If Hollywood is to be believed, then gap years are the sole domain of white folks “finding themselves” in foreign lands.
From Sean Penn’s accidental comedy Into the Wild, in which a diary entry that keeps threatening like a storm cloud to be a meaningful anecdote is reduced to an absurd cautionary tale about the danger of berries, to the psychological thriller The Talented Mr. Ripley, there are a lot of films dedicated to blue-eyed, well-financed college graduates who don’t know shit about life, spreading their don’t-know-shittyness around the globe—and that’s cool.
I enjoy many of those films. But when I began my global journey to do the same thing, I found exactly zero representation about the challenges I would face specifically as a single black woman living, working and traveling abroad.
So, when I graduated in 2006 and hopped on a plane to teach English in Japan, I did it with very little knowledge of what I would face ahead, or how much one year could (and did) change me forever.
I thought living in Japan would mean embracing a society where robots serve you dinner in cosplay, and weekends were spent in karaoke bars (which mine were), racing finely tuned little cars through crowded intersections (which mine were not), and buying bizarre oddities out of vending machines (which happened on occasion).
But after being located to a town the size of a peanut called Kudamatsu (population 55,000), my knowledge of the country was forced to include weekend mountain hikes, typhoon parties huddled up in hostess bars, narrowly escaping death every time my bicycle and I braved an extremely narrow residential road buttressed by rice paddies, developing an unhealthy obsession with mochi and learning to live in harmony with insects (except mukade—fuck mukade).
By the time I left Japan, my scope of the country had expanded to include being invited to my students’ homes to drink green tea with their families; taking days off from work to traverse Shikoku with my colleagues in search of the perfect bowl of udon; collecting elegant shōdo signatures from the famous Kyoto temples and shrines, and sitting beneath the sakura trees during hanami to appreciate the transience of life before the sweet-smelling flowers wilt—as they always do—exactly two weeks after they bloom, and turn into an acrid funk.