When the nail sticks out

rants, raves and randomness

10 Things I’ve learned in Japan

I’ve lived in Japan for six years. Not full six years mind you – I spent the first two years practically back home (when I fled Tokyo after the earthquake and radiation and decided to take up culinary arts). So maybe all in all, it’s been over four years.

Still, I have this nagging feeling inside me that it’s time to move on. I get in trouble a lot. For my tattoo. For the way I do things. For asking too many questions. For talking loudly. For just about anything. Don’t get me wrong, I try my best to “fit” in. But conformity has never been my strongest point, not even in the Philippines, where everyone’s predominantly religious. And especially not in Japan. I am a left-handed, strong-willed, Southeast Asian alpha-female. There is nothing you or this country can do anything about it. And why, oh why would I want to change it?

I am not going to enumerate the things that bother me about Japan. It will be miles long – and I’m sure I’d get a flood of “why don’t you just go home?” comments. Instead, what I want to do is share the things I’ve learned. Some of them, admittedly, are general in a sense – you don’t have to be in Japan to learn them. Maybe I knew them even before. But being here in Japan re-emphasized them, they are out there in bold letters up in the sky.

1) You can never erase who you are.

And what you are is more than what you look like, what you eat, what you wear, or the color of your skin or your passport, or the sum of all that. At the very beginning, I tried to blend in because I didn’t want to stand out. But then, for someone who looks Asian, I stick out too much. Instead of trying to hide and keep my head down, I realize, well, fuck this shit. I am who I am, love me, hate me — who gives a flying fuck? I started celebrating my individuality even more and I appreciated that thinking differently comes naturally. Not that I didn’t do that in the Philippines- but here, I feel more resistance to uniqueness, and consequently, it feels more rewarding to rise up from the blandness of the black hole that tries to suck everyone up.

The fact is, I wasn’t born Japanese and never will be Japanese. And don’t want to be!!

2) Don’t take yourself too seriously.

Japan has provided me with exposure to different cultures, more so than back home where I tend to mix only with people from the same school/same org/same interest, people I have known for ages. In short, whereas in the Philippines, I tend to hole up in my comfort zone, here in Japan, I’ve met people who challenged my beliefs, people I fought with, people whose entire belief system is not only different but totally contradicts mine. I’ve been hurt, mad, happy, irritated, in love, disappointed, raging, blissful and all that crazy combination of emotions. Yes, stop getting upset at people, stop wondering why people stopped messaging on line, stop caring too much if your socks are mismatched or you forgot to shave your legs. And yes , you lady on the train, stop fixing your skirt just because my eyes happened to land on them. There is nothing wrong with it

A friend posted this on facebook :

“And kid, you’ve got to love yourself. You’ve got wake up at four in the morning, brew black coffee, and stare at the birds drowning in the darkness of the dawn. You’ve got to sit next to the man at the train station who’s reading your favorite book and start a conversation. You’ve got to come home after a bad day and burn your skin from a shower. Then you’ve got to wash all your sheets until they smell of lemon detergent you bought for four dollars at the local grocery store. You’ve got to stop taking everything so goddam personally. You are not the moon kissing the black sky. You’ve got to compliment someones crooked brows at an art fair and tell them that their eyes remind you of green swimming pools in mid July. You’ve got to stop letting yourself get upset about things that won’t matter in two years. Sleep in on Saturday mornings and wake yourself up early on Sunday. You’ve got to stop worrying about what you’re going to tell her when she finds out. You’ve got to stop over thinking why he stopped caring about you over six months ago. You’ve got to stop asking everyone for their opinions. Fuck it. Love yourself, kiddo. You’ve got to love yourself.” —Unknown

The truth is, life is a hit and miss thing. Some people you meet will hurt you, some will make you happy, some are not meant to stay for long. Get over it.

3) Learn to say no. Even to Japanese.

The other day, a Japanese staff asked me to cover for a sick teacher. I had my gym clothes with me, and I was riled up to hit the gym after a long hiatus (after a period of moping around/self-pity/depression). But even without them, I would have said no anyway.
So I said no.
No excuses, no reasons, no justifications.
No is what you owe yourself.
It may be a taboo here, but understand I am not “here”, I am not “of here”.
It’s liberating, and I felt good, joyous, as if someone has just let me out of a cage and let me fly.
Life is too short to be a yes woman.

