Before I dive into the beauty and chaos that was my first week in Japan I want to share something that was presented to me this last Friday evening during a guest speaker’s talk covering awareness of cultural differences in perception and communication. The speaker referenced studies that traced eye movement of both Japanese citizens and Americans. It was found when asked to describe a picture the Americans found a focal point in what was presented at the forefront of the image. The Japanese participants took a more holistic view and described the image more generally.
When I arrived in Narita Airport I was running off of 3 hours of sleep over the past 2 days. Even though I had been practicing my Japanese in the weeks leading up to this trip any cognitive energy I had left was not enough to muster a single word that was outside of my native tongue. I stepped off the plane and was quickly ushered through customs and was given my residency card without much trouble at all. I had been prepped upon the best ways to get into the city with the least amount of struggle by my ever knowledgeable friend/guardian angle Hana-sara. Also by some random series of serendipitous events I ran into another UM student, Jordan, who was getting into the airport just minutes before me.
That evening though I had my first of many miscommunications when I was trying to get my first meal in Japan. Through a series of events that were significantly less serendipitous than those I described before, I wound up at a little fish shop. A fish shop in which no one spoke any English and I ended up getting way more than I bargend for, both in amount of food and amount of fish heads that were brought to me.
The next few days I had time to become settled into the area before starting up work at TELL. Between Hana-sara and Jacob I was set up with the best survival and exploring tips I could have asked for. I got lost in the crowds of Harajuku, set out to explore the shopping magnificence that is Skytree, Stumbled into a traditional wedding at one of the local temples, and got caught up by the the lights and sounds emanating from the local arcades.
The following Monday I had a meeting with my contact Sarajean and jumped into the swing of things at work on Tuesday. I was immediately asked about what my goals were, not just with the internship, but with life. Along with my views in the field of psychology and what I thought the best ways of helping people truly are. Vickie, my supervisor and the Life-Line Director at TELL told me that she thought these things were all important so that she would know how to push me to expand my own thinking while I am with them. That thought of expanding upon myself helped me to hang on to my sanity the next few days. I was desperately trying to find reason in what I was doing when I was asked to do objectively trivial tasks, like counting out over 1000 pens just to make sure we had an estimate of how many were left. I fought with myself as to why I had decided to take on an internship as opposed to studying abroad. I kept breaking it down into black and white thinking. “I chose work over/tedium over study/play” and “I chose a desk, computer, and 8 or so co-workers over a campus, teachers, and thousands of peers my own age”. I couldn’t remember for the life of me why it was that I would ever choose this path.
Then I bumped into the Clinical Director of TELL’s counseling program. He invited me to lunch the next day and I of course said yes. We swapped stories about what brought us to where we each were. Him, a Clinician who was born in Germany, studied in Ireland, interned in the US, researched in Singapore, and practiced in Japan. And me, an intern who was born in California, grew up in Montana, and thinks he wants to help people someday. But he made me feel comfortable. He had an easy and relatable feel to him. I found out that besides myself he was the newest member of TELL and had gotten into the country just 1 month prior. He had some sense of faith in my abilities that I didn’t even have myself, and reminded me of something that Vickie had told me during my first day. “We have to be certain not to push what we want on other people, but to help people find out and achieve what they themselves want”.
The work started to become less tedious as the days went on. I’m not sure if it’s because they ran out of things for me to count, god knows they must have, or if they realized that I work better while researching and working with larger scale projects. But things seemed to get easier to grasp the more complex the task I was given. I was beginning to see the meaning behind what I was doing. How even though I am not yet directly working with those in need, the things I am doing will help this NPO have a lasting impact on people in Japans lives.
I feel as though at first I did what came naturally to me, I focused on what was in front of me. Sometimes it was boxes of pens, sometimes it was stacks of volunteer files. I did the same in my everyday life. I was lucky that the timing of the guest speaker happened when it did, because it helped me put into words what I was trying to work out in my head. No one else seemed to be as caught up with the little things as I was. Even though TELL is certainly a western structured organization, the people there are able to effectively take a step back and view the whole picture in a way that I still cannot fully. It has become one of my main goals to become more aware of my own perception of the world around me, and be able to acknowledge, for better or for worse, that there are other ways of looking at the same thing.