Exiting Far East: Fish out of Water

Exiting Far East: Fish out of Water May 3, 2014

It’s hard for me now to even think about all the different ways that I was a fish out of water when my preacher husband Biff and I moved to Japan to teach English. You’d be hard-pressed to find some additional ways than the ones I went through all at once. Not for nothing do people call what I experienced culture shock. Sometimes the differences that provoke that mental state of disorientation and stress (I once got a panic attack over realizing that Vancouver B.C. had electric street cars and that even the drug dealers I met there were super-nice), but when those differences are really big, then the reaction can be proportionally worse. As you might imagine, these differences were indeed really, really big in Japan, and today I want to talk about some of them.

The Sapporo Clock Tower, formerly a part of Ho...
The Sapporo Clock Tower, formerly a part of Hokkaido University in the 19th century (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By now, most folks have some idea of what living in Japan, as an American, might entail. Back then, in the mid-90s, the internet barely existed and certainly most of what most folks knew about  Japan, they knew from sushi-bar culture and anime. As one of our friends here at R2D recently said, it’s that anime factor that I think influenced most people I knew to think about traveling to Japan to try to live there. By around 2005, I think most people collectively had realized that anime wasn’t all that representative of Japanese culture. But back then, I think there was this real impulse for Americans to blubber through tears, “Nobody here understands me! I’ll go to Japan, where everybody loves anime and I’ll be among my own tribe at last!” Sometimes they’d even get this idea that they’d become anime artists themselves. And then they’d go there and discover that no, actually, it’s hugely racist and sexist and xenophobic and they tend to view adult anime fans as, well, a little dysfunctional to say the least.

Biff and I weren’t what I’d call anime super-fans; we liked it a lot, yeah, but we weren’t fanatical or slavish devotees to the genre or anything. We were going for some other reasons entirely. I thought Japan had a fascinating-seeming culture, while Biff saw it as a Heaven with streets of gold. He had this weird idea that Japanese people adored Americans, especially tall, sloppy, physically expansive and imposing American men like him. He was quite imperialist in this regard, seeing himself as the Savior White Man out to civilize the heathens and bring Christianity to those who’d never even heard the Good News. He thought that his profound interpersonal ineptitude, negligence around social cues, and incredibly boorish bad manners were aspects of him that they would find charming and endearing. W0rse still, he’d seen enough “Teach English in Japan!” posters around our university to think that there was no way he could ever fail by moving there. Neither of us knew that Japan was smack in the middle of a terrible recession that would make extraneous purchases like English lessons increasingly less affordable for families there, or that they’d just had some kind of massive storm that’d wiped out the rice and seafood harvests, thereby making food considerably more expensive than anybody could have expected. Oh, and neither of us spoke much Japanese at all, I think I’ve mentioned. I know you probably think I’m out to make you cringe, but I promise I’m not; this was just the reality of what Biff thought and what was actually going on globally.

Things went pear-shaped almost immediately after getting there. I knew that Japanese people could be a little stiff- and formal-seeming to Americans, but nothing prepared me for the sheer level of both that I encountered right off the plane and in those first few days. I have decently good manners, but nothing like they seemed to want. From the moment we stepped groggily off the plane and into the airport in Sapporo, we had no idea what was expected of us or how we were supposed to act to succeed.

The paranoid-seeming customs official didn’t like anything he was seeing about the two bedraggled Americans before him with all their luggage and their two cats yowling in carriers. He probably quickly guessed that we were really there to find work, and we got questioned extensively about our plans, where we were staying, who had given us our promise documents (which assured Japan that we were indeed leaving when our visas expired, and if we got in trouble, these guarantors had to make sure we left–or get us lawyers at trial if it came to that), and what date we planned to leave. We finally convinced the man that we were indeed just tourists, and had planned a nice long vacation there. I’d had no idea beforehand that we’d face this questioning, and I didn’t like fibbing, but I guessed at the time that if none of the jobs panned out, then yeah, you could definitely say we’d be on vacation.

The young woman who met us from one of the potential employers was equally nonplussed at the sight of us. She’d had no idea we’d have so much luggage. I didn’t actually know how to pack light at that point, and of course Biff didn’t either, so yeah, we probably had more than we needed. And taxis there were incredibly small–like Mini Cooper sized. We ended up taking two of them to the weekly mansion hotel. I tried to get some idea from the escort about what to expect about the interview to come, but she didn’t seem to understand much of what I was saying. The drive to the hotel was mercifully short, but it was so incredibly cold and so frighteningly different from any city I’d ever seen that everything was a blur.

(Shinji Abe, CC.)
(Shinji Abe, CC.) The Sapporo Clock Tower.

Culture Shock.

After Biff left for a veterinarian’s office to park the cats for a few days, the escort hastily left, and I collapsed on our new bed in misery until Biff returned.

