On being foreign

I was thinking the other day about what I got out of living in Japan for a year.  There were a lot of things but it took me a while to realise the most glaringly obviously one:  being foreign.

I think everyone should experience being foreign at some point in their lives.  It gives you a much greater empathy for the problems people in your own country face as well as ripping that comfortable rug of the familiar right out from under you.

It's a feeling you'll never get just from visiting a country.  It's what you have left after the excitement of the new wears off.  When you have to go somewhere official and get something really important done in a language you don't really understand. 

A friend of my sister's has just moved to Japan.  She's lived there a month and was saying she loves the feeling of being a foreign and the curiosity the local people have about here.  That's because she's only lived there a month.  I'm betting it won't last.  It's kind of amusing when you are asked questions for the first 100 or so times.  It's the constant asking of the same questions over a long period of time that tests you.

The one that always got me was people commenting on how I was skillful with chopsticks.  Especially coming from strangers.  I'm sure they were being nice ... but the feeling that people were watching me eat every time I went out made me really uncomfortable.

I know people in Japan who do all they can to minimise the experience of being foreign.  They eat at Western food chains that have English menus, they take a local friend with them when they want to conduct business, they live in neighbourhoods that are mostly Westerners. 

I decided when I first moved to Japan that I wouldn't let language barriers stop me from doing what I wanted.  If I wanted to eat somewhere, I'd muddle through.  If I wanted to go somewhere, I'd go there.  I travelled all around the country on local trains when, once you get out of Tokyo, the use of English language signs and directions becomes less frequent.  I went for massages and joined a boxing gym all in Japanese.  I opened a bank account and got all my official paperwork done (my housemate did go with me to get my gaijin card though).  I went to the police station to report a crime.

Nothing huge, nothing life changing but I survived it all without having to rely on others.

Now if I'm in a store and it's taking a long time because the owner only has limited English, instead of getting het up and impatient, I'm full of admiration that someone has actually moved to a country where they don't know the language and started a business.  That's gutsy.  Even a tourist asking for directions in broken English, maybe that's a huge achievement for them.

Things I took for granted before, just being able to understand the announcements on the train when it's delayed (because the announcements you really need to hear in Japan are never in English) or being able to quickly read the labels on food in the supermarket, now I'm grateful for these things.  I'm grateful that I can run into a shop and buy a pair of stockings for a job interview emergency and know what size to pick up.  Thousands of little things that you do every day, that you never think about.