The Way They See It

August 24, 2009

Since I’m frequently wrapped up in my own observations of all the places and people around me, I often forget to consider a very important question – “what do all these folks think about me?” Based on the stray glances I catch on a daily basis, I already know the answer – they think I’m interesting.

If “interesting” sounds too negative or too boastful, you got the wrong idea. There are a total of seven foreigners in Nabari. Compared to somewhere like Nagoya, where I saw dozens of American and Brazilian people in the train station alone, that’s a tiny number. Heck, Nagoya boasts an authentic Mexican restaurant, while trying to find refried beans in this city is as pointless as a Yeti hunt. Outside of city hall, people in Nabari don’t see foreigners very often, so when they see me on a daily basis, I’m “interesting.” Really, “different” would be the optimal word here – except that carries a lot of negative connotations. The people here couldn’t be nicer about it.

Being stared at doesn’t sound like the most welcoming gesture, but it isn’t so bad. I mean, wouldn’t you stared if you saw something strange jog by your favorite arcade every day? And it isn’t like they are firing bullets at me with their eyes, mostly just a quick glance that might linger a few seconds long. This happens a lot on the train and at McDonalds, where all the junior high students seem to hang out. You catch them peeking at you a lot from the next booth over between bites of your Big Mac. Maybe they just want to see what an American orders at Mickey D’s.

The most interesting interactions happen at the cash register. At first, I felt absolute terror buying a soda or ordering dinner to the point where I lived off the puny amount of American snack food I brought from America (mmmm, nothing like Chex Mix for dinner!). I know three phrases in Japanese: how to say “hello,” how to say “thank you very much” and how to say “goodbye” for extended periods of time. I can bookend the cashier experience with two of those phrases (I think “sayonara” might be a bit too dramatic for the lady at Circle K), but everything in-between is a total crap shoot.

Thankfully, I’ve toughened up a bit (and ran out of Goldfish crackers) so I’ve turned store runs into little comedy routines. After the usual “konichiwa,” I slide whatever items I want towards the salesperson. They scan them, and then start speaking a bunch of Japanese words I have never heard before. I make a confused face that breaks through all language barriers (BARRRROOO?) and we share a laugh at how ridiculous the situation is. I then pull out money and give it to them, as I’m fully aware most problems go away if you throw money at them. I get my stuff and leave. Smiles all around!

Sometimes, though, the situation doesn’t follow the script – sometimes, the cashiers want to speak English. I don’t have to administer an exam or anything, but they like to throw out a few words for fun. “Hello” and “how are you doing” and “thank you very much!” At McDonalds (as you can see, this fast-food establishment plays a large role in my life regardless of the city/state/continent I am in), they seem especially enthusiastic. They don’t just like giving the basic stuff a whirl, but they also enjoy going over my order – in English. Most places, I just point at the picture, the waiter goes off and whatever I jutted my finger at ends up in front of me. At McDonalds, I point to an item and the cashier goes over everything. “Big Mac?” “Fries?” “Coke?” Nothing connects people like the corporate goods we buy.

(In case this all looks a little too rosy, not everyone in Japan is as enthusiastic about us foreign types. On the train back from the beach, two friends from Nabari were a few rows ahead of me having a conversation about apartheid [uhhhhh, don’t ask]. For most of the hour-and-a-half journey, no problems. But with 15 minutes left before we hit our station, the guy sitting across the aisle from them who had been reading his book quietly the whole way, just snapped and yelled “STOP TALKING SO LOUDLY.” I mean, shouldn’t he have said something a little sooner? But I digress…)

The one group of Japanese people more excited by my existence than cashiers are children. Adults seem reserved about their curiosity. Kids flip out when they see you. I’ve had six-year-olds yell and wave at me as I ride by on my bike. They point and look excited. One girl, who couldn’t have been older than five, came up to me at the grocery store and just started talking to me in Japanese. I just stood and smiled, and then waved goodbye.

My favorite instance of all this attention came recently. I was outside of Kintetsu, a big department store that’s kind of like Wal-Mart in that they have everything you need inside but a whole lot less soul-crushing, when I walked by a bunch of kids just hangin’ out on their bikes. It’s still summer break, so I guess these (I’m guessing) eight-year-olds were just riding around town. I walk by, and this one kid who looked remarkably like Squints from The Sandlot, comes up to me and just says “hello.” I say “hallow back. Then, the rest of his friends come up and each individually say hello to me. And they look so happy to be doing what basically amounts to practice for a school subject. But whatever, it totally made my day.

(Japanese Fun Fact #9 – There are elections going on right now in this country. One method still apparently popular – those vans with huge bullhorns attached that drive around a town spewing out some message. You know, like the one in Nashville. For some reason, one candidate thought it would be a good idea to do this at eight in the morning today. Wow, was that an unwelcome surprise. And it didn’t help after I read about Brett Favre signing with the Vikings. Hate that guy. Uhhh, but yeah…vans with bullhorns on them, they exist here.)

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