After exiting the airport and embarking on my three-hour train and subway ride to my cousin’s apartment in Chofu, I sat on my train seat and looked around. Since leaving the airport, I had not seen any other foreigners. I’d traveled and lived in many places around the world and for the first time in my life, I truly felt like a foreigner. I couldn’t read any of the subway advertisements. When the conductor called a stop, I had no idea what he was saying.
Hot bottom on the Tokyo train
The girl across from me was wearing a short wool skirt, very long socks and platform girlie sandals. Considering the cold outside, I thought she looked silly and would get sick dressed like a schoolgirl in the spring. A young man nearby looked very stylish with his slightly spiked hair. Barely anyone talked except for a young couple that had just come back from a trip. They sat with their suitcases and cuddled. Everyone else was immersed in holding their mobile phones ridiculously close to their faces as they played games.
I was sweating. The train seat was heated! Why did the Japanese trains heat the train seats if the train cars were already warm? I took off my jacket. I wanted to take off my sweater too, but after having flown from New York to Tokyo, I thought the shirt underneath my sweater was not very clean. No one else was taking off their jackets. They seemed to be fine with heated butts.
Chofu, Japan: New Years
My cousin met me at the train station near his house. He took me to the Buddhist Temple for the typical Japanese New Year’s tradition of banging the temple gong 108 times to ring in the New Year. We met his son’s classmate and her Taiwanese mother who offered to take care of me at the temple while my cousin went back home to celebrate the New Year with his Russian friends as they watched Russian New Year’s festivities on Russian TV via the Internet. The English-speaking Taiwanese woman was with her niece and her niece’s white American boyfriend visiting from the US. She explained to all of us the New Year’s traditions as we walked around the various booths selling talismans and trinkets for the New Year. We stood in line to ring the bell and we were all shivering from the cold. They treated me to a hot rice sake drink to keep me warm. I banged the gong as hard as I could and made a donation to the temple. I’d started my year the Japanese way!
For the next nine days, I explored Tokyo and Kyoto using the public transit systems. The subways were pristine, efficient, fast, and very quiet. The Japanese barely spoke during their commutes. I knew that their poor social skills were one of the factors leading to a high suicide rate in the country, but I was reveling in their stillness. Silence was gold.
The silence and my inability to communicate or read in Japanese were a welcome shift from New York. Back in New York, I was over-stimulated to the point where I couldn’t always hear myself.
On any given day, I could be in my Queens neighborhood where I was surrounded by my southern Italian neighbors speaking in some sort of Napolitano dialect that I could barely understand, the young fashionable Greeks in the sidewalk cafes showing off, Brazilians melodically chatting and the Bosnians barking at each other about nothing. If the subway was running that day and not re-routed for some unexpected reason, I would meet some freaks, homeless people, vendors selling candy bars on subway cars, and maybe an elderly Russian couple grumpily discussing the day’s news and welfare payments. In Manhattan, I could be in a café with Argentines on a melodramatic rampage about liposuction, a Type A Wall Street banker madly speaking into his mobile phone, and lost French tourists. All of those characters made for a quintessentially New York experience, but with the exception of my Greek fashionistas and Southern Italians, I could understand everyone at the same time. I was overwhelmed with the amount of information coming to me from strangers. It was too much. My brain was on overdrive processing all these different grammatical and semantic structures.
Sometimes I didn’t even recognize myself when I was speaking. I could have a multiple personality disorder in one Spanish sentence. One word bore the traces of my mainland Castilian hissing “s” sound, while the next sounded like a sweet Caribbean verse, followed by a Mexican word and I ended in my light Italian- Argentine dramatic inflection, using the second person singular pronoun and verb conjugation of vos instead of tú more commonly used in Argentina and Uruguay. People looked at me funny when I spoke in Spanish because they couldn’t tell where I was from. Neither could I. Unbeknownst to me, somehow my inflections varied from phrase to phrase. I could become ultra-intellectual and self-reflective when in French company and then switch to a more “happy go lucky” and coquettish girl in Italian or Portuguese. Bosnian could show my brutish side if I remembered my vocabulary from Sarajevo and wasn’t too shy to speak. Russian and English sometimes encompassed all those characteristics, but it depended on the day. Only in writing, did I have no accent or personality change. I was not influenced by the person to whom I was speaking, I could be totally myself.
While in Japan, I didn’t crave meat like I did walking the streets of New York where I sniffed the cooking skewers of chicken and beef like a dog. I became calm. I heard myself.
Walking on Japanese streets unable to read the signs did facilitate my getting lost, but I loved not understanding the spoken and oral language. I did not have to fight to filter out waves of words flooding my brain. I could just be.
The only time I had conversations was in Russian at my cousin’s house in the morning before I left and in the evenings when I came home. Some people are terrified about being in a country where they can’t communicate, but I was loving it.
I realized that I was trapped by my own language skills. They clouded my brain and prevented me from understanding myself when I was in multilingual environments. I spent a month traveling in Asia and delighted in my blissful ignorance of Japanese, Thai, Cambodian, and Vietnamese. Language ignorance was bliss.