4) Don’t put up with people’s shit, just because they are locals and you are a gaijin

An old man (“jiji”) approached me a couple of weeks ago for sitting on the piled up cinder blocks resting against his wall. He said he was old, and therefore couldn’t take smoke and if I could just fuck off –shite kudasai. It was private property – he had every right to kick me out. So I agreed. I took my paraphernalia (make-shift ashtray, because I don’t litter) and all my shit and stepped one meter away, on the public road. Public property . I continued smoking, daring at him to look at me in the eye.
Take note : Saitama has no prefecture-wide smoking ban. I wasn’t breaking any laws. And I didn’t litter. And before the jiji came, the side road was practically empty.
My point is, if you are not “meiwaku” (inconveniencing) anyone, not breaking any rules/laws – stand your ground. 5 years ago, I would have cowered and left. Not anymore.

5) Ask why.

Amy Tan wrote : “Resist much, obey little.”
I don’t completely agree.
But yes, instead of blindly obeying, ask the reason why. Many Japanese don’t ask why – they just obey. If you are happy living like that, then by all means. But I am not. The “you have to do it because everybody else is doing it” rule doesn’t really apply to me. I need to know why we need to do certain things. Why do you need a copy of my passport? Are you going to shred that after? Why can I take a bottle of water to the pool area and not green tea? Why do I need to give you my home address? Why do I have to stay full eight hours when I only teach 1 hour? Why do I have to answer your phone call and talk about work when I am not being paid for that? Why are you calling me on my day off?
Why is not offensive. And if someone asks you why, answer sincerely.

6) Speak up if there’s a problem. Don’t be passive aggressive.

Some Japanese- especially the women- are extremely passive aggressive. From what I have observed, they have a hard time expressing negative feelings and resorted to taking it out on you through other means. Maybe because it’s the Japanese way to do things. Maybe because they were raised like that. Or maybe because they don’t have balls for confrontation.

I’m not going to make excuses for Japanese people – I’m over that, too.

Don’t get me wrong – I do sometimes get passive aggressive on people. But I’m trying to change that and learn how to speak up when there is a problem. Adults should be able to do that, in my book.

Many foreigners get in trouble for not “thinking” and “understanding” Japanese thoughts and inaction. My point is : If you have a problem with me, say it. I cannot read minds. I am not an intuitive. Not saying will not solve anything. It’s not being polite. If you didn’t say anything, then it’s your problem, not mine. And because of #2 (I don’t take myself too seriously), I don’t really give a damn if you call the cops on me or cut me off your life.

7) Have a safety net

In the Philippines, it’s extremely easy to talk to people. Even strangers. Cab drivers open up about their bad day at work. You can approach anyone on the street and strike up a conversation. Maybe it’s the lack of language barrier, which exists in Japan. Or that folks in the Philippines are less reserved about sharing what they think or feel. Back home, I always felt an invisible yet strong safety net that will catch me when I come crashing – families, friends. I post something on facebook and they come calling, asking if things are OK. In Japan, there is mostly no safety net, not even for locals. “Friends” are too busy to text back – it takes them one week to reply to a text. People don’t want to inconvenience others. What I observed is that people here make a handful of good friends that they can talk to over the years, and even then, they don’t.

As a foreigner, you have to make one yourself. Start from scratch. It takes time, but it’s worth it. It helps to have someone around you whom you can talk to when you’re having a bad day, or when you’re feeling really shitty. It can be very isolating to deal with problems yourself. These people don’t have to solve your problems for you- in most cases, they can’t and maybe shouldn’t. But it helps that someone is there to listen.

8) Work hard and party harder.

Forget about the Japanese work ethic of working and working and working and working and never partying. You aren’t Japanese, are you? (if you are – wake up!) You don’t live to work. You work to live. What use is all of that money if you can’t enjoy it?

I know what I’m saying because I’ve just completed a month of working 6 days a week. And now I’m taking it easy. When I say party harder, I don’t mean going to Roppongi. For me, it means traveling (and surfing). It’s doing something that you love!
Again, you owe it to yourself.

9) Get in touch with people who matter

Many people we meet in Japan will probably not stay here for good, or for as long as you will. Make time to meet people who matter in your life, especially those who happen to live in the city. Take a day off, have lunch. Go for a cup of coffee. Make the best use of the efficient Japanese transportation system and meet those people while they are here. Life is just too short not to be in touch with people you care about. Now.

10) Don’t overstay your welcome

Know when it’s time to go. You’ll feel it, in the air you breathe, in the energy around you, in the way you feel when you wake up each day. It’s OK to admit that Japan is no longer for you. Forget about the money – you’ll probably have to downgrade your lifestyle and earn less elsewhere , but it’s better than kicking yourself ten years from now and regretting the time you should have left and didn’t. I’m excited because I can feel mine is really close. Plan an exit strategy and fly away! You can always come back if you miss it. But there is a big world outside Japan. Remember : you are a gaijin and you are not stuck here.

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This entry was posted on September 6, 2015 by in Filipinos, Friends, Japanese society, People, people and friends, thoughts and tagged , , .
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