Culture Shocked: 39 Comments from Another Hapless Gaijin

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Well, it’s been one helluva two weeks out here! In that space I’ve been jostled, stung, sweat through a whole wardrobe, and been stared at by the hundreds. I can’t remember the last time I’ve felt this unnerved, homeless, and generally alive. And it still doesn’t feel like real life yet. In the next week or so I’ll get out a proper ‘welcome to Tottori’ post, one that’s a lot more cohesive and which has a more balanced impression of my new home. For now though, these are a few, surface-tension moments which capture that sense of displacement and frustration which always comes with moving to a very different culture than in Canada. And since it takes on a mostly humorous tone, I want to preface by saying that I mean no offense or outright criticism to different cultural norms, but I do think it’s important to try to capture some of the things I’m feeling now, as I know grappling with these things will change and will change me in the process.

1) In Tottori, people stare at you wherever you go, whenever you go—whether when walking into arcades or biking up cornered streets. “Hey guys, I mean I know I love being the center of attention but this is really too much,” a little more nervously, “Really too much…”

2) This also means, of course, that you simultaneously get away with nothing—because you’re a visible foreigner—and just about everything—because you’re a visible foreigner.

3) I don’t think there’s really such a thing as city planning in Japan, at least as far as the very large (Tokyo) and very small (Tottori) are concerned: few streets run in parallel with each other, main roads aren’t very main at all, and every apartment block has the same grey brutalist exterior. Why the country whose medieval cities were among the most regal, beautiful, and ordered in the world now makes the ugliest and least organized modern cities is beyond me. Maybe everything just grew just a little too fast circa 60-80?

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4) That being said, there’s a certain charm about the sprawl effect out here. While there’s not much happening on the main street itself, you can always find new back alley bars or old merchant shops, which is becoming very satisfying. I’m just used to uber-planned cities like Vancouver and Paris, and hey, that’s not always a perfect approach—where Vancouver is so ordered its clinical, Tottori is unmistakably human in its expansion.

5) Very very few people speak working English in Tottori, but thank God that something close to 30% of their modern words are actually borrowed from English. How’s that for a life raft? (Now if only Katakana was easy… yeah, no, good luck with that).

6) Vending machines are the greatest here. One time I found one which mixed me a cocktail (that is to say, it didn’t give me a cocktail can—it actually mixed it in front of me, complete with ice).

7) Convenience stores are also the greatest. You can find excellent meals for under 5.00$ and also ties (rarely at the same time, unfortunately, but hey one can’t have everything).

8) There is one Starbucks in my prefecture. It costs around 4.00$ for a coffee, but it’s the only place I get Wi-Fi so…. yeah.

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9) There is no such thing as free Wi-Fi here, as most of it is run by one of the three monopoly cell phone companies.

10) The cell phone monopoly here somehow manages to be worse than Canada: before a couple months ago, you could only get a phone number from one of those three cell phone companies, all of whom forced you to buy a new phone with them. That’s technically changed now, but they’re all still trying to get away with it (and hence, continued phonelessness—I will not succumb to their bullying! I will not buy a new I Phone!)

11) On the other side, it is the nicest Starbucks I’ve ever been in. They have waiters. And menus. And patios that don’t smell like garbage.

12) On that note, get ready for shockingly polite staff everywhere you go. You walk in and they all yell in unison “IRASHAIMASE!!!” with such gusto you’re momentarily floored, unable to order or respond accordingly. Every time, every time.

13) Monopolies in general are pretty bad in Japan: everything is run by Kirin, Sapporo, Suntory, or Keio.

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14) Tottori is strikingly gorgeous in ways I’m just beginning to understand…

15) Despite the incomprehensible decision of many houses to make their sidings out of metal riggings as if part of a factory. Why Tottori? Now half of your houses look like they’re rusting apart!

16) In Japan, it’s okay to drink alcohol outside but considered the height of rudeness to drink anything while walking or (often) standing.

17) But that’s okay because I’m probably committing three to five significant faux pas just about every second of my public day.

