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First Impressions from Japan

One good thing about being a foreigner is that nobody ever--ever--hassles me asking for directions.

Actually, being a foreigner ("gaijin") in Japan isn't that bad so far. The worst part about it is the assumptions. I was always amused and offended when in America, an "American-looking" person (read: white) would see a "non-American-looking" person (usually of Asian or Hispanic descent), and automatically make assumptions about that person's English; that is, the white person starts the conversation speaking slowly and loudly, using simple words. (It's always great to find out that the other person was born in a foreign country, but moved to America at age three, and scored 400 points higher on the verbal SAT than the dumb hick talking to them slowly.)

In Tokyo, however, like anywhere else in the world, people's assumptions vary widely. Some Japanese give me the benefit of the doubt, and speak to me as if I've lived here all my life. (Generous of them, but they speak too damn fast for me, usually...) Many more Japanese address me in English, even if their English is no better than a few words and they turn deep crimson while struggling with basic hellos. (They usually look quite relieved when I respond in Japanese, even if my Japanese isn't perfect.) I find myself longing, strangely enough, for the American dumb-hick style of addressing foreign looking people--speak in Japanese, but speak nice and clearly for me...of course, the countries are quite different--many Americans are non-whites who speak native-level or native English, whereas there aren't quite so many gaijin who speak native-level Japanese...

Of course, the assumptions cut both ways. While visiting a the Meiji shrine last week, I happened upon a father taking a picture of his family, and upon finishing, he was looking around for someone to take a picture of all of them together. I walked up to the man, who looked utterly Japanese to me, and asked in Japanese if I could take a picture of him and his family. He responded, in English so British and crisp it made James Bond look like a Brooklynite, "I'm sorry, I didn't quite understand you." (Sorry, Mom, for the Brookyln crack.)

I've also discovered that, like most generalizations, there is only part truth about the assumptions I made about Japan. True, they're generally a very polite people on the surface, but deep down, the Japanese are not much different than people in America. Most people I ask for directions are quite willing to help, but some can be real jerks about it. I asked one shopkeeper (whose store I had just patronized!) for directions to a certain building, and he said, "Tokyo is a big place. Find it yourself."

Another place where the Japanese image of politeness completely falls apart is on the subways during rush hour. If a train car looks full, people are unafraid to use their hand or forearm to push the people inside to make room. Perhaps it is a privilege of a society with much less crime--I would be afraid that if I did that in a NYC subway, my picture, replete with bullet hole, would be on the front page of the next day's New York Post with a headline like "Pushing His Way To Death." However, the concept of "personal space" ceases to take on any meaning on a crowded subway car.

My job is going well. I'm one of three Americans who have been hired to operate and support the English-language BBS of a major Japanese BBS, sort of like the Compuserve of Japan. Because there are only three of us, we are not just techies, but we have to do marketing, government relations, a bit of corporate salesmanship, etc. It's an interesting and wide open job, always changing. I get along quite well with my fellow Americans (I've always wanted to use that phrase), my boss Dave, and my "senpai" Stuart. I also get along well with the rest of the company's workers, all of whom are Japanese. I speak less Japanese during the day than one might think, simply because I largely work with Dave and Stuart. But, my Japanese is improving, if more slowly than I would of the great things about the job is the dress code. I wear blue jeans or khakis, usually, and a casual button-down shirt. (My office looks like a Gap catalog.) Even the president of the company wears jeans, usually along with a American-Western-style plaid shirt--you know, the kind people wore in the 70s but refuse to own up to it today.

My apartment is great (for Tokyo, of course. All is relative). I have a bedroom, a living room, a big kitchen/dining area, and a shower unit that I believe is older than Japan itself. The hot water is gas heated, so in the morning to take a shower I have to--literally--crank up the gas heat. My commute is fantastic--a live two minutes away from a subway station, the subway ride is 13 minutes, and it's a 2 minute walk to work from there. All in all, for the privelege of living in a place so big so close to city center, I pay the low low rate of about $850/month. And that doesn't include utilities, such as electricity and--you guessed it--gas.

After rent, phone service is Japan's biggest money-making scam. You have to first buy a phone line. Not the actual phone, you understand, that you buy in an electronics store for prices similar to America's. No, you have to buy the actual phone line from the phone company, which costs about $750. (Yes, seven hundred fifty dollars.) Then you pay monthly charges of about $20, which covers no calls at all. You are charged for each call you make, within Tokyo, about 10 cents for 3 minutes. You can resell your phone line when you are finished with it, but of course, for only about $600. How a phone line depreciates is beyond me.

The food is great, mostly. I am an adventurous eater, so even when in a restaurant whose offerings are unfamilar, I can just tell the chef or waitress to keep it under a certain price, and surprise me. Sometimes they give me more American-style offerings, because they think I wouldn't like Japanese food, and sometimes, the chef gives me stuff that most Americans--in fact, most Japanese--won't eat, just to see if the crazy gaijin will eat it. I always do, sometimes to my great regret later on. Of course, I am beginning to get tired of the constant comments about how skilfully I use chopsticks, and the constant surprise that an American would eat--wonder of wonders--raw fish. Dave and Stuart, who have both lived here about four years and are very fluent, not to mention good with chopsticks, say that the comments never fade.

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