A lovely American couple moved into the region this past year and they include me in their mailing list of updates home to family and friends. I love reading them, not just because they are funny and honest, but because it reminds me of what it was like my first year here as well. Everything was exciting, fresh, a new discovery. If I go through my photo album from that time there are exponentially more images of me doing mid-air jump shots in front of random Japanese tourist sites and flashing two-fingered peace signs like Winston Churchill was in town. If you flip forward in my album you’ll notice that pictures these days rarely have me in them, cause I spend most of my time trying to digitally immortalize Noah rather than keep an enduring record of my own stark aging process. Times change.
Additionally, my friend’s newsletter well explains how frustrating it can be to live in an existence where you can’t read, write or speak the local language. At times the politeness of Japanese culture doesn’t help any either. It’s actually been easier for me get things done in more abrupt cultures, like in parts of remote Russia, where they so desperately want to get rid of you that after you’ve pointed at and paid for the thing you want in the store window they turn away unsmiling and pretend that you no longer exist. But here, even though there is a mutual understanding that neither party will be able to verbally understand each other, the clerk or cashier will inevitably ask you all the same, beautifully complex respectful phrases they’ve been taught to say to everyone. Would you like a bag? Do you need a straw, chopsticks, a spoon? You just gave me 1000 yen. Do you have a point card? Your change is 22 yen. Are you sure you don’t have a point card? Do you want one? Here’s a coupon you can’t read and will never use. Thanks for your business. With all that extra linguistic dressing the most basic of tasks can feel overdrawn and more confusing than it ought to be. It took a while to get the hang of buying groceries, but I’m happy to say that I no longer break down in tears when I try to buy eggs or milk at the market. And just the other day, finally, after 4 years of hearing the same announcement played a hundred plus times over the loudspeaker at the local all night supermarket, I registered what it was saying. You must be 20 years old to buy alcohol and tobacco.
Now if you think of how utterly simple selecting and paying for food is, but how enormous a task it can become when you are essentially illiterate, you can appreciate how much more difficult everything else can end up being. Buying stamps, taking a bus, doing anything at the bank, ordering food at a restaurant with no picture menu, trying to get rid of Japanese speaking Mormons who turn up on your doorstep, telling a hair stylist to give you a trim, going to the doctor, going to the doctor with your sick son, going to the doctor again with your sick son after you went the first time and things didn’t get better, breaking a sweat trying to write your address, filling out your kids daycare sheet every morning, answering the phone at your desk, trying to fix your faulty internet, visiting the dentist or gynaecologist or immigration office (and no the immigration officer does not speak English for some reason), being pulled over by the cops, trying to get rid of the NHK cable guy trying to collect money for cable you don’t have, getting a driver’s licence, having your garbage rejected and not understanding why until someone smartly takes a magic marker and circles the forbidden item through the plastic bag, getting a cell phone (this one is the worst because not even a native speaker can understand the crazy phone plans), getting lost anywhere with or without a map, giving condolences to your neighbour after her husband dies, trying to differentiate between detergent, softener and bleach.
It goes on, and really it never stops even as you start to get a grip on the basic language skills, because inevitably the longer you stay, the more complex the problems become, and you end back at square one thinking how great you thought your Japanese was but then realizing actually how shitty it is. Yes, this was exactly where I found myself last week when Noah got sick and refused to eat anything for 3 days. The doctor said it was a throat infection, prescribed me all sorts of mystery medications that I would administer faithfully but saw little change. One night in lieu of taking him to the emergency room in fear that I couldn’t even tell the cabbie where to go, I called my sister on the other side of the world. She said…luke warm baths, cold compresses, lots of fluids…all simple reassuring things that helped me get a grip in that moment. It was so good to hear it in English. The next morning I stood at the gate of Noah’s daycare trying to ask if he could attend that day because his fever wasn’t so high. I repeated 3 times over in the worst possible broken Japanese “Is it ok? I can stay for a bit to watch him and make sure he’s fine.” No one understood me. Three times over and then I broke, bowed my head, put my hand over my eyes and just cried. Well, that got their attention. At least tears are universally understood. The one worker who always looks at me like I’m the most novice of mothers and that I have a lot to learn was the one who put her hand on my back asking me over and over “What’s wrong? What’s wrong?”
