I am Almost Completely Dependent on My Husband in Japan, and I'm Not Sure How to Handle It

Going out without my husband at this point leaves me teetering precariously between full-on panic and shaky self-doubt.
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Publish date:
September 11, 2014
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travel, language, japan

Right now I'd really like to go to the grocery store.

I'd like to buy one of those hot lunches that look so tempting in the deli section, some fixings for a soup recipe I've found, a few cleaning supplies, toilet paper, and an extra bag of cat litter.

I'm working up the courage to do this.

If I was in Hawai'i, it would be a no-brainer. I could easily run in and out of the store in 10 minutes flat, even dropping by my favorite natural, crunchy local market if I wanted to get some more exotic spices. I could do all this without breaking a sweat, all while blasting the latest Old 97's album from my iPod.

It would be mindless, it would be simple.

But I'm not in Hawai'i anymore. I'm in Yokohama, Japan, and as exciting as it is to be here, that excitement has started turning into minor frustration in some parts of my life. Namely, my independence.

You see I speak very little Japanese. OK, that's a lie, I speak almost none. My husband is almost fluent. I'm trying to learn, but my fear of sounding like an incomprehensible redneck baby (a wholly useless and stunting worry) is sometimes paralyzing. Even more so, I'm afraid of doing or saying something offensive.

I know that sounds absurd, what could I possible do with my limited use of words including, "please," "thank you," and "excuse me/sorry" (the only words I can utter without feeling overly self conscious)?

I'll tell you what.

There were two women standing talking in a narrow hallway outside a restaurant. I needed to get by them. I knew how to say "excuse me" but I felt timid, so I tried to sneak around them with a big stupid grin. In retrospect, the sight of a disheveled, stiff-grinned woman, sidling around you like a nervous cat was probably more disconcerting than if I'd actually garbled the word for "excuse me."

I made it halfway around them when both women made a big gesture of stepping out of my way and saying loudly, while smiling, "Excuse ME" in Japanese. I smiled and mumbled something that probably meant "tasty babies" or whatever, and scuttled off.

My husband, who had been trailing behind me then told me that my weird sneaking around them had been rude, and when they had said "excuse me" it was in annoyance and with sarcasm. Duh. Japan or anywhere, if I act kind of rude, people will respond kind of rudely. Lesson learned.

Now I say "excuse me" from everyone to toddlers, to vending machines, to anyone within a five-foot radius of me.

Then there's the bowing. I swear I'm not trying to be some freaky "the Japanese bow at everything" American. I picked up a subtle head nod in Honolulu, when dealing with older, local people. A very slight show of respect to "Aunties" and "Uncles."

But somehow it got warped in Japan. My anxiety has exacerbated the nod, to a bob, to what is now, if I'm not careful, what my husband says is a full on bow. My first week here I was bowing all over the place. Convenience store workers at the 7-11, the guy who delivers my Amazon packages, the man on the subway who got mad at me for bumping into him ("Tasty babies to you too!"), everyone got a bow. It was a kneejerk reaction.

And while it isn't really RUDE, as my husband explains, it's weird and a little condescending. A slight head nod and a "thank you" is all that's necessary. I think I'm doing the Japanese equivalent of a loud, "OMG! NO! You're the best!" Shudder.

So while I am able to venture out into the world alone, it requires a bit of preplanning and psyching myself up.

I mentally plan the route I will take to each and every location I will go, as once I'm out, asking for directions is pointless, and maps are baffling.

I carefully count all the money in my wallet and change purse -- Japan is a cash-based society, very few places take cards -- so that I know beforehand how many of each denomination of bill or coin I have. This is to cut down on my money counting time at a register. Otherwise, the polite cashier must wait for what seems like an eternity while I go through every single coin in my purse to figure out which combination will equal 500 Yen (about five dollars).

I practice saying the handful of phrases I know, and make sure my phone is charged in case I need to text my husband because I'm lost or being deported or something. He is my lifeline.

And that's the rub. Going out without my husband at this point leaves me teetering precariously between full-on panic and shaky self-doubt.

I need him to read menus, I need him to explain to the servers in restaurants who inevitably talk to me instead of him because I'm Asian, that I don't speak Japanese, I need him to order for me, I need him to read ingredients on packages to tell me if they are gluten-free (I've learned how to read "wheat," "contains," and "soy sauce" but sometimes it's just inferred), I need him to read new subway stops to me, I need him to interpret bills for me, I need him to explain our exact location in Japan to me, I need him to apologize for me when I do something stupid, I need, I need him, I need him.

And as lucky as I know I am to have him -- and even in these couple weeks our relationship has deepened -- this complete dependence on another person is disconcerting. I have never in my adult life "needed" another person so entirely to get by. The practicality of it does not terrify me; it's the helplessness.

I know I have to give myself some time to adjust, acclimate, and learn the language. It's a profoundly humbling experience to know that your grasp of a culture is limited to a handful of phrases, even fewer readable words, and some select social niceties that I have only a vague context for.

And a part of me knows I just have to dive in, nerves be damned. In some ways I have.

Yesterday I decided to wander around Yokohama Station, the giant central train hub of Yokohama, home to hundreds of shops and restaurants. I miscounted my money, I didn't understand the store clerk, and despite being hungry, I wasn't sure what foods were safe for me to eat so I hedged until I met my husband later on.

I really wanted to lose it at one point, when I made a wrong turn out an exit onto street I had never seen. Standing on the street amidst the hundreds of people who all knew exactly where they were going, I thought of my safe, lovely apartment, and wanted nothing more than to run back into the station, find my subway entrance, and scurry home.

But I didn't lose it. I found an entrance back into the station, and sat on a bench next to some school children whose confidence I envied.

And what was odd about sitting there, after my heart stopped racing, was that the overwhelming feeling I had was peaceful surrender. I was intimidated, and I was frustrated with my lack of self-sufficiency, but my usual go-to cry of frustration, "I freaking hate this," was nowhere near my thoughts.

"Okay. I'm going to need, REALLY NEED, my husband to get by in this place for a while. So many people do this alone, get over yourself, make your mistakes, and just accept what you have. LEARN FROM HIM."

So I got up from the bench, said "Excuse me" to a lady I almost ran into, and met my husband at a restaurant where he ordered for me (I did learn how to say "shrimp" and "Is there meat in this?").

Am I totally at peace with my dependence on my husband? No. Is it weird to have to weigh the pros and cons of waiting for him to return home in order to buy toilet paper? You bet. But I guess the reality of what I got myself into is settling in, and a part of me knew this was part of the deal. I think my husband even warned me of it.

So I'm muddling through this, and I'm getting okay with it. I'll figure out my own way soon enough, but until then, I have to be content in following the way my husband has found. It's not a loss of my individuality or my independence, I keep having to remind myself, it's simply a new way of finding myself HERE.

Have you ever had to be totally dependent on a partner while in a strange place? How did you deal? How did you find your independence again?