Japan, Teaching English in Japan

She’s a Super Freak

'A Not Unsual Tokyo Subway Scene' by Aurelio.Asian.

Two months ago, a mentally-unstable man that I met on the train in Saitama, took one look at me and announced in a loud, prophetic voice: “You are too young to be in Japan.”

Once I got over the shock of being addressed in this manner (in English!) I laughed it off, saying “Buddy, I’m a quarter of a century old!” And most days, that’s exactly how I feel; old and incredibly jaded.

But then there are other days (like today) where I feel like I’m just an insecure kid playing pretend at being this competent and capable adult. I feel like I’m at the emotional level of a 14-year -ld and that 14-ear-old is horrified at the thought that she alone is responsible for making so many important life choices.  Right now, she’s staring numbly at the the myriad of flight itineraries looming on the screen before her and saying, “You want me to do WHAT? Make a decision that could potentially ruin my life? Shouldn’t you be asking a grown-up this? Why don’t you just call the guidance counselor?”

Japan seems to have a funny way of bringing that painfully self-conscious, frightened teenager out in me.

I think it’s because I feel like I’m being judged here for not conforming and for not being perfect, or even close to it. There are just so many unspoken rules. Don’t eat while walking, don’t put on makeup on the train, don’t speak what’s on your mind, don’t jaywalk, (even when it’s 3am and there isn’t a car in sight).

Everything must be done the correct way, the proper way, “the Japanese Way”. There’s a proper way to write, a proper way to hold your chopsticks, a proper way sip tea and stand in line. There’s a proper way to clean, eat, cook, arrange flowers, take a bath and even walk.

It’s like high school all over again. If your behavior doesn’t fit in with what “all the cool kids doing” you’re an ostracized freak of nature. And sometimes I feel like the biggest freak of them all.

I’m especially conscious of this fact when I’m running late to work, which happens, like, every day. I’ll be tearing down the sidewalk towards the train station, bumping into people and bicycles and construction workers as they all travel in neatly ordered rows, like giant schools of fish, all completely in sync. Then I’ll reach the station, a sweaty, disheveled mess, only to find that I’ve once again misplaced my train pass. So I’ll dump out the contents of my bag onto the ground in front of the turnstile and bouncy balls, pieces of chalk, 50 dollars worth of coins and tiny animal magnets will scatter everywhere. People will slow down to watch as I frantically search for that tiny plastic card and I’ll feel the magnitude of their negative, critical thoughts which radiate off of them, like, “Ha. What’s that girl doing? What a Frrrreeeeaaak.”

Then I’ll get on the train and I’ll get these side-long glances. Quick, yet assessing. And I’ll do an appearance check: How do I look from a Japanese person’s perspective? And I’ll notice the mis-matched socks, the white-out and glue stains on my black pants, and the scuffed shoes with the holes in the souls which are taped up with masking tape.

And then I’ll look around at the other women, dressed in perfectly pressed designer label suits with faces made-up like runway models, and every exquisitely highlighted strand of hair neatly styled into place. And I’m reminded once again of just how much I don’t belong here.

My friends insist that this is all in my head. That if people do look at me, it’s only out of a passing curiosity. They aren’t critiquing or criticizing me. While they’re probably right, this feeling of self-consciousness, of not measuring up to their standards, is a hard one shake. Especially when most days I feel like a mildly-retarded illiterate with a permanent seat on the “short bus”.

Take today, for example. I got into a dramatic, drawn-out, hysterical cat fight with a photo-copy machine. It stubornly refused to cut me any slack for not being able to read kanji. So I cursed it out, pushing all of it’s buttons until it completely shut down and refused to talk to me.

I felt guilty afterwards so I tried to reach some sort of mutual compromise. I brought out my
kanji book and spent the next hour peering over the little screen and carefully counting each of the microscopic, intersecting lines that made up each Chinese character. I then patiently scanned the index of my kanji book, searching for something that even slightly resembled one of the scribble-scrabble hieroglyphics on the screen, but had no such luck.

I cried, cursing the evil bastards who decided to make the copy machine gaijin-proof and the Chinese person responsible for bringing his impossibly difficult written language to this island in the first place.

Later, the owner of the cram school gave me the polite, Japanese version of “What the Hell did you do to my copy machine?” And like a 14-year- old caught cutting gym class, I mumbled, red-faced: “Um. Well. You see…There were a bunch of buttons…and the Kanji…Well.”

As I type this, I’m sitting in my icebox of an apartment, shivering in a coat, gloves, ski hat and scarf, because I can’t figure out how to work the heater. My roommate has gone AWOL and I’ve tried to google the kanji character for ‘heat’, ‘heater’ and ‘hot’ but can’t find anything that matches the symbols on the remote.
I explained some of these frustrations to my mom the other day over the phone. “Reannon, why do you continually do this to yourself?” was her exasperated response. “Why do you have to make your life so hard?”
Hmm…good question. I have no idea. I just consulted the 14-year-old on that but she just rolled her eyes and said that my mom doesn’t know what she’s talking about.
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10 thoughts on “She’s a Super Freak

  1. I love your posts! I find them increasingly hilarious and yet extremely informative. To see working in Japan from your viewpoint makes for great reading…I don’t live or work in Japan, but have always been interested in it.