Ahhhh. What’s wrong? That was a good question. The problem was and is that even if I could speak perfect Japanese, there is no way I could tell her, because what’s wrong really cannot be verbalized in that sort of moment. It’s a feeling more than anything else, one that boils up to a point of uncontainable pressure, where your mind sort of short circuits as it searches for any possible word that will get the message through, but you can’t find it because you don’t know it and you feel utterly alone and helpless and frustrated because nothing, absolutely nothing is helping you be you and do what you would do in that moment if that moment was happening someplace else. Yes, it is the feeling you get when you lose yourself to a language. That’s it exactly. So instead of trying to say any of that, I told her “I’m not very good at Japanese.” I think she understood.
Some of us foreigners here like to throw around the term ‘expat’, trying to disguise the fact that what we really are, are temporary immigrants. Immigrant has always seemed like such a dirty word to us North Americans. It implies balconies full of garbage, smelly food, strange ways of dressing, clothing hanging any which way for days on end on the clothes line and sometimes left out when its raining, being late for everything, a lack of education or class or politeness and an all around inability to get with the program. I don’t know about you or anyone else, but that description pretty much sums up my Japanese life in a nutshell. Ask anyone in my neighbourhood where the foreigners live and they could tell you by the way we park our car or leave Noah’s toys lying around the back of our building. Or better still, just stand quietly for a minute or two and I am sure you will hear our loud western voices carrying through our paper thin walls amidst the other silent houses. Somehow my bike repair guy successfully found our apartment and dropped off my bike only with the knowledge that I lived somewhere over the hill from his shop. It’s a big hill. It’s almost a 20 minute walk.
All this is to say, now that i’ve experienced just exactly what it’s like to live the immigrant lifestyle, with all the language and culture barriers that come with it, I don’t think I could ever tolerate another person saying something as stupid as “You’re in a America now, act American!” It will also take all of my willpower not to throw something hard and heavy at that person’s head. You’d never hear a Japanese person say “You need to start acting Japanese.” In fact, I’m sure they don’t even think it’s possible. Their mindset is that someone who is not Japanese is going to have a very difficult time naturally acting like one, so why expect it of them? They are thrilled when we try and succeed, but they set the bar very low for foreigners in this department, which might explain why I still have so many good Japanese friends despite all the cultural blunders i’ve made. Some foreigners take a personal affront to this though, especially those who have lived here for a long period of time or who have married a local. The phrase “You will never be one of them” is often thrown around negatively, but the idea doesn’t bother me. Of course I’ll never be one of them. How can I be? I’m Canadian.
So here is where I would like to mention that there is no way in hell that I could be as happy as I am here in Japan without the amazing and absolutely selfless Japanese friends I have made who time and time again come to my rescue. To my neighbour who is usually coerced into explaining all of Noah’s daycare tasks and requirements, thank you. To my colleagues who not only helped me set up my life here, but still patiently remind me to this day of reminders that are clearly written in front of my face on the announcement board, thank you. To my dearest of dear friends who came to ultrasound sessions, interpreted at Noah’s birth, sat through emotional talks with my pastor, helped me fill out mountains of paperwork for every possible government office imaginable, and who waited on hold with tech support for more times than I can remember, thank you, thank you, thank you. I’m sorry, but I don’t think there is any way I could ever repay you for everything you’ve done for me. Even so, thank you.
Rainy season is supposedly upon us, but it’s been gorgeous as of late. I’m not complaining one bit. We had a few hard downpours this past week, and I was sure that we were officially in the thick of rapid bathroom mold growth and never drying laundry season. But after one day of biking home with puddles in my shoes, shoes which now smell permanently of trench foot, it’s been rather pleasant. Still, I know too well how deceiving the weather can be here in Kyushu, and my full body rain suit and dehumidifier stand ready. Some days the air is muggy and heavy with water that hasn’t decided yet if it should become a cloud or just hang there a little longer. Inevitably the indecision will break, and we’ll all be wet again until the end of June. Predictably, I will lose another umbrella. I’m sure of it. Sigh. All this is coming from a person considering a move to the west coast of Canada, where it doesn’t just rain for a month, but for an entire annual season. I’m going to have to check my sanity meter sometime soon.
A few weeks ago a friend of mine called me up and asked if I wanted to pay a visit to a Japanese missionary and her American husband one evening. I’d met the wife a year ago when she was here on her last Japanese tour, so I thought it would be nice to see her again. It was an interesting evening to say the least. I found myself in a stranger’s living room sitting around a low table and chatting with various other Japanese people I didn’t know. The evening progressed from chit-chat and snack eating into a sort of a mini church service. We sang a couple Japanese worship songs, thankfully ones I was familiar with, and then the floor was opened up for people to share anything that was on their heart or mind to share. It was quite amazing to sit there and listen to people talk very openly about the challenges they were facing and trying to overcome. One woman was in conflict with her siblings and they hadn’t talked to her for a very long time. Another woman shared about her daughter’s Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, causing her to overly worry about cleanliness and hygiene to the point that she washed and showered multiple times a day. The evening ended with me talking in depth with the American husband about his life growing up with an alcoholic father and then about his son who also had drug and alcohol dependency issues.
