Friday, June 26, 2009

Now, It's Real

One of my former students recently returned from a year in America as a university exchange student. She told me that, now that she is back in Japan, she wishes she could go back to the U.S. because it was like it was "not real". I understand all too well what she is talking about.

When my husband and I first came to Japan, part of the appeal was that it wasn't "real". Everything you encounter carries an air of novelty and mystery. Even things like the Coke cans, which when we got here were small and short to the way in which your change is handed over to you in a special way when you make a purchase is a curiosity.

The "mystery" aspect is in all of the things you can't understand or have never seen before. You never know when you buy something which looks like a carton of peanut butter (because it has a peanut on the front and is next to the jam and Nutella) is going to be what you think it is or if you're in for an unpleasant surprise.

Even something as mundane as traveling from place to place is pretty interesting when you see the train zipping past houses whose design is different from the ones you saw back home. When you see the huge apartments full of "rabbit hutch" apartments, rice paddies, and temples and temple gates, it all seems incredibly unreal. It's as if you've been transported to some ethereal land where the rules you grew up with don't seem to apply.

In fact, one of the things which makes the experience of living in a foreign country less real is that you lack an awareness of the rules. Back home, you're fully aware of all of the crap your parents have been putting up with all their lives like taxes, insurance, and home maintenance responsibilities. When I got here, I had no idea about the need to file an income tax return, pay city taxes, or health insurance and nobody at my work told me about it. I was completely unencumbered by these things. All of the reality of adult life is suddenly left behind as you go about your business in ignorance enjoying the exotic nature of your surroundings.

I'm not sure when it happened, and I'm sure it happened very slowly, but Japan became completely real for me. The novelty wore off of how cute the cans of Coke were. I started to understand what was in all the mystery packages I encountered. Watching the girl at the department store wrap my purchase like a gift was less of a cute idiosyncrasy of the merchants in Japan and more of an irksome waste of material. Cute little Japanese ditties that I heard again and again in shops or on T.V. became as annoying as the cute little English ditties in stores and T.V. back home. And, of course, all of those expenses and responsibilities which I was blissfully ignorant of became crystal clear to me and I started to understand what people were saying rather than experience it as background noise which meant nothing to me.

After awhile, the the way in which living in a foreign country feels unreal because you are disconnected from everything fades and it's all very real. I notice this very acutely when I read blogs written by people who haven't been here as long as me. They're delighted by all sorts of stuff which is now so mundane as to hold little appeal for me. Summer festivals are now the rage, but I've seen more than my share of them. Now, they're like the carnivals I grew up visiting as a kid. They don't change, and you can only ride the tilt-a-whirl so many times before it starts to feel boring or eat snow cones and think they're a special treat. In Japan, the kakigori (shaved ice with syrup) is no longer appealing. The opulent tanabata festival in my neighborhood is just incredibly annoying because it blocks access to shops and the train station.

The fact that Japan is now "real" is probably part of why the shine has gone off of it for me. That doesn't mean that my perspective isn't a valid one, but it does make it irritating to other foreigners who have no idea how it feels to be here long enough for the novelty to wear off. It's part of what motivates them to assert that Japan is "wasted" on me or that I should leave. To a lot of people, I don't belong here anymore, but that's only because they can't begin to imagine what it's like to live in the "real" Japan.


Kelly said...

Interesting reading, Orchid.

I find it interesting that you no longer find such things like Kakigori exciting, while Japanese who live there all their lives still do. Why do you think that is? Because it's not an ingrained culture thing? And this is just a question that stuck in my mind because I found it interesting. It's in no way a needle or an insult, just something I wondered. :)

Orchid64 said...

Japanese who live here all of their lives don't find things like kakigori exciting. I have talked to my students about this, particularly in regards to things like seasonal specialties and festivals. All of them (and this is just my experience) said they loved those things as kids, but are relatively indifferent to them as adults.

Mainly, most of the traditional stuff is a way for them to get together with friends and partake of a group experience. For instance, they don't like the idea of going to shrines on New Year's Eve or seeing fireworks for the umpteenth time, but they do like having a chance to hang out with friends and share in that atmosphere with others. It's not the experiences per se, but the opportunities they present.

Last New Years, I had 12 students. Only one of them did the New Year's thing (fireworks only). None of them enjoyed the tanabata festivals or visited a shrine on New Year's Eve, though several did go on New Year's Day to pray for luck (though none of them expressed it as anything they enjoyed so much as just something they did in a rote manner because that is what you do on that day off).

I think that Japanese people tend to discuss their culturally differently with us than they really feel themselves. They are attempting to point out what they see as unique, not necessarily what excites them. I've talked to many, many students (thousands) and I can say that things like kakigori never get mentioned. The top "favorite foods" that I hear about are sushi (infrequently eaten), fruit of many stripes, steak, hamburgers, and noodles.

Also, I think there is often a strong element of nostalgia. People will talk wistfully about certain things because they remember it being great as a kid, but when you ask them how often they take advantage of such things, they'll tell you once a year or less often (unless they have children, then they go with them). The same happens in all countries. We talk about how great something is, but what we really mean was how great it once was for us.

So, I think the premise that Japanese people (as adults) are actually still excited about such things is not something borne out either in their actions or their words outside of trying to cast a spotlight on various nostalgic experiences which would be novel for the tourist. I think that taking along a foreigner for such things is much like taking their children. That is, they can relive their memories and feelings by being with someone who is experiencing it for the first time.

Sherry said...

Very good points all. Also, don't forget the whole importance of tradition in Japan. People do things because they have always been done and must always continue to be done, even if you don't like them. Just ask any Japanese person how they feel about the special food they eat on New Years Day. You will almost always be told that they hate the majority of it, although there may be one or two things they like. They keep paying insane amounts of money for it and eating it anyway every year and acting like it is something special and important because it is tradition.

As for kakigori specifically it is a summer thing in Japan like bbqs and baseball are in the US, for example. It doesn't mean that everyone loves it or anyone is excited about it or they all partake of it. It is just there in the summer.

Everyone in every country does this. How many Americans think Christmas is a huge pain in the butt, yet they keep celebrating it the same way every year, especially if they have kids. It is much easier for us as foreigners to not participate or "be over" something in Japan because we have no emotional attachment to any of it. It is harder to give up traditions from your own culture even if you don't care about it or don't like it.

Orchid64 said...

Those are all excellent points, Sherry. I agree wholeheartedly.

I can't tell you have many times students have mentioned the "special" New Year's food (osechi-ryori) with a smile and when I ask them if they look forward to it or especially enjoy it, they say, "no" with that same smile. As you say, they say they like this or that, but overall, I've been told the quality of the food is very low.

I think you make an excellent point that we all do it in all countries. We complain, but we do it anyway. Doing it anyway doesn't mean it's a big deal. It just means it's tradition and we want to to do what everyone else does as part of the season. And, as you said, this tendency is more pronounced in Japan where you have more pressure to go along to get along.