Sunday, March 29, 2009

Life in Japan #3: The Blundering Gaijin

The first thing I did after moving into my apartment was ruin a perfectly good roll of toilet paper. After using the bathroom for the first time, I rested a new roll on top of the tank beneath a conspicuous-looking faucet that turned on automatically when I flushed, soaking the roll beyond any comfortable use.

My toilet, which the Japanese usually keep separate from their bathing facilities for sanitary reasons. The faucet on top is actually a convenient way to quickly rinse your hands after answering nature’s call without having to run over to the adjacent bathroom.

Japan is filled with things like this that don’t function the way I’m accustomed, and thus turn even the most routine tasks into elaborate adventures. Is that slot on the subway ticket machine for inserting coins or for dumping out change? I had to push a button to open the door to the restaurant, but will it close again automatically? Where does the fabric softener go in my washing machine? Is this really flour I’m buying? And how the hell do I work this fucking rice cooker?

The rice cooker has only has three buttons, but it took nearly a week of delayed meals before I figured out how to use it properly. “It’s easy,” no fewer than three separate individuals told me while glorifying the advent of this labor-saving device. “All you do is press the button and wait a few minutes!”

The problem was that no one told me which of the three buttons to press. On my first attempt I mashed all of them at rotating intervals until it seemed like something began to happen inside, though after an hour I began to suspect that I had made a mistake. Or was it supposed to take this long? (No one had mentioned a specific cooking time.) My second and third attempts consisted of me trying different buttons, waiting a few minutes, then worrying that I’d pressed the wrong one and trying another. I got the rice to cook once but immediately forgot which button I’d pressed, and the next night I had to repeat the entire guessing process. After this I was a lot more careful about writing down the procedures for everything from the ATM to the water heater.

My apartment’s kitchenette. Note the damp roll of toilet paper next to the coffee mug.

Every day I face new challenges fueled by my cultural ineptitude and my inability to speak the language—challenges that are merely routine for the millions of Japanese who live here. Since nothing makes me feel more awkward than having my failures out in full view of a judgmental world, it’s no wonder I feel like the blundering gaijin who can’t do anything right.

Other shameful adventures experienced by yours truly include:

- In which Ian accidentally opens the package containing Katie’s old futon that he finds outside his new apartment, then has to converse with the Japanese delivery man who comes to take it away.
- In which Ian variably wakes up in cold or hot sweats because he’s accidentally pressed the Auto Timer button on his AC unit.
- In which Ian goes to wildly elaborate lengths to avoid being the only one in the teacher’s room in case the phone rings and he has to answer it in poorly pronounced Japanese
- In which Ian attempts to purchase a ten year-old Soul Flower Union CD at a J-POP record store.
- In which Ian goes out to eat with his foreign co-worker; and after forty-five minutes of not getting his fried rice, isn’t sure whether the waiter forgot the order or the food just isn’t coming.

These things happen so often that I don’t even notice them anymore, and I’ve gotten used to making elaborate preparations for tasks as simple as mailing a letter or ordering the aforementioned Soul Flower Union CD from Amazon. But for all my complaints, figuring out how to function here on even the simplest of terms gives me a wonderful sense of satisfaction that was far more difficult to come by at home.


Randall said...

Glad you took my advice on SFU to heart, but sorry it caused some new country related confusion for you.

Much love your way right now, man. Times like these, I want you to know I've been thinking of you, and when you get stateside again, we're going to have a long phone call remembering him.

Sam said...

My goodness, doesn't Japan have instant rice? Or is it such a staple of the diet that you're forced to buy huge hulking sacks full of it and pray to the rice cooker gods that you don't screw up? I fancy myself a pretty decent cook but I'd kill myself without Uncle Ben's Boil In Bag rice. (yum!)
Sorry to hear it's tough going there, but there is something kind of awesome about that too! And separate toilet/gross hands washing faucet is the best idea ever. I HATE going in my tiny bathroom in the morning and knocking the Q-Tips/toothpaste tube/soap/etc. into the open toilet in a bleary eyed blundering. I've ruined 3 toothbrushes that way in my lifetime.

Good luck, American!

Ian said...

There is some instant rice in the little grocery stores here, nothing I've ventured to try yet. Instead,I've indeed been buying 5 kilogram sacks on the cheap.

Sorry to hear about the demise of your toothbrushes...