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Seeking normality, and culture

It is "Orientation," and I am waking up in a strange room.

Correction-I am waking up in a strange room and panicking, in tune with the dull and insistent throbbing of my headache.

Then, awareness sets in. I remember that I am in Japan and it is indeed orientation week at my new university. I am no longer at Duke-where orientation is long over-and things are going to be different.

I am not waking up to a breakfast of SmartWater for my hangover and an unhealthy dose of reality slapping me in the face. Instead, there is a delicious home-cooked breakfast waiting for me downstairs, and the reality is that my jetlag-ache will go away in time.

It has been about a week since I arrived in Japan and began to exhibit all the symptoms of a stereotypical "foreigner." I was nervous, tongue-tied and sweaty. In my anxiety, I also managed to forget every word of Japanese I knew for my first 12 hours in the country. 'Twas not a pretty sight.

By nature of the fact that I am in a country where the average level of English comprehension is such that it is okay for someone to wear a sweatshirt that says "Libido" and not get stared at, knowing English is not going to be the ace in the hole that allows me to get by. I have to make do with my questionable Japanese skills, and needless to say, embarrassing episodes will follow.

The first time I went out for dinner with a fellow American student, I accidentally ordered two helpings of cold Japanese soba dipped in a slimy raw yam and egg mixture. As it was a small and private restaurant where the owner did everything from waiting tables to cooking, my upbringing left me with no choice but to smile politely at the elderly man and obediently shove segments of what looked (and tasted) like noodles soaked in spit into my mouth. Yum.

During a recent visit to a local temple, I unintentionally bought a charm for singles seeking love and marriage (really, am I that desperate?) because I thought it meant good luck in friendships. Not only was I embarrassed to find out its actual function, but I have no idea what to do with it now. I can't throw it away-read: I would definitely be breaking some religious code and suffer for the rest of my life-so the charm innocently sits on my desk, all the while resembling a kind of ticking biological clock that I should not have to deal with at this point in my life.

But aside from the average screw-ups of a silly foreigner, I have yet to encounter a true dose of culture shock. Small things like the fact that everything is on the left side or that I now have to think before I throw my trash out into one of the five million different trash cans set out in my house (burnables, non-burnables, bottles, cans, paper, etc. etc.) phase me a bit, but so does the shock of waking up in a strange room, which I have actually had some experience with in the past.

Strangely enough, the biggest adjustment I've had to make is living in a house and having a "family."

Moving into a "home" during college will probably be quite different for anyone who has adjusted to two years of living in Duke dorms, but it is about twice as bizarre for me, because I can't say I have ever experienced "living: family style."

I was raised by just my aunt. She always worked strange and long hours, so my middle and high school years consisted of me going back to an empty apartment and having dinner with the TV. So it is absolutely incomprehensible for me to be sitting down twice a day with my host family to actually eat a meal and make conversation. The normality of it is quite absurd to me.

I have never been part of a normal family dinner talk. My host mom is very gracious in asking about my day and if I am adjusting well. I'm the one bringing up awkward topics like Japanese politics, Thanksgiving and Duke's ridiculously high tuition. It doesn't help that it is all done in Japanese.

So while I adjust to normality and continue my search for the big culture gap everyone told me to expect here, I figure it can't hurt to mingle with the locals and see how bright the Asian glow is in the Orient. And who knows? Maybe that culture shock will hit me over the head so hard that tomorow I'll wake up and forget where I am again.

I have certainly woken up in worse places.


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