Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas is Coming...

"It's beginning to look a lot like... Florida..." What?

I live in the Kansai area of Japan, near Kobe, and it just doesn't feel like Christmas this year. The coldest it's gotten at night is around freezing, and today was 55 degrees. It only snows 2-3 times a year in a cold year, and maybe 1/2" will stick once.

You know, like Christmas in Florida. I remember watching "Invasion USA" in college, and thinking that not only was this a particulary stupid movie, but also that Christmas and Florida just didn't fit. Palm trees and Santa Claus? His name isn't Suntana Claus, you know. His nose is red because of the cold (and the high-octane eggnog), not sunburn.

Although Florida, at least, has eggnog. I'd give my left ___ for a carton of that thick artery clogging 'nog. I've tried to make it myself, and I always end up overcooking it, and have a pot full of custard.

So, here's hoping for a little snow?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Laughter - another cultural difference

People say humor is universal, everyone laughs, it's a common ground. I say... BullPucky!

The hardest thing I can try to teach in an English class is humor. It's not just the language.

Not even physical humor always crosses. The Japanese love slapstick, Three Stooges-style physical humor. Slap someone upside the head, Leroy Jethro Gibbs style? Ha-ha-ha! Hit him with a folded 3-ft-long paper fan? Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! Turn that fan into a bamboo kendo staff and knock him pretty much senseless? HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA! John Stossels's interview of David Schultz back in 1984 would have left them in stitches. (Yes, I am exaggerating for effect)

But spoken humor relies on cultural mores and cues learned from infancy to create the humor. The Japanese are really good at puns, they egg-cel at them. Even in English, advertising is packed with egg-zamples: Channel 10's slogan? "I need jyu! (jyu is Japanese for 10).

Rakugo and Manzai are 2 very popular comedy styles. Rakugo is a storyteller or raconteur sitting in front of the audience weaving a long tale with an unusual ending or punchline providing the release. Manzai are pairs of comedians, usually with an aggressive funny guy and a dumb, straight guy - very much like Abbott and Costello.

American-style stand-up falls flat. I've tried my favorite Steven Wright line ("I live at the end of a dead-end, one-way street. (pause) I don't know how I got there.") in classes before, and even the best students give me blank looks. Even my wife, whose grasp of English and American culture is incredible, sometimes doesn't understand my jokes (surely, the fault must be cultural, not in the delivery!!).

Another difference is when or why people laugh. When the missus and I went on one of our first dates, we decided to see "Ghost". I would laugh at all the usual points, my wife-to-be snickering beside me, and could hear one other person in the packed theater laugh at the same point. "Aha! Another furriner," I thinks (turned out to be someone I knew - we all know each other, you know!). Then the Japanese laugh at a different point in the translation, while I stare blankly at the screen.

Now, I don't know if this is something peculiar to Coloradans, to Americans, or to Western culture (surely, it isn't just me! And don't call me Shirley! RIP), but when I see something horrifically bizarre, I laugh. I'm not some sadist, laughing at a beheading; I laugh in shock at Joe Black bouncing from windshield to windshield. I snort in disbelief while crossing my legs at the idiot who tries to slide a skateboard down a 2-story bannister, slips, and catches his jewels in a body-weight slam... Not getting my enjoyment at another's expense (get it?), just laughing at the absurdity of what has just happened. It's a defense mechanism, I think. It's also a sure-fire way to piss off my lady, who lets me know in no uncertain terms that she doesn't like it.

Yet, Japanese laugh if I stumble and fall. If I bark my shins climbing off my bike, the little granny next to me smiles and giggles. I hit myself in the face with a mini-bat one day, and the whole class giggled (OK,OK, that probably did look funny: idiot pastes himself, then stares dazedly at the class). I used to get pretty offended, to tell the truth, until someone realized that what was obvious to the Japanese, that they were laughing in sympathy, as a way to commiserate, wasn't at all obvious to me, and explained the reasoning behind their laughter.

So, just remember, they might actually be laughing with you, and not at you, just like your mom used to say.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

It's Crab Season!

The Japanese love their food shows. Celebrities interview other celebrities over coffee and cake. Comedians interview pop stars over full course meals while trying to guess which course is the food they hate the most. SMAP, arguably Japan's most famous pop group, has a show where they make gourmet meals, with their famous guests being interviewed while the band is cooking (gotta be fair here - the food is really high-brow, and the cookbooks sell like crazy).

Now, I have to admit to a guilty little secret: I liked "Iron Chefs". It was a TV show where 1 of 3 famous chefs and their crew would be pitted against a challenger crew each week to make a complete meal, including dessert, using that day's surprise ingredient (Iron Chefs America is on the Food Network). I always got a kick out of trying to figure out just what kind of dessert they could make when that day's ingredient was something like oysters or abalone - "Oh, look, he just made gelato using oyster juice!" Eewww! I just knew that there was no way I'd try it.

Well, crab season is here, and it's all over the television, with a twist. Reporters and 'talents' (TV personalities, who often lack any significant talent whatsoever) head out to the hot spots on the Japan Sea coast to sample the fresh catch, and the audience, along with a panel of other TV personalities, oohs and aahs.

Look, here are the new crabs: "Waaoooh!"
Look, this one is cooked: "Waaaoooooohhhh!"
Look, the TV guy is eating it: "Waaaaaaoooooooohhhhhh!"
And look, here are the brains: "WAAOOOOHHHH!"

I could understand it, if the people in the studio were actually looking forward to eating the crabs, like in "Iron Chefs" (see, tied it together after all!). But they're watching a video of someone else eating it - who usually shovels in a huge mouthful of boiling hot food, then immediately tries to talk around it to tell you just how delicious that piping hot mouthful that he/she hasn't even tasted yet is, which sucking in air like an Electrolux in a futile attempt to cool their tongues. "Gobble-hoover-yum-smack-my!"

Sometimes they're lucky not to spray food all over the camera, which has come in for a closeup of their face contorted in fake rapture and pain. "Waoohh"? Maybe. More like 'see food' than 'sea food'. But shouting and getting all excited and studio panel members smiling and standing up and gesturing wildly?

Stranger in a Strange Land, indeed.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Politickin' and Elec-shuns

Well, now that the US mid-term elections are over, I imagine the Americans out there are breathing a sigh of relief. No more mud-slinging, no more advertising paid for by XYZ Action Committee, CNN even carries the occasional actual news story.

Gotta admit, living here I don't miss the commercials. "Mr. Jones didn't vote for Y", "Ms. Smith is a commie", "Johnnie Reb wears skirts", "Jane, you ignorant slut!"

(On a sidenote, I think the Tea Party debacle was hilarious. Whatever your political affiliation, you just gotta love when the most conservative group says they're "tea-bagging", blissfully unaware of the meaning of that particular phrase... I just about blew Coke... a-cola... all over my computer monitor first time I saw that)

Here, however, elections have their own twist. Until last year, there were no political commercials of any kind on television. None. De nada. Zilch. Even now, they are just general platitudes, campaign slogans. It's bad form to attack your opponent directly.

What they do have are loud-speaker trucks. Usually little mini minivans, not the monsters on American roads, but about the size of a Volkswagen bus, with half a dozen folks wearing white gloves waving out the windows and loudspeakers on top blasting out the candidate's name and saying "Please vote for me!" That's it. No reasons why you should vote for them, just their names. From 8am to 8pm. Many times, the candidate isn't even riding in that truck, just some of their supporters with a looped tape. Very polite, though, they turn off the loudspeakers when stopped at a red light, and often smile and say a special hello (without asking for a vote) whenever they pass this blond-haired (what's left of it, at least) furriner.

But at least the campaign trail here doesn't start 18 months before the election. Every election, whether local or national, has a 3-week limit on campaigning. 22 days before the election, still blessedly silent. Monday morning at 8am, BWWAAAAAHHHH! The trucks begin.

On a personal note, I'm really glad the mid-term elections are over, because if I hear one more tea-bagger say they're gonna "Take America back", I'm 'a gonna scream. Take it back from whom, moron? Americans?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Halloween in Japan, 2

Oh, frabjous day, the Halloween party is past! Now, don't get me wrong; it's a lot of fun. Kids are kids, candy is candy, and Japanese dentists are discovering the joys of this particular American holiday. But the preparation is tough, with so little available at the corner store; I have to make the majority of my decorations (although little banners and window stickers are getting much easier to find).

