Monthly Archives: August 2011

Endless screw-ups and small victories

Today was a day of ups and downs. It was my first full day alone in Koganei-shi (the suburb of Tokyo where I’m living) and it started off pretty great: I headed to Musashisakai Station to grab a pastry before taking the bus to my university.

In the afternoon I went to the library on campus but it turns out you can’t even get in unless you swipe an ID card, which we hadn’t gotten yet. So I talked to the librarians, and solved the problem ENTIRELY IN JAPANESE. It was amazing! I’ve noticed that I don’t feel judged here for being a foreigner. People don’t stare at me on the street. They speak to me at a normal speed and volume, even once it’s become clear that I have trouble understanding. 😀 It seems very Japanese not to draw attention to the way someone stands out.

After that, I spent a very long time in a drugstore trying to find things I needed. It’s really, really hard to do: I didn’t know the words in Japanese so I couldn’t ask anyone for help. But actually I learned a few new words once I finally pieced together (from pictures and loanwords from English on the packaging) what some products were!

I couldn’t find Neosporin, so I went home and looked it up online. It worked out beautifully: I went back and read clumsily from my notebook the words I’d written down for Neosporin-like products in Japanese, and the cashier found them right away. I couldn’t survive in this country without the Internet. 🙂

Still, twice today I didn’t understand questions cashiers asked me. I went to a burger place for my first restaurant meal on my own (Japanese burgers are really good; they put this curry-onion thing in the burger as well as cheese and tomato) and it took me forever to figure out that the cashier was just asking me what size I wanted! After that I was so flustered that I took the nearest seat… it took me 30 seconds to realize someone else’s bag was in the seat across from me. When I got up, the girl who reclaimed her seat was very gracious about it. Still… so embarrassing!

Of course these things happen, especially early in my stay, and all the Japanese people involved have been so patient and kind about everything that the frustration and embarrassment never last long. It’s going to take me a while to learn all the customs here, especially the scripts when buying stuff. There are a lot of formal one- or two-word phrases that are used in an endless number of contexts, but each of those uses is also pretty specific. My strategy while I figure these things out is to smile and bow a lot. And to master that facial expression that’s simultaneously apologetic and obsequious — you know, the one that says “I’m walking all over your customs and it’s terrible and I know it.”

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Isumi, coastal paradise

I’m staying with my uncle in Isumi until Tuesday when I move into my little room in the city. Isumi is on the southeast coast of Honshu (the main island) in Chiba Prefecture:

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My cute cousin and an incredible view!

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The view from my uncle’s yard (Isumi River)

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Dinner: we bought sashimi from the local supermarket and it was the best I’ve ever tasted. Oh man.

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My uncle’s neighbors are on vacation and letting me use their house to sleep in! The crazy steep stairs.

How to survive a 13-hour plane flight

Like I said in the last entry, I wasn’t expecting to sleep on this flight. I mean, the advantage of this is that I’ve never really had jetlag when I travel. All I have to do is muster up the will to stay awake until it’s nighttime wherever I’ve arrived. So yesterday I was awake for 30 hours, but uhhh no big deal, guys.

Anyway. Here’s a basic rundown of how I occupied myself on the plane:

  • Stared out the window during takeoff and for at least half an hour after that*
  • Watched The Tree of Life while taking breaks to stare out the window some more. It was one of those indie movies that takes itself waayyy too seriously, but it had potential. Whatever.
  • Read a bit of Norwegian Wood
  • Listened to this awesome new playlist that I made!
  • Listened to Man of La Mancha all the way through. My parents always played this on long car trips and it never fails to bring tears to my eyes. (You know how embarrassing that is on a plane? Good thing the lights were dimmed.) It’s this recording if you guys are curious. Totally kick-ass.
  • Read more of Norwegian Wood
  • Watched Pirates of the Caribbean 4 — see, I had already expected this one to be bad (and indeed it was) but this was 8 or 9 hours into the flight and I didn’t have anything better to do.
  • About 11 hours in, deeply regretted having eaten my snack around hour 6. Luckily they brought us our second lunch a little later 🙂
  • Read even more of Norwegian Wood
And voila! It wasn’t even that bad.
*I get all romantic looking out the windows of planes. I’m fascinated by the patterns in the ways people have settled the land, carved out an existence in fertile valleys and left bare expanses of desert and mountain. The grandness of the Rockies (they felt so much closer to the plane than the flat land of Texas) was impressive until I saw clouds 100 times the size of a single peak. Mist clinging to the valleys, swaths of rainclouds shrouding the mountains, this stuff is way cool to me! Sadly they dimmed the lights and made us close the windows for all of the flight but the first and last hour…. I mean, who’s gonna sleep for 11 hours with the roaring of the pressurized cabin? You’d also miss out on the awesome airplane meals! (That’s actually 100% sincere, I love airplane meals.)

