“It’s not wrong – it’s different.”
Three years ago I sat on a plane to Japan repeating that mantra. I was on my way to start a new life in a foreign world – an expatriate Australian in the confused traditional / modern world I’d come to love – and knew that the phrase was essential to my survival. Already speaking the language and having lived there before, I had perhaps a better start than others, but I knew it would be a challenge. This would be my first time working in a company, my first time living on my own, and my first time with money to spend in this strange world. I’m not the sort who is comfortable meeting new people, which made the whole idea even more daunting, but the challenge was what made it worth doing.
“It’s not wrong – it’s different.”
That phrase had been drummed into my head during an earlier trip when I’d spent a year at school in Nagoya. The exchange program I’d joined had wisely brainwashed us with the only tool that could get us through a year of culture shock, home sickness and just plain confusion.
“It’s not wrong – it’s different.”
When moving to a new country, everything’s different – more so when the culture is so different to your own. You first notice the obvious differences – street signs in a different language, sizes of the houses or apartment blocks, and the array of neon lights – but it’s not long before you begin noticing the finer details – the discipline of interpersonal relationships, the nuances in the flavour of drinks, and the – fresh hay’ smell of an unused apartment. I have often said that if you haven’t noticed 20 new things in your first 10 minutes in Japan, get off the plane! Questions arise every day and often you can’t get an answer you can understand.
“It’s not wrong – it’s… it’s… it’s totally bizarre!”
This phrase better reflected how I wanted to treat the coming experience. Not with curious acceptance, but with a wonder and a sense of humour and inspiration that would keep the world exciting. When asking a local about something new and why it was done that way, too often the answer is “I don’t know. It’s always been that way.” So I make up my own reasons. Many times this would create a spark in the local’s eye and they’d respond, “Hey, maybe you’re right. I’d never thought about that.” Perhaps being an ‘alien’ gives me the right perspective for divining the true reasons for things.
So, over the last three years I’ve gained an enormous amount of experience. I’ve come to understand the bureaucracy and hierarchy of Japanese companies, participated in many a meishi dance and learned the shame of giving the customer the seat with the view. I’ve learned more about the way the language was built and why atsui and atsui both mean ‘hot’ and have the same pronunciation even though they’re written differently (in kanji). I’ve had some very interesting relationships (which gives me more reason for not watching the tired old plots of TV soapies – I’ve been through them all before) and come someway towards understanding the dichotomy of their sex oriented culture and their shame of being seen naked. I’ve eaten everything but whale, enjoyed most of it and even learned to cook a few dishes. I’ve seen inside a love hotel, although it was one without the videos, spa and bondage wheel I’ve heard about from more experienced hotelers. I’ve found some local music I like, and don’t find anything strange about concerts finishing in time for dinner. I’ve been goaded into buying the latest and greatest technology and learned that bargaining is not the norm, but never to pay more than half the retail price for anything electronic.
I’ve come to think of apples with a 10cm diameter as normal and don’t even blink at paying A$3 each for them. I have come to understand the Japanese salary system enough to know that I’m doing very well here, but not enough to know where I’m winning. I’ve seen the grandeur of the mountains and the quiet pockets of underwater life. I’ve lived in the cluttered cities and the sparse country towns. I’ve skidded through snow to work and only a few months later sweated a puddle that would be next year’s snowfall. I’ve come to love the stark beauty of a single flower in a rock bed and had picnics just to stare at trees that flower only once a year, but without even a leaf to spoil that colour.
I’ve worked twelve-hour days without holiday for 12 months and become dizzy with exhaustion. I’ve seen a variety of festivals, participating in some of the simple dancing if not the backbreaking races carrying 5m tall floats. I’ve visited temples on a school pilgrimage and on the more austere occasion of New Year. I’ve joined the salaryman’s drinking evening, though toned down for an American company. I’ve lived in cramped accommodation and know the pain of hitting my head on doors. I’ve come to depend on the rigorousness of the public transport system, and just last week saw the dance they do to keep time.
There is always something more to see and learn if you keep your eyes open. My three years have been rich in experiences – pleasant and painful, beauteous and stark, extravagant and simple – but it has soured. I began getting answers to many of my questions and didn’t like them as much as my own.
“It’s not wrong. It’s bloody stupid!”
When you begin to see the world this way, it’s time to move on. Yet even as this relationship comes to an end I find myself treasuring all the memories and my perceptions – the country and it’s people, their depth of culture and shallowness of their new world, their ancient wisdom and their determination to become a modern nation. They show great advances in technology, but sacrifice their beautiful country in the attempt to apply those advances. They specialise in beauty of the form, but destroy their rivers with concrete and make no concessions in the throwaway society. They condone whaling because the whales are eating too many fish. Although they specialise in efficiency, it’s directed to the masses, leaving the individual to spend a day visiting 10 different windows just to renew their driver’s license. Standing at the station, you can see the spirit of the people is broken. They have given up national pride for the daily grind of company and conformity. Occasionally I despair, but there are signs of the country waking up. The government has begun to reverse the damage it has done to the environment, though it’s unclear whether they realise it will take them a thousand years to recover what they lost in fifty. On the plane I met a Japanese woman who thought that whaling was wrong and that her people should revere them for sacrificing their lives to keep the common people alive during the war. Every weekend hordes of retired people march up into the mountains for a breath of fresh air, and regularly march through the cities on a cleaning patrol. It is these thoughts of a shift in culture, back to their core, that I take with me. I hope to return in ten years, or twenty, and find the masses with their heads uplifted in pride.
Now I move on to the next phase in my life and experience another culture. In some ways Europe is closer to my own, but still different enough that I’ll have to learn another language and make up answers to many new questions. I will move to Brussels in November. I’m on my way there now for the first time, my first trip to Europe, so it will be a greater challenge in many ways than my years in Japan. I’m expecting to enjoy Europe, with the larger living space, friendly people, new languages, better work / life balance, ease of travel and diversity of activities at a reasonable price. And there lies the danger. To enter a new culture with expectations is to be disappointed when you find things are… different.
“It’s not wrong – it’s… ah… mysterious!”