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Archive for September, 2012

Culture Shock? Homesickness? What’s That? – 6 September 2012


I’ve been a resident of Japan for five days now. Yes, there is a lot of Japanese everywhere (writing and people). Yes, the food is vastly different than it is in America. Yes, there are vending machines everywhere and in the most unlikely of locations. Yes, Japanese television is… weird, for lack of better phrasing. It’s far and away an adjustment from living in America in every conceivable way, geographically, culturally, and in any other way you can imagine. 

I should be mired in culture shock, but I’m not even homesick, really. 

I suppose that’s because of where I happen to live. I go to an international university outside of Nagoya, and I live with about forty other students from all walks of life and from all corners of the globe. It’s sort of like… a commune, I think. We share lots of things – food, liquor, stories about where we live, and yes, our anxieties about becoming reasonably skilled in speaking Japanese. Remember when I wrote about how anxious I was in coming to this place? There are people here who feel much the same as I do, but we’re all slogging through this swamp together, and that helps to lessen the blow. This isn’t to say that I don’t think of my family back home – quite the opposite. They run across my mind every day. And because I haven’t left home on uneasy terms or without showing them how much they mean to me whether I’m with them or not, a guilty conscious doesn’t grate against my mind and drag me down.

But back to where I live.

It’s called the Nagoya University of Foreign Studies (hereafter referred to as NUFS, because I’m not typing that long-ass title anymore) International House, or I-House for short. It’s like a dorm, but not like a dorm, if you’ve ever had the experience of living in a dorm to know what living in a dorm is like. Everyone’s rooms are along the outside walls, and there are three main communal areas in the middle of the building – the 玄関 (genkan, a wide entryway within and beyond which no shoes may be worn), the 中庭 (nakaniwa, the inner garden in the very center of the building, surrounded by sliding glass doors and window panes on all sides, and with a zelkova tree standing in the very center of it), and the テレビ・ルーム (the television room, exactly what you think it is). My room is more or less the same as everyone else’s, with a tiny bathroom (everything here is slightly miniaturized, really), a strange toilet (I’m getting used to it), a low bed, and many, many, many shelves (which I still have to put my clothes into, but have been too preoccupied and lazy to do just yet). There’s a small balcony too, perfect for that first cig of the day. There’s also a washroom for laundry and guest bathrooms (with one of those space-age-y Japanese toilets in them, which confused the hell out of me the first time I saw it, much less used it), and several kitchen areas on the first and second floors which we all share. There’s also lots of recycling done here (and all over Japan, really) which I’m not used to – but because Japan is such a tiny place, it’s necessary, so it’s what’s done.

Like I said, there are about forty other people here from all over – France, Tasmania, Australia, Cincinnati, England… just to name a few. We’re all still getting to know each other (some a bit more slowly than others), but I’m sure that by the end of our stay here we’ll all be really close. And me? This is an opportunity that cannot be wasted, remember? I’ve been talking with everybody, getting to know them and letting them get to know me, and it’s been pretty nice. Yet another reason the doldrums have been beaten back a bit.

The place where I’m living is called 日進市 (Nisshin-shi, or Nisshin City) and it’s about fifteen minutes away from the center of Nagoya by subway (which I’m pretty excited about riding for the first time, by the way. Expect a special post about that soon.). The streets so far haven’t been too much of a hassle to navigate, although to be pretty honest I haven’t ventured out too far from home, so I’m sure that’s gonna change. Most of the places I’ve been to outside of I-House have been the grocery store and a few of the restaurants across the street form me, and that’s a story in and of itself. One of the popular places is called Hamazushi, a chain of 回転寿司 (kaiten zushi, conveyor-belt sushi) where the sushi (and various other things, like desserts and coffee) come to the customers sitting in booths or at counters and they choose what they wish. Pretty interesting. The grocery store (here called a スーパー, su-pa-, short for supermarket) is vastly different than what is found in the States, mainly in superficial and aesthetic ways – the shelves are much lower than I’m accustomed to (it is Japan) and there are lots of Japanese foodstuffs there (it is Japan). Rather surprisingly, buying things isn’t that hard, for a couple of reasons – I can count, and the cashiers don’t expect me to speak Japanese, so they take my money with the appropriate polite greetings and give me my change in exactly the same manner. 

Of course, I say thank you. I wasn’t brought up in a barn, you know.

When it comes down to it, I suppose the major reason I don’t really feel culture shock is because I’ve been mentally preparing for this for at least a year now. I wasn’t just dumped here in my sleep; I knew what I was getting into. That’s not to say there aren’t any difficulties here – my Japanese is far from workable, and at this point fluency is far-off.

But that’s not to say I don’t see it. It’s coming. And soon.


Finally. – 2 September 2012

Finally. Made it to Nagoya. I’m pretty stoked to be here, but three days of sleeping in airports and falling into the crippling effects of jet lag have me feeling grateful for a shower and a place to sleep. Word. Just had to let you all know I made it over here alive.

And man, what a trip it’s been too.

Who thought my trip to Japan would begin on a bus? I damn sure didn’t. But that’s just what happened. I thought my ride to the airport in Charlotte had fallen through, so I did what I had to. Six hours and three stops and a twenty-five-dollar cab ride later, and I’m sitting in the terminal at Charlotte–Douglas. Turns out I’m fifteen hours early for the first flight, so I sit there for fifteen hours and huff cig after cig after cig and scarf down a huge, expensive cup of coffee.

