My Japanese Social Support System in the face of Cultural Difference – Seme Nelson, Class XVII

“The human capacity for burden is like bamboo- far more flexible than you’d ever believe at first glance.” Jodi Picoult.

On the 6th of August, I set foot in Japan at Narita International Airport, and was surprisingly received by four honorable men from Rotary District 2790 led by my host-counselor, Mr. Jo-san. I was surprised by the kind of reception accorded to me, and this significantly positively transformed my perception of Japan.

Coming from South Sudan, everything in Japan was very different including language, communication system, public transportation system, food among others. One of my first frustrations was my inability to speak to my family back home in South Sudan as the phone call rates are impossible to afford. Having travelled few countries, I have never come to the realization that making international calls in Japan is almost a “NEVER DARE” thing.

Prior to arriving in Japan, the coordinator of the Rotary Peace Center, Ms Misumi-san, provided  invaluable information about life in Japan. I only was able to start comprehending this information after failing to make a phone call to my family and to buy simple things from the convenience store. On the evening I settled in my well-lit apartment, silence rocked my room, and I started finding a new reality. Reality of separation from my family, my work, my network and of friends. As days passed by, slowly I lost my sense of humor, failed to see the good in everything around me, and started feeling alone, even in the middle of a charged crowd. I was occupied with my world, a world left thousands of miles away.

While I knew settling in a homogenous society was to be cumbersome, the toll this took on me was unprecedented, although I was diplomatic about it always. It took my ‘SSS’ to get me out of that state. I had to establish a new “Social Support System (SSS)” for myself to not just survive, but thrive. This SSS is a strong network of people who have a genuine understanding of me, environments that relate with me, and accepting certain ‘deficiencies’. This was important for my physical and psychological health.

On a sunny early afternoon on Sunday 9th September 2018, I went out to pick up a quick bite to eat as my cooking capabilities were very ‘rudimentary’, and I met Rev. Christian Zebley, the Pastor of Tokyo West Union Church. It was my first free conversation I had with a ‘stranger’ in a few days in Japan. Rev. Christian Zebley, had visited South Sudan in 2013. We had very common lines of conversation, and he demonstrated an understanding of my possible struggles. He invited me to the Church, as this ecumenical church had a sizeable number of foreigners in Japan who survived the cultural shock and were thriving.

@Tokyo West Union Church group photo on occasion of my first Sunday

It was surprising to find a multicultural family of worshippers from United States, Canada, Australia, United Kingdom, Ghana, Malawi, Sweden, and De-Gambia among other nations in this Church. I instantly felt the warmth from foreigners who have embraced Japan as home. It was natural for me to fit into such a big family of over 40 people who freely shared their experiences of living in Japan.  Every Sunday after prayers, we spent up to one hour talking over a cup of tea and snacks, sharing the high and low sides of life in Japan, and encouraging the new visitors to Japan. This to me was a family with a functional support system and a communication hotline. It made me think, Japan is what we make of it if we have the right SSS. One doesn’t have to speak Japanese to thrive.

Through the Church and friends, I met Dr. Noka, who has been to Southern Sudan several times during the years of the second Sudanese civil wars. One Friday evening, Dr. Noka, his wife Mrs. Toshino, and granny took me to their home. In them I found a family and a grandmother. The sense of having a family was personally important for me.
Imagine receiving a call from a Japanese family every week, just to check if you are fine, and if you needed any help!!

That evening I felt so at home and I reflected how difficult it could have been without this family, Rev. Zebley, the Rotary Peace Center, my Rotary Fellow ‘country-buddy’, and my host Rotary Club counsellor.

Chris Peterson once said “I spent my young adult years postponing many of the small things that I knew would make me happy…I was fortunate enough to realize that I would never have the time unless I made the time. And then the rest of my life began.”

I am not going to postpone my smile in Japan, because I don’t know if there is another Japan opportunity in the future.