Voices | FOREIGN AGENDA

An interaction on the streets of Kobe illustrates what I like and dislike about living here

by Vanessa Abou-Khalil

Contributing Writer

The question I’ve had to answer the most in the past 3½ years in this country is, “What is it about living in Japan that you like the most?”

My reply has always been a somewhat scripted statement about how non-Japanese people living here are able to create a unique community for themselves. We form special bonds that are strengthened by the fact that communication with the locals can be somewhat difficult at times. A friend of mine put it best once when he told me, “I’ve never felt more included than in this excluded bubble.”

I’ve spent a lot of time analyzing my experience in Japan and expressing my views on the people here, but I never really thought about how they may feel about my presence in this country. This changed last week.

It was a Friday night and I was walking with my friend through the streets of Kobe, enjoying the cool autumn temperatures, and the boisterous rugby fans bar-hopping around Sannomiya. Three Japanese men approached us and asked where we were from. I usually don’t mind these kinds of encounters, but in this particular case they were getting closer than I would’ve liked and were visibly under the influence of alcohol. We ignored their question, but it only made them more persistent. I then told them, in Japanese, that they were being rude. That made it clear to them that I was living in Japan and wasn’t one of the many tourists here for the Rugby World Cup.

Clearly offended by my words, one of the men shouted at us while we were walking away, “Get … back … your … country!”

These words made me feel like someone just threw cold water on me. In just a split second I felt shock, embarrassment and even amusement — it stunned me.

A few minutes later, one of the men caught up to us and apologized for his friend’s behavior. He shook our hands and urged us to enjoy our stay in Japan. I was moved by his gesture in a way that surprised me.

The different reactions of each of these men illustrated both what I dislike and what I like about living in this country. The intensity with which the first man screamed those words may have been due to his pride (or arrogance) living in a country that still feels isolated though it opened centuries ago. The serenity in the look and tone of the second man, though, gave me a sense of what Japan does best, upholding values of harmony, among which politeness and safety are key.

Japan is a beautifully complex country. Whether it’s the nature, culture, food or people, it is all wonderfully unique. It cannot be read or heard about, it has to be lived. And though I might never fully grasp the real spirit of the place, I will keep trying until the day comes when I have to return home to Lebanon. When that day comes, I’ll have more than just my luggage to bring home with me — I’ll have memories of the roller-coaster of emotions that I’ve experienced.

Open-mindedness is one of the many values Japan has taught me. Hopefully, I’ll have learned the best way to implement it back home.

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