A few weeks before I left North Carolina for Japan, I met my friend Juan Eduardo for a coffee at Starbucks. He is an immigrant from El Salvador who has lived in the U.S. for the past six years. We were sitting at the metal café tables outside the shop, watching the traffic go by on Battleground Avenue and enjoying the warm June sun.
“All right, Juan,” I said, crossing my arms and leaning back in the chair. “You’ve been in America for a while. You’re an immigrant. What is your advice for someone who is about to move to another country? What do I need to know?”
Without pausing for a second, he said immediately, “Learn the language. If you learn Japanese, your life will be so much easier. I didn’t start studying English until a few years ago and it was really hard before then. You can’t communicate with anyone. So study Japanese. That will help you.” This was pretty sound advice, coming from someone who had been there already. He knew what it was like to have people make an irritated sigh or roll their eyes because he was taking too long to pay for his Coke. He knew all too well that glare of “You’re in America, ain’t you? Learn some goddamn English” that many non-native English-speakers in the U.S. receive.
Some people spend their whole lives
dreaming about going to Japan.
Juan’s words were really the best advice I received. Since speech and culture are so tightly related, you cannot gain a full understanding of any country’s lifestyle without knowing at least a little bit of its language. (Plus, learning Japanese would help me look like less of an ass in public places.) However, my studies were limited to the half-semester of Japanese 101 I took back in 2008, so I came to Japan this year knowing hiragana, katakana, about ten kanji, and few basic greetings. I am finding myself learning it all backwards; jumping into the culture without much guidance, then learning the language through the community classes, CLAIR studies, and everyday conversation.
Some people spend their whole lives dreaming about going to Japan. They major in Japanese in college, they while their hours away watching anime and reading manga, and they can switch between the Western and Heisei calendars without using a pencil. Once in Japan, having at least a basic grip on the language and the culture, they can flit in and out of the two cultures, have a variety of friends who speak both languages, and for the most part, get along great.
Then there is me. I studied Spanish and Social Work in undergrad and worked for a few years as a social worker with Spanish-speaking immigrants in the U.S. before getting my Masters in ESL Education. It was not until 2007, while I was tutoring Japanese university students as part of my teaching practicum, that I even became interested in the East.
I fell for Japan like a junior high school
girl for Arashi.
But interested I was. I fell for Japan like a junior high school girl for Arashi (and that cute Japanese boy I was helping out also did not hurt). But my interest in Japan was more than just a passing fling; we are in a three-year committed relationship now.
Unfortunately, since I got such a late start with Japan, even though I was studying Japanese on my own and watching Miyazaki films, I was drastically unprepared for life here. I had this idea in my head of what life would be like; everything sleek and modern, ubiquitous internet access, daily cultural events, high class fashion.
Boy oh boy, was I surprised…
But when I got here, I did not even know what to think. All my preconceived notions of the country were thrown out the window when I found myself in Takasaki, a city that is so … so … so … normal! It reminds me of any American city; a big mall, lots of cars, convenience stores, both old and new sections of downtown, chain restaurants. The main difference is that everything is in Japanese! Even so, I went through some kind of weird homesickness when I first arrived. I had a host family, but I only stayed with them for about a week. Without internet, a phone, a car, or any idea of the general layout of the city, I felt isolated and scared. I spent much of August watching episodes of True Blood and eating pasta. As time went on, though, I found it comforting how all industrialized countries are basically the same. You know what to expect. And I love Gunma’s natural beauty; how you can wake up on a Saturday and go to the park or go hiking. Living here, I feel like I am experiencing a Japan that most tourists never will; normal, everyday Japan.
Of course, even if the big parts of my life are the same as back in the U.S.—working, cleaning, grocery shopping, hanging out with friends—there are still a ton of smaller differences that shocked me, and still do:
- Why are there not more free wireless hotspots?
- What is the deal with the uninsulated buildings and the narrow walled streets?
- Where does everyone learn to reverse park?
- Does anyone know the environmental cost of all that extra packaging?
- Who told the teachers to wear those non-attractive tracksuits to class?
- When will people quit saying, “Hai, hai, hai” constantly while I am talking to them? Or gasping, “jouzu!!!” if I say, “konnichiwa”?
- And when I will get used to it all?
I know I have done a lot of dumb things since arriving in Japan. Having never studied the cultural norms here, I know I make mistakes all the time. I hold my chopsticks wrong. I forget to take my shoes off in the dressing room. I take the wrong bus because I cannot read the signs. I order the wrong thing at a restaurant. I hold up the check-out line because I do not know what the cashier is asking me. And in my head, I think everyone is staring at me, judging me, saying darkly to themselves, “This stupid gaijin needs to go back home!”
But, miraculously everyone has been so kind to me! They are patient, at least outwardly. Back in the U.S., Americans can be incredibly rude to non-native English-speakers, rolling their eyes, speaking louder (because if we do not speak the same language it must be due to a hearing deficiency), letting out exasperated sighs. But here in Japan, even if I speak like a two-year-old, people are nice to me. That kindness means more than I can ever say.
It is amazing how my life feels both
exactly the same and completely different
than the life I had back in America.
This is my first time actually living in another country. I have visited other countries before, but only for a month or a two at a time. In the short four months that have passed so far, out of all my mistakes, I am getting a tiny grasp on how life works in Japan. It is amazing how my life feels both exactly the same and completely different than the life I had back in America. I have high hopes that at the end of my stay here (whenever that may be), most of the strangeness will have passed. Upon my return to America I will be able to sip my coffee at Starbucks on Battleground Ave and tell Juan how I learned enough Japanese to get by, and we will swap stories about how cool, wonderful, horrifying, and funny it is to be an immigrant in another country.
*All photos by Jaimie Foster.