Gratitude in Japan

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For some reason, I happened to be reading through an old blog of mine that I used to write when I was in Japan. I started to read a few posts from there and couldn’t even remember writing them, but they were like portals back to my Japanese life.

I’ve found one post that I particularly liked. After almost 2.5 years out of Japan, this is a particularly nice post to look back upon and think about the cultural differences I encountered.

Here is my post, from 10th March 2011 (the day before the tsunami):

In the past week, I’ve had two events that have made me understand Japanese culture just that little bit more than I did before. The first was graduation. Of course, I had graduation last year too, but as it was my first, I was in awe of everything and so wasn’t able to catch a few things. The second, was the wedding of two Japanese friends.

As with any formal event in the Japanese school calendar, such as sports day or the culture festival, the students spent a long long time practicing for the graduation ceremony. Looking back to last year, I wonder why on earth they would want to spend so much time on what is, actually, standing then sitting then standing and singing, then sitting, then standing, then walking, getting some papers, taking them with two hands then tucking them under your left arm, then walking, standing, sitting, standing and listening to enough speeches to make your ears bleed. Some time in the week before graduation, I was stood in a classroom of graduating students, with about 10 minutes before class started. I like to try to speak to the kids in this time; just by being there with nothing to do gives the kids some free time when they can- and often do- talk to me about whatever they like. I saw that the class before was science, and so asked a girl what she had studied in it. “Oh, we didn’t do much science”, she said. “We were writing letters.” Letters? In a science lesson? I asked if it was some kind of project to save rain-forests or – heaven forbid- stop whaling. But she told me that they had been writing letters of thanks to their parents, for helping them and pushing them throughout their junior high school life.

What an interesting custom. In a country where parents (read: mothers) spend hours every day planning their child’s schedule with evening classes to get them ahead, make sure they do homework, buy them piles of books to help them.. it would be common place to take a step back and thank the parents. Unfortunately I don’t think I ever thanked my mum and dad.. well, of course things are different in England. Education is much more left to teachers. There is no cram school, though I did take (at the expense of my parents) extra French class to make sure I actually passed the A Level. But they did work hard to make sure I did my homework, and mum used to read over my essays (she is very good with words, is my mum). In days before wikipedia, dad was always getting me to use his wonderful collection of encyclopedias to help. But I never said thank you. I think even after graduating university, when the key speaker (Brain May wooo!) had told us that we needed to thank our parents for their funding and support, did I not thank them. So I thought it was wonderful that my kids were made to sit down and think about how they had come be where they are today.

And then the weekend before the graduation ceremony, at my friends’ wedding, I saw another custom of expressing gratitude.. but I have mixed feelings about this one. I’m sure I’ll do a separate post about it, but basically it was the wedding of my friend Mi-chan, a guy who I met a year ago. It was a mock Western wedding (I’ll explain why it’s “mock” in the wedding post…) but there were still a lot of things that were very Japanese. One of those things was, during the lunch (the days events were: wedding ceremony, lunch with speeches, after party that was pretty much exactly like the lunch but with more people and no posh food) the bride stood up next to the groom, who was holding a microphone and some tissues near her face, and read out a letter to her dad. As far as I can see, the sole purpose of this was to make everyone in the room cry. The parents (all 4 of them) had to stand in a line at the back and cry, but not before the bride herself started crying. So most of the speech was her sobbing things like “I’m sorry …. mrrrhhhhh…. for always …. mhhhrrrrrr… being … mrrrrhhhhhh… so … selfish .. mrrrhhhhhhhhhhhh!” into the microphone while the groom mopped her damp face.

Now, I don’t disagree that the father should be thanked and congratulated for bringing up a girl who is able to snag a good husband. A lot of his hard earned yen probably went to paying for the wedding too. But.. in front of everyone, and using something that should be a private little act of gratitude to manipulate the emotions of all the guests… I guess I don’t see the point of it. What’s more, it’s always the father. I’m pretty sure the mother worked just as hard, if not harder since it her job to bring up the children in Japanese society.

I think it’s really great that gratitude is a big part of Japanese culture. I wish we took the time out to say thank you to people too. Though we have the culture of sending thank you cards, people of my generation usually only use them to say thank you for a gift (even now I only get round to them when I have my mum breathing down my neck and nagging me endlessly about them.) Perhaps I should take notice and make the effort more often.

