Archives for category: Japan
lady like in my yukata...

lady like in my yukata…

Or ‘Has Japan finally made me a lady?’

The New Year for teachers occurs at a slightly different time to the usual January celebrations. August and September is our New Year, a time for reflection and anticipation, new beginnings, a time for change. A fresh pencil case, filled with resolutions to mark more regularly, to plan more effectively and to create the perfect classroom display.

I like this time of year. I like the sense of new starts, the possibilities for change.

Yesterday was my Japnaiversary, one year in Japan and also a time for reflection.

A male colleague accused me of not being a good listener and as I replied, “I do listen, but only if people have something useful to say.” I reflected on my listening skills. I know I can be a bad listener, over eager to contribute and share, I can interrupt and talk over people. Like an annoying child trying to get the grown ups attention my voice cuts in over people who are still formulating thoughts and sentences. My tolerance for listening is better with children than adults, like so many things I am far more forgiving of young people than I am of my peers.

Over the past year in Japan I have been advised variously to ‘get more results with sugar than vinegar’, been told more than once I don’t listen and also accused of being patronizing and unprofessional. In darker moments I think that my passionate emotional nature has no place in Japan. That in this space I become a large, rude, boar, trampling over delicate flowers, smashing porcelain ornaments with my oversized opinions. In Brazil I felt embraced by colleagues and friends, we were all passionate people, overflowing with love and care. We drew together as a team and we gained strength from each other. I felt Brazilian, I felt part of that community, my big bum and big voice found a home there. I felt able to contribute to Brazil, my passion carried me forward, through the project we ran with the local school, through the creation of a new department, through friendships built and through the important changes I went through in my time there. That passionate country wonderfully healed me.

Japan is different. Japan is bringing lightness in to my life. Physically I am becoming lighter and stronger and maybe my interactions could also become lighter and stronger? My main sources of communication outside the workplace at the moment are smiles and nods and I can feel myself take on a foreigner version of the Japanese female submissive persona to excuse my mistakes and confusion. From the little I have seen Japanese women are not as they first appear, underneath the geisha image of servitude hides a steely strength. Don’t underestimate Japanese women; they are not as feeble as they may first appear. Perhaps I need to embrace some of this poise and humility whilst maintaining my fiery nature?

To a certain extent I have no desire to lose my Brazilian passion, if it means I sometimes talk over people, so be it. Most of my favorite people are as speedy, passionate and sharp as I am and our conversations zoom around losing each other and then reconnecting again.

But as my world grows and my horizons expand I am also connecting with wonderful, intelligent people who run at different speeds. They are sharp, smart, thoughtful and kind. They deserve my full attention. So part of me does need to change. I need to learn to listen.

For a long time this move felt like a temporary change to my life, that I would go ‘back to normal’ once I returned to the UK. But as my sense of what my normal is changes so does the thought of going home. How can I go back? I’m not the same as I was when I left. Two things terrify me about going back. Firstly, that I am so different that I am unhappy back in England and secondly that I end up being exactly the same as before and undo all the hard work of the last three years. So I stay away until the changes become sure and solidify, until I am ready to be different in the same place.

So, I try to hold back some of my over flowing emotions, thoughts and passions, I try to run, lift and jump, I try to choose better and more wisely, I try to be different and yet the same, I am afraid to change and yet so much more terrified of staying exactly the same.

So can Japan make me a lady? I doubt it, but it might make me a better listener.

A shamed samurai actor posing for photos in a Kyoto film studio

A shamed samurai actor posing for photos in a Kyoto film studio

My good friend Vicky and I often suffered from, ‘Booze Guilt’. We would wake drenched in shame the morning after a night out on the drink. After a few hours of throwing dirty doubles down our necks, ranting about work and men, cackling with laughter at ridiculous jokes, we would fall home to troubled sleep. Texting each other in the morning filled with fear of broken friendships or foolish behavior; “Sorry if I was a twat last night”, “No I was a twat I was so annoying”. Self-loathing messages zooming back and forth between our mobile phones. The demon drink getting in to our brains and distorting the night’s events. Unnecessary fear and shame making us doubt ourselves.

