It is hard to describe why being a foreigner in Japan is so hard. The people are friendly, they mistake me for American all the time and Japan loves the US. English is more prevalent than I thought. Why so hard?
I am not talking about the business side. That is a different conversation and as a multi-cultural Canadian with a previous expat under my belt, that is going exactly as I expected.
I am talking about living in Japan as a person, as a family. Is it because it is such a busy city? Is it because the expat community is so much smaller due to people leaving after the earthquake; leaving only the semi-gaijin behind (ones who have localized or married a local)?
As I took the subway the other morning, something happened that encapsulated the experience and perhaps, though a story, a point of view and an explanation.
I have been commuting to a new office for weeks now and tried a few different subway routes, settling on the quickest and easiest. 5 stops, up the stairs, 50m, down the stairs, 1 stop and 250m underground to our new office.
I have found the Tokyo subway commute interesting. On this particular morning I stood on the packed train and took a good look around. Men reading manga .. I still find that odd, especially when you glance at one and notice how graphic they are. People on their phones. A man standing oddly trying to read a huge paper. An ad for whisky that made me laugh. Observing, learning, enjoying the "foreignness".
Stop 8 – Ginza (It is easier to identify by the number than the name). Time to change trains. Step out, head up the stairs and … what?
Everything is different.
Where is my next line 50m away? Where is the red circle to guide me? Where am I?
What has changed? (it starts dawning one me). This time instead of stepping on to the last car, which is busiest, I walked up 2 cars.
The smallest of changes. A tiny shift.
I am lost.
Wandering around I find signs and trudge what feels like 1000m around corners, up stairs, down stairs. How is this possible? The change between trains is a hop, skip and a jump. A long walk, it feels like my 2 minutes is now 20.
Finally, I get to my change over. Back on track. One stop, short walk, at the office.
That is the Japan expat foreigner experience.
Over that first, painful year of learning you build your cocoon of knowledge in this foreign country where everything is different, where there is a “way things are done” which allows 40 million people to live together and create the safest, cleanest and one of the most functional cities in the world.
The problem is that when you shift a millimeter right or left, that cocoon is torn asunder. Your understanding is blasted apart and you are left wondering, where am I? (This often happens when you are under a time pressure).
Drifting in an ocean where everyone understands, except you.
If you don’t believe me, rent a car and a GPS in Tokyo and try driving across town. GPS’s don’t understand 3 level freeways. One minute it will say go straight for 13km and the next, it thinks you are on the first level and is screaming “U-turn .. exit left in 150m .. recalculating .. Turn right!”
That being said, year two is about 200% easier and as always, fascinating.