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