    Good luck figuring it all out!

  2. Rick James has never had his work attached to such a poignant sentiment, I think.

    I feel for you because I think every girl has that 14 year old inside, and also because I am equally disorganised and scruffy. I don’t even own a blowdryer, and have shown up at school in my pyjamas.

    You might be kinda right about the stares. Foreigners are relatively rare in Japan, so people are looking at you anyway. Plus, that “gaijin” thing makes you some sort of unofficial representative for every white person the whole world round, and there’s a lot of xenophobia in Japan to begin with… So while I don’t think they’re judging YOU, personally, there’s judgement going on. You’re not crazy or obscenely paranoid, anyway.

    Good luck getting your heat on, too!

  3. Erin – Thanks! Do you think you’ll come work here?

    nearly asian – “exploring what we can bring to the table and not becoming the table”…LOL. That’s a clever way to put it.

    Are you really able to be straightforward and honest all the time here? How do people take it? Do they find that approach rude? I guess the more important question would be, are they honset and straightforward in return?

    I find that when I try to express my honest feelings in situations, it just gets interpretated all wrong. People take offense.

    Kira – That’s funny about the PJ thing. A couple of my Japanese friend’s told me that that was one of the biggest shocks they had when they first studied abroad in the US…that college students would have no problem going to class in their pajamas.

  4. Hi Reannon,

    I see myself as being honest, but not always straightforward. I think if I’m communicating in English, that is often straightforward enough. I mean, being direct isn’t always a good thing, but honesty is. Now, if I’m speaking in Japanese, I’m never straightforward, it’s the language. I mean, Japanese is vague at best, and anything I say becomes questionably honest, that’s just how it is.

    In general, my honesty is reciprocated, but not always, I mean, you can’t throw a stone without hitting a passive-aggressive self-medicating mask-wielding xenophobe can you? I’m sure I could write a thesis on this, and you’ve inspired me to start a post, so I’ll see if I can formulate something more insightful, because there’s a funny thing about gender in Japan, and that makes our experiences very different. So what I say for me, will not necessarily apply to you as a woman. That I find is the biggest frustration my female friends from abroad just can’t get over.

    Let’s go back to the language, women say things men cannot, do not, and vise versa. But within my circle, some of my Japanese girlfriends are really bold, and will speak with so called men’s words that anyone who overhears will do a double take. It’s like swearing almost, if not worse.

    Happy Thanksgiving!

  5. I love your posts too! I’ve wanted to come to Japan for a long time, but just haven’t had the resources to do it. Maybe some day… Parents are my least favorite part of working with children. I can’t imagine being a teacher with parents like that! It’s hard enough dealing with them in your own country, but as a foriegner I can’t imagine! good luck to you!

  6. nearlyasian…that’s a very good point about gender-differences. I think it does make a difference in your experience here…although I’m not sure how exactly.

    Most of my foreigner friends here are male, and they all love Japan. They say that they have a really ‘easy life’ here, which is tough for me to understand since my life here is anything but easy! But I think it’s also because they have Japanese girlfriends…I think that helps a lot, in that they have someone to turn to when they need help filling out forms at the bank or calling to make a doctor’s appointment.

    And maybe like you said, being honest goes over better when your a guy.

    Please post something about this! I’d be interested to learn more…especially since it sounds like you’ve given this a lot of thought.

    Sara – I find it funny that so many people want to live in Japan! What is it that fascinates ya’ll about it here? I’m always asking that of all the foreigners I know here, hoping that they’ll share something that will make me go: “Okay, I get it! Now I can love Japan just as much as all of you do!” But that never happens.

    I find Japan really fascinating. It’s interesting how the history and culture tie into each other…and there are parts (like the food) that I really like. But as far as an intense, passionate interest goes…that I have yet to discover.

    But you should definitely come here, if that’s always been a dream of yours! You’d only really need to save up about 4,000 US dollars…that’s enough (in my opinion) to start a life here. And it’s really, really easy to find a job in Tokyo, (despite what everyone says to the contrary). Especially if you’re female!

  7. You know what? I get weird stares for my pyjama dress code here, too. I am the laziest person ever. If i don’t have to get dressed properly, I won’t. So maybe I wouldn’t do so well in Japan. People would think I was a homeless gaijin bum.

  8. Hi Anonymous…Thanks so much for that link! I actually figured out the heater after just pushing a bunch of buttons. But I’ve bookmarked that site for next time…and I’m sure that eventually there will be a next time. : )

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