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….