We are now almost a quarter of the way through our tour, and have hit that odd stage of comfort with our outsider status in a now-familiar city, and navigating the uncertain waters of slightly higher expectations of our cultural awareness. In my case a lot of that comes in the form of learning the ins and outs of relationships between the Japanese people in the office — I am very careful to be sure to say hello and goodbye everyday to people whom I work with regularly, I remember all the secretaries names, I am very attentive to hierarchy. In return I am rewarded with cookies. If they don’t like you, they don’t give you cookies (as discovered by a bellicose fellow in my office). My team consists of 2 Japanese ladies, one guy from Hong Kong (who’s been in Tokyo for a long time), and the boss who is American. But I sit in the translators area, so I’m surrounded by Japanese ladies (most translators here seem to be women.) Mostly they speak Japanese — fast and quiet so I can’t understand a word — but they’re also careful to say hello and goodbye in english every day. Everybody is very nice (with the exception of Mr. Bellicose, whom I have to listen to all day, but fortunately don’t have to work with.) One of my coworkers has informed me that they (the local hires) are always very cautious with spousal hires (like me) because we can be “difficult”. I’m not really sure what that means, but she assures me that they’re all very relieved that I am not difficult. (Also, having emphasized how careful I am with the majority of the office ladies, my sortof-supervisor — a Japanese lady — is super relaxed. She’s married to an American and is very American in many of her mannerisms. She doesn’t like conservative Japanese stuff, and has a great sense of humor, so I can talk to her pretty openly. She’s become my source for any sort of cultural question.)
My language usage is also increasing slowly — today I wrote my first email all in Japanese kana (fortunately it was to my Japanese teacher, who will understand why I sound like a five year old.) I’ve become proficient at important skills like ordering food (harder than you’d think since they change how you count depending on what you’re counting), and asking where the bathroom/train station is. We’ve also adjusted (quite quickly I might add) to some of the things we can get in Tokyo that aren’t available in DC — hot tea from a vending machine on every corner, a healthy onigiri snack (a bit of fish wrapped in rice and seaweed) from any 7-eleven, the little shelves under your chair to stow your bag in restaurants, taiyaki, trains that run everywhere, frequently, and on-time, and of course we mustn’t forget amazing sushi (and every kind of Japanese food aside from sushi)…. and now I’m beginning to fret what I’m going to do about taiko when I go back to DC.
But of course there are still things that are challenging — we found a very cute little restaurant on Friday called Anan, which dubbed itself a “healthfood izakaya” (an izakaya is basically a bar with good food, they’re everywhere, relatively inexpensive, and the barfood isn’t even comparable to american barfood.) We ordered a bunch of small dishes — starting with a fresh-made tofu that was incredibly soft and rich. They brought it out with a set of 7 toppings and sauces to eat it with, but it was also delicious all by itself, which (although I do enjoy soy sauce and tofu and always have) says something about how flavorful this tofu was. Anyway, being so very soft (and a bit moist), eating it with chopsticks proved… difficult. I thought I was being relatively subtle in my incompetence until one of the waiters ghosted a spoon to the table next to my elbow. So, still too incompetent to eat my own dinner. But pride in these cases only yields hunger — the tofu was good; I used the spoon. We also ordered fresh vegetables with an unknown but tasty sauce (better than it sounds) which we managed not to fire across the room with our chopsticks (hard vegetables + slippery sauce= high projectile potential), pork-wrapped-ginger, and some momo (chicken thighs) and liver skewers. It was all delicious.
Although let me tell you one thing we are not adjusting well to, and will be relieved to escape: the bloody smokers in the restaurants and bars. There’s no law against smoking in restaurants in Japan, (although there are laws against smoking on the sidewalks….?? not that people seem to pay those any heed) and so all the business-men go out to get dinner and a beer after work and light up. Any time we go out in the evening we dress strategically in non-dry-clean clothing so that we can go home and immediately dump all our clothing in the washer, put our coats out on the porch, and hop in the shower. It makes my eyes burn in the tiny spaces of the restaurant, and we both end up coughing. One of my friends on the compound is pregnant and can’t go out to eat anymore because she can’t be in a room that full of smoke. It’s terrible.
Other little things continue to be mildly annoying — if I wear my hair down people stare at me. I’m always worried I’ve offended/irritated people and they’re just not telling me. Food marked “spicy” is rarely spicy. For some reason nobody can understand the difference between (hitotsu) and (futatsu) when I ask for (one) or (two) little things, although my Japanese teacher says I’m pronouncing it correctly.
Yet some things we thought we’d never grow to like have become more appealing — on Saturday I actually found a variant of dried squid that I liked. Chicken butt is delicious when prepared properly. I’m even getting used to the Japanese green tea that tastes like burnt rice. I’m not sure that I’ll ever crave fish for breakfast first thing in the morning, but it was a good way to get a solid meal to start things off without feeling weighed down for the rest of the day. Sortof the happy medium between a british breakfast and… well, anything healthy.
At any rate, our adventures progress (if slightly more sedately given Jen’s crazy work schedule and my adjustment to the new job). And we are in the process of planning a bunch of travel around Japan in the spring!