But I got slapped hard by the cultural expectations bat at the party. You know, when something is so basic, so obvious, that you'd never think to explain it. It's like breathing in air, holding your breath underwater, peeing into the toilet (Aah, the Nobel Prize for literature awaits my prose...). Something happens, and you realize that no matter how much you may think you know your adopted culture, no matter how much you think they understand about you, some underlying assumptions make an ass out of you and me (well, of course, I'm not talking about you personally! The idiot next to you, yeah, that jackass is the one I mean!).

One of the activities was Jack O'Lantern drawing. I set out 50 pages of colored paper with pumpkins copied on them, all ready for junior Dalis and Picassos to show me their avant garde talents. Well, near the end of their free play period, when the quieter bunch had been working at the picture table rather than drilling bean bags at their favorite monsters

or trying to make point shots in the monster cutouts, I went to check on their progress.

And found 21 perfect pictures of pumpkins, lovingly colored in various shades of orange, with vibrant green vines and stalks. And not one face... Not one crooked, gap-toothed smile... No eyes blazing with happiness, nor malicious joy...

Oh, and my record remains perfect... I scared another little girl to the point of tears...

then I put on my mask (rimshot!).

This mask did it

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Dollar Falls

I've been watching the fall of the dollar compared to the yen with very mixed feelings.

I mean, 80 yen to the dollar? Well, if you're lucky enough to be traveling back to the States or paying US bills, you're probably doing a little leprechaun jig. It certainly becomes much cheaper, 20% cheaper than a year and a half ago. So that $25 dinner I bought in the spring of 2009 will now cost an effective $20 (big spender, that's me!). If I had bought my Kindle today, it would have cost me 2000 yen less than four months ago ($25 dollars at today's exchange). Companies that I special order some food items through are now giving 10% discounts across the board. CostCo's even cheaper than usual - too bad it costs me over 2000 yen in tolls to get there and back.

But the other side of the coin worries me. A lot. This drop against the yen means that all Japanese products, from electronics to bulk steel, cost more in the States, Japan's primary trade partner. So customers look elsewhere. I know, you're thinking that I'm just an English teacher, what do I care? Well, that trickles down very quickly. Actually it doesn't trickle. It's a virtual avalanche of shit rolling downhill.

Sales drop, so big companies reduce their production. Employee bonuses, a big part of the Japanese salary system, fall. Subsidiaries also have to reduce production and reduce their employees' salaries or bonuses. These folks spend less, and that hits everybody, including me, like a Mike Tyson roundhouse in the wallet. Fewer tourists come as well, hurting souvenir shops, restaurants and hotels in hot spots like Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo.

English, while considered an integral part of their children's education by many parents, still can't equate housing and food.

Test Time

Ah, it's mid-terms here now, and the stress is in the air.

Three of my kids are in JHS and HS, so they're all getting ready for their mid-terms. My younger daughter is having her second day of tests, my older son's tests start today, and my older daughter's tests are next week (3 different schools).

Kids throughout the area are spending late nights at their desks and going to their cram schools for special pre-test classes in math, science, Japanese and English. Many of them will get home after 10pm, and spend the rest of the night pulling all-nighters.

It's like college life was for me.

And I just smile with the blissful feeling of "Better you than me!"

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Halloween in Japan

It's almost Halloween time and, as usual, things are hectic at my school. I'm trying to make decorations and games for the annual party, since there isn't much variety available compared to, say, in Target or WalMart. And this year, I'm planning on ramping up the school English party as well, and have even gotten some JHS kids to help me run it.

When my oldest daughter was 3, we introduced our neighbors to Halloween and its fun. With three other families, we dressed the kids up and had them 'trick or treat' at each others houses, then brought them here to eat some of their spoils and play some games. These parties have continued to grow over the last 12 years (12 families last year), and we've watched Halloween slowly approach the mainstream around us. It's still nothing like in the States, but it's even marked on calendars now!

Good luck finding good, cheap decorations, though. The Japanese love monsters and ghosts (look at Godzilla and 'The Ring'), but they don't have home or neighborhood parties very often, the homes are too small. And while nowadays there is a pretty good selection on the internet from Japanese vendors, the monsters are often different (this morning one of my students asked me why mummies are scary). Being specialty items, the prices are also high. I also like to use pinatas, but they're pretty ridiculous, and actually are made too well. By the time the kids managed to break open the pinata 2 years ago, most of the candy was sugar dust, so this year I'm going to make my own using balloons and papier mache.

I'll post pictures after the party, show you some of the costumes. This is the land of cosplay, remember, so sometimes the kids (or their parents, actually) go all out and make fantastic costumes, others just grab a garbage bag and colored markers. Some of the kids even dress as ninjas, go figure!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Japanese Athleticism

It's easy for an average-sized American guy to start feeling cocky when they arrive here. I was just shy of 6" and weighed a fit 180 when I came here (about average for Colorado, I guess [unfortunately a fair bit bigger than that now...]), the average Japanese guy is about 3-4 inches shorter than that, and lean. I'm talking 5'8" and maybe 135 lbs. Whereas most of the guys I worked with when I was a fitness manager were wearing 44-48 inch jackets and were probably 8 inches deep, many of the guys here would be lucky to fit a 38 and are only 4-5 inches from back to breastbone. Makes you feel like a giant, it does.

Until you look at general levels of fitness, that is.

Every school in Japan has a Sports' Day festival; it's very similar to Field Day at my elementary school, with lots of running and other strength events, but parents and grandparents all come to watch. There are relay races, sprints, cheering contests, dances; every student participates to the best of their ability, and their parents all come to cheer them on. And having 4 kids who go to 4 different schools, I have gone to 4 Sports' Days this month - talk about a scheduling nightmare!.

Last Saturday was my youngest son's Sports' Day, which started at 9 am, with all kids listening to a short speech, then doing calisthenics together to warm up. Then 5th and 6th graders ran 100m dashes, followed by a group dance by the 1st and 2nd graders. Then the 3rd and 4th graders ran, with the 5th graders then helping the kindergarten and preschools kids do their activity. Now the 1st and 2nd graders ran, the 3rd and 4th graders did their dance, and the PTA had a tug of war. Last were gymnastics and human pyramids by the 5th and 6th grades.

After lunch came all the relay races, tug of war for the middle grades, and 4-person chicken fights for the older ones. They actually look like chariots, with three kids in a triangle formation carrying the fourth, who tries to pull the hat off their enemy, or knock them off their chariot, which can be pretty brutal, even with teachers trying to catch them as they fall (sorry, I just can't figure out where to split that sentence - some teacher, huh!).

But the general fitness level really struck me when I watched my second daughter's JHS Sports Day. The boys were making assorted pyramids, starting with three-person stacks, and culminating in an insurance company-nightmare 7-level human pyramid. And at her school, not one boy was fat. Not one! Usually there are one or two boys or girls who are large or even really big. But not one boy at her school is (I am, of course, immensely jealous...). Most of them play sports in after-school clubs, much like US high schools, but they don't have seasons - club is a year-round activity, and you specialize in one sport, then play it 3-4 hours/day, every day, including most Sundays and holidays. I think my daughter has maybe 15 days off this year.

So don't get cocky if you find that the average Japanese guy is smaller than you and doesn't have the macho guns and pecs straining his t-shirt, which probably just hangs off him. The little sh-- probably is much fitter than you are, and if they are/were in the judo club at school, might just kick your heinie.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Anyone got a quarter?

You know how they call Japan the “land of the rising sun”? I think they should call it “land of the omnipresent vending machine”.

I come from Colorado, also known as “land of the broken into, vandalized or carted-off-whole vending machine”. Several of my frat brothers got put on probation for bringing home several one blurry night. So I was truly amazed when I got here and saw vending machines on any corner, in front of so many shops, and even sometimes along a deserted stretch of highway.

