As soon as I told any of my friends in Pakistan I was going to study for a semester in Tokyo, it was as if my facial features suddenly started turning Japanese.
“Oh yes, you even look like them. You have their eyes,” they said, stretching their eyelids horizontally in opposite directions to emphasize the point.
How I started to look Japanese as soon as I got accepted for an exchange program is beyond me. Psychology works in mysterious ways.
Most Pakistani students tend to head for the United States or Europe for studies rather than “the Orient” — hence the extreme (and yes, admittedly racist) reaction.
Right up until the last-minute goodbyes at Jinnah International Airport in Karachi, my hometown, I was constantly bombarded with suggestions, advice and an infinite list of “to-dos in Japan” by family and friends.
I hurried to the queue to check in with my 40 kg-worth of luggage. My ticket clearly allowed a total of 27 kg, but my mind and mom assured me that the fact that I was heading abroad for a five-month stretch would be taken into consideration and the overweight baggage would be waved through.
Both of us were proven wrong when I was handed a bill for 40,000 Pakistani rupees (approximately ¥40,000) for excess baggage. I decided that I couldn’t part with that amount of money and left the smaller bag with my family. It was only later that I realized every important survival accessory (from toothbrush to shampoo) had been in the little bag I had said goodbye to.
On the ride from Narita airport to Shinjuku, I was captivated by the way men dressed in particular. Boys wearing bright pink, deep-necked shirts with handbags were not a rare sight. However, one vision that really stood out was a group of schoolboys wearing what appeared to be knee-length skirts. I smirked to myself. This was truly an amazing start to my “cultural exchange.”
This was my first trip to Japan, and there was a whole new world of Hello Kitty to discover: from pajamas to shirts, towels to toilet paper, accessories to hosiery — you name it. Moreover, coming from Pakistan (where people are generally said to have comparatively bigger eyes), I never thought there could be a country in the world that compares in terms of the proportion of its GDP spent on fake eyelashes. But Japan certainly proved to be an eye-opener in that respect.
Once, as I took a morning train from Kyoto to Osaka, I noticed a girl meticulously applying makeup and then a set of fake lashes. Her perfection made the whole ritual appear intriguing, and I ended up buying a pair for myself. The fact that I, a first-timer in the art, could not stick the lashes on properly remains a source of shame for me and my kind.
Before I’d even had time to properly settle in, it was time for Eid, a Muslim holiday that I had never spent away from home and family before. Since Pakistan is an Islamic republic and Muslims constitute the majority, there you can observe extremely elaborate Eid celebrations spread over at least three days — equalling (if not surpassing) the New Year’s celebrations in Japan.
There are two Eids in a year and, during both periods, bazaars in Pakistani cities are packed with people, shopkeepers extend their opening hours until 6 a.m. and the country doesn’t have silent nights for at least a fortnight.
Typically, on the night before Eid, the girls get mehendi (temporary henna tattoos) on their hands. The salons, too, work through the night, and experts in mehendi usually get home from work at 7 a.m. on Eid day.
It’s an occasion when people visit relatives and friends, invite each other for meals, prepare traditional sweets, make new fancy clothes and give money (called eidi) to anyone younger than them.
My Muslim friends and I decided to keep ourselves extremely busy throughout the day so that homesickness wouldn’t set in on this most joyous of occasions. I pledged to find mehendi in Tokyo to make my Eid as Pakistani as was realistically possible. Shin-Okubo’s small street of subcontinental shops helped me keep my pledge.
On the eve of Eid, I applied mehendi on other Muslim girls and myself and we all looked forward to the day ahead. Eid starts with special prayers, so we decided to head for Tokyo Camii, a mosque built and managed by the Turkish Muslim community in Tokyo.
We made our way from Shinjuku to Yoyogi Uehara dressed in traditional clothes at 7 a.m., along with our non-Muslims friends who were interested in Islamic architecture and the religion in general. As we walked from Yoyogi Uehara to the mosque, we saw many Muslim families — daughters holding their fathers’ hands, newborn babies wrapped in their mothers’ favorite clothing, some couples quarreling, others expressing affection — all on their way to attend the ritual.
People lined up for prayers outside the mosque, and as there were too many to fit inside, prayer mats were also spread outside the building to accommodate the crowd. This was when I realized just how large the Muslim community in Tokyo really is.
