Alice - Pt1
I’ve been in Japan for a couple of weeks now and have been super busy but now that my schedule is sorted I finally have some time to go over everything that has been going on! On orientation all the volunteers (from Canada, Australia and the U.K.) went to Tokyo and explored a bit. I ended up with an Australian tinge to my accent when I left! Sometimes there’d be language barriers between us despite all speaking English! My top event was going to Karaoke because there’s nothing better than 16 people all belting out to classic songs- All Star by Smash Mouth being my favourite.
I had a bit of culture shock when arriving (the Japanese style communal bathroom in the hostel being the first) predominantly due to the fact that no one speaks English and tourists (even in Tokyo) are still a bit of a rarity in retrospect to other countries I’ve visited. Being blonde I am very evidently foreign and stand out. In Kumamoto (where I have been placed) it is very residential and I have yet to meet another foreigner besides my partner and I. Because of this I’ve come to realise two things here. People either assume you speak no Japanese at all. Or that you speak it fluently. Often Japanese people have no recent English to back on so can only speak Japanese to you regardless. This often allows for awkward moments- in these times the word ‘hai’ (yes) becomes your best friend. If ‘wakarimasen’ (I don’t understand) gets you no where.
People are very helpful if you don’t understand and trust me when I say hand gestures get you a long way. Yes, you may feel like a complete idiot but you see yourself doing it more than once. Trust me. So far I’ve been studying Japanese in the hospital and although daunting I’ve found perseverance is the key. My teachers are very helpful and put up with me when I just don’t get it, supporting me all the way! Manners are very important here and I was given comprehensive details about Japanese customs both at orientation and the first few days on placement. Often when meeting important people from the company e.g. The president the manners and introductions I’d learnt were beyond helpful in presenting my respect and gratitude.
Although it is easy to get frustrated by language and culture barriers so far I’ve found looking at the funny side of mistakes makes it easier. Because there have been a few times, normally when shopping, where no matter how hard you try- there is NO way you’re going to find which aisle the flour is in. Oh and smiling. People can never get mad if you smile at them.
Alice Pt2: That one question.
My aim is to understand that one question. The question that consistently irks me and changes with the prime intention of catching me out. The question that wherever I go arises to greet me and knock all linguistic confidence from my inner being.
It’s a Friday evening, I’ve cycled from work, soaked by the rain, keen to escape to the safety of my apartment -but the supermarket draws me in with the promise of sugary goodness and reduced labels. I walk to the till, clutching my Japanese treats, the cashier scans my items in a flash of lightening, I slowly look up and it’s then- that she mutters those inaudible words. The ones I try so desperately to comprehend. She looks at my expectantly. I’m a deer caught in the headlights. ‘Sumimasen…’ I pause anxiously and questionably answer “Hai” (yes). She nods and proceeds to put my purchases in a bag. Today I have won.
Tomorrow I may answer ‘hai’ again and a bag might not come my way, I may have to boldly ask for one directly, or cowardly walk away with my arms grasping a mountain of shopping, but today… today I have won.
I felt a similar feeling a few days ago in the hospital canteen. For the small price of 300 yen we can get a really nice Japanese meal at work, there was just one problem. Cabbage. For my placement partner (a renound cabbage lover) it was a dream, a delicious mountain of cabbage salad. For me it was a mountain I was not keen to climb. Every day I faced the cabbage challenge, I tried adjusting my tastebuds, pouring a variety of sauces over it, not eating it at all. But it still bothered me. So I learnt how to say politely in Japanese “only a little please, I don’t like cabbage’ and so long behold. I no longer have the cabbage challenge… happy days!
The smallest achievements are often the ones that get me through a week of Japanese lessons, make me less afraid to go shopping and order a meal in a language a world from my own. Sometimes it feels like you’ve been pushed into the deep-end and it’s easy to forget that it was you who did the pushing. You have to be prepared to put yourself out there and understand that people admire you trying.
