Sunday, June 03, 2007

Culture shock

When I first arrived in Japan, I remember feeling like it wasn’t all that different from Canada. It was clean, quiet, safe, friendly, polite and even a little boring.

I wandered around the streets of Tokyo thinking, “Culture shock? What culture shock? How could you possibly have culture shock in a place like Japan?”

And while it’s true that Japan doesn’t deliver the same blow to the senses that a place like India does, it’s a fallacy to think moving to a developed country means you’re immune to the effects of culture shock.

It’s a different kind of culture shock. It creeps up on you little by little, day by day, until you begin to realize that underneath the layers of politeness and efficiency and modernity lies a culture very different from your own. It hits you that as much as you try to fit in, you never really will. You are an outsider living on the fringes of a world that you are part of but don’t really belong to.

That’s not to say Japanese people are hostile to foreigners. Just the opposite. I’ve been shown so much kindness and generosity during the past 10 months here. Almost everyone in this town has had me over for dinner at least once. My coworkers are always inviting me out for drinks. I have lots of friends, I take tea ceremony lessons, I’m on a volleyball team. I have an apartment, a job and a life here. I’ve been welcomed into the community with open arms.

And yet there are days I still feel completely isolated and alone. Part of the problem is the language barrier. I’ve been studying Japanese two hours a day, five days a week, for almost a year now. I’ve gotten to the point where I can hold basic conversations but I can’t really communicate. Especially when so much of what is said goes unspoken.

So I sit at my desk in the staff room surrounded by people I can’t understand and who can’t understand me. Sometimes I feel like I’m living in a bubble.

The hardest part is when someone in the office cracks a joke and everyone starts laughing. I know they’re not intentionally leaving me out. I think they genuinely forget that I don’t always understand what they’re saying. But every time it happens, a little stab of loneliness pricks my skin.

There are so many little things that seem to highlight the distance between us. Every morning I am greeted by the daily schedule written on the blackboard at the front of the staff room:

Unless I ask someone to translate it for me, I usually have no idea what’s going on. And so I’ll show up to school to find everyone in grubby clothes because I couldn’t read the notice on the blackboard that said we’d spend the afternoon waxing the floors. Or I’ll show up to school to find everyone in suits because it’s parents’ day. Or I’ll be busy working at my desk and I’ll look up to find the staff room suddenly empty because I couldn’t read the memo that said there’s a meeting at 2 p.m. in the gym.

The teachers are happy to translate for me but it’s frustrating having to ask all the time. I hate the way being illiterate has stripped me of my independence. I feel like a helpless child instead of a real member of the team. I am completely dependent on other people to understand what’s going on around me.

It’s so hard not to be able to really talk, especially with the kids. I have so many opportunities to interact with them outside of class and once I’ve exhausted my basic Japanese, I’m left feeling pained by how superficial these conversations are. The kids are so great and so much fun and I’m dying to get to know them better but I can only go so far before I’m strangled by the limitations of the language barrier.

Sometimes my inability to communicate has more serious consequences. Like what happened with the PE teacher. She invited me into her home, she took me to Hiroshima with her family for the weekend, she brought me fresh vegetables from her garden, she introduced me to her son and, after a few drinks, told me she hoped I would marry him. She took me under her wing and made me feel like a part of her family.

And then in April, she didn’t show up at school for a week. I asked one of the teachers if she was on vacation.

“No,” he said in Japanese. “Her mother died.”

I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach. I realized that if I hadn’t asked why she wasn’t at school, no one would have told me. I remembered her name being brought up at the staff meeting earlier that week but I didn’t understand why.

I felt completely useless. In Canada, I would know exactly what to do. I would buy a card and write a heartfelt note. I would look up the obituary in the newspaper and find out when the funeral was. If it were a close friend, I’d cook and clean and be a shoulder to cry on.

But here? I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t read the newspaper so looking up an obituary was out of the question. Even if I could read the obituary, I had no idea what the etiquette was for Japanese funerals. Was it appropriate to show up at a funeral unannounced? Did you need to be invited? Was it for family members only? Had I already missed it? I had no idea.

Should I phone her? But if I phoned her what would I say? I didn’t want to stutter my way through a condolence in Japanese and have her not understand me. So you know what I did? Absolutely nothing. I just went home and cried.

At that moment I hated being in Japan. I hated being an outsider. I hated the teachers for not telling me her mother had died. I hated myself for not being able to understand the world around me. I hated that a friend’s mother had died and I did nothing. I hated the thought of her thinking I didn’t care.

I blame myself for feeling alienated in this situation. But there are moments of isolation that I am powerless to control. I can’t escape the fact that I am a highly visible minority in a small, rural town. As a result, I am followed around the grocery store by stares, and I am often left with empty seats on either side of me on a packed train.

People here seem to have one of two reactions when they see me. They either go out of their way to avoid me or they bombard me with questions: “Where are you from?” “What do you think about Japan?” “Can you use chopsticks?” “Can you eat raw fish?”

I always answer their questions in a cheerful and friendly manner. It’s great that they’re so curious and interested in me. But I’d rather be accepted as an individual instead of always being pushed back into the gaijin box.

I don’t want special treatment. I don’t want to be the centre of attention. I want to blend in with the crowd, not tower above it. I want to be anonymous. Most of all, I just want to belong.

Sometimes I feel like my life in Japan has been a lesson in loneliness. This is not meant to be a criticism of Japan or Japanese people. Living here has been an overwhelmingly positive experience and I’d do it again in a second.

But I wanted to put my feelings of alienation into words. It would be dishonest of me not to do so. The frustration, the isolation and the loneliness have been just as much a part of the experience as the fun, the adventures and the wackiness. To only write about the positive stuff would be misleading.

The past year has been a bit of a rollercoaster ride. But the occasional lows have been balanced out by so many wonderful highs. The isolation isn’t an omnipresent thing. It seems to come and go. I don’t know. Maybe this is what they mean by culture shock.

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