There are the usual soft drink vending machines. Not so usual, I guess, they sell hot and cold coffee and tea. There are also beer machines (yeah!), machines which sell Japanese sake (rice wine), even ones which sell fifths of scotch whiskey, There are the ever-present cigarette machines, which now require special ID. I think it’s funny that the alcohol and cigarette-dispensing machines all turn off at 11pm, to keep minors from buying. Hell, the minors stop by on their way home from school, still in school uniform and are usually passed out by 11.

There are machines where you can buy 1-, 2- or 5-kg bags of rice (ker-THUNK!). Where you can get freshly microwaved burgers, french fries, cup noodles (peel off the top, put it back in, hit the hot water button), even Japanese fried yakisoba noodles. You can get ice cream by the cup or the cone, even Haagen Dazs. There’s a farmers’ coop near here where you can get cartons of eggs, fresh cabbage, carrots, onions, all at the push of a button. Some sell batteries, others sell razors. I even saw one near a ski area that sold dry socks.

And last but not least, there are the porno machines… The first time I saw one, I just had to walk back and take another look - for purely investigative reasons, of course! Along a lonely stretch of highway, near an area of factories, you’ll see one or more vending machines, all facing away from the road. They usually have a privacy fence around them, as well as security appliques on the glass which prevent anyone from seeing inside except from directly in front of the machine. Here you’ll find hard-core mags, videos, sex toys, even underwear guaranteed to have been worn by a porn queen. Ewww! Hope it wasn’t Flatulent Filly...

Yet not a candy and potato chip-filled monstrosity to be seen.

Japanese Manners, pt 2

So, I went to my son's junior high school last weekend, and had to do the whole slipper (or)deal which I talked about in my previous post: put on way-too-small plastic slippers at the door, switch to wooden clogs in the bathrooms while trying not to miss and plant my foot in the...

Here are some more manners for you to ponder -


Never, ever leave your chopsticks stuck in your food - rice, actually, but it's better to just avoid doing it with any food. Look at any Hollywood movie where Americans are eating Chinese out of the little boxes. The main character will shove their chopsticks point down into their box as they stand up to a) get important evidence, b) yell at the their love, c) answer that plot-defining phone call. But in Japan, leaving your chopsticks stuck into rice is a death omen! At a Japanese funeral, chopsticks are very often placed into a bowl of rice as an offering at the altar. So, basically, you just told your host to FOAD.

Passing food one person to another, chopsticks to chopsticks is another huge no-no. At the cremation ceremony, remaining pieces of bone are picked up using long, steel chopsticks and are often passed between several relatives before being put into the urn.

If you are eating with several common dishes in the center of the table, serve yourself by turning your chopsticks around and using the clean backs to take from the common plates, then turn them back around to eat. It's easy to remember: the pointy end goes in your mouth, the wide ends into serving plates. This keeps your cooties out of other people's food.


When eating a meal at someone's home, you should wait until the father begins eating, or until they ask you to eat, then say "Itadakimasu!" (I begin!) and dig in (some of my fellow gaijin said, "Eat the dog we must!" as a memory aid..). In a restaurant, go ahead and begin eating when your food arrives. Foods are brought as soon as they are ready, not held under warming lights in the kitchen until everything's ready as in American restaurants, so you should eat while it's hot. Then, when you have finished, you should say "Gochisoh-sama!" (Great vittles, ma'am! - also known as "My, that was a truly satisfying repast" in a Hugh Grant voice). And never wait for the lady of the house when eating - she usually will serve during the meal, and eat her own after everyone else has finished.

Oh, and learning how to use chopsticks before you come, if you don't know how already, will earn you so many "My, you use chopsticks so well!" comments that you'll be amazed. Or irritated. What-evah!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Japanese Manners, pt 1

I think the thing that has tripped me up, and sometimes tripped me out as well, more than any other in my life in Japan has been manners. You know, those little things your mom kept trying to drill through your thick skull as a kid. The ones you ignored or dismissed as “sissy” until you discovered the opposite sex, and saw the revulsion as you hawked a big loogie (or, ladies, scratched yourself in public..).

Now, most people know about the shoes, right? Well, just in case - when you enter a private building or home, or any of a hundred other types of place, you take your shoes off at the entrance, and put on a pair of painfully-small plastic slippers. Then you spend the next hour doing the granny shuffle, raising enough static electricity to give a poodle an afro.

But did you know that you then have to switch slippers if you want to relieve yourself? Leave the house slippers outside the bathroom threshold, step into the wooden clog-type slippers inside the bathroom, and try to keep the door from swinging shut and braining you in the bargain. Oh, and as all you ladies know, men have shitty aim, so to speak, so you really don’t want to miss the slipper…

And students wear their own shoes to school, then put on slip-on ‘inside-school shoes’, then have to don their slip-on ‘P.E. shoes’ when using the gym, but wear their outside tennies if it’s an outdoor day. So your kid has to have three pairs of shoes every day, plus you should have extra pairs of tennies because their shoes will get very wet walking to school on rainy days (which average about 1 out of every 3).

Blowing your nose is another big one. Remember mom always embarrassing you by wiping that snot off your face when you were a kid? Telling you to “use a tissue, don’t sniff”? Not here…

Blew my mind, the first time a really pretty, fashionable, sexy student did a Hoover, plain as you please. SSNNNnnnnnnnNNGH! I think my eyebrows crawled above my hairline and hid behind the scant cover of my male-pattern receding hairline. Then people looked at me like I had puked on the puppy when I blew my own nose - even now, kids laugh and cover their ears when I take out a tissue.

Of course, I could do like your average little old JapaGranny, and ‘Farmer John’ it. You know, place your index finger to pinch the right nostril closed, then lean forward and play the trumpet - Fortissimo!

Switch sides, repeat.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Americans and Their Guns

One thing Japanese cannot understand about Americans is their fascination with guns. Why do Americans feel everyone needs a gun, they ask, what purpose does it serve? If they are hunters, like the hunters of black bears here, they would understand, but only criminals have handguns in Japan. Gotta admit, I wonder about that myself, sometimes.

Why is a 7-day cooling-off period such a big deal to some people? Do most people who have a pistol really need it (or even know how to use it correctly)? Do you really need that Uzi, AK-47 or M-16? Would requiring gun-safety licenses of new owners really be so hard?

Now, before you go all Charlton Heston and NRA my ass, I grew up with guns. We had BB and pellet guns, several 22s, a 20-gauge, my father’s 38. We practiced with them, played with them, killed porcupines with them, took them camping in case the coyotes came into camp after our dogs. We had them in case that baby-black-bear-on-my-deck-at-2am‘s mama bear decided to come inside for a snack. My friend and I used to carry his father’s Colts when riding on his ranch, in case we ever got tossed and dragged by our horses. We had them on hand should we ever actually need them (and to play Billy the Kid meets Jesse James - our history was a little fuzzy when we were 11).

So I’m not against guns in and of themselves: when in experienced, trained hands, they are a tool like any other. But I also had a friend kill himself rather spectacularly with a rifle, had another friend with no experience with guns kill his little brother by mistake with a pistol he thought was empty. A friend’s father was killed in a bar fight. A police SWAT officer friend of mine told me that half of people killed in home invasions are killed by their own weapons. The criminal finds it in their bedside table, for example, the homeowner wakes up and startles said criminal, and BANG, BANG, bye-bye! Not to mention the morons who have an argument, and decide to win the argument permanently…

Then there are the truly dumb:
*Some idiot in Lakewood, Colorado ‘inadvertently’ left their handgun in their kindergarten child’s backpack this past Wednesday, which the child then took to school. -- ‘Inadvertently’? Why the hell would you put a gun in your 5-yr-old kid’s backpack in the first place?
*Same day, a 10-yr-old boy in Seattle tried to rob a 17-yr-old on the bus, of all things, and was shot by his own gun when the older boy grabbed him -- OK, OK, poetic justice. But still… On the bus? And how did a 10-yr-old walk out the door with a 22-pistol in the first place?
*A 72-yr-old Melbourne, Florida woman was shot by her husband during a “robbery drill” the couple was staging. They had “little experience with guns”. -- No, really?

Early in my life here, I had to try to explain to my students why “Rodney, get your gun!” Peairs could kill Japanese student Yoshihiro Hattori, dressed up like John Travolta in “Saturday Night Fever” in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and be acquitted of even manslaughter. A 44 with laser sights? What, does he think the zombies will be coming soon?