Alice Pt 3 - First explorations
I went to Kumamoto Zoo, found an amazing Thai cafe tucked away and saw a flute ensemble in the evening. When we first entered the zoo I noticed monkeys on a little patch of grassland surrounded by a moat, therefore no need for fences which was very bizarre. I couldn’t believe how close we got to the monkeys. The enclosures were much smaller than other zoos I’ve visited, the Japanese standard of space being much less than ours. It’s a small zoo but they had a large array of species. Plus bring a new resident to the area there’s a few tourist sites that are free for you to visit (the Zoo being one of them).
The attentive rumbles of my stomach took us to a cute little Thai cafe, I struggled to read the specials on the blackboard (my Japanese still in progress) but with the help of my friend and supporter (Masako-san) we ordered some great Thai curries! I am already planning my return, wanting to try everything else on the menu. My normal greedy self. I thought I would be losing weight here but I fail to see that happening everything I see, I want to eat. Except pigs feet. Those can stay well away.
In the evening Masako-san took us to an event where the main focus was crafted lights, my favourite being a hollowed out vegetable dried to look like wood and intricate pin hole carvings throughout it made incredible patterns of light. After gawking and the incredible hand made pieces we sat down for a 30 minute flute ensemble. All for free. At one point people were humming/singing along to a certain piece of music and the room felt very welcoming. By the end people were clapping to the music it was so heart-warming to see such a tight-knit community event.
During this week I had my first “free-talking” session at the hospital. Half an hour of talking to a ‘supporter’ to practice my Japanese. Over the past weeks I’ve developed my arm gestures, it’s amazing what you can achieve with some fragmented Japanese and enthusiasm!
So the first month was very challenging language wise. I’d be lying if I said I haven’t had the occasional little breakdown. Although I’m sure there are more yet to come! I was able to socialise at the “welcome party” on Friday. It made me feel so empowered to see a drastic improvement in my Japanese, although it is a mix of broken English and Japanese verbs I slowly hear my Japanese getting better. My partner and I were the first volunteers at the new placement and because of this there are not many English speakers at the hospital, Japanese being much more spoken to me. Although challenging I feel my language skills will only improve!
We recently went to Kumamoto Castle (one of the most popular tourist site in our area) it was very modern as they had recently rebuilt he original stucture so it was great to see how it would’ve looked. We managed to climb up the 6 flights of stairs, battling the autumn humidity, to make it to top for great views! We made sushi with Masako-san. We braved venturing out on our bicycles even further to reach her house. It was nice to cycle through the slightly more rural parts of Kumamoto. Recently was the “Drunken Horse Festival” it lasted about an hour and there was a long parade of people. It started off quiet but as the parade went on it got louder! The sound of the drums still resonates with me.
The Japanese really dedicte to the core, there is always something happening, keep in the know and you’ll never get bored on the weekends! Tonight I accompanied the hospital band for dinner (upon deciding I’d join as a singer), the hospital Christmas party was discussed. All in Japanese of course! Being surrounded by the language can be daunting but having good faith and accepting you won’t understand it all is the best mentality to have.
Alice Pt 5 - Getting into the Christmas Spirit
So despite Christmas being soley a commercial holiday in Japan it is exciting none the less. Already I have seen the Christmas lights in Fukuoka, decorated one of the hospital wards’ Christmas trees and even sung Silent Night with the dementia recreation patients (in both Japanese and English!). The news that I’ll be expecting a Christmas package to arrive from my family has made things even better.
With Christmas approaching my heart goes out to all the volunteers who like me, won’t be with their family this year. It only means the next year will be all the more special. Upon recently aquiring a toaster oven and rice cooker my volunteering partner and I have already begun to pour our creativity into how to replicate the typical Christmas dinner.
Recently we went to Kikuchi Gorge, Kumamoto. Being elevated we got to see some snow for the first time this year- Emma being from Australia had never seen natural falling snow, so it was very exciting! We drove to the top of Mount Aso, stopped out to admire the view of Kumamoto, of course it didn’t last long before I was battered over the head with a snowball. Escaping to a quirky cafe across the road we watched as a volcano blew up smoke and clouded the sky in the distance. The volcano recently has been too active to visit the crater.
