I chose this photo for today’s blog because it represents my life the past few weeks. Walking through a weird tunnel, that is continuously revolving, lights shining in my face, not sure what direction I’m going in , or how long it’s going to take to get out. Sometimes we have these periods in life where everything is going along amazingly smooth, we are the happiest we can be, and then SPLAT! The rug is pulled from underneath our feet and we are left staring up at the ceiling wondering how things can change so fast.
Let me start by telling you about this accident I was in a few weeks ago. I was driving home from taking my son to French lessons on a Wednesday evening. All was well, I was patiently waiting to make a right hand turn while some crazy Japanese music played quietly on the radio. I put my signal on, waited for traffic to clear, and went. Suddenly “BAM”, a loud noise appeared from the rear of my car, but I could see nothing. I pulled the car to the side of the road and hopped out to find a motorcyclist down in the street behind me. He had clipped the back of my bumper and went down.
This is a terrifying event in any circumstance. But I’d just like to point out, I am in a country where I do not understand the language. My kid was in the car. Here, I drive every day on the left side of the road, with obstacles such as scooters, people on bikes, and pedestrians weaving in and out. I am constantly overstimulated by blinking Pachinko signs, weird ads, and vehicles driving around playing psychotic tunes that sound like Ice Cream Trucks from horror movies.
To make matters worse, after attempting to help the cyclist or talk to him (which he wanted no part of), when I went back to my car to move it over into a safe area, he came bounding over , ripped open my passenger door and began screaming at me in Japanese while still wearing his helmet, causing my son to cry. Believe it or not, after living here for nearly a year, this was TRULY the first moment I felt helpless in not being able to speak Japanese.
I managed to get out of the car, while leaving my son inside and try and use the limited Japanese I had to communicate with this man. Finally he screamed at me in English a few times to call the police. I was in a state of panic and could not find my phone, so he finally did it himself. In the end, the police arrived, they took statements and insurance information from us. My husband came by to support me, and a lovely woman stopped on the side of the road to act as a translator for me when she saw what was happening. I can’t be more grateful for her kindness.
I’ve been rear ended more than a few times since getting my license 30 years ago. In all of these instances, the police came, everyone was questioned, photos were taken and that was that. It was a simple traffic accident and insurance takes over. It was traumatic at the moment….but it was done with once we all left the scene for the most part.
But, “This is Japan”. I’ve said this sentence a lot since moving here. And since “it’s Japan” , this ordeal is not even remotely over. In the past 6 weeks since this accident occurred, I have met with the police three times (4 as of tomorrow). I have spent 5 hours being “interrogated” and questioned not just about the accident but about myself , my character, my family, and my history. I was reassured that this had nothing to do with me being a foreigner, then told that this was because I WAS a foreigner, then told again by someone else that it was “normal” and not because I was a foreigner. I’d really like to know which one it is.
I sat in a room with a translator and a very polite officer while they asked me what my blood type was, how long it was between my marriage and my son’s birth, what is my level of education, do I have any tattoos, do I like to drink, and so on and so on. I wish I was kidding, but sadly I am not. I’ve heard about the racist and exclusive side of Japanese culture but I certainly have not experienced it on this level until that moment.
Sadly, even after my third visit to the station and being extremely cooperative about it all, I was called back AGAIN to come in for more questions. I wonder if they are going to ask what I eat for breakfast, how many times a week I wash my hair, how many people have I slept with, or do I like chocolate or vanilla? I am completely pissed off as you can imagine and I will be returning with a friend who speaks Japanese and who will support me. I also will be informing them that this is the last time I will cooperate and that next time I will show up with a lawyer.
Now, I know some of you are reading this and thinking, “Why hasn’t she already gotten a lawyer?”. And I’m guessing those some of you are my lovely American friends. And I say this because, in America, this would be the first thing we’d all think of as our privacy is violated or we feel threatened. But once again, let me say, THIS IS JAPAN. And guess what, when you live in another country the same rules do not apply and the same sets of behavior do not apply. You can not just barge in and act “American” in a Japanese police station, restaurant, hospital, or anywhere else. Well, you can….but just see how far that will get you in the end.
It’s all a really big lesson on culture, tolerance, and patience. And the lesson is not easy my friends. I have to relearn it every single day.
Here’s another example of something that happened to me this week that would never happen where most of you live. I was out at a bar, celebrating our friend’s visit from Los Angeles with my husband and a few friends last Friday night. After already being stressed out about this police business, I got a text from a surgeon I had seen earlier in the week for a biopsy. She asked if I could come see her the following day.
There is nothing more terrifying than getting a text from a Doctor on a Friday night when you are waiting for news about Cancer. It’s at that moment you know that you are totally screwed. My husband tried to reassure me that this was just another example of cultural difference and that people here work longer hours and are different at delivery of information.
I called the surgeon back, and though she was reluctant to tell me over the phone, it was indeed bad news. My biopsy came back malignant and I have some skin cancer on my nose. I spent the next 20 minutes or so crying in the street. But I have to say this, I will be forever grateful to this woman who took the time out of her very busy life to call me as soon as she had time with this news. She took the time to make time in her office the very next morning, to sit with my husband and I , to discuss what will happen next. She offered reassurance and help and made sure things were clear and that things were okay for us (as okay as they can be). This is the kind of thing that I would never have experienced in any other country I lived in. This would also ONLY HAPPEN IN JAPAN.
So, in the end, we must take deep breaths when we live abroad. When we are immigrants. When we don’t understand the language, the customs, the procedures. It takes everything in my power not to scream at the police about how I have other things to worry about in my life right now, but I am going to try having a zen attitude and be patient with them, just as this surgeon has been patient with me. At the end of the day, I still believe we always get back what we give and we are treated how we treat others. Deep Breaths, deep breaths, deep breaths.