It’s no wonder the Japanese are convinced the US is dangerous.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Mosquitoes from Hell

God, I hate mosquitoes! Not dislike, not can't stand; I loathe the little f---ers.

It was bad enough in the mountains of Colorado, where you'd spend half the night fruitlessly hunting that endless whine near your ear, and end up nearly knocking yourself senseless, flailing away at the little brown beastie. Wussies, I tell you!

Now I live in the land of the Asian Tiger. You thought they named their economies that because it was a cool animal, right? Bzzz! Wrong-o! They named them after their mosquito, surely the Arnold of mosquitoes. No stealth attacks here, just, "Swing at me, I don't care. I'll be back!" They don't just whine; they sound like the mother of all dentist drills running in your ear. Like a whole squadron of Mitsubishi Zeros, just bent upon ruining your sleep. They're black, with white speed striping, like color-blind bee wanna-bes (wanna-bees?).

These are the same breed that carry West Nile Disease in the States, black with two or three thin white bands around the body; it's hard to tell after you've squashed the little shit. I bought a cool little battery-operated tennis racket; just push the button and swing - ZAP! Sometimes they even smoke and burn. Cool...

Saturday, August 21, 2010

School Cleaning

Well, summer vacation is on its way out now. The cicadas are starting to head to that big bug ranch in the sky, and walking in the park is beginning to get crunchy. It doesn't rain anymore, it just hovers in the mid-90s at 90%+ humidity (although my shirt and head look like I'm raining - "Gross!" my youngest squeals).

And one end-of-summer ritual is the annual school-ground cleaning. Japanese schools don't have janitors or grounds staff. During the school-year, students have to put everything away at the end of the day, and clean their own classrooms weekly. But in summer, say hello to your parent 'volunteer'.

At least one parent of every student comes to school, and we pull weeds, clean out storm drains, repaint horizontal bars and tires. The kids go to their classrooms to drop off homework, then join us for 30 minutes or so. Then they go back to their classrooms while we put in another half hour.

Here's my youngest at work...

Now, if only I could him to do the same thing at home!!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Is Japanese Culture Group Oriented?

OK, this is in answer to Joe's question...

Is Japanese culture as group oriented as shown in popular media?

In a word: YES

The group is god here. They even have a proverb for it: "The nail that sticks up will be hammered down." Whenever I teach adjectives such as 'Outstanding', I have to explain that it is not a negative word. Students always assume it's bad.

The group hive mind can lead to some serious problems, too. Bullying here isn't one maladjusted jerk with two or three toerag sycophants; it's a whole class chanting insults and saying things like "Die, moron!" to whichever kid has been picked as an outsider this week. Stay-at-homes, kids who refuse to attend school, are rampant here.

Bill Gates/Steve Jobs-style successful mavericks are rare. While Masayoshi Song of Softbank, Takahumi Horie of LiveDoor, and Hiroshi Mikitani of Rakuten are celebrated in the media and respected by many for pushing the envelope, they are rare exceptions. Even promotion is still primarily seniority based, with little recruiting from outside or diagonal job movement (this, however, has been changing quickly in recent years).

But one thing I find really hilarious is how all the rebels dress exactly the same. They rebel together, you see, finding a group with similar mindset, which takes them from outsider to insider.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Re:A Traditional Japanese meal

I'm on vacation now with my in-laws - all of them. It's a good thing my wife's family are good people.

We're staying at a hot-springs hotel, a nice one ;-), and last night's dinner was simply a-ma-zing! Eleven courses of traditional Japanese food, some of which I couldn't even identify. But being the gastronomical explorer I am (ie, hungry!), I 'et i' all!

There were raw fish, a sad little exoskeleton-less raw shrimp staring at me ("no-o-o, don't eat m~" burp!), okra jelly (can you believe it?), eggplant surprise, poached beef, pickled beef, pickled egg yolk, and many others.

But since pictures do speak louder than words...

Thursday, August 12, 2010

What is "Horse-oil Soap"?

What on Godzilla's green Earth is "Horse-oil Soap"?

I just took a bath in the hot spring in the hotel and there was 'ba-yu' (horse-oil) soap. The soap was OK, not really foamy but it worked. The shampoo, though, smelled like what I imagined.
And how exactly do they make the stuff, anyways? "Hi-ho, Silver, and away to the soap factory!"

Summer holidays

This week is Obon, a time when most Japanese return to their hometowns to visit family, clean the family graves and pay their respects.

This is one of three times per year when the whole damn country goes on vacation, and traffic is horrendous! Airports are packed, the bullet trains are standing-room only, and traffic jams during the "U-Turn Rush" will be an average 30-40 miles long on highways into Tokyo. Airline tickets more than double their regular May or November rates - adult tickets to Denver jump from about 65,000 yen to 165,000.

Tickets home to Colorado for my whole family would run $11,500 for airfare alone! (now do you understand why I don't make it Stateside very often?)

The only way we'll be doing that right now is if I hit the lottery. [In a fit of bad math, I bought some tickets this time around]

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Communication Errors and Marketing Blunders, 1

Living in a foreign country and teaching English can lead to some riotous language mistakes. Like when my student pronounced A as in 'father' and forgot the 's' sound in X, and "faxed my daughter". Got a real double-take out of me. Or like the time when I added an 'm' sound to the Japanese word for sweetened bean paste and told my wife in the middle of a crowded train station that I'd just eaten her cousin's, well, bean paste.... Heads turned!

But some of my favorite lessons are when we take a look at international business blunders made by companies that drop the ball and either don't bother to research any possible cultural and slang meanings of products they hope to sell in new markets, or have paid a fair chunk of change to translators (in-house or out) that claim to speak the language but don't make the cultural connections.

Without further ado, let's look at some more blunders like the Matsushita Electric/Panasonic "Touch Woody - The Internet Pecker" of my last post:

Anyone remember Swedish vacuum cleaner maker Electrolux's '70s advertising campaign slogan, "Nothing Sucks Like an Electrolux!"

Swedish company locum sent out Christmas cards to their customers in 1991 to which they decided to add a little holiday cheer by replacing the 'O' in the company name with a heart - I(heart)cum Talk about holiday cheer! - see above

Gerber products aren't carried in French-speaking countries, because gerber is the French word for "vomiting". And when their baby-food bottles were introduced in some African countries, which traditionally put pictures of the product on packaging for those who can't read, it led to quite a bit of confusion... What's in there?

Wang Computers found its British distributors refusing to use its latest motto: "Wang Cares", which sounds just too close to "wankers" for comfort. And then we have the American meaning of "wang"...

There is a massage stand in the local mall here which has the following in 12-inch letters on the mall-facing glass wall: "Hand Care, Foot Care, Horny Care" I think they'll need curtains for that one...

Honda introduced a new model car, the "Fitta" into Nordic countries in 2001, but had to rename it the "Jazz" when they learned that the word 'fitta' is a vulgur word for a woman's genitals in Swedish, Norwegian and Danish. Wow, what a ride!

Mitsubishi's Pajero had to be renamed for Latin American markets, since 'pajero' means 'wanker' in many Spanish dialects, and which, according to Urban Dictionary, also carries the added meaning of "one who plays with himself". Not exactly a chick magnet

Coors' slogan, "Turn it Loose!" was translated into Spanish as "Suffer from Diarrhea". Sounds about right.

And a detour sign found in Kyushu, Japan: "Stop! Drive sideways."

Don't worry, I've got lots of these - more later...

Friday, August 6, 2010

Land of High Tech, 2

Now, as you can tell from my previous post, I wasn't really happy with daily life here in Japan, technology-wise. ATMs had limited access and hours, and extra fees to use them. People didn't have computers at home, and neither did almost any business. Internet dialups were glacial. My kitchen felt like something out of an Iron Curtain satellite country, with the water heater on the wall, gas range sitting on the counter and no remaining counter space. And my credit card was a useless hunk of plastic taking up space in my wallet.

Wow, what a difference a few years make...