Emma and I unfortunately stumbled upon a 100Yen Sushi place (not good when your work uniform is already pretty snug) and have got into a routine of popping in after band practice for dinner. Curse them and their delicious cheap food. I also blame a colleague for showing me the canteen vending machine stocks banana hot chocolate. How can I resist that at lunch?
Alice Pt 6 - Hiroshima, Miyajima and Fukuoka
So along with the new year came my holiday! Japan doesn’t count Christmas as a national holiday but new year came with some time off to explore the country, so it was all good. On Christmas day I did take the day off to spent it with friends stuffing my face full of christmas pudding that my amazing mother had sent to me via post – and butterscotch angel delight! My Japanese friend was completely fasinated by the christmas crackers and hats, having never seen them before. Christmas day is only celebrated as a couple’s day in Japan- to eat KFC together. You have to reserve prior to the 25th for a chance to get KFC on Christmas day. It sells out… seriously.
Over the new year I travelled from Kumamoto to Hiroshima to visit a fellow volunteer and see the sights. We went to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum which was a solemn reminder of the lives that were lost by the atmoic bomb in 1945. I highly reccomend visiting, the peace park was beautiful and the museum extremelly well presented (not for the faint hearted I must say).
Just outside Hiroshima is Miyajima so we did a day trip which was so beautiful. The sun was shining and the deer roaming free. WARNING- they are extremely nosy as my friend discovered when one deer reached into his pocket and took his map. Safe to say it was returned after a tug of war (with a large hole in the middle), navigating became a bit difficult after that debarcle!
I spent new year’s eve and new years day in Fukuoka, did some shopping in Tenjin and found an all you can eat Italian restaurant- I discovered my uniform was notably tighter when I returned to work! It was a great chance to catch up with the other volunteers in the country and chat about everything. I can’t wait to see to other parts of Japan when my placement is over. Speaking a little Japanese certainly makes it easer to travel too, although it does mean you become a bit of a tour guide…
Alice Pt 7 - New year rush
So last week was pretty busy at work- well more than normal I suppose! Every Wednesday I join the Trauma team around the hospital and in the surgery room. Last week there were many new patients we needed to see, all of them dotted around the hospital from ICU to the ‘Kongou’(mixed) ward. Over the past few months I have seen a variety of cases, from machinery injuries to regular post-surgery patients, being able to help out has been so incredible. It’s very rewarding to see the progress of specific patients after surgery and with their treatment. The doctors from Trauma round are always keen for me to get involved as much as possible. After a couple of months, becoming well aqqainted with hospital protocals, if I volunteer in ER sometimes one of the Trauma doctors will ask me to help him treat patients by doing simple tasks e.g. washing a wound while it is being worked on. Moments like this, although rare, make me feel priveledged to be on my placement.
Dementia recreation was full which was nice to see. The whole session is in Japanese so it’s good to practice my listening skills! Though regional accents of some patients (like Kumamoto-ben) are just too hard to understand as a newcomer to Japanese. Our normal schedule is asking patients the day and month, doing stretches together, singing old Japanese songs, throwing a ballon around the circle and having a little chat. It is always so nice to see the elderly patients out of their rooms; smiling and having a good time. As they are not used to foreigners they really enjoy our company which makes it a great experience for us too. The recreation workers are absolutely hilarious which just adds to the fun.
Doing recereation once or twice a week is a great way to get a breather as many of the wards I’m in are very busy or contain patients who are particularly severe. Volunteering in a hospital placement I think its important to maintain a positive mentality and enjoy all your work, duties can range from folding paper to helping nurses with the more nitty-gritty work.
Alice Pt 8 - The end is near…
So its finally dawning on me that I have less than a month left on my placement! I’ve been here for more than 5 months but only just feel like I am beginning to settle in, its easy to understand why volunteers carry on their placements to a year- leaving now feels all too soon. There is so much more I want to see and people I want to get to know more so saying goodbye will be difficult.
