The media lied to me because Japanese folks are not all porcelain-skinned. In fact, most people in Kanoya are tan, just as tan or tanner than me from farming and genetics and school clubs under the humid sun that shines all the way through mid-October. This, compounded by my straight-cut bangs and Muji-laden wardrobe, are apparently enough to make me pass for Japanese. The mask probably contributes too. In any case, I lack the shield of appearing outwardly foreign, which means I have many conversations that start in Japanese and end one sentence later with me saying “ごめんあさい、日本語を話しません.” (Sorry, I don’t speak Japanese).
In my new landscape of Japan, I have the communication ability of an infant. It is an interesting phenomenon, to be at the mercy of others’ patience and goodwill. To be rendered mute by my own unknowing. But I suppose, even in our native languages, that is still the case.
Many bilingual individuals attest that they’re a different person in every language that they speak. As they switch from one tongue to another, their personality shifts. It might be a consequence of the cultural norms embedded into the language itself, or the context in which it was picked up or practiced. Is it a language spoken by friends, parents, or grandparents? Is it the language of academia or work or leisure? Is it a joy or a necessity to learn? What are your feelings towards native speakers, and theirs towards you?
As I navigate daily life with the 100 or so odd words I can say, I’m forming an answer to the question: who is Britney in Japanese?
To be clear, I suppose I’m reflecting more on not knowing a language at all, rather than how I perceive and am perceived within one I am fluent in. The latter is probably more interesting, but I only speak English, so uninteresting is all I can offer you.
The most inconvenient thing about not knowing Japanese is that my options shrink significantly. If I can’t read half the menu, I order from the half that I can. If I want to go somewhere but the bus system is explained in a PDF that I can’t demystify using the Google Translate plug-in, I stay at home. If I’m at the phone carrier kiosk and two contract options are being presented to me, neither of which particularly suits my needs, I sign up for one anyway because I don’t know if I’ll get another chance to be here with a translator.
I need help with everything. From housing to utilities to bank accounts to car payments to dehumidifier products to indoor shoes to trash sorting to affirmation that yes, even though Japantowns in the US were created primarily as a result of racism and xenophobia and almost disappeared entirely when Executive Order 9066 forced Japanese-Americans into prison camps, I’m allowed to leave that part out and show pictures of me posing at the Hello Kitty exhibit without feeling morally bankrupt.
I don’t think I’m resistant to help, but I also take pride in being self-sufficient and non-bothersome. Britney in Japanese is neither of those things.
Britney in Japanese is, however, alive with enough leisure time to write this blog, so obviously I’ve had a whole lot of people looking after me. In big and little ways, people offer me their kindness. I have been blessed with many favors from many people, including but not limited to: driving me to and from school daily, enlisting students to clean my entire house, shuttling me to furniture stores and historical landmarks, treating me to ice cream, negotiating car prices on my behalf, and inviting me out so I feel welcomed. Help has come in the form of leaving cockroach-killing spray in my front foyer “just in case” (which later proved pivotal in a duel against a small brown one in my bathroom) and printing out and highlighting the appropriate bus schedule for my morning commute. Teachers volunteered to monitor the installation of my water heater and screen doors, on a weekend no less. One step further, they brought housewarming gifts - sweet potato cakes in gold packaging and freshly-fried karaage.
I try not to make gross generalizations, but I feel like this one is warranted: Japanese people are nice as f***. It bears repeating because it’s still hard for me to wrap my head around - students cleaned my house for me. The generosity I’ve received is beyond being nice or fulfilling job duties. It’s a selfless eagerness to ensure I’m comfortable. As an American who doesn’t know my neighbors’ names, it’s deeply unusual - this sense of community. Maybe I’m being too romantic or anthropological by calling it “community.” Maybe it’s a sense of obligation. Either way, I don’t think being assisted to this degree is unusual in Japan, no matter who the person in need is. People rally to help, knowing that when it’s their turn, people will rally to help them too.
I’m reminded of Jane Jacobs’s “eyes on the street” concept. I make sure the elementary school children wearing their bright red hats and adorably rotund backpacks cross the street safely, and my building-mates see me walking a few kilometers from my residence and knock on my door the next morning to ask if I need to borrow a bike. It’s a group-oriented culture.
I’ll stop waxing poetic because I know this level of conscientiousness demands a certain rigidity and sacrifice from its adherents. I’ll also edit my previous statement about Japanese people being nice as f***, not because I don’t believe it, but for the sake of accuracy. In my experience thus far, I’ve noticed that Japanese culture encourages high regard for (and perhaps a responsibility to) the well-being of community members.
For all my Western pride in individualistic expression, it feels pretty nice to be cared for as a member of the group. In Japanese, I am very, very, very grateful. I bow a hundred times a day and say “ありがとうございます” (thank you) even more. I suppose there’s a reason why it’s one of the first things you learn.
