Sunday, July 30, 2006

Chalk and cheese

As mentioned in my previous post, I start a new job tomorrow. It is for a Japanese company in the nearby city of Torrance, a temporary position to ease me back into the world of work after a year of loafing around the house.

As a half-English half-Irish woman, it can be surprising for many Japanese to see that I speak the language quite well. As a fan of the culture and literature (not to mention anime and manga -- that's cartoons and comics), I decided to go to university to learn the language after Sixth Form (that's the last two years of High School to Americans). SOAS offered a one year "business man" diploma course; a full-time course designed to take students from zero knowledge to near fluency in just under a year.

It was a difficult course, but extremely rewarding, and I gladly accepted the opportunity to spend five weeks in Japan for work experience. Reading about the attitudes and culture in a book is one thing, but actually seeing it happen all around you is something entirely different. Despite my studies and knowledge of the language and attitudes, there was still something of a culture shock.

And yet since I've moved to America, I've come to realize just how similar Japanese and British culture really are. Both are "small island" countries with rich history and tradition, strong military pasts, a surprising array of -- often humorous -- accents, citizens that are extremely proud and yet loudly critical of their home, and so on. Despite Americans speaking the same language as my birth home, I find I almost have less in common with them than my Japanese friends.

It can be difficult being a stranger in an unfamiliar land. All you need do is take a trip to your local China Town or Little Tokyo and you'll understand what I mean. I speak Japanese fairly well, but while in Japan there was a huge sense of relief from finding a McDonalds or a 7/11 for some sense of familiarity.

Today, my girlfriend and I took a trip to China Town, a favorite hangout of ours. It's cheap, cheerful and we can get good food and entertainment for a day. Seeing these people milling around, finding their favorite Chinese groceries and poking through souvineers, buying dim sum for lunch and chatting with friends, it makes me wonder if they -- and other non-native English speaking immigrants -- feel the same homesickness. While I may miss my homeland, at least people here speak the same language. What must it be like to live here, not only in a different culture but speaking a different language, I can only imagine.

I wonder what drew them here? For some, perhaps it was an escape from poverty, a dictatorship or harsh government practises, a lack of employment opportunities or a lucky break offered by a rich foreign relative. But for those who came from wealthy lands and good backgrounds, I wonder what made their decision for them. A job offer? A desire to see a new culture? A long distance relationship?

Or perhaps like me, the fulfilment of a childhood dream of living amongst the stars?


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