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.”