How I Found My Way Home

Article excerpt

I looked around the crowded market in confusion. People whizzed by me on bicycles, some with umbrellas attached to their handlebars to shield them from the sun. Parking lots nearby were packed with shining forests of more bicycles, crammed as close together as possible. A heavy, wet blanket of summer heat was draped over the open market, where I could smell the strong, oily scent of fish and see little shops filled with cakes, fruit, and bright clothing. The shopkeepers looked at me with friendly smiles, but I could not understand their rapid speech.

I had arrived in Japan about a week before, after being hired as an English teacher on a Japanese exchange and teaching program.

"You're going to Japan, and you don't speak Japanese?" a friend had asked. "Oh, well, I'm sure a lot of people there speak English."

"You can communicate using gestures," someone else said.

I felt optimistic, too. But a few days into my Japan experience, I had found that hardly anyone in this busy section of the Osaka prefecture seemed to speak English. Gestures didn't translate well, either.

When I was introduced to a bunch of new people at a party at my host family's house, I wondered why they all seemed to be talking about their noses. And when the woman I was staying with called my name, she appeared to be shooing me away.

I constantly felt confused. Soon I learned that it is customary in Japan to point to one's nose instead of to the chest when introducing oneself. When beckoning someone, one turns one's hand palm down instead of palm up.

I could see this was just the beginning of the many lessons in communication I would need to learn. Also, it seemed foreigners were still a rare sight in this part of the city, and people stared at me openly. Though I had wanted to come here for years, some days I wondered what I had been thinking.

Today was one of those days. Soon I would move out of my host family's house into my own apartment. My Japanese supervisor had given me an assignment: "Go to Hanazono on Sunday and find the way to your new apartment," she said, not realizing how difficult it was for me to find my way around. I could ask for directions in Japanese, but I couldn't understand the answer and couldn't read the map.

I showed the address, which my supervisor had written in Japanese, to a shopkeeper. He gave me directions, but the only thing I understood was that he was pointing straight ahead.

I formed a plan. I would stop at every few shops and ask for directions again. If enough people pointed, maybe I would eventually get there.

At one bakery, the young man stepped outside in his apron to show me where to go. He took the time to draw me a map while we stood on the doorstep, causing the automatic door to bang spasmodically back and forth as we talked. He explained as he drew, but I didn't catch many words. He drew a strange shape in the middle of the map. I sensed that this was important, so I pointed to it. After he tried many words, he finally said, "Temp-ah." So I set off to look for the temple.

As I walked, people made comments to each other about me, and small children hid behind fences, then called, practicing their English, "Hello, hello! …