Saturday, January 16, 2010

A Stranger in a Strange Land: Part 2

Outside Kyoto Imperial Palace, Japan, April 1987

Getting There
In December 1986, at the age of 23, I left Portland for Japan. We made a plane change in Anchorage and that is when I realized what my discounted college student airline ticket got me: one of the worst seats on the plane--outside the bathroom with no view of the movie screen. I was exhausted and attempted sleep, but sleep did not come. There was a nice lady sitting next to me, however, every time I even moved a little in my seat, she politely said... "do you want to play scrabble?" ugh!!! By the time we made it to Korea I was exhausted and irritable--and sitting in the Seoul Airport--I was freezing cold. We had a long layover and it was very early in the morning. I wandered over to the window to see what Seoul, Korea looked like and what I saw scared me. It seemed the entire terminal was surrounded by armed military guards. There were many moments during the 24 hour trip to Japan that I questioned my sanity. What was I doing? I was already incredibly lonely. By the time I finally got to Osaka International Airport, I could feel it, for sure, I was getting sick.

The first week I spent in Kyoto, Japan mainly got me the inside of a very small hotel room. I was sick with a cold the entire week and Michael spent a good deal of time trying to find medicine that would help. Even enlisting the aid of both English and Japanese speaking friends did not really get me much relief. Medicine is definitely one of those essentials to bring with to a foreign country. On New Years Day, Michael stayed up to watch the ASU Sun Devils defeat the Michigan Wolverines in the Rose Bowl, which aired in the middle of the night. Pretty cool that it was even on TV in Kyoto, Japan in 1987. I sampled some interesting Japanese food that week including Okonomiyaki. I was a little disturbed that they called it Japanese pizza? Really the only similarity to pizza was that it was round and it had toppings. Okonomiyaki is more like a cabbage pancake with toppings like fish flakes or thinly sliced sauteed beef. Different areas of Japan have their own style Okonomiyaki. You rarely see it on American Japanese Restaurant menus. Condiments include Japanese style BBQ sauce and mayonnaise. I do like Okonomiyaki, but it is NOTHING like pizza. I also figured out pretty quick that it was important to wear socks with my shoes when going out to restaurants. Otherwise, when I deposited my shoes at the door upon entering, I was wandering around a cold restaurant in the winter in my bare feet. That was uncomfortable and inappropriate in all sorts of ways. It may seem silly that I wasn't wearing socks, however, remember I had been living in Arizona... I barely even owned socks!

At the end of our little hotel vacation, reality hit like a brick wall. Michael had to go back to work and back to his living arrangements in the corporate dorm on the outskirts of Kyoto, and I had to move into a boarding house room that Michael had found for me in a very old section of Kyoto. The day we moved me in, it was snowing. We lugged my two suitcases up a very steep and narrow flight of stairs and into my room which was approximately 4 feet by 7 feet. There was an old window that looked out to the rooftops of the surrounding buildings and I stood there and watched the snow and thought how gray everything was and then realized how very very cold I was. The walls were so thin, I probably could have put my fist right through them without any trouble. The house itself was maybe 300 years old. The toilets were across the street. The wall between my room and the girl next door was a shoji screen. The first night I spent in that room I thought I would surely freeze to death. Not two weeks before, I had been living in Phoenix.

The boarding house was run by a little old Japanese lady who sat in a recliner across from the Japanese bath tub room, watched TV all day and yelled at her tenants as we went in and out of the room for our Japanese style bath. What did she yell about? I really had no idea since I knew very little Japanese at the time. It was a bit disconcerting nonetheless. Apparently she was yelling that taking a bath cost money. It was not included in the rent? I avoided her as much as I could, but the whole thing was seriously depressing. When Michael came to visit she laid into him about how rude I was and made him pay money for my baths. I never really thought of myself as a big cry baby, but living in this place made me cry every day. The rest of the rooms were occupied by foreigners who taught at the English School where Michael had garnered me an interview. There were a number of Canadians, Australians, British folks and my next door neighbor was German. I had taken no foreign language in high school (gotta love the American school system in the 70's & 80's). In college I had taken a year of German and a semester of Japanese. So really, I had no foreign language skills. Along with the interview, Michael had scheduled me into Japanese classes close to the boarding house. So when Michael left me that first Sunday afternoon in my cold cold room in that old old house, I had a busy week ahead. Hopefully busy enough to keep my mind off of just how miserable I really was.