Shame and fear. Empty emotions.

But fear and shame allowed me to make that final journey to leave the UK. Shame allowed me to leave. Not bravery, not courage, simply shame.

I sat on the shuttle bus at Charles de Gaulle airport waiting for my connection to Sao Paulo and it finally hit me, The Fear. What was I doing? Why was I leaving? I couldn’t do this. I needed to go home. I didn’t want to live in Brazil. The only thing that stopped me from getting a flight directly back to Brighton was shame. I would be ashamed to have not even made it to Brazil, this great adventure I had boasted about for months. I couldn’t scuttle back home, tail between my legs, failed, the adventure a failure. So rather than face the shame I got on the plane.

Absolutely the right decision. The two years in Brazil were life changing.

And now I am here in the land of incomprehensible shame, Japan. This place with shame ingrained in the culture. Haji (shame) is said to form the core of Japanese culture. Japanese culture is described as “shame culture ” in contrast to Western “guilt culture”. A place where shame can lead to suicide, where you must not stand out, must not make mistakes and must be ashamed if you do. They trace this back to the samurai era, and the concept of seppuku or hara-kiri, to cut one’s own belly with a sword, to suffer for shame. In this era, it was better to die than bring shame on oneself. Killing yourself for shame was an honorable act.

Even now the Japanese students I have taught struggle with being wrong, preferring to be silent than make an error in their spoken English. I am told that Japanese people won’t speak their mind that “… no doesn’t always mean no and yes doesn’t always mean yes”. There is a shame in being definite and a fear in being wrong.

I have had my own struggles with shame recently. I am planning a trip to The Great Wall of China and determined to stride powerfully up the steps and along the wall I am trying to exercise. I am overweight and unfit but the biggest hurdle I had to cross to start the journey to getting stronger was my own shame. The real pain didn’t come from the lunges or squats I was doing but the burning, searing pain of feeling so inadequate and judged and useless and embarrassed. It took extreme willpower to stay in the gym and continue for the first few days.

I am lucky there is a space at work where I can exercise easily and I have supportive new friends who eased me in to exercise, gently encouraged and motivated me. I feel humbled that once again I have travelled across the globe to find strength and care in a new group of people. So, once again my shame has given me the most amazing gifts.

And as I struggle home on the train, limbs aching, barely able to place one foot in front of the other, so tired I have forgotten my own name, I hear a beep and the messages came in on my phone from these new friends, encouraging and kind. Being the DQ (Drama Queen) that I am, I start to well up, crying in public, shaming the Japanese commuters with my overflow of foreign emotions.

Shame keeps pushing me to new experiences and in each one I find a wealth of new connections which continue to fill me with joy. The further I travel the more I realize that the world is filled with good people and I am so grateful to be able to fill my life with such wonderful people. So to my beloved Brightonion, Brazilian and now Japanese connections, thank you from the bottom of my heart, you help more than you know.

 

If rage were a drink...

If rage were a drink…

I could map my journey through life as the distance between an angry young woman to a seething old lady. Along the way I have moments of intense rage giddy euphoria, frustration, elation, confusion, bleak black dogs, searing highs and piercing lows. You can chart some of these mood swings with the changing of the tides and passage of the moon but in general, I think, they are manifestations of a soul on fire.

I am proud to be a passionate person. I intend to remain passionate for a long as I can, embracing my raging fist shaking nature, continuing to fight and battle and believe that I can make a difference because, who wouldn’t?

Why wouldn’t you want to try and make the world even just a tiny bit better, to make things a little more fair, just, smooth, happy beautiful, funny or loving.  I want to always be enthusiastic about people, places, ideas, music, art, stories, words, creation, EDUCATION.

