September 3, 2014

Adventures in unexpected situations

By Kevin Bunch
Staff Writer | news@arenacindependent.com
Posted 11/15/11

If I have one skill, it is muddling through new and unfamiliar situations.

Most recently, I’m applying this skill toward efforts to get settled into a new part of the state and in a new job after over a decade of working primarily in the same part-time position in the Southgate public library downstate. I’ve never actually had to make a move like this before, since I only ever commuted for school and did not make enough prior to now to move away from my parents’ house.

It’s been pretty hectic. I’ve been popping back to Southgate to continue to box things up and get everything ready to go as soon as my new living situation crystallizes, but I’ve found myself getting a little antsy to have my books, my DVDs, and my video games accessible again. I greatly appreciate my mother’s cousin’s family’s hospitality, letting me stay with them in their guest room, but I hate feeling like a burden.

Still, I’ve been out of my element to a much larger degree in the past. I went to Japan on two separate occasions as vacations – primarily because I had friends working there I could stay with, and because the history and culture have always interested me – and the culture shock is pretty huge going over there.

In retrospect it probably would have been a smart idea to learn some of the language beforehand, or at the least bring a phrase dictionary. The idea did not occur to me before either trip, though, which led to some strange traveling situations. While my friends were fluent enough to communicate and get by, I had no such skill at the time, and since they had work to do most days, I pretty much was on my own. As I soon found out, outside of the major cities a lot of Japanese people don’t have great English skills.

The simple task of getting myself breakfast, lunch, or dinner away from my friends’ apartments proved to be a tricky one when you can’t read menus or communicate your wants. For larger chains, such as McDonald’s, this wasn’t so bad; their menus had friendly pictures, and could be flipped over for an English side. I could simply point and get what local menu items sounded tasty (with a minimum of mess, save for the time they tried to tell me for about two minutes that they were out of milk.)

At other eateries, such as tiny noodle bars, I was well and truly on my own. I tended to either point at random items on the menu and just approve whatever questions they had after that, or I brought along a notepad that I could copy down the characters to the displayed items outside of the shop. When I went out with friends, I had them do my ordering for me. At a game shop or arcade, I just guessed what I was after based on the label. As a system, it worked fairly well. Most of what I ordered was delicious, even if I had no idea what it was most of the time.

Then there came a day where I found myself traveling to some temples on Shikoku, the smallest of the four main Japanese islands. It was a very rural area, and as such, the ubiquitous train station signs were only in Japanese. No problem, I thought. My friend wrote down all of the translations so I should be able to get back easily.

And I would have, except she forgot to write down the Japanese characters to her own station. It took me 20 minutes of staring at the signs and going over the notes she gave me to figure it out, but I managed it – I even got back in time for dinner.

After something like that, getting things moved in on a proper schedule and settling in at a new job just seems pretty simple. I also picked up some Japanese language skills, just in case I go back again sometime. Better to be prepared for those muddling situations.

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