I love lists. I love spreadsheets and organization and generally feeling in control. I’ll go to page 15 on Amazon to ensure I’m getting a good feel for my options. I’ll sit on a purchase for months. I’ll read through Reddit threads of product reviews and visit three grocery stores in one day just to make sure I’m getting the best of what’s within my reach.
Here in Japan, however, I make decisions with immediacy and convenience in mind. I accept good enough as good enough.
I simply lack the depth or nuance of knowledge to make truly educated decisions. I make uneducated decisions because it’s the best that I can do. I’m building the muscle to accept that. I allow myself the flexibility to pursue the easiest way to fulfill a need - even if it’s more expensive than I was expecting, even if it’s not entirely aligned with my tastes, and even if I feel a tinge of guilt making an uncertain, potentially wasteful purchase.
In America, my philosophy towards shopping was like, “I only buy something if it serves a function I’ve deemed important and necessary, and ideally, it should also be an expression of identity or at least titillate me in some small way.” In Japan, my disposition towards acquiring objects is more like “All my shit is on the floor. How can I fix that as soon as possible? Oh, a free rusted metal shelf from another ALT? That works.” Or, “I read a blog about tatami dust mites and now I’m slightly paranoid that’s going to happen to me. Time to purchase peace of mind for $50 in the form of tatami cleaning products.”
As a 20-something-year-old, my buying habits follow two major trends: a lust for items that would look great in my future forever home and much more frequent concessions where I get something cheap “for now” and make a flimsy self-promise that I’ll replace it for something better when I have more money and permanency. Britney in Japanese is only allowed to operate within the latter category.
Cognizant of my temporality, my apartment is filled with many tacky items of the hand-me-down and 100-yen variety. I also have a few items that I did not strictly need - an air fryer and expensive face cream, for example - but bought anyway because they provide an emotional comfort that justifies the cost, even if the value of their utility does not. This was an interesting exercise, determining what luxuries I deem worth it.
Eventually, all my belongings will join other dusty objects in the room of clutter I inherited, forced into obsolescence by my departure. There is a lesson here, somewhere, but I don’t have the wisdom of time to tell you what it is yet.
Based on the state of my apartment, Britney in Japanese has low standards for interior design. I’m letting objects be objects, not symbols of lifestyle. As it turns out, I like sleeping on a mattress on the floor.
If you know me in the language of English, I think (hope) I come across as mature and thoughtful. In English, I am young but also professional. Or professional despite being young. Or professional, especially for someone so young. I didn’t realize how central that was to my identity before coming here.
Britney in Japanese has a one-page file that provides the entirety of what most people will learn about her. She’s 22 years old. She graduated from San Diego State University. Her birthday is June 29. So I shouldn’t be surprised when it’s assumed that I am fresh out of college and that this is my first full-time job. But even so, I detest the insinuation that I am anything less than experienced and capable, especially when I’ve spent so much brain power over the past two years convincing myself that I am.
For all my efforts otherwise, I deeply want to be seen as accomplished, to somehow slip into conversation that I worked 12-hour days at a fancy-schmancy start-up where I performed at the same level as 30-year-olds with Masters degrees and made enough money to pay rent in California.
But then I feel ashamed that I have reduced myself to time-based milestones. That of all the things I am, that’s what I want people to know. That I still think such ugly, egoistic thoughts, because wasn’t half the point of me moving here to distance myself from meritocratic thinking?
We are all capable of difficult, impressive things. Why compare? If I am young and professional, I am also just plain young and there is no fault in that. Age is no reflection of competency, and competency is no reflection of one’s human value.
Britney in Japanese does not speak much so she is very grateful when people speak to her, or allow her to speak through them. She takes things as they come.
She looks like a high schooler. She has bad skin and dresses too casually to be seen as an adult. She is polite, good in front of crowds, and speaks with a clear voice. She is not picky, she smiles in lieu of words, and she likes feminine things like baking and writing. But she played softball for all four years of high school, which makes her seem tough because softball is a boys’ sport in Japan.
She is bashful and enthusiastic about seeing the world. She is naive enough to still have dreams, one of which she is fulfilling by living in Japan.
She is calm, because the alternative is to panic, and while brief moments of panic might be tolerated in America for the purpose of catharsis, panic in Japan would only spiral and exponentiate the issue.
She is positive, relentlessly so. She knows her life in the States was on a good trajectory but she said goodbye anyways, so describing her time abroad as anything less than a soul-finding period would be an invitation for regret.
She is having a nice time doing the things she wants and doing them alone, as intended. She is increasing her capacity for solitude and expanding her definition of walking distance. She is realizing that things like killing bugs and driving on the left side of the road are not that scary, not when you have no choice but to commit. She ate raisin bread with peanut butter for breakfast, then forced herself to sit down and write this so she has some record of growth. She doesn’t know how to end it, because endings should have a satisfying sense of finality, and nothing is definitive yet.