Monday, January 23, 2006

First Impressions

Saturday, January 7, 2006 4:00 PM to Sunday, January 8, 9:00AM

Probably the first Japanese thing I saw in Japan was the toilet. Don't laugh--Japanese-style toilets are no joke--it's basically a little porcelein hole in the floor. After a ten hour flight, I rushed to the bathrooms as soon as I could and was amazed by how many Japanese-style toilets I found. I was under the impression they were nearly extinct (ha!). Anyway, I found Western toilets in the back, much to my relief (no pun intented) and that was that.

At the airport, I was a little nervous about what would happen if the IES people didn't pick me up like they said they would. I had a map, but no head for directions. But I had no need to worry. After going through customs (filling out a form and getting my passport stamped) and picking up my luggage, I walked outside the terminal to find a cluster of IES people holding up a little sign for me. I blew out a breath of relief. No need to worry.

The director, Satoshi Tsukamoto, and one other girl were Nihonjin (Japanese)--the rest of the group were American exchange students from the previous semester. All spoke English. I was relieved. I did not yet want to speak Japanese.

The girl (I'm sorry, I forgot her name) showed me how to fill out the forms to have my luggage shipped to my host family. I was happy she was there--I would have no idea how to fill out the forms if she hadn't been (so much kanji....)--I don't even think I'd be able to ask for help.

We took a bus from the airport to the Daiichi Fuji Hotel. A boy named Billy who had studied in Japan fall semester and a new arrival named Matthew rode with me. Matthew and Billy spoke to each other, but I was tired and I didn't have anything to say. I tried to take in Japan during the ride, but there seemed perilously little to take in. It was getting dark and it was cold. The city rose in skyscrapers like any other large city would (Nagoya is the 4th largest city in Japan). One curious thing was that the driver's seat was to the right, but that can only keep one amused for so long. I looked to the billboards to amuse me, but I was surprised that there weren't any. Only company names written in English or Kanji--that was all.

I checked-in and nearly fell asleep, despite warnings that sleeping at 6:00 PM would only help the jet lag. Fortunately, Billy woke me up by knocking on my door and asking if I wanted to have dinner with him and his girlfriend and Matthew at the station (eki, in Japanese). I went.

The station was bright, crowded, and above all huge! We got turned around quite a bit. There were kimono stores and regular stores and a whole row of food stores, including a bakery with several tempting treats. The advertising that had been lacking on the highway, cropped up here in all bright colors. So much anime! I thought of Stephen and wanted to take pictures for him, but at the last minute, I lacked the will-power and just gaped.

At the resturant I realized I had forgotten how to order food in Japanese and ate kishimen in miso broth. Kishimen, a local specialty, is a thin, long flat noodle, sort of similiar to fetticini. The heat from the bowl steamed up my glasses and made my nose run. There were people smoking in the resturant, I noticed, and was proud of my noticing.

After dinner I spent an hour learning how to use the international phones just so I could wake my parents up at 4:00 AM and let them know I was alright. Then I went back to my room and promptly fell asleep.

The next morning I dragged myself up at 7:00 AM so I could have breakfast in the hotel, before we left for Inuyama at 9:00. I took a shower. And here I shall again speak on the subject of Japanese bathrooms.

The Daiichi Fuji, being a modern hotel, had a bed, a desk, a window, and a bathroom. It was narrower than most American hotels, but that was all. However, the bathroom greatly annoyed me. In the first place, I couldn't find the light switch. I ran my fingers up and down the bathroom walls for a good fifteen minutes to no avail. Then I made the discovery: the switch was outside the bathroom. This annoyed me. So did the toilet which, though thankfully Western, gurggled whenever I sat down, making me feel not at ease at all.

Besides the odd bathroom, I could almost imagine I was in America, until I went downstairs. Then I was confronted with a Japanese staff and struggled to stutter some Japanese phrases the first thing in the morning. I meant to say something intelligible about having a ticket for breakfast, but I ended up saying nothing. At any rate the staff understood and led me into the diningroom. I was relieved to find three other gaijin (foriegners) already there. They were my fellow IES students, with whom I could speak in English.

Breakfast was much more elaborate than I had expected and would put any continental breakfast to shame. The table was crowded with meats and fish and other hearty dishes that I shyly avoided. Instead I ate a piece of bread and drank orange juice and coffee and had miso soup with a bit of nori (seaweed) thrown in and two bowls of rice with little sour red plums on top that reminded me of my childhood.

And this was what I wrote in my nikki (journal) that day, before we left, by bus, for Inuyama:

"The first time I went into the lobby, I was suddenly confronted by the fact that I couldn't speak Nihongo (Japanese) and I froze. I looked around in confusion. Eventually I saw two other hakujin otokono ko (lit. white boys) in the dining room and gained enough confidence to go in. Turns out many words weren't needed; they handed me a tray and I guessed what to do. But I've been noticing I do that a lot: I forget I'm in Japan. I mean, I don't forget excatly, but when I know how t function (as in my hotel room), I don't really think about it. Then suddenly, I run into Japanese people and bam! it hits me: I can't speak Japanese. I can't communicate. And then I freeze and don't speak at all. If someone's there, I'll let them talk for me. Otherwise, I'll communicate as little as possible and more non-verbal, not in full sentences.

"It's actually funny because I'd expected, when coming to Japan, that I'd absorb the language through osmosis--being immersed in it, I'd just get it. But that hasn't happened. In fact, it's been amazingly easy to isolate myself, linguistically (and, I imagine, in other ways, too). If I'm by myself, I don't speak to anyone. If I'm with IES members, I can speak in English. If I have to interact with Nihonjin (Japanese people), I can do so simplistically. Half the signs are written in English--I don't have to look at the kanji. Basically, I'm going to have to make a conscious effort to learn Japanese--immersion isn't enough."

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