Naturally, since my dear husband knew that our money was very limited and that every penny counted, he’d bought us cans of soda and some fast food from a convenience store–weird dried-onion-flake-dusted overly-sweet hot dog buns that had the hot dogs smashed atop them rather than placed into a cut inside them. The food was unfamiliar and unpleasant, hardly a good or nutritious first meal there, but I ate it anyway–I was starving–and tried to sleep through jet lag.

Like GOB, I was thinking already that we had made a terrible mistake, but at this point, there seemed to be little I could do about it.

Biff, however, was like a kid set loose at a Lego store at Christmas. He couldn’t stop talking about how awesome his trip to the vet’s and back had been. He was so incredibly excited. He was already planning our tourist outings so we could get a good look at the city the next day–and I tried to answer as cheerily as I could through that night and morning.

The hotel room had a little hot-water heater in it, and some packets of pre-mixed coffee powder with sweetener and sugar built into it. The coffee wasn’t awesome and I didn’t like coffee very much anyway at the time, but I drank it because there wasn’t anything else really to drink that morning, and I got into my suit and set off for my first interview–in a formal, very quiet, semi-dark conference room with two very formal, quiet, semi-comatose Japanese fellows.

I don’t remember exactly what we talked about, but I do remember I bombed the interview because the people giving it said they didn’t like that I hadn’t removed my coat at the right time. I remember being stunned that a thing like that could disqualify me. They told me their decision with weak smiles on their faces. Now I think that wasn’t the whole story, but at the time I was just crushed. I’d wanted that job the most because it paid better than the other option. Biff was even angrier, but he shrugged and said I’d get the next one for sure.

Shōyu (soy-based broth) ramen
Shōyu (soy-based broth) ramen (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I spent the day in a total miserable haze. I was starving, and on the way home from the interview we ended up in a vast glass-roofed outdoor promenade many blocks long that was full of shops and restaurants, and we finally ended up at a nice ramen restaurant. Neither Biff nor I spoke Japanese, so we selected our food by dragging the poor cashier outside in the freezing weather to point at what we wanted from the display window full of plastic food–this proved to be a very successful strategy overall; every restaurant seemed to have these displays, and what you saw on the plate was almost exactly what you got. It only got confusing when I ended up at a cook-it-yourself restaurant some weeks later and saw displays full of what looked like raw chicken and beef on the fake plates; I didn’t realize that the tables had hot plates built into them until sitting down to eat. It was a relief to see young Japanese students eagerly frying their own raw meat on the hot plate, but also staggeringly weird. Imagine mainstream American restaurants doing something like that! But this place was a standard noodle restaurant, where customers pay at the front and get a token for food afterward to give the waitress who’d then bring it out. If you’ve never had really good ramen noodles and broth all made from scratch, then you are really missing out. It’s as different as night and day from the instant packets you buy at the store.

The food was cheap, hot, good, and plentiful, but I watched every single coin disappear with haunted, starving eyes. We needed to find an apartment with a kitchen, and we needed it like yesterday. Eating out was killing us. We had about $2000 cash, I reckon; while that seemed like a mint to Biff, I had a far better idea of how long that would last us in the real world.

I couldn’t speak the language, I’d had one meal that was vaguely good in the last 36 hours, and I wasn’t used to a single behavior I’d seen so far. I felt like everybody was staring at us in that restaurant, which they certainly were. The tiny little ceramic cups of tea we got were, to say the least, laughably inadequate to American gullets used to free refills and Big Gulps; the waitresses almost laughed at us for asking for forks. We felt like a pair of dancing bears that had escaped the zoo. The air was thick with cigarette smoke–we’d discover that Sapporo folks at the time took “No Smoking” signs as more of a wheedling suggestion than a legal demand–and it was weirdly quiet yet crowded at the lunch hour.

My second option for employment was a genial fellow who we shall call Katsuo. He operated a string of language schools in the area and was quite a smooth operator. I’d liked him quite a bit during our brief phone conversations, and he’d seemed very impressed with how much preparation I’d done ahead of time to line up interviews. I’d bought him a little present–a Native American peace pipe from some art dealer friends, as I’d heard that Japanese people appreciate such presents upon meeting new friends and business associates (I hadn’t done this for the first interview folks because I’d never really spoken to any of them more than once each, but maybe I should have!), and I thought Katsuo and I were on good enough terms that the gesture would be well received.

The next day I met Katsuo at one of his schools. He gave me a brief interview, teaching me a bit of his language-education technique (which I think still is pretty sound and use myself when learning new words even today), and asking me to demonstrate it on short notice. I did this, and gave him the peace pipe, which he loved way more than I’d even expected. It blew him away! He kept playing with it afterward. At the end, he was sad he couldn’t offer more than a part-time job, he said, but I was welcome to it and would go full-time if business picked up enough to need me more than that, and he’d love to meet me and my husband for dinner tonight and a trip to the hot springs–his treat.