Now ATMs are open 15 hours/day, and convenience store ATMs allow access to multiple banks 24 hours. All-electric houses are being encouraged through tax breaks and incentives, with large, efficient water heaters, solar water and solar electricity panels on roofs, and underfloor heating that keeps you warm from the feet up becoming commonplace.

One thing they do extremely well, I mean seriously cool sh-tuff, are today's cell phones and portable music players. I can text for free with any other client on the same network, email, surf the 'net, transfer files by infrared, listen to music, watch TV, run numerous applications, even walking navigation, and have a 12-megapixel camera with video. Pretty much anything I can do on my PC, really, for about $20/month basic, or $60 unlimited packets. Many Japanese have stopped buying new computers altogether, using their cells for all their internet and communication needs. My son's phone takes studio-quality pics. My daughter's Walkman is so much easier to use than my IPod, requiring no special software, just drag-and-drop. A former student now works for Sony's International Division - she showed me the newest Cybershot, and I'm in love... (with the camera, yo!)

Maybe Dick Tracy's finger-phone isn't too far away after all...

But nowhere is the change more apparent than in internet access. When then-Prime Minister Mori announced the new "e-Japan Strategy" in January of 2001, with a target of becoming the most advanced IT state in the world in 5 years, and of having at least 30 million households within reach of high-speed 'net access, I scoffed. Actually, I snorted my Coke (aCola), coughed a lot, and brayed like a jackass. No Friggin' Way!. [I had just upgraded to a 56K modem, and Japanese computers were good, but nothing special.]

Just goes to show: bray like a jackass, become a jackass. I mean, "Ooops!"

"Broadband service here is eight to 30 times as fast as in the United States -- and considerably cheaper. Japan has the world's fastest Internet connections, delivering more data at a lower cost than anywhere else, recent studies show" - says this 2007 article from the Washington Post

I now have dedicated fiber-optic access with an advertised rate of 100 MBps, and peak rates of up to 1GBps. 1 Gigabyte. Per second. I have clocked it at over 130 MBps, and this afternoon just clocked downloads of 55MBps and uploads of 62. That's right, 62MBps up. I pay $50/month for this access, including 2 VoIP phones for my home and business, and have Internet TV with about 100 HD-quality channels for an additional $35. That's only 60% the rate of traditional cable TV here.

Credit cards, however, are one area where things still have a long way to go. Most restaurants still don't take plastic, and smaller stores and supermarkets usually don't either. And those that do, do so in bizarre ways. 7-ll Japan will take VISA cards, it says so on the front of the register. Phhht! I tried and they refused. You see, they only take VISA cards issued through 7-11, otherwise you're SOL. My wife has 7 credit cards which she only occasionally uses, and which she leaves at home when we travel, using only one account overseas.

Oh, here's an amusing computer-company awkward-growing-pains story. Matsushita Electric company (National) was introducing a new computer with proprietary web browser as an attempt to challenge Internet Explorer's domination of the market. They purchased the rights to American cartoon character Woody Woodpecker as a friendly alternative to MS's irritating little floating paper clip thingy. Unfortunately, they had to pull the entire line the day before the marketing campaign was scheduled to begin, when an embarrassed American employee who had just seen the campaign explained to them that the slogan could be misinterpreted -

"Touch Woody - The Internet Pecker"

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Japan, Land of Ninja & Robots

When I came to Japan, I have to admit to being woefully unprepared. I landed a teaching job while knowing only basic, stereotypical things about the land, and PBS’s “Japan Now” really didn’t help me correct those impressions.

In my mind, I pictured Richard Chamberlain running around in his kimono and horrible accent, saying “Hai, Toranaga-sama!” (it’s really funny to me, but most Japanese have seen that miniseries - why would they bother?). I thought there were still places where one could learn Ninja skills, and that I’d see real people walking down the streets with the Samurai shaved heads, ladies in their kimonos with daggers hidden in the sash (so watch your step, Mr. Touchy-Feely). “Haya!" Slash, plop, the offending member is flopping around on the floor….

Hey, I meant his hand! What are you thinking about, dirty mind!

I also thought these Ninjas and Geishas would be talking to each other through their Dick Tracy walkie-talkie rings, with hidden magic compass and secret decoder function. They must have houses that talk to them like HAL9000 or NightRider’s Kitt, but with prissy little-girl voices. Their cars would drive themselves. It would be high-tech heaven, making my life in Colorado look like 10,000 BC.

Boy, what a bunch of bull-pucky!

Nary a kimono or yukata (the lightweight cotton summer kimono) to be seen, except at summer festivals or weddings, or maybe a collection of foreign tourists trying for the “Japan experience” (just see my profile pic from Okinawa… I’m so embarrassed!!). While some of my students do have numerous kimono and study the art very hard, the vast majority have to rent one when necessary, but much prefer to wear dresses and gowns to weddings or graduation. Many ladies, I would guess-timate more than half, can’t put the damn things on by themselves (it’s a lot harder than you’d imagine), and have to have a pro help them on the occasions when they need it

You know, it’s like a New Yawker or Shy-towner wearing a cowboy hat and shit-kickers. It just don’t look right! [Although, the first time I saw a Japanese Country-Western band just blew my mind… “Ya' peekku-da fain taimu tsu leebu mee Lusheeru!”]*

And high-tech? In 1990? Only in the factories. Swear to God.

When I came here, only 5% of homes had a PC or Apple, and $3000 would have been bargain basement. And dialup was slower than a Pepto-Bismol bowel movement (poetic, aren’t I?). Lots of houses still had little gas water heaters hanging from the wall above the kitchen sink that you had to flip on and off every time you wanted to wash the dishes (and if you were too tall, you might singe your eyebrows doing so - I did mention that they were gas heaters, right?), with a second, slightly larger model hanging off the outside wall to heat the bath water.

ATMs were a brand-new technology, only at banks, and were only open 9-3, M-F (I spent a very hungry first weekend, when I discovered that little fact…). Any transaction performed at the teller window involved several sheets of paper, which were processed by the teller, then hand carried to the management types for approval, adding several extra steps and 5-10 minutes to everything. Even today, when bank transfers and automatic deposits and payments have become a fact of life, all transactions at the teller are on paper. Oh, and almost nowhere took plastic (that was another interesting restaurant experience I'll explain at another time).

Central Heating/Air are still virtually unknown at the consumer level. When planning my house, I was told I’d have to import it and that it would add over $50K to the price - now every room in my house has its own electric space heater/air conditioner (at an average $1K a pop for the smaller rooms) mounted on the wall (except the toilet, which is cold enough in the winter to actually need that heated seat - something they’ve definitely gotten right! - and hot enough in summer to, well, let’s just say that a toilet room which is 110 degrees induces sweating, and it’s like trying to use a waxed teflon toilet seat!). “Slip-sliding away”

Next time: Today's Land of Robots and High-Tech

*"Lucille" - 1977
"You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille."

Monday, August 2, 2010

Fireworks Season

The Japanese love their fireworks. I'm sitting on a hillside right now, waiting for Kakogawa's annual fireworks festival: 75 minutes of major, eardrum-busting, incandescent "Flowers of Fire"! They really pull out all the stops, too - 3 stages, 2 hours entertainment before the show, television stars, great fireworks. A few years ago, an old student, a City Hall worker, told me the fireworks alone (only 3000 shells this year) ran over $100K. During the mid-show and finale, it can make you feel like an extra in Tom Cruise's "War of the Worlds", hoping for earplugs. At least the weeds are green, and the only bloodsuckers are mosquitoes and taxmen!

We've always gotten a place as close to the action as possible, on the western riverbank opposite the stages. We usually meet friends there 3 or more hours early, stake out our claim, then wander around the stalls and nearby stores. By the time dusk approaches, our tarp is an island in the midst of about 3000 of our closest 'friends', the only empty space on the upper riverbank is around the PortaPotty (don't want to sit downwind of that, uh-uh, no way, no how!), and you can barely walk (no, these last 2 aren't connected!). As many as 30,000 pack the east bank, with most of the young ladies in colorful floral-patterned yukatas (summer kimonos), and the young dudes in yukata or with their "pants on the ground".
--love that song!--

Since the 3 oldest kids now go with their friends, and don't even want to see us ol' folks (or be seen with us), we decided to take the youngest and find a less crowded place this year. We're sitting next to a lovely shrine half a mile away, and as you can see in the videos, the view is fine!

