the things you learn

Not speaking the language (still, I know) forces you to learn how to respond in particular situations…

If I’m buying something at the supermarket and they start speaking to me, they are probably asking if I want a bag with that.  I can either shake my head, do a hand wave signifying no, or respond with ふくろいりません (fukuro irimasen), meaning “I don’t need a bag”.  I actually took the time to learn this phrase because they over-bag in Japan.  They put everything in bags!  You buy a stick of gum, they put it in a bag.  You buy a bag of chips, they put it in a bag.  My apartment was filled with plastic bags!  So I learned to say ふくろいりません.

If I’m at a store and I pay with a credit card, they may ask me a question, accompanied with a hand gesture indicating a one or two.  They are asking if I want to swipe my credit card once or twice.  This one took me a while to figure out.  I used to just say yes, but that confused them.  After talking to some of my Japanese friends, I learned to say, one swipe.  I’m not really sure why you would pay with two swipes, maybe there is a transaction limit on Japanese credit cards.  One of the mysteries of Japan…

If you are on the train and all of the sudden everyone gets off.  Get off too!  I’ve actually not noticed everyone getting off before, or thought, “that’s weird, everyone in this car needed to get off at this stop”.  At this point a Japanese man rushed up to me and gestured to get off the train.  Since then, I’ve learned that when everyone gets off the train, it means that they are switching trains and you have to walk across the platform to another train.  Just follow the people, a philosophy I use a lot here.


This is what I love about travel.

My brother and I were in the sleepy port town of Sokcho, South Korea, and we heard loud voices coming from this building:

Naturally we wanted to see what the commotion was about, and as we approached, we saw booth after booth of women selling live sea creatures.

We noted the sight and continued on our way.  As we walked around, we noticed that people seemed to be carrying baskets of food to the top floor of this building.  Intriguing.  As usual, we followed the crowd to the top floor and we found hundreds of people eating soup and fresh seafood.  We figured, people mush be buying the sea creatures below, bringing them up here, and eating!  Only if. Only if we could do that, how cool.  We discussed it, there seemed to be too many hurdles.  Figuring out what to eat, negotiating a price, somehow cleaning the fish (that was a big one), conveying to the people on the top floor of the building we wanted to eat what we brought, it seemed daunting.  We did one more loop around the building, trying to figure out how we might pull this off… there was no obvious solution to us.  It just seemed to complicated.  As we were walking away, a woman yelled out. “Hello!  Hello!”  We turned around, “You eat?”  she asked.  This woman became our savior.

“How much?”  The first question in most travel situations.  The woman grabbed a basket and dunked her hand into the tanks.  She pulled out four live shrimp, two squid, and about four other fish I can’t begin to describe.

“Twenty.”  She said.  “Twenty thousand?”  I wrote on my hand, a two followed by four zeros. She nodded yes… quick converstion calculation… about $18.  Deal!  We asked, “How do we cut?”  We mimed cutting the fish, she understood.  She beckoned us to the back of the store, revealing her worker bees.

These women cut and clean sea creatures all day (I keep saying sea creatures, because fish is just too limiting).  Perfect!  The woman handed us a menu, we looked at it… ok, ok.  These must be the topping/side dishes.  Perfect!  We’ll take it.  We motioned to her… “Can you take us upstairs?”  We pointed up.  She nodded.  Of course she’ll help these tall helpless white giants.  So, the worker bees cleaned the creatures, placing the parts onto a nice basket, the woman handed us our sides and she led us upstairs.  We sat down at a table, a waitress brought us water, but we noticed that other tables had soup and rice, we want that too.  We ordered by pointing (the norm).  Everyone nodded, ok, ok.  Things are working out.  We stared at the basket of fish parts (picture below).  The picture is tough to see, but in the left basket, the there are white fish parts and dark squid parts.  We ate the shrimp before I took the picture. Oops!  The right basket are the garnishes.

The next dilemma ..  I tried to ask, “Do we eat raw?  Or wait for soup?”  I couldn’t get this question across via mime.  At this point we were testing the woman’s patience.  She sighed and motioned for us to eat.  I picked up a shrimp, head and all, hmmmm.  The woman grabbed the shrimp from me, broke off the head and handed the body, legs, tail and all, back to me.  She motioned to eat.  I ate it.  It was crunchy.  She did the same for my brother.  OK.  Raw it is!  We smiled, nodded, gave her a thumbs up, and she nodded walked away.  We dug in!  The fish head soup came, we alternated eating the fish raw and dipping it in boiling water.  What a great meal.

