I've been thinking a lot over the past few days as I've prepared to make this two day trek back to the States to visit home about what my one year chotto (and a little bit) has taught me and how I've changed. I'm not sure this is a question that I can fully answer, especially in regards to the second part because I won't fully know how this experience has changed me probably for years to come. If ever. It seemed like a good time to put these ideas, as vague as they are, into words, so here goes:
What I've learned (in no particular order):
You can successfully navigate most daily conversations while only understanding about 30-70% of the words that are actually said to you.
Provided you don't have any major allergies, you can navigate most daily meals while only understanding 30-70% of what you are actually eating. Quite happily.
In Japan, there is a vending machine for EVERYTHING. Yes, this includes beer, porn, ready made meals, hot drinks, ice-cream, train tickets...you name it.
The Taiko Game is Saikou (the best!)!!!
One of the most magical and wonderful things about being an ex-pat is not only the fact to learn about and experience the culture of the country you are living in, but also to learn about and experience the cultures of the many, many wildly interesting other ex-pats from all over the world that you can't help but meet.
I like dressing well, having nice skin, getting my makeup done, and even shopping for clothes.
I want to go to Brazil because Brazilian people are so awesome!
When you are feeling down, or overwhelmed, or just need to do some meditation, a Karaoke booth is the ultimate solution.
If you are an Western woman in Japan, with an Western sized backside and feet, you will:
A: Realize no matter how good your self esteem and body image is that you are suddenly feeling overweight (even when you know you are not) because it's so difficult to find clothes that actually fit over your butt (and don't make you look pregnant when you know you're not) even when they are in your size.
B: Eventually get over this because it really is a body shape and not a body size thing and really get a better feel for what sorts of styles and cuts look good on your body, and often find discounts even because often the clothes that look good on you do not look so good people with the more standard Japanese body type.
C: Go to Uniqlo for pants, go to Shimamura for shoes (big sizes) and always be on the lookout for a Brazilian clothing stores which are a bit more expensive but have a variety of styles.
If you have hair like mine, the Sala product for reducing frizz and healthy curls is REALLY, REALLY good. But the one that just reduces frizz is just okay.
Hats are awesome! It's important to develop ones own hat style.
It's ridiculously nice to be able to pay all of your bills at the Conbini.
Unlike the U.S., Japan is a cash and carry culture, so while it may feel uncomfortable at first, you will soon get used to carrying around the equivelant of $200-300 in cash on your person at all times. Everyone does this because using an ATM is such a complicated process in Japan and most places don't take debit cards.
Get the iPhone. Yes, the AU phone (and other carriers) may have a cheaper monthly rate, but the iPhone has a GPS in it, gives you constant access to the internet (all you can use under your monthly rate) and can also store multiple dictionary apps. It's worth the money. The GPS alone is worth every penny. If you are in Nagoya, go to the Sakae branch, Exit six from Sakae station. They have English speaking staff, and provided you have your VISA (preferably 2+ years but if you have a one year Visa you can fight for it) you are eligible for the 2 year pay as you go plan for the iPhone which means you do not have to pay the 5man up front. They will also set it up to work in your home language. Having bought a cell phone from another carrier using only Japanese and despising my keitai for one year, the sheer ease and joy of using the Sakae branch Softbank almost brought tears to my eyes.
Living in Japan (or I suppose any foreign country) is an everyday learning experience. No matter how much you think you know, you will always find out some new fact, detail, word, have some new experience, or be surprised in some way...EVERY DAY. If this is not happening for you, it means you aren't leaving your apartment and shame on you. (unless you're sick or something, or sometimes you really do just need a day in).
Once you have started eating salad (and french fries and every other food in your life basically) with chopsticks, you will be totally baffled when a restaurant only gives you forks. I can't tell you how many Western Style restaurants I've been in where I've stared at my food with utter confusion, “how do I eat this?” when I don't see chopsticks.
The “language immersion” headache that comes from having to use a foreign language (like Japanese) for much of your day, struggling to understand what people are saying to you and to get your own points across is not really a headache. It's more of a pressure inside of your head. This is an indication your brain is tired and sometimes you really do need a break. Don't beat yourself up about this.
Tsuyuu sucks. Tsuyuu is that period that starts in June which is translated into English as “The Rainy Season”. Tsuyuu actually means “sticky and wet”. This is a much better description. What it means is that once you are outside of an airconditioned setting for more than five minutes (which will happen to you often because Japan doesn't believe in AC that much), you are dripping sweat, hot and miserable even if the actual outside temperature is not that hot. It gets hotter after Tsuyuu, but the humidity goes down some so it' s actually better in July and August, even though its blisteringly hot.
Thanks to Tsuyuu, there are many, many words for humidity in Japanese. The words I use the most often are “mushi atsui” (hot and humid) and “mushi mushi” humid. Jime shiteiru also means humid. There are others. You will learn them.
During Tsuyuu, you will take 2-3 showers a day. When you can't do this you will be angry. Not just a little bit annoyed, but fist clenching furious.
