Chapter 2: Land Ahoy!

If I’m writing another entry, it must be clear by now that I’ve arrived. I’m not sure where to begin in terms of what stood out, so I’ll start from the beginning, the toilet bidets. To poop in Japan is to poop in a utopian future without borders. The experience both excited and intimidated me as I was clearly a novice to the blend of art and science that came with the different angles, categories of spray, sensory activated flushing system, and white noise features to protect your insecurities. If ever you come across a warm toilet seat, don’t panic; it’s by design. Whatever they are paying these mad scientists, it’s clearly not enough. My input on the subject matter could go on indefinitely, but for the sake of the readers and my mother reading this, I will move on. The flight to Narita airport was memorable as I had an entire cabin to myself due to the state of emergency imposed on international entries. If I’m missing any time from that trip, it started after leaving the airport as I ran on fumes by then. That said, I do vividly recall two peculiar moments towards the tail end. The first was my sadistic amusement in watching the confused Uber Eats driver deliver my food from the McDonalds across the street. The second was receiving a ¼ gallon of milk with my cheeseburger as part of the combo. It was this moment more so than even the fantastic toilets that signaled the dramatic adjustment period on the horizon.

During the two-week quarantine, meeting the other teachers was an experience in itself as everyone had their unique reasons for being here. One story in particular from a former South African bodyguard stuck out, who, after the bad experience of having to defend himself with a knife in Johannesburg, opted for a safer career. Most, if not all the other teachers were looking to start a new life, while a few sought to escape their lives back home. Contact with my colleagues came with its difficulties as the hotel staff watched the security cameras and complained to our employers on several occasions. Oddly enough, no one from the hotel ever confronted us directly, which birthed my first culture shock; the total absence of confrontation and conflict.

For the two weeks I was in the heart of Tokyo, I never once heard a car horn or someone raise their voice to catch the elevator. Having lived in the US, where violence is woven into the culture, and Egypt, where the car horn is a necessity like the brakes or headlights, it was bizarre to observe how at peace these people are. If given the task to fist-fight a stranger by the day’s end, the most likely outcome would be fighting another foreigner. After asking around and doing a little research, I found that I may have been confusing peace with quiet upon learning about Honne and Tatemae. The two words govern an essential part of Japanese society and revolve around what you are and what you appear to be. Honne refers to what is really felt, while Tatamae refers to the behavior adopted in public. In Japan, the group takes precedence over the individual, meaning that behavioral neutrality is required above all else. So whatever the individual needs to do to keep things on an even keel, then so be it, whether it’s bowing to someone you hate or graciously accepting a career demotion, the good of the collective is all that matters. After a month’s worth of interactions, I can definitely detect that deeper reservoir of feeling behind all that bowing and nodding. What I am not convinced of is the lack of sincerity shown to me as strangers have continually gone out of their way to help me, whether it be chasing me down for pennies left behind or a shopkeeper giving me their towel to keep in the pouring rain. I even experienced an entire restaurant staff waiting for me by the window in hopes of returning a face mask. If indeed those acts were societally obligated, then they were Oscar-worthy performances.

If there is anything of note to mention next, it’s the convenience stores, particularly the 7-11s`. The stores seem to be the lifeline for daily living and have but are not limited to ATMs, photocopy machines, printers, scanners, fax machines, a bag transport service (where they ship your bag nationally), office supplies, and of course, a supermarket. My christening at the `wonder emporium’ began with an egg sandwich, normally I would fear for my life attempting such a feat back home, but the creamy yellow texture seemed to call out to me; I was not disappointed, and more importantly, not endowed with diarrhea. Everything from sushi to ready-made meals was delicious, allowing you to live entirely out of these stores if need be. They will even pop your food in the microwave if you ask!

From the fifteen to twenty teachers that arrived at the hotel, only one decided to pack up and go home. The teacher from Kansas was unhappy with his contract, which never sat well with me for two reasons. Firstly, we were given our contract months in advance. Secondly, once granted your work visa, you had six months to find alternative work, which given the Covid-pandemic restrictions on travel, made every English speaker in Japan a viable contender. Whatever the actual cause may be for his resignation, I can’t say I blame him for not wanting to feel out of place indefinitely. If you ever want to travel to another planet, save yourself the space travel and buy a ticket to Japan instead. All the best Gaijin Readers, until next week, where I will chronicle moving into an apartment and tap into Japanese work life and culture. Stay tuned!

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