Thoughts on Racism

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I have half a dozen posts half written in my drafts but a link on Facebook has fired me up to write about something else completely. A Japanese friend posted a Japanese news link about the town I lived in, Ise. In Ise there’s a traditional shopping street with lots of traditional street food and crafts for sale. It leads up to Naiku, a very holy shrine that’s absolutely gorgeous and the main pulling point for the city. The king of that traditional shopping street is the “Akafuku” rice cake shop. Rice that has been hammered into little blobs are covered in red azuki beans and sold in little wooden boxes. Once a month they sell special edition cakes that we used to get up at 5am and queue for 2 hours to buy.

This was all part of the charm of the place I consider to be my home town. I spent just two years there, but I loved it with all my heart. It’s a gorgeous place, and the locals are so welcoming. Some days I completely forgot that I was different from most of the people I saw around me.

But the owners of that cake shop, the shop that dominates that whole street, think that Ise would be a lot better off without foreigners there. The former head of the company, Mr Hamada, was recently at a conference in Tsu and said such things as “with foreigners here, it’s just not right… Ise is the soul of Japan, so it should be a place that makes Japanese people happy. It’s not there for foreigners”.

I…just…

What?!

On one hand, this isn’t surprising at all as this douche (whoops did I say that?!) is 79 years old and old people tend to be more racist than the norm, no matter which country you’re in. On the other hand, the people of Ise, people of all ages, were really supportive of myself and the other non-Japanese in the town. After all, there were only a handful of us there and it was very rare that you’d get a non-Japanese tourist in the town. It was the kind of place where, if I saw another non-Japanese person, I’d narrow my eyes and demand to know who they were and why they were in “our town”.

I’d say that outright dumb racism like this is pretty rare in Japan (unless it’s against Chinese or Korean people in which case you’d be swimming in it there). I’d even say that outright dumb racism is more visible in the UK; just today I was listening to the Jeremy Vine show on BBC Radio 2 and even though I knew that every day he picks a stupid racist topic, I still was shocked when he had a whole section which could be labelled as “OH NO don’t let the Romanians in they’ll take all our jobs and we’ll die!” It was really ridiculous – and even though people were phoning in saying that Polish people in the UK do the jobs Brits don’t want to do and that Romanians don’t want to go to the UK (they’ve been able to come to Germany for ages and there’s not a problem here), Jeremy was still spouting out loads of racist crap.

I can’t imagine what life as a foreigner (or even a non-white person) must be like in Britain. But I guess I have a little idea from living in Japan, as it was eventually the racism that got to me and made me want to leave. There was nothing telling me to go home (I was there, after all, on the taxpayer’s dime teaching their kids) but there were people who refused to sit next to me on the train, women who held their handbags a bit tighter when they saw me, colleagues who spoke to me like I had some kind of mental problem when I can understand Japanese perfectly fine.

On top of that you have all the innocent bits of racism “oh, can you use chopsticks?” “you can’t probably eat this because your stomach is foreign”, “look mum! That person’s nose is so tall!!”

I could sit here and type about all the different kinds of racism that happen in Japan and in Britain until the cows come home. The fact is that I really wonder if there will ever be a day when humans will be seen as humans and not a threat or a hinderance or dumb just because of the skin they’re in. What’s great about the JET Programme is that it puts people like myself in little towns like Ise and forces people like Mr Hamada to come face to face with people from other countries. It’s so much easier to hate on a certain kind of person when you’ve never met a person like that before. The world is getting smaller and so many people are living abroad that I hope that one day people are less afraid of people they’re not familiar with and that we can all live with a heck of a lot less racism.

I’d like to end with a letter one of my students wrote to me when I left Japan. She was in the 1st grade so started school in the April and I left in the July to start my new life in Frankfurt. I hope people like Mr Hamada and Jeremy Vine become “able to like” foreigners as well soon, too.

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“Thank you for the past three months. Of course, my best memory of you will be the fun games you did with us in class, and also when you passed by me in the hall. I was always really happy when you spoke to me and smiled at me. I wasn’t too keen on foreigners before. But because of the classes with you I’m able to like them now. It was only 3 short months but thank you so much!”

