Pearl Wyman: Adapting to a new culture
February 20, 2016
This year I was lucky enough to travel to Osaka, Japan through a program called Youth For Understanding for six months on foreign exchange and stayed with a host family.
Osaka is famous for two things: its food and its — slightly vulgar — dialect, both of which the population is extremely proud.
Osakans claim the rights to most of the unhealthy Japanese foods. This includes Okonomiyaki, a savory pancake with a cabbage base and innumerable possibilities of toppings — literally translating to "grilled everything-you-want-pancake" — and Takoyaki, fried balls of batter containing ginger, green onions, and, of course, a single piece of octopus tentacle — or "tako" — in the center. Takoyaki stalls that had the largest chunks of octopus were undoubtedly the most sought after, and I always felt lucky getting a big bite of the meat.
While it was easy for me to get used to the delicious food in my region the dialect was more of a problem. You will not find the Kansai/Osaka dialect — "Osaka-ben" in Japanese — in any Japanese textbook, as it is casual language and most students want to learn the basic Japanese style spoken in Tokyo, despite Osaka being the second largest city in Japan with a population of 19 million.
Furthermore, those who live in the Osaka area have immense pride around their speaking style despite, or maybe because of the fact that Tokyoites have a hard time properly imitating the accent. My host family would laugh at the TV when an actor from Tokyo attempted the dialect. My Japanese friends in Tokyo didn't seem to find Osaka-ben worth learning, as it sounded harsh and slightly mean to them.
In my area, however, classmates, teachers and family eagerly tried to teach me the slang. In fact, the first word I learned in Japan was "metcha," meaning "a lot," but probably translating more accurately to something like English slang "hella."
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Besides these big differences, my everyday life was almost incomparable to life here.
I woke up early to put on my skirted school uniform and to catch the 6 a.m. bus from my house to the train station 20 minutes away. After I got off the bus I would become a part of a mob of Japanese students in various uniforms making their way up the hill to the station where I would board my train for two stops. Upon exiting the train, I would take another bus up to my extremely large, private school where I would arrive at 8 a.m.
While in Japan I was fortunate enough to travel all over the country and even snorkel in one of the most well preserved reefs in the world, but I really missed a lot from home.
Besides my family, I longed for American food. I missed the sinful amounts of butter and fat and I fondly remembered the love that seemed to go into all of the meals here. Furthermore, I realized that Americans love food. We enjoy every bite with satisfaction and are very proud of our food culture.
Most Japanese food is extremely healthy and is eaten mainly to sustain you instead of eating it for enjoyment. For this reason, Japanese people often think that all Americans are really obese and would often ask me if I had lost a lot of weight since coming to Japan.
I also missed the freedom of expression in the U.S. While there are many laws protecting free speech in Japan, it is not culturally accepted to be loud, angry or even sad in public. It is seen as unacceptable even for a parent to scold their child out of the house. I’m a very loud and opinionated person so it was sometimes hard for me to talk quietly and hold some of my more controversial thoughts to myself, although when I slipped the Japanese people were always very patient and kind.
Now that I’m home I find myself missing some of the clean, healthy and nurturing Japanese food and even the long commute to get anywhere. During the two hours that it would take to get to school I would listen to music, think and admire the scenery. Even though the trains were often crowded it was a really peaceful time, because Japanese people find it really important to respect personal space and to be respectful, quiet, and clean in public spaces.
They even line up single file in front of the train doors in order to board smoothly without confrontation.
Before I went to Japan I felt that because the U.S. was such a wonderful melting pot of different cultures and ideas it does not have a definable culture. Since returning I’ve realized that there is certainly a culture here and that I definitely fit in and am very American.
Even though I still hope to work toward change in making this country better and how we could appreciate the beautiful diversity that makes it what it is, I'm happy to be home.