A fresh start
Well, I got off the Vientiane-Bangkok-Osaka-Tokyo flight after my trip through Vietnam and Laos, and made my way to the University in order to take the initial orientation and test for the start of my next couple of years as a postgrad student in Japan!
It was a strange feeling passing through Osaka airport – over the last few years, after a trip, coming back in there has had the “homecoming” feel to it. I’ve been back in a place I recognise, and understand, and know friends and my own little comfort hole are just a short while away. This time, however, I came back in after my trip, and had to suspend that feeling as I waited for my connection to Tokyo. It was quite a sad feeling, waiting there, getting ready to leave again, not being able to message friends for a catch-up coffee or anything, then leaving it behind (for all intents and purposes, for good), to depart to a totally unfamiliar place.
Arriving in Tokyo Haneda airport had none of the same familiar feel to it, which is probably not surprising considering it was my first time there. I negotiatied the trains and subways with relative ease, but finding my new dormitory was another story. The map I had been given was a total mess, and it took a long time, and the help of three locals, to find it.
After going through Uni in NZ, and seeing the kinds of quarters the Asian students have over there (and getting annoyed about them driving up the general price of flats when the rest of us could only afford the ever-increasing price of holey shoeboxes), I had kind of high expectations for a dormitory on their home turf. However, I was bitterly disappointed. The place is quite old, and smaller than even my previous place in Kyoto. The mattress smells funny, and the single bed is too short. The curtains are held together with a bulldog clip. The place clearly hasn’t been given much of a clean since the last tenant, made extra clear by the old calendar still hanging up, still showing August 2008. I picked up a bit of a stomach bug in my last day or two in Laos, and it’s still much colder in Japan, so I had a quick rest before my test and turned on the aircon. My throat felt all lumpy before long, and a quick look at the the aircon unit revealed that the inside of the louvres were covered in mold.
Leaving the room, I looked around for some of the other foreigners in my dorm that I could talk to. Living in a foreigner dorm, I assumed that there would at least be people around I could relate to. However, I forgot that the “foreigner” demographic in Japan is largely made up of neighbouring Eastern countries – China, Taiwan, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam… many of whom can’t speak English, and who have only a smattering of Japanese.
I pulled the tattered map out of my pocket and headed off to the Uni for the test. The trains and stations were bursting at the seams with hundreds of people, none looking happy, all hurrying off to their own little unimportant obligations. People were bumping and shouldering all around, always without a backwards glance. I had none of the incredulous looks of oh-my-god-its-a-foreigner that I had become used to around Kyoto, and although I think I’m going to end up liking that, it was still a bit of a shock.
I got to the orientation, and struggled to stay awake through hours of droning about registering bank accounts, registering alien details, being careful in earthquakes, and tons of other things I already know about, being an old hat in Japan. Following that was the test. And I think I did suprisingly well. I managed to clear my head and focus for an hour, and put in a decent effort.
Following the test, there were a couple of other housekeeping things to take care of. Considering I was the only one there who had arrived from within Japan, I had a few special problems that needed to be taken care of, regarding Visas and the like. So I stuck around for a bit while everyone else left.
I had entertained fantasies about starting life at Japanese Uni much the same as doing so in NZ Uni. Arriving, going to a central area, meeting a ton of other people in a similar situation, becoming friends, going through it all together, having a great time. But this first day brought me crashing back to reality. I’m not the same as anyone else. For one, this is Postgraduate school. Everyone has their own personal things they are following, and everyone’s classes are different. Most other students seem to be from other exotic countries, and they are forming groups on their own. I have yet to meet another NZer. Or even, dare I say it, Australian. After discussing my Visa problems to no real result, I left the test room alone and headed back out to the main campus. The sun was setting and the wind was blowing. The campus itself was a swirling mass of students, most dressed quite sensibly, hurrying from classroom to classroom to library to research area, in groups or alone. Everyone had a place to be, and everyone knew how to get there, except me. I’m still clueless about what classes I’m meant to be taking, who I’m meant to be seeing, or anything of the sort.
I checked my phone, saw I had no messages, and at a loss, plunged through the crowd and started the hour or so trek back to the dorm. On the way, I passed a karaoke place and considered going in and singing some lonely heartbreak songs to myself, purely for the reason that the humour of the situation would give me something to smile about.
And that’s how my entry would have gone, had I written it on my first night here, as I had intended to. However, after arriving back through the flickering hallway lights to my dirty little room, sheer exhaustion (and the mysterious aircon disease) hit me, and I fell into a restless sleep.
The next couple of days have consisted of getting up, going to Uni, trudging around, filling in forms, visiting offices, filling in forms, eating, buying train tickets, taking train ride after train ride, filling in forms, and filling in forms. And while it’s been exhausting, I have been speaking to people.
My supervisor (at least, I think he is) is a great guy. I got a message to go meet him at a certain room, thinking he was going to give me advice on my course, but it ended up being a class. However, it was a small class, and he was incredibly welcoming. He asked me if I could speak Japanese (clearly prepared to entertain the possibility that I couldn’t), and kept stopping from time to time in his talk to rephrase certain points for me in English (since, to be honest, I could hardly understand a word of all the legal Japanese he was spouting). After the class, the other 8 or 9 students in the class encouraged me, gave me their emails, and told me to get in touch with them if I had any problems. The professor himself took me with him to the Registry and helped walk me through my course outline.
I have also struck up conversations with a few other people at various times, either while eating, or asking directions, or whatever. People have generally been extremely nice and helpful, and already in the three days I have been here, I have been to one birthday party, and met a different group of people for a lunch.
After my first day here, I was feeling completely overwhelmed. I’ve become used to taking on big challenges and forcing my way through them, but this time I really felt like I had finally bitten off more than I could chew. No friends, no direction, a poxy little room and a course which was not only in a language I brutally realised I couldn’t understand, but also in a system I couldn’t understand, came together into one entirely unenjoyable mess. However, I’ve stuck at it, tried to talk to people at every possible opportunity, and I’m beginning to see a possibility of scrabbling myself out of the pit and onto some kind of solid ground. Here’s hoping!