For whatever reason--my upbringing, my personality--I can honestly say now that I did not enter Japan with the kind of awe and wonder that I think I should have. What I did not understand at the time was just how lucky I was that I had been given the opportunity to experience this amazing country, and especially the amazing city of Kyoto, from such an intimate view point. For as mature as I thought I was, I was immature in my ability to shoulder a little adversity in order to embrace the wonder and adventure that lay before me. My how much we learn over the course of our lives. It makes me wonder just what I will learn in the next 20 years.

On My Own in Kyoto
My first week on my own was a very eventful one. I figured out how to get places, by foot, bus, train. I had never used so much public transportation in my life. I figured out food that I liked to eat. I got invited out to coffee more than a couple times by older Japanese men, but because of the language barrier, I had no idea what they were saying... what they were saying was "Ko-hee" and then they pointed to the nearest coffee shop. Since I didn't drink coffee, I had no idea that Ko-hee was coffee. Clueless!!! I loved the bigger train stations with shops underground and American music playing on the sound system. I can still remember walking into the Polo Store in Kyoto Station and hearing The Bangles: 'Walk like an Egyptian', it all seemed so surreal. It was funny to see commercials and billboards with big American movie stars selling things like energy drinks, Whiskey and Japanese Beer. Big stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone; at the time, it was still a secret that big time actors were getting lots and lots of money in foreign countries to do ads that they would never stoop to doing in America. I spent as much time away from my boarding house as I could and wandered around the streets of Kyoto.

My interview at the English School was not so awesome, however. I was not at all sure what to expect but I had learned from some of the other foreigners at the boarding house that foreigners did not teach beginners. We were special and were given only students who had passed certain exams and the students were expected to speak only English in class. Phew, since clearly I had no Japanese skills. What I was not expecting, however, was the very large, very rude American man that ran the school. Let me just say right now that he took one look at me and did NOT like me. He immediately laid into me about my clothes. My casual leggings (it's the 80's people) and long JAG sweatshirt. It was the warmest outfit I had and very stylish, in my mind. I actually could not wait until things warmed up so I could bring out the mini skirts, the staple of my ASU wardrobe. Well, once he got done lecturing me about the teacher dress code (skirts and dresses preferred and nothing above the knee--no way!!!!), he explained that he may not be able to hire me because I had not graduated college. Apparently ALL the other teachers were college graduates. The only reason he was giving me a chance at all was because I came highly recommended (by Michael's good friend who had taught there for a while) and because I was old enough to have graduated from college. Hmmm. BUT, first I would have to take an extensive English test and score above 85%--that was mandatory. Sheesh, I was starting to get worried. I thought this was going to be a slam dunk and no one had told me about a test. I was given 2 hours to complete the 4 page test. There was a very sweet little Japanese lady brought in as proctor. So even though I was completely unprepared for this, I got right to it. I completed the multiple choice test in less than an hour and scored 100%. Seriously, I think it was a test meant for 4th graders. The Japanese lady graded it and was very pleased with me. The big, rude American came back in and sort of begrudgingly congratulated me for doing well on the test. He said I was hired and would start work in a couple days. They would call me at the boarding house. Yikes, once the landlady found out I was gainfully employed, I'm sure she was going to figure out a way to charge me even more.

Stood up in Yamashina
The day after my interview I was scheduled to meet Michael at the train station nearest the Kyocera Headquarters. I just needed to get my self from Kita-ku (north Kyoto where my boarding house was located) to Yamashina. A couple of trains, not so bad. Michael was to meet me at the station and we would go for dinner to his favorite little neighborhood restaurant. I arrived right on time to the station. It was cold and snowing. I was excited to see this area of Kyoto where Michael had spent so much time since arriving in Japan five months prior. I waited and waited. My excitement slowly turned into frustration as an hour had gone by and no Michael....

Gotta run, until next time, bye bye.

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