Frustrations Alight

So it’s been almost two months since I first arrived in London. It’s been busy. And frustrating.

It’s strange being a foreigner in a land where things seem so similar to your own homeland. I thought it would be easier to move here. In Japan, it was understandable to encounter different ways of doing things. Everything was different there. That’s not to say I didn’t expect London to be different–I did. But I suppose that something about suddenly being able to read the signs and communicate with people messed with my impressions of the place. “How hard could it be?” I thought.

But I found there were things I took for granted in both the US and Japan that really annoyed me here in the UK. For example, pedestrians do not have the right of way and in some places, you have to pay anywhere from 50p to 3 quid to use a “public” toilet. I guess I was under the impression that going to the toilet was a basic human right, not a privilege. Using the underground on weekends is a nightmare due to the fact that London is trying to upgrade everything for the 2012 Olympics. But they do all their planned engineering on weekends? They should be doing it at night, like the Japanese do. But what do I know? I’m not a civil engineer. I’ll just have to put up with tube disruptions every weekend until 2012. And I’m not exaggerating.

Frustrations aside, I’ve had some good experiences here. I like that debit cards have a chip in them instead of a swipe bar. I like the variety of beer and Thai and Indian food you can get here. I really like the friends I’ve made, although most of them aren’t even British. I like the grocery stores and all the different ingredients I could buy should I ever want to make that crazy European recipe I couldn’t make in the US.

I’m trying really hard to get around my frustrations because I seem to be the only one around here who has them. And I’ve already offended a Brit by complaining. It wasn’t my intention to offend, but I needed to vent and getting it thrown right back at me was a bit of a wake-up call. Things aren’t so bad. Things could always get worse. I realise this. I need to toughen up again. I was a lot tougher back when I was living in New York. San Diego calmed me down, but I felt stuck. Then I got lost in San Francisco. Found myself in San Diego but got stuck again. Then really opened up in Japan. But I think I softened up a lot there. Everyone is so nice and passive. London is the opposite. People don’t care here. You’re on your own.

I’m not sure I can be as tough and cutthroat as I was in New York. I’m not quite as crazy as I used to be. But something will have to change. I wonder what London will turn me into….

Things about Japan that Surprise me

I guess that I expected a completely foreign world when I got to Japan. And, granted, I was right to expect things I’d never seen before. I can honestly say that my world has been turned upside down, coming here. For instance, they drive on the other side of the road here, and all the cars are SMALL. (Total opposite of America). There are no preservatives in the food here and they eat most everything raw. Even eggs. Also, everyone here smokes cigarettes, and it’s illegal to smoke outside. They prefer you smoke inside or in designated smoking areas so as to make sure you don’t leave any cigarette butts littered in the street. I wonder if the Japanese have ever heard of second-hand smoke. But what surprises me more than the differences I’ve found here are the similarities. For example..

Mayonnaise – I can’t even begin to tell you how much the Japanese love mayonnaise. It’s like an addiction. They put it on everything. Salads, pork, french fries, noodles… the list goes on.

Convenience Stores – 7-11, Circle K, Family Mart, Lawson, Sunkus, etc… These handy little marts are like the Starbucks of America. There’s one on EVERY corner. They are certainly convenient. You even pay your utilities bills at the convenience store.

Shopping – While I admit I knew the Japanese liked to shop, I don’t think I understood just how much they like to shop. Some of the big department stores in Nagoya or Sakae are like the 5th Avenue designer stores you would expect in New York. Or Monte Carlo. They have uniformed concierges and everything.

