Swat Global: Perspectives from Japan

Anyone who studies abroad will tell you that it involves no shortage of misunderstandings. If they claim otherwise, they are lying to you or to themselves. I, however, am under no delusions of complete competence and will gladly inform you that I have stepped on plenty of toes in my various misadventures with public transit. These anecdotes will be dutifully bookended by profound messages about building bridges, establishing a foothold in your environment, and learning the indispensable bow-apologize-tiptoe combo required to navigate a crowded train at rush hour. The minutiae of everyday life are best understood through such tight squeezes, as I have come to learn the hard way.

Four hours ago. A tiny, bright 7-Eleven next door to my homestay at 8 p.m. on a Tuesday evening. Afro frizzed out in the high humidity, I stepped through the glass doors and set my jaw in the blinding light. Mission: three 70-yen stamps. For those who don’t know, Japanese convenience stores — 7-Eleven being one of the larger ones — have everything from lunch sets to cosmetics to manga to stamps. (You can even pay utility bills at some of them!)

You know that aimless wandering you do in small stores, where you don’t want to look lost because you don’t want a staff person asking you what you’re looking for? I was doing that. No fear, I thought. If I only looked harder, I could find them. Definitely. Indubitably. For sure. By the time I scanned the envelope stand in vain for the fourth time, I had to admit defeat. Time to practice my language skills. One fear.

No customers at the counter, just a young guy who was trying his best to look attentive. At least if I completely bungled this, nobody else would have to be hurt by the intense awkwardness. A small comfort. With each step, the air grew thick, my shoes stuck to the floor, and sweat beaded on my brow. The green stripes on the counter took on a sinister shade. The attendant, who must have been shorter than I, positively loomed once I stood before him.

“Excuse me,” I said quietly, “do you have stamps?” The air cleared, if only a bit. The humidity dropped from 97 percent to 96.5 percent. I can do this, a little voice cheered in my head.

“How much would you like?”

Some stiffness melted from my shoulders as I mumbled, relieved, “Three, please,” with three fingers raised and a smile beginning to creep onto my face.

We all know nothing lasts forever. Some things, like that ghost of triumph, live for so short a time that they leave a negative impression on the things around them. For instance, when the clerk gave me a quizzical look, I did not simply deflate, but I wilted in spectacular fashion. I was still in the process of my supreme wilt as he hurried to the other end of the counter to retrieve a small binder. He opened it before me and, lo and behold, here were the stamps!

If thoughts could raise their eyebrows, my thoughts then certainly had one eyebrow raised in a classic Jack Black impression: Ah, I see I cannot merely ask for three stamps, but must specify an amount. Child’s play. Easy peasy. Time to get my stamps and add this to my list of things I didn’t completely screw up.

A few problems arose, as problems are wont to do.

There were no 70-yen stamps. Simple fix — one 50-yen and two 10-yen. I was silently grateful to the clerk for pre-empting my suggestion.

He started ringing up exactly 70 yen of stamps. Solution: “Ah, sorry, I’m trying to send three postcards…” What a masterful move! Such grace, no grammatical errors, decent volume, and perfect subtlety to convey that I need three — where is he going? The stamps are all here. Oh. Oh, dear.

The clerk presented me with three pre-stamped domestic postcards.

Ah, misunderstanding. The most critical point of cultural exchange, this most logical precursor to understanding is also one of the most painful things I have had the displeasure to experience. Forget people glancing at my hair, or speaking with me initially in English — I have been most struck by the moments when simple day-to-day activities go horribly awry. Getting on the wrong bus. Running out of money on my subway card and having the gate close on me. Failing to properly ask for stamps.

My sheepish smile belied my desire to sink into the floor or be crushed by an asteroid. Perhaps I even could have been coaxed into instantly disappearing and being replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable (perhaps it had already happened). As it was, none of these things happened, and I was forced to deal with the situation at hand myself.

“Um, I bought some postcards myself…”

In another life, maybe we could have both connected over our miscommunication, had a laugh, successfully completed the transaction, and gone on our ways content in knowing that we had one of those travel blog “transcending cultural boundaries” moments. Maybe. But in this life, he balked and tucked the postcards under the counter.

Time to wrap this up. If it went on any longer, I may have just sublimated out of sheer embarrassment. I took a deep breath and said slowly, “I would like… 210 yen of stamps. The 70-yen… three of them?” His eyes lit up with understanding.

Finally! With whispered apologies for the trouble on both sides, I dug through my coin pouch while the clerk rang up the stamps. Coins firmly in hand, I looked up and saw him tearing the stamps individually with unshaking but slick hands. I’ve learned — the hard way, of course — that customer service in Japan is extremely important, so I refrained from saying anything. The coins in my palm felt heavier with every passing second. Watching his face contorted in concentration and his hands beginning to tremble ever so slightly was somewhat of an out-of-body experience, in that I wanted to be out of my body, away from the harsh white lights and garish green-orange decals on the counter and floors.

Stamps down. Total achieved. Money in payment bowl to avoid awkward hand-touching. Just have to get the stamps and go…!

I already had one stamp in hand when the clerk softly asked me to wait. I watched, bemused, as he pulls a tiny plastic baggie from the binder’s inside cover. Without thinking, I dropped the stamp in. Almost imperceptibly, he tensed. My job: bring things, pay money, leave with things. His job: ring up things, accept money, bag things. Defeated, I drew back and let him place the rest of the stamps in the bag.

But it was over. I heaved a sigh of relief and reached for the bag, ready to be done with my day, with 7-Eleven, with talking.

The clerk again asked me to wait.

He tore off a tiny strip of bright orange 7-Eleven tape.

He sealed the tiny bag of stamps worth 210 yen, two tablespoons of sweat, and enough awkwardness to last through a run-in with that person you see every Tuesday and Thursday in Kohlberg (you know the one).

He proffered the bag with a look akin, I imagine, to someone who, having never really run before, decided one day to run a 5K. Able to function but in need of some recovery time.

As I re-entered the horrendously humid September night, a warm breeze sought to renew my discomfort. The streets of Kyoto seemed too loud. On my way back to my homestay, I narrowly avoided collision with two businessmen and a bicycle.

Nevertheless, I could not help but feel somewhat victorious. Painful though the process was, I understand it now. As for the street noise, I am slowly learning to tune it out. And I’ve come to find that people will often swerve around me, so I don’t usually have to sidestep into another world of embarrassment. In these moments, I strangely find solace in memories of similar moments in America; on several occasions, I have made a fool of myself trying to order at a restaurant or buy something at a store. Why would Japan be any different?

My time abroad will be full of moments like tonight. Moments where I am struggling to do something simple, complicated by the language barrier and the sort of miscommunication that truly transcends language barriers. But from these moments, I can learn how to navigate those interactions and others like it. Consider it a different sort of “study” abroad.


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