Love/Hate

Last Friday night. Being the social creature that I am, I did the usual thing of holing up in my room with a book and a quickly emptied mug of tea.

“プリス今どこ?(purisu ima doko: where are you now?)” my phone lit up. One of my housemates.

Texting in Japanese makes me squirm. Instant messaging is meant to be instant, after all, and I am incapable of doing so in this language. Not to mention that all my mistakes are on display as soon as I hit send.

“私の部屋 (watashi no heya: in my room),” I sent back. “どうしたの?(doushitano: why? What’s up?)”

My guess was that I’d need to get the door. There’s no intercom system to get into our house so if you forget your key, you can either get someone to open it for you from the inside or wait until the next person comes home. We all opt for the former.

A gentle whoop alerted me to the reply. “今忙しい?(ima isogashii: are you busy at the moment?)”

“Nope,” I replied, switching languages for speed now that my interest was piqued. Opening doors doesn’t require that much time.

“新しい外国の人がいるんだけど、日本語わからないんだ(atarashii gaikokunojin ga irundakedo, nihongo wakaranainda: there’s a new foreigner here but they don’t understand Japanese),” came an equally quick reply, “キッチンに来れる? (kicchin ni koreru: can you come to the kitchen?)”

I laughed. Uh sure, I thought, wondering what I was supposed to do. Welcome them, maybe? After all their help in getting me settled in, it was time to pass it on. And, if we’re going to be completely honest, I really should be more social. On a Friday night, no less.

Grabbing milk and my empty mug on my way out the room, I figured I could microwave my now cold pot of tea while I was there.

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Tea: my social safety blanket.

Our new housemate had just arrived in Japan the day before and moved in earlier that afternoon. So, for the first time in a while, I was able to unleash a storm of English in our common room. It wasn’t long, however, for the other housemates to join in the conversation – in English – to my surprise.

To my great surprise.

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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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Foreign concepts

When I was still in uni, my mum and I visited Japan as tourists.

“Mum, when we get to Japan,” I said on the plane, “I’ll be tempted to buy everything. I’m not allowed to buy any clothes before I imagine what they’d look like back in Australia, ok?”

“Ok,” said Mum. “Why?”

“Because I’ll think it looks cool in Japan because everyone else is dressed the same. But it might make me look like a Fob in Australia.”

“Yeah, yeah, ok,” she said.

With a response like that, I’d assumed she wasn’t really listening to me but a few days later, while shopping, she held a jacket up to her chest.

“What do you think?” she asked. “Does it make me look Fob?”

I laughed. “Mum, you’re allowed to look Fob.”

She cocked her head to the side. What do you mean?

“Mum, you got to Australia on an actual boat. You are a Fob. Literally.”

I’ve always known the phrase “Fob” (short for “Fresh Off the Boat”) to be a derogatory term that was deemed acceptable for me to use because I’m Asian. And so I did. Playfully. I used it to describe accents and dress sense and cultural references.

And, as it so happened, what went around came around.

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Christmas in the East

What? A new post? It must be a Christmas miracle!

I really should apologise. I’m starting to slip on the weekly updates, hey?

Let me explain: I’m really busy. I usually study in the mornings, work until night and then write these posts. For the last month or so, it’s been a little hectic so it’s difficult to keep my eyes open after dinner. Even more difficult to focus on writing a thousand-odd words.

So this post is late, sure, but it’s here so let’s call it a win for today, shall we? After all, what’s Christmas about if not forgiveness?

Having read that last line out loud, my Japanese friend cocked her head to the side and went, “意味わかんない (imi wakannai: I don’t get it).”

Because while Christmas is either about the birth of Jesus or family or presents or getting a day off work to most people in Western counties, it means none of those things in Japan.

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Oblivious

I’m a button masher.

What’s a button masher? Glad you asked. Allow me to enlighten you.

Button masher (noun): a person whose only strategy for playing video games is to continuously press as many buttons on his or her controller – usually at a frantic pace – in an indiscriminate, random sequence until the game is finished.

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Sniffles

I’m sick.

If I was as sick as I was yesterday and working in Australia, I would’ve taken a sick day. But in Japan, there are three good reasons not to:

  1. People here don’t seem to take sick days unless they’re close to dying. They all have a great (or crazy?) work ethic. So pulling a sickie is positively unheard of.
  2. I wouldn’t get an emergency teacher. Fitting make-up lessons into an already busy schedule is not my favourite thing in the world.
  3. I’d need a translator to go to the doctors with me. And that’s not fun. It actually really awkward.

I’ve only been to the doctors in Japan once for anything other than a free health check.

It was about my second week into teaching. I guess my immune system wasn’t ready for the onslaught of child-borne germs that are rampant in schools.

After throwing up within the first hour of my shift, my managers cancelled my kids classes and sent me to a nearby doctor with a Japanese teacher to translate fo me. Keep in mind as you read this: I had only met her about a fortnight ago.

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A place to call home

“Before accepting this job, please consider that you’ll be away from your home and family for a long time,” the American recruiter told our group of forty applicants.

Well, duh, I thought.

I flew to Sydney to interview for the teaching job I have now. Over that weekend, I stayed at a family friend’s apartment.

So far, I was fine. I had already imagined life away from my family. Life without the comfort of Mum’s home cooking or spontaneous midnight trips to Coles with my big brother to raid the chips aisle. Life missing birthdays and Christmas dinners and everything in between.

It would be difficult, I knew. Yet, at the same time, I had dreamed of travelling the world for so long that I felt partially prepared for it.

So after a day of information, a short English test and a demonstration lesson in front of a small group, I was thrilled to find that I had passed through to the next round – individual interviews – scheduled for the next afternoon.

The next morning, a distant cousin picked me up and took me to her church, which happened to be a sister church of my own back in Melbourne. I had already met quite a few of her friends at national camps before so it was easy to follow along with the church service and tag along to their lunch afterwards.

As I left them to go to my interview, I realised that while I had instinctively prepared myself for the absence of my family, I hadn’t considered my church community.

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