I recently went on the Hospital Ski Trip, filled with my clumbsy snowboarding and collegue bonding, I can’t put into words how much fun I had. It was a 6 hour friday night drive to Hiroshima arriving at the Japanese Ryokan at 2am. To use the Ryokan’s public bath (onsen) I had to be up at 6am! Onsens are a huge part of Japanese culture, sometimes it can be a bit daunting to a foreigner (people with tattoos also can’t use), but I highly reccommend them there’s nothing better than hitting the onsen at the end of the day! I am an avid skier but decided to take up snowboarding this year for the first time, lets just say its not my forte, a collegue PT (Physical Therapist) was kind enough to sacrifice hours to help me down the slopes! Officialy my hero.
Japanese Ryokan, Japanese traditional style bedroom.
Ski slope- Hiroshima (Saiseikai trip)
Traditional Japanese dinner.
This week I had my last Trauma Round, in typical Japanese spirit, I was asked to make a speech out of the blue. In jumbled Japanese I thanked them for letting me join them and that I was sad I can’t see more. Anyone living in Japan will come to learn that you will be told to do things (e.g. speeches/self-introductions in Japanese) with no warning. After a while you begin to expect the unexpected, reading the atmosphere closely. Although the first few times it filled me dread and I grew panic eyes, it prepares you for the future, I’m now much more comfortable being put on the spot. I often go out with wards for dinner ‘yakiniku’ where these moments are commonplace. No person is allowed to shyly escape in the corner so you feel slighly assured that you’re not the only one forced out of your comfort zone.
Alice Pt 9 - さよなら!
My volunteer partner returned to Australia last week, feels like I’ve lost a sister! It certainly is much quieter now… no one knocking on my door before 7am. Visiting the other volunteers you create this weird bond, people from all walks of life becoming friends, its great. You understand the trials and trubulations that come with volunteering, particularly in Japan.
I’ve been given more time with Trauma Round for my last two weeks. I am also volunteering in HCU this week, luckily a couple of the nurses speak a little English, only after a few months could I volunteer here, the work being slightly more physically and emotionaly demanding. From the beginning of my placement I was slowly introduced to wards starting from simple and easy tasks to more complex ones as I proved my capability. I have to thank the 3rd floor stroke ward because they were the first ward I volunteered with and the most welcoming people I have ever met. The nurses were so patient and supportive.
They recently had a Korean patient and when I came to the ward they were all learning basic Korean vocabulary, I had a go at a few words, the nurses tried to hold back their laughter. I guess Korean isn’t my forte, just Japanese for now I think!
I also volunteered in the Hospital Nursery today. I do it once a week, rythmic class or English class, they alternate. This week was rythmic. The children range from 1 to 5 years old so it can be hard work! I walked in today and was immediately greeted with 3 year olds shouting “GOOD MORNING!!”. I speak a mix of English and Japanese with the children but the 3 year olds haven’t had lessons yet, they listen to the older children and must have picked it up!
It is so rewarding to see the effects of my volunteering, one child was so shy and barely spoke Japanese let alone English but after volunteering in the nursery for over 5 months I was blown away when in class he suddenly spoke the perfect answer in English. The Nursery workers were in shock! Volunteering in the Nursery can be a good way to practice basic Japanese, at intervals the children will give me multiple books to read to them, eventually I’ll be surrounded and almost have my own reading corner!
Alice Pt 10 - Back in the homeland
So the last two weeks of my placement were crazy! I will miss everyone so much and am incredibly appreciative for all the support over the past 6 months.
I’ll miss joking with the recreation workers, correcting English documents, hearing my name “Arisu-san” hailing me in the wards and tracking where it came from to help, attending medical seminars, watching surgeries, playing Janken (Japanese rock, paper, scissors) with the patients, teaching the children from the nursery English and so much more.
So thank you to everyone on my placement and all the latitude workers who supported me! It was one of the most challenging but rewarding experiences of my life. I will never forget it.
When I finished my placement I had the opportunity to travel around Japan; from staying overnight in a Buddhist temple in Kyoto to trolling the tech streets of Akihabara, Tokyo. After volunteering in Japan the idea of travelling and speaking my (not very good but enthusiastic) Japanese does not phase me at all.
The world has so much to offer and I can’t wait to see it all!