Adapting to the culture, language and workplace in Japan has proved to be arduous, at best. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the onslaught of continuous flux and tedious learning. However, I long to be able to hold at least one conversation that is not lost somewhere in translation.
Continually rephrasing queries becomes tiresome, exhausting all parties involved. It’s generally better to smile and let the topic slip away. Unfortunately, unanswered questions are never forgotten. They simply recede to the darkest corner of your mind and gnaw away at your confidence, certainty and sanity. Not only do they continue to plague your every waking thought (especially when they relate to bills, indecipherable letters, panicked voicemails or garbled SMS messages from your carrier) but they often come back to haunt you again from the other party’s desire to help you out. Kindly explaining that the three hours of research they completed the night before pertaining to the previous day’s dog’s-breakfast of a conversation provides no clarity to your circumstance is best left unsaid. It’s better to smile and hope they don’t follow up with their recommendations at a later date.
When we first arrived in Tokyo, we were instructed to wear little stickers wherever we went. Accompanying these stickers were tags which supposedly read: “If lost, please return to…” The item they were referring to was not the tag, but the wearer. Although novel, the act of wearing such a tag was markedly demeaning. I recently obtained my gaijin card which also came with several business cards with similar phrases. Each English phrase is printed above a corresponding Japanese phrase. Some of the phrases include: “Please help me. I can’t speak Japanese,” “What’s happening?” or my personal favourite, Is there an earthquake (fire/typhoon).” As if I wouldn’t notice the billowing smoke or tumultuous ground tremors. Besides, even if I did point to a phrase in order to communicate, supposing I speak no Japanese how am I to comprehend the answer? Handy, but slightly ridiculous. My co-workers got a kick out of it when I whipped the card out and screamed “Blah blah blah blah, ME, ahhhhhhh!” while frantically pointing at different phrases. It’s very important to keep your wits about you while adjusting to life in a foreign land.
Early on in our adventure, once we had begun to settle into our new abode, we decided to venture off into the unknown realms of Yokkaichi. We live in a suburb of Yokkaichi-shi called Sakura-dai. At this point, we still had no cell phones and paralyzingly limited Japanese (“ah, watashi no…damnit what comes next”). We also were so bewildered by our surroundings that we could not tell north from south or anything in between. It was ever so hot and humid: we literally slipped and slid through the throngs of people. I looked as if I had just emerged from a pool and rather than towelling off, I let my shirt do the work. It was disgusting. Regardless, we were keen to explore our surroundings so we proceeded to dive headfirst into our first solo adventure.
During part of this adventure, we wound up in an arcade on the fifth floor of La-La-Square which is a giant shopping mall built in a similar fashion to those in Thailand. Stores are simply divided by aisles and escalators are placed in the least conspicuous places. In other words, neither are they always central, nor are up and down always side by side. By the time we reached the arcade, we were quite perplexed and overwhelmed. The sounds emanating from both machines and people were deafening. They toyed with my equilibrium and hashed my confidence. It was a rather fitting experience which summed up both how I felt up until that point and how I still feel from time to time.
All things considered, our foray into the unknown went surprisingly well – in hindsight, at least. At the time, it was an exceedingly stressful event which culminated in the desire to down some iced coffee somewhere familiar. Starbucks it was. This was no easy feat. Ever tried to order a drink at Starbucks before? Think of translating each and every one of those little variables…you start drinking black coffee with no room really bloody fast!
All this to say, yes, we are adjusting and absolutely loving undergoing every mind boggling, illogical event conceivable. As our Japanese skills improve, our stress is diminished. Oh how I long for the day when I can move beyond skimming like a stone over the surface of the waters and simply sink into the culture around me. I know I will never be one with Japan, but I can at least become attuned to her ways.