I feel so lucky to be part of education, but I wasn’t always this way. In those early days of teaching sometimes it just seemed such a thankless task. Every morning as I travelled nearer to the school I would start to feel a little sick, and the nerves and stress and fear and frustration would grow. And I would count down the days until I could have a week away from the classroom and the constant falling short, of never quite being good enough. Because if you didn’t know, most teachers exist in a fog of guilt, always thinking that they could do more, that they don’t do enough, that they did it wrong. Almost without fail when I have worked in colleague’s classrooms they would stop me on the way out to tell me what went wrong, what they missed, what they could have done better. Because we know, we really do know that we have been entrusted with a precious gift and that we owe those young people and their parents the best, but after a while the pressure of that gift weighs heavy on them, weighs them down and you see them droop or drift, survive or fall.

I was lucky. I am brave/foolhardy and in my moments of falter I would CHANGE, move to another speciality, move to another country, move to another school and I believe this has kept me strong. Plus I had my rage, my passionate burning rage and belief that I could be a voice for those without one, that I could use this loud abrasive, assertive, big voice, big body and big personality for good rather than evil.

My rage has propelled me across the world to Brazil and now Japan and here in this quiet country of bows and nods and formalities of language I can’t even begin to understand my rage continues to energise me. The more that silence is expected the louder I get, the more they think I will shut up the more I want to shout.

My now beloved Americans, with their eccentricities of language were tying me in loops when I arrived. I didn’t understand the smiles and compliments delivered with dead eyes. This along with the Japanese habit of having meetings to discuss decisions already made, being agreed as if they were being made in that exact moment. I didn’t know where to place my British pragmatism.

Now I am literally translated by my American colleague, I send him my emails scribbled in fiery fury, metaphorically scratched out in my own blood and he gently changes a few words and points out passages that will alienate and antagonise. He prepares me for meetings, acting as my language coach, I rewrite my questions and answers in advance following advice trying to make sure I get it right.

I am afraid of losing my passion and fire. I am enjoying my ‘American Language’ training, I like learning new skills. BUT I must never forget that sometimes I might choose to antagonise and challenge. Sometimes I don’t want to get more with sweetness and sugar, sometimes I want to squeeze lemon in their eyes, rub salt in their wounds, drink tequila and dance with the devil.

My First Thanksgiving Dinner, benefits of American friends

My First Thanksgiving Dinner, benefits of American friends

I am in a whirlwind of confusion, I don’t understand. I am constantly coming up against words I don’t know, gestures that confuse me and actions I find alien.

Japan? That’s fine, I expected to find that confusing. No, this is my fellow English speakers, my American compatriots.  I had no idea I would be this difficult to comprehend!

Despite my expectations of a shared language, interchanging of popular culture, shared history, we constantly misunderstand each other. My Japanese vocabulary is limited but my American glossary grows by the day.

Lets start with some simple examples;

  • To me a cup of tea and a biscuit means Yorkshires finest black (I never realised tea came in other colours till I moved) tea with cold milk and a hobnob. My colleagues would expect a kind of scone or bread roll along with some herbal concoction or no milk and lemon.
  • Bombed means something failed not that it cost a lot of money (a bomb).
  • Soccer? No. Football.
  • A jelly sandwich? A jam sandwich.
  • They don’t offer me a lift, they offer me a ride. In English a ride could be a shag (a sexual encounter). If you gave me a lift in America you would pick me up and carry me (pick up and chat up might also mean the same thing in American English and this could lead to more problems in misuse). I just tend to get the bus, less potential for misunderstandings…
  • Oh and a lift is also an elevator.
  • A rubber is only used for erasing in the UK in the US it protects you from much, much more…
  • Then there is favour, favor, color, colour, zed and zee…

So gradually my timetable has become my schedule, my lessons morph in to periods. I request my students to ‘turn in homework’ instead of handing it in and I slowly begin to understand.

But I am fascinated by my American colleagues. They’re actually real? America is real? I had seen it so many times in movies (movies, not films) and TV shows (not programmes) that I started to think of it as a fantasyland like Narnia or Hogwarts. But here they are right in front of me with accents I had heard all my life but never really experienced and as I listened more carefully they started to become my friends.

