Friday, 29 May 2015

The Japan Files ~ Life Lessons

So, I've just crossed the 18 month marker for my duration in Japan and as with all of my experiences, I often take a moment to evaluate myself and how far or otherwise I have managed to come. It isn't always apparent but some experiences have a way of changing people, whether it amplifies already present qualities, eradicates them or creates different ones all together. It'll be interesting when I visit home later on this year to see how the people closest to me reckon I've changed, but for the time being, all I can do is take a good look at myself and decide what Japan has done for me, or done to me.

"I like knowledge"

History. Culture. Language. Society. While all of these things have always been accessible, with social-networking so prevalent, I can access these at the click of a button. If someone says a word I don't know, rather than asking them to explain, I can quickly Google away and find out something for myself. At night, after a hard day's grind, it isn't uncommon for me to cycle through
Odawara Castle ~ One of the first
places I visited when I arrived.
my news feed and line up a bunch of articles that other people have shared so that I can read them in succession. I find myself following interesting discussions or watching short films and documentaries on Youtube. Sometimes, if the fancy takes me, I'll find myself looking up random Japanese sentence structures to make sense of how its used. I often ask friends and acquaintances their opinions on matters of interest just to strike up interesting conversation. And after all of that, I might even end up forgetting but it won't stop me from looking things up again.

"I am not trusting"

This isn't a particularly new issue. Growing up, I had a hard time trusting people around the real me so I put on a mask and behaved neutrally. I only showed my true self to the small selection of friends that I trusted. Since I've grown, I'm more openly myself but I still don't trust people easily and since coming to Japan, I believe this has exploded exponentially. Japan is a society where people are not particularly open and honest about their thoughts and opinions. As a result, it's often difficult to guess who is genuine. I now prefer to take my time when getting to know new people. After all, it isn't uncommon to meet someone on one occasion and never hear from them again here. I don't like to feel like my time has been wasted so if I can keep them at a distance for a while, that is satisfying to me.

"I am worldly"

Japan is a homogeneous nation. So it's not unusual to be met with both suspicion and wonder. But based on the, at times, misinformed opinions of my hosts, I must say that growing up in London has made me very culturally aware. I've taught lessons and had students tell me that they despised Islam when what they should have said was that they disliked ISIS, the Islamic terrorist group. In some minds, there is no differentiation between the two. I've heard of cases where people have said they dislike the Chinese without having ever been to China or come into contact with Chinese people. I can freely form an opinion on my own personal experiences or even hazard a guess about a situation that I might not know about but in Japan, things are fairly regimented. And while I reckon there probably has been a shift in the last decade or so, it has been said that people are taught what to think here. There is only a right way and a wrong way. There is no grey area.

"I am not forgiving"

Growing up, I believed in second chances. I gave nearly all of my previous relationships a second chance and on each occasion, it just didn't work out. I forgave acquaintances and tried to start anew. I took a lot of crap and let people walk all over me; I'm still not except from the latter. But I think I have become even less forgiving over time. They say one of the greatest virtues is forgiveness but I think that because I've been let down of various occasions, I've now developed a "one strike and you're out" rule. And it could be anything as small as lending money, or wronging me at the post office. I don't like lending (or borrowing) money anyway, and I will file a complaint (yes, I've become one of those people). As a sign of my resilience, if the issue was particularly bad, I will reduce or cut off all contact altogether. No drama. No problem.

"I am self-sufficient"

Even though I have lived alone before, technically it wasn't really alone. I was at university, living in shared facilities with other people. And while I may have had my own space and my own responsibilities, something was always shared. When I arrived in Japan, my previous company set me up with house and home and provided me with a loan (which I repaid in full) to get me started. In my latest accommodation, while I had much help finding it, I pretty much fit the bill myself. I paid for the moving costs out of my own pocket. I've furnished it and I fit all the bills. I manage my money so that I'm able to save a little and play a little each month. I feel positively comfortable in both my living situation and day-to-day life.

