The Empty Seat Phenomenon

I noticed that when I am on a bus or on a train, people (meaning, Japanese people) tend to sit away from me. In fact, if the seat beside me was the only one left empty, they’d rather stand and hold that handle…

Is it because I am a curly-haired, dark eyed, brunette gaijin, not as pleasant as the much anticipated blonde gaijins around? Or is it because Japanese people are so polite that they want to give me some extra personal space?

Close Encounters of the Nth Kind…

It’s been three weeks weeks since I came to Japan. Crazy, right? No, I need an adjective way stronger, but I just can’t get my brain to find one after a weekend of nighttime  Karaoke-ing and daytime touring…

The calendar on my desk tells me I have been here for three weeks, the amount of things I have done, places I have seen (and the tests scheduled on Spoken Japanese course syllabus) tells me I have been here for three months, and my ever-expanding list of things I want to do before I leave Japan tells me I have been here for three days (and have three days left).

Yesterday I went to the Danjiri Festival in Osaka, of which I initially had very limited information. All you need to know, is that the Danjiri festival, like most Japanese festivals, is a harvest festival… This one was all about running while pulling mini-shrines, jumping on the shrines while they were being pulled (and trying not to die) banging on bongos and being generally hyper active throughout the streets of Osaka.

Actually, you don’t even need to know that. Pictures talk.

I think this has been my most “authentic” Japanese day yet witnessed.

Lanterns... lots of them.

Moving shrines...


.... and aged.

After watching the “festival”, we walked around the streets of Osaka and it was so different from  the Japanese streets I had been walking through. Very narrow alleys, where  I actually spotted what so far has been nonnexistent in Japan:


Nothing is perfect...

There were small, kiosk-like shops scattered all over the place, and after a long walk between shops on both side of the streets and when it was lunch time, we decided to have a lunch as authentic as the rest of our day.

Squid. Looks fishy, tastes fishy...

But what makes my day super-authentic is not just witnessing a traditional festival where everyone around me is acting hard-core Japanese. It’s just walking around the streets (away from the gaijin-packed Hirakata city) observing people and things and taking the train that makes me happiest.

Japanese girls who willingly posed for a picture...

Train. Rush hour. Man reading manga. In Japan. Could I ever be happier?

I feel I am finally getting this place. It’s been only three weeks but I already learned some tips and tricks. I know asking about prices, buying grocery from a Japanese store and eating with chopsticks doesn’t count as much. But still, it feels good.

Can’t wait for another week to start.

Because I’m Here for “Study” Abroad…

… let’s talk a bit about school.

Classes started two weeks ago and they’ve been going well, so far. This semester I’m taking 4 courses: Spoken Japanese 1, Reading and Writing Japanese 1, Dynamics of Modern Japan, and Intercultural Communication. Instruction language: Japanese for the first two, obviously, and English for the other two.

Japanese classes require heavy duty studying, every day, which I do every afternoon with friends in the lounge, of course:

Study tables turing into sushi-rolling tables...

The lecture courses, on the other hand, require very little to do outside of the classroom. I think all professors know that 99% of the international students prioritize travelling and experiencing Japan over coursework…. which is fairly justifiable, I think, although it defies what our  home universities call “study abroad”. I will talk about the content of each course in a later post, perhaps, but for the time being, it is sufficient to know that my two teachers, who are both American but have been living in Japan for decades, are really good and the courses themselves are really interesting, informative and quite different from what I have been studying at AUC.

“Quite different” ? D’uh… I’m in Japan!

The Kansai Gaidai campus is very beautiful, and, needless to say, is ridiculously clean. It is still quite empty though because Japanese students won’t start their school year until next week. So for the time being, you can find on campus international students, and some Japanese guys playing baseball or Japanese girls looking for  gaijin guys…

Kansai Gaidai on a sunny September morning.

I have signed up for the running club and the koto club. Both clubs are not yet in action. for running, we’re still waiting until the worst of the summer is over. I’m so looking forward to running outdoors with people, discovering new areas and seeing what’s out there with a fresh perspective, perspiring.

As for the Koto club, we’re also still waiting until the Japanese students are on campus because there are probably 1 or 2 more gaijings in the club. We’re gonna have a ball… and only then the title of this blog will be “well deserved”, if you will.

Now, let’s talk music. I miss it. Before leaving, I managed to copy a decent portion of my library on my Macbook, but that doesn’t count, does it? I mean, I am not talking about the music you listen to in the backgorund while stalking people on facebook or shopping on, I am talking about the music you listen to while doing nothing but listening. I blame it on the fact that there hasn’t been enough time, nor has there been the decent equipement. I’m planning, therefore, to go on a trip to Den Den Town and get myself a new music player and a pair of super high quality noise canceling headphones.

This will be followed by a month of self-starving.

