Maybe I was too optimistic. Earlier this year, when school staff was ordered to stay home from work during most of April and May, I hoped that maybe—just maybe—this pandemic might be under control by the end of the year. If so, I would make my annual visit back to Scotland to see my family.
However, with more than 201,762 confirmed cases of COVID-19 infections today in Japan, it seems we aren’t coming out of this pandemic anytime soon.
Times like these
Both my parents have long term health issues that place them at an elevated risk of complications if they contract COVID-19. I made up my mind that I wouldn’t go back until both they and I had been vaccinated. Hopefully, they will get theirs within the next six weeks or so, and Japan has preordered enough vaccine to cover the whole country by March if it gets approved.
However, in times like these, the challenge of living in a foreign country can bring out the best in us. Despite the doom and gloom around the world, most teachers I spoke to these past weeks remained very optimistic about the whole situation.
Here in Nagano, Chris, the American owner of Storyhouse Café and Bar in Matsumoto City, organized an English-language stand-up comedy night as a morale booster for the foreign community. There was acceptable social distancing, masks aplenty and the attendees all managed to have a good laugh.
I even did a 10-minute set myself—though I’m not quite sure if the Glaswegian sense of humor lands so well with my fellow foreigners!
Making the most of a bad situation
Local community gathering spots such as the Storyhouse, however, really are a lifeline in uncertain times. If we can’t visit home, then spending some time in the company of other people stuck in the same situation can help us cope. For ALTs in particular, just hearing a few voices speaking English after being immersed in an exclusively Japanese environment can really cheer them up.
And so teachers themselves are organizing events to help lift the spirits of colleagues and friends alike.
After a successful online dinner party and gaming night to mark American thanksgiving last month, local JETs and ALTs here banded together to host a similar event in the run-up to Christmas. Talking and drinking over Zoom can seem a bit weird at first, but honestly, once you get over your initial anxiety, it’s incredible how quickly you’ll start to enjoy yourself.
Just hearing a few voices speaking English after being immersed in an exclusively Japanese environment can really cheer them up.
Not all the teachers I spoke to, though, are unhappy at having some alone time over the holidays. Zabrina, an eikaiwa (English conversation school) teacher from the U.S., moved to Nagano earlier this year. When I spoke to her on the topic, she was pragmatic but positive about the situation.
“I’ve only been here a year and this is my second time around, so homesickness isn’t an issue,” she said. “I’m just upset that I can’t visit any other cities as I haven’t been able to travel much beyond Nagano since I arrived.
Luckily, I’m one of those people who really enjoys spending time doing nothing, so I want to catch up on my reading. I want to finish at least two of the four books I’m working through.”
Just one day in a year
For teachers like Zabrina and myself, who live alone, holiday time is pretty much what you choose to make of it.
Those with family in Japan are trying to make the best of it, too.
Ian is a long-serving English teacher and school owner from Ireland who lives with his wife and kids in Okayama. He says that having family around obviously makes things better, but he was never that fussed about Christmas, to begin with.
“I’m sad I can’t see my family back home, but I have family here, too,” he saids. “We always have a great time—both as a family and as a wider neighborhood. At the end of the day, it’s just one day in a year and not that much different from any other. It’s only the history behind it that makes it significant.”
The inability to go back for Christmas has created a feeling of ‘what if something happens to a family member?’
However, as a veteran of more than ten years in Japan, Andrew has still managed to keep a long-running tradition going. He added: “I’ve still managed to book Christmas Eve and Christmas Day off. I’ve never worked those days, and I never will!”
Many Japanese folks work through Christmas. With Boxing Day falling on a Saturday this year, many people are putting off celebrations with Japanese loved ones until then.
A good day to be merry
As for the big day itself, well, I’m lucky enough to have a couple of American friends here in Nagano who also have no plans for Christmas. So, we’ll gather together—a group of three still seems relatively safe in current circumstances—cook, eat, drink and be merry. No doubt the Christmas tradition of drunkenly watching Die Hard will happen at some point!
Whatever you are doing this year for Christmas, and whoever it is with, I hope you have the best day possible. This has been a rough year for all of us, some more than others. So, on behalf of those who can’t enjoy the festivities this year, make sure you have a good one!
Merry Christmas and all the best for the New Year!
Do you have any special plans for this year or advice for those making the most of year-end holidays away from family? If so, leave us a comment and please share your thoughts!