A Year Wiser
I started off the week with a haircut. We had a photo shoot at work so I wanted to look extra sharp. I returned to the barbershop where I got my first buzz last November, the cheapest place around. I figured I could get one more ¥1,000 cut before going to a nicer place. Apparently I should have skipped the final cheap haircut. I’ll survive the next month with this cut, but in the meantime I’m going to need to find a new barber shop!
Later that night, after my haircut, I laid in bed flipping channels on the tv. Strangely enough I found the Super Bowl being rebroadcast on local Japanese cable. I left it on the channel and zoned in. The broadcast was the exact same as the original Fox presentation. Down to the graphics, camera angles and atmosphere fresh from Dallas. Much to my amusement, the commentary was dubbed by two Japanese men. I wasn’t sure what they were saying exactly, but with my knowledge of football, I was able to guess much. For a split moment I felt a tinge of homesickness. But that quickly passed as I laughed out loud at the commentators’ cries and exclamations. Soon my eyes were heavy and I fell asleep.
Wednesday this week was my 24th birthday. I had kept it quiet all week until the day of. Wednesday morning I asked everyone at the office if they wanted to go out for a beer afterwork. Most people expressed some skepticism until I told them I would appreciate celebrating my birthday with them. “Today’s your birthday?!” Immediately they changed their minds.
During an afternoon class I was completely blindsided by a gift from one of my students. After class she pulled a gift out of her bag. I asked how she knew when my birthday was. Apparently she had asked me when we first met and wrote it down. I was pleasantly taken aback. In the box was a piece of Japanese earthware. I gave a humble bow and thanked her.
Later in the day, after my kids class I was in a meeting. The manager poked her head in the classroom and asked me to follow her. I stood and exited the classroom. One of my kid students stood outside the door. “Happy birthday, Alex-sensei,” he said and gave a little bow. I thanked him and bowed back.
Afterwork the majority of us went to our favorite izakaya, しゃんと for drinks. Drinks turned to dinner and a two hour visit. Midway through the evening Moto gave me a birthday card the whole staff had signed. Then he led the table, and soon the whole izakaya, in a round of “happy birthday.” After which he leaned over and told me we were even for his birthday applause the month before. The check came and I pulled out my wallet to split the bill. No one would have it and they evenly split my portion. How nice of them.
This week I taught my US history class, which was very popular. I taught a total of four sections; before the Civil War & after the Civil War, and a beginner and advanced level. All the classes were fun. Some students just stared blankly at me. Others jumped in at every topic to ask a question. Most students marveled at all the information. I had never before felt like such an authoritarian.
There was however, one sticky point in the lecture series, World War II. It was the elephant in the room, which at first I wasn’t sure how to deal with. For every class I tried to elicit information from my students. During my first class when the topic came up, I was met with a very long pause. Over the week I got better at this section and by Saturday afternoon I handled it very well. I focused mostly on the European theater, as much of American history has. When we turned to the Pacific theater we addressed Pearl Harbor and skipped right on to the Marshall Plan. I was not about to tackle Hiroshima or Nagasaki. No thank you.
Thursday after work I took the elevator down to the station and hopped a train for Shinjuku. Friday was a national holiday and thus we did not work. I met up with Lauren, Elisha & Lisa and we had dinner to celebrate my birthday. After dinner we visited an izakaya for a nomihoudai. After which we went to the Hub to get a pint. We drank quickly and now faced the crossroads. We could call it a night, take a taxi to Lauren’s apartment and get some rest. Or we could go find a club and go dancing. Always a people-pleaser, I followed the crowd to the clubs.
At 2 in the morning we navigated the tiny streets of Tokyo. Eventually we came across a “casablanca”, which I suppose is a trendy night club. Many of the clubs in Tokyo are operated by Nigerians, who thankfully, speak English. Lauren did a swell job at hustling the doorman, and we got a heck of a deal. For ¥500 we paid the cover, got a drink voucher and were granted access to the basement room where a VIP party was underway.