I felt exultant when I got back to the hotel; I hadn’t gotten a full-time job, but the part-time position at the hourly rate he’d quoted me seemed adequate to at least feed and house us at the most basic level. So at least that was off my mind. (I’d find out that this wasn’t completely accurate, but at the time at least I thought it was.) I called my parents and my mom was bleary and tired but happy for me–and worried, though she didn’t say so. She’d long ago learned that, like Han Solo, I didn’t like to be told the odds.

Biff was super-excited about the idea of us getting to go to a real, live Japanese pub that night and a hot springs, and I was just happy that we wouldn’t have to figure out what to eat for dinner. And I’ll confess now that I was also happy that Biff was so caught up in the foreign newness of it all that he hadn’t even thought about asking where the nearest Pentecostal church was.

When you grow up white, cis-gendered, and straight in a country like America, one where you are surrounded every single second by people who speak (mostly) your own language, where people follow (mostly) your religion, where you generally only run (mostly) into folks of your own race and of expected gender identity and sexual orientation, you get to feeling really comfortable in being a majority group member. There’s an insularity to it that becomes totally customary if you’re not exposed to new things very often.

But here, in Japan, I’d seen not a single church–which was blowing my mind. Even though I was pretty much done with Christianity by then, I–like most Christians–tended to notice and take note of churches that seemed similar to what I believed. Ask any Christian you like where the nearest church of their chosen denomination is, and chances are you’ll get a very quick answer even if they don’t attend often. There’s a reason for that. We clump into groups, defining those groups by what is important to us and what makes us most comfortable.

But I wasn’t in the majority in many directions at all in Japan. I had not seen a single white person since arriving in Sapporo. Nor had I heard anybody competently speak English (we’ll talk about that happy national delusion Japan has later on). The food was odd-tasting to me and very unfamiliar. The city looked beyond weird; very few streets even had names, so finding our way around was to say the least challenging.

Christians like to say that they are aliens in a strange land, that they don’t belong in this world, but I’m here to tell you that they don’t know jack about being a genuine alien anywhere till they have been to a country that is hugely non-Christian, hugely non-white, and hugely non-English-speaking and then tried to live there on their own with no support structures at all.

I am grateful that I made the attempt to live there, though, and wouldn’t have changed much about it for the world. I failed, yes, but that trip really taught me a lot about how to deal with the Christian xenophobia I am seeing now in my home country. I know what it’s like to live somewhere where I truly am an alien and a stranger, and an unwanted one at that. It taught me compassion and generosity, as well as what it truly means to open one’s doors and heart to strangers and those in most need of help. I only got a little taste of what it’s like to need that kind of help, only the tiniest merest taste of it, but it was enough.

I wish I could give every Christian and Tea Partier in America that experience in a bottle before they hit the forward or share button on those obnoxious “press 1 for English and lose your top” urban legends and glurge pieces; I get downright nauseated with anger and frustration when I see this bullshit, because these things are sent around by the same people who go to church with their big ole Jesus smiles and think they’re loving people–or worse, think they’re hugely charitable when they tithe to their church yet still hate immigrants, hold racist views, and judge those who don’t speak their language. When you see someone promoting those xenophobic views, you are not seeing a loving person or love in action at all. It’s really that simple. The person receiving those views and words certainly does not feel loved by them! Then again, I don’t think the goal is to love, but to disapprove and try to feel superior to those who have been thus marginalized. And the time for that nonsense is long over.

Humanity really is a global village. We are all part of each other, as trippy as that sounds. And we cannot isolate ourselves forever from other folks, even if we try really hard or think a god is telling us to do it. It is not loving to be angry at the immigrant or furious at having to “share” what wasn’t really ever really totally ours in the first place. If America is the country of the white, Christian, cis-gendered, straight person, then it is also the country of the “wretched refuse” and the shivering, huddled masses of all races. I truly think that the big sins of Sodom and Gomorrah were in refusing hospitality to strangers, not wanting to have gay sex with the angels trying to save Lot and his family, and that xenophobic, racist Christians are missing the point entirely. And Japan taught me that hospitality might well be the most important virtue there is, next to love. If for nothing else, I’m grateful that I was able to learn that lesson.

It helped me detox from Christianity a lot faster to realize that most Christians, despite being inhabited by what they think is a god and despite possessing a holy book they think is fairly clear about how to live, have no idea what either love or hospitality are and no real interest in showing either one to those they deem inferior and unworthy. I’ve met Christians since then who are a lot better about both, obviously, but I kinda suspect that they’d be that way no matter what religion or non-religion they practiced. And indeed, I don’t think that we necessarily need religion to learn those all-important lessons. However we get there, the important part is that we do get there.

We’re going to talk next about my first (and only) experience being stark naked in front of hundreds of total strangers ZOMG and how it broke me of my “modesty” conditioning. I hope you will be there with me! Bring your favorite washcloth.

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