My Foreign Habits

March 28, 2013

Japan keeps on weighing on my mind these days. Being my first long-term experience abroad and the first “real job” I had after graduation, it’s fair to say the country and culture shaped me in ways I never expected. My refined Texas accent dwindled from lack of use in favor of the even-toned respectful Japanese (anyone know how to say “ya’ll” in 日本語?). I learned more about the way people live in other countries, how children are raised, and what it was like to finally be the outsider, the minority. Even after I left the country and explored a polar opposite like Thailand, I couldn’t shake what I had picked up, the behaviors I had come to accept as more befitting me, now that I had lived in a strange new world. Each country has left its mark on my personality and mannerisms to shape me into the cultured individual I hope to which I come across to new and old friends.


Now, I’m really not a superstitious person by nature, and I know nothing bad will happen to me should I not abide by certain customs *knock on wood*. That having been said, I love studying up on other countries’ superstitions and presenting them, when applicable, as a conversation starter. They say in Russia one should not whistle indoors, or you could blow all your money away. In many Asian countries, the number four is considered taboo, as it has the same sound as the character for “death”. By the same token, there are many ways to carry good luck with you.

I like to keep a 5-yen piece in my Japanese coin purse. Such coins are considered lucky and stuck in shrines, donated in change jars, made into jewelry, etc.

5 Yen


I’m always going to be a runner, but I have enjoyed incorporating other exercises into my routine after living in Asia. Sometimes がんばって! or 화이팅! (Japanese and Korean battle cries, respectively) runs through my head during a race. I like using Tai Chi to warm up and in my downtime. In addition, I’m constantly on the lookout for a gym that has vibrating belt machines, which went out of style in the US some decades back but are all too common in Korean and Japanese weight rooms.

Vibrating belts


Biting into a piece of samgyupsal fresh off the grill or sipping a cup of loose leaf green tea, I’ve always been a foodie, eager to explore and expand my palette. I wouldn’t say I was completely turned off by Japanese, Korean, or Thai food before living in those respective countries, but I was ignorant of them. How was I to judge the best sushi? I didn’t even know what kimchi was, or how it was prepared.

I still miss the variety of food when I’m in a country like Japan, but living in the states, I crave things for which I’ve developed a taste abroad: imported green tea from Shizuoka; Korean BBQ; all Thai noodles (and eating them with a fork and spoon, NOT chopsticks); Canadian maple cream cookies; Bundaberg Ginger Beer. It’s made me into a real snob when it comes to dining with friends: “Oh, sure, this ramen is ok, but it’s nothing like real Hakata ramen.” I have been known to mutter “itadakimasu” under my breath when starting a meal, or yelling “aroi macmac!” when I find something particularly delicious.


I was strictly a shower person before living in Japan. It took me eight long months before I would even consider stepping into the near-scalding waters of an onsen (hot spring). Once I did, though, I was hooked: searching for the best places to soak; letting my toes get nibbled in the Dr. Fish bath; part of the reason I moved to Kagoshima was to be closer to the volcanic springs. Having one ten minutes’ walk from my door not only provided an excellent end-of-the-day relief from work, but also physical therapy when I shattered my wrist.

Although I don’t have the luxury of walking to an authentic Japanese or Korean hot springs next door or every day, I do try to find an outlet for my bathing needs wherever I can: Kabuki Springs in Japantown, San Francisco; Chinati Springs in Texas. Even with these conveniences, I still feel woefully under-bathed after showers. Korea taught me to use a body scrub glove, which I can find at most import stores for a few bucks.

Public Behavior

I honestly don’t know the individual I would have become had I not lived abroad. I can barely remember how I used to behave on the street in Austin, Texas before leaving the country. I think I was louder, and more prone to outbursts when the occasion called for it.

However, living in a reserved culture like Japan leaves one’s spirit feeling a bit stymied. Great care is taken to not call attention to oneself in public (i.e. the nail that sticks out will be hammered down). Even in Korea, I was never one to talk on the bus; in San Francisco, I find it absolutely infuriating some people blast music on Muni. When I’m not in a hurry, I typically walk in a meditative stance I learned while caretaking for a Buddhist monastery in New Zealand: with both hands clasped behind my back or interlocked across my stomach (I’ve also been known to say “no worries” instinctively). More than one person has assumed I must have been military, “standing at attention” like that. I’ve almost shaken the habit of automatically bowing when I meet someone new, but I still incline my head when approaching and departing.


There’s nothing Asian or Kiwi about my fashion sense, but I do find myself drawn to more clothing with funny Engrish. I wore my “Sweet as, bro” shirt from my New Zealand travels until it was completely worn out. Recently, Dress United gave me the opportunity to create my classic “the foreigner is coming/going” shirt in Japanese, Korea, Thai, and Mandarin:


My mighty wallet is covered in passport stamps and contains currency from Korea, Japan, China, Thailand, Cayman Islands, UAE, USA ($2 bill), New Zealand, Italy (before the Euro), Hong Kong, Russia, and Canada (I had to have money with hockey on it!). Each helps remind me of days when I was using this money regularly, but I must admit when I picked up 50,000 Yen from the Japanese ATM after four years away, it looked HUGE. Completely foreign to me. American coins are curious; they’re the only ones I’ve seen without Arabic numbers on them. For such a culturally diverse population, I find it puzzling why our government doesn’t make it easier for tourists to understand the money. While they’re at it, eliminate the penny already.

Foreign Currency and Coins


Even though I don’t live abroad and don’t have any plans to do so in the immediate future, I can’t help but search for possibilities. Every day, Craigslist Auckland or Gaijinpot pops up in my browser. Whenever an interesting article on travel jobs crosses my Facebook feed, I sink my teeth into it. Some of this is always seeing the greener grass, but I can’t help but see what opportunities are out there for a traveler like me: will I find a company willing to sponsor me running a marathon in Antarctica? See a chance to live on a South Pacific Island for a few months? My greatest asset in the workforce is the willingness and ability to relocate anywhere on a moment’s notice. I can’t squander that skill. And so, I search.

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