Working in Japan

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I know so many people who would do anything to be able to go and work in Japan. It seems to be on the bucket list of so many people, whether they are people who are obsessed with anime, people who like to travel or just people wanting to live an adventure for a year.

I want to write (what may be a kinda long post) about how you can live in Japan – from what options are available to what you’d need to do. SO, let’s get going…

Question 1 – Do you have a degree?

If the answer is NO, you have two choices; be a student or get a working holiday visa.

Japan doesn’t give working visas to those without degrees. It kinda sucks, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t go live in Japan still, it just means that it might take a little money.

If you want to be a student, you can enroll at a language school, or perhaps if you are a university student you can be an exchange student like I was.

HOW CAN I DO THIS?!

Well, to be a student, first you should pick a school to study at, then apply for your visa. You can get lots of info on this here. I’ve never done this (I went through my British university) so I’m afraid I don’t have so much advice. Shop around for the best deal with the school and check out the local area, too. Some universities have programmes where you don’t have to be a university student yourself to go there, but going to a language school is probably the easiest option.

To do a working holiday visa, it’s slightly harder as there are certain conditions, such as being from a certain country, being within a certain age bracket, having a certain amount of savings stocked up and so on. I found a really good website that talks you through the process so check it out. If you don’t have a degree then this is possibly the best way to go about Japan for the year.

Question 2 – Would you be up for fighting for a popular job?

If you have a degree then perhaps you’d like to become an ALT (assistant language teacher) in a school. I asked if you’re ok with fighting for this job because the process is very complicated and involves writing essays, having interviews, and applying for a job that thousands of other people are also dying to get.

This is mainly with The JET Programme but if you happen to fail with them, there are other companies that do the same thing such as Interac, and depending on the city there are other, smaller companies too.

Why is JET so popular?

Well, there are many advantages to being on JET. The first being that the pay is very, very good. I’m willing to say that unless you get a real job at a big company in Japan, you won’t find a salary this good in Japan. Interac and the others don’t pay quite as good, but it’s still better than most.

JET is great because you are welcomed into a great community. You have pre-departure meetings in your home country, and then everyone gets to go to Tokyo together and we take of the Keio Plaza hotel for a few days while we are all training. Those days were so much fun and I made friends with JETs from all over the country.

It’s also a fairly easy job and you don’t need much to be able to do it. The application process requires you to be on the ball though – you need a great essay and to be able to be charismatic and engaging in the interview. Nothing in your application process should hint that you want to go to Japan because of anime, or because you want to find a Japanese partner. You need to have some REAL, solid reasons for wanting to go there.

Why did you leave JET?

There are also a few downsides to JET. The main one for me was that I felt I was over qualified for the school that I was placed at. Some people get placed in amazing schools. Some get placed at schools who use them as human tape recorders. My placement was somewhere in between that, but it still didn’t mean I was actually teaching. I wrote a lot more about it in this blog post from a while back.

They tell you that you are there to teach but really you are there so that they can have random foreigners in the countryside. You will probably not be placed in Kyoto, Tokyo, Osaka etc. You are more likely to be placed in the middle of nowhere, with one convenience store which is a 20 minute bike ride away, and where wild boars come scratching at your door every night (hahah, you think I’m joking?!)

I miss life on JET a lot, but I am very grateful to be in a job where I use my skills and my brain.

HOW CAN I DO THIS?!

I’d love to write a blog post on how to get into the JET Programme, but actually a great guide has already been written. Go check it out, and good luck!

Question 3 – Do you want something a little less…stressful?

If the fight to get a place on JET doesn’t appeal to you, then you’re still in luck! In Japan there is a culture of taking classes outside of school – usually called “juku” or “cram schools”. They leave school and go straight to these schools to sit for another few hours cramming their brains with more info. It’s rare that juku would hire native English teachers since they would focus on grammar (being taught in Japanese, of course…) but there are also after school English schools called “eikaiwa”. There are big names ones like Aeon, ECC and the troubled NOVA, and then smaller ones that are owned by, usually, a middle aged Japanese woman who studied abroad and wants to share her love of English with children (correct me if I’m wrong, guys!!)

How is this different to an ALT/JET job?

