I have always loved to read. I was the typical kid, hidden under the covers with a torch, reading until late in to the night. I was such a reading geek that I categorised my books and made them in to a library. Made library cards for every book, arranged them in alphabetical order. Borrowed books from my own library, carefully writing the date for return on the card inside the cover. I loved libraries; I would spend lost hours in the school holidays surrounded by books, sitting in the warm quiet reading room in St Albans library. Snuggled in high backed wooden chairs reading, exploring, studying. That was a safe space, a solace from, a sometimes, chaotic world. I would escape by working hard on self-administered projects, reading and thinking, silent and at peace.
Even now any problem that I face, any worry, any questions I have, I seek the answer in words. The Internet has become my oracle. I can find almost anything I need to know. Painful Achilles flip-flop related injury? I can read about my symptoms and find some stretches to sort it out. Don’t know how to use my printer because the instructions are all in Japanese? Find a manual online. What do the lyrics to that song mean? Who is she? What film was he in? Want to read that book? Watch that? The list could go on and on. Now instead of the soft wooden silence of the library I get lost in the meandering reading paths of the Internet. Begin exploring one topic and it takes you on unexpected routes to another topic, until you find yourself somewhere totally different from where you started.
Reading was my safe haven and one of my super powers, until now. Now I live in a place where I can’t read. I can’t read signs, I can’t read menus, I can’t read labels, I even struggle to read facial expressions, social rules and vocal cues. I am one month living in Japan and I am confused! Not only have I lost my superpower of vocal communication, those charming words I would weave to get my own way, now I can’t even follow the most basic instructions, signposts or ingredients, and it’s excitingly baffling.
I am existing in a wonderful world of mystery and each tiny solution fills me with joy and pride. As I negotiate the subway system, find an ingredient and create a dish, nod and say “Konichiwa” to passers by. And yes, even put the right recycling in the right bag, out on the right day, and it’s collected, I feel braver and prouder than putting the rubbish out ever made me feel before.
So without the ability to read words, and a reduced ability to read faces, I have to rely on a whole new set of skills to make sense of the world around me.
A friend came over from England to visit, and I got to share these mysteries with him. Together we explored the enigmas of Tokyo. But as we wandered the city streets we found ourselves constantly exclaiming, “Now THAT looks like Japan!” at a congestion of neon and bustling streets or a sky rise juxtaposed with a temple. After a while I had to stop myself, what was I doing? I was spending more time looking for the ‘Japan’ I dreamt about that I had stopped looking at the Japan right in front of me. Why was there this need to find the Tokyo I had seen in books or films? The futuristic city from Bladerunner, the fictionalized version, when I had reality right in front of me?
When our other abilities are lost, the reading skills, the talking and charming, instead we search for expected realities, find comfort in seeing what we think we are going to see.
I understand this desire but this is an opportunity, I should be looking for the unexpected, taking pleasure in the surprise, exploring and absorbing. I have seen people arrive to overseas jobs full of expectations about the place they will live in, only to spend two years disappointed in what they find. There aren’t Brazilians samba-ing through the streets everyday, just as there aren’t robot toilets cleaning you up in every bathroom in Japan. We get to experience real life and it is still different and confusing and wonderful.
I know we want the tasty pieces, the morsels that give the fullest flavour. This is Brazil, this is Japan, this is England. But this is no holiday, this is real life and I want to enjoy my gradual absorption in to the world around me. I don’t want the Disney version, the sanitized cliché or the tourist presentation. I want to be here and live here and experience something that is different to my previous 38 years of existence in the UK. So I am working hard at leaving my expectations open, to try and experience the world as it unfolds in front of me, to taste every dish at the table and enjoy every mouthful.