Well, the view may be fine, but my video sure sucks. Oh, well.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Do you have 4 seasons? and other stupid questions.

Ah, yes, now we come to the art of asking questions of foreigners. We've all been there; you're introduced to someone from another country and can't think what to say. Do they have the same likes/dislikes as you? Are there any cultural taboos on what you can ask? "So, Mr. OompaLoompa, how many wives do you have?" "Ms. PowerPuff, do you like David Hasselhoff?" "Mr. Frahnkensteen, is your schwannstucker really the 'sweet mystery of life'?" Soon, you're reduced to telling the person how much you like the food from their country, or talking about your one visit to their country 20 years ago, and how much you enjoyed it (even I, who you'd think would know better by now, did the last two - last month!).

But some of the questions I've been asked here are asked again and again... and again. I swear, I think it's the first thing they teach in junior high school mandatory English classes: "My name is ____.", followed by "Can you use chopsticks?"

So, on to a few questions, followed by the answers I want to give.

Do you have four seasons?
A1. No, I come from a planet with 2 suns, and we have 5.
A2. Yes, and I carry them around in my back pocket. See these little singers?

Can you use chopsticks?
A. Yes, I can. Can you use a fork?

Do you like Japanese food?
A. No, I hate it. I came here because of my sado-masochistic tendencies. Hit me!

Do you have a gun?
A1. Yep, in muh back pocky. And I'm'a thinkin' a' usin' it now.
A2. We had 5 back home, and walked around the mountains shooting stuff all the time. Hell, I even nearly got myself arrested (truth is the best lie of all).

Have you ever killed anyone?
A1. Chopped off any heads lately?
A2. Thinking about it right now.
A3. Well, why do you think I'm here? Hoping to get a new one for my collection!

Do you know Obama (William Hurt, Chuck Norris, Leonardo DiCaprio, other randomly selected celebrity)?
A. Yep, we all know each other. Didn't you know that?

and my personal favorite:

What do you think of Japanese girls?
A1. Mmmm-mm! Delish!
A2. They all feel the same in the dark!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Honeymoon Period

When you move abroad, there is a honeymoon period, when everything is wonderful, when your adopted home's sh-- don't stink.

For the first three months or so, everything is bright and new to you. Things you would never accept in your own country become quaint, and you try to wholeheartedly embrace everything around you. You know, put on the kimono and learn ikebana (flower arrangement). Take up karate. Drink like a fish, while eating fried shrimp with the heads and legs still attached (damn legs get caught between your teeth something fierce. Makes your smile look like you're waving with your teeth!) Eat even stranger foods and say to yourself "I'm sure I'll like that, someday..." I still gag over natto (fermented soybeans - surely a food given by the gods to punish the unwary)...

During my honeymoon period, I reveled in taking the train at its most crowded, when they'd force people into the cars using padded bumpers. I didn't start work until 12, but I'd get up at 7am sometimes to catch a train, just because I could (not many trains in Colorado at that time - still not many, really)! Thank Godzilla, I'm above average height here, so it was the salaryman's head near my armpit and not the other way around (in revenge, my inner-Freud later developed train-phobia, and I couldn't ride for about 2 years without breaking into a sweat).

I ate all kinds of creepy crawlies, including freshly filleted shrimp, which would start twitching when you dipped them in the soy sauce... I went to as many festivals as I could find during those heady first months, mingled with the staring crowds (who'd often end up taking more pics of me than of the festival they'd come to see).

Now for some people, the honeymoon never ends. But for us real people there comes the 'Vegas divorce' period, when all you want to do is say ‘F--- the common property, gimme a paper to sign!’ You hate most of the stuff around you, you need other expats around you to let off steam (we used to do cruel caricatures and just bitch our hearts out). This is the time when people are most likely to hop on a plane home, then call in sick from Denver or Chicago (I just got a call from a nearby school district that’s looking for a replacement teacher, theirs took a powder).

But if you can work through the homesickness, you often begin to enjoy yourself in a much more realistic, satisfying way. Now you see the people, not moving mannequins, and begin to appreciate all the similarities, as well as understand and explore the differences (sounds like puberty, don't it?). This is when you make the deeper friendships, really invest yourself in them.

What’s surprises me, though, is that it’s often the anime, manga and cosplay* fans who are the most disappointed with real life here. Because, on the whole, it’s really not all that different than life back home (just a shitload more Spam-in-the-can crowded).

BTW, note to American self-described “Otaku”. That word is not in the slightest bit complimentary in Japan. Whenever I mention to my students how it’s used in the States, including one student who is herself a professional manga artist, they laugh in disbelief.

*anime - animation, cartoons
*manga - Japanese-style graphic novels and comic books
*cosplay - costume play, dressing up like characters of the above medium

Monday, July 19, 2010

Stranger, pt 2

Many foreigners hate the word "Gaijin" (an outsider), feeling that it's pejorative, but just what do they think our own words 'foreigner' or 'alien' mean? "Relating to or originating in another place or part of the world; Not contained in or deriving from the essential nature of something. Not belonging to that in which it is contained. .[Wordnet]
[Websters] Outside; extraneous; separated; alien; as, a foreign country; a foreign government. Remote; distant; strange; not belonging; not connected; not pertaining or pertinent; not appropriate; not harmonious; not agreeable; not congenial." Not congenial? Well, excuse me! I'm congenial! - just not right now…

Being a Gaijin means that you are more times than not outside the rules. This is often a good thing. This can be a great thing. Some of the foreigners here have something they call the “Gaijin Smash”, a term coined by one of my own favorite bloggers. It refers to the ability to smash through usual rules or get the occasional advantage of being a minority in Japan. But smashing your way through things, breaking rules and pretending stupidity, a few folk even go so far as intimidating people at times, just isn’t my style. I prefer to play on people’s own prejudices.

I have to be fair, though. Over the last 20 years most people, damned near all really, have been nice and respectful to me and have treated me like or even better than everyone else. I have accidentally ridden my Yamaha right into the middle of tough-guy motorcycle gangs at highway rest areas, and had them start to talk to me, "Japanese bikes are good, yes?" "How you like Japanese girls?" I even had a Yakuza wiseguy sit down next to me at a hospital (suddently all the surrounding benches were mysteriously empty) and ask me if I knew the Yakuza, then begin showing me his full body tattoos - even his eyebrows were tattooed on (and no, I don't know if he's tattooed down there). We ended up talking almost 10 minutes, until the hospital staff called me up front to pay my bill.

To these people, I am polite, cordial and respectful. This is as it should be. What the hell, I'm not a complete moron!

Yes, there are certain distinct advantages to being a (western) foreigner in Japan. For example:

Shortly after I first came to Japan, I went to the local post office to pick up my bank card, but it turned out I needed to go to the main branch. Well, I couldn't understand the directions, so I was drawing a map when someone behind me tapped my shoulder. A farmer-type gestured for me to follow him, took me to his truck and actually drove me to the main office. Not only that, but he waited for me to come out, and gave me a ride back! Our conversation was only two sentences long. "English Teacher?" "Hai!" and then me saying "Arigato Gozaimashita" (thank you very much) afterwards. How cool is that?!

Whenever a salesperson or religious type knocks on my door, my Japanese ability goes right out the window. ;-)
[This backfired once, as the religious guy fluently replied, "That's OK. I lived in the US for 5 years!" ;-( ]

I got pulled over for speeding on my motorcycle and running a yellow light. When I pulled off my helmet, the cop just bellowed over his car's loudspeaker to slow down next time and drove off. Didn't want to deal with any language problems, I guess. ;-)

I don't have to be overly polite, or speak in circumlocutions, never directly saying anything negative. I'm like a bull in a china shop, they expect me to break shit. So whenever I forget and speak too directly, even in passable Japanese, it's considered as my culture and therefore excusable. ;-)

Every kid in the neighborhood calls me "Daddy". They thought that was my name at first, and now it's so set, it'll never change. It's kinda cool, having 10 extra kids I don't have to support. Now as long as it doesn't morph into Sugar Daddy. ;-)

I do have one story I want to share. My job just after I got married involved driving to dinky little neighborhood community centers and visiting local English classes. Many of these areas only saw one foreigner every 3~6 months, sometimes less. Well, I showed up at this one center for the first time, and one of my favorite teachers from main office met me there. We had just opened the doors to the center and were standing right inside the doors when a kid walking by on his way home pointed at me and shouted "Gaijin!" I pointed at him and shouted "Nihonjin! (Japanese!)" His eyes got huge, his mouth opened in shock, and he ran away. When I turned around, my coworker had collapsed onto the stairs laughing... Ooops!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Being Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land (a Gaijin!), pt 1

So, what's it like, being a 6' blonde gaijin in the land of the rising munchkin? When I first got here, I towered over the average Japanese (which is really kind of nice, made me feel powerful, since I'm just average height in Colorado). I could ride the trains and see all the way to the other end of the car, with maybe one or two heads rising above the black-haired waves of people.