It was an amazing night of candid and open-hearted conversation, something that all too often feels missing here in Japan. Maybe spilling our guts comes more naturally to us North Americans. ‘The more information the better’ seems to be our modus operandi. It’s easy to be personally oblivious to this until you’ve spent a bit of time in a place like Japan, surrounded by a culture of few words, words that are spoken softly, not to mention delicately chosen. I find myself tuning out of fast paced fluent conversations when I’m with large groups of English speaking friends, as if my mind can’t connect with the quickly changing subject matter or absence of pauses for reflection.
The Japanese, so far as I can tell, are very private people. I learned quickly to keep my questions and conversations neutral lest I wander into a who-can-win-this-blank-stare-and-uncomfortable-silence competition the quickest. Matters of love and politics are best avoided. Food, however, seems to always be a safe topic in the office, and it’s usually what I hear people speaking the most passionately about. Sadly, I tend to find out personal details about people by accident through other colleagues (read: office gossip). And often, because I’m the foreigner, I’m the last to know about pretty much everything.
My work mates seldom bring up loved ones in conversation. There is of course nothing wrong with keeping your work and home life separate, but I can’t tell you the number of times I have discovered that a teacher was married after a few years of knowing them, or that they have kids. Again, it could be the language barrier that is keeping me from hearing the tell tale “My girlfriend thinks that…” or “This weekend I took the kids to….”, lines that I was so used to in other jobs. Silent hints are also few, like family photos or cute kid drawings on their desks. Instead, you find pictures of their homeroom students, or screensavers with shots of their dog. Personal photos tend to be kept on cell phones where full control of who sees them can be exercised. As an aside, I usually discount the times that male coworkers have drunkenly referred to their wives as ‘the devil’ as actually talking about family.
Thinking back, I remember very specifically during my first year at our school an announcement was made at one of the morning meetings. Two teachers had just gotten married. One had married an office worker from our school and another a teacher in another school. No one really had much idea that these individuals were in dating relationships up until that point. In another case, a colleague whom I’d known for all of my stay in Japan was transferred. It was well known that she was married, her husband a teacher in a school across town. After she transferred we learned that she had in fact been divorced for a number of years. Even her closest friends at work had been oblivious.
Outside the workplace this same personal code of conduct exists as well. Just last week I went to my favorite salon in town. The owner of the shop is headstrong, honest and always gives me a great cut for a great price. I find myself in her establishment at least 3 or 4 times a year. This time I spent 5 hours there because I wanted to try out the infamous Japanese straight perm that so many of the women here subscribe to. I spoke on and off with the owner of the shop throughout the process. She told me she’d recently gone to Hawaii. I asked her if she went alone or with a friend. She said, with a friend. We covered all the bases and talked about the people, the beach, the shopping, the hotel and particularly about the low quality of the food. A couple days later I was out to lunch with the Japanese friend who had actually recommended the salon to me in the first place and who has known the owner for a long time. Our conversation led to the owner’s trip to Hawaii, and I was a little surprised (and also a little not surprised) to find out that she’d recently been married. The trip to Hawaii had been her honeymoon. It was the only detail she’d left out from our conversation that day.
I think this whole phenomena of privacy creates an illusion to some foreigners here that Japan is a sort of utopian society, where there is no violence, no conflict, no personal problems suffered by at least the people that we encounter in our own daily lives. It’s easy to think that way at first. Sales people are always happy and never seem to be having a bad day, colleagues never seem tired, neighbors are always smiling and giving you mystery fruits and vegetables from their gardens that you have no idea how to prepare or eat. It all seems so perfect. But the longer you stay, the more Japanese you pick up and the more time you spend with local friends, you realize that it’s all a sort of a kabuki performance, or a dance that is played out without missing a beat. It’s so real, so lifelike, but at the end of the day you know that all the characters are just actors and their lines have been memorized. The sales people are high school drop-outs, your overworked colleague is recovering from a mental breakdown and your neighbor drinks too much. Here in lies the truth about the Japanese, that they are a beautiful, stoic and proud people, but they are just like the rest of us.