How a Pair of Socks in Japan Changed Everything
It was 2PM in Osaka, and I was staring a pair of socks to death from the window of a shop in Tsuruhashi.
This was rare for me, as usually whenever I would come down from my friend’s apartment to the shopping alley, I would buy whatever foods tempted me and bring back a whole stash.
There were so many things that attracted me about Tsuruhashi; the smell of freshly made okonomiyaki and chatter from middle-aged ladies telling jokes gave me a sense of comfort. It was also the atmosphere of a Japanese suburb that resembled an anime film, what with the brick fences and tall trees and surnames displayed next to the mailbox.
On this particular day, the reason for my intense sock stare was that I couldn’t work up the courage to go up to the shopkeeper myself and ask to buy them.
Suddenly, someone appeared at the entrance of the store and greeted me, and I, only knowing bits of Japanese from movies, froze without a reply. The air between us turned awkward.
“Ah, sumimasen. Nihongo… no good.” As I said that, I bowed to apologise.
“Oh!” She nodded in understanding, “Daijoubu.” That’s okay!
“Buy something?” She tilted her head slightly, a patient smile on her face.
I definitely had to say something back, but all I did was mumble as I looked back and forth from her to the socks. Rinse and repeat. All I could think about was a simple quote from Obi-Wan Kenobi: “You have done that to yourself.”
“Sumimasen, kore… wa ikura desuka?” I tried to ask, enquiring about the price, fully realising the language barrier and hoping she understood what I meant.
“Kutsushita wa happyaku-en desu.”
I know that, I thought excitedly. 800 Yen!
My discomfort dissolved – I was absolutely thrilled at being able to purchase something without having to ask my friend to translate (though I was a bit embarrassed later when I realised the price was in clear view of me right on top of the socks).
Full of pride, I thanked the shopkeeper and swiftly ran back to the apartment.
Even though it wasn’t exactly perfect, I had carried out a proper conversation all by myself in a different language.
(An hour later, another conversation happened. Not one I’m proud of, unfortunately. It involved a shirt that flew down from the balcony, a confused, middle-aged lady, and Google translate.)
On the last night of my trip, my friend and I bought ramen for dinner, and we wanted to try a new drink called matcha-amazake. She asked me to order it, and I did.
“See, you can do it yourself!” she quipped.
I laughed sheepishly, but then realised that for the past few days, that was exactly what I had been doing. Ever since I’d bought those 800-yen socks, I’d found myself eager to be able to hold conversations in Japanese on my own – as simple as they may have been.
Had I been given the chance to time-travel one month prior to my departure to Osaka, I’d send myself a thousand e-mails, along with the Duolingo Owl, insisting that I properly study Japanese to prepare myself for the trip. Relying on high school extracurricular lessons really isn’t enough, especially when you’ve lost most of the materials.
Looking back, 10 short days in a foreign country ended up changing me in ways that I hadn’t imagined. And even though I’m not there yet, the confidence I’ve gained from my stint in Osaka is something I’ve carried over to the Gold Coast as an international student, to Singapore, to Tokyo and beyond.
There are a lot of things in my life that I feel as if I have little to no control over. Being from an Asian family, you’re expected to find a good partner after college and settle down. And for me personally, my 10-year-old self had expected that, by 20, I’d have found what I wanted to be, and where I wanted to be.
In Osaka, I had to quell all the voices whispering pressure in my head, because I wanted to find out where I wanted to go in life – and how to get there – all for myself. This was not something I thought I would have to do. I was under the impression life was neatly mapped out for me, and all within the range of my comfort bubble.
From arriving at Kansai International Airport trying to hide my tears because I was scared of travelling alone for the first time ever, to spending the last night having philosophical discussions with my friend over me getting stuck in the monkey bars at Osaka Castle playground – gradually, the sense of dread about my future and the prospect of loneliness has started to dissipate.
Who knows, perhaps this is what I’m meant to do – travel and, in discovering parts of the world, discover pieces of myself. Perhaps, I’ll even find them in a country I’d never thought of visiting, and they might be things I’ve never even considered. All I know for sure is that now, every time I’m on a plane descending into lands unfamiliar to me, I look out the window and I am full of hope – for myself and for my future.
Cover by Dynamic Wang