I was wary at first, struggling to connect. Working under the (mis) assumption that our shared language and similar cultural references would bind us closer. I assumed it would be easier to connect with Americans than to Columbians or Brazilians, and these Latin American nationalities had previously become my good friends. Perhaps it was here that the disconnect occurred? At first, we were not bound together by these things but almost pushed father apart. My assumptions around understanding ‘American culture’ confounded me. We thought so very differently about things, especially education, and where I expected to find links I often found conflict.

But as my language has modified so have I. Travelling and working abroad gives you an insight in to the world and sticks a rocket into your assumptions and explodes preconceptions. What am I learning the longer I stay away from the UK? That nothing is as I expect, nothing is what I think, that I must be open and ready to embrace every single different kind of person I meet.

Not literally, although I have bought some Brazilian exuberance and hugs to Japan.

So, despite me using being British as an excuse for bad behaviour, happily invoking shallow cultural stereotypes as alibis (Brits like to drink therefore I will order another beer, Brits are unfriendly that’s why I’m not happy today, Brits are intelligent so I must be too.) I am aware that my own expectations of others are getting in the way of reality.

I am going to try to be more open, to have less expectations, to enjoy my new American friends. To work at saying allowance instead of pocket money, to celebrate thanksgiving, to embrace every single different person I meet (thanks to tactile Brazil). Because this experience, this opportunity to get to know so many different types of people, it’s a privilege I don’t want to squander.

armhotoI am not fond of rules. Ironic, as my job entails a constant enforcement of, sometimes, arbitrary rules designed to control large groups of young people. Rules designed to stop school children rebelling and saying, “I will go to the bathroom when ever I like, I don’t need your permission to URINATE”. When I became a teacher I had to reconcile the rebellious part of my nature with the enforcement of rules at school. I justified it to myself in that I tried to be fair and honest and enforce only those rules which kept my students safe and happy in my classroom. No pleasures for me in making someone take their hooded top off because it wasn’t school uniform or telling people when to stand up or sit down. Given the choice, I didn’t care what they wore, but I had bought in to being part of a community so I had to support the people that did care and thought it was important. I don’t need to inflate my ego by demonstrating my power over teenagers. I don’t, some teachers do. For them the rules are a stick to beat young people with to give themselves higher status in a world where they feel reduced or diminished by their life choices.

Japan thrives on rules, I currently understand, at best, about 2% of the rules here. I have been doing a little bit of travelling during this winter holiday. Mini excursions up in to the mountains, the lone female traveller I always wanted to be, finally a reality. This was made so much easier by the rules. In Japan there are rules and they are followed. It feels safe. Things arrive on time, get to where they are going and no one bothers you. Perhaps, I need rules? Perhaps rules keep us safe and help us make sense of the world?

I stayed in a Ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn, with incredibly solicitous staff tending to my every need. It made me completely nervous and confused. I was never quite sure what I should be doing. In the end I had to just accept that I was a foreigner and I would get it wrong, probably no one would care that much, and what could I do about it anyway? So I mis-tied my yukata, stomped my way to the dining room and enjoyed a delicious dinner.

I have a tattoo on my wrist; it is the Triforce from a Nintendo game called ‘The Legend of Zelda.’ It represents many things to me; family, friendship, home but also rebellion. I worried about having the tattoo in such a prominent place. Thought maybe I should have it somewhere more easily hidden. If it was hidden I could pretend to comply, but be a secret rebel. In the end I chose the inside of my wrist, to display my rebellion, the less complicit location. My darling mother’s immediate reaction on seeing it was “Oh no, do you think that was a good idea?” which cemented the decision for me. It was definitely a bloody good idea.

