Thursday, February 21, 2008

Japan is hard.

Occasionally when I’m chatting with the locals, I hear the question, “Nihon ga sumiyasui desuka?” “[Is it easy to live in Japan?]”

I hear this from well-meaning, yet provincial strangers, usually following a short conversation and an exclamation of how good my Japanese is. I have the same conversation over and over again:

Where are you from? Are you an English teacher? Where? How long have you lived here? Do you like Saga? Wow, your Japanese is good!

The same conversation. With some optional elements here and there. Sometimes they linger on food and skip on weather, sometimes they cover both. Usually there’s some comment on how tall I am.

Then comes that loaded question: Is it easy to live in Japan?

I never know how to respond. If I were to answer honestly, I would say no, it’s not easy to live in Japan, but not for the reasons that you would expect. It’s not because I can’t eat fish or use chopsticks. It’s not because I’ve never seen this curious thing you call rice and don’t understand how one can eat it every day. Nor do I have a problem with tatami or futon, or taking off my shoes when entering a house or office or hospital. It’s not even because I can’t understand enough of the language or writing. I get by.

Truth be told, gentle shopkeeper/farmer/housewife/random old person, Japan is fucking difficult. Pumping gas is difficult. Buying envelopes is difficult. Taking out the trash is difficult. Sometimes, every simple action becomes an impossible task, just because of some specific knowledge you don’t possess. Even small errands can be intimidating if it’s something you’ve never done in Japan before, because there’s likely an elaborate process behind it. But you get used to those kinds of things. There’s something else that can’t be easily articulated. Culture shock doesn’t come right away. It sneaks up on you after months of constantly relying on the kindness of your employers or co-workers, who really are oh so nice, and never knowing what the hell is happening. At first you thank god for those people who can help you through this confusing world, then you wonder if it wouldn’t be more convenient for everyone if they just took a minute to explain a few things to you. The tenth time you go to work and discover that there’s no place for you to plan your lessons because there’s some weird presentation going on that’s being videotaped and taken very seriously and everyone looks at you like you’re interrupting, it gets to you. Or when you go to work and discover everyone is celebrating a big going-away party for one of the teachers getting married, but you were never invited. Or when you drive all the way to your class in a town hall in a different city only to find the doors locked and no one there because of some reason everyone understood, but no one decided to inform the teacher about. Small reminders that you will never, ever be one of them.

But then there are the people who assume that the Japanese language and culture are a completely indecipherable enigma to someone foreign. This includes the service people who refuse to speak to you and only point at things or use some kind of primitive sign language, even when you try to confirm or respond to their gestures in Japanese. It also includes those closer colleagues or associates who are an endless source of obvious information that they think will be helpful to you because you must know nothing. Every time you meet them, they’re surprised that you can speak Japanese, despite that being the only way you’ve ever communicated with them. They know so little about anything outside of Japan that they have no idea what might be confusing for someone foreign. While you try to educate those people, they quickly discard any new information you tell them and cling to the exact stereotypes and expectations they had of you before. You are not here to educate people. You are here to give a foreign, one-dimensional happy face to the system that is still thoroughly entrenched in Japaneseness. You are there to dance, monkey, but do not provide any input, because you couldn’t possibly contribute to this intricate Japanese system. People may like you, may think that you’re good-looking and lots of fun, but do they think of you as human? Not really.

Japan is such a nice place, so safe, so clean, and most people are outwardly kind to you, yet there’s this slow feeling of suffocation. Another arbitrary rule, another suspicion that a person you considered a friend was just being polite and doesn’t actually give a shit about you, and it becomes harder to breathe. It’s hard to breathe, and it’s hard to live, and meanwhile you have to smile at every gawking child you see and appear warm and welcoming because you are an ambassador.

So no, stranger, it is not easy to live in Japan.

But I never say that. I always just smile, and say, “[There are difficult things, but overall, it’s all right.]”


Blogger Eileen said...

This was a really interesting post. I've assumed Japan is difficult because the cultural differences are so drastic. Even though France is more similar to the US it has a lot of the same problems for me. Like with language. They're taught to speak a specific way and that it's very important to speak the language correctly so that when you make a small mistake, a lot of them either don't understand you, correct you immediately, or assume you don't speak French, contrary to whatever evidence you've given them thus far in the conversation... it's a bit ridiculous, especially since most of them only speak French.

Also they're very good at dirty looks which, as a foreigner, can be impossible to decipher and seem to come with no reason. Recently I stepped out of line in a store to grab something from another line and when I asked if I could get back into my spot (just to be polite) the woman behind me looked at me like I was insane and didn't answer. Later she struck up a random conversation with the girl behind her about how long the line was. It's like there's some secret code of when you're allowed to talk to strangers that I will never figure out.

I could keep going on this topic for a long time so I'll stop. I find this a very interesting topic, it's actually part of why I want to be a language teacher. Also just wanted to let you know you're not alone. The things other people expect to be difficult in moving to a foreign country are often completely off the mark. Or they expect it to be easy and glamorous and forget that the day-to-day can be like walking on eggshells or trying to break into a club that won't ever really want you.

Anyway I'd say forget the jerks and enjoy the rest of your months there. Be selfish.

(I don't to be so terribly negative about France, I do love the country and the people, but it has its frustrations, which are sometimes all the more unexpected because it SEEMS so similar to the U.S.)

10:13 PM  
Blogger archipelagic said...

Yeah, it's really hard to explain. Japan is difficult because of the drastic cultural differences, but it's never what Japanese people think it is. I'd love to hear some more of your France stories! I was especially intrigued when you mentioned rules about talking to strangers, because Japanese people are totally about minding their own damn business. Like if someone drops something without noticing it, and a bunch of people see, they generally don't do or say anything to the person. Crazy old ladies talk to random people, but that's about it. HOWEVER, if you're a foreigner, tons of people who don't know you talk to you and can be really invasive. They apply completely different rules to foreigners, which is both a blessing and a curse.

12:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Cassie, I'm in Erie visiting Mom for a couple of days. I love your entry, and just read it to my mom with a tiny bit of *&%!!%#?! editing. I haven't written anything lately. I have been in Amarillo a LOT. When I'm there, all of my normal activities go by the wayside and I fall into their schedule. It is regular enough, getting up around 7 or so, having a little breakfast, and working online or on the business plans. In the evening we frequently go to a dinner, a meeting, or a concert or ballet or theater production. No TV, radio, or shopping unless it's the bookstore. I really like it, except that I do need my own space to get my work done. It is so much warmer there that it has been painful to return to Iowa this winter where it is ten below zero. Mandi says they've only had six days of public school this February because there has been so much ice that travel has been impossible. All of the schools in southeast Kansas are closed because of the newest ice storm. Are you SURE you want to live in Minnesota???

Your post is so interesting, and really captures the true alienation of being in a foreign country. I felt that way in France, and just went to bed for a day because I was so overloaded! No matter how much I complain about living in the is still home.

Lots of Love, Your Mom

3:03 AM  
Blogger Claytonian said...

huh. I don't think I've really ever gotten that exact question. But I tell people I've become used to Japan a lot because they seem to ask that, or the fish question.

I'm not afraid of telling people about 差別 though; I'm quite blunt.

10:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, Cassie,
I attempted to mail some stuff from Gram and myself today at HyVee, but they wouldn't send it to Japan and said I had to go to the post office. As soon as I can get over there when they're open, it will be coming.

5:48 AM  

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