Moving away is an experience unlike any other I have had before. In fact, never before have I moved more than a twenty-minute drive away from my family home. A direct flight to Japan takes 12 hours, or if you’d prefer a cheaper deal, like us, then the journey can extend to 24! It is a country where English is not commonly spoken, and you can't get by simply speaking English and hoping people will grasp some of what you’re saying.
When I travelled with a friend around India for three months I didn't know any Hindi words apart from the classic greeting 'Namaste'. I don't remember even trying to learn the word for thank you (I feel a little embarrassed at that fact right now). Even if I had learnt some of the local language, there never seemed any need to use it as everyone seemingly spoke English and we never encountered any difficulties.
Japan, however, is a whole different ball game. Rarely will you meet a local who can string together more than a couple of English phrases. Even then, that tends to be the extent of their English capabilities and the conversation generally ends there..
James already has a very good comprehension of Japanese and although he's still learning it's been more than enough to see us through the first eight weeks. He can read the menus, order the food, make small talk with the locals and even crack jokes and translate for me what his Japanese friends are saying. With James here, it all works very well indeed.
However, when James received a job offer within the third week of being here it meant that after such a short time getting used to a whole new country, I was going to be on my own quite a bit during the days. This presented me with two options: to stay in, binge watch Netflix and hide away; or I could go out there and explore on my own.
It feels ridiculous that outings to cafes or shops can be daunting tasks at the moment. Even the thought of going for a walk, browsing, and not necessarily having to speak to anyone can still be enough to put me off leaving the apartment for part of the day, but once I muster up the courage I find it's definitely worth it, and yet I seem to have the same cycle of thoughts each time.
When I was in England my days off consisted of wandering around shops and visiting an absurd amount of cafes with friends. I don't have any hobbies per se, but coffee and talking is basically a perfect combination for me. For someone who is such an extrovert, spending a lot of time inside and not talking all day until once James returns from work has the potential to take me on a downward spiral- I am energised by talking to people (which is quite the opposite for James). Consequently, when he returns exhausted from work I basically talk his ears off.
Eight weeks in and I still get the inner debate of should I/shouldn't I brave the outside world and go and get a coffee. James has trained me well in saying my order and I can say all the polite things that are required but much deviation from that and I'm lost.
Saying that, I want to share two lovely experiences that I have had while venturing out on my own:
I was at McDonald's (a perfect place for my first time going solo) sitting with a coffee and feeling awkward, but I had my kindle so it was a good way to keep looking down and avoid eye-contact. When an older lady walked past and I moved my bag to signal that there was a free space next to me. She smiled and a few moments later appeared with her tray and placed a napkin full of chips on my table. I was slightly stunned but managed a ‘Thank you very much!!!’ in Japanese. She sat down and we were side by side, both with a coffee and chips, reading. If only I could have communicated to her how that moment made me feel. Could she read on my face how uncomfortable I was feeling? We sat there together and soon some of her friends joined her, they all smiled and when I left they all waved and shouted goodbye. What an adorable woman, I will remember her and her kindness for a long time.
Fast-forward to my first day of teaching and I was feeling very nervous and slightly sick. I had imagined that Japanese schools were super strict and the teachers were going to be crazily efficient. I had horrible visions of all these children watching while I attempted to improvise with a very vague lesson plan that I'd been given. As I arrived at the school, I met the teacher I was going to be teaching with- he was flustered and the first thing he said was “Ah I'm sorry, I'm feeling very nervous” and it put me straight at ease, it seemed he was winging it just as much as I was. All the children I met ran along the corridors shouting “Hello!” and “Ooh- Ego no sensei!” (“Ooh- English teacher!”), and each teacher I met wanted to shake my hand and tell me thank you for coming to teach at their school. Everyone I met that day was so warm and friendly, I had nothing to be so nervous about.
Everytime I leave the apartment on my own, feeling a bit nervous, I can honestly say that I meet someone kind and friendly- whether it's someone who is serving at a cash till, smiling and humouring me while I attempt to order in Japanese, or a stranger sitting next to me in a cafe. The Japanese have come across remarkably well in my books, they are so quick to be helpful and they always go the extra mile to serve you. In a place where you can feel lost and like you can’t communicate, they do a good job at comforting me that I can explore on my own. With time, as I learn more of the language, it looks hopeful to me that one day I may be able to feel at home here.