Well first of all, your salary would be less. It may even be commission based (I had some friends who were to build up their student base and only then made a decent wage.)

Your hours would be different, too. An ALT works from 8am -4pm. An Eikaiwa teacher might work something like 2pm – 10pm. It means that these two different creatures don’t get to hang out so much as their schedules are totally opposite.

Like I mentioned above, as an ALT I went into classrooms and mainly stood at the back until the teacher needed me to say something, then the kids would repeat after me. Occasionally I’d plan a 15 minute game or something. I worked as an eikaiwa teacher part time when I was at uni in Japan. It was a very small school, run by a nice Japanese lady. I was to teach alongside a real idiot British guy (the type who has lived in Japan for 10 years but speaks only a few words), and in an evening the two of us would teach 4 elementary classes back to back. We’d start with a welcome song, then maybe do some alphabet workbook activities, then maybe read them a story and finish off with some shadowing (a strange practice they like to do in Japan where the kids listen to, say, a fairy tale cd, and try to mimic what they say in real-time. The kids have no idea what they are saying. I have no idea if it’s any good or not.)

TELL ME MORE!!

I can’t personally, but I have found some pretty great links that explain what it’s like working at one of these companies.

Smitty Media working for NOVA (Nova are a company that went bankrupt a few years ago but are making a comeback)

Keeping the Peace in Japan working for AEON

What can I do with a BA in Japanese Studies – unnamed school

Susie Somewhere at Peppy Kids Club

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There are, of course other ways to get to Japan. Perhaps you can get a gig as a foreign model, or you are a real life teacher and get a job at a university. But these are the three most popular ways of getting to live and experience Japan, and this post is LONG ENOUGH.

Have you ever lived in Japan? I’d love to hear how you got there and what you did!

Things I Keep Close

 

When I am at home, I spend most of my time at my desk. I eat there (like a loser), do makeup there, blog there… so I like to keep this area full of things that keep me going. Things and people that are important to me. I thought I’d share some of these things with you.

Photos – I have a lot of them. I like to have the people who have touched my life close to me. My friends from school, exchange student friends in Japan, my friends from when I worked in Japan, and my english teacher coworkers from the school I taught at. These people are all so important to me.

 

I also have a photo of myself as a maiko! The postcard to the left was actually bought after I dressed up that day, so the similarity is a coincidence. It was an amazing day that I spent with some friends dressing up, but it’s there to remind me to keep my “excited spirit” about me. It may no be cool to dress up as a maiko, and it may be “weeaboo”-like, but I don’t care. I frickin’ love geisha and maiko and all that jazz. And it was awesome being a maiko for the day.

 

The map on the right was given to me when I left Ise. I think of it as much as my hometown as I do Bury St Emunds. On the left is the wall where I have all the messages my students wrote me when I let Japan. I have one board for each class I taught. They have such wonderful comments on them, whenever I feel like I’m not doing well in general, I like to read through them and remember that I am a great person and that I made a difference in their lives. I miss my students so much.

 

This last one is also from an old student of mine. This sweet little girl who used to make a beeline for me every day drew this lovely picture of me. I used to have a necklace with a fish on it, and she’d come up and play with it, so she drew it in the picture.

What things do you keep near you in your home?

 

Strange Questions from Japan

As you may know, I used to live and work in Japan on the JET programme. During my few years there, I lived in the countryside – nothing but rice fields and mountains. The most beautiful place. But I was the only white person in my village – there was a Brazilian family and quite a few Chinese who worked at the factories nearby.

I just read a really interesting blog post by new Frankfurter Roots, Wings, and Other Things about questions American people ask her about Germany. I really hope that some of the things on that list are exaggerations!! It made me think back to my time in Japan and the funny things my Japanese friends and coworkers used to ask me.

Though it’s not a cultural question, coming in 3rd is this one exchange that happened in a class I was teaching along with my favourite Japanese co-worker, Mrs I. She’s retired now, but has so much passion for English – as soon as she retired she went back to university and started studying English again! Anyway, this happened in a 2nd grade class – kids around 12 years old. Mrs I was explaining all the different ways the work “by” can be used… “get this done by 2pm”, “I went by train”… when one boy put his hand up.