Not fun.

I was bored as hell in Charlotte. There are a dozen pictures that look like this one.

Finally, the moment I’d been waiting for – my very first take-off.  It was pretty cool, though. The flight left at six, so just as the sun came up we were already above the cloud tops.  The towns looked like dewy nodes on an illuminated spiderweb, connected by tendril-like roads, also lit. There was a hazy division in the atmosphere as the sun rose, almost like the way the paints at the edges of an artist’s palette blend together… It was breathtaking. Feeling the plane accelerate then lift into the air was a rush that first time.

A rush that quickly diminished with each successive flight thereafter.

Me taking off, against the clouds and the sun.

The next stop was Baltimore-Washington International. Not much to say about it – the connecting flight arrived in forty minutes and I didn’t even get to step outside. Not that I thought I’d missed much. Baltimore is like Washington’s slutty cousin that the entire neighborhood’s had twice.

(I do apologize to all my B’more natives who will read this. It’s just an in-joke between me and a friend. Nothin’ personal, I swear. All that talk about arson – crazy talk.)

I include this picture only for the sake of completion – it’s the only pic of Baltimore I have, and it’s kinda boring.

Then there was the five-and-a-half-hour flight from BWI to LAX. I had never been anywhere near Los Angeles before this trip, but, like so many others, I had found plenty to hate about the City of Angels – and it mostly stemmed from my hatred for the Lakers. However, when we flew in over the desert and I saw the Inland Empire and the canals that give this huge city all of its fresh water, my heart softened a bit. It was breathtaking, too. I quickly came to realize that the landings were way more special than the take-offs.

The Inland Empire. Yeah, this is what Angelenos call their sprawling backyard. And this is a piece of it from the air.

I stayed in LAX for a couple hours, and then the biggest hurdle of the trip – fourteen hours between LAX and Hong Kong. It wouldn’t have been too bad, except the flight left LAX at twenty minutes after twelve in the afternoon; i.e., the entire flight was in broad daylight. And that kinda sucked. But there were movies and food and games, so that made it bearable, at least. I tried to sleep during the flight. Keyword there – tried. There was no way in hell that anyone outside of first class could ever get a good night’s sleep on an airplane.

I landed at Hong Kong International at about seven in the evening, and the connecting flight to Nagoya didn’t leave until ten the next morning, so I decide to check out the city. I caught hell trying to find the baggage check counter, the trains to the city, the currency exchange – even though everything is in English as well as Chinese.  That’s just how damn big this airport is. But I found my way out, and rode the train deep into the heart of Hong Kong’s Central District, where everything is. There’s a 7-11 on every corner, it seems. There were boutiques everywhere – Louis Vuitton, Giorgio Armani, there were diamond stores and purse stores and shoe stores like the 7-11s – on every corner. But there were three things that fascinated me more than anything else, three things I really went out there to see: the masses of people everywhere, the subway, and the skyscrapers – and there were plenty of each to go around. It was Friday evening when I touched down in Hong Kong, so everybody was out on the street. Everybody. There were girls posing for photos taken by professional photographers – for advertisements, I think. There were businessmen in suits and people in tee-shirts and quite a few Westerners too, all trying to find something to do on a rainy Friday night. I left the mall I found myself in (the train station was underneath it – really) and hit the streets.

This is the International Commerce Center, the tallest building in Hong Kong, and enough of a reason for me to become crippled on the streets.

Central District, Hong Kong – Just a bit of it.

That’s when it happened. The charley horse from hell. Actually, several of them. In both calves.

Of course, when I decided to go exploring, I hadn’t taken into account the long flight I had just taken or the fact I hadn’t drunk anything for hours and was most likely dehydrated – I wanted to see as much as I could, in the short time I had. So I walked around for three, four hours – maybe three, four miles (five if you include walking through the labyrinthine underground city that is Hong Kong’s Central Station) –  and by the time I got back to the train station the muscles in my calves were in knots, hard as rocks and spasming like mad. I almost fell over walking up the steps in the subway, the cramps were so bad. Luckily, I got back to the airport in just enough time to give the clerk at the baggage counter the last of my Hong Kong dollars in exchange for my carry-on bag… and with it, the last of the money I had. I ended up dozing in the airport for the remaining time before my flight into Nagoya.

Again, the take-off wasn’t anything special. But once we were in the air, and the sea around Chek Lap Kok Island (where HKIA is located) came into view, it was – you guessed it – breathtaking. The water was green, and the shadows from the clouds were cast on the surface. The mountains were wrapped in fog. And the huge tankers in the water looked like ants; all you could see were their wakes. This flight was three-and-a-half hours long, and when the pilot made the announcement that we would be descending into Nagoya in thirty minutes, I looked out the window for the first time.

There were mountains I saw, covered in green. There were rivers and lakes, and roads and rice paddies. I saw a train in motion from up there. I saw cars on expressways. I saw entire coastlines covered in civilization. Then we flew over Nagoya. And it’s huge. This place sprawls across and around the harbor it fronts, and it’s all concrete, asphalt, and glass surrounded by perfectly rectangular rice paddies and fields. I was too consumed by what I was seeing to take pics (plus the window was tiny), but it’s all locked up in my brain, and I remember it all. What a first view of Japan, man.

Then we landed, I went through customs for the fourth time, and stepped out into Japan. But that’s a later post.

The gate to the 神社(jinja, or shrine) near the building where I live, on my first night here.