Monday, October 1, 2007

I Heart Japan: Random Musings

I heart Japan. And the reasons why are almost as random as my day-to-day existence here. Take the last 24 hours, for example:

"They came in an airplane! They came in an airplane!"
A few of us from the Nagano (see below) crew decided to stop at a ramen shop on the way back to Fukui yesterday. It was Sunday afternoon, and the tiny restaurant was packed with families and young kids. We added our name to the list and waited near the door, attempting not to visibly drool at the bowls of steaming ramen being carried past us.

I decided to take my mind off of my hollow stomach by striking up a conversation with a fellow would-be diner standing near the door. He was four years old. I know this because I know how to ask "How old are you?" in Japanese. Err, it's the only thing I know how to say. Period.

The kid smiled shyly, held up four fingers, and then ran to his mom, who was seated, to bury his head in her lap. He stole a few stares at us before his family's table was called.

We were seated shortly thereafter and had set to work deciphering the kanji on the menu when we were interrupted. Our little four-year-old friend had walked over to our table to ask us a very important question:

"Did you come to Japan in an airplane?"

We nodded "yes." He ran back to his table, screaming, "They came in an airplane! They came in an airplane!" We could hear him talking about this amazing feat with his family for a full 10 minutes.

His reaction doesn't surprise me. We are, after all, fascinating people.

Curious George: How to Become Fluent in Japanese
I've been working with a Japanese tutor for about five weeks now. Considering the fact that I was illiterate when I arrived in this country two months ago, I'm proud of the fact that I am now able to read katakana and hiragana, two of the three writing systems used in Japanese.

I am, perhaps, not so proud of the fact that what I am reading is children's literature. Curious George, to be precise. And s-l-o-w-l-y.

Tonight, I arrived at my class and was greeted with a big, hard-cover, fully-illustrated Curious George book that my tutor had checked out of the Fukui Public Library on my behalf. She opened to the first page and asked me to read aloud. I spent five minutes staring at the first word: ジョージ

"Jiiii-yo-oooo-jiiii?" "Ji-yooooooo-ji." "Ji-yo-ji." "Georg-ie?" "George!"

It took me a full 20 minutes to get through the first page. I learned that George and the Man in the Yellow Hat went to a parade. I'll fill you in on the rest of the plot when I finally make it to the end of the book in December.

The Kindness of Strangers
I've blogged before on the Japanese people's kindness, and I experienced it again tonight.

My little blue Suzuki died in the grocery store parking lot this evening. The car was $800, so I guess the cliché about getting what you pay for holds true. However, I'm sure last week's trip into the Gaijin Trap didn't help matters at all.

I kept turning the key in the ignition with no luck. I needed jumper cables. And I had no idea how to ask for them.

A guy across the parking lot observed my struggles and walked over to me. He rattled off some Japanese (none of which I recognized from Curious George, unfortunately). He motioned to the driver's seat, sat down and turned the key in the ignition. Apparently satisfied that the car was really dead, he walked back to his truck and sped away.

All of this time, I was flipping though my pocket dictionary, trying unsuccessfully to find the word for "jumper cable." And now, my only hope at getting them had driven away. The supermarket was getting ready to close and the parking lot was almost deserted.

Just as I was giving up hope, the truck reappeared in the parking lot. My friend had come back, jumper cables in hand, and was able to recharge my car battery. Before I could even muster a bow and a "domo arigato," he was gone again.

I couldn't help but wonder if I would have done the same for a strange, bumbling, illiterate foreigner standing alone in a grocery store parking lot back home. I'd like to think that I would. In Chicago, that's considered kindness. But here in Japan, that's just the way things are.

And that's why I heart Japan.


Susan said...

I loved your stories! If this blog doesn't make every reader want to visit Japan, I don't know what would. The simplicity, yet beauty, of your observations is purely refreshing.

Sara Paxton said...

Sara, you should be featured in a national geographic article. You are amazing at this. I love reading every day and now I DEFINITELY want to visit Japan!!!