Plot twist: I don’t look Japanese

I think the biggest take-away was that I learned what it’s like to be a minority.

Sapporo is more isolated and less “Japanese”, I think, than other large cities in Japan like Osaka or Nagoya, and especially Tokyo. Part of this isolation is that it’s on a different island than Tokyo, and wasn’t part of Japan proper until about 200 years ago, which means it has fewer cultural and historical ties to the Japanese empire. The people of Hokkaido are fiercely proud of their uniqueness, and are quick to put “Made in Hokkaido” on everything (even moist towelettes, which, I’ll admit, was a bit excessive).

A BTS concert, where though I wasn’t the only foreigner, I was one of a handful of Westerners.

In terms of tourism, summer isn’t exactly the hip and happening time to see the city. It’s known for it’s skiing and winter climate (it hosted the winter Olympics in ‘72), and there is a large snow festival that, according to Wikipedia, annually draws in as many tourists as live in the city. And as for permanent residents, the vast majority are Japanese.

Me, I am not particularly Japanese. On one occasion, I was, however, mistaken for Japanese (it was wet and cold, so I had a lot of layers on and my hair was hidden). As soon as I turned around to see who was speaking to me, my secret was outed, and I replied “I don’t speak Japanese,” and that was the end of that.

Most of the time, however, I was obviously a foreigner. I like to think that with sunglasses on that my hair is dark enough and my skin pale enough that I had some blending in, but that’s just wishful thinking.

There was part of me that was self-conscious wherever I went. I felt like people were waiting for me to mess up, to say, “Oh, that American.” But then I had to remind myself that I would never, ever see these people again. I could have literally stripped naked and ran down the street and it wouldn’t have mattered (unless there’s a law against public nudity, I don’t know). And even with a law, some part of me thinks that the police would have been so afraid to interact with a foreigner (we don’t have the best reputation), that I would have been allowed to get away without any negative repercussions.

There was another part of me that knew that as I walked down the street, I wasn’t an individual, but a collection of people. Since I was foreign, the unknown, everything I did reflected  my culture, so my identity was much more than “Sophie.” I was “Sophie-the-American.”

For example: I had to take the bus. I was terrified. I got on the bus at a tourist stop (it was a scenic outlook with a famous statue). I had walked there, but was too tired to walk back. Just as I was planning to leave, I saw the bus I needed to get on, and thought, “Aha! Here’s my chance!” So I followed other people and got on the bus. When I sat down in my seat, however, I realized I hadn’t paid when I got on,

I had to walk back to that giant shiny thing far in the distance.

and couldn’t find out how much it was going to cost. I stressed the whole bus ride. When we finally reached our destination, everyone had their change in hand. I had less than a hundred yen (~ one dollar) in change, so I had to pay with a 1000 (~ ten dollars) yen note instead. Man oh man, I held up the whole line trying to figure out what I needed to do. I felt so self-conscious because I was the idiot American who didn’t know Japanese and held up the line and everyone was able to watch me fumble around. It wasn’t until later that I remembered that personally, I shouldn’t be embarrassed. I did what I needed to, and people are going to forget my face. However, there was residual shame, because I knew that while I individually would be forgotten, the impression of the bumbling white girl would live on in the memories of those behind me waiting to get off the bus.

It was also weird when I go out to eat food. The more I went out, the more I found people trying to assist me with the menu by pointing to things and using English words to try and help me order. For example, there was a festival in the main park, and part of this meant lots of food booths. I went to an ice cream stand, and the man in the booth just started speaking to me in English. I told him what I wanted (in Japanese), but as I was leaving, he said, “Have a nice day!” To which I responded, “You, too!”

Sure, on the one hand, he was trying to be nice, maybe try out his English, but on the other hand, I couldn’t help but think of all the clothing and accessories that have random English words and phrases on them. My language seems to be more of fad, because oftentimes, the words are strung together with no order and make no sense, or are completely irrelevant to the item on which they’re printed.

Now, coming from the US, it sounds really weird to say that I think my culture is being appropriated. After all, normally white people are the ones stealing aspects of other cultures and inculcating them into our own aesthetic. But I think that’s some of what’s going on. English is “hip” and “cool” so people learn phrases just to seem like they have that wow factor. People buy American brands not because they’re better than anything Japanese, but because they’re ~American~.

Which leaves me with the impression that people like me or notice me not because I’m an individual who came to Japan for her own reasons, but a part of a much bigger culture. People want to know why an American came to Japan, not why I, Sophie Eichelberger, wanted to visit.

This was reiterated when I went to a club. My friends (two other foreigners) had read online that foreigners were treated like celebrities at the club. We, of course, wanted to know if this was true. Well, it was.