Pre-departure, sort of

Okay, so I know this blog is about my life in Japan, but I just have to write a little about the past 2 days in Texas! For me, it’s part of the adventure.

For those of you who don’t know, we came here to see my brother off to his first year at Austin College in Sherman, a northern Texas town not far from the Oklahoma border. Other than the 106-degree heat, the place is paradise! People are SO nice. Strangers wave at us on the street (one student raised his entire arm in the air as he passed us near campus this morning). On the shuttle away from the Dallas/Fort Worth airport, a man offered his seat to me. The waitress tonight (who was younger than me) called me “baby girl” more than once.

The town looks like a movie set; most of the houses look freshly painted and have lots of trees and porches with swings. The parts that aren’t so new-looking are run-down in a romantic way. (Does that make any sense? I have this weird fondness for peeling paint and dead grass.) It seems like every other storefront is an auto body or repair shop. I guess the trucks everyone drives take a lot of maintenance!

No offense to Idaho and Utah, but when we’ve driven through those places on past family vacations, the food has been pretty disappointing. So I was astounded to find amazing food at every meal here! That Texans know how to barbecue goes without saying — but it’s not just the brisket that’s delicious. Last night I got boiled cabbage and green beans with my barbecue, and I’m pretty sure bacon was involved in the preparation of both. 🙂 Lunch yesterday was Chick-fil-A, which I’d never had before — ohhhh maaan is that place good. And cheap!

At Jake’s dining hall you pay by the meal, meaning it’s all-you-can-eat (totally foreign concept for me: at UCSD we paid by the item), and the chicken nuggets I got there were honestly the best I’ve ever had. Dinner tonight was at a Tex-Mex place that looked like this:

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So. Much. Food. It’s probably great that I’m visiting Texas before going to Japan, because it provides an experience that’s very different from either Southern California or Tokyo. For example, considering what I’ve heard about food prices and portion sizes in Japan, I may not be this stuffed again for my entire trip. 😛

However, these two cultures might not be totally different: my brother pointed out that both Texans and Japanese seem to prize politeness and hospitality. In Japan there’s the idea of honne versus tatemae: what you actually feel/think versus the public face you put on. Keeping the two separate helps to maintain social harmony. I could see this being relevant in Texas, couldn’t you? We have stereotypes that suggest that feuding Texas women, for example, are sugary sweet to each other rather than openly antagonistic.

I fly to Narita Airport tomorrow morning. I’ve never been able to sleep on planes so I expect to find other ways to occupy myself for the 12-hour flight. I’ll write the next entry from across the Pacific!

T-minus 5 days…

Welcome to “A gaijin in Japan”! From August 27th to December 5th, I’ll be writing and posting photos about my experiences as I study abroad at International Christian University near Tokyo.

I leave in 5 days and frankly, I’m pretty stir-crazy. So many people have been telling me what an amazing time I’m going to have and how incredible Japan will be that I’m pretty sick of it. I mean, of course everyone means well, and I’m sure I will have a great time. But the anticipation is killing me!

I haven’t started packing yet (one person today told me that packing isn’t any fun unless you leave it to the last minute) but other than that, I’m ready for the trip. Except for the terror that occasionally surfaces as I contemplate living in a foreign country for 3 1/2 months. 🙂