I love the challenge of traveling. I thrive on figuring out how to get around, how to use the public transportation, how to order coffee in the local tongue. Admittedly, one of my favorite things when traveling in Europe is when a local approaches me and thinks I am from the area. I take pride in being able to blend in.
There...is no blending in here in Japan. Even without curly hair and blue eyes, I would stand out as a minority, as an “other.” However, while the language barrier is absolutely daunting, Japan’s unique culture of politeness and hospitality lends itself to some interesting interactions.
While it’s arguably easier to navigate living abroad in 2018 and the age of the internet than it was when I studied in Italy 6 years ago, I’ve found there is always ample opportunity to be a clueless foreigner.
#1: Kindness and humility will get you further than you think.
After a long flight from San Fran, and a short layover in Taipei, my 100 lbs of baggage and I made our way through Fukuoka airport and the metro system. I had the address of my Airbnb on my phone, an offline maps function, AND a few screenshots, just in case. After a sweaty 20 minute haul, I arrived where I thought I was supposed to be. But the exact apartment address was hard to determine, and while there were loads of lockboxes, none were marked for me. Standing around with my pile of bags, it was clear to any passerby that I was hopelessly lost. Perhaps it’s just my ego, but asking for directions in a language you don’t know is not a fun endeavour. Fortunately, in Japan, most people are willing to help. They will do their best to show you the way, to communicate, to be of assistance. Fortunately for us foreigners, it's a cultural foundation here to look out for others.
#2: Sometimes you have to feel like a fucking idiot to get where you need to go.
As I stood around helplessly, a young woman exited the building, and I asked as well as I could for the address. She pulled up her map to compare. Then she looked up the balcony to see someone who lived there, and called them to confirm the address. She came back and told me to wait, arriving a minute later with a mechanic who worked nearby. Neither spoke much English but we pulled up the address, and they called my Airbnb . No answer. They motioned that we should circle the block.
The woman picked up one of my bags and refused to let me carry it (the Midwestern in me was mortified). Through more broken English and gestures, we learned each other’s names, age, and profession. I told her I was an ALT and she was excited to know I would be teaching. The three of us spent the next 20 minutes running around checking lockboxes on apartments until we found the right one (the label had worn away from the weather). I got into my apt and thanked them profusely, and they both returned it with broad smiles, bowed their heads and happily waved me off.
#3: If you play the gaijin card, play it well.
This was not the first, nor will it be the last time I will be at the mercy of language barriers during this next year. Being a gaijin (Japanese translation: alien) isn’t an excuse. Even with translation apps and a culture of kindness, it is my responsibility as a foreigner to close the gap - to be better, to not rely on my foreignness to get by. I have found that staying open -minded is the best antidote for this. Here's to hoping I can remain open: to conversation, to help, to feeling foolish.
Until next time, ✌🏻
Oh yeah, and here's some photos of some stuff.