"I am not patient"

I'm sure I've mentioned it before, but in Japan, people are punctual here. And they don't arrive on time; they arrive well before. During my first job, it was expected that I arrive at least 30 minutes before the start of my first lesson. In my current job, I arrive at least an hour early to prepare the lessons for the day. This has crossed over into my every day life. Whenever I meet friends or head to an event, I plan out my journey with Hyperdia and specify that time that my train will arrive. So when people are late, it really winds me up. An old friend of mine once said to me "what right do I have to waste someone else's time". I didn't really pay it much mind then, but I understand it completely now. I also understand that sometimes being late can't be helped (even I am late on occasion), but the selfish side of me wonders why those who are chronically late can't get with the picture.

"I am not maternal"

You would think that working with predominantly children for one year and then again sporadically for the time after that, that I'd be pretty well versed in children. And sure, I know
Is it weird that this does nothing for me?
what kids are like. They can be very good and they can be very. But I've realised recently that while the idea of having kids is still very much on the table, I am not particularly maternal. If a child is crying, I find the act of comforting them a little bit uncomfortable (but maybe it's because they are not my own). Younger children are often particularly difficult for me because nine times out of ten, they'd rather be doing what they want to do. I haven't quite figured out how to engage younger children because while they are children, they are still people who think and behave differently to one another. So while one kid may enjoy colouring, another kid might prefer something a little more active. And above all, I think I've grown to dislike pandering to children. I haven't forgotten that six-year-old girl who used to bawl when she lost at something but I'm still of the mentality that kids need to suck it up.

"I still have a lot to learn"

I had a look at the 4 stages of culture shock that foreigners are said to face when they move to another country and while I'm aware that I'm a long way off from the final stage (mastery), I think that I have days where I'm either in the Negotiation phase or in the Adjustment phase. Certainly, there are aspect of Japan that I find positively frustrating but on other days, I can't help but think how easy it feels to live here. And because this culture is not my own, I'm always going to come across something that is completely new to me. That's why I feel that I still have a lot to discover - both about Japan and myself. Because after all, nobody stops learning once they reach adulthood. And while I like to think that I'm very self-aware, I'm sure there are aspect of myself that I've yet to uncover or that might even change over time. And as a result, I'm looking forward to it.

Monday, 11 May 2015

The Japan Files ~ Question Time

It's very common that when you meet someone for the first time, there's always gonna be that general exchange of questions that people ask each other to get some perspective on the people they're talking to. As humans, we are social. We need conversation and common ground to form relationships or get to know each other. But whenever I meet a Japanese person for the first time, it isn't uncommon to come across the same pattern of questions every time, to the point where I can almost literally predict what is going to come out of their mouths. And it doesn't matter the age or gender. Because it seems that the vast majority of Japanese people tend to blend together as is the culture really. Though there are those that stray from the norm, Japan is an extremely conservative society where it's important to fit in. Differences, while apparent, are sometimes hard to come by. So allow me to introduce to you, my pattern of five; the questions that I have received the most since my arrival in Japan.

Where are you from?

Potentially, the most - if not the most common question that any Japanese person will ask upon meeting a foreigner for the first time. Foreigners are hard to come by. We make up less than 2% of the population and the majority of that two percent happens to come from neighbouring countries like South Korea or China. It is physically impossible to know where someone is from based on their appearance alone although it's a very typical thing to make assumptions. As a result, there seems to be a continuous interest in foreigner origins. But sadly, this question is a little bit too common for my taste so I've actually resorted to making people guess where I'm from to entertain myself. And I've had it all. People have assumed I'm American, African, Brazilian or Canadian. (I even had Indian once but I'm wondering if that person was serious). It seems that it's difficult for people to comprehend that a person that looks like me could be from a country like England. So I feel quite proud of myself when I open someone's eyes to the possibility for the first time.

How long have you been in Japan?

Recently, I've been getting this one a lot. I guess it's kind of a given though. I am not Japanese and as a result, the length of time I've been here is bound to be shorter than any Japanese person who was born and raised here. Maybe it's a way of gaging whether I'm a newbie or veteran. After all, newbies are expected to know virtually nothing about Japan. And veterans? Well, they're expected to know virtually nothing about Japan too. I usually get asked this one a lot at work so maybe it's a way of checking out my level of experience. But that says nothing really; for all they know, I could have taught English back in England as well.  If I'm honest, I'm not 100% sure about this. It could be actually be a foreshadowing of the next question...

