I honestly never thought that I would have completely adjusted to Japanese culture. I always thought there would be things that would be too strange or different to be able to simply accept. I thought the completely different language would be the biggest barrier in my path for this whole trip.
Boy, was I wrong.
While I have obviously not adjusted completely—as a non-native I simply would never be able to fully—I have been able to absorb and accept many things on my trip so far. One of the most obvious examples I can think of occurred this past weekend. I had been on a trip with my host family to the Chiba prefecture, a few hours north of our house by car. They were taking me and my Japanese buddy to a vegetable garden where you could buy vegetables and herbs that had been grown in the greenhouse itself. After perusing the aisles and buying some herb tea, we all sat down to lunch. At lunch, we were served a pasta dish and a salad. Since pasta is fairly difficult to eat with chopsticks, we were given forks for the pasta and chopsticks for the freshly made salad. While talking with my host family during lunch, I distinctly remember eating some spaghetti with my fork. After answering a question, I turned my eyes to my meal again only to discover that I was holding my chopsticks! During the conversation, I had switched from fork to chopsticks without thinking. I simply remember wanting another slice of pepper and suddenly finding myself holding chopsticks. If that does not show how accustomed I have become to the culture, I am not sure what does.
About a week ago—knowing that my parents were from Montana and that I was born there—my host family informed me that there was going to be a travel special about Yellowstone National Park on television. Having visited the park before—and knowing that my Montana relatives would be excited to see their state represented on Japanese television—I sat down to watch it with them after dinner. These travel shows are fairly popular in Japan and show people different parts of the world that they may never be able to visit because of work-related or monetary reasons. The show was great and did a good job of representing the beauty of the park as well as some fun activities that can be experienced there, such as river rafting and hiking. Since Japanese is not exactly a popular language in Montana, English answers were given to Japanese questions with the interpreter cut out—probably to save time in an hour-long special—leading to some interesting moments. Since not all Japanese people speak English, Japanese translations were written on the bottom of the screen when English was spoken. Being able to completely understand the English and enough Japanese to get the general idea of the questions and subtitles, I was able to observe how phrases were translated and which nuances could be accurately conveyed. What I noticed right away is that most of the incomplete or repetitive answers given by Americans were not directly translated. Instead, they were consolidated into simpler and more coherent sentences. While this may have been an aesthetic choice by the television program, it might also be an overarching method for English translations. While it did help with coherency, I also feel it lost some of the human-ness of the statements. Not having seen many English shows translated to Japanese—usually I see them the other way around—I will have to look into it a bit more to see if there is more to this aspect or if it was simply for this program. Either way, it was a pleasant reminder of home and an interesting learning experience for me as well as my host family.
There is one final point that I have in regards to becoming accustomed to the country, and that is of language. I came to this revelation one day after class when confused about an assignment, and I asked my fellow classmates for help. While they were able to answer my question without issue, the way that it was answered puzzled me. One of my peers distinctly pointed out that he remembers being told the assignment, but he did not remember which language it had been told to him in. Confused, I inquired further only to have him respond that both simply processed in his brain the same way. This happened towards the very beginning of our study abroad, but his phrasing stuck out to me even a month later. At the time, I simply could not imagine a case in which this could happen, the two languages being very distinct in my mind at the time. However, after about a month and a half living in another country, I think I may finally be able to understand what he was talking about.
Unless what a person is explaining is very difficult, or I am unable to understand key vocabulary, I will process the sentence not as a bunch of words put together, but as an idea. In Japanese, I am still able to pick out words in the sentence, but I am starting to see those words as parts of an idea and not simply as individual words. In this way, when someone is talking, I will be able to picture what they are trying to convey, but I will not necessarily be able to translate it or repeat it back word for word. In this way, I’ll get the general concept of what is being said. While before it felt like I had to pick particular words out of a sentence in order to create meaning, my language skills have expanded more to the point where I do not always need to mentally dissect everything that is said. I am not sure what this says about my language skills, but I have noticed an increase in comprehension since arriving.
At this point, I have been living with my host family for almost three weeks. They are a nice older couple with grown children—one of whom is living in California with an American husband—who currently reside with four Pomeranians. We get along well and they are always willing to answer any questions that I may have. On the weekends they keep me very busy and we hop around the prefecture and beyond to various locations both world-famous and locally known. During the weekdays I am fairly busy with homework and social activities, but they understand completely and just request that I let them know when I will be home. In the evenings, if there is an interesting television show on, or if there are important events in the news, they will watch with me and comment on the goings-on. Just the other night after hopping out of the bath, I was able to catch the tail end of an interesting criminal show, somewhat similar to CSI or the like. As music lovers, my family and I watch a great deal of concerts and music specials that have given me a strong taste for Japanese music. There is almost always an interesting program on and if not, we will simply watch the news and I can learn specific words and even keep up with world events.
It is also definitely nice not to have to worry about meals either. My host mother prepares a wide variety of food that changes from day to day. Usually breakfast consists of toast and leftovers from the previous night, while dinner is the main attraction. Since this entry has gone on for quite a bit, I will cover food on a wider scope in my next entry to save us all a bit of time.
As of yesterday (October 17), my fellow exchange students and I have returned from our study tour to Nikko, up in a more mountainous area of Japan. While there we were able to see gorgeous landscapes and the beautiful colors of the changing seasons. With the leaves turning dramatic shades of red and yellow, set against the beautiful backdrop of a cloudless day with cool mountain air in your lungs, it is easy to see why many Japanese poems are nature-themed. While in Nikko we were able to experience a lot of interesting cultural events as well. Our group was lucky enough to be visiting the area when a festival was going through, so we were able to see various styles of Japanese dress from about 400 years ago framed within temple and stone arches from long ago. It was quite the sight to behold and mere words cannot describe the atmosphere and pictures are barely able to capture the beauty.
On that note, I will sign off before I talk for several more hours about all of the amazing things that I have done in the meantime. Suffice it to say, I have taken about 250 pictures in the course of a week and a half, if that is anything to go by.
See you guys next time!