I was working in Brazil at the time and watched the leaders of the school struggle to manage two boys, two non-compliant boys. Unusual for an International school, not so unusual for a UK comprehensive school, in fact pretty typical behaviour, but unfamiliar to this private school selective world. Not my usual world, but one I was temporarily inhabiting. I was uncomfortable with the way the situation with these boys was being handled but was unable to have much influence. One of them was an incredibly talented writer, I hope to read more from him one day. The boys were quietly removed from the school. Mainly because they wouldn’t back down and comply with how the school wanted them to behave. I have always liked the rebels best, the students who fought the system. I chose to work with these kinds of students as a career. There are not so many of them in my new life and I miss them. These people can change the world given the right opportunities. These boys reminded me that I want to be non-compliant too so I got the tattoo on my wrist and not on the safer, more hidden spot on my ankle, I had also contemplated. A small gesture as a constant reminder.

I struggle to comply with expectations of me. I will not get married, I will not have a family, I intend to stay fat and not diet. I will wear my flab as a badge of honour and every time I feel pressure that I might be more socially acceptable if my arse was 3 sizes smaller I will look at the triforce on my wrist and remember not to be afraid. So I buy a massive fur coat and take up two seats on the Japanese subway, become bigger and bolder and brighter. I turn up my Britishness and my foreign status, exaggerating my rolling vowel accent. I celebrate my single life freedom by travelling alone and sleeping diagonally across a double bed.

I like and understand the rules but I will not let them impede my happiness. Every time I look at the tattoo on my wrist it is there to remind me not to worry. The rules are there to help us feel safe. If I am not endangering anyone and I am safe and happy I will continue to rebel and ignore the rules even here in Japan.

Or what I have learnt about Japan in 4 months..

4photo1.    Vending Machines

If you asked me what I knew about Japan before I arrived unfortunately I might have said, .”..don’t they have vending machines selling schoolgirls’ used knickers?”  Within in this one misconception lie many layers of ignorance and assumption about Japan, technology and sexuality. It‘s a complex county and I have been here only for a short time but I’m already undoing many of my misconceptions.

There are many vending machines in Japan. They’re everywhere, but the majority of them sell drinks, plastic toys or ice cream. Some of them sell beer. A friend was telling me she questioned why the Japanese teenagers didn’t buy beer from the vending machines, they have no locks or ID checks, on them, “because they are not allowed to drink alcohol until they are 20” was the simple answer. They are not allowed to, so they don’t. This may have been a Japanese adult misconception too. I would imagine Japanese teens are sneaking beers out of the vending machines but I’m not sure.

But I am sure that if you put a beer vending machine in the middle of Lancing (where I used to work) the beer and quite possibly the entire machine would be gone within minutes, and the teens of Lancing would be partying hard.

2.   Neon

I blame Bladrunner. Not once since I arrived have I been in a flying car zooming past huge neon billboards with beautiful women advertising exotic products. Instead if you can, imagine my shock at arriving and being given an apartment here:

I expected Gotham City and I got Jane Austen.

My need for neon led me to traipse around Tokyo seeking out ‘Japan’ and missing out the fact that I was right in the middle of the capital city. I was in Japan it just didn’t look like the 1980s  vision of the future I had expected.

I have moved away from the countryside now and have a city view with a couple of neon signs visible in the distance. Please remember I had been living for two years in Sao Paulo where billboard advertising was mainly banned in the city.

http://www.amusingplanet.com/2013/07/sao-paulo-city-with-no-outdoor.html

Now I was in Japan I wanted NEON.

3.   Efficiency

Not only does Sao Paulo have no outdoor advertising, Brazil also has a love of confusing and protracted bureaucracy, from the simplest task to complex visa requirements. My Brazilian Visa took 6 months to obtain, my Japanese one less than 6 weeks.

One night in SP I went out to see a band. To get a drink you had to queue 3 times, first to look at the drinks menu, then a new queue to order a drink, then the 3rd queue to pick up your drink order. Although Japan is thought of as  super efficient sometimes Japan and Brazil are not so different. In the Japanese supermarket you put your shopping in your basket and take it to the till. They get a new basket and put your shopping very neatly and carefully in to a new basket as they ring each item through. You then pay and take this new basket to the special bagging area (supplied with additional packing materials) and unpack the shopping again to repack it in to your shopping bags.

