Monday, July 5, 2010

5 Things We've Gotten Used to Here

1) Taking our shoes off. At school we have a cubby for our "indoor" shoes (tennis shoes!). When you are a visitor at a place you are given tiny slippers that only half of our feet fit into. Now we're getting better at bringing our own indoor shoes or slippers for these scenarios so we're not tottering around quite so ridiculously.

Then again, recently I went to see my students play volleyball at a gym in the next town over. I got to the door and all the parents were taking their indoor shoes out of bags. I had forgotten you have to take your shoes off to enter a gym (the building itself, not just for the courts) so I had that awkward moment on the threshold of the entrance where I just kind of looked around and then quickly went in, wiped my shoes well and continued on. Here's the thing--indoor shoes look JUST like outdoor shoes. Once you're in, no one can tell. Also, Japanese people are too polite to call you out on it (especially if you are a gaijin).

2) Bowing. It's really not even conscious anymore. We find ourselves half-bowing to the over-polite clerks at the bank or 7-11. Even when you say good morning to every one of your co-workers individually you do a tiny bob/bow of the head. You can usually figure out when a more significant bow is required--ie when apologizing, meeting some one formally, etc.

3) Praying. I know, I know. We're not religious. But Japanese people say "Ittadakimasu" before they eat and "Gochisousamadeshita" after the meal. Then again, maybe it's not a prayer. Some translations say it means "Let's eat!" and some say it's about honoring the food and the people who made it. It's kind of like how in Peru we got used to pouring some of our water or beer on the ground before drinking it as an offering to Pachamama.

4) Pit toilets. Ok. They call them "Japanese" toilets here. I suppose in the rest of Asia they call them "Asian-style" toilets. However, they are essentially pits in the floor and that's what we called them in Morocco, India and Argentina when I saw them there. I was already accustomed to using these in those countries but the teacher's bathroom at my school has these so I'm getting a quadricep work out a few times a day now.

5) Communicating in broken Japanese and gestures. Our Japanese is not awesome yet. We know a lot of words and phrases but stringing sentences together evades us. However, we have become pretty good at being understood anyways. When we bring our phrase book along, we can amaze ourselves. More often than not though we forget it and then it's back to our random smattering of Japanese words, expressive faces and body language.

I suppose we should be bragging about how much we Japanese we already know. Instead I find myself telling John how I got cough medicine at the pharmacy without the phrase book or even any cold related vocabulary--just gestures! Or how I went to the doctor with a few key words written down (the Japanese for sinus infection, antibiotics, etc.) and returned triumphantly with 3 different kinds of medicine!

I guess this brings me to another thing we've gotten used to--understanding almost nothing of what is spoken around us and being able to read only the most basic things (and even then not knowing what they mean oftentimes). It's a mysterious world when you're illiterate and essentially a deaf/mute.

Then again, last night we watched Lost in Translation for the first time since being in Japan. It was a very different experience now that we've been here 5 months. That movie is right on and we understood what seemed like a lot of the Japanese this time around!

Humans are so adaptable. I guess that's one of the reasons we like living abroad so much. It's amazing to see how easily you can adjust to another lifestyle and culture. Also, it's a good exercise in lowering your expectations and then being pleasantly surprised when things go well.

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