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MIT student blogger Caroline M. '18

In Japan, the Elevators Don’t Care by Caroline M. '18

- Sort of trying to fit in as an American in Japan - 

Stepping between closing elevator doors, it doesn’t even occur to you that the doors might not stop. Suddenly a very heavy, unpleasant pressure jolts you from both sides and you realize again, that this is not a place you understand.

Every day there are reminders that you are not from here. 

Stovetops don’t have knobs to control the gas, instead they’re sliders and levers.

Room doors don’t have hinges to open into or out of rooms, instead slide side to side.

Toilet paper isn’t perforated, instead the top presses down like seram wrap blades for a clean rip at whatever length you need. Most of the time, these are cute.

They fall into the category of cultural differences like “toilets are heated and have a fake flushing noise” or “there are vending machines on quite literally every corner”.

But sometimes there are reminders that hurt. 

It feels like the shame you thought you would only feel as a child while learning what is right or wrong.

It’s that oppressive, invisible feeling that someone is judging you and something is off, but you don’t know what you’re doing wrong.

Until someone pushes past you just a little too close, and a little too hard because you were walking too slowly on the right instead of the left.

Until someone shouts at you with concern as you’ve walked into a dressing room with shoes on.

So I try to adjust.

I remember to not walk and eat on the street.

I stand in front of a store eating a vending machine ice cream, like how I’ve seen others stand in front of food stalls eating what they’ve just bought.

But where I’m standing still seems to be in the way and I feel like I’m interrupting an invisible flow that I just can’t see.

Then I realize my bites are too big and licking around the entire cone stands out too.

But even if I was eating this correctly, I would still stand out.

I don’t look Japanese.

I have relatively really short hair.

I have much wider hips than average.

I’m not wearing the typical white and blue/black formal color scheme.

Even the style of my messenger bag is different.

From how I look, how I dress, how I walk, how I am or am not in the flow, to how it takes me time to relearn basic daily appliances, everything makes me incredibly self-conscious that I am not at home.

Reminding me that I am different, and this place is different. That I don’t really belong.

In the U.S., when I go to different cities, I don’t quite get this feeling of ‘being foreign’.

Even when I was in Germany for a summer, I could read and understand the language.

But here, I am absolutely fumbling around, constantly guessing the meaning from context and using picture translate apps to read rice cooker and laundry machine buttons.

I am overloaded with social signals and cues, working overtime trying to fit in.

But I really want to fit in because I already love this place.

I adore the tiny box cars and how efficiently they pack into small spaces.Even the trucks are tiny.

I so appreciate when the curtains in the dressing rooms curve a little past the opening so that they actually close without a gap in privacy.

I love how the everyday bike commuters are just a little slower and leisurely, sometimes even carrying a child in the front and another in the back.

I want to immerse myself more in the culture of the onsen where everyone showers and bathes completely naked because makes everyone take a really hard look at beauty standards vs realistic self images.

And also because there are ways that this feels like a home I never had before. 

Walking on the street, I can actually see the tops of people’s heads because the average height is so close to mine.

Everyone has a sense of collective responsibility and takes extreme care in sorting trash correctly, even carrying it with them because there aren’t trash cans on the street.

Body language and the way people acknowledge and thank one another, feel so much more natural to me than the aggressiveness and volume of the U.S.

Even Starbucks has so many more desserts made from my favorite flavor ever- matcha.

There are also so. many. more. types and patterns of affordable origami paper to fold with.

Also four story tall Muji’s.

And in a way, it does also seem like everyone has a place. With jobs, if you get through the grueling school system to university, a ‘tenured’ job is practically guaranteed. Basically if you fall in line, the spot is waiting for you and there’s no need to fight your way in line and be worried at 60 that your job will be replaced by someone ‘younger’ and more ‘capable’. It does though cut both ways.

I’ve been in Tokyo for a week, and will be here for six more as I intern for Come On Out Japan. I will be mentoring different Japanese students every week in English, sharing what my experiences with MIT and the U.S. have been like, and helping each other figure out our own aspirations in life.

It is in a way, my job to not blend or fit in. I am here to represent me and the sum background that represents.

But finding where that fits in this new, massive, foreign group, will bring new challenges everyday.

At the very least, I had a run down of these rules during our program orientation this week. And most importantly it was run by people like me, who understood these experiences and what I was coming from.

Being here has also helped me empathize ever so slightly more with the immigrants that come from all over to the U.S. and inspires me to reach out a little more the next time an opportunity to help arises.

It makes me more sensitive to the social rules that we have and how much it takes to learn English, let alone pick up on nuances like sarcastic humor that so characterizes our generation.

Fundamentally, I see parallels in my experience with any kind of in-and-out group conflict whether its millennials in gentrifying Brooklyn, minorities in China, or Hispanic immigrant chicken workers in Alabama, because all of these are struggles of power over who’s social rules will set the majority opinion on what is okay and not okay.

Whose responsibility is it to change? The newcomer or the natives? 

Whose responsibility is it to convey these unspoken rules in a way that gets buy in from everyone? 

How can any of this be worked on without first a shared language and communication mode? 

How is any of this enforced except through shaming? 

In the meantime, I’m hoping that this week of adjustment was the most difficult and that as the weeks pass I’ll get a better feel for this place.

Maybe even start to fit in, in a way that feels most true to me. 

By the way, just make sure to hold down the open button in the elevator so that people going out or coming in won’t get squished and bruised.  These elevator doors be aggressive af. Pls and Ty.