Making friends here is both harder and easier than it was for me in the States.
Easier, because I am in a unique situation, which naturally bonds me to others who are in the same boat. I now have a whole group of expat English teacher friends that I can hang out with now and then. People that I probably wouldn’t otherwise become friends with back in America, but who, since we are all here, I suddenly have a lot in common with. But, they are mostly quite far away from me, so I see some of them only once or twice a month. Others only at training events.
What’s harder about making friends here is probably quite obvious – the language and cultural barriers of being a foreigner here. My occupation puts me in a bit of a catch-22 as well. I talk regularly with a lot of people – probably 100 every week – at least to make small talk in the lobby if I they are not in my class. I have the good fortune to get to know these people much better than the average vacation traveler, and probably more than the individual who has moved here in an overseas company transfer. Yet, I don’t feel like I can cross the invisible line between talking in English class and getting together to talk in our free time. Not only because out of past shyness, I tend not to be the initiator of get-togethers ever in life, but also because I am afraid it would put my students in an awkward position. If I were to ask students to hang out, perhaps they may feel obligated to say yes, even though they are very busy, or feel uncomfortable with the idea. The title of sensei, or teacher, receives a lot of respect here, and I wonder if students would have a hard time with seeing me as a regular person, or even not want to. One of my fellow foreign teachers heard that if students were to see you on the train platform getting on to the wrong train, they would simply let you do it, rather than contradict the sensei. That kind of treatment, while flattering, does not make for a very balanced friendship.
My recruiter made it sound as though I would be turning down invitations left and right in my first couple of weeks. “All of your students will want you to come out with them so they can get to know you, and you will have to be careful to consolidate plans so you don’t overspend before getting your first paycheck.” This has not been a problem at all, as it turns out. However, I’d also been told that Japanese people never strike up conversations with strangers, and as I mentioned in a previous post, I have found that to be pleasantly untrue. Yesterday morning, I was sitting at Starbucks across the plaza from my work reading a book. An older gentleman came and sat next to me. Noticing that I was reading in English, he said hello and started chatting with me, asking what book I was reading (a translation of a novel by Haruki Murakami – a very famous Japanese author). He told me his name (Takahashi), showed off his purple North Face backpack, Burberry belt, and Levi’s jeans “from America!” and then rummaged around in the backpack and withdrew a bag of tiny fruit flavored chocolate candies. “Orangee” he proclaimed, plopping a candy marked “lemon” into my palm. 2 other flavors followed. We talked for about 20 minutes, during which time he also gave me some of his fruit juice to try, calling it a Japanese specialty. I found this hard to reconcile with the fact that it came out of a juice box much like we would put in a child’s school lunch, but I’ll take his word for it. He told me that he comes to that Starbucks every morning to have a donut and juice, and then after about half an hour he moves on to another specific restaurant that I did not catch the name of. This was proven true when I ran into him on the sidewalk this morning on my way to work. He said hello, shaking me out of my train-commute reverie. I was happy that I remembered his name. I said hello and clasped both of his hands in mine. He didn’t seem to smile, so I wonder now if that was too much Western style touching and made him uncomfortable, but I also think he was just a little bit of an odd bird, so that may be the reason.
Then, of course, there are the drunk people who like to strike up conversations. I’m under no illusions that this occurrence contradicts stereotypes of Japanese shyness in any way. I do realize that drunk people are the world-wide exception to any rule about reserved people, but sometimes it’s just nice when someone decides to chat with you, regardless of their level of sobriety. And, let’s face it – drunk people can be funny. Tonight as I walked home from the train, I found myself behind two gentlemen who had clearly been enjoying their evening quite a bit. The two of them walked wide, meandering slowly, and taking up the full expanse of the footbridge across the stream. I walked slowly behind them, trying not to crowd them while I waited for an opportunity to discreetly pass by. I could smell the alcohol wafting off of them from 3 feet back. A few meters from the crosswalk, I made my move and nodded politely as I passed. The wobbly gentleman immediately next to me said “sayonara” followed by some friendly phrases in Japanese which I could not decipher, even though they were repeated to me 3 times. “Wakarimasen” I managed (I don’t understand). “Aaaah, you speak English??? Where born?” came the reply. “You mean, where am I from?” (Now that English teacher mode has been activated, I am unable to turn it off!)
We covered the fact that I am from the US, and that I live in the neighborhood, whereupon his companion reached into his bag and handed me a can of beer. I refused at first, but then began to question whether the Japanese perhaps consider it ruder to refuse. I ultimately accepted it. We bid goodbye at the convenience store, where I was given a hearty slap on the back (a decidedly un-Japanese thing to do, I think), and handed another canned beverage from the gentleman’s shoulder bag. I don’t know what this one is, but it is strawberry flavored, and was proffered in a telltale pachinko parlor sack, removing any further doubts (were there any?) of the kind of celebratory evening these two had been having. “I’ll see you again!” said my new drunk friend. I walked off down the street as they headed across the convenience store parking lot. “Sayonara! Bye-bye! Hallloooo! Bye-Bye!” He kept at this, waving all the while, until I was out of sight and turning the corner.