It had been almost three weeks since I last practiced the piano when I found one I can use on campus. I had done my homework and brought my  sheet music with me, so we’re now set to get back some of that good ol’ piano practice.

The piano is located in a hall that has about 150 seats and a few vending machines. I occasionally find Japanese students there just chilling, chatting and sometimes, sleeping. I decided that the best time to go would be early in the morning when no one would be there, and since my classes start at 9 every morning, I have been going to school around 7 for the last week.

Piano and backpack...

Because practice needs hydration...

And, of course, as  a post-practice reward, I get myself:

Japanese tea!

Conclusion of the day:

“Study Abroad” is a dated term. They should change it…

Dude, Where’s my Camel?

Blaming a Japanese person for mispronouncing my name would be really pointless. For one thing, the Japanese don’t have the “dee” sound in the alphabet in the first place. Plus, the Japanese mispronounce all foreign names, so I know for sure that I am not the target of  some evil name mispronouncing plot.

What did bother me, a little, was how -almost- all of the  international students misheard/mispronounced my name. Especially during the first week, when the name/age/hometown info exchange occurred as regular as Japanese bus arrivals (that is, every minute?)

“Oh hi! I’m X. What’s your name?” They’d ask.

“Dina.” I’d reply.

“Oh, Gina, where are you from?”

“Not Gina. It’s Dina”, I’d say, while maintaining a smile.

“Zina? Wow! That’s such a cool name!”

“Dina. Starts with a D…. A, B, C,  D, you know?” I’d often explain, making sure I won’t be mentally affiliated with Xena, the Warrior Princess for the rest of my stay in Japan.

I don’t mind it anymore. Actually it’s kind of fun…. My name is problematic: Dina Salaheldin ElSayed, (Jeena Sarafuerudinu Eruseidu when transposed to suite the Japanese key). If you call me with my “proper” name, most likely I won’t reply…

At least now I have an idea for a Halloween costume...

But what really irks me, saddens me actually, is people’s response after I say I’m from Egypt:

“COOL! The pyramids, right?”

Every. Single. Time.

Yes, it's freaking huge.

At first, I would laugh, joke along, and even talk about the pyramids… But now, it has been three weeks, and almost every new person I meet  gives me the same pyramid-centered reaction, and for some reason I have just come to hate it.

That said, I am not a nationalistic person by any means. In fact, I have always complained about living in Egypt, always said I wanted to get out of Egypt as soon as possible and even though I have no concrete plans about my future career, if there’s one thing I know for sure about my plan, it’s that it won’t be set in Egypt. If you’re reading this then we’re probably friends and so you know how many times a day I curse Egyptian traffic, Egyptian corruption, Egyptian weather, and Egyptian Egyptian-ness… It’s probably nothing to be proud of, but it’s a fact.

But knowing that being Egyptian has boiled down to whether I have seen that fascinating 6,000 year old bundle of rocks just makes me sad. I mean, I certainly agree that the pyramids are out of this world and all, but that’s a little bit too much for me to handle… Then again, whose fault is it? It is our fault. Egyptians. This proclivity to cling to the past is the proof that there’s nothing to be proud of anymore, so just boast about those pharos, whose blood, most probably, is not running pure in my veins (Kush/Nubian/Ottomans/French/British variations are applicable…)

I have had evenings through which I had to endure questions like whether we have “like.. like…cars and like..buildings and stuff”. Or whether I can “wear like colors and like…like, you know, like, walk on the street”.

And it ruins my day…

From Hirakata, With Love…

Kinki Osaka.... says it all...

Japan is strange. In its own sweet way.

George Carlin once said that when you’re born, yet get a ticket to the freak show. I say that when you’re born in Egypt, you get a front row seat.

Which means?

It means that having lived in Egypt for 20 years, my perception of what’s strange and what’s not strange is completely distorted:

It is strange to get paper work done without having to bribe some people. It is strange to have people bowing to you while repeating ‘thank you’ for 4878070897 times just because you bought a bottle of water. It is strange to walk around the street with a Hello Kitty towel in your hand. It is strange to stop walking when the lights are red even though the street is empty. It is strange to see a 90 year old man, riding a bike, holding an umbrella with his right hand, texting with his cellphone with his left, avoiding pedestrians on the 90 cm sidewalk and still maintaining his balance all the way. It is strange that when the bus schedule says that arrival is on 7:34, the bus does arrive on 7:34 – not 7:33, not 7:35, but 7:34. It is strange that one kg of tomatos costs you 20 dollars, while spending a night in a karaoke club with ‘all you can drink’ can cost you just about the same.

It is strange to find porn magazines being sold in supermarkets, one shelf away from children’s coloring books.

It is strange that you’re not allowed to use your cellphone on a train or a bus, or else people will start giving you looks as dirty as Egyptian trash.

