Journals from Kanto Gakuin University
2009-12-16 Practicing my fork skills
It turns out that it is really difficult to eat salad with a fork. I can manage most of it, but once you get to the last little bits, chopsticks are just so much more convenient. And soup! Soup with a spoon! I keep catching myself holding the bowl in my hand as I eat; I have been remembering to use the spoon, but it is a frustratingly slow soup-eating method. It would be so much simpler just to eat the solid bits with chopsticks and drink the rest
And that's about how I'm feeling right now. Reverse culture shock is a very interesting experience when you return from a country that taught you so very many new manners. I started work again today (I'm a hostess/banquet server at a Seattle restaurant), and I kept catching myself not only smiling at customers when we made eye contact, but doing a rather deeper nod than is probably normal here. It's not a full-on bow, but I'm sure it still looks strange. And I let out a little "hmph" when my sister poured herself a glass of milk and left me to pour my own " only to realize that here, that isn't actually impolite. As my confused sister explained, "That way you can pour just the amount you want to drink; I don't know if you want milk or juice or half a cup or a whole cup or somewhere in between." American individualism in a simple glass of milk! In Japan, you are generally supposed to offer to pour someone else's drink before you refill your own glass; even then, usually someone will fill your glass for you, and if you're not thirsty, you just drink really slowly.
Because our program kept us in such a tight-knit exchange-student group (living together at Hayama and all taking the same classes, half of which were in English), I mostly remember how to speak English. When somebody surprises me, though, I accidentally make the Japanese surprise noise ("Eeeh!?" which sounds like a long letter "A"), and I keep taking on polite sentence endings like "deshou" and "kana" and "to omou" and "ne" which mean varying degrees of "I'm not completely sure" or "I don't want to sound rudely overconfident" or "Don't you think?" To a certain extent, I'm also listening the Japanese way, with lots of "un"s (noises of agreement, like a really informal "yes" which can also simply indicate that you are paying attention). People think I have something stuck in my throat. I explain it, they laugh, and I feel silly. Words like these, along with Japanese versions of "um" as in "I'm thinking, what was I going to say", seem to appear about equally in my Spanish and my English, but I was happy to discover that I'm still just as fluent in Spanish as I was when I left, at least for the purposes of non-academic life with my Honduran amigos.
Readjusting to life in the U.S. will probably be harder this time around than it was when I came back from a semester in Ecuador. Most of my friends, both in Seattle and at Linfield, speak Spanish and have experience with Latin America. Although each Latin American country is unique, they share enough common elements that my friends could relate to my experience in Ecuador and help ease my transition. The main difference in manners that I had to remember was not to kiss people on the cheek when I met them, and that applied to fewer than half of my friends here anyway. After a semester in Japan, however, I come back to my Spanglish life in Seattle and realize that no one gets it. They can't relate to my stories or my pictures, they don't speak Japanese and they don't understand any of what meant so much to me over the last four months. So many of them lump China, Japan, Korea, and the rest of Asia into one category, telling me that because Seattle has "lots of Asians" I'll be fine. As much as I love Intercultural Communication, going to eat pho at a Vietnamese restaurant won't help me preserve or improve the Japanese I have worked so hard to learn over the last four months.
On the bright side, my Japanese friends have significantly more Internet access than my most of my Ecuadorian friends. They have the technology and the education for Facebook and Skype and email. They have cell phones that aren't pre-paid. And, in some cases, they may even have the background and the funding necessary for a plane ticket and a visa to the United States. It sounds like my host family might make it out to Seattle for a while next summer, and some of the buddies sound like they will visit Linfield in the spring. In the meantime we'll chat online and I'll try to keep my Japanese up to speed, though so far I have spent an inordinate amount of time on organizing pictures and no time on studying Japanese.
I want to make it clear that loving Japan, Honduras, and Ecuador does not mean that I hate home. When I am abroad, sometimes I miss jellybeans and dancing and knowing where I'm going. I love my family and the dear friends that I have here in Seattle. I'm glad to be home for Christmas, I'm enjoying being back at work, and I'm glad that most folks can still tell when I speak English that in spite of my intercultural quirks I really am a native English speaker. I arrived in Seattle on Saturday morning, and I can't describe how happy it made me to dance salsa and speak Spanish for four hours straight that same night.
The downside of traveling, however, is that no matter where you are you will always miss someone. I love my host family, and it was so hard yesterday to watch the girls get ready for school as I chatted with my host parents over Skype, knowing that when they came home from school I would still be thousands of miles away. They said "Ittekimasu," I said "Itterasshai", but we all knew that I wouldn't be there to say "Okaeri" when they said "Tadaima." I shed quiet tears last week when they dropped me off at Hayama and we had to say our goodbyes, but I sobbed out loud once I got on the bus and the girls couldn't see me anymore.
My brother and I went out for Chinese food the other day, and my fortune cookie was remarkably relevant: "You will go far, but be sure to come back."
I do go far, but I always come back to Seattle. I love to travel, and as long as I can find scholarships I hope to continue traveling, but I have discovered that I cherish the security of knowing that there is one place I will always come back to. For a long time I assumed that I would end up living in another country, but for now at least I believe that I will keep Seattle as my home base. Everywhere I go I meet wonderful people and begin to put down tentative roots, only to have to tear up those roots without knowing whether I will ever see those wonderful people again. I need one place that I know I will always come back to, one place where, when I meet people and learn to love people, I can leave them without crying because I know I will see them when I return.
I miss you, Japan, and I hope I get to see you again.