Bring your own deodorant and fluoride toothpaste.
Don't be scared of Onsen and Sento (public baths). They are absolutely the best. If there's a Super Yuu near you, go. For 650 yen (about) you get to have multiple baths, indoor and outdoor, as well as use of the other facilities, including massage chairs and the like. It's relaxing, healthy and FUN!
When a Japanese person says they “can't” do something, there is a strong change they are better at the activity they “can't do” than you are at the same activity which you think you 'can do.' This is a culturally ingrained modesty (that is also true for Chinese people that I've met here), and for me the most frustrating part of living in Japan. You will see on websites that Japanese people will say they “aren't very good at things” and that means they can do it. This is true. But Japanese people will also flat out tell you they can't do something when they actually can. This is especially true of speaking English. And not just strangers on the streets, your coworkers with whom you may need to plan lessons, etc, are likely to tell you that they can't speak English. I can't tell you how many people who flat out told me they couldn't speak English, and me, being Western in thought assumed they meant they absolutely couldn't do it, so I just barrelled on with my broken Japanese only to find out 1-2 weeks later that they spoke perfect English. Or at least English that was worlds better than my Japanese. My solution has been to assume whoever tells me they can't do something actually can do said activity until they prove me wrong. And I always say in a vague way that Japanese people tend to underestimate what they can do, and that I'm very sure said person is good at said activity.
If you can sing Enka (especially duets), Ojiisans will most always buy you drinks in Snack Bars.
Ojiisans can really sing, so drinks aside, it's a pleasure to do duets with them.
I really like to sing, and with practice I'm getting better at it!
Traveling to a new city or country alone is an excellent way to make new friends.
Japanese people will bend over backwards and sideways to help you out.
The difference in sound between B and V is much more difficult to sort out with your Japanese students than the difference between L and R.
A wicket is an entrance to a train station. (where you put the ticket in). Who'd a thunk it.
It's perfectly appropriate to bow on a bicycle or in a car if the situation necessitates it.
While at first doing an all-nighter at the club every weekend is easy and fun, eventually you get tired of the exhaustion and lack of money and begin to restrict that stuff to an occasional treat. As a result, you have way more fun when you do it.
While it seems like the cheapest and easiest alternative to stay at Manga Kisatens instead of renting a hostel bed for the night, it really is worth it to pay the extra 1000 yen and actually have a place to put your stuff and a real bed/futon. That said, in a pinch, a Manga-kisa or Comic Cafe (same thing) is a decent place to overnight.
If you are addicted to Karaoke and stay out too late in Nagoya to catch the last train back home, don't stay overnight in a Karaoke booth. You will get no sleep. And you won't be able to talk the next morning. But you will have found and practiced the full selection of Andrew Lloyd Weber showtunes in Japanese.
Get the login for Joysound. Then you can save your favorite artists and songs for easy lookup.
You don't realize how much energy you spend watching the people around you to make sure they aren't going to mug you or do other horrible things until you move to a country where it really, really is safe to walk around at night and nobody has guns.
Don't do ANYTHING illegal in Japan. You are guilty until proven innocent, and next to nobody is proven innocent. (thankfully I have managed to avoid this, but it is worth repeating.)
Culture shock comes not from the things you expect to be different, but from the things you had NO IDEA could be different but turn out to be different anyway. A small example of this is the numbering on elevators here in Japan (and Taiwan). They start with 1 at the top left and then 2 below, and then 3 below that, and four, etc, until it gets halfway through, and then start going up on the right side, 7, 8, 9, 10, etc. Hence in a 12 story building, 1 will be next to 12, 2 next to 11, etc. You have no idea how disorienting this was.
If you are used to American style measurements (inches, Fahrenheit, etc), when you move to Japan, you will really have no idea how hot it is, how far things are away from you, etc. Getting a feel for metric is really, really hard.
Katakana words are very difficult in Japanese because most of the time they are close enough to English for you to think you know them, but far enough from English that you actually don't.
For some bizarre reason, people in Japan will think you have an easier time reading and writing Katakana than Hiragana. In truth, I've found Katakana to be much more difficult than Hiragana, and often tougher than Kanji. (Once you know a Kanji, you know it. Katakana wiggles)
Eventually you will begin to make the HI-Peace sign in every picture, and not even realize you're doing it. This instantly marks you as having lived in Japan when you go to other countries in Asia, like say Taiwan :)
There are many more things, but I'm going to have to cut it here because I have a plane to catch.
Additional note: my day in Taipei and Taoyuan had it's own mess of culture shocks that really let me know how acclimated to Japan I've become and how much of my nonverbal communication has taken on Japanese cultural norms. I had a hard time today reorganizing my mind to think in anything other than Japanese when reaching for words that I knew were not English. Even the few words I knew in Chinese. It was very strange. On the other hand, the exact same socializing rules apply no matter what language you speak, and I ended up making some awesome friends in my travels. I will update on that when I get home and post my pics. Now, seriously, to bed.