Tuesday, May 3, 2011

What Next?

On Wednesday, Apr 27, I left Japan. After a ten-hour flight to Helsinki and a two-hour flight to Prague I finally arrived to the Czech Republic, my homeland. I have been here for five days now and still have not written the promised last post about my Japanese experience. What did I learn, how did I change? There are too many things which I could write about and many which I prefer not to write about. Let me, though, summarize my Japanese experience. I encourage you to click on the links within this post as they will take you back to my past posts about Japan. They will hopefully refresh your memory, will help you make more sense of what Japan is, and definitely will make parts of this post easier to understand. So again, What did I learn, how did I change during my eight months in Japan?

First and foremost, I became capable of having a decent conversation in Japanese about almost anything, though I do not dare to call the present state fluency. Japanese is a very complex language, and eight months in Japan were unfortunately not sufficient for me to grasp all of it. I am afraid that eight years might also not be enough. I am confident, though, that I did well considering the little time I had. I am proud to say that my current language ability is largely a result of making many Japanese friends and restraining my communication in English to the bare required minimum. I spent little time with English speakers and I did the right thing. If you ever decide to study abroad in order to learn a foreign language, do not fall into the easy trap of befriending almost exclusively the people who speak the same language as you. If you do, you will then leave your target country and regret it.

Other than language, I also became quite adept at seeing into the minds of Japanese people. What seems normal to me or you may be wrong for the Japanese and what seems right for them may seem wrong to us. This starts with the different ways in which the Japanese take a bath, to their way of expressing the most complex feelings in the most subtle ways possible. The Japanese take a shower before entering a bath (ofuro) and then have the whole family use the same water in the bath tub. They also practice different table manners; it is quite fine, if not required, to slurp aloud while eating noodles or drinking soup (yes, drinking soup). If you do not slurp, you are not showing enough appreciation for the cook. Another difference is that the Japanese barely show their emotions in public. It is rare to see a couple kissing on the street in Japan, a quite frequent occurrence in most European countries. The Japanese are nicer in general than the Czechs or Americans in dealing with customers or strangers. In a Japanese store, the employees smile, call you their honored customer (okyakusama), and their customer care is stellar. In the Czech Republic, you are lucky if they respond to your "hello" and you often have to go to great lengths to get the clerk's attention. When you do, they are almost angry that you are wasting their time which they could instead spend doing nothing.

To be honest, I only noticed the above things when I came back home. I realized that I was not greeted by the restaurant staff, I was not smiled at, and I was not given proper customer care while shopping. In this sense, I believe that the world, or at least people in the former Soviet block countries, have a lot left to learn. The manners from back in the times of communism, when everyone had to work but no one was motivated enough to work properly, are unfortunately still deep-rooted in the minds of the Czechs. It will take a generation or two to change. This change will happen when the people of my age who have experiences from abroad take over the leading positions in the country.

There are other things which many of us should learn from the Japanese. I was a witness to how people dealt with the aftermath of the horrible earthquake and tsunami in the northeast of the country. Instead of going out armed into the streets and looting shops for food and other supplies, as Americans in New Orleans did in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina six years ago, the Japanese ran away into shelters, where they shared (and still are sharing) what little supplies were available. They did not go and ransack what was left, but felt a collective responsibility to restoring the old order as fast as possible. I dare say that most Europeans and Americans do not possess this quality of seeing the bigger picture. There are other things where the Japanese see the bigger picture. A good example is when someone gets sick, they most often wear a white face mask over their mouth and nose so as not to spread their disease to others.

All in all, there are many things which I see as better in Japan and which I see as better in other places. I dislike the Japanese people's general lack of showing their emotions in public, I am not fond of how much they work and I am not a big fan of how the country is crowded. I like how the Japanese can see the bigger picture and are not as selfish as the average American or European person. I like how they respect others, though even respect should have limits and the Japanese are sometimes overly respectful in my opinion. I love the customer care in Japan and how people are nice to each other, a difference which I only came to fully realize and appreciate after going back to my homeland. There are things which you can only buy in Japan. Some of these, like unsweetened tea, I think should be sold in the US and Europe as I believe that they would find a large customer base. Living in Japanese cities is convenient, and shopping for basic goods in Japan is fast thanks to their omnipresent convenience stores.

I love the city of Kyoto, with its old temples, beautiful surrounding mountainslight-ups of autumn leaves, and other attractions, as well as its amazing atmosphere which is just so hard to describe to someone who has not lived there. The red leaves in the fall, and the pink Sakura in the spring. The haze in the summer and the clear views on cold winter afternoons. The Geisha in their colorful kimonos and wooden slippers pattering around the old wooden houses in the Gion district, and random artists playing their music in the night near the Kamo River. Souvenir shops selling useless overpriced junk to oblivious foreign tourists, and monthly markets where you can buy real gold for almost no money. But Japan is not just Kyoto. It is a large country with an enormous vertical spread, making it possible to go skiing to Hokkaido one weekend and then relax on a tropical beach the weekend after that (if you are not employed, that is). Japan hosts Tokyo, the largest metropolitan area on the planet, which packs more people than Canada on an area smaller than Rhode Island. But enough about Japan.

I have decided upon one very important thing. I will not end this blog with my return from Japan. After all, I did not call it Martin in Japan or A Czech Guy in Kyoto, but Where Worlds Meet. I called it that because I have lived in four countries in my life, speak multiple languages, and have friends in well over one hundred countries. I often get to visit interesting places, meet interesting people, and my overall life experience is not that of an average person. People who read this blog reflect well the broad base of friends and acquaintances which I have all over the world. People from all countries, of over one hundred nationalities and citizenships, of all possible sexes, colors, religious beliefs, sexual and political orientations, people with more or less money and more or less power, everyone can and does read about my experiences and ideas on this blog. This blog is a place where all of my friends and people I know, and also people I don't know, get to meet and find a common ground. That is why I called it Where Worlds Meet. As long as my life continues to be interesting and unusual, as long as I continue meeting interesting people and visiting interesting places, I will continue to write in this blog. I will probably not be writing as regularly as I did when I was in Japan, where I experienced entirely new, interesting things almost every day, but I will continue to write. I hope that you will continue to read.

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Thank you, people of the whole world, for reading my blog. I truly appreciate it.


  1. i sort of disagree with the communist residual/customer service part. in china, which is now still a quasi-communist state, you're usually treated fairly well in the service industry. the only exception is when you go to national monopoly enterprises, e.g. post office, railway, or government subsidiaries where they treat you like you owe them a million dollars.... which i actually found the situation quite similar in Spain and Italy where I was harassed by a police officer and yelled at by railway ticket salesmen...

  2. Wendy (?) I see your point. I was more referring to the general mood of the nation, with the Czechs being more gloomy than the Japanese. I have never been to China but I bet that the services there, at least in a place like Shanghai, are on a quite good level.
    But to the point of police officers, they are VERY nice in Japan, which I have not found to be so in Europe or the US, just like you.
    Thanks for your comment!