Part 1: Staying afloat
Ame (雨) = rain
“Ah, another beautiful day,” you say to yourself as you bask in the late afternoon sunshine on your way home from work. Brushing against a hedge of blooming white flowers, you pull out your cellphone to check the weather report.
“Hmm… it’s going to rain tomorrow, but other than that, things look just fine.” You tuck your phone back into your purse and check that your black collapsible umbrella is still securely in place. Earlier that week you picked it up from the 100 yen store nearby, and you’re pleased that you prepared for tomorrow’s rain.
Tomorrow brings a deluge.
You feel like you’ve been thrown into a hurricane as strong winds and large rain droplets accost you on the way to the train station. You bow your head and firmly grip your umbrella like a makeshift shield, but a violent gust turns it inside out. Your legs shiver in your now-soaked dress pants, and by the time you show up at work, it looks like you had no umbrella at all.
Welcome to rainy season in Japan.
Gaijin (外人) = foreigner, literally “outside (外) person (人)”
So yeah, Japan isn’t always the idyllic paradise I make it sound like sometimes. In fact, I feel like a lot of my prior knowledge of Japan is like that umbrella: you only feel well-equipped until it comes time to use it. Sure, I studied a little Japanese and used to watch a lot of anime, but knowing a handful of Japanese catchphrases doesn’t really translate into understanding how to use a Japanese computer at work. Responding to a cashier’s questions turns into more of a guessing game than a test of comprehension, and Google Images becomes essential to buying most bottled products, from cooking oil to laundry detergent. A lot of the time, it feels like I know nothing about Japan at all.
I don’t think it’s even the actual mistakes that cause anxiety; it’s the ever-present nagging worry about making a mistake, which manifests itself in a variety of ways. It’s the tension as you assess each oncoming biker and pedestrian in order to decide how to best stay out of their way. It’s the self-consciousness as you talk with your friends on the phone in the lounge and worry that you’re speaking too loudly. It’s the embarrassment of taking a big bite of a pastry and wondering if you’re fulfilling the image that all Americans are gluttons.
I could keep listing more insecurities that, while inconsequential in isolation, can snowball into social anxiety, or at least some social apprehension. There’s no guide to any of this, so the only real solution is to carry on with the acute awareness that you are not in sync with everyone else. Tokyo may be the most populated city on Earth, but as a gaijin, an outsider, it’s easy to feel that you are profoundly and intangibly separate from nearly everyone else.
Naturally, that’s where Starbucks comes in.
Japan has many American food chains, including a Starbucks in Higashi-Koganei Station, where I am, incidentally, writing this blog post. I wasn’t too keen on checking it out at first; even in America, I rarely go to Starbucks. However, one day my supervisor asked me how I was adjusting, and I mentioned that I still felt lonely sometimes, so she recommended that I check out someplace new instead of going for long runs like I usually do after work.
And it really helped, to my surprise. Sure, ordering food is a bit rough, but at least I understand how a Starbucks works. I can find a small table, order a panini, put in some headphones, and do my work just like everyone else. I’m sure my supervisor meant I should explore some unique Japanese side shops, but I also think that when you’re abroad, it’s okay to try to find a place with a familiar vibe that reminds you of home.
Part 2: Making New friends
It’s not just places, but also people that can help you adjust to a new country. Since coming to Technos, I’ve downloaded Line, a popular social media app in Japan, and I keep adding students to my friends list. Since many of the second-year students spend a lot of time at SkillUp, I’ve gotten to know them well; a group of us even went out to eat at a restaurant with delicious karaage (fried chicken) and other types of meat.
The English programs at Technos are just two years long, but many students are highly encouraged to take a “sandwich year” abroad, either as an internship or a study abroad in an English-speaking country. Thus, it’s a very exciting time to get to know these students as they either prepare to go abroad or come back with stories about their travels. For many of the first-year students in particular, International Week serves as helpful exposure to foreigners and to life in other countries.
Devesh and I are helping groups of students prepare for the Sister School Fair, where Technos students will get the chance to sit down one-on-one with the visiting students and share something about Japanese culture. Most Japanese students aren’t used to talking about themselves and their experiences though, so helping the students develop their own thoughts is a big part of our job. During the practice sessions, we help them brainstorm conversation topics, write questions to ask the visiting students, and encourage them to explore what aspects of Japanese culture they are most passionate about.
Part 3: Harajuku, the Capital of cute
For me, “kawaii culture” is my favorite part of Japan, and there’s no other place more renown for cuteness than Harajuku, and the famous Takeshita Street. The whole place is a celebration of over-the-top sweetness, from the bright pink shop windows to the eye-catching, pastel, Victorian doll-style dresses that many patrons wear. Kawaii culture, while aggressively feminine, isn’t restricted to just women, and it encourages everyone to boldly express who they are. When I made it to the Takeshita Street archway, I broke into a smile for several minutes, just because of the positive energy that fills that space.
When I was planning my day in Harajuku, there was so much I was going to explore, from Yoyogi Park to the infamous Kawaii Monster Cafe. However, I wound up just exploring Takeshita-dori and the nearby streets for hours on end, listening to young women waving around huge signs and cheerfully screaming advertisements at the top of their lungs.
In addition to cutesy Japanese fashion, Harajuku is famous for its crepes, which you can find at pretty much any corner of Takeshita-dori. They’re super quick to make, they come in a staggering number of flavors, and they’re the perfect snack to keep your energy high as you browse around. I also found a shop that sells cotton candy that was nearly the side of my head, in addition to some adorable cake pops.
Of course, I wasn’t going to leave Harajuku without some cute clothes and accessories. Color is very important in Japanese fashion, as I’ve noticed from female students who will often come to school in long skirts of different colors with a contrasting blouse. I also love the classy heels that everyone wears in their day-to-day looks; it’s definitely a step-up from American jeans and graphic T-shirts. Most outfits don’t feature very loud colors or patterns, except for some tiny floral prints, but most people look very tidy and put together (unlike me, who tends to just throw on the first thing I see in my closet).
So I had a lot of fun shopping around and getting my hands on some stylish clothes I had been eyeing for a while. Trying on clothes was a bit confusing at first, because as I mentioned before, Japan is very detail-oriented. You have to take off your shoes before entering the changing room, and once you’re inside, there are disposable mesh face covers for taking shirts on and off so they don’t get stained. Another tip about buying clothes in Japan is that they typically come in one size, F for feminine and M for masculine. Back in the States, I have a hard time finding clothes I like in my size, so having whole stores that catered to my body type was really convenient, but I can imagine that others may face challenges when buying clothes to match their body type.
However, despite the challenges I’ve described in this entry, I’m still incredibly thrilled to be in Japan, and it’s scary how quickly I’m approaching the half-way point of my time here. Stay tuned for Week 4, coming soon!