The difficultly with the beginning is knowing where to start. So perhaps it’s best not to start at the beginning at all; rather a place anchored in my thoughts as where I started to become who I am today. Tokyo, Japan 2007.
The lights of Shinjuku are overwhelming. Every block is filled with flashing neon lights – blues, reds, yellows. As we walked on the street a door opened next to me and a blaring noise from the pachinko came pouring onto the street; bling, bling, bling, chink, chink, chink!
I followed my friend as she guided me through a maze of people and streets. Everything was overwhelming. Little did I know but in 3 months I would actually feel at home in the chaos.
We entered a yakitori restaurant. The door slid open automatically at the touch of a button, which was well placed to look like a handle. The restaurant took up two floors and the waiter guided us to the only table left, situated in a small alcove at the half floor. We saw all the foot traffic of customers running up and down stairs, but hardly any waiters.
As I looked over the menu, my friend’s began explaining.
“This is grilled chicken, and chicken feet. There is also chicken knuckles…”
“Yea. And the fried chicken skin.”
Yaki means grill and tori is chicken. Everything chicken. There are some vegetables too.
As she finished explaining the menu, the waiter brought us our first round of beers. “Two more minutes please,” we answered his inquisitive look. He left us and disappeared into the crowd of the first floor.
We came down to our final decision and arched ourselves around the curve of the stairs to see the first floor. We couldn’t see any waiters among the heads that were seated below us.
Suddenly my friend cried out, “SUMIMASEN!!!” (excuse me)
The water came and took our food order. Everything was delicious. One beer gone we wanted to order another.
After the second beer we decided to get more food.
“SUMIMASEN!!” Each call became incrementally louder than the first after each beer consumed.
The waiter, looking condescendingly polite knelt down next to us and said in a quiet voice, “you know there is a bell you can ring at the table if you want to call me?”
My friend turned red. But I looked at her to understand his meaning.
Next to us on the table sat a small white plastic dome. In its center a button which when pushed emitted a gentle noise, pin-pon, like a door bell, to beckon the waiter over. I nearly doubled over with laughter as my friend politely bowed to the waiter and said in a smaller voice, “sumimasen.”
Looking back, I can see that courage and curiosity are the things which would allow me to maneuver foreign cultures and learn to fit in. The trick has been balancing curiosity with acceptance – learning about the host culture and just accepting it for what it is without trying to change it. You yourself change, becoming a hybrid of your culture of birth and culture of adoption.
Two years later the sum of my experiences in Japan would serve me well as I walked through the historic streets of Kyoto, probably the most traditionally preserved city of the country. By then very little distinguished me from the crowd except the color of my skin. Even my physical features were somehow accepted as half-Asian, half-European.