Which reminds me: It is strange that you have to clean trash before throwing it away… Or else the trash company won’t take away your stuff, thus leaving your trash bags infront of your door for the whole neighborhood to see…

It is strange that last night I walked for an hour. Bare foot. In the street. And my feet didn’t become black as hell.

Even spetic tank covers have some kind of art... Remember the ones in Egypt? Wait! We don't have septic tank covers in Egypt, so people fall and DIE!

It is strange that an old man can stop you on the street, greet you and talk to you about Egypt, Tutankhamun and the pyramids, then give you candy… and he’s not a pedophile…

My point is, everything here is the complete opposite to what I have been learning, experiencing and living for the past 20 years. But the thing is, I like it. I like it so much and I can’t imagine giving it up anytime soon.

And it would be a lie to say that I don’t miss some aspects of my sweet Egyptian life (eg. mom’s kushari, friends, arabic curses and utter randomness).

But when you live in Japan, you’re not only in the front row seat of an excellent freak show, you’re actually the freak on the stage.

And everyone knows I love freaks.

Week’s Conclusion: Japan is Good for You.

This is officially my first Japan-based blog post.

“Crazy” would be the most approperiate adjective to use for describing what has been going on since my screen-less (yes) Egyptair plane touched down. Not One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest crazy (thankfully everyone in the dorm seems pretty sane, so far), but my-name-is-Dina-and-I-will-be-eating-authentic-okonimiyaki-for-a-year crazy…

So much has happned already this past week that I find it extremely hard to write now. I don’t know if I should talk about what I have been doing, or about how I have been feeling, or about the people I have been meeting, or about this place I willl be living at for a year…

My miserable attempt to brainstorm resulted in the following incomplete list of things I have done so far:

  1. Having random conversations during 13 hour flights with Ethiopian PhD students about Japanese women, non-English speaking air hostesses, Egyptian traffic, Ethiopian education, perscription glasses, rum, the biggeset scam in the shopping world (aka duty free shops)..
  2. Spending a night in the airport. That worked fine. I think spending a night in an international airport where no one speaks English was the perfect way for me to have an idea of what’s waiting for me outside: lots of non-stop Japanese blabbing in my face that is ideally met with clueless nodding on my side.
  3. Spending a day in Kobe. Although I hadn’t even unpacked yet, I met with Megumi and Yuta, the two Japanese KGU students who had been contacting me before arrival, who then took me on a trip to their home city, Kobe, which is about 2 hours away from where I am staying. This was when I first discovered that in a world far away from Cairo-land, people can use public transportation without having to be miserable public sector employees.
  4. Not buying a camera, but wasting my money on vending machines. Typical?
  5. Having a great stay in Seminar House 4 (the dormitory I have been assigned to, and a really nice roommate and she’s *drumroll* Japanese! I was very surprised to find that my roommate was actually Japanese – there is only a handfull of Japanese in the +100 resident dorm, and luckily enough one of them happened to be my roommate. At first I thought it would be an oportunity for me to have someone show me how to get around the city, but after less than a day, I found there was more into it than just navigation-aid. Yurie is so nice it is humanly impossible.
  6. Eating stuff I have no idea what they are. Before coming here thought I wouldn’t go too hardcore, especially as it relates to food, but hell, I was wrong. There is something very inviting about eating 120 Yen (~1 USD) Okonomiyaki from a Kobe street vendor, and messing up my clothes along the way because of being so chopstick challeneged.
  7. Going to Osaka, 2nd biggest sity in Japan after Tokyo, as well as somewhere up the tree-covered mountains where people swim in the river and jump off of miniwaterfalls.
  8. Walking in Japanese streets.
  9. Biking in Japanese streets.
  10. Riding a car (sans driving) in Japanese streets.
  11. Saying “Sumi masen” to virtually any Japanese person I see through out the day (who as you imagine, are a lot, since I am in Japan…) with or without a reason (the latter being the case more often).
  12. Swimming in my own sweat. That shouldn’t be surprising when humidity hits the 85% line. Only now I know why Japanese people in the movies and so walk around with a towel, and yes, I walk with a towel around my neck now too.
  13. Being treated like a human being should be, (one of the things I seldom experienced while in Egypt?)
  14. Not blogging as much as I should.

This place is amazing. I thought before coming here that I will be hit by a culture shock that would leave me speechless and/or motionless for days. But that never happened. Not because i’s the same, or because I am indifferent, but because I actually don’t believe I have made it here. I am enjoying every bit of it, and I think what helps a lot is how friendly everyone here is (not to mention the comfort brought by vending machines in the hardest of times).

I know that no decent blogger would ever write a link-less, pictures-less blog post such as this one about their stay in Japan, but, 1. who said I am decent, and 2. hopefully when things settle down a little bit I will have more time/energy to blog decently about the daily (un)goings on.

September 2010
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