We descended the stairs to a room of people. It’s 2 AM on a Friday morning and two dozen people were dancing to three DJs. Yep, we must be in Tokyo. I set down my coat and walked to the bar for my beer. As I waited for the bartender, I gave a wink to the cute girl next to me. The barkeep took my voucher and poured a beer. “Where’s your boyfriend,” I asked. “No boyfriend,” she replied, with a heavy Japanese accent. I grabbed her hand and smiled, “let’s dance!”
I took the girl out to the floor where my friends had made a small dancing circle. At first my dancing partner was very timid and possessed little rhythm. I set down my beer, grabbed her hand and her hip, and helped her find the beat. That was all it took, she knew how to dance after that. The following two hours was spent singing, dancing and sweating.
At four AM I took a seat next to Lisa on the couch. The first train of the day would leave in one hour. We both decided to pass on Lauren’s apartment and to go home. Better to sleep in our own beds and wake up at home then have to sleep on the floor and commute in the morning. One more hour at the club. Another hour of three terrible DJs. I exhaled heavily and slouched into my seat. I looked up and saw my new friend across the way. I sat up straight and fixed my necktie. One more hour at the club. One more hour with her.
Midway through a song I got my friend’s name, Eiko. After another song we swapped emails. And after another song I was done. The clock struck five AM and we left. We grabbed a coffee at the convenience store and gave our goodbye-hugs. Lauren and Elisha jumped into a cab for Lauren’s nearby apartment. Lisa and I hoofed it to the station for our long rides home. After all the rush it turned out my first train didn’t leave until 5:30, so I had some extra time. I crept around the station taking some neat photos of the trains. I’ll post these soon.
Soon the departure bell chimed and I hopped onto a half-filled train. Before we had left Shinjuku Station, I was asleep in my seat. 40 minutes later, my ears heard a familiar tune. My eyes shot open and I saw we were stopped at my local station. I grabbed my pack and leapt from the car. The doors snapped shut behind me and the train left for the next station. I blinked the sleep out of my eyes and took a moment in the cold air to collect myself. For the past three months I have witnessed hundreds of Japanese do the exact same thing. They sleep the entire train ride, and somehow wake up when they arrive at their station. As my senses returned, I was delighted that I had just taken another important step in my journey to become more Japanese. It should be noted, each station has a unique chime it plays for arriving/departing trains, so that passengers may recognize it and act accordingly. Sagamiono’s chime had permeated my sleep, and my subconscious jolted into action. Impressive.
As I left the overhang of the station, I stepped out into the first snow of the year. Tokyo usually only receives one snow a year. I was lucky enough to walk home in it. The sun was rising behind the tall buildings, and snow descended from the heavens. I tightened my scarf, lowered by cap and enjoyed the walk home at 6:30 AM.
The snow continued all day into the evening. Friday was Foundation Day, a national holiday and a day off from work. Apart from watching the snow fall, I meant up with Hamish & Emma for some dinner. We visited an Indian restaurant close to my apartment. This was only the second time I’ve ever eaten Indian food. It was very delicious, and very authentic. The waiter/owner only spoke Hindi and a smidgin of Japanese. After dinner we visited my apartment for a bottle of wine and a game of Life. It was very nice spending time with my two foreign teachers outside of the office.
Saturday I was back at work, for one of the busiest days of my new career. All of my classes had last minute additions, so my daily roster was of no help. Emma was assigned two kids’ trial lessons, a huge request for a new teacher. I voluntarily took one of the lessons over my lunch break to lesson her load. After my last class of the day I was walking into a classroom to have a counseling with another teacher’s student. I was grabbed by the elbow and asked if I could teach another class out of my schedule. This class was in the next five minutes. “Heck yes, I can,” I replied. I gave the counseling and walked across the hall into another room to teach the class. When I wasn’t teaching or eating my lunch, I was delivering hot tea to prospective students. I introduced myself and briefly shot the breeze with them. I left work completely drained, but very satisfied with the great work we had all done at the office.
Sunday I met up with Lauren in Shinjuku. Earlier in the year she had asked if I wanted to see a concert with her. I am a huge fan of concerts and live music, so naturally I said yes. I had been dying to see a Japanese concert, and I wasn’t disappointed. We paid ¥2,000 for a ticket to see seven bands perform. We arrived early and descended the stairs to a small club in a basement. Over the next several hours a steady stream of young people came into the club. The headlining band “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” was last to perform.