After the prayer, there was a lavish breakfast for everyone consisting of rice with mutton curry, borek (a type of pastry), salad and mashed potatoes, followed by the Turkish sweet baklava and Turkish tea — in layman’s terms, it was a free buffet. Japanese, Bengalis, Africans, Indians, Moroccans, Egyptians, Arabs, Uzbeks, Indonesians, Algerians, Iranians, Malaysians and Pakistanis were all represented, and we spent a couple of hours socializing at the mosque and learned how different countries celebrate Eid in their own unique ways.
We then wished a joyous and prosperous Eid to everyone and headed off to spend the rest of the day in Shibuya. It was a long but pleasant walk with newly made friends. Time and again we were hailed with “Assalam-o-alaikum” (“May peace be upon you”), the Muslim way of greeting, by the local Japanese and foreigners, regardless of their religion. This showed how the mosque has made Yoyogi Uehara a center of Muslim life in Tokyo, and a place in Japan where neighbors are perhaps uniquely aware of Islamic traditions.
Under Islamic law, some things are categorized as halal (permissible) and others haram (forbidden), and I presumed before I arrived that I would not be able to eat most of the food served in Japan. Alcohol and pork (or any by-product of pork) are in the haram category, and other red meat has to be produced in a specific way for it to be deemed halal.
Fortunately, however, Tokyo has subcontinental and other halal restaurants in abundance and, contrary to expectations, food was rarely an issue. However, cash for me was certainly not in abundance, and these restaurants were super-takai, so there was no way I could eat out at such places every day.
Coming from Pakistan, where alcohol is haram and not commonly available,,the deeply ingrained culture of nomikai (drinking parties) really took me by surprise. Japan as a land is so famous for its devotion to seafood, yet it seemed to me that life — or student life, at least — revolves much more around alcohol than food. I was invited to a nomikai every other day, and unlike other foreigners I had to turn down these offers. Frankly, I saw no point in going to a nomikai and sipping orange juice, as many of my Japanese friends suggested. I still wonder what the average university student spends on these parties in a year.
Talking of prices, I received one of my biggest shocks when I first promised to cook and went to buy tomatoes, a very basic ingredient in Pakistani curries. I was used to buying groceries in kilos, if not dozens. One kilogram of tomatoes would cost approximately ¥30 on average in Pakistan. I was forced to reconsider the whole idea of cooking when I first saw a solitary tomato on sale for ¥150.
That night I got a chance to talk to my parents in a video call online and narrate the story. Their wide-eyed expressions were definitely worth a screenshot.
While in Japan, I was asked a lot about Pakistan — about life in the country, security issues, culture and heritage. To answer these questions and correct some of the false impressions created by the sensationalist coverage of the country by the international media, I decided to organize a Pakistan Night at my university. The event was open to the public, and many people were mesmerized by the beauty of Naran, Kaghan, Swat, Kashmir and other northern areas of Pakistan we introduced, and were amazed to learn that Pakistani women, who are popularly believed to be severely oppressed, served in the army.
Keiko Sakurai, a professor of Islamic Studies at Waseda University, enlightened everyone about the JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) schools in Pakistan. She also talked of how she felt at home when she visited the northern region of the country, where the people had small eyes and a flat nose — facial features typical of the Japanese.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to claim that every person in Pakistan knows about Japan in some way or the other. The most illiterate person is aware that the country produces the majority of the cars on Pakistan’s roads; students are exposed to Japan’s history and popular culture, from samurai and geisha to anime and manga; a graduate is sure to know about the notoriously tough work culture; a businessperson identifies Japan with technological progress and corporate strategies that are crucial to their training; a retired person is more likely to envy the peace in Japan and long life expectancy of the Japanese.
In a video call one night while I was in Japan, my father talked of the high regard for the Japanese nation in every Pakistani’s heart. The people back home were saddened by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, and wanted me to help pass on their condolences to those affected by the disaster. Moreover, the reaction of the Japanese nation following the disaster — their strength under pressure, solidarity and volunteer spirit — deeply impressed everyone in Pakistan.
As for me, I know Japan as a country where an old gentleman missed his train to buy me a ticket to the right train and safely escort me to the platform. I take back to Pakistan with me a huge list of “to-dos in Japan” — all checked — and an even bigger list of lessons learned and moments savored.
Kanza Azeemi, a third-year student at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) in Pakistan, was an exchange student at Waseda University from September 2011 to January 2012. She blogs at kazeemi.wordpress.com and can be contacted at email@example.com. Light Gist offers a humorous take on life in Japan on the last Tuesday of the month. Send all your comments and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org