I’ve been back in New Zealand a few weeks now. At first I was perfectly happy, especially after the madness of my final stint in Tokyo, to just follow the routine of wake late, do nothing, eat, sleep. I’d fill in the hours reading a book, or sitting in the backyard, or patting the dog, or watching stupid videos on Youtube. But after about a week, I began to get a bit tired of the house, and decided to step out into the town.
After living in Japan for four and a half years, the last two of which were in Tokyo, I was expecting things to be different. And they were. The first difference I noticed was efiiciency. While I had been gone, my drivers license had expired. Being now about half a year after the expiry date, I wondered if it would be possible to renew it. It wasn’t, I’d have to apply for a new one. Makes sense. So I made my way to the AA, carrying my old license and some cash. The woman behind the counter was smiley and friendly, told me what I needed to do, and I was out of the place 15 minutes after walking in, with a temporary license until my permanent one arrived in the mail a week later. So easy after the nightmare procedures necessary to do anything in Japan. When I applied for my license in Japan (which was a simple money-paying, no-test affair by respect of me having a NZ license), it went something like this: turn up at 8.30am, fill out forms, line up to buy payment stamps, attach stamps to forms, hand forms into counter A, wait, pick up forms from counter A, take them to counter B, hand in, wait, get told to go to counter C, fill out more forms, wait, go back to counter B and get forms, take to counter C, wait, take a lunch break, get a photo, wait, take forms from counter C back to counter A, wait, and so on until I got to leave after all the nonsense at about 5.30pm. It was ridiculous. And so typical of the standard Japanese way, which somehow has a reputation for efficiency which is totally undeserved.
The most jarring difference since being back, though, is the attitude of the people. I went to Subway for lunch to get the delicious meatball sub that I had been craving since I left the country 5 years ago and for some strange reason doesn’t exist in Japanese Subway. As I waited in line, the guy before me was choosing his bread. The woman behind the counter asked, “Hey, you work at the cinema, right?” The guy agreed. “Ha, maybe you can get me some free passes! Then I can give you a Subway card for free subs! Haha” “Haha, I’m sure we can work out some kind of deal” “Haha” “Haha”. The conversation continued as they went down the counter selecting cheeses and salads, but I don’t think they ended up exchanging cards.
My turn to order came up, and as I excitedly approached, I got briefly lost as I looked at a different range of options to what I had gotten used to. I apologised for my indecision, saying I hadn’t been here in ages, so the girl asked what the hell I had been eating. I told her I had been in Japan, provoking her sympathy and her story about how she was from Australia and about the floods over there. A random voice from behind me mentioned its masters sympathy for the people in Japan. Before I knew it, the girl behind the counter, the people waiting in the queue, and the cinema guy with his sub in a bag by the counter were all talking to me about the terrible situation in Japan.
After devouring my delicious meatball sandwich, I decided to pick up a Lotto ticket before heading to the bank. The smiley Chinese woman behind the counter laid out all the options for me, including asking whether I wanted a Wednesday or Saturday ticket. I took the Wednesday one, which she happily sold to me saying, “OK, great, so you be back for Saturday ticket later then!”
Then I left for the bank. Only, the bank wasn’t there anymore. It had shut up shop, and moved to some place where I didn’t know where it was. I stopped some passing lady on the street and asked her where Whatever Street was. She happily gave me some directions. I started off down the street, when another lady sitting on a bench got up as I passed and checked that I had understood where it was. She then gave me some more directions, just to be sure. I found the bank.
After my excellent round of hassle-free and highly-efficient banking, I headed off to the central bus stop to catch a bus home. I had no idea where the bus in my direction was, but after the friendly lady in the shop nearby had helped me out, I was checking the timetable at the appropriate stop in no time. As I was doing so, a voice from behind me asked, “Excuse me, are you looking for the bus to Matua?” I told the Maori girl sitting on the bench that I was. She told me it was running a few minutes late, but it should be here pretty soon. I thanked her and sat down.
When I asked her how much it would cost, she assumed I wasn’t from around here, so I told her my quick story. As we were talking, the punk kid next to me listening to shapeless noise with a face full of metal turned and asked if I could watch his bag while he ran across to the shop to get a drink. He left me his bag, and I did, and he did. Luckily, he got back just in time to catch the bus.
Getting on, the punk kid sat in the back, while the Maori girl sat two rows in front of me, in that nice space where conversation is possible, but not necessary. I decided to just sit back and enjoy the ride instead, but we said our goodbyes when I got off and walked back to my house.
The friendliness and approachability here is definitely something different to how things ran in Japan. People there were usually helpful if you went right up and asked them, but nobody would ever volunteer conversation (except for the English leeches who are out to inflict their intermediate-level speech on anyone they can), and you would have no chance of striking up a conversation with someone in a professional capacity. I stopped even saying hello to the woman at my supermarket checkout after a month or so, when it became obvious it just made her uncomfortable and she didn’t know how to respond.
That is one aspect of New Zealand which I’m quite proud of. I think we’re generally very easy to get along with, and prety laid back. Which, while it might not be for everyone, is definitely for me.
It’s not all good, though. Another big difference is that while people are super friendly, there’s just none of them. Wandering through town, it was like a ghost town after Tokyo. People move down the streets in pairs or groups, or alone, but there’s no mistaking who’s with who. I went in the other day with a book and some Spanish study to sit at a cafe and read and study as I whiled away an hour or two. Except, the cafes were all but empty. Although I go to read/study, a large part of the enjoyment of doing it out and about is the vouyeristic thrill you get from watching all the other people as well, and making guesses about what they’re up to. When it’s such an empty environment, it’s just not as fun. And if I’m not doing that, there’s really not that much else to do. There’s a lovely beach a little way away, but again, it’s not that much fun alone. And besides, Autumn’s on its way in, and the wind’s kicking up.
The other thing is, fat people. I’ll admit that Japan is hardly the norm, but after getting used to that, coming back here has been a bit of a shock. Did wew always look like this? Apparently not. The latest stats I can find seem to put NZ at somewhere between #3 and #7 on the fattest countries in the world lists, which is upwards from where it was a few years ago. And we cant just blame it on the islanders anymore, either (Japan and Korea seem to be right at the bottom, by the way). It’s a global issue, but come on NZ, sort it out.
I’ve got about three months here before heading to England. It’ll be good for getting myself back into the habit of being able to have random conversations with strangers, and reaffirming English as my language for reflexive responses (a “gomen” after bumping into someone just doesn’t work anymore), and hopefully getting some exercise in. But after that I think I’ll be well ready for the thrill of the big city of London!
Now, I’m going to go take my dog for a walk.