Jun 12, 2009
Lost and Found
Posted in: Academics & Research
There are no directions in Japan. The buildings are numbered, but in a generally useless, chronological order. When you ask for a map, there are no street names, just landmarks and Makudonarudos (McDonalds). Also, I'm pretty sure they don't allow you to set off smoke signals in Japanese suburbs. Combine all that with my winning sense of direction and you've got a very lost American kid somewhere west of Central Tokyo.
It happened the moment when I got off the limousine bus from the airport to go to the landlord's office, and it happened even worse when I got off the train to look for my house. A woman helped me carry my luggage up two flights of stairs from the subway, then looked at my map and declared, "I think it's down that way, but I'm not sure. Just go down that street about ten minutes and it should be around that area somewhere."
And so I walked. Twenty minutes to the left of the station in the eighty-degree Tokyo heat, wearing two sweaters, dragging two heavy suitcases, and wondering why my bodily fluids were trying to escape me so freely. I walked for days. I walked until the Japanese Ghost of Christmas Past walked up next to me and was like, "Got a drink?"
At that time I knew it was time to ask directions, to the first person I saw in the midst of this solely residential area: an older Japanese woman pushing her mother-in-law in a wheelchair, having a conversation with an older man down the street.
"America-jin desu kara.. kore, doko de wakarimasuka?"
She didn't know where it was exactly, but she looked at the map and surmised it was probably in the opposite direction. It was the third time today I'd walked at least fifteen minutes in the complete wrong direction, and the phrase "hantai no hoo" (opposite direction) was starting to sound all too familiar. But she took the number off the map and called the company just to make sure.
Just from her Japanese grunting noises ("Unnn", "Nnnn", "Sousousousou") and vigorous head nods I could tell that I was in the wrong place and was probably going to have to make yet another 180, to be followed by several other twisty and difficult turns that could only be navigated by someone whose nationality is from a place that invented the electronic bidet. I deflated slightly, knowing my jet-lagged legs would have to wait slightly longer to be alleviated of their fatigue, and that the smell that'd been hanging over me ever since I'd spent 11 hours seated next to an overly large man with a love of portable cheese would be with me a little longer. I wondered if I'd ever figure out my way through the completely illogical streets of Tokyo, and even worse, if I was sweating out of my ears. (I was.)
"Arigatoo gozaimashita." The woman hung up the phone. "Issyou ni ikimasyoo!"
Her offer to walk with me was so unexpected I almost passed out from surprise (and a little from heat stroke). As we walked she told me about her one son and two grandchildren, who lived in Singapore, and how her husband loved golf but wasn't very good at it. She told me she and her husband were retired and stayed at home taking care of their mother-in-law, who was in her 90s and her back was injured. She asked why I began studying Japanese and why I was here for the summer, and I told her.
I also told her I didn't really know anyone in Tokyo, to which she said "Me, your Japanese friend!"
My new Japanese friend dropped me off at my apartment, told me to get some rest, and to call her some time soon. That weekend, I skyped her to say hello, and mentioned off-hand that I wanted to buy a cell phone.
"Oh, I come with you! You eat breakfast yet? You come to my house!"
And then she made me breakfast, over which I talked to her husband about my flight, work, and getting lost in Tokyo. He told me about their honeymoon in Hawaii over forty years ago, how he'd studied German instead of English, and how he kinda wished he'd studied English now. There was a lot of toast and tea and ramen, and then she took me to Ikebukuro to get a cell phone - grabbing my arm protectively in the subway, guiding me down the street to the cell phone shop, asking if there was someone there who spoke English to explain the terms of the contract to me - where it turns out my visa wasn't a long enough period for me to buy the phone under my name, so she offered to put it under her ID card - all approximately five days after I'd first met her.
At this point I'm a little suspicious that my mom has sewed some kind of sign into all my clothes that says "LOST FOREIGNER - PLEASE HELP." Or that I just look really helpless and weak, and that I need someone to rescue me at all turns. My Japanese isn't that bad, I think, and I start to get defensive. What's in it for her? Why is this lady being so unexpectedly good to me?
She looks at me and smiles, and says "Me, your Japanese Mama!"
And then I realize there are no alternate motives here. She isn't trying to take my money or waste my time, nor is she intending to later break into my house and eat what little food I have. (She knows where I live.)
She's simply Japanese. This is how she interacts with other human beings - helping out a stranger on basic human kindness in a way that, much like yours truly on my first day in Tokyo, has become somewhat lost in American culture.
I follow her back into the subway station, happy to be found.