Things Are Seldom What They Seem

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San Francisco at night.

I never thought I would have to perform the Macarena in Japan.

I wrote this statement in my journal almost a month ago, and the weirdest part about it is actually the latter half. Japan. I’m in Japan. (Forget the Macarena. It’s the only dance I’m capable of performing period. But I have been known to attempt the Cha-Cha Slide from time to time.) I can say it over and over again, but I can’t make it sound any less surreal. I started this blog to discuss my endless wandering and the countless times I’ve lost my way, but the dreadful irony of my first story is that I didn’t get lost on my way to Japan. Funny, right? I go on the longest journey of my life and don’t lose my way once.

I have been lost in the Dallas airport before. Ever since a dreadful experience on my way to Washington D.C. my junior year of high school, I have avoided that airport like the plague. (I think I’ve avoided Dallas in general. Even driving I can’t seem to get through it without the heavens opening up and unleashing a torrent of watery wrath upon my ancient Camry.) But now, I’ve realized that flying is a lot more enjoyable with huge layovers in-between flights. I had a particularly long layover in San Francisco which would give me time to eat (and study for my Japanese placement exam) and mentally prepare for my transition into a new culture.

I remember arriving at SFO half-dead, having traveled for four hours on a red-eye flight from Dallas, but of course, it was still a decent hour on the West Coast. Luckily, a janitor pointed me towards the international terminal before I strayed too far from the right path. (If her directions hadn’t been as specific as they were, I would be telling a different story now.) After arriving at the second security checkpoint of my trip, I removed my laptop and bag of toiletries from my carry-on, slipped off my shoes and coat, threw my phone, watch, and ring into a plastic bin, and followed the herd of people around me towards the front of the line.

Suddenly, the metal detector a few feet in front of me wailed. One of the men working security snatched a cell-phone from an older Japanese man’s hand as he removed the offending object from his pocket.

“See this? You take this OUT of your pocket.” He held it up for the herd of international travelers to see as we neared the front of the line. “The line will move a little faster if you take them OUT of your pocket! Hurry it up!”

“You, put your shoes back on!” another employee yelled. It took me a moment to realize she was talking to me.

Yet another employee took my laptop and toiletries from my hand and threw them back into my bag (completely disregarding everything I knew about airport procedure) before motioning for me to shuffle through the scanner. After the scanner’s silence deemed me non-hostile, I asked another employee if I could continue, and he responded with a grunt. I took my bags and did everything in my power not to run towards my gate.

The international terminal unfolded in front of me, a hodgepodge of people, exotic smells, and intercoms yelling at me in every language known to man. I found my gate with several hours to spare and settled down with my almost mediocre “Greek” pasta and “iced mocha” from the one open restaurant I discovered in the heart of the international terminal at 11 PM. Fellow passengers arrived one after the other, some excited others war-torn just like me.

I watched as the pilots and stewardesses arrived in small groups one after the other. Each person turned to face the awaiting passengers and bowed low. A string of Japanese sounded over the intercom and instantly, passengers began lining up. I listened to the instructions as a tiny woman repeated them.

Hi-kou-ki, I sounded out in my head. Yes. This is a plane. At least I know that. My two years of Japanese suddenly seemed incredibly inadequate when thrown into a real life situation.

Then much to my relief, the same woman repeated the instructions in English. On the plane, I could listen to anything in English (including an instructional video on how to navigate my way through customs upon arrive in Tokyo). The smiling stewardesses willing directed me towards the bathroom in English after my sleep-deprived tongue struggled to remember the Japanese word for “where.” After arriving in Tokyo Haneda airport, signs in both English and Japanese led my way through customs at 4 AM. I stumbled through a conversation in Japanese with the man issuing me my residence card as I tried to explain that I wasn’t seeking a part time job, and he listened to every clumsy word. I even chatted with one of the guards in customs as I waited for other employees to check my friend’s medicine. More English signs led me to the domestic terminal towards re-checking my bags, riding a bus to the other side of the airport, and through a security checkpoint for a third time this trip.

I also had the opportunity to chat with a fellow American exchange student who was heading to a different school. She spoke of the wonders of Japan and of what Nagoya night life had to offer. We exchanged names and majors, but after our few hours of camaraderie ended upon the arrival of the plane for Akita, she left my friend and I with a few foreboding words.

“Japanese people are polite, but they aren’t necessarily friendly.”

Suddenly, I couldn’t help but wonder what the smiling stewardesses on my flights thought about my incredibly inadequate Japanese, what the occupants of Akita thought of the small group of foreigners congregating around Akita’s pine-tree mascot in the lobby of the airport looking lost and confused, what my roommate thought of my asking about how to put my bed together. I thought about how much I stood out with my awkward lanky height and red hair and theatrically colorful cat-eye glasses. I felt my stomach knot with the uncertainty of the new culture before me, knowing full well that my book smarts could not compare to a real life experience.

But then my roommate and my suitemate brought by a group of four or five girls to my room and asked to chat with me on my second night at AIU. They inquired about Texas and America and jet-lag. We spoke of the usefulness (or lack thereof) of tumbleweeds, of the general cuteness porcupines and hedgehogs, of Miyazaki movies, of Kitty-chan (Hello Kitty), of the difference between thick and thin, and of our hopes and dreams. I helped them prepare for their English placement test, and they corrected my kanji for my Japanese placement test. We danced the Macarena and Cupid Shuffle at the AIU welcome dinner. My suitemate offered me her beloved Doraemon manga to practice my Japanese. I offered her my audio book of The Importance of Being Earnest. And they ooed and awed as I taught them quotes from The Princess Bride. We spoke to each other in broken English and broken Japanese, but we understood enough to share a laugh or two.

Most recently, a girl in Gospel Choir (yes Gospel Choir) with me asked if I could assist her with English homework, and I gladly obliged. After we finished our interview, she scurried off and retrieved a package of cookies which she gave to me to thank me for my ten minutes of help. Her voice trembling, she smiled a bit after I agreed to take a picture with her so she could show her mother.

“My English is not good, so I do not have many international friends,” she told me. “But I would like to be your friend.”

If I could have broken off a chunk of my heart and given it to her, I would have. How could I ever say no?

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