Since moving to Japan many people have asked me about "culture shock". To be honest, I think the term is poorly constructed, as I don't think I have often felt "shocked" by anything in Japan. It is more a sense of being weighed down by the enormity of it all once in a while. Every other month or so I feel tired, but that isn't really a shock. Only one occasion really sticks in my mind.
I was walking back to my house from the station, this was before Yuko and I lived together, and it was a blazing hot August day. The air around my ankles simply rippled, my shoes stirring the soup, and every breath seemed to steal from my body more than it gave. My plan was simple. I was going to go to my house, get my laptop, and then jump on my bicycle back to the station where an air conditioned comic/internet cafe waited with endless drinks.
With this goal in mind I looked up. Ahead of me was a T intersection and I was approaching the bar. As I was about to turn right toward my house, I saw a lady walk behind a car. In perfect slow motion I saw the white lights on the back of the car illuminate and heard the engine hum. Before I could raise a sound in my throat the car had knocked the elderly lady down and screeched to a stop.
Instantly I was conflicted. My initial reaction was to rush over and help this lady who was crying out on the ground. I had my phone, it was time to call the police! Get an ambulance! Then a realization hit me. If I were to go over there, what would I say? Would my white face confuse the proceedings? Other than babbling away in English, I was just going to be in the way.
I walked in the other direction.
I went home, and did not head out to the shop. Instead I sat there, disappointed with myself. I am normally a take-charge kind of guy. If I am in a situation, I am usually running the show. On this day I felt powerless. This was culture shock.
A woke up a little later today, just as the hour hand was closing in at 7. With an evening class ahead of me I knew that the car was my best option. I packed my bag, kissed my wife goodbye, and took off for work.
Pull out of the garage, turn right, right, left, right, left and I was on the highway to work. I was stuck behind a slow car, so I couldn't make the required 90 km/h it takes to make it through the next lights. I sat at the intersection, not thinking of anything in particular other than that annoying slow car, when I noticed the mini truck in the middle of the road.
Mini trucks are great things; tiny for me to drive but popular with every old guy in my town for their ability to haul junk and maneuver between rice fields. In the bed of this particular truck was a mountain of paper and aluminum. A collector. Lots of old guys like him in every country I suppose. Behind his truck some of his bundles and bags were strewn. I assumed that they had fallen out and he would do the typical old guy thing and stop traffic while picking them up. Old guys who live in trucks don't have much use for the conventions of society.
Looking closer I saw the twinkle of broken yellow plastic on the ground. Then I saw a door bent in a way doors are not meant to be. He hadn't dropped anything, he had plowed into the concrete divider between north and south bound traffic. I looked at the other cars beside me as the signal was about to change. Nobody seemed to care. No hazard lights were on. Seven am Tuesday morning on the highway? This place was normally a formula-1 circuit as people sped to work. Nobody was going to stop to help some old guy in the middle of the road.
The same feelings from years before seized me. I should help him! It is my natural reaction. But... what would I say? Is this my place? The signal turned green, cars crept up behind me. Hands descended toward horns, preparing to blast me out of my internal struggle.
I dropped the car into first, flicked my signal, and pulled off onto a side street.
Getting out of my car I walked back to the intersection, surveying the damage. No other car had stopped. A pedestrian looked on as he walked by, interested in the wreckage but apparently not the person inside. I waited impatiently for the lights to change again and then I jogged out into the middle of the road.
I knew this man! He was the old guy who parked by the river near my house. He lives out of his truck and always has his pet dog with him. He is viewed suspiciously in the neighborhood because of his condition. But yet, here he was, struggling to free himself. His driver side door had been mangled, and he lacked the strength to open it. With a bit of adreneline pumping through me, I yanked on the handle. Nothing happened. I signaled to him to roll down his window. Grasping the door and the frame, I planted a Canadian size shoe on the truck and pulled. With a squeal of metal the door popped open and the bloodied old guy fell out, followed swiftly by the stench of alcohol.
As I picked up the old man and guided him to sit down on the median, I wondered what to do next. Behind me I heard the excited chirping of two old ladies, out for a walk but now caught up in the drama. Walking over to them I pulled out my phone and asked them to call an ambulance as best I could. She dialed the number excitedly, but then seemed to be at a loss as to how to describe where we were. Glancing around me I spied the sign overhead, "Taruihamaguchi" I yelled at her, using my teachers voice to be heard over the din of passing traffic.
With the authorities on their way, I took back my phone and walked back to my car. I didn't want to push my luck by talking to the police. The old women seemed to be in control at this point. Driving to work I reflected on the difference between this day and when I first came to Japan.
Sure, my language is a bit better than way back then, but not a whole lot better. I think my growth has more to do with me feeling comfortable in my own skin. I have a job here because I am different. I look different, and speak a different language. Outside my job, however, there is a basic human need to feel part of the group, part of society. I think I feel at home more today, which allowed me to make the decision to turn off and help this old man.
The irony is, of course, that feeling more comfortable here allowed me to help, but really fitting into this society would entail me not helping at all, but simply staring in interest before speeding off to work. Perhaps I have some more growing to do before I reach that point. Maybe I've grown enough for the time being.