Saturday, April 3, 2010

Another Day of Exploration and Thoughts on Living Abroad

Today was an absolutely stunning day. Bright, sunny, and crisp with Sakura in full bloom. We're running in the 50's here (Fahrenheit), thus a bit cooler than Philadelphia, but still quite pleasant. Going to the Izakaya last night really changed my relationship with Japan. I feel more like a part of the community, more comfortable communicating, and just overall happier. In many small ways, my inability to communicate well had me unconsciously disconnecting from my environment. I was falling into a bubble of silence and incomprehension. It was the beginning of this process, so I wasn't being brought down by it yet emotionally, but I had this feeling of just being not quite myself and not understanding why. Yesterday was the beginning also of the reversal of this process of self alienation.

In general, I'm a person who engages in a great deal of conversation. Whether I'm at a store, or standing next to someone waiting for a bus, or the like, I'll usually make a comment about events, the weather, or something I notice about the world or the person him/herself. If I like a person's shoes or hair, I'll usually tell them. However, I hadn't been doing this for the past week, in part because I wasn't sure what was culturally appropriate and in part because my language skills are so poor. Once I realized I was doing this, I made an effort to go against the instinct towards silence and to engage in small talk, exactly as I wold in the US (paying close attention to people's expressions and behavior around me to make sure I wasn't doing something wholly inappropriate). From the moment I started doing this, things began to turn around. This culminated in a sense with the Izakaya.

Before finding my Izakaya, as I wandered around, looking in windows of places, trying to choose, I really began to feel lonely. I was a person without a place. A person without a party. I'm naturally sympathetic to this when I see others in the same situation in Philadelphia. But once I found my place, through the evening, as terrible as my Japanese was, I was able to be a part of the group, conversations, ask and answer questions, laugh, drink, and all of those normal things without feeling at all displaced. I became a person with a party. In fact, the group made an extra effort to include me, and having that moment of being a part of something made going out today and connecting with people that much easier and normal.

Today, I let my curiosity be my guide. I made small talk with the woman from whom I bought my alarm clock at Jusco, chatted with a family in front of the Toyota Art Museum, with a man walking his dog, and another taking high quality photographs. None of these were deep interactions, but each one has made me feel more like myself. And it made the beauty around me that much richer. I think a part of this desire and movement towards connection has to do with the fact that it is becoming true in my heart that this is my town, and I will be living here for a year. In Nagoya, I was a transient, and the first two days here, I was just trying to stay afloat. But now that I'm here mind, body and spirit, I want to be here, not as a visitor, but as a resident, however temporary my residence ultimately will be.

As a note for others taking their first stab at living in another country where the language, writing, and culture is very different from ones own, I think it is important to be aware of the trap of silence. This doesn't mean that you should become an aimless, annoying chatterbox. But whatever your usual level of interpersonal interaction at home, it's important to try and maintain that in your new home. Don't neglect small talk, if it's something you normally do. It's very easy to lose track of this actually. Even if you're as outgoing as I am (and I'm pretty darned outgoing), there's a certain shyness that comes when you know that every time you open your mouth, you're engaging in some form of incompetence. Push through it. Ask questions. Even very poorly phrased ones. Even if you don't really understand every word or even most of the words the answers. Understanding is overrated a lot of the time. Usually, I've been learning, you can get by on understanding half to one third of what's said to you. Sometimes it does lead you to taking the long, hard way to get things done, but as long as you have money and time, why not? You'll get better, one day at a time.

Also, finding a local bar helps A LOT.

I took a quick video of a small piece of my adventures today, check it out:!/video/video.php?v=1252528792739&ref=mf

I've also posted videos of my apartment on Facebook ( and Youtube: ( Facebook has higher quality but is slower to load.

On a totally unrelated note, I can fit into extra large shoes here! My foot fits into a 24 to 24.5 centimeter shoe. That's a woman's LL (extra large). I bought two pairs of new shoes for about $30 total. They are cute and comfortable. And closed toe, which was important as open toed shoes at work indicate disrespect, something I wasn't aware of when I packed my shoes, half of which are open toed. Next frivolous purchase, one of these crazy frilly skirts I see everyone wearing. In Japan, skirts run SHORT! Like midthigh for everyone. Even the uniform skirts are more than a couple of inches above the knee. I thought this was just a convention of anime, so I neglected packing one or two of my shorter skirts because I didn't want to be offensive, only to find out that this is the perfect place for them. Aren't cultural differences interesting?

Off to the Izakaya!