How Reading Big Books Helped Me Conquer Living Abroad

This is a guest post from Rachel Dorsey. She is the recent founder of a travel company, Supporting Cast Travel, which seeks inspiration from the joys of book club meetings, using the help of local authors, bookstores, and readers. Many a book have accompanied Rachel through her own travels in Europe, South America, Asia and the Pacific Rim and she struggles with the e-book versus hardcopy debate with each trip she packs for. When not planning future adventures, she can be found whipping up a mean browned butter chocolate chip cookie or taking no prisoners in a kickboxing class. Follow her on Twitter @roscoerachel.

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Infinite_jest_coverI fancy myself a bit of a traveler and a bit of a reader. So when I got my JET Programme assignment to teach at least one year in the laid-back islands of Okinawa, Japan, I figured I’d have some time to catch up on some light-hearted novels while lounging on the beach every afternoon. You know, with a tropical drink.

So how is it that I found myself scribbling notes from De Brevitate Vitae (also known as Gaudeamus Igitor in the back pages of Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace?

Long live the academy!

Long live the teachers!

Long live each male student!

Long live each female student!

May they always flourish!

Reality hit sometime between the screech of tires on the tarmac and being left alone in my completely bare apartment. This year wasn’t going to be all sunshine and cherry blossoms.  After a bit of settling in, I soon found myself sharing desk space with about forty other Japanese teachers in a communal room and throwing on slippers before teaching an illuminating lesson revolving around the game of Jeopardy.

I certainly had the free time I had expected. And while I could see the ocean from our office, the beach was just beyond reach. I was at my desk at least six out of every eight hours of school with very few people to chat with and no email access.

With time to spare, I brought out the big guns. Thanks to Amazon Japan and free shipping, War and Peace hit my desk with a thud. Leo’s greatest work was consumed with fervor and while I was already sitting in a foreign country, I hit another dimension of escape among the battlefields of the Napoleonic invasion. And then the final page came and I found myself facing a monumental reader’s hangover.

Needing a taste of the hair of the dog, Infinite Jest zipped in with its 1079 pages, including 96 pages of footnotes (388 of them total, all varying in length). A Christmas present from my boyfriend, David Foster Wallace became my new comrade as I struggled with homesickness and culture shock. My free hours at school allowed me to go to the depths of Google, laughing at witty puns from Latin translations, jotting down character profiles, writing “HA!” a lot, and notes like “Oh, the toothbrush prank!” I’d break away from the world Wallace had created to eat lunch in a similarly bizarre situation where teachers would “ooh and aah” over the addition of yogurt to my meal.

While adjusting to Japanese culture, I found it easy to latch onto Wallace’s futuristic ONAN, with its own language—like Japan—and one with its own characters—like my principal who reminded me of Kim Il Jong II. It was a place that didn’t have sniffling sick teachers or me awkwardly miming with students. Frankly, DFW preserved my sanity with an abundance of abbreviations, twisting story lines, and captivating characters like Mario with his macrocephalic and homodontic ways.

The months went on and novels continued to appear throughout the year and as I worked out in the local community center amongst the same gym-goers day after day, I got past the oddball conversations with a stark naked woman in the locker room and the garb of my favorite Saturday stairclimber in his pure metallic gym suit. I started to feel more comfortable with my fellow teachers and students and soon realized that I  was loving my daily routines.

Oddly enough, while I was likely making a connection to Enfield Tennis Academy when I wrote out the verses above, there is a strong chance that at least a few of my students are going to live to be 100+. Long live each male and female student, indeed! Thanks to a long tradition of tofu, fresh fish, and my most loathed enemy on the island, goya (bitter melon), Okinawa is home to an unusually large number of centenarians.

Beyond the healthy food, though, I couldn’t help be be struck by the sense of community among teachers and students. There was nothing like receiving a strong ganbatte (good luck) from a teacher or student or a retirement party that involved an entire teaching staff running from island tip to island tip to capture the Okinawan spirit. Students were quick to cheer on their classmates and teachers were tireless in their efforts to improve the school. Whether I realized it or not, the residents of Enfield Tennis Academy in IJ and their focused lives were very much a reflection of the Okinawan people. Perhaps they didn’t have one gigantic forearm from practicing tennis or playing Eschaton, but the individuals that I got to know through school festivals and teaching were part of a motivated community with a history of team spirit.

Looking back on my twelve months in Japan and perhaps in the spirit of David Foster Wallace, I might mark my time in Okinawa as “The Year of Amazon.” Or perhaps “The Year of Kleenex” (seriously, that sniffling almost killed me off!).

My final note in my well-worn copy of Infinite Jest states “Want to reread book; can’t pull away.”

And in the end, as July came around, I felt the same about my new home in Okinawa.

 

1 Exclamation points added by me… poetic license and all that.

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