In contrast to Brazil however, Japanese efficiency tends to work (Brazilian bureaucracy seems to drift round making you dance but is always presented with a smile). In Japan my train has arrived on time, every day, to the minute, without fail. No leaves on the line or excessive heat on the tracks causing cancellations like good old British Rail (RIP). When I arrived in the country they took my photo at customs (thanks, I looked great after almost 24 hours travelling) and created my resident card on the spot. My Brazilian card arrived just in time, at the end of my two-year visa. Japan is efficient? Yes. Over efficient? Possibly.

4.   Technology

Ok, so my first Japanese apartment had a talking bath. It would fill the tub with exactly the right amount of water to the perfect temperature. I miss her voice reminding me to put the plug in. My new apartment has an ordinary tap and the only voices I hear are the ones in my head (you are dirty, you will never be clean…).

I  had one Bladerunner moment. I was in an huge electronics shop in Kyoto over excited and overwhelmed by the displays of gadgetry, fingers itching to spend spend send spend. I had that too hot shop feeling when you have six layers on and your coat is too heavy. I couldn’t see the exit and I was starting to get panicked that I was going to spend two months salary on a pair of headphones. There was a female voice with a slow computerised British accent explaining the deals of the day. If the Terminator had blasted the Bose display in search of Replicants I wouldn’t have been shocked.

But I digress; the technology on sale here is fantastic. I’m sure my Epsom printer is capable of world domination once I work out what the hell the instructions are saying. Or maybe the kanji are just another reminder to put the plug in the bath.

But it’s just not quite as high tech as I expected. I noticed a pay phone on the train platform. Low-tech yes, but practical. It was the paper copy of the phone book underneath that disappointed me. Paper? This was not the technology I was expecting. Where were the robot butlers?

photo

Japan has a love for paper. Not just beautiful handmade pages but cold hard cash.  I have rarely seen people pay by card. This is a society that generally pays in cash. It’s so safe you can carry your wealth in paper form.  Every note is pristine. This is could due to the Japanese government printing extra money to boost the economy or anther example of Japanese efficiency. Either way I have always had two purses. In Brazil it was one real purse, one purse to give to the robbers. Here it is one coin purse and one hermetically sealed note storage device. No more crumpled fivers shoved in a pocket, and Sellotaped and snot stained.

5.   Kawaii

Those who know me well, know among the myriad of ways there are to annoy me, a good one is to call me cute. I am not cute I am a large loud mouthed woman who stomps around arguing unnecessarily. I’m still not entirely sure why I came to the land of cute characters. They are everywhere. I saw a Police van, presumably designed for rounding up rioters or drunks? Cute little police mascot stuck on the side.

I was expecting cute and crazy fashion everywhere. I was expecting kawaii girls. What I see in reality is endless streams of school children dressed in hideous nylon sailor dresses or navy synthetic round collared jackets. Japanese school uniforms look incredibly unconformable, impractical cheap itchy fabrics. But no pink haired crazy girls in cosplay. As I sit on the train in the morning most people look the same there is uniformity in everyday Japanese fashion that you don’t find in the UK. As I travel I realise my beloved Brighton is a place where anything goes and although this is sometimes carte blanche for middle class wankers to live out hippy fantasies it also makes for a more interesting train carriage.

As I attempt to assimilate in to another new culture I realise once again, that what I think I know I don’t know and what I didn’t know is probably a lot more useful.

Japan is fascinating and I am prepared to be surprised.

Japanese food, a different texture to my 'normal' experience!

Japanese food, a different texture to my ‘normal’ experience!

Not everyone owns a kettle. (Yes, Mother, there are some households where the electric kettle is not the first item unpacked in a move.) This may be obvious to you, it was not to me.