During the main act Lauren and I drifted further apart. She migrated towards the center of the crowd where she could head bang. I moved to the edge to avoid the stupidity of the middle. The music was uninspired and repetitive at best, so my mind wandered. I couldn’t help but think of the many concerts I had been to before, and how I suddenly felt much older. For example, the music from the speakers was far too loud. I spent six hours wishing I had a pair of ear plugs.
The moshing also served to agitate me. Here I sensed a contrary situation. To me, moshing is very selfish. The mosher has turned the concert from a group experience, to an event about themselves. They jump around throwing elbows and hitting people wherever they can. There were many points in the evening where I stood off to the side minding my own business, when a gangly young man came crashing in to me. I pushed them back into the crowd, as is expected. However to be selfish goes against many cultural tendencies of the Japanese. I think many young Japanese are so culturally repressed that an outlet as trivial as moshing becomes their vent. For hours I was distracted by this indiscretion.
My attention was often snapped by the hilarities of crowd surfers. Apart from the poor taste of crowd surfing to piano rock or down tempo ballads, the Japanese didn’t seem to mind. All night the people skimmed the surface of the crowd before facing the inevitable drop. But it was the drop that was the payoff for me, the bystander. Whenever someone would fall from the safety of his peers’ hands, another person would dart across the room to break his fall. The surfer would stand up with a stupid grin, place his palms together and bend over for a bow. Then he would run back to the front of the stage to try it again. Very goofy.
Much to my surprise, I spent part of Sunday emailing Eiko, the girl from the club. Before long we had made dinner plans. And what better day to get dinner with a pretty lady than Valentine’s Day? Sunday evening we planned out some preliminary details, like when and where to meet. Just before I went to bed she offered some important information, she can’t speak English. “That helps explain some of the incoherent emails,” I thought. I replied back, ” that’s okay, I don’t know Japanese.” I turned off my phone and drifted off to sleep unsure what the next day would hold.
I left my apartment at 7pm on Monday. I opened my front door, it was snowing again. Only this was like a Nebraska snow. Huge flakes came down fast and heavy. The snow was very wet and settled to the ground, slowly accumulating. I trekked the two kilometers to the station in a half inch of complete slush. Heck of a way to start a date. Eiko and I had decided to meet at 8pm in Shinjuku. I had to keep a steady pace in the snow to stay on schedule.
An hour later I met my date at the designated spot. ”エいこ、こんばんは、” (Eiko, good evening) I said, and gave a little bow. “Good evening,” she replied. We exchanged a nervous smile and set off for dinner. In front of us a steady wall of snow fell, masking the tall buildings of Tokyo to look like giant shadows. On our brisk walk we spoke in our best pidgin. She spoke short and simple Japanese, and I replied in plain English. The majority of our words were lost on the other, but the company was pleasant. Soon after we found a sushi restaurant and settled in.
We ate dinner at a conveyor sushi joint. Far from upscale, but the fish was nonetheless fresh and delicious. We took turns pulling small plates off the belt and sharing the fish. Thankfully a picture menu was in front of us, which our conversation was largely based around. Below each picture was the dish’s name in hiragana Japanese, romanji Japanese and English. It seemed fate was trying to help us communicate.
After a very satisfying dinner Eiko reached into her bag. She pulled out a small bag from a chocolate store. “Happy Valentine’s,” she said. I was tickled pink by her gift. Here was another aspect of Japanese culture that I have been able to experience. Valentine’s day, in Japan, is the exact opposite from America. On February 14th, women shower men with gifts of chocolate. I could get used to this holiday.
Not one to be outdone, I reached into my pack and pulled out a similar bag, this one containing cookies. The look on her face said more than words could in either language. She was completely surprised by my gift. I guess that most Japanese men do not give anything on this occasion. We replaced our gifts back in our bags and excused ourselves from the conveyor island. I picked up 100% of the bill, again not very normal for Japanese men on a date. We grabbed our umbrellas and stepped back into the winter storm. I opened mine first and grabbed Eiko tight around her waist. As we crossed the street I looked down at her face. The girl wasn’t used to such western tendencies. And I wasn’t used to snow in Tokyo.
