Saturday, March 21, 2009

Perspective

Where the trip to Thailand had encouraged us to pursue the nice parts of Japan, the trip to China made us realize how many nice parts were still extant in Japan.

A Snake in the Shrine, David Geraghty


It was funny to me, seeing this in print and understanding exactly what the transition is like from China to Japan to Thailand. Although I still maintain Japan’s state of perpetual construction makes it far from a “get away from it all” country, Thailand isn’t exactly high on the list either. I’ll admit that the beaches and landscapes of Thailand are more impressive than anything I ever saw in southern Japan, but after a few weeks of hearing, “Hello sir! You want taxi? Tuk-tuk? Where you go? Where you go?” you too might settle for a beach of half-sand, half-tetrapod; even in touristy areas, the Japanese don’t intrude on your privacy like that.

China is a similar study in contrast. I’ve been exchanging emails with a semi-well-traveled friend currently based in Mexico who assumed that Japan and China, both in culture and appearance, were practically one and the same. I immediately attempted to dissuade this notion.

Living in Japan is nothing like living in China for all intents and purposes. Granted, there may be similar stories of how locals interact with foreigners, but there is a line in the sand that can easily be drawn between both countries.

Japan is clean – clean air, clean people (bathing culture), clean streets, clean behavior (as far as tatamae goes, anyway). Everything is considered to be orderly and proper, more civilized than the rest of the world. Things that are not supposed to happen do not happen; or, when they do, are simply dismissed as fiction. This is best expressed in a story from Alan Booth’s Roads to Sata, in which he describes a close encounter with a jellyfish brushing his face. Later, when relating the story at a local izakaya, his host is affronted and tells him condescendingly: “That’s quite out of the question… you see, the jellyfish season ended yesterday.”

China, by comparison, is absolutely chaotic – horribly polluted air (I got ill after spending a few days in Beijing), no enforceable rules as far as roads are concerned (bicycles and cars darting in and out of any available space). Even the style of speaking disturbs me. As I was boarding the ferry from Osaka to Shanghai last June, I heard an ungodly loud noise coming from the rear of the deck. Upon further inspection, I discovered it was just a group of Chinese grandmothers, almost yelling at the top of their lungs in what I imagined must have been normal conversation – their expressions didn’t indicate otherwise.

Which do I prefer? Thailand is great for short-term stays, but I really couldn’t recommend living there; I didn’t spend enough time in the country to acclimate to the diet. As a result, I never felt I really had the energy and enthusiasm I did in Japan. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a cheap beach vacation in a clearly exotic part of the world, Thailand definitely has it.

Japan is my recommendation for long-term results. True, this is dependent on you being a certain type of individual, one for which I’m not sure I fit the bill. You have to be prepared for the constant pressure of being a foreigner in a relatively homogenous culture, in which you stand out, are ridiculed, are separated, are treated differently, and may never fit in. Not all these things happen at once – depending on where you choose to live, it could be months or even years before you’re aware of such things. But they do happen. It wore me down, piece by piece, and I had to escape, even if for a short while.

But despite these occasional setbacks, Japan is comfortable; a first world country that knows exactly what its residents need to relax (even if few of them take advantage of it): convenience stores open 24/7; hot spring resorts; skiing in Niigata; trains that run on time; a society that goes to great lengths to prevent scenes in the street, anything to avoid standing out (there are huge exceptions to this, of course – just visit Yoyogi Park on Sunday).

I could live in Thailand if I gave it enough time. I could live in Japan without thinking twice. But China? I just don’t know. The pollution alone is enough to drive me off; maybe I just have high expectations.

How about you?

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