“Mrs I, my dad says that ‘by’ means when a man loves women but also men as well. Is this true?!”

Mrs I looked bewildered – she’d never contemplated such people existing before – and turned to me, expecting a reply. Luckily I was saved by the bell…

In at number 2

Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, the students of the school have to take out 20 minutes to clean the school. I say clean… it was mainly lazy, useless efforts of general doing-stuff and rarely benefited to how clean the school was. There isn’t any hot water in the school except for the one hot water tap in the teacher’s office, which is turned off in summer. I have another funny story about how I had to explain to my current 30 year old Japanese roommate about why we have to clean things with hot water, because Japanese people just don’t get it… They wash their hands in cold water after going to the toilet, they clean things with cold water… even their washing machines use only luke warm water at best…

I digress.

So one day I was helping the children sweep the teacher’s office. Mr S, the humanities teacher who was the only non-English teacher who ever bothered talking to me, came over and said -

“Say, Charlotte! You’re pretty good at sweeping!”

I looked confused, and said thank you.

“Especially since you don’t have brooms in England!!”

After a massive face palm, I tried to explain to Mr S that we do, in fact, have brooms in England – he had thought that because we have carpets, we use hoovers and not brooms. I said that my home back in England is over 300 years old and has oak flooring… definitely not hooverable!!

In first place for the most outrageous thing I have ever been asked, ever, in my life is…

In Japan I was so very, very lonely. After about a year of rolling around complaining about how lonely I was, I decided to go pro-active and go out and find friends. I used the Japanese social network Mixi, went to bars by myself, even went to singles parties and other events that foreigners aren’t exactly welcome to. It was at one of these singles parties that I met a guy called Mi-chan. He was there just because he was the organiser’s friend and not really looking for a girlfriend (the friend who came with me fell for him – a nice guy who baked cakes like a dream AND played the piano like a pro?! Japanese girl’s wet dream!!!)

He invited us (much to my friend’s delight) to his house for dinner the following week. When we got there, we met his lovely fiance… (haha, sorry friend!) and we all made dinner together. After dinner, we were sat down by a motherly woman in the group, who had brought along with her a white board and pamphlets. It was an Amway meeting.

After that first meeting, I didn’t see my friend again, but I made a few friends there in the Amway group and became a solid member of their gang. They knew full well I didn’t appreciate their spiel at the end of the activities they planned. But I was always happy to go along and learn cooking with them or have them do my makeup, and then I’d just go and help clean up the kitchen or something when they started to talk the members of the group into buying ridiculously expensive pans, or average makeup products. In return they got to be a classy section of the Amway club – they had their very own foreigner!

At one of these meetings (actually, it was the one where we all had our eyelashes permed… yes, this is a thing…) I met a woman who turned out to be the mother of one of my students. We became quite good friends, and I went over her house a few times for the meetings, and we were often at the same events together (much to the embarrassment of her son). After knowing her for about a year, we were at a BBQ together when she came to me and said -

“You know, I’ve wanted to ask you something ever since we first met… is it ok if I ask you? Uhm, so, you know how Japanese noses are very small… and foreigners’ noses are very tall… and you have that ridge thing in between your eyes at the top of your nose that we Japanese don’t have? Well… because of that part of your nose, do you have blind spots because it blocks your vision?!”

Japanese people are very conscious of the differences between their noses and western people’s noses. It’s one of the things people are commented on the most in Japan. But this…

I never minded when people asked me stuff like this – after all, it was my job to interact with normal people who wouldn’t get the chance to speak with foreigners. I just find it so funny to see myself as a foreigner through their eyes.

If you’ve ever been asked something crazy paving by people from other countries, I’d love to know!

My Tanabata Wish

Today is Tanabata, a day when the Japanese celebrate two lovers parted by the milky way who get to meet up tonight – and only tonight – if it’s a clear night.

To celebrate, Japanese people write wishes on strips of paper (that I searched in my photos for examples of … I didn’t find any nice photos of them there, sorry :-( ) and hang them from bamboo branches. Every year that I was in Japan, I made sure to carefully write (at least!) one of these wishes. After all, it’s good handwriting practice! I think the first time, I wished to be Japanese. The second time I wished to pass the JLPT 2 test (I made a point of wishing so hard that I actively sought out every place where I could write wishes for tanabata!). When I was on JET I wished for my students to study hard and make good futures for themselves.

