The train from Narita airport to Tokyo leapt out of the tunnel and raced across the countryside. I stared out the window, my brain floating in a soup of fatigue poisons, and all I could think was how the kudzu-covered hills looked just like those back home in Alabama.
Then we zipped past a small family shrine.
In general, travel makes me quieter and more self-contained, something I’m sure my friends would love to see. In part that’s a reaction to experiencing a foreign country. The first time I traveled out of the US, I realized that I was seeing both England and myself reflected in the country. I take what I experience and drape it across the framework of familiar experiences.
That’s harder to do in Japan, where I am functionally illiterate. I’m a compulsive reader. Sit me down at breakfast next to a box of cereal and I’ll skim the ingredients list. Now I’m surrounded by signs I can’t read, and worse, I can’t even do rudimentary pattern matching. I can memorize words written in the Latin alphabet, allowing me to recognize signs that I can’t truly read. The kanji, hiragana and katakana slide right out of my brain as fast as I pour them in. It’s disorienting in a way far more disturbing to me than not being able to understand what people are saying.
The small differences are even more jarring. When we boarded the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Osaka that first night, we were in a smoking car. People smoked on the sidewalk and in restaurants, their numbers far greater than I’m used to now.
Whenever I travel, I spend the first part of the trip being uncomfortable with my tourist status. Years ago an Australian asked me, “Is America really like it looks like on Cagney & Lacey?” Now I’m in a country I know mainly via Gamera movies, Akira, Lost in Translation, and reviews of Yo-Yo Girl Cop.
To make matters worse, I’m the American counterpart of the nice Japanese couple I once saw excitedly taking pictures of my hometown Wal-Mart. I’m not even sticking with stores — I’m taking pictures of stair railings and adverts.
Even as I am exhausted and overwhelmed by the differences, I’m comforted by glimpses of familiar things. I blink at the Disney ads in the airport and the Coke bottles next to Pocari Sweat in the ubiquitous vending machines. We may have imported kudzu and watched in surprise at it engulfed trees and houses and slow-moving cows, but we’ve exported our pop culture and watched it spread across Japan.