Big in Japan / by Susie Lubell

Photo and art credits: Bella Sinclair

Today's guest is the one and only Bella Sinclair, a favorite illustrator of mine and a generally delightful person, beloved by many. She's an Illustration Friday enthusiast and her work is pure magic. I'm especially enamored by Bella's rendition of Hayao Miyazaki's large monster bunny, Totoro. I knew that Bella had spent some time living with her family in Japan and since her own blog is focused mostly on her illustrations, I crossed my fingers she'd agree to be in the Strangers in a Strange Land series so that I could learn more about her. And about smart toilets. Who knew?

1. How did you come to land in Japan?
My husband's company transferred him to develop new business in Asia.  Manhattan was wearing him down, and I could tell he was itching to fly across oceans.  So when an opportunity came up in Tokyo, we took it.  I was reluctant at first.  Okay, I'll admit it.  I cried a little.  We had a house I loved in the suburbs that we had just finished renovating.  Most of my friends were there, and I felt rooted.  But I eventually got over my initial shock and fear and absolutely loved it in the end.




2. Do you speak Japanese or did you take any language courses before you arrived?

I took a year of Japanese in college, but that had been eons ago.  Once I got to Japan, I started taking lessons again.  Unfortunately, the area where we lived was full of expats, so it was easy to get by without using much Japanese at all.

3. If you are not a native speaker, do you have any funny stories about language errors?
Actually, I learned not to speak Japanese to people because they would assume I was fluent and speak back to me at a million words a minute.  So I didn't have any language errors that I can remember, but I do have an amusing story.  My Japanese teacher and I would often make small talk during our lessons, and one time she was describing dishes that she likes to cook.  She kept saying, "sea chicken." 
Huh?  "Sea chicken?"  I was completely  baffled. Yes, sea chicken."  And then I realized that she was talking about tuna!  Chicken of the Sea! 

4. Tell me about one of your lowest moments?

Our time in Tokyo was a fantastic adventure, perhaps being some of the best years of our lives.  The only low point was when my husband suddenly passed away.  It would be a difficult time for anyone, but having to deal with the hospital and police and funeral parlor in a foreign language made me feel even more isolated.  Luckily, I had a friend who was fluent in Japanese who helped me through it all.


5. What was the best part about living in Japan?
The Japanese are a wonderfully refined, polite, and honest people.  And they take pride in keeping things clean and orderly.  People smiled and nodded hello.  I felt very safe and hyper civilized.

6. Did you ever feel totally at home?
Oh, yes!  We had our routines and frequent haunts.  And between work and the international school, there was no shortage of English speakers.

7. What did you miss most about the United States?
Definitely mobility!  We didn't have a car in Tokyo, nor would I have trusted myself on the roads.  So every time one of my kids had a playdate at a friend's house, I'd have to carefully map out the subway route to get there and back.  And sometimes, their friends lived in places unreachable by subway, which meant we had to jump in a cab.  A playdate could easily cost me $40.  It almost made me wish my kids had no friends.

8. What are some of the things you didn't know how you lived without before you moved to Japan? (i.e. foods, customs, culture...)
Did I tell you about the smart toilet that stays perpetually warm, automatically opens and closes and auto flushes?  Aaaaah, pure heaven!  And Japanese pastries, oh my goodness!  They make bread that is so incredibly light and fluffy. 

9. How did the kids adjust to the move?

Kids are mighty resilient.  My girls were in the fourth grade and kindergarten when we first got to Tokyo.  Being that we went to an all-girl international school where lots of kids come and go after a year or so, they did not feel singled out or unusual.  They made the transition quite easily.  There were a lot of British and Aussie teachers at the school, and my little one actually started to pick up a British accent.

10. Was there any chance of "blending in" or did you always feel like "the American"? Did it matter?

Blending in was easy where we lived.  We were in an area affectionately (or not) known as gaizin ghetto.  The neighborhood was crawling with foreigners and you could practically hop from one embassy rooftop to another without touching ground.  We lived next to the French Embassy, and down the street was the German Embassy, and a little further away was Finland and Qatar and China and so on.  So many different people, so many different languages.  As long as we stayed where the embassies were, we blended in just fine.


11. Can you reflect on any cultural differences that were challenging to navigate or led to a funny situation or misunderstandings?
My Japanese teacher would come to my apartment on Tuesday mornings.  I remember one time, my husband was still there because he had decided to go to work late that morning. My husband and I were very informal about comings and goings.  "Bye."  "Bye."  "Hi, I'm back."  "Hey."  But I guess in Japanese culture, the man is king of his domain.  My Japanese teacher was very apologetic and embarrassed to be there, feeling that she had invaded his territory.  And she physically made me get up to give him a proper, ceremonial send off.  What did she want me to do, fluff up his jacket and lay out his shoes?  I had no idea.  So my husband and I just stood there, staring awkwardly at each other for a moment.  Then he said, "Bye."  And I said, "Okay, bye."

12. Did life there have any impact on your illustration style?
Definitely.  You cannot live in Japan and not absorb all the kawaii or cuteness.

13. What lessons can you draw from the whole experience?
You know what?  I've learned that I'm a lot tougher and more resilient than I thought.  Life can change in a blink, and everything you know can be gone tomorrow.  But new adventures await, and I will go on.


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Thank you Bella! Your mad skills and sense of humor shine in every illustration. Get a taste of the kawaii that I'm talking about over at Bella Sinclair's Doodlespot. Tell Totoro I sent you.