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Stages of assimilation

by Amy Chavez

When you first set foot in Japan, it’s hard not to be impressed by the efficiency and social order. The streets are clean, trains run on time, and the people are quiet and polite, yet possess enough of the bizarre to make them interesting. (One of the first Japanese people I met was a woman who always wore purple and my staid boss was a Beatles fanatic).

As a foreigner, you are a VIP guest in this country and you quickly become pro-Japan, a cheerleader extolling the benefits of a sophisticated, polite society. The health care system is great! My workplace pays my transportation! No income tax my first year! You are in La-La Land. Nothing can touch you. This is such a great country, you say. Because it is.

But what’s with the kanji? you ask. There’s no way such an inefficient writing system will still be alive in 20 years. With the popularity of computers, which require students to first type Japanese in the English alphabet, then change it to Japanese kana (either hiragana or katakana) and again change the hiragana to kanji, such a laborious practice is bound to atrophy. Why not just stop at the roman alphabet? Kids spend 30 minutes a day at school studying kanji! They could be using that time to study English.

If you moved to Japan to teach English, you probably love your job. You’re not just a teacher, you’re a sensei. The Japanese people LOVE me! I am representative of everything young, hip and international. I was even invited to be an honored guest at a Japanese colleague’s wedding!

But outside the classroom, don’t dare speak to me in English — I’m learning Japanese! (You are trying really hard and it shows.) Wow, someone told me I speak Japanese better than the Japanese! You’re adjusting to life in Japan. I love Japanese-style barbeques, and the way they cook vegetables on the grill with the meat. OMG — how can people afford those ¥5,000 cantaloupes? Fruit is so expensive here! You had eel and chicken cartilage for lunch and think: My friends at home aren’t going to believe this! You start a blog.

As you begin to understand the culture better, you feel more comfortable. You still marvel. You “level up” your cheerleading skills and join the gaijin Japan Self-Defense Forces to protect your beloved adopted country from any type of criticism, especially the kind that comes from sour-puss expats.

Five years later:

When is the government going to stop protecting the rice farmers? When are they going to put these corrupt officials in jail? When are the Japanese going to internationalize? I was pulled over on my bicycle today just because I’m a foreigner! You know, maybe those sour-puss expats have a point.

English, English, English! C’mon everyone: Head, shoulders, knees and toes!

These Japanese teachers don’t know a thing about teaching English. Why am I sitting here in the teacher’s room during school break when the kids aren’t even in school? You know, I could be in Thailand right now.

Why is this Japanese guy speaking to me in English when my Japanese is waaaaay better than his? One more end-of-the-year party, one more kick line. OK, OK, I’ll play Santa Claus again this year. Have you heard about the new Ikea store? Screw the overcooked, blackened vegetables on the barbecue that the drunk guy from our group is cooking — can’t someone just throw a steak on the barbie? And why do we always start these barbecues so late — would someone please turn on some car headlights so we can see?! I hear Jon and Sakiko are getting married. You mean we have to pay to go to their wedding? I hear Jim bought a house. I thought foreigners couldn’t buy land in Japan.

Ten years later:

Is that person from England, Ireland, Australia or America? I didn’t even notice their accent! Did that Japanese guy just speak to me in English or Japanese?

Let’s buy the school principal that ¥5,000 cantaloupe to thank him for all his help this year. Or do you think I’m still being too much of a cheapskate? Does anyone know where you can buy a Western-style gas barbecue? Do I need a building permit to build a deck on my house? Honey, have we thanked Suzuki-san for his New Year’s card yet? Do you remember what kanji the Haradas chose for their baby’s name? I told my daughter that if she passes that exclusive elementary school’s entrance exam, I’ll to buy her the new Hello Kitty bedding.

Wow, the new prime minister speaks English. It’s an encouraging sign, but I doubt it will change anything. Still, a lot of things about Japan are better than they are in my home country. My kids are safe here, the health system is great and I’ll soon draw a pension. My kids are bilingual, polite and they understand two cultures. Who cares if I still don’t have a proper Japanese driver’s license?

What makes us Westerner’s think our ways are better than everyone else’s? Just let the Japanese be who they want to be! This country is never going to change, and you know what? I’m OK with that. Life is pretty good here. I’m still a sensei and people still treat me like a VIP, even if I don’t always deserve it. But I still wonder why those sour-puss expats don’t just go back to their countries.