I had a dreadful cough, so my host told me to put a mask on. Aslo, 3/4 of my outfit I bought in Japan, so this is as Japanese as I could hope to be.

People came up and tried to buy me drinks because I was white. People watched me dance way more in Japan than they have ever done in America. Anything I did, from waving my hands to nodding my head, they would parrot right back to me, because they thought I was cool.

I felt very much that people only saw my green eyes and double eyelid and instantly put me on a pedestal. Even other women, they would grab me and try to talk to me, grab me and put me right in front of the DJ, or would make sure that I got some of the drinks that were being handed out.

Obviously, it isn’t everyone that has the same views to outsiders and English, but I found some people had an odd obsession with English and foreigners, which was not at all what I was expecting, and definitely makes me think about how I treat people who look differently than me here at Davidson.

Kids are Exhausting, the Food was Delicious

While many internships are the same type of work everyday, my routine varied honestly from hour to hour, let alone from day to day. But I guess that’s the joy of working with (for?) children.

I worked five days a week. Everyone that worked at my school had Sunday off, and then one other random day off in the week. The days that I didn’t have off, I woke up at 7:30, which was surprisingly easy, mostly because the sun was up before 5:00, and my body never really adjusted to the time change (because time-travelling thirteen hours into the future is no mean feat).

From 7:30-7:45 we cleaned the school. This just meant sweeping, vacuuming, and mopping. If you didn’t do one of these three things, then you set up the tables and chairs for the day. Once that was all taken care of, you could make your breakfast. Personally, my go-to breakfast was toast. Fun fact: Japanese bread is different from that in America. It’s much thicker, and just has a different taste (I’m no food critic, sorry, that’s the best I can do. Maybe it’s something to do with rice vs wheat flour?). There was strawberry jam that I liked to slather upon my crispy toast, and that, plus fruit, was typically how I broke my fast.

If someone tells you the Japanese don’t like sweets, point them to Hokkaido, where they take pride in their ice cream. On an unrelated note, I ate too much ice cream this summer.

I’m told, however, that this is not the typical Japanese breakfast. The traditional breakfast is rice and fish, but the same way that not everyone in America eats Pancakes for breakfast, not everyone takes the time in Japan to eat a nice breakfast.

After breakfast, things were less routine. I either worked a morning shift or an afternoon shift. With the morning shift, work was from 9:00-2:30. In the hour or so before the kids come in, I just kinda lazed around. I discovered that Rick and Morty is on Japanese Netflix (!!), so I spent a few mornings binging that. I had planned on taking advantage of the massive quantities of anime on Japanese Netflix, but it turns out they don’t sub anything, and my Japanese was trash, so that wasn’t really an option.

Once the kids arrived, we took them to the park. It was only a five minute walk, but the kids were always so rambunctious, it was like herding cats. You really have no control over them, but somehow have to make sure they don’t run into the streets because, you know, that would not be great. You also have to keep a close eye on them at the park because there are things they can climb, and consequently of which they could fall off. So getting back to the school all in one piece leaves you a bit frazzled.

If this doesn’t sum up working with children, I don’t know what does.

It’s about 10:00 that the teaching really starts. There were two groups that I would work with, either the babies (part of the preschool), who were around three. The other group is the ‘older’ kids, who are still only a whopping four/five years old.

With the babies, you’re really just babysitting them as much as teaching. But don’t worry, that’s still plenty of work. Normally, we would build things with blocks, and that would teach them shapes and colors. There were also flashcards, which they loved doing. These ranged from animals to food to numbers.

The other group read some books, did small science experiments, and crafted, such as cutting up magazines and gluing them, or drawing a certain scene from a book, that sort of thing. This group was smaller, but there was a larger difference in their levels, so it was hard to teach everyone at the same time.

Lunchtime started at 12:00 for the kids, so the morning lesson isn’t very long. I had to watch them eat, and encourage them to keep shoveling food into their mouth because they have the attention of a hyperactive squirrel. This whole process took all of 30 minutes, and in that time, I got to smell my lunch cooking. There is a kitchen in the back of the school, and one of the volunteers was a very good cook, so he always made us lunch. My favorite was karage, which is the Japanese version of fried chicken.

Our lunch lasted until 1:00, and then it was time to take the kids to the park again. Luckily, once you’re back from the park, the morning shift is over. Unfortunately, taking them to the park is exhausting, so I normally need a quick power nap/relaxing time before I was ready to go exploring in the afternoon.