Our next stop was a darts pub. I was insistent on an activity that would allow us to speak at a comfortable volume. And conversely, would allow us to be distracted if the conversation grew stagnate. For sometime we played darts and slowly drank our beers. The alcohol loosened our tongues and we both tried to speak each other’s language. We stumbled and butchered sentence structures but were not discouraged. Body language is often far more clear than the spoken word. Slowly, we were able to convey our thoughts.
If I was a prototypical, chivalrous westerner, Eiko was a model of cute Japanese girls. She kept her pocket translator handy to translate difficult ideas. We tried not to use it too often but it was a nice crutch. At one point in the evening, she pulled out a sticky note which she tried to hide. On it, she had written three questions for me in English. She did her best to pronounce the foreign words, the girl had done her homework alright. I smiled and answered as concisely as possible. Then we returned to the dartboard.
The impending last trains cut our date short. We both live in opposite directions from central Tokyo, and we did not want to get stranded. I escorted her to her train entrance. In return she gave me a soft Japanese kiss. “Goodnight,” she said. “オやすみなさい,” I returned. I tore across the station and caught the final express train home. On the ride back I reflected on my evening, on my first date in Japan. All things considered, it was one of my most satisfactory dates. It was real and sincere. And honestly, how many people can say they’ve gone on a date with someone in a foreign country, and couldn’t even speak the same language. Just one more accomplishment during my journey in Japan.
-Not Weird; Different-
I carried my orange juice to the checkout counter. The clerk in front of me quickly fired off something in Japanese. In return I gave her a dead stare, “I’m sorry, what…” “Card-u,” she replied and with her hands made a small rectangle. She was asking for the point card her grocery store promotes, and whether I had one. I shook my head “no” and she rang up the juice. The register displayed ¥159. I fumbled through my wallet and pulled out a ¥1,000 bill. I tried to hand it to her. She took a step back and pointed to the register. Confused by this I swiveled around. The person behind me but their cash on a small tray next to the register. The cashier then took the money and returned change. I followed their example, in return I was handed my change, orange juice in a small bag, and a complimentary straw. I placed the items in my pack and walked out the store with the girls. I thought to myself, “that was really weird.”
This was my first encounter with Japanese culture, on my first day in the country. The girls and I had left the training house to get drinks from down the street. The overwhelming experience at the store had short circuited my quick responses. Especially the handling of the cash to close the transaction. I had never read that in any of my cultural books.
“Weird” had been my initial reaction to the new situation. I quickly corrected myself, “not weird, different.” This has been a motto I remind myself of all the time. It is normal for people to grow accustomed to their own culture and daily dealings. When a person is forced into a situation where they differ from the norm, it is understandable if their first reaction is not a positive one. However it is easy to quickly transition from non-positive to negative.
My next cultural hiccup came the following day when I sat down at training. I had dressed myself in a suit and tie, and then donned slippers for the training house. “Not weird, only different,” I said to myself. If I wanted to stay open minded and have a positive experience while living abroad, I was going to keep reminding myself of this.
I kept true to myself and recited the motto nearly everyday for several weeks, “It’s not weird, it’s different.” Slowly, as the weeks passed the odd became mundane. I stopped doing double takes of people with surgical masks. The cars on the left side of the road looked normal to me. My sensitivity to these differences faded with time. Now having lived in Japan for 15 weeks, there is little that seems out of place to me. However there is the occasional outlandish occurrence that catches me by surprise. Still I hold true to my motto, “different, but not weird.”
Keeping an open mind has helped me to better assimilate and understand the Japanese culture. I often speak with Americans and other foreigners who are struggling with the cultural differences here in the Far East. I am quick to remind them that they are guests living in a different place. And that it is normal to be aware of the differences, but that they are in fact, not weird.
Weird, I am convinced, with stare me in the face when I return to the States. A double quarter pounder with cheese and a super sized coke & fries? Now that will always be strange.