kept me feeling connected, especially to the US. Weeknights I look forward to hearing Michael Barbaro of the NYT podcast The Daily say “It’s Monday, August 10th” and even in Japan, it is. The time difference had never bothered me before but something about being on the same day as the US for even that short period of time has been calming lately. A few others I’m hooked on: My Favorite Murder, No Stupid Questions, and In the Dark.

In printing my blog I’ve been reminded I like writing. (By the way, sorry to followers for the Switzerland post false alarm…no, unfortunately I’m not in Switzerland for Part 2, just needed to shorten that post for print!) Even though this post might be a bit depressing, it feels good to get it down on paper and has forced me to work through some of my emotions. Maybe I’ll keep it after all…By the way, SodaPDF is a cool tool for printing blogs to pdf!

I’ve been living in the same apartment for over one year now, which I think is the longest I’ve lived in the same place in about four years. Since I find myself spending a LOT of time at home lately, I’ve been drawing some inspiration from my time in Denmark by practicing Hygge. Despite having no skills as a decorator I’m quite proud of how I’ve made my apartment my own and it finally feels like home!

A couple of times I’ve invited one or two friends over to hang out on my rooftop. It’s incredibly refreshing to get that face time in with friends but I always feel stressed and guilty afterwards. Pandemics are so confusing!

From some random Instagram post I learned that we can see the International Space Station with our naked eye, EVEN in super light polluted Tokyo! The first time I saw it I was so blown away that I watched it many more times throughout the week and I’m eagerly waiting for it to orbit my part of the world again. Beyond the fact that it’s just “cool,” I think it serves as a good reminder of the amazing things we as a species (and particularly scientists!) can accomplish. Since its launch in 1998, nearly 250 individuals from 19 countries have visited this flying piece of metal orbiting the Earth 16 times a day. Surely we can beat a global pandemic. Here’s the site for anyone interested (and apologies if it doesn’t visit your neck of the woods!):

Finally…food! (Some things never change). After working weeknights for about a year, at first I was really excited to be able to cook dinners again. As they say, be careful what you wish for…

Stay safe everyone. ❤️

18 thoughts on “The world does (not?) revolve around America

  1. iluvla88

    Emily! This is such a wonderful post – we’ve missed hearing of your adventures in Japan. Glad to see you are making lemonade from lemons 😉 Stay safe and healthy! Amy Ps: my new email is:

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. tgatvegas

    So appreciated your post Emily. You are a very thoughtful and insightful person. The pandemic has created multiple opportunities to reflect which is a good thing. The isolation is challenging though. Your parents have become our closest friends in Las Vegas, and it seems surreal to now have gone several months without physically seeing them, but we remind ourselves having that friendship for years to come is more important than risking serious illness in the short term, so we stay apart. It has become a strange and surrealist world for sure!! Thanks again for sharing and not canceling your blog!!

  3. Debbie LeVay

    Welome back Em!

    I’ve missed you and your blog posts. This one was especially transparent and beautifully written.

    Yes, it is true we’re all going through the same thing and the highs and lows effect all of us differently, but I continue to marvel at your bravery. Just starting a new job, living in Japan and beginning a vibrant social life had to be very difficult when the pandemic hit and everything came to a brutal halt.

    You are a true warrior. Your insight into your emotional state and your ability to expand your knowledge by assisting your students as a therapist/teacher/mentor is exemplary.

    I truly enjoy our FaceTime chats and our Instagram conversations.

    I love and miss you honey,
    Aunt Debbie

  4. Bonnie Landini

    Great to hear from you ! Love reading your posts and seeing the world through your eyes! Hang in there…….weird world we live in these days! Im glad they hate Trump as much as we do!!! Post some of your recipes……looks yummy! And love that you’re riding your bike and watching the flowers bloom! Hugs to you💗🙏💗

  5. Hello Emily!

    Amy sent your post to me. It’s wonderful. You are wonderful. I know my Mom had a very special place in her heart for you. She loved the combination of articulate and adventuresome. Despite what it may feel like in the moment-to-moment, you are dealing with an utterly absurd, outrageous and profoundly unfair situation with remarkable grace, insight and humor. And the food looks pretty good, too. I’ll be over as soon as the coast is clear…



  6. Hi Emily,
    I still really enjoy reading your posts. So glad to hear you are safe, healthy and figuring things out. I guess even in a pandemic you do not miss tax work, LOL!
    Keep posting


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