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What I've Learned Settling in Japan

Japan Narrative
by Morgan deBoer Oct 18, 2012
Morgan deBoer has gained a lot of knowledge, except for when the gas bill’s coming.

I RESEARCHED JAPAN before we came. I have eleven books about living and traveling here, some of which I have read. But nothing prepared me for the absolute language barrier or $25 watermelons or typhoons that shake everything in my house, including me.

I also didn’t know I would love it so much.

There are a lot of things in Japan that I don’t fully understand yet. Like Japanese. And when are kids supposed to be in school? What days? What times? I see kids in school uniforms almost every time I’m on the train no matter what time of day it is; at night, on the weekend, early mornings. If I didn’t also see kids swimming and sailing on weekday mornings, I would assume the answer is “always.”

The longer I’m here the more questions I have (like why haven’t I gotten a gas bill yet? It’s been almost six months) but I’m also figuring a lot of things out.

I now consider myself proficient at efficient chopstick (hashi) use, and I consider my husband an expert. Before I started using them everyday, I would rate myself as below average. The trick to getting comfortable with them, for me, was to be hungry or in public. In Japan, it’s not just using chopsticks that’s important. I’ve learned to never pass food from chopstick to chopstick or to stick chopsticks into the top of a bowl of rice. Both of those actions are associated with death and are taboo while eating.

I have mastered the local grocery store. I know to always put money down in the dish by the cashier and receive change with two hands. I’ve learned to ask for extra bags at the grocery store because taking out the garbage requires 20 plastic bags a week. I collect point cards (pointokādo) everywhere. When I buy ice cream, I ask for dry ice (Doraiaisu) to keep it cool on the bike ride home.

Bowing. I bow like crazy. All the time. As a westerner who is kind of just figuring everything out as it happens, I know I don’t understand the complexities of the bow. So I just do it a lot. And people seem to respond well. I bow at dogs, and when I’m running, and when I’m driving, and when I’m in my house and someone sees me through the window. I feel like everyone loves it.

Everything worth seeing is on top of a hill or a lot of steps. Every shrine, every temple, everything cool. Also my tsunami evacuation spot.

I love separating my trash. Every weekday morning, I take at least one of my nine trash categories out to the trash bin, which we have to assemble everyday and the garbage man (whose truck plays Fur Elise on loop) takes the collapsable bin apart in the afternoon. I have to sort, clean, and store it all separately. I have two four-foot, three-compartment trash bins to sort my nine trash categories, and every time I wash dishes I also have to wash some type of trash, dry it, and figure out where it goes. And I love it. I love seeing the mess I make and figuring out how to make less of it.

Eventually I’ll be able to explain to a taxi driver where I live, and I’ll be able to differentiate between the miso pastes at the grocery store, but I’ve already learned the most important thing I’m going to learn in Japan: I’m kind of brave.

There are things I have done in the past few months that a lot of people would never try. Some things I wouldn’t have tried a few years ago. But I did, and I keep thinking, what else can I do?

I set up a move to another country while my husband was in Afghanistan. I climbed Mount Fuji at night. I sailed a boat on my own. I ate some kind of sashimi that was still moving a little bit and I drank sake that had a dead snake in the bottle. I drive a car on the left side of the road and I get on trains when I’m not sure where they are going.

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