A stranger in a strange land…

For the first time in my life’s experience I am a minority. When we say “minorities” in the states, we are talking about a demographic of the population, like 20% of residents are Hispanic, 40% are African American, etc. I don’t know what exact percentage I fall into now, but I’m fairly certain that Andrew and I are the only Americans in our new little home by the sea. Please believe when I say that I am not exaggerating for the sake of gripping narrative. We haven’t seen a non-Japanese soul anywhere in this small town of 44,000 people.

Our thermostat

Our thermostat

I am not referring to Japan as a whole, we saw many tourists in Tokyo and there are many teachers and ex-pats near us in and around Sendai. Perhaps there are other teachers at the high school here who work for another English company, but since there is virtually nothing in the entire world wide web about Iwanuma, we have limited resources for finding them. It is going to be an interesting year for Andrew and I, with only each other to talk to. You don’t realize the strength of the human desire to communicate until you are almost totally unable to do so. I want nothing more than to ask questions and learn about Japan, and my inability only makes that desire more palpable.

Immigration is proving a truly harrowing experience. We are by no means helpless; the company employing us is very thorough and walks you through as much as possible. But they can’t be there when you are in the grocery looking at twenty different milk-like products and wondering which is half and half. All that nice technology that can help a person out is unavailable. We have no phones and more importantly no internet, which means no navigation, no maps, no translator, and no resources for help. I have just been transported back to 1995 without a Japanese to English dictionary. EEK! I wish we had been better prepared for these situations, but we made the decision to take this job in about ten hours and hopped on a plane the next day, so many “obvious” packing choices were foregone.

Pretty sure this is a map

Pretty sure this is a map

It is an odd situation to find oneself in. On the one hand, Japan recognizes a demand for English skills, and values bringing native speakers to the country for their expertise. On the other hand, they are surprised that you don’t also speak Japanese, and seem unprepared to accommodate your language barrier. For instance, they show you where your schools are but cannot tell you the bus routes for their city in English. Then they ask you how you plan to arrive at school, and when you explain that you bought a bike they are amazed. “In the rain?!” they ask, “in the snow?” Yet they offer no other solution. At more than one of our schools the English teachers commented that they live very close to our apartment. So you think, “Great, we can carpool!” Nope. How do I even ask?

When asked by the teachers and other expats working here if we speak Japanese, we apologize and say no, we were hired to come here because we speak English. The response is almost always the same: “You should learn Japanese!” Yes, tomorrow, I will learn tomorrow. As if you didn’t already realize that survival depended on it. So far in my limited experience (that being the last 10 days) it seems that the Japanese are only interested in English because the rest of the world values it. Japan is perfectly happy the way they are, and are much more interested in youconverting to all things Japanese. Forgiveness exists for foreigners, but it has been made clear that anything short of true devotion to learning Japanese customs and language is offensive. It would have been nice to have been told that near-fluency in Japanese was a pre-requisite to happy living.

Bus route?

Bus route?

I remember when all those automated customer service menus in California started adding the “Press 2 for Spanish” option. A lot of my friends or church members would snort and say something tongue in cheek about how this is America, why don’t they learn English? Now I am that person, that immigrant who needs a “press one for English” option. It’s not because I lack respect for my new home, or because I have no desire to communicate with the majority. I desperately want to learn the language, but we all know it’s not an overnight thing. It’s scary enough to leave your home, your loved ones, your culture behind without being reminded at every turn that you will never be accepted until you assimilate.

I thought I had some understanding of the life of an immigrant through my years of building relationships in the restaurant industry. None of that prepared me for the experience of becoming one myself; to become an illiterate, unable to even order dinner at a fast food counter because there are no pictures to point to. Being given a bottle of liquid from the dry cleaner and not knowing if it is a drink or some kind of liquid detergent. Regressing from a highly social being to a hermit, embarrassed to interact for fear of failure.

You want to know the most amazing thing about all of this? Thousands of people like me are going through this very same experience in Japan, and almost all of them are doing it ALONE. I like to think of myself as a resourceful person and a good traveler, but I’m pretty sure that without Andrew here with me, I would have been a wreck by day three. By wreck I mean in tears and wondering what ever made me think this was a good idea. Thank goodness the only signs of stress I have exhibited thus far are an insatiable desire for food and chocolate (on a side note, I now also for the first time understand “emotional eating,” but that’s another blog entry for another time).

Instructions for trash day.

Instructions for trash day.

So stay tuned for my next installment, “The Biological Effects of Culture Shock” where we will discuss the impact of a rice and ramen diet on one’s ability to ride a bike in the snow! Just kidding, I will make sure my next post is very positive, about all the good things here so you’ll know that I’m really not miserable, just dramatic. Your illiterate little immigrant signing off…

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