Home is where the heart is, or so they say. But what is “home?” Is it where someone’s family is? The house they grew up in? The place with the most memories? Where someone feels safest?
What about somewhere that is miles from home? Last year, sophomore English major Jake Hendrex, a native Texan, found what he plans to make his future home when he vacationed in Sapporo—a city on the island of Hokkaido, Japan. Taking that dream a step further, he hopes to make a career there teaching high school english.
With such a specific goal in mind, it is not hard to believe that Hendrex found the inspiration in various experiences over time. Hendrex had always been intrigued by Japanese culture, but that intrigue became a passion when he began to learn the language during his junior year of high school. Still, he did not realize what he wanted to do professionally until later.
“I was about 21 [and]…looking for work, and this was when I was in the middle of my community college experience, and my sister mentioned substitute teaching as a possibility,” Hendrex said. “So I applied, got accepted, and I substitute taught for two years, and that’s what made me decide to be a teacher.”
It wasn’t until around this time last year that his plans were decided. Without friends or family to accompany him, he booked a flight, got his own one-room apartment, and flew to Sapporo where he remained for about two weeks.
Japan is structured a little differently than what Americans might be used to in that most businesses are within walking distance, they use subways as an efficient way to travel, and the food selection is fairly diverse. It ranges from traditional Japanese to Italian to German to McDonald’s and KFC, and though he tried a little bit of everything, most of his meals consisted of microwavable TV dinners.
Hendrex also tried to explore, but his time outdoors was limited due to weather conditions. He expected it to be cold, but coming from Texas he was not prepared for the snow to pile so high that he could not see across the street.
“The weather ranged anywhere from about 24 degrees Fahrenheit to… the warmest was about 34 degrees,” Hendrex said. “I dressed as warm as I could, but I could only stay out for 20, maybe 30 minutes at a time before my hands and feet got too cold, and I had to turn back.”
That did not stop Hendrex from making the most of his time there, nor did a lack of fluency in Japanese. By then, he had studied enough of the language to maneuver around on his own.
“[Communication] wasn’t a major issue, but not for the reason you may think. I didn’t have as many opportunities to talk as I thought I would,” Hendrex said. “The signs around the subways were all in English as well as Japanese, and I only had to talk to one person to figure out how the ticket machine worked because we don’t use trains here.”
In fact, interpersonal communication was what Hendrex believed to be the greatest cultural difference between the United States and Japan. Americans tend to be more open, and strangers can become friends in a matter of minutes. In Japan, it is the complete opposite. More often than not, they need a reason to strike up a conversation. However, that did not mean that no one was willing to break the unspoken rule.
“My host spoke English,“ Hendrex said. “Broken English, but still English, so we kind of communicated through a mishmash of English and Japanese to each other, and I think that was a really neat experience.”
That was not even the best part, however. One of Hendrex’s favorite moments of the trip took place when a stranger surprised him. Hendrex had just sat down for breakfast in a cafe and was trying to decide what he wanted to eat when a Japanese man asked him, in perfect English, if he needed help reading the menu. He politely declined the help, but that opened the door to an unexpected conversation.
“He was a very nice man,” Hendrex stated. “He [was from Japan but] lived in California for 20 years, which was how he became so fluent in English, and it was really refreshing to talk to someone at-length and in-depth.”
A similar scenario and another one of Hendrex’s favorite moments was the day he was having breakfast in a cafe.
“There was a light snow outside, but the sun was shining at the same time, and I was sitting there, sipping coffee with nice music playing in the background, and I just thought the serenity of that moment was something I have not felt in a long time,” Hendrex said. “I love calming moments like that.”
These are just a handful of the reasons Hendrex loves Japan. With the convenience of having everything within walking distance, a nice subway system, a wide variety of restaurants and stores, all types of entertainment and quiet moments watching the snow fall, there are few places like it. It is different from America, but easy to assimilate to.
“A lot of people say they want to retire and move out to the country,” Hendrex said. “I want to retire and move out to Japan, or work in Japan, whichever comes first.”