In between

“I can’t believe you’re taking us to karaoke,” a visiting friend said during dinner.

Uh oh. I thought karaoke was a safe choice. It’s a popular Japanese pastime. They were a big group of musical friends. I’d even invited some of my co-workers.

“Umm why?”

“No, I mean, I can’t believe you’re taking us to karaoke,” she stressed.

“Oh,” I chuckled and went back to my meal.

Andy and お兄ちゃん (oniichan) didn’t get it though. “What? Why?”

“I didn’t sing in Australia,” I explained.

Andy and お兄ちゃん gave me a look. “Really? Priscilla sings all the time.”

Now everyone was giving me a look. “What?! She never sang in front of people back home.”

What my friends don’t know is how music heavy our children’s lesson plans are. What they haven’t seen is how quickly you can build a bridge across culture and language by just knowing a common song. They don’t know that singing is the easiest way for me to fake confidence.

“Have you changed? Yes. And no. It’s complicated. But let’s save that for another day,” I wrote one month ago.

Rejoice, friends. It’s a new dawn. It’s a new day. It’s a new life. And I’m feeling… mixed.

Culture shock I still get but I’ve more or less settled into the daily routine of local life. Some things I still can’t get down and other things have become second nature.

It’s hard to separate how I’ve changed as a person from how my situation’s changed over the last year – even to myself – but let’s give it a shot.

Cultural knacks

My American cousin visited recently with a big group of friends. I spent a weekend catching up with her while following everyone as they visited all the touristy places.

When we got to Harajuku, I knew exactly what I wanted: a crepe. Strawberry and Nutella.

But just as I took my first bite, the group started moving again and called me to follow them.

“But…,” I whispered, looking down at my crepe. I looked back up. Half the group were already mingled in the crowd. I looked back down, a little torn.

In Japan, you’re expected to eat your food next to the food stand or off to the side before walking around. When I first came, I had to be reminded to do so. After being conditioned for a year, I felt a deep sense of discomfort when asked to do otherwise.

It’s Harajuku, I reasoned internally as I started walking and eating. They see tourists everyday. And I’m walking around with a bunch of Americans. It’ll be fine. They’ll cut me some slack.

Still, I wolfed it down as fast as I could.

Over that weekend, I realised how many of these Japanese habits I had absorbed. Some things, I can’t get down for the life of me. Like saying “乾杯! (kanpai: cheers!)” together before taking a sip of your drink at a restaurant.

But other things I feel like I’ve been doing forever. Like carrying rubbish around in my bag all day if there isn’t a bin in sight. Or arriving at the meeting place ten minutes early unless I’m lost.

I also realised how much I’m starting to take for granted.

“Oh no!” one of my cousin’s friends said at the train platform, patting his pockets down. “I think I left my phone back at the museum!”

“That’s ok,” another said. “I’m sure no one’s taken it. Let’s go back and check.”

Twenty minutes later, everyone was half relieved and half shocked. Someone had indeed found his phone and returned it to the front counter.

It was a good reminder that much of the world doesn’t share Japan’s integrity.

Represent

Other than my family and friends who have dropped by on their travels, I’ve met a grand total of five Australians in Japan. I counted. I regularly keep in touch with none of them (sorry, if any of you are reading this).

Other than people I’ve met at church, the number of Christians I’ve come across in daily life comes to the grand total of zero.

In a multicultural city like Melbourne where you’re exposed to different ethnicities, cultures and religions, it’s easier to laugh at stereotypes. In the suburbs of Tokyo where anything different is harder to come by, it’s surprising to see just how strongly the same stereotypes affect the locals’ perception of foreigners.

Whenever I do something that doesn’t conform to the stereotypes of any group that I subscribe to – whether it be my generation, Australian, Chinese, or Christian – I shock someone.

“You’re not what I expected a Westerner to be,” I’ve heard on more than one occasion.

But I think this is great.

Personally, I think makes me strive to be a better person. I’m proud to be both Christian and Australian. I want to reflect well on them.

Not that my life is under a microscope, but what I do is examined much more carefully here than it was in Melbourne. Some people attribute my actions to me as one individual person, which I appreciate. But I’m also aware that some consider much of what I do and who I am as a reflection of my upbringing and/or environment.

Actually, it’s kind of fascinating to see people change part of their perception of these groups based on their impression of me. In Australia, saying that you’re Christian will hardly raise an eyebrow but in Japan, people are genuinely curious about what that means to me.

“So…do you go to church?”

“Yeah. On Sundays.”

They’ll nod, trying to show restraint but then bursting out with, “why?”

Language

“お兄ちゃん,” I’ll often say while studying, “what’s this?”

I held up my mobile so he could see the flash card: 河 (kawa).

“River,” he said, flicking his eyes at the screen.

“But I thought this was river,” I’ll persisted, tracing 川 (kawa) out on the table in front of us. “What’s the difference? Why are there two kanjis? With the same meaning? And pronunciation?”

“I don’t know!” he said, mimicking the urgency of my tone. “There just is!”

“唓! (che: pfft/whatever!)” I muttered, before realising that お兄ちゃん doesn’t understand Cantonese slang.

Sometimes, I forget which language I’m speaking and which one I should or shouldn’t be using.

It won’t be at school while I’m teaching or when I’m practicing Japanese conversation or when I’m with strangers. It’ll be the odd phrase or expression here or there when I’m with people who I feel comfortable enough with to lower my mental guards.

With just English and Chinese, it was much more manageable. Adding a third language is making things a little more complicated.

When I joined the school, I was two things to my coworkers: a foreigner and a stranger. Neither of which encouraged them to speak Japanese to me on a regular basis. Or ever. I wouldn’t have understood them even if they did. Even when I started writing this blog, I mentioned that my listening was terrible compared to my reading and grammar. Within these last few months, however, a cycle has started in our office.

Our managers will sometimes lapse into Japanese while they’re talking to me, especially at the end of the day when they’re too tired to try. It’s nothing too complicated; just a few words and phrases peppered throughout the conversation. Now, the more I’m adapting to the words and phrases, the more the ratio of Japanese to English is inverting.

It’s not uncommon for us to blatantly mix languages in the same sentence. Sometimes our vocabulary slips and sometimes we just apply our native grammar to the foreign vocabulary.

My favourite things to parrot are the slang and expressions that don’t translate well. Like ending my sentences with “ね (ne: don’t you agree?)” or “よ (yo: emphasises whatever you were saying)” or “かな (kana: maybe).”

Or saying things that are tonally different to their English counterparts like, “どうしょうかな? (doushoukana: what should I do?)”

Child that I am, I will actively find opportunities to drop them into conversations until I can’t stop saying it, even when I’m FaceTiming my friends and family back home.

Thoughts?