How long will you stay in Japan?

To a lot of the locals, foreigners have an expiration date. And while various foreigners stay for long periods of time or make a life for themselves in Japan, there are a great many still who put a time stamp on their time here. Some decide to stay for a year and then head home, while others can only stay for a year due to visa restraints. Others stay for extended periods of time and then evidently decide to go home when they feel the time is right, while others just never leave. That said, because the locals are used to seeing foreigners come and go, it is often expected that we aren't in it for the long haul. That said, whenever I get asked this question, the response is always a shrug of the shoulders. I know it won't be forever but I really don't know how long I'm gonna be here. As it happens though, I quite like my life in Japan right now; I've always mentioned that it feels easy to live here; even without a firm grasp on the language. This brings me to the next question...

Can you speak Japanese?

I've always believed that it's important for people to speak the language of the country they are in. And I'm sure English speakers galore would agree that they expect people to speak English if they're going to be living in English speaking nations. But not all nations seem to agree with this notion. In Japan, it isn't uncommon for even the oldest fogey to know a little bit of English. But they still want to know whether you can communicate in the language and personally I don't see anything wrong with this question as it's usually assumed that foreigners cannot speak Japanese at all. But the more I'm asked this question, I'm starting to wonder if the answer to this question from the expectant Japanese perspective is only either "yes" or "no". I usually say "a little" because I do know a little but I'm starting to wonder if "a little" more of less translates into "no".

Why did you come to Japan?

A friend of mine once asked me why I was learning Japanese because Japanese is a language only spoken - for the most part - in Japan and can't really be used anywhere else. Therefore, it has made me consider that the reason people ask this question is a way of downplaying Japan. After all, modesty is extremely prevalent here.. But at the same time, I'm starting to wonder if people think I'm crazy for coming here. There seems to be a divine interest in all things non-Japanese. Or whether it's a way for people to hear others say good things about Japan. After all, the vast majority of foreigners came here or their own free will. They wouldn't have come here if they didn't like it. That said, my answer to this question is simple. I took an interest in Japan and the rest is history. In the same way that the kids are all obsessed with American musicians and K-pop idols, I chose Japan. This reason, and the fact that I wanted to teach.


Now all of these are perfectly acceptable questions. I suspect it wouldn't be uncommon to hear them had I chose to move to another country instead but the sheer frequency at which I have encountered these questions has lead me to do just that...question these questions. And what I've noted is that all of them have at least one thing in common. They continually reaffirm my status as a foreigner in Japan. Where are your from? Somewhere else. How long have you been in Japan? Not long. How long will you stay in Japan? Not forever. Can you speak Japanese? Not well. Why did you come to Japan? State your purpose. I believe it's been spoken about in other blogs - this notion of uchi-soto or "us versus them" but for a country that's keen to break down international barriers, I'm starting to wonder if they're going about it the right way.

Now where I'm from, when meeting someone for the first time, one of the first questions that generally pops up is "what's your name?". Since I've been here, I often ask this and find myself having to introduce myself without having received an enquiry in return. Further down the line, it's not uncommon to ask about someone's interests but (in reference to my earlier entry), this seems to rarely come about unless I've introduced the topic myself. 

Now perhaps its a clash of culture. Maybe it's uncommon here to pry too deeply into a stranger's state of affairs, especially if the subject is particularly controversial. But I don't understand how the question "How long will you stay in Japan?" takes precedence over "What do you do in your free time?". As I sit here evaluating it, the former question seems a little bit "cold". It's a surface question that seems to bare no interest in me as the individual. But again, Japan is not a country where people disclose their opinions freely and openly so it does not surprise me that the questions that I receive as a foreign seem to be more of the same.

I do wish they would change it up a bit however, but I guess I can't expect miracles in a country that is so very uniform. So foreigners with no clue about Japan - and even those with a clue - brace yourself.

It will get old.