A milestone on the interaction front!

Everyone tells you that living abroad entails good days and bad days, and that’s definitely been true. Thankfully, the ratio’s been changing, even in the short span of 3 weeks that I’ve been here — the bad days are fewer, farther between, and even less severe!

Yesterday was a milestone in terms of good days. I spent the entire day exclusively in the company of Japanese people. To backtrack a little: I joined the jazz band here, which rehearses 4 days a week! But I had really only been spending time with the 3 other trumpet players, since most of our practice time is split into sectionals. Anyway, we played in a competition yesterday hosted by the alumni association at ICU: a bunch of different clubs and organizations on campus were competing for cash prizes.

The competition was a great study in Japanese culture. There was A LOT of bowing. When someone standing in the front introduced themselves to the audience, we would all incline our upper bodies even from our seats. When the prizes were awarded at the end of the competition, the recipients bowed until they formed right angles — two or three times. Oh, and immediately after the jazz band finished our performance, we bowed for five full seconds (try counting that off right now, it’s a long time!).

Each competing group would do a short presentation in which they spoke a little about their activities and goals, then take some questions from the judges. There was a table set up next to the judges where assistants had a bell and an 後一分 (one minute left) sign. During the speeches and questions, they would ring the bell and hold up the sign… then ring it again once the minute had passed! And indeed, the competition ran exactly on time. That gives you some idea of the fastidiousness that pops up again and again in Japanese life.

We won second prize, and I think it was during the reception that I began to feel like I was bonding with my fellow band members. We ate adorable Japanese snacks (you think the stuff you can find in the US like Pocky is cute…. it represents only a fraction of the snack foods here), drank iced tea, and chatted. My vocabulary is really limited, which is frustrating, so I’ve been astonished more than once to find myself talking about interesting or complex topics in Japanese!

The competition ran for several hours, and by the time we’d gotten all of the instruments and equipment put away, it was almost 7:00pm. Several people in the band wanted to make sure I was joining them for 飲み会 (celebrating, I guess; it comes from the words for “drinking” and “meeting/assembling”) at a nearby restaurant.

Bikes are ubiquitous here, but unfortunately I never learned to ride one, so I perched on the back of one of the trombonist’s bikes. We sat in the long, traditional-style room that many Japanese restaurants have, with low tables and cushions on tatami mats. Thankfully, some people sat cross-legged instead of in the traditional yet uncomfortable seiza position (sitting on your heels).

Sharing is important in Japanese meals: you’ve probably heard about communal meals like shabushabu and sukiyaki where there’s one big dish on the table that everyone is served out of. Last night’s meal was a million different dishes, enough for everyone to have a few bites of each, and an endless supply of huge beer bottles for us to serve to each other. (One of those famous stories about Japanese etiquette is that you never pour your own glass; you serve a friend whose alcohol supply is running low, and in turn he or someone else refills your glass when you need it. In fact, this rule is so strictly followed that if you want to stop drinking, you’re supposed to leave a full glass so nobody can refill it for you!)

We stayed at the restaurant for four hours, with a steady supply of beer and interesting foods (I ate tiny fish, chicken head, and nattou, among other things!). It was wonderful to get to know my Japanese bandmates better, and like I said before, I surprised myself a few times with my Japanese ability. If it wouldn’t blow my wallet (and my time to study), I’d do this every night. (^_^)

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