Thursday, February 19, 2009

From Shima to Shima, Part I

Thoughts and reflections on two years in Japan

When I first set out to write this all-inclusive thriller of yet another expat's experience in the land of the rising sun, I put forth far too much effort in an attempt to make the article suitable for the likes of world class travel magazines. These conclusions are not for the armchair traveler, the yet-to-travel layman who chooses to spend his money on National Geographic rather than a plane ticket. No, this is for you, my Japan readers. Those who have lived the life of teaching English on a year's contract, those who look back on years past, now struggling to remember the simplest Japanese expression. And those who have yet to arrive. Let me be of service.

In doing so, I'll be quoting largely from the works of Alex Kerr, who, in my humble opinion, expresses what Japan is to foreign eyes more clearly and concisely than any other author. To see this country without the "emerald glasses", as it were, read Kerr’s Dogs and Demons: The Fall of Modern Japan.

Nothing here concerns the English-teaching experience except in passing. For that, you'd best read The Truth About AEON.


Summer camp mentality, I believe, is always the first to present itself in those who choose to travel abroad; whether you're a retiree who pays her own way in an elaborately organized tour, or a 20-something striking out to distant lands for work, the same instincts occur. From the moment you land, you're told where to go, what not to do (native customs), what to wear, what to eat, where to sleep. All decision making in what should be the most independent situation of your life is removed piece by piece, and you're 12 years old again, instructed to stick with the group as you're shuttled between museums. As an English teacher, you have difficulty distinguishing what time belongs to the company and which is yours alone; clinging to the institution like a camp counselor is second nature, given how far you've come and how difficult it may be to venture out on your own.

I've just landed in Osaka, and spend a good sixty seconds with my own thoughts before spotting a company rep sporting the customary blue and white of AEON. The most corporate among the "Big Four" eikaiwa (now, some would say three), AEON was my only choice in going for a Japanese adventure: no shared housing, as opposed to NOVA; one fixed location, which the JET Programme didn't allow; most importantly, they interviewed in my hometown – ECC only reviewed candidates every six months in LA.

It was a whirlwind, being exposed to so many aspects of Japanese culture all at once, seeing the country through the eyes of a first-timer, finding no faults, laughing at mistranslated Japanese signs in English. I couldn't even escape the first of many traps, set out for me from the day I decided to send in my resume: gaijin circles.

I couldn't even explore through my own eyes now, I had to listen to different negative perspectives of New Yorkers and Canadians. And the worst part was, it felt right to cling to them, to speak only English in Japan and chuckle over the ridiculousness of it all... what were we doing here, so far from home?

As our group reached critical mass and the AEON rep ran down her checklist, it was time to see the world outside the vending machines and phone card booths of Osaka International Airport.

Step 1: Turn in any baggage not needed for training to the luggage forwarding desk.

Step 2: Enter the local train system and make our way to the shinkansen.

Enter the first curious Japanese on the local to Shin-Osaka (although I didn't know the name at the time). Tom, a beefy guy with quite the inspiration for comedy, took the lead with questions. None of us knew any Japanese. I was still shy, and hoped the man might just pass me by... it didn’t take long for him to ask what I enjoyed.

"Running," I said, turning my head away slightly.

"Ohhh… champion! Champion!"

The journey of a thousand kilometers... We were all tired, covered with thin films of sweat, dehydrated, out of place, out of mind, alone, yet not alone, disconnected with the reality that out that window was a world we might actually come closer to understanding in the next year.

Looking back on it now, I remember not thinking much of the exposed power lines and cookie cutter designed grey buildings that are Osaka, one of the ugliest cities in Japan, if not the world. Such is the power of a fresh perspective – I didn’t think to compare Japan with what I knew of the states, or the UK, or China. I just assumed, "Alright, so this is how Japan is supposed to look, supposed to be..." Every time something happened, negative or otherwise, in the following months, I just thought to myself, "This is how Japan is supposed to be. I can’t change it. It isn't my country. Shoganai."

We can all do better. I'm not suggesting going in blind, like I did, then imposing your own set of values on an Asian culture ("gaijin-smash", as it were), but we can help, even in the subtlest of ways.

I'm going to reveal some truths about Japan, many of which readers are most likely unaware. Namely, Japan, to me, is ugly on the surface but not beyond its own rich fading culture; Japan is comfortable, to the degree you may start only seeing things with "emerald glasses"; no matter how long you live in Japan, how hard you try, how much you do, you will never be considered a Japanese.

Relax, grab a cup of green tea, and make sure your browser is encoded to read kanji.

I give you "From Hiroshima to Kagoshima: A Texan's Tale of Two Years in Japan".

1 comment:

Black Tokyo said...

great post! i lived in osaka for four-years out of 17 in japan. i look forward to future reflections on your stay in japan.

btw, i shared your story with my readers at Black Tokyo. a trackback was added to the post and a link via twitter.

take care!