Life In The Jungle

All I did was click the pretty pink button. It said, “be local”. In a blink of an eye my

Fitbit dashboard was in Japanese. And I couldn’t change it back.

I can’t remember ever not being able to read. In fact it’s the total opposite. All I ever remember is loving the things I read. Books change me. So the other day when I couldn’t figure out how to make coffee, it dawned on me. I’m ILLITERATE! I can’t read.

“Life in the jungle” must have been coined by an illiterate because that is how it feels. You survive by your primal instincts. The world around you is a beautiful, hostile place. Without literacy, you depend on your senses, pattern recognition, and landmarks. And hope for the best.

We move into our new apartment. So happy to be out of the hotel. Until we realize that every button in our apartment is in Japanese, unlike the hotel. Come to think of it, there was a lot of English in that hotel room. Emi-san worked hard. With lovely, little white, oval stickers she labeled all the buttons in the apartment–that just don’t feel helpful at all! Like I said before, we can’t figure out how to make coffee. Itou-san insisted we wanted the one with the bean grinder, but I know it is the source of the problem. I have never been so annoyed by beeping. What the hell does it mean?! And the crazy thing is, we just keep hitting the same button, expecting something different to happen, only to make it beep again. Yes, I know the saying.

As a teacher I thought I had a strong idea of the depth of knowledge reading requires. No I didn’t. I do now. You see, why the little white stickers are not so helpful is because Emi-san’s knowledge of how this stuff works gives her the ability to put one word on the sticker. The problem is we have none of that experience or knowledge. Our stovetop has three sets of buttons-a total of twenty buttons. Our bathtub has fourteen buttons. My vacuum has six. Even our toilet has two signs on the flushing handle.

bathtub controlsinside bathtub controlsbathtub controls


stovetop leftstovetop mid stovetop rt These are the controls of our stove. Notice in the first photo on the left that the button manipulates for four things.


I knew I was learning how to read kanji {Chinese characters in Japanese} when the other day I looked at the handle and thought “chisai” or “oki”. The Chinese character for small and large are on the handle and arrows going the opposite way. And I thought small and big water? Sure enough, you twist one way and a small amount flushes, you twist the other way and a large amount flushes.

toilet handle

Life in the jungle. In an instance you can be put on high alert. All your senses are heightened. You are no longer relaxed. Your brain races around trying to find a solution, simultaneously muscles are tensing, breathe shallowing, eyes scanning for any information that will help you.


The third day of our residence, we came outside to find a note taped to our rental car. It was written in red. It had exclamation marks. These context clues tell us that the writer wants us to really care and he is yelling. Life in the jungle. We take a picture, make a call and before we know it the owner is apologizing. He can only speak two words of English, but we gesture, bow and piece together words, and more bowing. Face smiling, breathing deeply, muscles relaxing, gift giving.

note on car

With this half written, I go and put in a load of wash. Beep, beep. No water. Deep breaths. Push, lights, push, push, light, light, light. Beep, beep. No water. Take out the clothes. Repeat. No water. Defeatism washes over me. In irrational hopefulness I start pushing all the blessed buttons, so glad Rich is not here to see my conniption. Plus if he were he would be the verbal victim of my fit and not the buttons. Still no water.


Bloop, bloop that is Skype ringing! Someone from home is calling me! I know which button to push.


Molly Malone'sRich took me to Molly Malone’s for supper.

3 thoughts on “Life In The Jungle

  1. Yes, but as you can see in the pictures, the buttons are in Japanese script, not Roman letters. So it virtually impossible to look up the characters. Even Emi-san had trouble translating. For instance, on the washer, one sticker says “water strength” and another says “water level”. We are finding hidden steps we have to do to make things work. Maybe I should write the book, Japanese daily life for Gaijins.


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