I Just Learned How to Order Food in Japan, Now I Have to Make Friends?

Sometimes I can't help but feel like I'm trying people's patience with my Japan "illiteracy."
Publish date:
October 30, 2014
making friends, travel, friendship, japan

I freaking did it. I ordered food in a restaurant. The actual food I meant to order.

I can order one of something, I can order more than one of something. You want a small drink? A medium? Why not a large? No problem, I'll order it!

OK fine, I'm limited to the three restaurants where I've partially memorized the menu, or restaurants where there is some English written in the menu, but I no longer feel like an infant. I think I'm moving on to toddlerhood.

And while my food ordering style may not be elegant or even grammatically correct, I feel like I've conquered a major part of Japanese culture that was holding me back.

I'm going to order ALL the food now.

The only drawback to this new-found freedom is that it somewhat painfully highlights an element lacking in my Japan social life: the "social" part.

Sure, my husband and I go out to eat, but lately he's so caught up in his work and studies, I'm left to my own devices.

It's not that I don't know people here. I've met a lot of great people through my husband's studies, all of whom speak English and ALL of whom speak better Japanese than me. The problem is me. Not only am I TERRIBLE at making new friends, the unique situation of living in Japan, amongst Japan scholars, adds a new level of difficulty to my already stunted social skills.

Japan aside, I find that it takes approximately three meetings to like me.

The first time we meet I'll probably be so up my own ass from nerves and shyness (and not wanting to show anybody that I'm nervous and shy), I'll either come off as cold and aloof, or funny in a "Uh, Louise, why do you know so much about synthetic canine testicles?" kind of way.

Some people end up preferring cold and aloof to "50 Fun Facts About Dog Balls." First impressions are not my forte.

The next time we meet I'll have chilled out, but I'll be feeling self conscious about our previous meeting. Enter "Normal Louise."

Normal Louise will try to temper the weirdo you met last time, and will be the social equivalent of a sweater set. I'll smile a lot, I'll laugh too much, and I'll probably agree with you to the point where you'll say, "But you don't know my Aunt Tildy...how do you know she's 'such a kook'?"

I'll basically creep you out in a whole new way.

Some people really like Normal Louise. Unfortunately Normal Louise makes my skin crawl.

Finally, by the third time we meet, I'll have worked through my demons. I'll probably be able to function like the lovable crankpot most of my nearest and dearest have grown quite fond of.

Et voila! Let's be best friends forever.

Alright I'm being a little dramatic. I just hit it off with some people, and some people just see through my BS and we skip to "lovable crankpot" straight away. But with most social interactions, I find it takes a while for me to warm up, hence the three stages.

But then there's that added level of difficulty I was talking about. So far, all the expats I've met (I can't even imagine how many steps would be involved in befriending a Japanese speaker. Step One: Pantomime...) though all perfectly friendly, have one thing in common I simply cannot relate to: They are students of Japan.

Don't get me wrong, I'm making an honest go at learning the language, adapting to the culture, and immersing myself in all that is Japanese. However, I did not come here out of an overwhelming fascination with Japan or a need to study the country. I came here because my husband's PhD work decreed it, it was an opportunity too good to turn down, and frankly, it sounded fun.

And while I'm at peace with my motives for coming here, it definitely puts me on the outside of the "Students of Japan Social Club."

While my expat pals can get lost in a conversation about the minutiae of addressing someone of a higher status than you, I'm still feeling pretty damn sexy over being able order all by myself at a restaurant. Our victories aren't quite the same.

Look, I'm not saying everyone here is insistent on ALL Japan talk ALL the time. I've had some pretty decent conversations with people about life, the universe, and everything. And I'm not totally disinterested in learning about the culture I'm living in -- I'll sit rapt for hours if you talk food to me.

But try as I might I can't get as enthused over a grammar point, obscure cultural niceties, or the finer points of ancient architecture the way a lot of the Japan scholars I've met here do. And that's cool. We all have our passions. I know I'm in the minority here.

But I'm not going to lie, those times when the Social Club really gets chatty about stuff I just have no context or understanding of, are the times I feel most lonely. Those are the times I feel most estranged from the Wonderful World of Japan that everyone else seems to know so intimately.

And I don't think it's as simple as just, "Well, Lou, if you don't understand it, learn it." I could learn every fact, cultural custom, and piece of trivia available to me about Japan. It might not change things. The main difference between the Social Club and me is that Japan is what makes them happy, whereas I am learning how to be happy in Japan.

And while differences are certainly not a roadblock to friendship -- MC Skat Kat and Paula Abdul, Lemon and Donaghy, for example -- it can make finding common ground more difficult. Not only do I not understand many of the people I've met's milestones or experiences, they have to EXPLAIN them to me. Having to dumb down or offer a lengthy explanation about a major language triumph can really deflate the moment.

Sometimes I can't help but feel like I'm trying people's patience with my Japan "illiteracy."

So I guess this all boils down to the fact that I feel a little left out. I feel like one of those things that's not like the other. The funny part is, it's with the westerners not the Japanese.

Do I owe a lot of my conundrum to social anxiety? Being a people pleaser? Self consciousness for not being fluent in Japanese after two months? Yes, yes, and no, that's insane, but I am self conscious about how slowly I'm learning.

For me finding friendship, while daunting, is what really catapults a place from where I'm "staying" to where I'm "living." While my life in Japan is going pretty well (I CAN ORDER FOOD!), it's this last piece of the puzzle that will help me to really feel settled. I'm just trying to find a way in.

After all, I need somebody to order food with.