Most of the time, living in Japan isn’t all that different from living in Canada. But just when I think I’m starting to fit in, I unintentionally do something to set myself apart. Like walking to work.
Who knew something so innocuous would turn into an international incident?
It started out innocently enough. I woke up early. It was a nice day. I thought to myself, “I’m up early. It’s a nice day. I think I’ll walk to work.”
That day I was teaching at a small school out in the country. It’s about four kilometres away and you have to go up and down a few steep hills to get there. But I like walking, especially when I get to pass through scenery like this.
So I hefted my backpack over my shoulders and set out for what I thought would be a nice walk through the countryside.
I got about 10 minutes away from my apartment when a car slowed beside me. I looked over to see one of the teachers from my school rolling down the passenger-side window and frantically waving for me to get inside the car.
“No, no,” I said in Japanese. “Walking, good. Exercise, good. Car, no thank you.”
My explanation only seemed to confuse her (either that or my Japanese is completely incomprehensible). She patted the passenger seat and urged me to get in.
I thanked her profusely, bowed and continued walking. She drove beside me for a little while. I pointed at my feet, pointed at the road ahead and gave her the thumbs up. Over and over and over again. She eventually got the message and drove off ahead of me.
Ten minutes later, a second car slowed beside me. It was a different teacher but he did the same thing. He rolled down the passenger-side window and frantically waved for me to get inside the car. I played another round of charades, pointing at my feet and the road ahead, until he drove on.
Five minutes later, a third car pulled up beside me. This time, it was the principal. Instead of slowing down to offer me a ride, he brought the car to a complete stop in the middle of the road and started shoving the junk on the passenger seat onto the floor. He didn’t even ask if I wanted a ride, he just assumed I’d hop in.
By the time the fourth car pulled up beside me, I realized the teachers weren’t offering me a ride just to be nice. They were offering me a ride because they assumed something had happened to my bike. They thought I was walking because I had to, not because I wanted to.
Amazingly, another car pulled up beside me when I was just one block away from the school. The teacher rolled down the passenger-side window and frantically waved for me to get inside. Now it was my turn to look at her in disbelief. The school was literally no more than 50 metres away.
“Um . . . the school is right there. I can walk,” I said.
She gave me a look that said “You are the weirdest f*cking person I have ever met” and turned left into the parking lot.
By the time I walked into the staff room, the gossip mill was churning at warp speed. The way they were talking, you would have thought I was the first teacher in the history of the school to have ever walked there. (Actually, I probably was.)
They wanted to know how long it took (45 minutes), did I ever walk such great distances in Canada (yes), do other people in Canada walk to work (yes), was my bicycle was broken (no), was I tired (from walking, no. From answering their questions, yes).
I tried to explain that walking to work was a nice way to ease into the day and get some exercise in. That I liked breathing the fresh air and looking at the scenery.
They smiled and nodded but I don’t think they really understood. By lunch, their tone had shifted from awe to concern. They wanted to know how I was going to get home.
Good lord, I thought. Here we go again.
I cringed inwardly and told them I was going to walk home. And so I went through the whole process of turning down rides all over again. By the end of the day, I had managed to convince them that I really didn’t want a ride.
I hefted my backpack over my shoulders and set out for what I thought would be a nice walk home through the countryside.
I got about 10 minutes away from the school when a car slowed beside me. I looked over to see a cab driver rolling down the passenger-side window and frantically urging me to get inside the car.
“No, thank you,” I said. “I’m okay.”
He seemed to think I was turning him down because I didn’t want to pay the cab fare. So he started yelling, “Free. Free. No money!”
I had already experienced the novelty of a free cab ride in Japan (I once had a cab driver waive the $30 fare because he said he enjoyed our conversation so much that he thought it wouldn’t be right to make me pay). So I pointed at my feet and the road ahead until he drove away.
All of this just because I decided to walk to work. What does a girl have to do to fit in around here?