I’ve now been in Japan for a week. It feels like I’ve already been here for much more than that, and I can even feel some of the classic culture shock feelings starting to set in. You see me here at about 8:30 PM at the balcony of my dorm, looking out into the street outside where I’m staying. This is where I am, and contemplative is how I feel at the moment.
I could tell you about all the crazy things I’ve seen: The Pokémon Center, the anthropomorphic train line anime characters in the subway, the Toji-Ji monthly flea market where I picked up a wonderful wooden mug that I’m sipping some Suntory Old Whiskey from as I write this. These are wonderful discoveries and experiences that I will cherish for years to come. You can even see a shot from under a bridge on a walk back from a temple that I took by the Kamo River the other day, which was a wonderful stroll, but this is not what I’m here to talk about.
While I’ve had a wonderful time in Japan this past week, with light class loads starting out and ample time to walk the streets and markets, I’ve come to notice some things. For starters, I love how cheap things are most places. I can get breakfast for as low as 450 yen (which is about $3.25), which is a whole platter of egg, bacon, some lettuce, a bowl of miso soup and a side dish (I got natto the first time). Ramen is just under twice that, which I had for dinner last night. It’s also wonderful that any food I can get a convenience store (read gas station for those back home, but without the gas) and it’s actually a decent meal and not horribly bad for you. I walk most everywhere, and if it’s more than half an hour I take the subway for all of maybe $1.50, which has been killer on my legs but excellent daily exercise. This, also, is not what I’m here to talk about though.
I mentioned culture shock earlier. There’s a frustration phase that I feel I’m butting up against already. I can barely read anything, barely talk to anyone and get by with gestures mostly. It’s getting better as I build the courage to talk more and have started picking up more words and phrases, but if I wander past the main streets or tourist areas, I know I’ll be fairly lost and have to rely on translator apps. I thought I knew some Japanese, which honestly I could probably still scrape by elsewhere, but there’s an important thing they don’t tell you about these situations. It’s embarrassing.
I now have an extreme appreciation for those back home that speak in broken English. It’s mostly Central American folk that I interact with back home that don’t speak English well. I’m sure many have had the frustration of trying to get ideas across a language barrier like that in some way or another in the states. I always felt bad not being able to get across what I was trying to explain, but being on the other end of that exchange gives me a whole new appreciation for the challenge. In the US, as a native English speaker, you can often point to signs or perhaps use a Spanish word or two to get the idea across, and they’ll likely get enough to move on.
I’ve heard of the embarrassment of friends parents who know little English trying to navigate the English world before. I now have some empathy for their struggle, being an English speaker trying to navigate the Japanese world. I’m fortunate that English is, if not common, at least around the heavy traffic areas here in Kyoto. Without experiencing it first-hand, there’s no true way to describe how much of a child you feel like when you know only a smattering of words and are functionally illiterate. I’m learning quickly (I hope), but /this/ is what I wanted to get across.