After eating all the “good parts” that we bought downstairs, I ventured to eat the fish heads in the soup.  The fish heads were not bad.  It’s just that they had 1 trillion little bones inside and were about 20% skin:

Like I said, not bad, just exhausting to eat!  No wonder Asians are so skinny.  It’s exhausting to eat.  We finished up the soup, drank the broth and nodded.  That was really good and it worked out perfectly.  We got up, paid and left.  These are the experiences I love.

Then we got hamburgers, we were still hungry!



thousand-yard stare

The thousand-yard stare is defined as a “limp, unfocused gaze of a battle-weary warrior”.  A term coined after the soldiers returned home from the Pacific battles in WWII with this type of gaze (a characteristic of PTSD).  I’m going to use the term to also describe the look westerners develop after being in Southeast Asia for enough time.  It’s the ability to stare straight ahead through the midst of crowded streets and markets, absorbing everything around you, but not making direct contact with a single person.  Direct eye contact with certain people can lead to endless hassling to buy the nearest street hawker’s trinket, men grabbing your arms to try to lead you to their shops to buy cheap suits or girls, or the endless children that beg you for money.  If you give a child a dollar, you will feed him for a day.  If you give a child a dollar, he will ALSO scream to his friends and you will be surrounded little palms hoping that your generosity has not been extinguished.  The thousand-yard stare allows you to avoid the pitfalls of eye contact and continue on your way.

Creatures of Habit

Do you think about which side of the sidewalk you walk on? Or does it come naturally? The Japanese walk on the left side, so I either have to THINK about moving to the left (I’m getting better) or run into endless amounts of people when I’m walking, and there are a lot of people here.

Quick – which side of the steering wheel is the turn signal on?  Right or left?  In Japan, the turn signal is on the right side of the steering wheel, and the windshield wipers are on the left, opposite of the States. So every time I want to make a turn, I end up washing the windows.

When you cross the street, which direction you look?  Left.  Do you think about it?  No.  Because we’ve done it a bazillion times and that’s where the cars are coming from. In Japan, you drive on the left, so the cars come from the right.  When I cross the street now, I look both ways, five times because I can’t remember.

If your friend’s driving you somewhere and your approaching their car, which side do you go to to get in? The right side. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked to the right side, only to be politely told by the driver to go to the other side (steering wheel is on the right side of the car in Japan).

The strangest habit that I’ve encountered is responding in Portuguese or Spanish when someone starts speaking to me in Japanese. I lived in Brazil for 7 months and SoCal for 5 years, so I guess my mind is trained to think “ah! Someone is speaking to me in another language! Respond in Portuguese/Spanish! Do it now!”  I don’t respond in full sentences or anything, but I’ve caught myself saying “si” (yes) or “e” (and), which is just weird.

The last, and most annoying one of all.  In Japan, the toilet is not in the bathroom.  It has its own room:

I’ve walked into the bathroom SO many times wanting to use the toilet, only to turn around to head to the little toilet room.  It’s interesting what the mind does for you without having to consciously think about it, until you move to another country.

My $10,000 Apartment

Well, it’s not really $10,000. It was 862,400 yen, which at today’s exchange rate is $10,646.  I’ll round down.  But the point is, I needed $10,646, cash, just to move into my apartment.

Let’s break it down.  One month’s rent is about $2500, yes a little high, but for Japan, it isn’t that high. A “cheap” place would have been $2000, so I figure I’d spend a little more and live a little better. Plus since the yen is ridiculously strong right now, it increases the price by about 20%. So, first month’s rent is, $2500, what about the other $7500??  Well, part of the Japanese culture is that there is a little job for everyone, they aren’t an, “I can do it myself” culture, which means you have to go through an agent to find an apartment. There is no craiglsist to look at and owners don’t post classified ads for all to read.  For their services, agents get one month’s rent, plus tax.  So that’s the second $2500. The third $2500 is the security deposit, understandable, hopefully I get it back. The last $2500 is the rip-off part.  It’s the “key” or “gift” money that you give to the owner as a “thank you” for letting you rent their apartment. They pocket that, you never see it again. But, that’s the culture.  Everyone does it.  The last little bit is renter’s insurance, about $250 for the entire time I stay at the place. Not too bad.  So, $2500 for first month’s rent + $2500 agent fee + $2500 deposit + $2500 key money + $250 renters insurance is about my $10,646.  Just to move in.

Needless to say, it’s very common for Japanese to live with their parents until they’re 30. That gives them enough time to get a good job, just so they can get their own place.