I wrote a while back about my top 5 travel experiences, and Japan was the first. I know that also means I skipped #2, but I’ll come back to it.
The reason why this entry exists so early is that I had entered it in a contest about travel experiences. While it didn’t win, I still think it’s something I’d like to share. Since I was in Japan for about three months, there is no way I could sum up my experiences in a single entry. So, I’ll break it up within a few entries here and there.
I grew up with very humble beginnings. As such, travel was far from a possibility, and something that just seemed like an unachievable dream. Aside from a trip at 3 years old to my parent’s homeland, I had never been on a plane, and had no idea what it was like outside of my city. We didn’t even have a car during my latter teen years, so my world consisted of whatever the city transportation could take me in 1 hour or less. In Southern California, that isn’t very far.
In 2003, towards the end of my university career, I found the opportunity to work in Japan temporarily. The thought was daunting. Here I was, in a lifestyle that was challenging, and in circumstances that didn’t support travel. My father was hospitalized due to a very severe illness, and he was our only surviving parent. This left me as the sole caretaker of my two younger siblings. My life was always a daily juggling act between different roles: full-time college student, nearly full-time worker, and caretaker for my father and siblings. We had very little money, and a few times, I found myself sacrificing my own meals so that my siblings had more to eat. Thus, the thought of leaving all that responsibility behind to go abroad seemed outright selfish.
However, I also realized that something had to change. Otherwise, this vicious cycle of struggle would continue. Going abroad for work, even for just a short time, may be just what I need to stand out in the working world. Sacrifice now, but have more opportunities in the future to help myself and my family.
It was definitely a difficult decision, but I did it. My father was in a hospital, without any plans to return home. I had to force my sister to find a place on of her own, and my brother was sent to stay with out-of-state relatives. Shortly after, I packed my bags for Japan. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, and I was scared for all the uncertainties that lay ahead. Again, before this, I had no recent experiences of travel. I had no idea what it was like to be on a plane, much less go to a completely foreign country where I knew almost no one. I had to live on my own, and travel with very little assistance. Because I was going to be there for a few months, I had packed everything and the kitchen sink. I had no idea what I needed, and I was scared that whatever I required, it wouldn’t be easy to find. I had never been on my own. I had always lived with family, and had never gone out of city by myself. Yet, here I was travelling to a complete foreign land, and forced to do it without anyone at my side. I was terrified and full of anxiety.
Upon arrival, I had no idea where to go. Here I was, a tiny petite girl, with three large bags just as heavy I was. I found my way to my hotel, and struggled to figure out where in the world I really was. I was extremely tired, because I had no idea how to sleep on the plane. As I opened the door to my first hotel room, I collapsed. I was tired, and lonely, and had no idea what to do. I cried. I called my boyfriend’s mother and cried my eyes out. Only a few hours in, and I was deeply homesick. How would I even survive?
The next day, I had to meet my new company so that they could show me my apartment and introduce me to my coworkers. This was one day after I arrived. I was extremely jet lagged, and had no idea how to navigate the complex Japanese transport system. I got lost and delayed, without any means to contact my host to help me find my way. I had his phone number, but didn’t know how to call him. I broke down and forced myself to overcome my fear of talking to strangers, and asked a few girls to help me. Despite the communication barrier, we were able to call my host and I was given instruction to find my way.
I found my host an hour later, and I thought I was going to faint. The lack of sleep was taking its toll, so I didn’t even have the foggiest idea of what I was doing or whether my shirt was buttoned on correctly. I remember only being shuffled from my new apartment (briefly, to drop off my bags), to my office to meet my new boss, and then to the cell phone store to pick up my phone. It was all a blur, and I was so overwhelmed and tired. My boss took pity on me and told me that I didn’t have to start the next day as agreed, and gave me the next two days to acclimate.
As we were purchasing my phone, my host advised that there was a party that evening to welcome new employees like myself, and there would be other foreigners to meet. The only issue was, it was quite a way from where I lived, so I would have to navigate again by myself on the train and find my way there. Every ounce of me wanted to say no. I had not been in Japan for not even a week and I wanted to immediately turn back. It was all too much. Traveling again to an unknown place. Meeting new people. Not being coherent enough to know what I was doing. I was afraid to go anywhere on my own, in fear that I would once again get lost and not find my way back. Of course, I was forced to get over that fairly quickly – they were being very hospitable and it would have been extremely rude to decline.
Seeing my hesitation, my host graciously agreed to come with me, but I don’t remember the route we took. Even if I tried to pay attention, the stations and the multiple stops were confusing. Which stations took my pass? Which ones would I have to pay extra? What kind of ticket do I get if my pass only covered partial routes? How many times did we change trains? I could just feel the anxiety building.
I don’t even recall how I found the party. I can’t remember the people I met, or what I did when I got there. The only things I do remember is being extremely tired and lonely. A room full of people – and I felt so alone. They all seemed to know each other. They all seemed happy. They seem well rested. I just wanted to go to a corner and question if I really belonged. A few people found me and we chatted, but I have no idea what I said, or if I had made any impressions on them. I was completely out of my comfort zone.
The next thing I knew, my host was telling me that since I lived so far away, I would have to leave immediately to catch the last train. Once the last train left, that station closed, and it would be difficult to find my way home. I rushed to the train station, only to find out that the last train had just left moments earlier. I cried. I had no idea what to do. I saw a business man sitting on floor, falling asleep. I thought I had to do the same. I wondered if I would ever find my way back. I stood in the middle of the empty station, silently crying.
A security guard who spoke very little English noticed and tried to help me. Between stifled tears, I told him that I lived far away but had no idea how to get there. This was my first full day in Japan, and I was lost. All my fears had come true. He pointed me towards a row of taxis, telling me that while it was going to be expensive, they could take me home. I didn’t care how much it was going to cost. I jumped into a cab and realized – I didn’t know where I really lived. After all, I had only been in the apartment less than hour to just drop off luggage. I panicked.
I had my address, which thankfully was in Japanese. I showed it to the taxi driver, but he really didn’t have any idea where it was. He kept asking me to call someone, but I really didn’t know who since it was late. My cell phone hadn’t been charged, and it was on the last 5% of battery life. I called my host one last time for assistance, and he was able to give some helpful directions to the cab driver right before my phone shut off.
I was dropped off fairly close to the apartment, but still struggled to find it. I felt a mix of relief and disappointment as I slowly walked through the door. Nothing had been set up. No bedding, my bags were still packed, and there was no food or drink. It was late, and I was done. I opened my door, removed my shoes, and collapsed on the bare tatami mat in my bedroom. I clutched my phone and managed to plug it in, and closed my eyes amidst tears. I was utterly lonely and exhausted. I regretted my decisions. Why did I thrust myself in the unknown like this? What was I thinking?!
Hours later, I woke up to a jolt. Actually, many vigorous jolts. It was as if someone were shaking me awake. Still in yesterday’s clothes, I rubbed my eyes, thinking it was a dream. Nope, I had woken up to a large earthquake. Tired, hungry, and now stunned from the sudden shocks, I whispered to myself…”Welcome to Japan…”