There are no public garbage cans in the city where I live. This creates a problem, as I was brought up in American culture where the exploitation of public trash receptacles has become part of good social etiquette, along with complimentary axioms like, “it’s not my problem”. In America, if you want to fit in, you throw your trash in someone else’s bin; in Japan, if you want to fit in, you leave your damn trash at home.
This shift in ideology makes for an awkward checklist that requires instituting a backward formula of psychology, one that makes sure you’ve forgotten something before stepping out the door.
“Cell phone? Check. Money? Check. No potential garbage? Check.”
The affect of an environment void of public trash has encroached on my life further than I had anticipated. At first, the prospect of a green city, clean and conscious of trash and the generally shitty behavior of human beings, seemed like paradise. It was a welcomed example of what raw victory could be achieved by austere policies that didn’t worry about the furor of potential picket lines, bored and over zealous, who might insist on their right to make their trash someone else’s responsibility. The most that small American municipalities could hope for were narrower openings on public receptacles that might discourage people from being assholes.
Still, as the weeks withered, the absence of public bins became painfully pronounced. The affect has been such that, on many occasions, I’ve abandoned the idea of purchasing a snack or bottled drink from a convenience store, fearing a nightmarish scenario where I might be stranded without a proper medium of disposal.
On this day my memory had failed me, and unwary, I slipped back into my America ways. As I drank down the last drop of coffee, my satisfaction seemed to evaporate before it existed. I froze with fear; how could I be so stupid?
I insulted myself. “Way to go hero”, I whispered, half suspecting that someone around me might understand English enough to chime in with,
“Yea, you’re a real winner kid. Good luck”.
In Japan, hot coffee can be bought from vending machines outdoors, in a mini can or plastic bottle. Although most vending machines conveniently tout can and bottle recycling holes, not all of them do. Before I could destroy my ego completely, I set out to find a bottle receptacle.
During my quest I became acutely aware of strange it is to not understand much of anything being said by the people around you. Most days, I walk around with the profound confidence of knowing that I am always missing something. Yet, I find that what insecurity I do experience is not so much about missing what’s being said, but rather, it’s about not knowing how much of it is important. I could walk around New York City all day long and tell you that the majority of what comes out of people’s mouths is grade-A-bullshit. No doubt you’ve heard it too, some debutant living off of daddy’s money, complaining about how her roommate isn’t social enough and that her desire for reasonable privacy and good reading has won her the label of “bitch”. Point being; if the people of Japan ever had something important to say—like, “that extreme nationalist is going to kill this foreign guy”—I’d never know about it.
It’s a real confidence bender when you’re reminded of how proficiency in your native language is worthless, and that the language you should know, you understand with the proficiency of a 6 year old with a learning disability. I say “bender” because it doesn’t completely break me. There are rewards for my ignorance: like being ignored by sales people that might otherwise bother me with a bunch of polite questions. They see me, smile, and leave me alone.
Still, for a confidence boost, I thought about walking into a bookstore and pretending to read for a while. For good measure, I would act out the appropriate expressions that might convey the illusion that I understood what I was reading; a soft chuckle here; a raised brow there; and even the occasional scowl of disapproval when the symbols failed to agree with my particular point of view. The Japanese would applaud my skill in secret, and under the guise of browsing, silently maneuver themselves toward me in concert. They would marvel at the foreigner who can read.
I had almost brought the fantasy to life before realizing that such a stunt might prompt a native speaker to start a conversation under the assumption that was literate and eloquent in Japanese. Having my bluff called, at that point, my cover would be blown; not only can’t I read Japanese, I can barely speak it.
“How long have you been able to read Japanese?”
“Matt, I am.”
“Oh, nice to meet you. What Japanese magazines do you like to read?”
“Yes. Japan. Four months.”
“Where are you from?”
“Job. English teacher. I want beer.”
I found relief twenty blocks later, where a recycling bin was anxiously awaiting my contribution. Greeting it warmly, I spoke out loud in my native tongue, and while engaged in lavish dialogue with the receptacle, I had hoped that it would receive me well, and that for once, the Japanese around me would feel that they were missing something important.