May 18, 2013

Tokyo: Almost Going Back to Where I Came From

"I hate Vietnam!"
If you watch Modern Family, there's an episode where Mitch and Cam decide to show their adopted daughter Lily more about her heritage (she is Vietnamese) by taking her to a Vietnamese restaurant. Lily doesn't have a good time and voices her opinion immediately. To mitigate the tension that begins to occur, Cam  announces that he thinks, "everyone should go back to where they came from." He means this in an educational way but it was poorly timed and delivered. This scene used humour to highlight the potential issues around reconnecting with our ethnic backgrounds and the role they play in our lives today.

So what does this have to do with my first trip to Asia? Well, if you know me, you'll know that I've never been to China and my only experience with Asians have been in Canada. And to be honest, I always distanced myself from stereotypical Asian culture. I loathed Hello Kitty and I would sabotage my own math exams (kidding about the exams). I grew up in a small farming community and none of my friends were Chinese. I would forget I was different because everyone around me was mostly Caucasian. Then I'd bring out one of the lotus leaf wrapped sticky rices my mom had packed for me at school and think to myself, "oh right, I AM different."

So what does this monologue have to do with my trip to Tokyo? Everything, because I came back with a renewed perspective. No I didn't go to China, but I went to a country related to my homeland, and it was a wonderful experience. This is what I learned:

- Dang Japanese people have got it together. Everyone knows what they're doing and everyone does it. For example, no one talks on the subway system. People just nod off in their suits and keep to themselves. No one eats while walking on the streets. They're never rushed or pushy, but always keeping their cool everywhere they go.
- The Japanese are collectively the most hospitable group of people I have ever come across. Whenever my friend and I were lost, people would drop what they were doing and help us graciously and bow numerous times while giving us directions. Sometimes they would walk us there. This was SO refreshing because people were never too busy to brush us off and they were genuinely helpful. Strangers would stop to help us just because we looked lost (which was often).
- The architecture was so beautiful and creative, like wow, and presentation mattered in everything.
- I only saw Toyotas and Hondas on the streets and man were they quiet. Not a peep at night. There were quite a few motorcycles and scooters too, and zero noise pollution. Which really surprised me given that Tokyo is one of three largest global cities in the world. Maybe everything is electric there, or at least a hybrid.
- You're going to have a hard time finding a trashcan. We never understood where the locals stored their street trash because the streets were spotless, but we found a bunch in bicycle baskets once. Oh, there are also a million bicycles everywhere, which is cool - and you can bike on the sidewalk because they're built twice as wide out there.
- By the way, men wear suits and ride bicycles. Which is something I wish I saw here. We would see it at like 10 pm.
- The language barrier was a bit challenging, but you end up finding things through miming and bowing. Oh and lots of pointing, and making an X with your fingers to cancel something... or that's what I thought that meant. Hopefully I wasn't offending anyone.
- There is no shortage of shopping in Tokyo. Everywhere you go there are malls. There are malls within malls - the inception of consumerism.
- The fashion was so different but so great. The Japanese are reserved and conservative, which was very refreshing to see.  Every girl wore a skirt, and every other girl wore heels, khaki, navy, bows, blazers and had copper dyed hair.
- Crepes were amazing. You can get this Oreo cheesecake crepe with whipped cream and cookie crumbs. Ah I miss them.
Maybe I'm just new to crepes...
- Even though the temperature was in the mid-twenties and quite hot, everyone wore long sleeves and held brochures up to their heads to shield the sun. Not sure if they were just acclimatized, or wanted to avoid sun exposure. And then there was me: baring my shoulders, laying on a bench sunning myself. (We had a really long winter this year).
- Toilets: These are the super advanced Japanese toilets you have only heard of. If you watch New Girl, Jess gets sprayed uncontrollably by one. These toilets have SO many features: multiple bidets so toilet paper is unnecessary, heated seats, music, and a host of other things I didn't try out. I also avoided traditional Japanese toilets at all costs because squatting intimidates me.

I appreciate Canada for what it is, but I really miss the warmth of Japan. I've never felt safer and I never felt judged for being a visitor. I was treated with so much graciousness and respect, I felt terrible for not speaking Kanji. All I had was this Lonely Planet pocket dictionary that I would pull out and point to words with. I think as a society we could learn a lot from Japan - I know I came back with a humbled perspective. So if you ever get a chance to visit this fabulous country, I definitely recommend it. Arigato gozaimasu for reading!

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