Charles Harries

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Week 6

On the relationship between Japaneseness and my foreignness, and remotely about a house party.

I told myself, upon starting this here word-o-blog, that I would update it Mondays. So Monday rolled round once again, and I found that where my fingers regularly danced the keys, I instead two-left-feeted myself into corners, stepping all over the toes of the words that I usually bend, with varying degrees of success, to my use. I tried first to write about the week, the coming anticipation of the weekend; then on to the weekend itself, the drive through wilderness to Rubeshibe and the house party; I tried to write about my day of shopping for home supplies in Kitami, or going to the bank. I tried in vain to dote upon the small things — the horizontality of the ATMs here, or how Nitori is the eastern love child of IKEA and Bed Bath & Beyond. I tried to believe strongly in a world where finer differences matter, where people might be interested in hearing that while Things (that is, things in the grand scale) are done exactly the same, things in the more minute scale are backward and unintuitive.

But I took a step back and, taking a page from Bill Nye, considered the following: I went to a house party, then bought bedding, Quaker oats, and Dr. Pepper. That was my weekend. I didn’t climb a mountain, I didn’t cut out for myself a Western haven in an unresistably Eastern world. I didn’t do anything that I couldn’t have done back home. I didn’t do anything that I hadn’t done time and time again in the previous twenty-two years of my life. My New Thing of the Day was chugging a carton of yogurt as I drove a kei car. I think this might be the single saddest thing I have done in a long time.

Altogether I can’t help but believe that this is symptomatic of my — and I don’t doubt, in the larger scheme of things, our, if I might speak for the greater body of assistant language teachers here — growing competence, or alternately complacence, in Japan. I can’t help but hearken back to my university days, where going out to a party was enough to establish a weekend as having been worthwhile, where having a few beers in the company of great friends was enough for the annals of memory. It’s not that I believe that this is a worthless way to spend my time — indeed the relationships that we make here, as back in university, may very well last the rest of our lives, and given almost any opportunity to hang out with any of the incredible people that I’ve met here, I’d leap at it like a cheetah on one of those gazelles from the Discovery Channel. You know the ones.

But this isn’t what I’ve come to Japan for. It’s meant to be tangential, it’s meant to be the unwind after a long day of doing something incredible, not the end unto itself. Instead I’ve adapted the Japan that I find around me to my own lifestyle, rather than adapting my lifestyle to Japan. I am, for all intents and purposes, as socio-culturally distant from everything that I know and love as I can be (and still be on this planet), but I’m surrounded here by my guitar and my whey and my books and my music library, unapologetically English, unapologetically lacking in either J-pop vapid or math rock clinical. That is to say, unapologetically un-Japanese.

The welcome parties I’ve attended definitely encourage this anglicizing, this occidentalizing, of our lives. I wrote about eking out our little Western havens, I wrote about writing ourselves against our surroundings. We define ourselves by our Westernness, we lose ourselves in our foreignness, becoming almost more Canadian, more American, more English or Kiwi or Australian, than we were in our home countries. We come home at the ends of the weekends, exhausted, and plug ourselves into the Internet, into Facebook, immerse ourselves in the predominantly English World Wide Web that I’m sure we’ve all come to know and love.

On Monday afternoon, halfway through the first draft of this and having not spoken a word of Japanese in three or four days, I told the lady at the combini, in plain English, “Naw, I’m good,” when she asked (in Japanese) if I wanted a bag. For a good ten seconds I saw almost nothing wrong with this.

When it comes down to it, though that's what we’re here for. And it's not a bad thing at all. One of the express purposes of the JET Programme is to foster internationalism on a grassroots level — in other words, to spread the English around on an individual basis. Talking to the convenience store lady in English could, in some twisted, loopholed definition, be my job. This absurd hypothetical aside, though, the punch line is that we were hired to be foreign. We’re not here to assimilate into Japanese society; though we’re expected to respect the rules and customs of this place, we’re not expected to remember all of them every time; though we’re expected to understand the standards up to which Japanese people are expected to live, we’re not expected to live up to those standards ourselves.

Even outside of the ostensible purposes of our being here, forging our characters as people, especially here in our young adult lives, can't be underappreciated. Defining ourselves as citizens of whatever country is an awesome way of confronting one's cultural heritage and opening oneself up to further self-examination, which I understand Socrates was, like, totally down on.

And there is so much here, only a month and a half in, that I feel like I already understand. The ideas here are all the same as they are in the West; in fact, the biggest difference here is not the ideas themselves, but the sounds that they attach to the ideas. A dog is a dog whether it’s a dog or an inu, and Cartesian mind-body dualism is Cartesian mind-body dualism whether it’s Cartesian mind-body dualism or shinshinnigenron. I didn’t know this before I came here — I thought that there would be a lot to relearn, that I would be so feverishly in over my head that I’d have a number of breakdowns, doubts, and second-guesses, the clock ever ticking against midnight and into the wee small hours. And that’s not to say that they might still come, but some 40 or 50 days into my tenure here and I’ve never really left my comfort zone. At worst I’ve dallied for a time on the margins, nodding and hai-ing my way through conversations and hoping that I’m not taking on responsibilities, not assuming debts someone will come to collect at a later date. Instead of true, visceral discomfort, I’ve entertained instead some degree of awe and/or confusion, usually falling somewhere in between.

Next week I am going to dress up in traditional Japanese garb and hoist a float onto one of my shoulders. But besides some carnal, physical discomfort (stemming likely from the fact that my shoulder sits six inches above everyone else’s), it’s unlikely that I’ll be too far outside of my comfort zone. When my actions don’t live up to the expectations of others, or when I am demanded to do something that makes me or those around me uncomfortable, it will serve only to remind myself, or themselves, that I am from halfway around the world.

Everything You Have Heard Japan JET Programme