The afternoon shift started either at 1:00 and went until 6:00, or started at 2:00 and went till 7:00. I personally was a fan of the 1:00 afternoon shift, because the 2:00 shift had an awkward gap between eating lunch and beginning work.

Park time with my favorite kiddos. Peep the Anpanman hat the child on the left has- it was even cuter in person.

In the afternoon, the older kids came, as they’d finished their day at Japanese school. Because they’d been learning all morning, they normally just wanted to goof off or sleep, which, as you might imagine, made trying to teach them just a wee bit difficult (re: impossible). Normally I did flashcards with them, or something active because otherwise they were just unmanageable. However, they were really bright kids, and always managed to impress me, if also frustrating me at the same time.

Most days, everyone was gone by 6:00. However, sometimes some of the older kids stayed later, and there’s one kid who was normally picked up between 6:30-7:00.

When I was not working, I went exploring. Some days I would just pick a direction and walk, other’s I had a specific destination in mind. I went towards food primarily, and never found anything I disliked. Sure, some things I was mightily surprised by (takoyaki: octopus in fried bread), but nothing that I wasn’t at least willing to try. It was a fantastic city to explore.

Sapporo is known for its miso ramen, of which I ate far too much.

Dinner was normally around 7:00, but that varied depending on how many people were eating dinner at the house and who wanted to cook, as well as a whole lot of other variables. The volunteers were in charge of cooking, though some of us were much better than others. Dinner was typically a group thing, so it took quite a while, as we were quite chatty.

After food was finished and the dishes cleaned, people queued up to take showers and do laundry. Other than that, it was pretty quiet, as we were exhausted from the kids and whatever else we’d gotten into that day. Most everyone was in bed by 11:00, which made it almost bearable to wake up at 7:30 the next morning.

Sapporo: a long way from Virginia

This summer, I was the only recipient of the Freeman foundation at Davidson who went to Japan, which was amazing, yet terrifying.

When I first learned that I had gotten the grant, I didn’t know where in Asia I wanted to go. Well, I had a vague idea, primarily either South Korea or Japan because I like K-pop and anime (which are totally valid reasons, right?) The reason I ended up in Japan was that I found a job there before I found one in South Korea. It turns out that if you want to teach English in Asia, you have to either a) have graduated college, or b) be planning on staying for over a year. Since I didn’t fit either of these requirements, finding a job was quite difficult, but I managed to find a private school in Sapporo that needed English teachers.

So now I had a destination, and I started to get really excited. Before this trip, I had never traveled by myself. And on top of that, I had never been out of the country (because, let’s be honest, Canada doesn’t really count). I started researching everything I could about Sapporo, and made a list of places I wanted to visit (fun fact: I left the list at home), started looking at Japanese fashion and norms to make sure I wouldn’t stand out too much.

As the time till departure approached, I came to some realizations. The first was that I really didn’t know any Japanese. Most everyone else with this grant had studied the language of the country they were going to, even if it had only been for a year. I, however, had never had any formal education in Japanese. I’d taught myself the alphabets (because Japanese is fun and has two), and had learned some basic phrases. This really wasn’t enough.

I was also terrified for Jet Lag. This phrase needs to be capitalized because it is big and scary and awful.

My first flight wasn’t the long one, but from Richmond to O’Hare. That flight was at 6:00 in the morning, so I was already off to a bad start. I couldn’t sleep on this flight because I was too nervous (I was leaving the country!!).

When we landed in O’Hare, I was intimidated. The place was huge. I struggled to find my terminal, but that wasn’t a huge problem, as I had a four hour layover. As such, I convinced myself to keep the panic to a minimal, and found breakfast, AKA a bagel with cream cheese and coffee.

While consuming said circular bread, I realized that the wifi was only free for 30 minutes, and it was quite possibly the worst wifi I have ever encountered. I was planning on downloading some songs for the flight to Tokyo, but that plan was nixed when iTunes wouldn’t work even when I was connected to the “internet”. So once I finished my midmorning snack I carried on to the human loading zone for my flight. Conveniently enough there were plugs under the chairs, so my phone was at full battery the whole time, which was clutch, since I had nothing better but to watch Parks and Rec.

The flight itself wasn’t as bad as I had expected. It was a pretty mixed bag of Americans, Japanese, and other Asians who had a connection in Narita (Tokyo) and then were flying home. I don’t really know how many people were on the flight, but I would guess close to a hundred? The plane itself was one of the new Boeing 787s, which was amazing. About 30 minutes after we departed, all the windows dimmed, so the cabin was dark pretty much for all of the thirteen hours, even though it was daylight the whole time (because time is weird).

