Today’s In Other Wor(l)ds interview features my college friend Laura Ingulsrud. She is 22 years old and currently living in Santa Barbara, California, where she is an intern for a public interest environmental law firm, works at two restaurants, and is a sailing instructor. She plans on applying to law school next year. Laura first moved to Japan with her family in the summer of 2006, right after her freshman year of high school, and lived there for three years until she returned to California for college.
On Moving to Japan: My family decided to move to Japan mostly because my dad wanted us kids to experience living in the country where he grew up while we were still young. My dad was born and raised in Japan as a Lutheran missionary kid, so he is fluent in Japanese and has always been a liaison to Japan for the various software companies he has worked with throughout his career. Japan has always been more of a “home” to him than the U.S. I was 15 when we moved, and I completely resented my parents when they first told me we were moving that summer. I remember locking myself in my room and crying for hours, and refusing to talk to them for the rest of the weekend. It was extremely hard for me to leave all my friends in Sacramento and move to a foreign country where I knew no one. Looking back now, however, it was one of the best experiences of my life and I am extremely thankful to my parents for making that change.
On Attitudes Towards Americans: I was definitely concerned when I first got to Japan that the people might harbor lingering resentment towards Americans, but I found the overwhelming majority of Japanese were very nice and receptive to Americans in their country. There are always exceptions; for example, the Japanese nationalists who often ride around Roppongi (a heavily American section of Tokyo) in a van yelling through loudspeakers—but they are a minority. In general, I was pleasantly surprised by how extremely polite and helpful most people are in Japan.
On Culture Shock: Probably the biggest culture shock was moving into a neighborhood surrounded by Japanese families. I was in a bit of an American bubble while at school (I attended the American School In Japan, ASIJ) or at the lake I vacation at every summer, but when we first moved into our house I remember staying holed up in my room with my brother and sister playing computer games, refusing to go outside and interact with the neighbors. It was also uncomfortable how much I stood out at first. Being tall with long blonde hair, I got a lot of stares when I was on the trains and out and about, especially from younger kids.
Conversely, I then experienced reverse culture shock when I returned to the U.S. for the summer. Not to be stereotypical, but I often got anxiety coming back to the U.S. and having to deal with ruder, louder people.
On Customs: A lot of the polite customs are often overlooked by tourists, and I found myself getting embarrassed when I saw foreigners engaging in impolite behavior, even if they didn’t realize it. For example, when you enter someone’s home in Japan, you are supposed to take off your shoes in the entryway (genkan) before you walk into the main house. It is also impolite to be loud or talk on your phone while on the trains. As for eating etiquette, never stick your chopsticks upright in your bowl of rice. The only time it’s appropriate to do this is at a funeral. Unlike in the states, however, it IS appropriate to slurp your ramen noodles! (My friends at college always gave me a hard time about this, even when I assured them it was polite in Japan.)
Another difference were the commercials—a lot of the ads shown on the train or on TV that Americans would think are ridiculous and hilarious are just so normal in Japan. It’s a great quirk about Japanese culture that I’ve always enjoyed. My little sister has even been in a couple of pretty ridiculous commercials!
On The Mouth-Watering Cuisine: I could go on and on about the food in Japan—it’s my favorite cuisine hands down. Sushi has always been my favorite food, and yes, the freshness and quality of preparation of sushi in most restaurants in Japan is generally much better than in the States. It is rare, however, to find sushi rolls, which we are more familiar with, since the “California Roll” is an Americanized dish. The most common sushi in Japan is nigiri, which is a slice of raw fish over sushi rice. If you go to a kaiten sushi place, there will be plates of nigiri moving past you on a conveyer belt, and you just grab the plates you want. I often accumulate at least 10 plates when I go out for sushi!
On the Japanese Language: I studied Japanese for the 3 years I was at ASIJ. The grammar is the hardest thing about learning Japanese, as it has a completely different structure than English. For example, while in English the common order of a sentence is subject-verb-object, in Japanese the order is subject-object-verb. This was confusing to get used to at first. I’m just starting to dive into learning Japanese again. (My dad said he would help buy my ticket to visit this summer if I became fluent!)
One of my favorite Japanese words that is difficult to translate to English is “nastukashii.” It literally means “dear,” but it really refers to feelings of nostalgia for the past.
On Japan’s Influence on Future Plans: Growing up partly in Japan made me feel more connected to whaling issues, which I feel very strongly about. I almost did a trip to Taiji to protest at the actual cove where a lot of the dolphin killings occur, but the program turned out to be more touristy than I would’ve liked. Living in Japan has definitely opened my eyes to the possibility of going into international environmental law, especially related to marine issues. [Laura studied Environmental Science in college.]
On “Reverse” Homesickness: Even though I’m originally from California, I’m homesick for Japan right now! I got pretty good at keeping my homesickness in check during my freshman year of college, but I definitely had bouts of it all through college. I will always be homesick for Japan when I’m not there, and I’m trying to figure out the next time I can go back and visit; I may even return to live for a time.
On Traveling to Japan: One of my favorite places to visit in Japan is Kyoto. It’s one of the only cities that wasn’t destroyed by fire bombing during World War II, so a lot of the temples and buildings are still there and they are absolutely gorgeous. Kyoto also has certain types of food and treats that you can’t get anywhere else, specifically yastuhashi, a delicious cinnamon flavored mochi treat.
Japan should be on everyone’s travel bucket list. It is such a strikingly different culture than America, and I think we can learn a lot from how the Japanese live so harmoniously in such a packed city like Tokyo. Also, the food is to die for!
Thanks so much, Laura!! All of us college friends were always so fascinated by Laura’s prior experience in Japan—and never stopped asking her when we could come visit :)