Doubting the Reality of Reality

apr 2018

Days of struggle with jet lag, crazy university meetings, railway ticket vending machines and sinister-looking food at the local supermarket

After boarding the 13:00 train from Narita airport on Wednesday I lost my breath nearly every two minutes because of a weird feeling that continued to bug me until the next day. I was seriously doubting the reality of what I saw and heard, something I'd experienced only once after watching The Matrix few years ago. It's like they put me into my own preconception of how everything should look like that I've created over the years of watching Japanese movies and anime, listening to songs and podcasts, reading thematic blogs and manga. This 'mind-vision' was further developed this summer while I was collecting materials for my bachelor thesis on postwar Tokyo housing so I had a pretty solid little imaginary Japan in my head ready to be crushed in the collision with the real thing. The problem was, though, there was literally nothing to crush! All the things I was expecting were here, up to the smallest details like shiny black ravens with weird beaks and unique subtropical vegetation on the way from the airport that I've never seen before in real life but was suddenly very familiar with. Just imagine designing and elaborating your own secret dream world for ten years without any hope for its realisation and then one day waking up fully inside of it. As you might suspect I couldn't quite believe that this actually happened to me and remained in a happy daze until I had to face some initial expat game quests.

I moved into the university dormitory for international students only to find out that there was nothing international about it. At all. It is situated in the suburbs of Tokyo near Matsudo town, surrounded by thousands of cozy family houses and served by a high speed train station that takes you to Asakusa or Narita in about 50 minutes. The streets around there were empty but clean and seemingly safe, with occasional children on bicycles strolling through the neighbourhood playgrounds. When I was pushing around my suitcase, they looked at me like I was an obvious error in their well-managed system. Clearly invading their early afternoon peace, I hurried to seek shelter in the entrance hall of the dormitory.

The exterior of the three-story reinforced concrete building looked far from fashionable but the insides turned out to be spacious and bathed in great natural light. A TV drama could be heard somewhere at the back of the reception room, a woman was crying and the only phrase I managed to understand was "I love you" followed by some intense sobbing. I rang the bell twice and waited for a while, inspecting a list of the resident students on the wall. Out of 36 names only two were written in roman letters, one of which was mine. International students? Wait, something's not right here. And then it hit me: everyone else is Chinese and Korean. My subsequent thoughts about potential survival among Asians in the common kitchen were interrupted by a 70 years old man emerging behind the reception desk. When I first saw him it became immediately clear that he didn't understand a word in English. Nevertheless, he took me on a long tour around the building, enthusiastically explaining in Japanese how to use all the facilities. The worst part were the light/air conditioner/water heating/fridge control panels. Mind you, there are five of them in my 12 sqm room, and I still have no idea what most of the buttons are for.

The room and common kitchen were much better than I expected from a suburban dormitory. Like, waay better. Two windows facing a small park, wooden furniture, even a compact bathtub. I promise to include some room photos in my next post when I'll catch a good lighting. After showing me how to use common toasters, microwaves, electric cookers, mini-grill and how to separate garbage into five different categories, the old man introduced me to some Chinese guys from the Fine Arts department in the common atelier. They helped him to finally translate that his name was Nishiyama-san (I hope I got it right) and that I would have to give him some personal documents later. The Chinese guys were as bad in English as second grade schoolers and we didn't manage to have a meaningful conversation other than "Russia is cold, Japanese is difficult, train tickets are very expensive". Later I will discover that actually most people in Geijutsu Daigaku (University of the Arts, from now on I'll call it Geidai) have a similar level of proficiency in English. May be one doesn't really need to communicate a lot when studying oil painting or sculpture. The guys walked me to the station, showed me how to get to central Tokyo with the cheapest train line and I was on my way to discover some very surprising details about my exchange at the university administration, which I'll write about tomorrow morning. A little spoiler: they don't have any classes in English. Never had. The adventure has begun! ○

Татьяна Кнороз