I was wandering through my neighborhood today (which I was told was all housing) when I came across a Seiyu. This giant building slightly resembled a tiny shopping mall and I figured it was public since it had a McDonald’s on the first floor. So I curiously ventured in to find what must have been the biggest grocery store I’ve ever seen, besides the Navy Commissary. I actually uttered the word “woah” under my breath. Plus, there were two more floors. On the second floor, I found a small photo studio with costume kimonos for the whole family to wear, bedding, furniture, household items, cookware, and fake plants (the real plants were on the first floor). I bought some wooden spoons to use in my “kitchen.” Then (dare I?) I went to the third floor where I found clothes, more bedding and household items, bicycles for sale, electronics, appliances, and toys. And for a Sunday in Japan where the economy is on the rocks, the place was hoppin’. Families, couples, little old ladies inspecting dishware like it was a fine red wine. You’d think this place was the local pub in an Irish village, but on a grander scale. As I walked around not only perusing the aisles but the customers as well, I felt for a small moment as if it was 1984 and I was back in America. The words “materialistic” and “yuppie” came to mind. For another small moment, I wondered if I should immediately leave, go home, and take a shower to rid myself of the commercialism.. but naaaaah.. I needed clothes, bedding, and groceries. So I stayed and enjoyed every minute of it. :)

I’m not sure if I’ll ever completely understand this strange land and its people, but I’m not sure I want to. I like the mystical, ‘time warp’ feeling I get while I’m here. For now, anyway….

Ah, Japan…

I’ve been here for little more than three weeks. I’m finally beginning to feel like I live here. I must admit, I didn’t really think about the fact that as soon as I got here, I’d basically be illiterate. Trying to get used to the kanji, hirigana, and katakana is a lot more difficult than I was expecting. I figured if I just memorized each katakana and hirigana symbol (and their sounds) then I’d be able to easily decode most Japanese words.

Yeah. No.

I spent an hour searching for just one symbol on the internet and in my books when I was trying to read the directions on a packet of “drano”-like powder I bought for my flooding bathroom. I gave up and just dumped the powder in the drain. It hasn’t worked.

While this can get very frustrating at times, I must commend the Japanese for being such fans of kawaii anime that they have cartoon directions on a large majority of their products. Also, everyone here is very polite and understanding of the fact that you probably will never master Japanese. So, they do their best to help you out whenever they see you have that pained/panicked look on your face while holding a plastic package of some kind. I’ve managed to get by in Japan just knowing the words for “please,” “thank you,” and “yes.” Nobody ever directly says “no” in Japan, so knowing the hand signals for “no” (crossing your arms like an ‘x’) and giving a simple smile works too. Maybe when I get enough money, I’ll buy one of those electronic devices that lets you draw the kanji and then it tells you what that symbol is. But in the meantime, I’m stuck with my books and the internet. Oh well.

Differences

The days are winding down (20 more to go) to Japan and I have yet to pack my clothes. Heh.

However, I am doing my homework on the culture and (a little bit of) history of the Japanese people. I was directed to a blog written by another former Foreign Teacher from the same company that I will be working for (I am leaving out names for everyone’s protection), and I must say, I was very disappointed. What he wrote about his experience with this company was supposed to be the “truth” about what it’s like to work for them. Apparently he and the company had some disagreements. What disappointed me wasn’t so much the company but, rather, what he had to say. His blog was very informative, and I certainly got some useful tips out of it. But I was completely unimpressed with him. He complained about certain aspects of the Japanese world of business and, quite frankly, he should have known better. What he was so upset about was the way the Japanese handled situations. He didn’t like that he could not argue with his manager about something at a business meeting. He felt like he was being stifled and that he was not allowed to be “productive” via speaking his mind. He was also very taken aback by what he saw as passive aggressiveness in the Japanese.

Now, I don’t have to go to Japan to know that the Japanese highly prize group solidarity, especially within the business world. Just look at the way Japanese businessmen dress. See any bright colors? See anybody trying to stand out or beat the system? I don’t.

This blogger claims that he went to Japan to explore it and learn about another culture and yet he was kept from doing so because he had to work all the time. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, buddy! But more than that, he cheated himself out of the Japanese cultural education because it was happening to him the entire time he was there! Alas, he was too busy imposing his American standards of behavior on everyone he worked with to open up his mind and broaden his horizons.

I’m glad I read the blog, really, because it is a reminder to me that when I go to this brand new Eastern world, I should let myself be open to and understanding of the differences I know I will encounter. I may be going to to Japan to teach English conversation, but I’m not there to change the Japanese into Americans. I’ll do what I can to help them understand Americans and our nuances. But I won’t judge them for it if it doesn’t come naturally to them. This is a learning experience on both sides and I am happy to help create this bridge of communication.