April 22, 2008

Nascient Thoughts From Japan

I have been making my way through a complicated culture, a language of which I maybe know 100 words, and one of the most complex social hierarchies in the world for almost two weeks now.

I have also been devouring the books on Japan and Japanese culture that I bought.

Combined, they have very much helped to put my life in perspective.

E asked me if I was going to blog about the crazy as he likes to call the daily wackiness we encounter and try to comprehend as we bumble our way through this society.

I explained that I did not feel up to the task.

How could I possibly explain what it is like for one born-and-bred and another adopted Californian to find themselves at one of the most beautiful, tranquil, amazing beach resorts in the world and then to realize that the couple in the room next to you are wearing wetsuits in their private jacuzzi. Guess we probably shouldn't hop in to our private jaccuzzi naked, huh?

How could I possibly do justice to the obviously sincere and amazing desire to help of the hotel guest services manager and my feeling of gratitude toward him and the eye-doctor he took me to (not to mention all of his waiting patients) who did their part to make sure I could have a "testu-rensu" that worked so I could run my marathon.

What about the random questioning from the police in the train station? The adorable old couple who ran the Nagano restaurant where we ate lunch, who made me write my name for them so they could make a sign and cheer for me at the marathon?

What about the rows of open-backed urinals (nothing but running shorts with straddled legs) and during the race, the lines of men, openly pissing off the road in full view, in a culture that, by all other measures, is so much more modest than ours?

And finally, how could I possibly give voice to what it was like to be such a visual minority that I am judged in every minute as an outsider, and people register surprise and usually gratitude when I speak even broken, miniscule, miserable excuses for their language.

In Egypt, as a woman, I was invisible. My status, especially if I wore a scarf an appropriate clothing, was one of sort-of belonging to a class within Egypt's greater society, even if I didn't like the class to which I was relegated. If I spoke the language it was attributed to the male with whom I traveled.

But here. Here. I exist. Women play a very gender-defined role, and there is much to think about that is wrapped up in that, but they all know (as do I) that am so different from that role. And they don't hate me for it or think of me as a non-person (although they probably do think of me as "foreigner"). They just recognize it for what it is and treat me according to their understanding of it, which generally, isn't that far off. They assume I speak no Japanese (not far from the truth). They assume E & I are American, which, conveniently, we are. And, they assume we don't fit. They expect us to fuck up. They expect us to behave like outsiders. They laugh. They smile. For the most part, they are nice.

Many of my day-to-day thoughts in life before this trip had been directed toward fitting in, structuring my life and my career such that they made sense within the greater cultural structures within which I must move.

Briefly living amongst and reading about this amazingly strong and distinct culture makes that analysis much more vibrant and interesting. After this trip, I suspect I will be more comfortable with my lack of ability to conform to what I perceive to be the dominant cultural overtones where I spend much of my time. Oddly, I have been more comfortable here, where everyone treats me as if I am different than I have been at home as of late. So perhaps I need to stop trying to be anything other than different and start trying to be more of myself.

After all, if there is one thing I have learned on this trip, it is that I come from a culture where it is not explicitly expected of me, even as an insider, to conform. Given that it is available to me, I might as well take advantage of that benefit, non?

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