Something Got Lost In Translation: Neon Wonderland

woman walking in the street during night time

I got off the plane into the hot Tokyo summer air. It was hotter than I was expecting, more humid, like being steamed alive, a real jungle heat. This was my attempt to escape my destiny as just another casualty, just another woman who had been abused as a child and ending up falling into abusing whatever drugs made her feel less. Less pain. Less her. Less woman. Less than the screamingly obvious reality that she could not function within.

As I fumbled my way around a world I could not communicate with, could not read I felt suddenly free. It was a world that I could only interact with on it’s terms. It demanded little of me: I went to work teaching English, behaved as a decent transitory resident, and in return Japan was mine. I was free of western society and the expectations put upon me, the judgements heaped on me. I was free of my past. I was free of who I was, when I was, where I was. It wasn’t just a new start, it was a wiping clean of the slate, a real tabula rasa. It was not an escape as much as a free fall with no ropes. I was in my mid twenties and I was going to start again. There was a freedom I experienced that Japanese women don’t – Japanese society had no expectations of me, as I was foreign to it. The Japanese people around me generally expected me to be a barbarian, to have no manners, to not understand how the new world I was in that was so alien to me, turned and worked in harmony. It was expected that I would be different, that I would be an offense to the ‘wa’ – the social harmony. I was no longer disappointing anybody.

Tokyo is a neon wonderland, somewhere that was so alien to me that it felt as if I had landed on another planet. It was strange even then, just as much as later years. It is a curious mixture of peaceful and safe, and loud and bustling. The city towers above in walls of glass and concrete, the sun reflecting off surfaces and making the summers even more unbearable than they would otherwise be.

Shops and hotels, panchinko pin ball gambling parlors, hostess bars, train stations, bakeries and restaurants fight for business, all advertising and declaring their specialities in words I could not read. I gulped down words written in romanji (normal English letters), like a woman dying of thirst, yet the words didn’t seem to mean what they meant usually.

New Half Bar! (a hostess bar where men can pay to drink with transwomen wearing skimpy women’s clothing, who will pour the drinks and charm drunken curious Japanese salarymen office workers). Ranking! Number 1! (this place is highly rated). Be careful! Tiny grass is sleeping! (don’t step on the grass, we just planted it, and it needs to grow without your big feet on it). Poo Pi Paper! (yeah, you got it…a toilet paper brand). Calpis (Cow’s piss…a milk drink). Today is Under Construction! Thanks for Understanding! (metaphysical advice for the traveler). The art of Japanese English use and understanding becomes a new and unexpectedly beautiful turn for the English language, albeit an occasionally painful one. I remember going up to a mother of a young girl wearing a tee shirt that read “Pop Cherry!” I wanted to tell her it was nasty, it’s meaning was unacceptably sexual, but found myself flailing around, and decided in the end it was not worth the pain of trying to explain what was emblazoned across her little daughter’s chest. I wish I could find who made that tee-shirt and give them a piece of my mind. However awful it was, it did give me the heads up to not wear something I could not read!

When I could finally read enough not to buy cat food instead of canned tuna, and be reasonably sure about whatever establishment I was walking into from what I could understand from the signage, I was deflated. Everything was quite mundane after all, at least for the most part. Something gets lost in translation, something gets diminished once it is understood. I kinda missed my guessing games and surprise suppers. It made me do things and go places and eat things I would never have chosen. It took some of the choice away and forced a little more adventure onto me.

My adventures were more wholesome than my previous escapades, but let’s face it, I was generally offensive to the ‘wa’ whether I was in Japan, or whatever country I had found myself in. I had always wandered. I was never good at staying in one place for long. The difference was that I could hide my inability to fit in within my general foreignness. There were few western women in Japan when I first went there, a few more western men, generally working within the English teaching industry. I was a curiosity for different reasons than usual, and I enjoyed the freedom that gave me. I could be weird, but it was a generic weird and the usual judgements didn’t apply. For a while it was bliss. I could start again but this time with less baggage to haul along with me.

I enjoyed the stares as I walked down the street eating an onigiri and drinking a bottle of cola, as people tutted at my poor manners eating and drinking on the street as I walked. I liked laughing without covering my mouth. I liked the fact I was judged on my loudness instead of more insidious things that I had no chance of erasing.

I had no idea what to do with the yukata (summer informal kimono) that was laid out on my bed in the hotel I stayed at while I looked for a place to live in Tokyo. I had no idea how to work within a Japanese office (carefully and with no complaining at the crazy hours and travel obligations demanded of you). I had no idea how to eat – I couldn’t read, I had no idea how to order food in a restaurant, even macdonalds was impossible at that point since I couldn’t open my mouth and produce katakana-ized sounds to order the dirty big mac and fries of my hungover dreams. The opening of the first Starbucks was a cause of deep joy to me. I lived on balls of rice with surprise fillings, mystery drinks in bottles saying things I could only guess it.

My favorite was a salty lychee drink with it’s picture of a pile of salt and some lychees on the front. The Bear Holding A Lemon drink turned out to be honey and lemon sweetened juice with no fizz. Calpis, a fermented yoghurt drink was something like punishment to me, but royal milk tea, sweet and thick and milky, from Doutor cafe chain kept me alive. It is a allegedly a mixture of assam and darjeeling, and usually sweetened with honey or simple sugar syrup. Iced royal milk tea though fundamentally unappealing to me on a deep cultural level, became something I have never managed to recreate and always secretly missed. I was never much of a soda drinker, but melon soda, a deep and toxic bubbly green alongside an old fashion donut, or a matcha rice mochi pon de ring donut from Mister Donuts as I waited to go teaxh my next class made me happy. I managed to turn life into a steady parade of days in which I worked, or else played in Tokyo with my fellow expat teachers.

I was not unhappy there. I enjoyed my life as a single woman in Tokyo. I enjoyed the money I earnt and the trips I made. I had friends, I enjoyed my work, I ate out regularly and spent my weekends either hitting some cheesy nightclub night in Roppongi, or else a bars, or even drinking on the bridge with other English teachers watching the night go by.

I often took off alone – I have always needed to not be around people occasionally. Took my guidebook and found museums and parks, temples and shrines, and simply got lost somewhere that nobody much cared who I was and how I had previously lived my life. I prefer being suspect because I am foreign, instead of being suspect for being a bad woman.

I suppose I never quite escaped being a bad woman. I never quite ditched my pasts, and outran judgement. The difference is, the younger me wanted desperately to fit in, to gain absolution, to not be judged or ridiculed or cast out from where I belonged, the older me really couldn’t give a shit. Just let me live and let me live free, and I am good with whoever wants to hate me, judge me or put me down. I am happy being scum as long as those who point fingers keep their distance from me. I wish I could go back in time to tell the younger me to really care much much less, and concentrate on happiness rather than whatever it was that other people thought she should be doing. I might have had to do a little less running if I had just been true to myself. After all the one person you can never escape, that you can’t run away from, is yourself. Spending your life like a dog chasing it’s tail is no way to live. It is no way to live at all.


  1. somefearadventures

    Loved reading this. I’ve always drempt of going to Japan, and felt some fear about not being able to navigate. I never thought of it as a freeing experience, it’s brought some calm to my mind about it and Im ready to book the trip!

    1. The Paltry Sum

      Have fun! I am so glad you are going to go! If you are going to Tokyo and not on a huge budget I recommend staying in Ikebukuro SunShine City. It is very central, and near a lot of shops, plus close to a good train station! Perhaps I should write a little travel guide post! You will be fine, promise! So glad you are going!

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