1. I stopped wearing shoes in the house.
My Japanese teacher wasn’t just focused on teaching me Japanese; I had to learn my manners too. I walked into her apartment for my lesson and she smacked me with the might of an 80-pound 60-year-old woman. Hitting was a loving way of letting me know I messed up and never to do it again. Sumo wrestlers go through the same training.
I made the mistake of asking her why it was so important to take off my shoes. This time I got smacked in the back of the head and yelled at with her characteristic “Eh” before she painfully repeated my words, as if to say,”Are you dumb enough to ask why your shoes are dirty? You wear them outside!”
I walked past a row of neatly lined-up slippers. Without turning her head, she continued walking through the hallway and said “Put the slippers on, it’s cold.” I soon had slippers in my Genkan as well.
Months down the road I had her over for dinner, and she put on the slippers as she nodded at me. That was the most praise I was going to get.
2. I stopped worrying about being naked in front of strangers.
Walking into the onsen was intimidating. In Japan, there is a proper way to do everything, and now I had to do it without clothes on. I figured I could wing it, so I watched other women and copied every move. Those women were staring at me too, but for different reasons, I was a fat white girl in rural hot springs. Uneasiness aside, I enjoyed the beautiful natural rock facilities, with waters brought in from Atami that were of different temperatures and colors. There were also sauna and steam rooms to detox and clear the mind. It was relaxing enough to make me forget I was naked. I went back every month to unwind. I still have the habit of fully showering before I go into clean bath water so that it doesn’t get nasty for those after me, like my son jumping in with his bag of toys.
3. I stopped being “late.”
One time I took a closer train station into Shizuoka — I didn’t want to walk in heels to Shimizu station, which was one kilometer away from my apartment and figured I would get to my meeting faster this way. It was a terrible mistake, and I lost my way the moment I stepped out of the station in Shizuoka. Cautiously, I began walking around the city trying to find my way with no success. I had to call my manager, and she talked me through the route there. I was sweaty and gross, but I got there — and with 5 minutes to spare. The other foreigner teachers looked worried as I set my things down. A new teacher said, “Shibucho didn’t think you were going to make it. They called your manager.”
The trainer and Shibucho walked in and ripped into me for being late. “You are only 5 minutes early, in Japan that means you are late. You must be 15 minutes early to be on time.” There was no argument I could make. When I got to my office, I was greeted with disciplinary paperwork stating why I was “late” and how I could improve my behavior.
4. I stopped sitting in chairs at the table.
Who needs a tall table with chairs when you can sit on the floor with the food closer to your face? It’s the smart way to go — less spilling…except for the ramen juice that started to build up on my laptop screen.
5. I found alternatives to swearing.
Mendokusai is my go-to Japanese word for laughs. It translates as “bothersome” and is a word that gangsters or the yakuza use. There are many profane words in the Japanese language, older folks told me this one is mostly used by delinquents and teenage boys — who didn’t think I would understand if they used it in class. Think my lessons are mendokusai huh? That’s when I would break out in my insane yakuza character and mimic them. Mendokusai, mendokusai while exaggerating the endings with a crazy look on my face — like that show My Boss My Hero that was always on the only channel actually clear enough to watch. My students always burst out laughing — the levity was enough to get them to start working again.
6. I stopped saying hello to strangers.
Bam! This poor kid I said hello to rode his bike into an electric pole. Until the people in my neighborhood got used to me, they would cross the street when I walked by. This bothered me because I like to be friendly and smile a lot — I was always told these were positive things about me. It’s best to be acknowledged before you go full grin.
My friends warned me about the Gaijin bubble, but I was determined to pop it. I would make it a point to sit next to people on the train and watch them jump up the second another seat was available.
7. I stopped expecting people to bag my groceries for me.
It was never consistent — sometimes the clerk would bag my stuff, the next time she would give me the stink eye and point to the table with bags and tape.
8. I stopped driving a car.
My first bike had a basket for me to put groceries in. Every bike I had was special somehow, and each one was stolen — always gone in the stealth of the night. My manager said the only people who steal are the elderly, and no one is going to arrest them. So I eventually gave up on my bikes and started walking.