This article was originally featured in the December 2023 issue of Connect.

Shanel Taylor (Kagoshima)

As I was walking out of my one-on-one Sakura Japanese lesson at the Kagoshima Friendship Center one evening in September 2022, I ran into this cool-looking Japanese woman. She exclaimed over my hair, the thing which brings me the most attention in Japan. We exchanged the usual pleasantries when meeting someone new. Upon hearing that I was Jamaican, Jasmine (her chosen English name) asked me to lead a cooking class for her in the new year. Though hesitant, and without any details as to what that would even entail, I said yes.

Fast-forward to January 2023 and I was once again at the Friendship Center but this time in the kitchen. I was there to practise making the recipe of Jerk Chicken and Festival, one of the most popular Jamaican street food duos. She had sourced all the ingredients and before the actual presentation at the end of February, we did the run through to ensure we could get everything done within the time slot that the kitchen was booked for. As Jasmine wanted an almost authentic vibe, we would be making the jerk sauce from scratch and so we needed help with all the prep work. She had a friend with her as well as her younger cousin Marino. They are all part of the Hippo Family Club (“Hippo”), which is an organisation that facilitates language learning through immersion.

Marino and I struck up a conversation and I learned that she had recently moved back to Japan, after having lived in Barcelona for almost a year. She wanted to be able to help her mom with her ailing grandmother and very energetic dog. It came up that I had visited Barcelona nine years ago and that I too could speak Spanish. And so, we chatted in Spanish until Jasmine reminded us that we had to start working.

To me, Marino feels like she’s my sister born of different parents on another island.

At the end of the practice session, and after sharing a very delightful meal that was a nice taste of home, we parted ways—now as good friends, with plans to meet up soon. It is without a doubt that good company over good food makes for good times. So, we hit it off royally. I think this was due to Marino and I being closer in age, but maybe the fact that we had been to some of the same places contributed to it, too. We were definitely fated to be friends as we were both open to exploring. As a result, we’ve been discovering new places in and around Kagoshima and passing through neighbouring prefectures on our journey to knowing new things and ourselves better.

The current community that I share with some of the ALTs is great. Though we are from distinct countries with varying backgrounds, we have the commonality of language and, in some cases, upbringing and struggles. But, despite our differences, it was also very interesting and rewarding to be part of a community with a local person. On our trips, Marino and I chat about our past exploits, present situations, and future plans. We don’t have a moment of awkwardness between us. To me, Marino feels like she’s my sister born of different parents on another island but of an almost identical mindset and sense of adventure.

It’s only September as I write this article, but we’ve been to many places, explored, and seen so much. So far we’ve admired a lake and interacted with Hippo members in Miyazaki, picked strawberries, visited shrines, discovered a roadside waterfall, driven by steaming onsens and eaten washoku with her family in Kirishima, made ceramics, visited a glasswork as well as a kimono shop, eaten egg sandwiches in Miyama, explored an old gold mine that now produces shochu, cooked and ate a meal in an old samurai house in Kushikino with Hippo members, attended the Fukiage Sand Festival, eaten ramen, and walked her dog on the beach in Fukiagehama. We have made croissants, hung out with older Japanese people who love speaking English, and shared a massive roasted fish in Kagoshima City, as well as enjoyed fireworks over the river. We’ve tolerated a night in a rundown hotel (a story for another time) and viewed history at the Kacchu-Koubo Marutake (Samurai Armor Studio) in Satsumasendai.

One of our favourite things to do, though, is to visit the fish market in Fukiagehama to get fresh whole fish and then walk on the nearby beach. When we get home, we send each other pictures of how we prepared them. We’ve done this—what can only be called our routine—over five times now. As simple as it sounds, it’s something that keeps me grounded, happy, and appreciative of the smallest things in life, helping me feel connected to my island life back home.

Try saying yes to new opportunities because look what a simple yes has done for me so far

Marino has met some of my friends and I have met one of hers, as well as her mom, grandma, and beloved dog Kaito. As she has a warm, affable, and open personality, it’s easy for her to hold her own with new people. We practise the languages we know and the ones we are learning during our car journeys. Her English ability by far outshines my Japanese one, but we still communicate easily. I’m learning about many customs and the culture of Japan and I teach her just as many things about Jamaica and the places I’ve travelled to. It’s a place of sharing, no judgement or resentment.

Being in Japan has become so much nicer due to the shared community I have found with my friend Marino. She often doesn’t answer my text messages till days later and some of our plans are last minute, but I resolve to say yes to exploring Kagoshima and its environs with her. And to think it happened because I hadn’t been afraid to say yes to putting myself out there in order to share my knowledge. Now, we continue to be intentional in our friendship, mindful of one another, and encouraged to keep our community going. Try saying yes to new opportunities because look what a simple yes has done for me so far, with the possibility of so much more to come.

Shanel is a trained teacher from Jamaica, with over ten years of experience in teaching foreign languages. She enjoys reading, playing games, and now writing!