So here we are. I’m through the summer adventure, out the other side of the Kan-Etsu Tunnel*, blinking in the sunlight and wondering what to make of all that. It’s been one hell of a summer, and I’ve really enjoyed writing about it. There’s plenty that’s still unsettled in my mind, but this is my attempt at closure as I tumble out into an uncertain future.
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The Bigger Picture
As the summer pressed on, some things never got easier. Discipline was always tough, partly because of the language barrier but also because kids are so damn funny when they’re being troublesome. How can you act convincingly firm with a child who responds to an urgent request to finish packing their bag by raising a single, sad item of footwear in the air and screaming `NO! ONE! PURPLE! SOCK!’ The other one was down the back of the bed, for the record. How can you enforce the opposite gender room-entry prohibition when one of your boys looks you square in the eye and says ‘だめ。戦争は始まった’ (‘Impossible. The war has started’)? Moving from place to place was always stressful, and finding time for self-care was an ongoing challenge.
But some things did click into place in August, too. Most psychologically curious, my facial recognition has drastically improved, at least for Japanese elementary schoolers. In the first week, I was forever getting my team members mixed up and basically gave up on recognising some of the girls, preferring instead to glance at their passports when they weren’t looking. By the final week, I knew my superteam within a couple of days and could recognise a bunch of other campers. You wouldn’t think five weeks could make that much difference, but clearly something was whirring away in the depths of my brain.
Other changes happened in parallel. At the start of the summer, I had energy and focus in me to keep my own campers safe and mostly happy and occasionally punctual, and nothing more. Other campers were more or less animated, talking roadblocks, and I didn’t really notice what they were up to unless they were being spectacularly dangerous or annoying. Only in sessions four or five could I take a couple of further steps back and see the wider camp ecosystem, get to know kids that weren’t on my team, notice the helpers and the troublemakers around camp, and see how the whole place functioned.
Am I any different, then? Well, I think I’ve got a bit more hardened to childrens’ overblown crises. Over the last five weeks I’ve seen people cry because: they lost at rock-paper-scissors, they could only find their second-favorite rock, they didn’t understand the rules of a game, they couldn’t get back into a kayak, the water at the lake was slightly too cold, it was raining, or they didn’t want to refill their water bottle. Only one of those people was me, and I`m not telling you which one. At the start, I was so attentive to each new teary-eyed emergency- by the end of the session, I gave out a lot more tough love. Too bad, buddy. It’s a shame your foot slightly hurts, but we’re not going to the nurse. You can theatrically hop all the way back to the lodge if you like.
I’ve changed in less callous, happier ways, too. When I was teaching English in Hiroshima, I encountered adults as individual personalities, but the kids I taught were always a bit of an amorphous blob- loud or quiet, shy or extroverted, but lacking deeper personality insights. While working at summer camp, I really had the chance to watch the kids on my teams, understand more about what motivates them, how they respond to new people, what makes them happy or sad, how their behaviour changes with different friends and much more. Children have fewer filters, but even younger kids want to be seen by their peers in a certain way, whether that means being the team champ in the football game, fighting you conspicuously over bedtime, translating for their friends or trying to make the girls laugh over dinner. I feel like, even with so much language going over the head, I’ve seen a lot of the inner lives of children this summer.
Perhaps it’s also fair to say I found my stage presence again. As you might know from reading my blog, I was having a crisis of confidence at the start of summer. I grew up as a true moderate, neither introverted or extroverted, but because I was surrounded by introverted friends I felt like a social butterfly by comparison. In fact, as I later learned, there are whole worlds of folk who see me as the walliest of wallflowers.
Since I was eighteen I’ve had periodic crises of confidence, where I lost the ability to talk comfortably with new people, and forgot how to be myself in the presence of strangers. I had one during my first year of university, a long one after I finished university and moved to Brighton to start a doomed masters degree. And a third, which crept up on me this year, until I was so anxious and tense that I felt an overwhelming desire to escape. I tend to recover from these paroxysms, and end up bungee jumping off cranes or climbing mountains or moving across the world. I think the best thing camp’s done for me is start the process of recovery this time, forcing me way out of my comfort zone, getting me to translate game rules in real time and lead camp songs in front of an audience. I mean fucking hell my comfort zone can be a boring place, I needed out. I’ve lost some weight, I’ve chilled out a bit, I’m finding it easier to tell people how I feel.
I don`t think I realised how bored I`d got of living alone until I spent the summer smashed up against people every second of the day. It was overwhelming and exhausting at times, but there’s this real magic that comes from the internationalism** and strangeness of camp. When you’re all thrown together like this, you don’t necessarily have much in common other than your experience of this surreal place, and you have to make commonalities. Oddly, those bonds can end up being much stronger than you expect. As a teenager, your friends are often based on shared interests, but as you get older shared experiences seem to become much more important.
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That’s about all I have to say about camp for now. But as one series ends, another begins. This time I’ll be writing to you from the road- I’m travelling around Japan and South Korea as summer segues into autumn, and I’ll be regaling all you lovely people with a travelogue of my (mis)adventures. Please tune in. Right now I’m writing to you from a particularly cheap and charmless internet cafe in Nagano, up in the mountains. Next time could be from the slopes of a volcano, or from the beach or the marina or the ramparts of a castle. Alright, It’ll probably be from an internet cafe. I’ll keep you posted.
* The second-longest road tunnel in Japan, which connects Gunma and Niigata Prefectures through the Japan Alps.
** There were people at English Adventure from Japan, China, India, the Philippines, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the USA, Chile, Guatemala, the UK, Ireland, France, the Netherlands, Lithuania, Russia, Cameroon, Nigeria, and almost certainly more places that I’m forgetting.