The owning of a kettle and the serving of tea runs though my English identity like blood or HP sauce. I have moved many times and each time the first thing I would do was get the kettle out. I have woken up groggy in unfamiliar homes and negotiated the kitchen, where are the tea bags? Which cupboard are the cups in, have they got milk? And usually managed to make myself a cup of tea. You arrive at my house, in tears, broken hearted, celebrating, confused, inconsolable, joyful, I will make you a cup of tea.

But this is not what happens in Brazil. When I left, I gave my colleagues gifts; Tetley teabags, teapots, cups and saucers, to make English tea. They asked me ‘what is the best way to make tea?’ and I told them, the water has to be boiling, the milk has to be cold. I had been given weak Brazilian chai preto in warm water with hot milk and this is not a good introduction to the healing wonders of a good cup of tea. Maybe I’ll buy a kettle, one of them said. Buy a kettle? You don’t have one? I was shocked, and this was after 2 years in Brazil, I still hadn’t got it, I still didn’t see.

Even, after two years in a new place I had still forgotten that what I experienced as commonplace, in my home, my friends homes, at work, with family, in England, this was not always replicated. Even when we seem so similar, even something as mundane as boiling water. Again, maybe obvious to you. Not to me. The big changes like language, food, customs were obvious, but we seemed to be generally the same. We lived in homes with running water and kitchens and bathrooms, we worked hard, we laughed, shared jokes,  drank beer together. It was the smaller things I took for granted, that I thought most people would do the same way. But we don’t always, some things we do differently. Like boil water.

Now I am a foreigner again. In a new place and I am different to the norm. This is even more pronounced in Japan where my physicality sets me apart from most other women. I worried about this before I came and I still worry, sometimes. I worry that being too ‘big’ in almost every possible way is going to start to make me feel small and inadequate. My body is too big for most of the clothes sold here, my feet are too big for most of the shoes, my voice is too loud, my personality is too combative, I’m too abrasive, I’m not cute, I’m not married and I’m not a mother.

But I am a show off and this is what I hope will keep me safe. When I was a teenager I dyed my hair bright fire engine red. I clearly remember complaining to my mum that everyone was making comments about it at school. They are all going on about my hair Mum! That’s the point though isn’t it? She said in that infuriating -knows you too well and cuts through your crap- way, that mothers do so well sometimes.

That was the point and although my hair is now brown, that is still the point. I can manage being the foreigner and being different, because I am generally comfortable being different. I try to fight the fears coercing me to conform. It is inescapable that my passage to ‘otherness’ is eased by the fact that I am white and British. I am in a position of privilege, I recognise that too. Despite our astounding record for attacking other nations (we have attempted to invade all but 22 countries in the world, that’s a 90% record) The British are generally, welcomed and valued by the places I have been. So although I don’t usually believe in luck, I recognise, and am grateful, that the luck of my birth has provided me with a safer passage in to the world.

In Japan, I am aware that I am different but at the moment, I don’t feel too strange. Japanese people seem to ignore me for the most part, but that might be politeness. This studied nonchalance might start to grate after a while. I might want to be noticed, to be seen. I might want my separation to be openly acknowledged rather than silently observed. I might want to increase my volume, enhance my ‘Britishness’ to try and provoke a reaction. I might start writing with a quill, wearing a ruff, adding ‘forsooth’ to my speech. Maybe I’ll invade Luxemburg…

I am not afraid of being different but at times the weight of not conforming can feel heavy. I dislike the thought of being pitied or patronised. I dislike the idea that I could be looked upon as falling short or failing. The lines between what I want and what I think I want can become blurred by the expectations of others. To wake up a foreigner at 40 has helped. To be in a place where I am innately different makes it easier. My identity is already distinct from the norm.

In the end what I have really learnt is, some of us have kettles and some of us don’t but for the most part, we can still get hot water.

'This is Japan!' Shibuya Crossing Tokyo

‘This is Japan!’ Shibuya Crossing Tokyo

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.

 

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