March 27, 2014

Blundering Into the Land of the Rising Sun. ~ Ola Weber

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How to simulate Mario Kart and kindly wish death upon unsuspecting schoolchildren.

Leaving behind a breezy whimsical West Coast summer for a fresh leaf in a distant country, I felt as though my footing had been ripped from beneath me.

A new job in a baffling culture; an empty home in a tiny apartment surrounded by rice paddies, countless graveyards, infinite barber shops, and an absurd number of vending machines selling nothing but batteries was enough to send me into hot, sweaty, blurred daze. Not because I forgot my deodorant, swore off hydration, have an absurd Casper complex, or left my walkman at home—but because summers in the Japanese inaka (countryside) are deadly.

For starters, sunrise is reminiscent of the blazing gates of an apocalyptic inferno. Mid-morning I’d find myself wishing that armageddon did come in the form of Waterworld 2, and by the afternoon I’d be reduced to a delirious puddle babbling incoherently while dabbing the hot springs spurting from my brow. Even the dainty hand fan I furiously flapped did little to quell my misery.

In this landlocked stifling smog, everything I had known and sought comfort in for the last 20-odd years had been abruptly relinquished to a nostalgic wish of times passed. And the heat didn’t help. Disorientation dampened my senses and my functioning slowed into a mechanical procession of perfunctory tasks, punctuated by rushes of frenzied productivity spurred by the realization that I was in fact a human, not a robot on the verge of over-heating.

Lacking even elementary language skills reduced my capacity for communication to that of a gesturing, jabbering caveman, and being sorely unversed in Japanese customs evoked a slew of quizzical glances and humored disbelief from those around me.

Confusing the Japanese word hai for a greeting led me to cheerfully exclaim “yes!” anytime I passed a stranger in the street or reached my turn at the cash register. This went on for a full two weeks: at which point I started to question the raised eyebrows I usually received in response. On another occasion—to the amusement of a full staff room— having confused the words for play and watch, I proudly asked my petite vice principal if she was a sumo wrestler.

And once, unforgettably, I brought a gloriously colorful and lush bouquet of flowers in an attempt to brighten up the Special Needs classroom, only to find out they were “death” flowers suitable only for funerals and crematory services.

It was hard not to laugh at the degree of humility each of my errant steps evoked, or to be grateful for the extent to which I was challenged by much-needed lessons in adaptability and patience. But in each instance, what I’ll remember most is not the hot flush bubbling blood brought to my cheeks in embarrassment, but the kindness with which my hosts accepted my flubs and the tactful consideration they showed in helping me set things straight.

The Japanese are renown for omotenashi, a term that entails far more than mere hospitality. It includes a courtesy, thoughtfulness and grace that extends beyond the hospitality industry, and into the mentality with which not only visitors are treated,  but which governs interactions among fellow Japanese…. As exemplified during a morning rip through my real-life Mario Kart course.

Scooting around in my 250cc Mitsubishi K Car, I was Mario. Swerving right to evade oil spills (potholes), flooring it to escape Bowser’s firey breath (the advancing inferno), I passed Luigi with only millimetres to spare and braked hard at an unexpected four-way stop.

Simultaneously, a wrinkly grandpapa hunched over the wheel of his rusted flatbed utility truck leisurely rolled in just moments after me. Still unacquainted with the rules of the inaka road, I waved him on. As wider Japanese custom dictates, he bowed in thanks. I bowed back as he started over the stop line.

To my bewilderment, he then braked in the middle of the intersection, bowed his head yet again, and continued on his way. Admittedly, I considered bowing again to see if I could win the bow-off, but withheld my childish inclination. I sat for a moment, laughed quietly and delighted in the old man’s gentle charm.

It was then I knew, that even though I’d flung myself far away from my loved ones—into a strange land of linguistical labyrinths where hellfire was ceaselessly nipping at my heels—the people were kind and I would be alright.

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Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: author’s own

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