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Travelog

An Indian In Japan

by Sumat Mehra
sumat@hooked.net

My first few days in Tokyo were the most miserable ones I have ever had. I was down with Diarrhea, while my boss, who I had known from my University in the United States, thought I had brought in Cholera from India. He scared me out of my wits, taking me to the hospital at 11 pm for a check up. His paranoia was so extreme that he even had me use my own fork and knife at meals. It took three days for the results to come in, as negative as I had expected !! I was ofcourse from India, and was used to many an upset stomachs. My boss however was a Japanese born of Taiwanese immigrant parents in Japan. He had told me that if I really had Cholera, which was a no-no disease, the government would put me in solitary confinement, and all the streets and areas I had walked on would be disinfected and it would be a top story in all newspapers !!! He even went to the extent of coming up with an English medical dictionary and reading me aloud as to what the chances of dying of Cholera were. This would cause even an otherwise healthy person to start a diarrhea.

That was however the first three days. From then onwards it was the most amazing and touching three years of my life, by far. I was employed by Konica Corporation, a film giant in Japan, as a Researcher, from my university in USA, where I had obtained an MS. Being the first foreigner to be hired by Konica's R&D Center, the procedure was unknown to anyone. My boss, who had spent two years as a Researcher at my University in Rochester, NY spoke decent English (however broken it may be, you have to call it decent !), and was my sole source of information for almost a month. He took a lot of initiative, along with a senior level General Manager, who managed to overcome several obstacles for me. I negotiated my contract well with them, which I later learnt is quite a feat in itself. The company paid for 50% of my expense to go to Japanese Language school, during office hours, twice a week, for three hours. All this could be possible because I was a "Gaijin", which literally means "an outsider", but is respectfully called a "foreigner". Several exceptions were made just for me, as I was given a furnished living quarters (and "quarters" they were). Coming from India, I could never complain of space, and here I was in a room, half the size of my bathroom back home !! There was a common toilet for the entire floor on which there were about 50 pigeon hole size rooms, in which lived actual people. The toilet mind you, however is not the same as a bathroom. The "ohfuro" was on the ground floor. It was a separate building in itself. One would take off his slippers outside and enter this room of steam. Taking of everything, and carrying a towel the size of a handkerchief, one would enter yet another room which was doused in steam. There was a huge tub in the middle. I coolly entered this tub, only to hop out faster than I could say "ouch". The tub consisted of water that was beyond the boiling point of mercury !! I quickly found a shower in one corner of the room. Later however I got used to their hot baths, and all that steam.

The Japanese always treated me like someone special. Within 6 months I was having regular conversation with most everyone around at my office. However, I never ever got to even see the face of my next door neighbor at the dormitory, so could not try my Japanese on him. I was invited for all the trips to the local "baa", which is spelled as "bar" by some others, where the Japanese people would show an appetite for alcohol which would even make some American Football players dwarf. I would go skiing with the company people, play tennis with them, go to Karaoke singing, attend "Hanami", an event in early April when people would picnic under Cherry blossoms, and sing and be merry with alcohol, and parties after parties after work. In about 9 months I was about to burst !! I wanted to meet someone who did not work for Konica !! So I eventually did. Through my Japanese school , where some foreigner had started a club called the Japanese Chatting Club (JCC), I met some wonderful people here from all over the world, with one common goal in mind, that was to meet others. I made real good friends with foreigners and Japanese alike. The next two years flew by. Before I knew it I was once again feeling stagnated. Work did not seem that exciting anymore, and I had visited practically every corner of Japan, at the cost of having no money in my bank.

This was when I decided to say good-bye to the people that I had come to know as friends, mentors and teachers. I had looked at them from the perspective of another Asian, and had found several cultural similarities. The bonding of people, the respect for elders, and family considerations were all very familiar to me as an Indian. I believe that I also gave them a lot. I always lectured on India, taught them about us, and often prepared meals for them.

On my last day in Japan, I cried like I had never before. Not even when I had left home the first time. I looked back at the reflection of my first three days, and realized that that was only a cloud that moved away quickly to let the sun come out into an open sky in the land of the rising sun.


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