18) In addition to etiquette considerations, Japanese people are far and away the most law-abiding people I’ve ever witnessed. I’d read their major crime stats before, but I didn’t expect it would come down to traffic signals: I have yet to see a single Japanese person cross the street when the flashing light tells them not to—even if there are no cars, even if there’ve been no cars all day. Cut back to Paris, where all street signals for all vehicles acted, at best, as what you might call “gentle suggestions.” Here we follow Mr. Blinking Light; we follow.

19) And I better follow it too, because damnit if those police men don’t watch me like a hawk everywhere I go.

20) Tottori has an incredible selection of English books, considering its relative size and English level. I’ve already booked half them out (naturally).

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21) Every day at 8, 12, and 18 o’clock, a short little musical theme is played out across the whole city. At first it sounds very calming and well measured, with the sinking cadence of a lullaby… until you realize it’s played three times a day. Every day. Forever. Then it begins to sound very ominous, and you start to wonder what the purpose is of playing the same saccharine tune all the time, and what effect it’s supposed to have on the populace…

22) The main grocery store by my place, Aeon (the Tesco of Japan, basically), also plays its own unsettling tune all the time, only this one is tempoed to a much more frenzied pace. And it has a glockenspiel keeping its beat, so help me God. It either makes you want to buy your stuff and get out as fast as possible, or kill your whole family. Occasionally the store cuts to the same Arianna Grande song every time, but I suppose that’s ominous in its own way as well.

23) There’s a cat café in my town. I haven’t been, but I thought it was worth mentioning.

24) It’s hot here, hotter than I’ve probably ever been in my life. I actually mind it the least of all the newbies here, but it’s amazing how much this constant 35-plus weather will drain out all the energy left in you.

25) In general it’s a much more tropical climate than I’m used to, which was surprising considering that, in pictures, Japan has very similar greenery to Canada. But then you actually get the chance to go into those forests, and you can barely hear yourself breath there’s so much noise, whether by the cicadas in the thousands, or birds you’d never heard outside of a Planet Earth episode.

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26) Having a climate like this also means there are also a lot more things that can kill you. Sure, there are bears and wild boars: sharp-clawed big guys like that run pretty free in Canada too. No, I’m more talking about the wasps here the size of your big thumb that, if stung, you have to go to the hospital, or these tiny black centipedes with red heads that, if bitten, yep, you have to go to the hospital. Make sure you don’t squish them, though, because their blood actually alerts the other hundreds in the area to come to that particular spot. The Japanese government has issued an official mandate stating that burning the bastards is the only logical solution.

27) I think I got stung by a little jellyfish the only time I’ve been swimming. Apparently they hit the Tottori beaches around this time.

28) The bureaucracy is worse here than in France… (waits a couple seconds to let that shock settle in). The whole 4-6 week joke is a reality here: setting up a bank account was literally three hours of signing papers and I still haven’t been sent my bank card. Of course, when I do I’m sure I won’t get it, seeing as the post office needs you to sign for every piece of mail you get, meaning if you’re not a 24/7 house cat, you have to send the package back a couple times before your timing finally lines up.

29) You get an official seal, a hanko, for signing all of these documents. If you lose it here, you might as well lose your passport while you’re at it.

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30) There are an incredible number of temples in this part of Japan. But I’ve been too scared to go in one yet, knowing my general level of GAIJIN-SMASH would go through the roof. I’d probably never be allowed back.

31) Gaijin Smash: the recognition you’re probably doing something wrong but that, it being such an uphill battle, stop caring anymore and just let the craziness around you sink in.

32) One of the main ‘smashes’ I’ve been doing is parking my bike in all the random places around town. I don’t know if they’re bad spots, but the fact that no other bikes are ever parked there probably means ‘don’t fucking park here’ in some level of visual language. I guess the moment of karma was when my back tire of my bike blew out only ten days after acquiring it.

33) That was pretty heartbreaking, seeing as biking is the only way to properly see this city.

