Getting to know a country

29 Sep

I feel like I haven’t even brushed the surface of Japanese culture. And I haven’t, really. I don’t have Japanese friends and I barely know my colleagues; I don’t participate in any clubs or anything (yet). So I feel like there’s so much I don’t know, and I don’t understand 95% of what’s going on around me.

But then I stumbled upon some notes I wrote last winter. Things like this:

Possible placement requests? Okinawa is warm, with beaches and lots of Americans. Nara is a popular request; not sure why.

Learn the alphabets first. “Hiragana” is easier, usually taught first, though “katakana” may be more useful.

And so on. I had no idea what any of these places or things were. I had never heard of Nara or Okinawa, let alone Fukuoka, Kyushu, Kurume, or little old Chikugo I now call home. These places didn’t exist to me.

And language? Well, I never thought to learn Japanese. Why would I, when probably only a few million people speak it, right? I didn’t even know the population of Japan before applying to JET. I figured it was about the size of a small European country, not 150 million people strong.

Moreover, I had never experienced a language as different from English as Japanese. No definite or indefinite articles at all?? (a, the, etc.) You don’t pluralize anything? Conjugating adjectives instead of verbs? What the hell is going on??? I still don’t know, but at least I know that it’s possible, that it exists. I see the connection between a culture that prizes subtlety and indirectness, and its language that puts the verb at the end of every sentence. And I see how diametrically opposed both the language and mentality are to Western culture and Romance languages, and I am astounded by the fact that we manage to interact at all.

Yet we do. And I am beginning to make sense of all this, like millions before me. The geography and culture map of Japan is unfolding before me, slowly, the same way the geography of Spain did when I lived there. I will not leave without gaining some understanding of Japanese history, of how the regions of the country differ and interact and how they came to be that way, and ultimately, of how all of this impacts Japan’s interactions with the rest of the world.


2 Responses to “Getting to know a country”

  1. sunny oneil October 2, 2010 at 1:12 pm #

    thank you for your comments about the trip to kyoto. this ability to create environments that refresh the soul must be part of the reason that the japanese can fit 150 milion people in a land mass about the size of california.

  2. sunny oneil October 5, 2010 at 2:54 am #

    This is what I want to say about living in a country: the first couple of months, one is like a tourist. The average tourist visits a country for maybe a week or two or three, and is impressed or not, and has thoughts about what they’ve seen. Then they go home and resume their life. Something different happens when one lives in a country. Sure, the first few weeks are the same as a tourist. But then there is a period when one goes about just living; one doesn’t notice really the fact that it’s a different country. It’s similar to a tourist returning home and going on with daily life. But then, after that, one all of a sudden wakes up and realizes, whoa, here I am, this is my daily life but this is totally different from what I knew, in fact, this is overwhelmingly different from what I knew. It’s at this point that one really begins to experience the new country. One might call this “Phase 2.” This is what a tourist will never experience because de facto their real daily life stays “home.” Carolyn, it’s great that you’re feeling the “differentness” of your new life. That is where true appreciation begins, and this is where true traveling takes place.

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