The alarm goes off at 7:30 in the morning, a sharp vibration against my mattress loud enough to rumble me awake. I turn over onto my side, stare at the screen of my phone, and realize that I do, indeed, have to get up to get ready for class. But I set it on snooze for another fifteen minutes.
I don’t think we are as aware of it as we could be but, at some point, we fall into routines. We put our shirts on with one arm first before the other, then the pants, and then the socks. We pour the cereal into the bowl before the milk. We make sure to grab the keys before we head out for the day. I think a lot of these little rituals are inherent at this point in our lives, routines that are so deeply carved in our muscle memory that one step out of place would cause a twinge of confusion.
At the same time, I wonder if the routines practiced over in America would follow me here into Tokyo. Would I still wake up the same, walk at the same pace, execute the same social cues out in public like I did in America? I don’t ask these questions to have a clear cut answer; there is no yes or no. In a few days I will have been in Japan for a month, and while that lends itself to a decent amount of time to have a response to that question it still isn’t one that is directly answered.
Instead, I’ve come to understand it as doing as the Romans. In a new country and a new environment with its own history and patterns, I needed time to figure out how to comfortably move throughout Tokyo. There were days of awkward language exchange, where Japanese leapt off my tongue and drowned in a pool of miscommunication. There were days of mistakes and remaining a “typical foreigner” in the eyes of onlooking natives. But it is in those discomforts and in my own personal sense of being a foreigner here in Japan that I find myself developing more routines. Every day is a chance to practice speaking and continue to strengthen my language acquisition. Every day is a chance to learn a new rule or discover a new place and why it’s significant in Japan.
Unlike many of my friends, I have never traveled overseas until this semester. Realistically my family can’t afford overseas travel; scholarships and loans are how I’m surviving here. This is the first time I’m truly engaging with myself on an international scale, figuring out how I work amongst a country that is not mine and where the language is still so new to me. As daunting as it may sound, I’m thriving here. It is challenging to go across oceans and time zones and separate oneself from everything that is familiar to them. Humans are creatures of habit and putting oneself in another environment where one has to create new habits can be difficult, but thus far it’s been rewarding.
One of my favorite habits happens whenever I am leaving or entering the dorm. The lobby is stone tile. On the right wall is a glass window that the caretaker of our dorm can see through. Ahead are the mailboxes, and on the left side is a wooden step and more rows of little storage boxes. In Japan, most apartments and dorms have a standard genkan, or the entranceway. Much like at home where I took my shoes off at the front and then put them into the closet, I take off my shoes and step up into the dorm. For some, it might take some getting used to especially if taking off the shoes at home was never practiced. Doing this every day not only attests to the spotlessness of the dorm floors but of how these routines have blended together for me.
As a creature of habit, it is near impossible for us to escape a subconscious need for structure. And while that it is true, it doesn’t mean we are required to stay attached to any one habit for the rest of our lives. Perhaps that’s the beauty of traveling overseas and being able to break away from habits that can become so mundane after years of repetition.
Coming to Japan was a breath of fresh air. I put on a new pair of glasses, drank in the vivid sights and smells of this chain of islands. I figured out the best streets to take to get to the konbini or the supermarket. I figured out the route to my classes, which buildings they’re being housed. I figured out what time to eat dinner was best since the dining room would be full of friends and at a decent enough time to have dessert later. I figured out how to respond to cashiers at stores, how to hand them my cash or card.
It still remains, though, that the one habit I developed as soon as I got off the plane is the openness to being wrong. I certainly had that back home, but I had to develop a real understanding that I was going to make mistakes, like throwing paper in the noncombustible bin or fumbling over my Japanese and saying something strange. But in a way, reminding myself of that during this first (almost) month I have reminded myself to be patient. I don’t have the malleable mind of a small child anymore and I’m not a natural-born polyglot, but every day I have to push myself to find the courage to speak Japanese. And slowly, but surely, I’m improving.