As I was walking into town this morning I was wondering what my wish would be for this year. I think, if I had some paper and some bamboo here, I’d wish to be a stronger, more confident person this year.

Ever since the second year of uni, right up until I started at Nintendo, I was pretty sure of myself – I worked hard, and liked to wallow in my skills and abilities (if it’s possible to do such a thing). At Nintendo, there are so many really amazing people that I feel I have lost my sense of strength while watching everyone around me do their amazing things.

This is really important to me now, since there is a new project starting that I will be leading and I am really nervous about it. I’ve “lead” things before now, but this will be a meaty project and I need to be on top of my game. There is no time for me to sit there gazing at everyone around me, I need to get up and join them.

Both inside and outside of work, I need to stand up for myself and be more confident in the person that I am.

What would your tanabata wish be today?

Learning Japanese From Scratch

A friend of mine who will be going to Japan on JET this summer recently asked me for help and advice on learning Japanese. Instead of just sharing things with her, I thought that I’d help other people reading this blog too!

I have absolutely no evidence to back this up, but it’s my feeling that Japanese is probably one of the most self-studied languages out there. With the popularity of anime and manga, and the lack of teachers out there in our home countries to teach us, the internet has become a great source for studying Japanese.

I was lucky enough to not only have a Japanese teacher available to me when I decided that I wanted to learn, but also that the teacher, Mary Grace Browning, is one of the most knowledgeable people in the UK on Japan. I started taking her classes when I was 16, though I didn’t take it seriously until I went to university and could dedicate all my time to learning the language.

But enough about me!

The first thing to do when starting to learn Japanese is to learn at least the hiragana alphabet (both to read and write) and if possible the katakana alphabet (at least to read). Japanese written out in the letters we use in English is called romaji and I would STRONGLY advise people to let go of this crutch as soon as possible when learning Japanese.

Learning the alphabets are pretty simple to do. Check out this link on hiragana. Take one row (starting with あ、い、う、え、お) and just write them over and over, saying them in your head as you write. You could even make flash cards. One row should take anything from a day to 4 days to memorise. Then just move on to the next and the next until you have them all down. Don’t forget to revisit previously learnt rows as you move on.

Now you have those down, let’s move on to some phrases. There are loads of lists of phrases on the internet. The BBC has a great site for Japanese, so starting there isn’t a bad idea. Another place you could go to is Tofugu’s Youtube channel (Tofugu’s website is also pretty awesome). Just type in “learn Japanese” into youtube and you’ll find so many videos.

Japanesepod101 is an AMAZING source of free podcasts that I used every day while at university. These really made a big difference to my level when I was starting out, and I still listen to them today as the highest levels are still very high for me sometimes.

For grammar, you can also find good resources online. This fast track website has it laid out really well. There are LOADS of other websites out there. This is just the first one I found that I liked.

Once you have some words and some grammar under your obi, it’s time to try it all out! Go to Lang-8 and write a diary with your new Japanese! Even if it’s just a sentence or so, people will read it and correct it and encourage you to keep going. I want to do a full post about Lang-8 because it really is great. But for now, I can just tell you that it is awesome.

With all of this, you should have a good foundation in Japanese on which you can start building to suit your needs. We like to keep this secret, but it’s actually not that hard to learn Japanese. It makes us look brainy but it’s actually a walk in the park compared to some other languages!!

And if all else fails, you can always learn Japanese while doing aerobics!!!

Things My Japanese Students Wrote

As I said last time, I really miss reading things from Japanese students. I think if you can get Japanese students to do *gasp!!* creative writing like this, it’s one of the best ways to get to know how they think and feel. It’s so interesting. Like you have cultural aspects like the marriage thing above.

Well… sometimes it’s much harder to get them to write anything worth while…

Things My Japanese Students Wrote

I’d like to just revisit some of the awesome things my Japanese students wrote while I was teaching over there on JET. I think these things are the parts that I miss the most from my life in Japan.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy them as much as I do!

That one above has got to be my all time favourite. The story of how he was bullied by a boy, then became friends with him after fighting him… it’s so cute, and yet so sad!