Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Expat in Japan Observations, Second Edition

Getting closer to hitting the 3 month mark in Japan and figured it was time for another collection of my random expat ramblings. Similar to my 11 Early Observations, ranging from the minor details to larger themes of adjusting to life in the land of the rising sun, except this time it's a list of 10.  

Fake food is a real thing. You know how there are collective concepts of what is typical in certain places - cowboys in Texas or bullfights in Spain or rude people in Paris - but you aren't quite sure what is actually prevalent and what's just been blown out of proportion? That's how I felt about fake food. Everyone has heard of the use of plastic food in Japan to advertise a restaurant's offerings, but before getting here, I really wondered whether this was actually a thing, as we're led to believe. It is. Or at least much more so than rude people in Paris. 

Japanese way vs. the American non-way. In Japan it seems there is a right way, and therefore a wrong way, to do just about everything, from eating to parking to riding on the train. If you are unsure about proper procedure (you can be sure there is one) the general rule of thumb is to watch what everyone else around you is doing and then do the same exact thing. Just recently we went to the grocery store for a couple of things, literally two, and Graham asked me why I grabbed a basket. And I was like, look around you...everyone has a basket, so we have a basket! As an American, I certainly regard etiquette as a positive thing, but normally reserved for particularly formal scenarios - dinner parties, weddings, funerals, etc. Everyday American life tends to be more relaxed, with less protocol. Here I fluctuate from feeling like a bumbling, unrefined idiot to an American flag-waving rebel cowboy. Yeehaaw, I just jaywalked! Oh no, everyone is staring...

Like white on rice. My white rice consumption must be up 1000% since moving to Japan. Sushi is a usual suspect, bentos are almost always accompanied by a portion of white rice, and it's a necessary component of curries and rice bowls. But my current preferred preparation is the humble inarizushi. Nothing more than a fried tofu pocket, filled with sushi rice, served cold, and available for cheap at any grocery or convenience store. Slightly sweet, there's just something about them. I have to restrain myself from buying them in packs larger than 3, because I will eat them all.

Fancy foreign words. I don't have to look any farther for a bungled Japanese to English translation than the trash sorting guide that is posted in our kitchen. (Although I would love to know what a tree brunch is, sounds like a good time.) But what I find vastly more amusing than the inevitable Japanglish that results from Google Translate, is the intentional use of foreign words in an incorrect or just absolutely inapplicable way. Of course, the desire to look sophisticated by using foreign words, especially French ones, happens everywhere, but the result here tends to be particularly silly. Perhaps you would like to drive an Athlete or a L'Epice (Spice)? Or my personal favorite, this Cheese bicycle? 

Ooh la la. 

Safety. After living in Spain, I was already accustomed to life in a country where violent crime is exceedingly rare, guns are heavily restricted, and life is generally free of concerns about personal safety. Unfortunately, due to the severity of La Crisis (the recession) and the high level of unemployment, petty theft has become more common and break-ins (though usually crimes of opportunity when the tenants are away) an issue. Japan is even safer. Women walk alone even at night, personal possessions are left unsecured, children use public transportation unaccompanied. People try earnestly to return lost items, from cheap gloves to iPhones, to their rightful owners. For nearly two weeks, a reusable grocery bag with a note pinned to it patiently waited on a bench in our neighborhood to be claimed.

Masks. A few weeks ago, I sent my mom this picture of cherry blossoms and her reply was simply "Really pretty!" Then she asked if the people in the picture were wearing masks. Yes, they were, and it had already become a common sight to me. I think many Americans assume wearing masks is something that occurs only when there is a major epidemic, but instead it seems to be a rather ordinary practice. And it's not to protect the wearer, but others around them from possible exposure to their germs.

Pickled. I love pickles and they are everywhere in Japan. They are a typical and inexpensive appetizer in many restaurants, with each having a different mix and preparation. Not just pickled cucumbers, but a wide variety of vegetables - carrots, onions, mushrooms, lotus root, peppers, bamboo shoots. This was a display at a farmers' market in Tokyo. Gorgeous. I couldn't resist taking home a jar of pickled Japanese ginger (myoga).

Tsunami precautions. These signs are found all around our coastal town of Zushi, pointing inland, and directing people to designated safe gathering places in the event of a tsunami. (Don't worry Mom, our house is very close to one, in this direction, and we know exactly where it is!) Elevation markers are also posted, so that you can be aware how far above sea level you currently are.

Sleven. As someone who grew up in the mid-Atlantic region, with access to the world's greatest chain of gas station convenience stores known to man (Wawa, obviously) it's hard for anything else to compete. But Japanese 7-11s do a good job. They provide a variety of services, but to be honest, I love them for their easy to use ATMs, cold beverages, and selection of tasty, fresh grab-and-go food. They'll even ask if you want meals from the cold case heated up. Graham likes the tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet) but personally I'm a sucker for the cold soba, especially after a particularly festive evening. Unfortunately, no Slurpees.

Sleven soba, with all the fixings - spring onions, wasabi, dipping sauce, seaweed, even a packet of water to "loosen" the noodles. 

Karaoke convert. Let me be clear, I have a terrible voice. I don't like being on stage. I have no diva fantasies. In short, I loathe American karaoke. No amount of booze makes me want to get on stage at some random bar filled with strangers, in between choreographed acts from self-styled Carrie Underwoods and Taylor Swifts. I'm getting nervous just thinking about it. But sign me up for Japanese karaoke any night of the week. First of all, you rent your own room, often soundproof, with just your friends. The price can include unlimited beverages, which you order via phone or touch screen and are delivered right to your booth. There are several microphones, often tambourines, sometimes even a stage with lights. What follows is essentially a giant, ridiculous sing-along.

Trust me, it is so, so fun. Even when I'm torturing T Swift's greatest hits. 

I feel like at this point I could go on and on about all of the things that are making an impression on me, honestly there are so many that I keep an ongoing list. I'm trying to remember whether I had this overwhelming feeling of cultural and everyday differences when I first got to Spain. I think Japan just feels so very unique and is in such contrast to what I'm used to, whether American or Spanish. Adapting to life here is an interesting and challenging experience. 


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