34) Festivals in Tottori, and I assume most of Japan in general, are on a level North Americans can’t even comprehend. I guess that’s what happens when the festival has been around hundreds of years and isn’t inspired or named after some MNC.

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35) I’m trying to get into Japanese pop music right now—failing so far, but get back to me in a couple months. Who knows, maybe such unforgettables as Bump of Chicken or Tommy Heavenly 6 will be my favorite bands when this is all over.

36) Japanese gameshows are about as exactly insane as everyone says they are: if you’re a fan of shaudenfruede, though, then TV here might be your new best friend.

37) Tottori has the only sanddunes in Japan: they’re stunning, near vertical hills of sand, made all the more striking by being juxtaposed against the Ocean. You can see them from atop any mountain. Tottori also has Japan’s only outdoor camel… a camel exactly about as miserable as I expected him to be. But hey, riding him only costs 3000 Yen!

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38) Fruit, milk, and all imported goods are extremely expensive, and yet full-packaged meals are probably a tenth the price they are in Canada. Guess it’s time for a whole new diet (one unfortunately high with MSG, if this week’s been any indication…)

39) It’s been two weeks of infuriating exchanges with a 3rd party cell phone company, and I still don’t have a working SIM Card here. I acquired the SIM currently being a dud in my phone through ten days of back and forths, where the address I inputted on their website didn’t match the address on the back of my card (it’s all in Kanji, so that took some guessing). Then, when they finally shipped it off, I had to cycle over to their shipping factory (seeing, naturally, as I wasn’t home) on the edge of the city twice—twice because the product wasn’t even in the factory the first time round (despite an operating attendant very politely telling me it would be there when I got there (you know, that level of uber-politeness begins to wear thin when that person isn’t actually doing what you ask them to do)). Asking friends to use their cells for the most basic of calls is beginning to become pretty exhausting, especially considering I’ll probably go through the same steps and missteps for the internet.

And every day there’s new challenges and perplexities: every day something unnerving comes outta left-field and you’re drowning again. Sometimes a worker at my local conbini asks if I want the food heated up, and I become so confused by the Japanese I can only nod or stutter, and I walk out of there feeling like a complete idiot.

And yet that very same night I have a conversation in full Japanese with a girl my age planning to move to Canada. And I’m excited, probably more excited I’ve been since Paris, riding similar roller coasters of starshine and total-“oh my God what the fuck am I doing here?” Culture shock signals: electricity running through these strange, near-tropic, kanji streets.

The second time I went back to that shipping outpost, with my pants were suction-cupped to my legs and my jacket made little waterfalls all down the sliding floor, a little girl kept staring at me, wide eyes a mix of amazement and fear. I was so damn tired I could barely stand: this could’ve been the moment—coming back for a package which might not exist and getting the fortieth stare of that day—when I finally let it get to me, finally began to question what I was doing here. Instead, I did a little dance in front of everyone. That sure didn’t help my natural weirdness to them, but the girl burst out laughing, came over and shook my hand. As I was waiting for the package I spoke a little Japanese to the factory staff, and when I was leaving one of them ran out to give me an official festival fan: welcome to Tottori.

And so every day it’s a new adventure: tomorrow maybe my phone will magically decide to work (unlikely), or maybe one of them Japanese hornets will take a liking to my skin (more likely). Japan’s probably the strangest and most exciting place I’ve ever been to, and I’ve only seen two cities. So let’s go: GAIJIN SPLASH!

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3 thoughts on “Culture Shocked: 39 Comments from Another Hapless Gaijin

  1. HI there, I don’t actually know you, only by the seventh degree of my friend from school, Des who’s also apart of JET, linking to your post. I really loved reading your post as I find some things extremely similar to my own experience of living in Thailand for a year on an exchange years ago. Your writing style is also super humorous and really gives a feeling to your experience so far so I’m gonna try and keep up with your shenanigans because they seem both enlightening and fun to read. Hope your phone gets figured out asap.

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