Rounding out

“The line is so long.”

This didn’t faze me. After years of living in the country of unrivaled line waiting patience, I’ve started considering less than a one hour wait to be reasonable. Japanese people can wait without complaining for hours. In the rain. Before sunrise. I know, I’ve done it too.

So waiting for less than half an hour indoors for the best – bar none, the best – egg tarts I’ve ever tasted? Piece of …tart.

Day 929 (bonus): this is so good, I'm ready to marry the chef.

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“You get a table and I’ll bring them over, ok?” my dad said.

I nodded and headed into the cramped seating area. Every seat and substitute had been filled so with no existing line in sight, I stood to the side, making my own. In Hong Kong, I had a relative’s pocket wifi. In Macau, I relied on the free wifi that shopping centres doled out so I was perfectly content to catch up on my social media while waiting.

When a seat opened up a minute later, I pocketed my phone and headed over. Before I could reach the table, a woman flanked by bags swooped in and buried the table with her shopping. I looked around to find no one reacting to the table thief and decided that she hadn’t seen me.

It took another two times, once when I was already reaching for the seat, before I finally caught on to the rules of the line waiting: there are none.

This time, the phone stayed pocketed and I was on alert. At the next opportunity, I moved in too close too soon for normal social convention, almost hovering over the finishing occupants and sliding into the chair before they could push it back in.

Immediately, a woman came over and began berating me in Mandarin. People speaking in foreign languages at breakneck speeds have lost the fear inducing panic in me thanks to a long period of exposure, but at the volume and belligerence that she was going, I have to admit, I was a little stunned. I caught on to enough of the words to understand the general message but I decided to use the golden go-to I use for these situations in Japan… in Australia too come to think of it.

“我聽不懂 (wǒ tīng bù dǒng: I don’t understand).”

Later that week, safe in Japan from screaming Chinese people, my housemates shook their heads at me as I told them the story over egg rolls.

“日本人になったね (nihonjin ni natta ne: You’ve become Japanese),” they laughed.

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The scenic route

The headlights rolled along a fallen “DO NOT ENTER” sign along the dirt road before leaving it behind in total darkness.

“I don’t want to alarm anyone,” I said tentatively, really meaning that I didn’t want to alarm myself, “but isn’t this how all horror movies start? Kids exploring places where they really shouldn’t? In their dad’s car?!”

At sixteen, I was the only teenager in the group. Being in a car with twenty-somethings, I really didn’t want to be uncool. Even more than that, however, I didn’t want to die.

My oldest cousin chuckled, though not unkindly. “It’s ok,” he reassured me with his charming smile from the passenger seat. “Things only get crazy when it’s like, midnight, right?”

We all glanced at the clock. 11:55pm. Of course.

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There’s no place like home

If I had a hundred yen for every time someone asked me if I liked 納豆 (natto), I’d have enough money to bribe my way out of ever eating it again.

What’s natto? Fermented soybeans in all their sticky glory. Which doesn’t sound too bad, right? I thought so too.

I love Japanese food beyond sushi and ramen. I ate もつ鍋 (motsunabe), essentially stewed organs, for every second meal I was in Fukuoka. When I have friends visiting, I take them out to eat raw horse (馬刺し: basashi) and raw chicken (地頭鶏たたき: jitokkotori tataki), half because I want to give them a unique experience and half because I want to eat it.

Granted, I haven’t tried pufferfish (河豚: fugu) because it’s expensive, or whale, because… well, they’re whales and I can’t.

But natto. It’s something else. It’s healthy and cheap and part of almost every local household as far as I can tell but. No.

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Broad strokes

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“To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world…”

The fox, “The Little Prince,” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

I think Japan is taming me somewhat.

To them, before I came to be called プリちゃん (Purichan) or プリ子 (Puriko) or even プリス (Purisu), I was nothing more than a hundred thousand other foreigners with a hard-to-pronounce name. One of the thousands stalking around famous landmarks and little alleyways in search of a photo opportunity. One of the many miscommunications.

