Sunday, August 5, 2012

Being an Outsider

I am currently in the middle of a one-week vacation in Japan.   I flew into Kansai International Airport in Osaka on Wednesday, and immediately  took a train to Kyoto.  It is Sunday afternoon, and I am currently in Osaka.  I have been here since Friday, and will be here until Monday morning.  I will then take a train back to Kyoto, and will remain there until the remainder of my trip when I fly out Wednesday.  Thus far, everything has been incredible, and being that I prefer large cities, I thought I would enjoy Osaka more, but the contrary has been the case.   That does not take anything away from Osaka.  It is also an amazing city.  

For the last few years, it has been a dream of mine to visit Japan, and being here has sort of been surreal.  Interacting with the people, eating the food, and experiencing the culture have all been learning experiences.  Back home, and even in Korea, interacting with Japanese people has been a rarity.  Although I have known numerous Koreans throughout my life, I have been around very few Japanese people, so Japan has been a huge source of curiosity.

Upon arriving, I immediately felt like an outsider, and I've never felt that way in Korea.  I arrived in Korea with a strong knowledge of Korean culture.  Although I am not fluent, I've known enough of the language to be polite, and to get what I've needed.   Koreans have many times seemed willing to at least make an effort to speak English during the times that my knowledge of the Korean language has been insufficient.  That is not the case here in Japan.  Japan is sort of like America in that here, they expect foreigners to speak their language, and they rarely speak English here during interactions with them.  Fewer signs and documents are in English, and only on one or two occasions have Japanese people actually spoken English to me.  The only thing that I've been able to say in Japanese is "arigato cojaimas," which means Thank you.  I also know nothing about Japanese manners and customs.  When interacting with older people in Korea, it always seems to be polite to nod, or even bow.  Although they bow and nod in Japan, they don't seem to do so as much, so I have zero knowledge on when and when not to do so.  Having no knowledge of the language and basic etiquette can cause one to immediately feel like an outsider.

In Korea, although I don't look Korean, I have always been fairly familiar with the etiquette and customs, so when Koreans look at me as if I don't belong, I am secure and confident in my identity as a person of Korean descent to know that I do.  I have become quite used to that mentality.  Being here in Japan, I now know how my foreign friends in Korea feel in being exposed to an unfamiliar culture with unfamiliar norms, unfamiliar manners, and unfamiliar customs.  In Korea, I've found myself being rather judgmental of the foreign community for their lack of understanding of Korean culture.  I've now learned to be more sympathetic.

Being in an unfamiliar place, I've learned to remain quiet, smile, observe, then imitate.  

Japanese Ramen has been my favorite dishes here in Japan thus far.  It is nothing like the Ramen in Korea or America.  It is of a much higher quality.  The broth is so much richer and better tasting being that it is homemade, and doesn't come from a packet.  The texture of the noodles seems to be slightly more chewy.  The meat that is added always seems to be of a high quality.  To call it ramen sort of does it an injustice because when people from America or Korea think of Ramen, they immediately think of the store-bought packages.  

Upon arriving in Osaka in Kansai airport, one of the first things that I did was enter the food court for lunch.  Knowing nothing about Japanese cuisine, I chose the first restaurant that I saw, which was one that served Ramen.  The woman greeted me in Japanese, and I was absolutely clueless as to what she was telling me.  I sort of nonverbally informed her that I don't know Japanese, and I immediately smiled in such a way to make light of the situation.  Luckily, the menu had pictures of every dish.  I chose the one that seemed to have the highest amount of meat per price, so continuing to smile, I gently pointed to the picture of the dish that I wanted to order.  She smiled back, and spoke softly, as Japanese people seem to always do, telling me what seemed to be the price, the instructions of where to eat the food, and what to do with my dishes once finished.  

Some of my Korean friends told me that Japanese table manners are slightly different, so I was rather self conscious. I immediately began to observe how other people around me were eating.  I noticed that they were loudly slurping when eating their noodles.  I began do so also, and was quite pleased to remain oblivious to all the others eating.  The broth in the soup was amazing, and one of the best broths that I have ever eaten.  I wanted to consume every bit of it, and the spoon was a rather uncomfortable tool.  Once again, I looked up to observe.  I noticed people were drinking straight from the bowls.  I immediately began to do so, and was once again happy to remain oblivious.  

Although initially being exposed to an unfamiliar culture, I have found that in any culture, it is always polite to remain quiet, and warmly smile frequently in interactions.  And when in doubt, observe others around you to see what they do, and imitate.  And even when I have been incorrect, I have found that people are less likely to be agitated when I am quiet and pleasant.  

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