Flying over lovely Hokkaido

The entertainment section was also nice, because on the back of the seats is a screen where you can watch movies (I watched Hidden Figures, Moana, and Harry Potter 6&7), play games (chess), and charge your phone. It was beautiful, but not quite enough to keep my mind off the fact that I was flying over the middle of the freakin’ Pacific Ocean.

The most frustrating passenger is clear, however. There was some old man sitting behind me and holy heck. His snores were so, so loud. Even at almost full volume, there were times I could hear him over the movie I had playing. That made napping virtually impossible.

And like that, we landed in Narita, and I touched foreign soil! Well, figuratively. I was literally just on concrete and linoleum the whole time, but you get the point.

If I thought O’Hare was big, well, I think Narita has it beat. When we left the plane, I followed everyone else, and picked up my luggage (because I had to re-check it for my domestic flight). There was some minor panic when everyone else’s stuff was appearing and mine wasn’t, but it got around the conveyor belt eventually. Then I had to go through customs. That went smoothly enough, and I communicated primarily through hand gestures and “arigato”. Once you’re finished with customs, which was pretty calm and quiet, you go through a door and bam! You’re hit with a wall of color and sound and it’s madness. I had no idea where I was going, I didn’t have my ticket for my connection to Sapporo, and I needed to check my luggage. I ended up spying someone from my flight and following him. We weren’t going to the same place, but he conveniently had been walking in the direction I needed to go. I found the place to check my luggage, and realized there were multiple airlines, all waiting to check my luggage. Well, I didn’t know what airline I needed, so I stood there with a dazed look on my face, and some kind lady came up to me, asking me what I needed help with. She pointed me in the right direction, my luggage got checked, and I got my ticket. She then tried to point to a map and show me where I needed to go. I knew I would forget as soon as I walked ten feet, and told her “Oh, I’ll just find it on my own.” The worried look she gave me was priceless.

While this is the Sapporo airport and not the one in Tokyo, you get the right idea.

Well, after much wandering, I did find the domestic flights. First, however, I found a mall. That’s right, a mall. There were many food options, lots of kitschy airport things, and some really expensive things, too. I settled on matcha chocolate, milk tea, and some kit-kats. Dinner of champions.

Re-fortified, I headed to the domestic terminal. It’s really tucked away in a corner, since most people who fly domestic are Japanese and can read the Japanese signs and don’t need brightly colored English translations, but I’m not salty.

When I went into the domestic flights terminal, I had to go through security again, which was much more lax than its American counterpart. I wasn’t sure of the procedure, so after I put all my carry-on items in a bin, I wasn’t sure if I also needed to remove my shoes. As such, I started slowly walking towards ~the other side~. To not look like as big a weirdo as I felt, I began sauntering/dancing. Okay, maybe that made things more awkward. But it made the Japanese customs workers laugh, so that made me feel better. And it turned out I didn’t need to take my shoes off, which was nice, because I hate lacing sneakers.

The flight from Narita to New Chitose (Sapporo) was nothing remarkable (mostly because I slept pretty much the whole way). However, the adventure from the airport to my hotel was fun. The biggest problem is that I stand out like a sore thumb. I have blue/green/grey eyes. I don’t really dress like the Japanese. I don’t have the same body shape as Japanese people. I had a big, red suitcase. So I was pretty self-conscious about myself. This wasn’t just me being paranoid, because when I was on the train going into the city, I heard some of the guys say something about “Doc Marten style,” and were looking not-so-discreetly at my feet. So, yep, I was a conversation starter. Yay.

Yeah. Sapporo is way bigger than I expected.

I exited the train, and knew that my hotel was nearby. After all, that was the main feature I was looking for when I booked it. However, due to Jet Lag, I made a wrong turn. There were parked cars along the way I had just come, so I didn’t want to turn around because then they would know I was lost. So I decided instead to walk around the block. Keep in mind that I had a very confused look on my face and was toting around a huge piece o’ luggage. Everyone I passed gave me the oddest look. One old man stopped, looked at me, waited for me to say something, but I just kept on going, because I knew I couldn’t communicate with him. Was this rude? …Maybe. But I found my hotel, so everything worked out.

Speaking of being rude, apparently people don’t make eye contact, or interact with each other at all. I’m from the South, I’m used to the whole, “Southern Hospitality” thing. So when I pass people on the street, I smile, I nod,  I say hello, I make eye contact. Turns out people don’t do that here. I’ve tried, believe me, but they just look down when they pass by me, or elsewhere. Which means I’m gonna have to make a major shift in my behavior.

So yeah, the first few days definitely had some culture shock to them. But I was excited to start work and explore Sapporo, both of which I got to do plenty of in the coming two months.