When I was around five or six years old, I was taught that when Santa Claus asks you if you’ve been good the best answer isn’t yes or even no. You should say: It’s all relative. It’s not only more accurate than any of the other answers, but you can also apply it in all kinds of situations in life.
Is my hometown a big town or a small city? It depends on how you look at it. Or from where. One day, probably before I discovered the relativity of life, I was standing on top of the busiest mountain in my region, proudly gazing at my sixteen-thousand-people metropolis. My cousins, who came from the capital city and were standing right behind me, found it amusing and quickly explained to me that even the district of Gracia in Barcelona was bigger than my little town. I was shocked by those news. “There ARE big cities in the world!”, I thought.
The man had arrived in that new place where he knew no one and no one knew him. The date on his visa put a limit to his stay, but that didn’t mean much. How long would he stay? Who knows. Would he like it there? Another mystery. He also didn’t know that much about his new fellow citizens or even about the city he was going to live in, apart from having a very general idea. But if he already knew everything there was to know, what would be the point of going in the first place? He arrived there willing to learn everything from zero, to observe it all, to take notes and put everything to practice while hidden in the crowds.
He hadn’t realized in the airport. Nor had he in the hostel where he spent the first night. But he was tired, and novelty is too dazzling. It wasn’t until the first time he ventured outside, camera in hand and mental notepad ready, that the suspicion began to grow.
Living ten thousand kilometers away from the country where you were born and raised and where you lived for most of your life, makes you realize there are a lot of things you took for granted which (surprise!) are not the same everywhere. And sometimes you miss them a little. Off the top of my head I can think of three:
The weather forecast of the local weatherman (and quite the celebrity at home), Tomàs Molina.
Chairs, tables, beds and any other kind of furniture which isn’t at floor level.
If you were to ask a Japanese speaker to translate 勉強 (benkyo) into English, he’d immediately answer: “to study”. It’s a no-brainer, right? To study means the same everywhere and having studied tends to be socially thought of as something positive, regardless of the country. And that includes Japan.
Well, not exactly. For better or worse, the concept, the connotations and nuances associated with a word usually change from one culture to another, driving the poor translators crazy. Maybe today’s example isn’t the worst translation problem you can encounter, but the way the idea of “studying” is perceived is slightly different.
In the evening of October 2nd, 2016, when I got out of the plane and the soles of my shoes touched the ground, I was suddenly aware of that small piece of world at the airport being the furthest place from home I had ever been to. After a 16-hour flight and seven hours of time difference, I arrived considerably disoriented, with messy hair and a tired look on my face. To make things worse, I had completely miscalculated how hot and humid Japan would be even though we were already in October, so I started sweating as soon as the plane landed, and I didn’t stop until I arrived in the air-conditioned hostel where I’d be spending my first night. I was at least really luck to have a good Japanese friend come meet me and the airport and take me right to the hostel’s door.
In Japanese the meaning of 生き甲斐 (ikigai) is somewhere between “the reason for being” and “the joy of living”, and 外人 (gaijin) literally means “outside person”, a foreigner. As an outside person myself – currently in Japan, elsewhere in the future probably – I would like to share in this blog all the adventures and misadventures of living abroad, which happens to be my ikigai, or at least, something that makes me excited about life.
If you’re reading this in January 2018, chances are you’re either a relative, a friend, an acquaintance or anyone relatively close to me. In that case, you probably know that I arrived in the land of the rising sun in October 2016 and that since then I’ve been first studying and then working, but in general just living my life here.