Part 2: Living in a Strange Land ––
While moving to Tokyo was not as stressful as I feared, it was not a straightforward process. Some things were frustrating, but with Keiko’s unselfish support and assistance getting acclimated to Japan was surprisingly easy.
However, living in a strange land, particularly with no substantive language competency, has been an interesting challenge. Fortunately, in Tokyo my use of limited communication skills is enhanced by an understanding of Japanese culture and observance of implicit expectations and rules of conduct. Keiko is very supportive and her family and our Japanese friends most welcoming.
That said, beyond my circle of family and friends, I am quite aware that living here I am a member of a social minority, a “gaijin” or foreigner in a country where nearly 98% of the population is Japanese. Having previously spent much time in Japan and also living in some other countries, I do not feel uncomfortable with my status and I try to avoid the stereotypical behavior of a typical American tourist, businessman or expatriate in terms of my behavior and appearance.
Clearly, I am treated differently, an experience the Japanese media describe as being “othered.” In no sense, does the experience of being “othered” feel like being the object of racial discrimination or being seen as someone that doesn’t belong or not worthy of the same treatment given to Japanese people.
The behavior of Japanese people is completely different from western countries. I find Japanese people polite and friendly, welcoming, patient and willing to offer assistance. While one may occasionally have the sense of being tolerated or ignored, you quickly learn that this attitude is often really a reflection of their respect for individual privacy. It is difficult to describe the experience with words.
With Keiko by my side, life here is no different from when we lived in the United States. The roles are reversed and I can and do depend upon her. However, as she did in coming with me to America in 2002, I have successfully gained sufficient capability and confidence to function independently.
Without question, the significant challenge for me is the language barrier.
Although many Japanese people do understand some English, few have sufficient proficiency to have experience with or confidence in conversations. To mitigate this problem, I have adopted a technique to effectively use my cultural sensitivity and limited Japanese vocabulary. By speaking English slowly and using words that are easy to understand, the approach leads to conversations, albeit short, but that result in successful and mutually satisfying communication.
With preparations for the Tokyo Olympics and tourism a major economic sector, English is widely available in signage and train announcements. I also use an English language directional application and new very smart simultaneous translation technology.
Consequently, when I am “on my own,” I have the confidence to enjoy everyday life like any other Tokyoite.