Inscrutable Kindness and Social Paradise
Trip Start Mar 22, 2009
43Trip End May 03, 2009
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In terms of culture shock, I felt pretty comfortable in Japan, to the point where I could pretend I was basically still in the US. But it could be really disorienting thinking everything in Japan was familiar, because they're also totally alien. You wander around surrounded by urban development and signs and lights everywhere. But when you approach the stores, the signs, the train announcements, you find it completely unintelligible. I learned to block out all the talking around me, to the point where it became a wash of sound. The Chinese characters meant nothing to me other than a collection of strokes (though I'd like to think I now know a bit more geographic kanji--all the town names are environmental terms [i.e. Takayama literally means tall mountain]). But this disorientation is all part of the experience of going to a different place and I got used to it.
The one thing I didn't quite get used to was the sense of social pressure. To be fair, in a societal view, I guess I became a better person in Japan--I didn't jaywalk, litter, raise my voice, attract any negative attention at all. I blended in because it's embarrassing to be singled out for being unsociable in Japan. You watch the locals and mimic they're moves, terrified of being singled out as an ignorant gaijin, but that paranoia is related to my not quite looking like a tourist.
When I arrived in Japan, I followed the Parisian suggestion of speaking a bit of the local language to help soften up locals before getting info in English. That...did not work out so well for me in Japan. Mostly because I apparently look Japanese, which I was mistaken for on so many occasions, I was really glad to get mistaken for Taiwanese in Hakodate. So I started the trip trying to work on my Japanese and get the right pronunciation, but when I asked questions in Japanese, the locals just assumed I was Japanese (either a citizen or in ancestry) and proceeded to respond in a torrent of Japanese, which I understood very, very little of. When I tried to further explain that I didn't really get it, many either continued in Japanese (I think many locals are embarrassed to trot out their English), thinking I was probably downplaying my language abilities, or had a vaguely disappointed and exasperated look on their face, as if I had been lax in studying my apparent ancestral tongue. Which meant by the end of my trip, I tried to Americanize my Japanese to indicate right off the bat that I am, in fact, an ignorant gaijin. Ah, the plans of mice and men...
But wasn't this why I didn't go to China or Taiwan? So I didn't have to feel the shame of not accessing my ethnic inheritance? Ironically, that came to bite me in the ass in Japan, where I really did feel the shame of abandoning my heritage, which is not my heritage at all. So while white Americans got by with scattered Japanese and indulgent smiles in return, I got by with scattered Japanese and puzzled looks. But I may be imaging a good proportion of it.
Don't get me wrong, the people in Japan are exceedingly nice and inhumanly accommodating. There are so many very, very rude foreign tourists in Japan (many of them Chinese, I found after I suffered the abuse of an old Chinese woman screaming at me in Chinese (she thought I was Japanese...) to take her picture correctly) who I was sorely tempted to punch in the face. But the shopkeepers and locals put up with it and refuse to make a scene, which must take total self control, but must also build a lot of resentment inside, day after day. For me, not crossing the empty street until the light turns and storing all my garbage on me instead of dumping it in a recycling bin, kinda really bothered me. It's nice to be 'good' because you want to; because you have to, unsettles me. Mostly because you feel like there's a limit on what you can express while outside and it's more important to fit in with the group than let out your irritation. Suffice to say, there was quite a bit of mumbling under my breath and deep breaths taken, especially in the tourist packed areas.
I have to thank many of the locals who helped me find my way in Japan--they answered my questions, even unexpectedly befriended me in ryokans and on the road. The funny thing is some of those interactions still remain inscrutable to me. I figured out early on that if someone compliments your Japanese (and you know it to be pretty bad), then it's really bad. But the best compliment I got was a backhanded insult--a woman on a bus out in the country told me with my Japanese level, she was surprised I was able to travel by bus so adroitly. Maybe I would've been offended here, but all those hours of researching everyday minutiae like bus routes, schedules, and etiquette finally paid off. Take that clueless Kyoto tourists with your pointing and charades!
So my cultural take home message from Japan is that your behavior outside does not necessarily match your feelings inside, but everyone is willing to help you no matter what. Sometimes to extremes: I was with a fellow backpacker and we asked a local in Beppu where our hostel was. She clearly had no idea and was turning the map up and down and around, but she felt compelled to keep trying, looking vaguely distressed by our continued attempts at orienting. Finally, I found the Beppu TV tower to orient by and thanked her profusely, but you got the feeling she'd have stuck around forever, going in circles just to be helpful. Which is a good tip--have an escape phrase handy in case you get trapped in a map loop with a local who has no idea what you're looking for. But you will never be in want to help--given my being mistaken for Japanese, I didn't get a lot of unsolicited help, but foreign-looking tourists with maps in hand and questions on their faces are beacons for good Samaritans all around.
And one last thing, geographically speaking New York is part of the US, but culturally it's not. I've believed this for a long time and Japan has just reinforced it. A common question you'll get is where are you from. When I answered America, I pretty much got a nod and the conversation was over (maybe fall out from the Bush years?). For comparison, if you answered Australia, England or France you got real enthusiasm, with questions about surfing or wine and cheese, etc. Funnily enough, if I answered New York instead of America, I always got me a smile and an excited 'Oh, I love New York,' or 'New York is my favourite place.' Which totally made me feel awesome as a New Yorker, but nothing as an American. I can't play the patriotism card, but it really is amusing to have such disparate reactions from others depending on where you say you're from.
So if you're over in Japan. Say New York all the way...America's (way) old news.
Glad to be back, but also missing the excitement of new sights and head held up high (which actually lead to quite a few trips and twisted ankles). Anyway, thanks for staying with the blog and hopefully I'll see you on another trip...somewhere, sometime.