Now, as I said in an earlier post, I was one of only 4 non-Asians in my entire city of 260,000. There were SE Asians and Filipinos, especially in the entertainment district, otherwise just me, an evangelist, and 2 proper young Mormon gents on mission. Now, now, now, before you go and roll your eyes and say "Hmmmm?", I have a'sumpin' to esplain - they were under orders to leave me alone! They're in country to convert the Japanese, heathen like me aren't in the playbook. ;-) Even my American co-worker (a smart blonde!) and her husband lived in a neighboring town and came to class by train every day.

Oh, and did I mention that all of them were dark-haired?

So, class, what's the math on that? ONE blonde head in a city of 260,000. And this isn't like Colorado, where a city of such size would be up to 20-30 miles across. Kakogawa has about double the population density of the city/county of Denver. Now imagine being the only, highly visible, one of anything in something twice the size of Denver!

I stand out! Like a frog in a snake’s ambush zone, people know I’m there. Like a steak in the piranha tank, like a banana split at a weight-watcher’s conference, like Megan Fox in front of David Duchovny. Feeling like the engine on a strange, giggling train (not that kind of train), children follow me down the street - "Haro! Haro! Haro!” (When I felt particularly grumpy or hungover, I'd smile and say "Goodbye" and watch confusion reign). I now have great sympathy for any minority in middle America, and even understand how Britney feels (didn't shave me head, though)...

As I've said before, little old ladies would cross the street to get away from me. Store staff followed me around to make sure I wasn't pocketing anything. Young ladies on the train would enter the car, look up, not see a face at the normal height, look up a bit more, then step back, their mouths open in little O’s of shock. I even got turned away from a hair salon once. My friend got turned down when applying for apartments, not once, not twice, but about 5 times, even with corporate sponsorship. One landlord even went so far as to say, “Pets OK, no Gaijin!”

Well, you've got a choice when facing this: get pissed, or make like Gandhi and calmly deal with it. I went the angry route for a litte while, just couldn’t make like Gandhi. Then, being me, I decided to do neither; I decided to have fun with it.

A lady followed me around the local supermarket one day. After about 5 minutes of her following about 20 feet behind me, sprinting around the corners to keep me in sight, I decided to give her what she expected to see. So I picked up numerous small items, then put them back. Ducking around the corner into the next aisle, I looked left and right, then looked down. When she came around the corner, I was just pulling my hand out of my pocket. I kept furtively glancing around whenever my aisle was empty. I put stuff in my cart very visibly, then later surreptitiously returned it to the original shelf. By the time she started to look panicky, I decided that I’d made my point. So I looked her in the eyes, gave her a shallow bow, then went to checkout, emptied my pockets looking for change, and calmly paid for all the things in my basket. She bowed to me and apologized.

Japanese stare. My students all admit it. If I sit out on my front stoop, or take the time to trim the ivy growing rampantly all over the flower box next to the road, little old men will walk by, staring at me the whole time, turning their heads to keep me in sight, even walking into approaching bicyclists. Feeling particularly ornery one day recently, I decided to give one old guy something to look at: I ripped a California-falling-into-the-ocean, over-the-top-like-2012, magniturd-10 fart at him. Then barely made it in the door before I collapsed laughing, my wife and kids looking at me like I was a total idiot. mea culpa

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Japanese Honesty

Let's talk about honesty. Not "Does this skirt make my butt look big?" or "Is my hair getting a little thin?" honesty. I'm talking about my grandfather's drive-20-minutes-back-to-the-restaurant-because-they-gave-me-too-much-change honesty. My mother's take-you-back-to-the-store-so-you-can-explain-how-that-candy-got-into-your-pocket honesty. The honesty and pride of Depression-era people I grew up hearing about who'd walk up to a farm and ask to work a day in exchange for a meal. And who'd, more often than not, refuse the meal if it were offered as charity. An honesty which many of my friends in Colorado also have.

And which some did not.

We've all known them, the guy or gal who'll look at the extra $5 in their change and think, "Lucky!": What the hell, we're not playing the lottery here! Give it back!

Well, yesterday I had another humbling example of the almost pathological honesty of most Japanese. I went to the local discount supermarket to get stuff for dinner. But I was hot, so I clipped my 'man-bag' (it's too damned hot to carry a heavy wallet and cellphone in your pocket) on to the cart, as always. I did my shopping and headed home. But as I pulled into the garage, I realized: the bag was still clipped on to the cart (betcha didn't see that one coming...).

Needless to say, but I'll say it anyways, I drove as fast as traffic will allow (there's another idea for a post, driving in Japan), which is about the same speed as my 47-year-old butt can ride a bike, alternately swearing and praying to anyone who'd listen (talk about weird looks from the folks around). I got there, sprinted in to the store (OK, shuffled quickly!), and went to the nearest cashier.

He said, "Oh, the black bag? Follow me!" Took me to the employees' area, and the manager came out and said that someone had turned it in as soon as they saw it. Asked me to take out my wallet and make sure everything was there. Thank Godzilla, it was! You see, I was carrying the cash to pay my family's national insurance, and it isn't small change. If I lost that, I don't think my wife'd even sit in the same room with me for a week, let alone... to me.

I have seen this time and time again - not that I've lost my wallet that often. Ask my students, and they all say that if it was more than $10, they'd take it to the nearest koban (neighborhood police box). And for the $10, they'd turn it in to the store. They'd only consider keeping it, in most cases, if they were on the street, there was nobody in sight, and no shops nearby.

Compare that to my co-worker in Denver, who, when she found a $100 bill lying in the corridor at McNichols Arena, immediately thought, "Nintendo!" Or to the two different times when my wallet was stolen in Safeway in college (you'd think I learn, wouldn't you?).

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not accusing anyone - except myself, maybe, because I wasn't always exactly an angel back in the day. But there are some perks to living in this country.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Rocky conquers the toilet

After I'd been in Japan a week, I was sent to my school in a small city to the west of Kobe called Kakogawa (I was to be the 1st male teacher at a school that had only opened the previous year). Now, small in the Kansai area is a relative term, Kakogawa having 260,000 residents at that time, which was larger than all but 2 of Colorado's cities: Denver and Colorado Springs. But only 4 non-Japanese outside of the entertainment industry.

On Saturday I got off the train into a little white-painted wooden station, surprisingly small for a city of 260K, then found the exit, and one of the staff from my school waiting for me. Her English was very good, which certainly helped to ease my nerves over the transition. She was also cute, which is always a good thing. After showing me the school, she and the manager asked me to wander the city until closing time (about 8 hours later...), at which time they'd take me to the hotel.

Cool. I was so hungover from the previous night's fun with strangers (see 1st post) that I just wanted some quiet, a Pepsi, and a nap. So I went looking. Hmmm. No Pepsi. I felt like someone at a backwards SNL Olympia cafe, "No Coke. Pepsi". Turns out Pepsi had failed in their initial product launch and pulled out of the Japanese market (they came back in a few years ago, and are doing reasonably well now).

After sitting in a gazebo in a little park outside city hall, I decided to do some exploring. Kakogawa has a pretty neat shopping arcade, 2 streets that meet in a T, full of little shops and the occasional fast food shop. One shop had octopi stretched out on a stick frame to dry, like little brown kites with eyes. There were many little shops selling everything from silk kimonos to party goods to home shrines. There was also a huge, brand-new department store which offered prepared delicacies in the basement, and 6 floors of expensive fashion and accessories above.

