The plane landed quite some time ago but I've simply been too busy to write. I've been busy learning how to drive in the opposite lane and read Japanese road signs. I've been trying to remember to flick on the indicators rather than the windshield wipers. I've been trying to remember that a flick up is left and a flick down is right. You can imagine a busy intersection in Date (pronounced Daté) City when it appears I'm simultaneously confused about the weather and what direction to go. But lately I'm confused the majority of the time. The expression "It's all Japanese to me" has never been so true.
Last week, I unwittingly invited a class of seventeen 8 year-olds and their teacher to Thanksgiving dinner. Luckily, one of the parents knew about us westerners. She called to confirm. Although I was busy hiking up a volcano at the time, she knew enough to cancel the event on my behalf. It's people like her that keep me from offending everyone. People that have managed to learn a new alphabet and writing system and speak our gibberish. They translate this new world for me. They tell me to take my shoes off at every entranceway (public buildings included) and put on a pair of communal slippers. They tell me not to poke my food with chopsticks. They tell me which foods contain squid mouth or chicken rump.
Luckily, my official position here is to teach English. People are very forgiving of the fact that after nearly two months I still can't count to five. They are entertained by my attempts to speak a language consisting of thousands of characters and a "complex system of honorifics."
I'm already so overwhelmed I'm considering remaining in the English bubble of my mind. I realize I've only travelled to countries that share my alphabet. In such places, my eye is lured to road signs, billboards and all other manner of written matter. I don't have a choice; my mind thinks letters are its friends. It wants to figure out what they have to say and be around them all the time. It's always been that way. You know the type--the child who reads the cereal box, the adult with a magazine rack by the toilet.
But, strangely, it's refreshing not to be distracted by words. The world has become mysterious again. I navigate the streets and aisles like a child. I hold up packages at A-COOP grocery store marvelling at texture, colour, scent. Sometimes, my adult English-conversation students catch me in such an act of unbridled curiousity. "I was going to say hello," they say, "but you looked very busy."
I am very busy. I'm busy getting to know a country from the letter up. I had thought Japan would be just like any other place I'd read and conquered. But how happy I am it isn't.
Maybe someday I'll discover what the large wooden sign I pass nearly every day is trying to say to me. It points to a dirt road that crosses a river and heads towards a volcano. I fantasize it's a sacred temple but maybe it's the local dump. My newfound innocence (or ignorance?) surely won't last (or will it?). But for now I wish to thank all those responsible for creating a writing system containing an estimated 50,000 characters. It's all Japanese and it's alright.
Thank you for reading.