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Postcard from Japan #1

Lost in translation

Living in Toyko and not being able to speak Japanese is proving to be more of a problem than Jess Scott expected. In her first Postcard from Japan she writes of feeling isolated in a city of 38 million people.

For the first time in my life, I feel stupid.

This trip to Japan wasn’t planned. I applied for a scholarship on a whim, and two months later I was on a plane to Tokyo. With no time for language classes, I hoped that most people spoke a little English and that Google Translate could pick up the slack. Surely I’d pick some Japanese up. Spoiler alert: I haven’t. I can barely order a coffee, or really say anything other than ‘good morning’, ‘thank you’ and ‘I don’t understand’.

I underestimated how isolating it would be, not being able to communicate. Not speaking a language feels like everyone else has an internal instruction manual, that I don’t have access to. I am this numb, dumb shell of a person, floating on the margins. I’m in the midst, but not part of it.

Endlessly, people are speaking words at me, around me, about me, that mean nothing to me. My dendrites don’t recognise those syllables, no connections are made inside my brain. I just stare blankly.

Conveniently forgetting the parts of the film where she chain-smokes alone in her hotel room, killing time before she meets Bill Murray, I had envisioned myself like Scarlett Johanssen’s character in Lost in Translation. I pictured myself slipping unnoticed through crowds, snapping shots on my film camera, relishing the urban isolation. After four years living on Cuba Street, inevitably seeing someone I knew everywhere I went, I was excited for the anonymity of a city of 38 million. I romanticised walking down unfamiliar streets and not knowing a soul, having zero social expectations and not a snowflake’s chance in hell of running into a former flatmate or someone I’d once pashed at a party.

Unfortunately, I have never felt more visible. Walking in Tokyo, I attract more stares than I do visiting my grandparents in Cambridge while wearing holographic sequinned platform sneakers. To be foreign here is uncommon, 97.8% of people living in Japan are Japanese. Every single person that walks past me stares. And it isn’t the sort of stare you get at home, where people quickly avert their gaze when you meet their eye. People sit across from me on the subway and stare intently for the entire duration of my trip. Men are even worse, I’ve been approached numerous times, followed around stores, and groped on the street.

And I’ve been here twice before. I’m not ‘culture’ shocked, so much as naive not to have realised how difficult living here alone would be. Previously travelling with my partner, I hadn’t considered quite how vulnerable I would feel. There’s no one to help me navigate, laugh at bizarre things with, show interesting things to, crowdsource places to eat with, or rely on to ensure I get on the right train line after a night out… It’s all on me. It’s easy to go all day without really speaking to anyone. I have previously laughed at Facebook friends who go to other countries, only to hang with other New Zealanders, but now I get it. It’s comforting to find familiarity in an environment where you feel so utterly alien and ‘other’. I mean, less so when you’ve just moved to Melbourne, but I can still empathise…

Jess Scott is a writer, eternal student, and shopping fanatic.
In her high school leaver’s quote, she said her aspiration was to be a trophy wife with a PhD. Six years and ⅔ of a Master’s degree later, she still thinks this is funny.
Her boyfriend does not.

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