You see, the first 3 months or so in country are an adventure. Even the littlest things can trip you up, and leave you feeling like an idiot until you conquer them, at which time you feel like Rocky on the steps in Philly. Like talking to cute girls. Like getting on the right train, going in the right direction. Like using the toilet...

A traditional Japanese toilet is set in a slightly raised platform, is oblong with kind of a shield on the far end, and definitely not intended to be sat upon.

Eventually, I did figure out the way it was supposed to be used, but I had a dilemma. Call me slow, but where do your pants go? Don't drop them, then don't drop anything else... Drop them to your ankles, you'll make a deposit, not a withdrawal... I'll be damned if I'm gonna take 'em all the way off, cuz I'm sure the Japanese don't. Balance is a bit of an issue too, you know? Taking a dump, Weeble style ("Weebles wobble, but they don't fall down" - hopefully). And really, just who are you gonna ask? The beautiful girl walking by? The old lady? Eventually, feeling like a total idiot, I figured out how to keep my jeans bunched above my knees while doing my duty. Did I mention that I felt like a total idiot? Maybe I should mention it again. And again. And again.

Until I saw this:

instructions on how to use a western toilet ;-)

Aaahhh. Revenge!
(Arm pump, cocky grin)

That last pic cracks me up! What exactly is he supposed to be doing, anyways?

Next time: being Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Rain and other humidity

Friend, it's time to talk about humidity, in all its varied, insidious forms.

It's rainy season here in Japan, and the sun is a stranger down here in the fen. This week's 7-day weather forecast was for rain, heavy rain and occasional very heavy rain and flooding (in Colorado, that would mean a spike in suicide rates). It has now dumped 18 inches of rain on us in the last 36 hours. My yard is a swamp, and there is some kind of weird truffle-looking thing starting to poke up through the grass and weeds, which grow like Jack's beanstalk. Damn dog loves eating it, but it looks like the red weed from War of the Worlds. I keep looking for tripods, and hoping that Tim Robbins isn't living under my house. And you know what really sucks? It doesn't thunder! We get thunderstorms about 5 times/year, usually in the middle of the night, and they last about 3 or 4 grumbles. I like thunder, dammit!

When I walk the dogs in the park behind the house, they look at me like I've just kicked them: "Do we really have to go out there? Damn cats get to pee in a box! Can't you just teach me to use the toilet? I promise not to miss! Betcha I do better than your boys!" I just wear beach sandals when walking them, because my shoes get soaked in seconds, and my feet turn blue. (Note to self: never buy blue leather loafers again. You look like an Avatar every time it rains. Red ones are even worse...)

I never understood why the little creek that runs through my town is called a river. It's only 2 ft wide! See?

Until it rains.... That 'creek' today is filling the entire concrete lined bed, 20+-feet wide and over 10 feet deep, and threatening to come over the banks. I don't know where all the turtles go, but they're somewhere out to sea...

But the rain is just the tip of the iceberg (what I wouldn't give to have a nice, Titanic-sized ice cube out in my yard, casting out waves of frigid moist air). The rain that doesn't fall is so much worse.

You know, humidity! If you're from Georgia, Louisiana, D.C,, or other such God-forsaken places, you understand what I mean, and have absolutely no pity for me. Well, GO AWAY, this is my pity party! In Colorado, 45% relative humidity is debilitating; in Japan, they issue dry-air warnings!

I'm talking about humidity so thick that stepping out of a shower doesn't allow you to get dry, it just means that the water doesn't run off quite as fast. Instead of that nice, cool shower at about 80 degrees, it's sweat and condensation at the energy-draining temp of 98.6 degrees (I took a shower before my Ladies' English Class today, and had a student ask me if my hair was wet because I had just taken a shower, or if it was sweat!).

Humidity which ensures that all of my children's shoes smell like the locker room from hell, and their gym bag of clothes from their intramural sports are even worse. When you have a cold drink, it condenses all over the outside of the glass, dripping on you when you take a drink, and making it look like Daddy's had an accident. Which ensures that clothes hung up to dry (most Japanese homes don't have a dryer - but that's another post) are just as wet the next morning, when you wash the next load. --My neighborhood laundromat is doing a booming business right now, the dryers are always full. But every time someone uses the sneaker dryer, I want to heave--

Which brings us to the other bane of my existence: dust. This humidity combines with the ever-present dust to make dustbunnies the size of Godzilla. You know, when I was a kid back in the mountains of Colorado, I used to sweep the floor (not often, mind you, only when Mom managed to catch me offguard) and watch 50% of it float away: "Ha, we'll just wait until you finish, then float back down and coat everything again!" Not in Japan. The dust clumps together, forming steel-wool gray snakes of sticky fluff that stick to everything. When you sweep, you have to reach down every few strokes and pull the crap off the bottom of the broom bristles, where it has congealed like gun-metal gray, week-old cotton candy

Well, I feel much better now, thank you for the cathartic release, but I think I'd better go. The perspiration is making my fingertips slip and I'm starting to type things like "llsifï¼”en#"od j(eiai98eri(&anedd".

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Beginning

The Beginning

A blog about the differences in perception and the everyday reality of life in Japan and English teaching to Japanese from a man who has spent the last 20 years in Japan, and a slightly outside perspective of the USA from an American who loves his country, but is neither blind to her foibles nor a rabid intellectual who only sees negatives.

Whew, what a mouthful!

What does it mean, exactly? Well, I’m just an American guy who ended up in Japan pretty much by accident, liked some things, disliked others, and came to terms with the cultural and lifestyle differences that make life overseas both challenging and rewarding. I’m not a Japanophile whose whole life has been centered by OnePiece, DeathNote, Sailor Moon or any other Japanese manga or animation. Nor do I run around in cute little costumes and frequent maid bars. But neither am I a Japan hater like you sometimes see, who is so full of vitriol that you wonder why the hell they don’t just get their complaining asses on a plane for home (where they probably bitch and moan just as much).

So, an introduction. I was working in Sports & Recreation in Denver back in 1990 when I felt an uncomfortable urge to head for new surroundings. So, instead of riding my bike down to the nearest mall for some shopping shock, instead of getting a job in Califor-ni-ya or New Yawk, I applied for a job with an English conversation school in Japan.

3 weeks later and I had the job and was waiting for my visa to come through. Next thing I knew, I was leaving LAX, Holst’s The Planets - Mars pounding through my little cassette player (dun, dun, da-da-da-dun, dun), and heading for the earthquake capital of the world…

What an adventure! Flying into Narita on a packed 747, I stood out like a blonde sore thumb on a black-haired hand (no hairy-palm jokes, please!). I managed to catch my connecting flight to Osaka, sweating profusely all the way (I’m from Colorado - we don’t know humidity from squat!). Think Deliverance, think swimming pool without walls! We were met at Osaka airport, and then proceeded to take the bullet train for another 2 hours.

Okayama was beautiful, except for the power lines everywhere, and the people were incredibly friendly. We were told to take Sunday to explore, and they’d see us Monday morning. Can you say “Sink or Swim”? Can’t read a lick, couldn’t do more than count to 10. But joy of joys, the menus have pictures! “Let’s try this!… That was good! Let’s try that!… Ooops, my bad…”

Went to the castle, which is really impressive from a distance.

Got close and saw that it is made of concrete; we bitched a little about that, until we realized why it had been rebuilt. (Americans looking uncomfortably at each other for a moment, Canadians proudly showing the flags sewn onto their backpacks)

After a week of training, we went out for a ‘graduation’ dinner, and I ate sushi for the first time (Colorado, remember?). And we ended up partying with damn near everyone in the restaurant. A big table of college students started sitting with us, inviting us to sit with them, buying us beers, and seeing what strange wigglies they could get us to eat. If only I could have treated them to an order of Rocky Mountain Oysters in return. (Note: Japanese food doesn’t have much fiber; you’ll go days without… going)

On that note, I’ll be back later…. ;-)

exercise for the reader: read the Wikipedia definition for “Rocky Mountain Oysters”. I’ve eaten them many times, but that definition made me cross my legs and cringe….