Saturday, March 14, 2015

A Bit About Me and Japan

You might have noticed quite a bit of stuff on my blog relating to Japan. I wanted to give an explanation of why.
Me in Tokyo for the first time 1997. Yes, I was a fat kid.
For those of you who don't know me personally, I'm Chinese but also speak Japanese. I started taking classes during freshman year of college, and continued to study it for all four years. After spending part of every college summer in Japan, I also lived and worked in Tokyo for my first job out of school (eerily, I worked in one of the buildings you see in the background of the photo above). Thanks to the country's outrageously generous subsidy for foreigners via the national rail pass, I have now have visited more places in Japan than most Japanese people.

This is a short story of how I got started, and what it means to me today.

I originally began my engagement with Japanese language through my mother — and from China. When we first started going back to China for summertime visits in the mid-90s, we could speak to each other in English as an alternate form of communication. At the time, it was still relatively rare for a random person on the street to understand English, and so we had our "secret" form of communication. This proved quite useful during morning street market shopping, when we could tell each other "the cabbage looks too sickly", or "that squash is too expensive", without offending the hawker.

Then the rest of the 90s happened. With each subsequent visit back to China, we discovered that our "secret" language was really not so secret anymore. Drat. But as I was heading off to college, we mutually agreed to a brilliant idea. Why don't we both start taking Japanese classes? It's something that Mom always wanted to do, and I thought it would be pretty cool, too. Many of my grandparents' generation spoke Japanese as children due to the occupation of Manchuria, but most of them had long since lost the ability through the decades.

So I started taking Japanese language. I even took some anthropology and history classes on Japan. (One of my favorite classes in school was with Ted Bestor, who literally wrote the book on the world's most famous fish market). It was great for the first year. Then, Mom had to quit Japanese to focus on teaching her own classes. So our "brilliant" idea never really came into fruition. Nevertheless, I kept my side of the deal, and it has since become one of the most rewarding aspects of my life.

Japan is a curious place, and nowhere is that more evident in the country than the Tokyo metropolis. For one part of life, everything just works. Residents and visitors alike are safe from most petty crime. There are more automatic doors than you can count. Everything and everyone has a very deliberate purpose. If anything is broken, it's quickly fixed. There is a plan, a schedule — a rule — for everything. Which brings us to some other parts of life; those that you reserve for yourself, for your personal whims and preferences. There's less room for the yourself as an individual. Rules are difficult to bend, and social pressure is the single most overbearing force on people's everyday lives.

I had a blast living in Japan, but quickly realized that as an outsider I would always be too different to comfortably stay forever. From my time working as a banker in Japan, I better understood their unique business world. And even though I've traveled there quite a bit, it's still my favorite place to visit, which is why I kicked off my travel channel with a picture taken from one of my trips to Miyazaki, on the exquisitely quaint island of Kyushu. I will also focus on Japan at times on the food channel, where I recently looked at the hidden dangers of faux Japanese foods here in America.

It's safe to say that I will continue to write a lot about Japan. And now you know why. Are you planning a trip to Japan? Or are you studying (or thinking of starting) Japanese language? Drop me a line and I'll be happy to respond to any questions.


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