June 7, 2010

From Bong Jena to Jena-San


After five months of adjusting to Cambodia, the modernity and convenience of Japan is a relief, but also a major shock to my system. Instead of hailing (or dodging) tuk-tuks, I'm swiping my Suica card to board the JR train. Instead of sanitation practices that could best be described as non-existent, I'm enjoying the epitome of cleanliness and hygiene (don't get me started on the beautiful public toilets!). And instead of the constant harassment by people on the street, I'm occasionally the subject of a curious camera phone-user's snapshot.

I've left behind “Bong Jena”, my Cambodian title, in exchange for Jena-San, the proper Japanese version of my name. I've filed away my Khmer language to make room for Nihongo—yet another language with a new syllabic alphabet. In Cambodia, not speaking the language was almost never a problem. I was surrounded by English speakers and the signs around town were usually translated into English. In Japan, I am immersed in a Japanese family with Japanese friends in a community that does not need English to survive. I am very dependent on Takeshi's translations to help me do nearly everything—especially order food. If I couldn't read the menu in Cambodia, I would just point at one of the options and pretty much know that it was going to be a variant of stir-fry. In Japan, however, the point-and-pick is more like Russian Roulette. The Japanese have iron stomaches and the will to eat the craziest foods I've ever seen. Pointing at a random choice could get you a big plate of octopus dumpling.

Having said how scary the menu can be, the food here is fantastic. Of course I love the sushi, but Takeshi also introduced me to Rahmen, the greatest noodle soup imaginable; and to soba noodles, a healthy, slurpy meal. It will take me a while to get used to Japanese table manners. Two parts I'm struggling with are: cramming giant pieces of sushi into my mouth and chopsticking, sucking, and slurping noodles as loudly as my fellow eaters.

I'm still the tall and blond foreigner who neither speaks the language nor accurately performs local customs, but at least I have a personal guide and translator to help me navigate this strange new world.