The trials and tribulations of an Austrian-American in Japan

(This article was written originally as an email and has been modified only slightly for publication here. It is written in a somewhat hyperbolic, jesting tone and is meant to both amuse and inform).

So I have been living in Japan for about a week now, and am sort of starting to figure some things out. There have definitely been some moments of absolute confusion in which I just stare blankly at whomever is trying to explain something to me, but overall it has been ok. I don’t have internet yet, which is inconvenient, but I can use internet at the school where I’m teaching so it’s not too bad. I also got a cell phone which is totally sweet and does a bunch of absolutely ridiculous and unnecessary things that I haven’t quite figured out yet since the manual is all in Japanese. From what I’ve been able to figure out, there’s a camera, a radio, and a GPS system on it. Yaaaay for technology that I don’t understand!

Alright, as we all know, Japan is famous for its kooky game shows and wacky fashions so it should come as no surprise that things have been a little crazy. Here are a few of my initial observations:

1. EVERYTHING in this country is backwards. Water faucets turn on in the wrong direction; people drive on the wrong side of the road, which has already resulted in quite a few near-death experiences due to the fact that my little Austrian-American mind is seemingly incapable of comprehending the dynamics of left-side driving and the corresponding road-crossing survival techniques; people take off their shoes backwards, meaning they turn around and slip backwards out of their shoes thereby facilitating a quick get-away when putting their shoes back on (apparently this is important in a country where shoes get taken off and put on approximately 64 times a day); people back into parking spaces rather than pulling in from the front because it supposedly makes leaving easier and faster…is anyone else sensing a pattern of behavior geared toward making a quick a get-away as possible? Hmm, sehr interessant…

2. Roads don`t have names, which is the most irritating thing on earth. It results in a lot of confused directions, and having to draw maps for people so that they know where to go. Also, giving directions is always done in the form of “you’ll see a big tree, turn right there and then there’s a big building with a pink sign where you will need to turn left…”. Yeah, this does not really make for the clearest of directions… I’m sure I will get lost many a time because, shockingly, there will presumably be more than one big tree at which I could turn right.

3. Despite the fact that I am not living out in the inaka (country/rural areas), and there are other gaijin (foreigners) living in my town, people often stare at me or try to touch me (apparently to see if my ghostly white skin is real). Granted, there are only a handful of other gaijin in a town of 70,000 people, so seeing a gaijin isn’t all that common. It’s pretty funny and it doesn`t bother me, but gaijin definitely cause a spectacle around here. I had a cute little old lady come up to me at the grocery store and feel my arm and then she laughed and said something in Japanese that I didn`t understand. She seemed really nice but I couldn`t understand her so it was a sort of an awkward moment. There was also a small kid who was so busy staring at me he walked into a pole, which really I probably shouldn’t have laughed at but it was incredibly amusing.

4. The Japanese have mastered the art of looking busy when they`re actually doing nothing. Everyone ALWAYS looks super busy, but in reality they aren’t usually doing a whole lot. A perfect example of this is the banks. When you go to the bank, there are about 20 people working there and they are all running around, looking extremely busy. Then you realize that there is only one other person in the bank and its taking them 20 minutes just to deposit your money. Apparently all 20 people working there are too busy helping the one other person in the bank that it takes them forever to process your deposit. It’s kind of ridiculous. I have to hand it to the Japanese though; they have made an absolute art form out of feigning work and looking busy.

Alright, that’s pretty much all I have so far. Overall I am really enjoying myself and people have been incredibly helpful and friendly. There have been a few bumps in the road so far but hey, that’s what adventuring is all about!

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