Then suddenly, one day, they started talking to me about other foreigners – even Australians and Chinese people – in front of and to me without that filter of politeness.

I will never completely shed my foreign status, no matter what my passport says or however fully I integrate into society. Yet apparently, neither am I considered wholly and newly foreign either. I’m in limbo. In the stages before I become someone who is more than just a Chinese-Australian, a foreigner. In the process of becoming tamed and therefore unique in all the world, beyond ethnicity or nationality.

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A different light

I am useless when I’m hungry.

When I was a student, I volunteered for an organisation called The Oaktree Foundation. They run an annual fundraiser called Live Below the Line. The fundraiser is for an undoubtedly good cause – aiding those living under the poverty line and empathising with their situation – but it’s also a special kind of torture, if we’re going to be honest here. You see, participants need to spend a week or more where their meals can add up to only $2 a day.

That’s a week or more of agonising over every gram and every cent of every meal. A week or more of having my saliva ducts set off by anything and everything from the fruity scent of my shampoo to the spelling of my surname. A week or more of savouring every bite, every flavour, every moment my stomach was full.

The first time I participated was in its inaugural year so I made the mistake of doing that week alone. My manager was so fed up (ha pun) with my grumpy disposition within our first shift together that she begged me to let her feed me.

“Donate to my page instead,” I huffed.

“But you can give food to the poor,” she reasoned. “Why can’t I do the same for you?”

“Because, ok? It’s just… That’s not how it works!” I cried out, scurrying off to fold more jeans before I snapped at her or burst into tears.

As it turns out, hunger makes me surprisingly emotional. At the time, it was also hard to identify what those emotions were exactly on an empty stomach. Was I angry? Was I sad? I couldn’t pinpoint anything beyond feeling “not good.”

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The deep end

“久しぶり!(hisashiburi: long time no see!)” I heard as soon as I walked through the door. “How have you been?”

“Good, good,” I smiled.

I caught up with my old office over the weekend for dinner. I used to see these people almost every day for the past two years. So after going a month cold turkey, I had half expected it to be a little jarring to catch up with them. As it turns out, it took about twelve seconds before we fell back into our old routine.

I asked about the office and their families. They asked about my new …everything: job, house, life.

“Well actually, this is nice. This is the most English I’ve spoken all week,” I laughed.

My former manager smirked at the computer screen where she was trying to focus half her attention. You have to understand that they were – and still are, I suppose – very likely to laugh as soon as I attempt to speak any Japanese. Without malice and with good reason, I’ll grudgingly admit.

“That’s good, though,” said お兄ちゃん, ever the teacher. “It sounds like a great learning environment.”

“I guess,” I said. “I just feel so stupid. Every day. All the time.”

I tried to speak a sentence or two in Japanese a few minutes later. Sure enough, both of them snorted almost immediately.

So I guess it’s official: after two years of living in Japan, I am now immersed. I haven’t moved to a different country, or even a different city, but it feels very much like it.

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In other words

Oh Twitter, you misleading bird, you. 140 characters? So short! Finally, a social media platform that won’t suck the time from your life… Wrong!

I have Twitter. Mind you, I only tweet about myself and about television shows. Well, I’ve only just gotten access to TV in the first time in two years so…I only really tweet about myself. Occasionally. Ok, fine. I don’t really tweet.

I wish I could use Twitter proficiently and join one of the many Twitter communities. But let’s be honest here: for such a small character limit, its nature of instancy means that it involves a lot of time commitment. Even on a non-participatory spectating level: if you refresh the page as soon as it’s loaded, there are sure to be new tweets already. It’s impossible to keep on top of it all.

So as a wise meme once said, “Ain’t nobody got time for ‘dat!”

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“Dang it!” *Blitz…*

I didn’t realise there’s a real life equivalent: being immersed in another language.

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