27 December 2005
I think I earned my dinner.
26 December 2005
…ou plus simplement une façon de marquer ma joie d’être au monde et de voir clair.
A very rough translation is:
...or more simply, a way to record my joy to be in the world, and to see clearly.
(The translation is less-than-perfect, but) I couldn't have said it any better.
24 December 2005
There were two aspects of Buddhism that were hard for me to embrace. The first was the lack of a God in the Christian sense, the lack of someONE to whom I could specifically address my prayers. The second was a quote from a Buddhist monk, who said there was no need to convert to Buddhism, because I could find everything I needed within myself and within my "current" or "former" religion of practice. I read this and felt like a scolded child, like my efforts and readiness to accept something new were "silly." And for a long time I rejected this idea because I felt like it was rejecting me.
But it was always in the back of my mind, and slowly, I have come not only to accept it, but also to agree with it. I don't feel a need to divorce myself from Christianity, in hopes of finding a simpler, less "cluttered" spirituality. I have only to look past the violence and the complicated family trees of The Bible to find what I originally set out to discover somewhere else -- the message of unity and love. And being alone, in a foreign country of non-Christians on Christmas Eve, has taught me exactly that.
It's not that my family, or all those who celebrate Christmas with me, have not tried to teach me this already. But I think it's a journey you have to make on your own before you can fully appreciate it. Never has there been a more appropriate time for the quote that has almost become cliche:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time.
--T S Eliot
Merry Christmas. A new Merry Christmas; a simple Merry Christmas; one I feel like I am knowing for the first time.
I've never felt more content with God, or with the understanding that there are multiple paths to the same destination.
You are loved, there is hope for peace, and the rest is just details.
22 December 2005
Suddenly, there is the sensation of large, dry slugs sliding down the fronts of her thighs. The girl jumps and throws her head down in shock to realize that a boy has just shoved both his hands down her front pockets. She yanks them out and places them firmly by his sides, squeezing them tightly to send a clear message, despite the language barrier. She is the only person in the room who speaks English. Before she has a chance to move away from the distracted student, a young Japanese teacher wraps something around her head. A glance in the window shows her that it's a blue paper flower the size of a basketball. "Dance?" the teacher pleads, and drags her to the front of the classroom. She recognizes a Hawaiian aloha tune from the piano. The girl hesitates at the mini-stage, but someone pushes her to the middle as two more hands drape a lei (?) around her neck, on top of the grey wool scarf. "Dance, dance!?" the teacher begs. So covered in gloves, layers, a big paper flower and a plastic flower necklace, the girl unfolds some very ungraceful aloha moves. And in the middle of dancing, wishing she could blow her nose, or drink a cup of coffee, or be alone, she admits to herself for the first time, "I really, really hate this."
Was it so bad? Nah. In the grand scheme of things, it was nothing. But in that moment, she wanted to be anywhere else, and she still doesn't want to go back.
A few days later: that same girl is still cold. She just drank a very Japanese solution of powdered ginger in warm water, a gift from a friend who said it would "make [her] body hot." Luckily for her, she loves the stuff. She's in her apartment and little puffs of air are visible when she exhales. The music is on for the first time all day, and the volume is loud. She's singing and panting, bent over the tile floor in her shower, scrubbing with a bottle of cleaner that has a sparkling toilet bowl on the front. That toilet bowl is the only part of the packaging she can understand. But the drawn-on twinkles told her enough -- the liquid works wonders. Scrub scrub, hey! that black stuff is gone!
Despite the fact that she's recovering from a cold, her jeans are rolled up to her knees and she wears nothing on her feet (they're getting wet in the shower). The top of her, however, is of course layered in long underwear, sweaters, a scarf, and a wool hat. But this time, alone in her apartment, thinking about the people she loves, reflecting on a fun weekend, and singing, she's pretty damn happy.
And you gotta admit, wearing a hat inside is kind of funny.
21 December 2005
My school had a big blowout at a traditional inn down the coast. Of course there were hot springs, and the entire floor was tatami, even in the elevators. The best part, though, was that I was completely snug and warm for 24 hours straight. Central heating, big bath, and warm futon blankets. When my "roomies" settled down to sleep we looked like a cozy Japanese family -- 6 people side by side on futons on the floor.
But the important parts happened before we went to bed. Once all 60 teachers got to the hotel, we were like kids on a field trip. Everyone (finally) in casual clothes, running around, checking out the rooms, and playing on the elevator. After a thorough inspection of the place, we threw down our bags, practiced our comedy routine, ate a huge traditional dinner (complete with speeches, toasts, bowing, and raw unidentifiable sea creatures), enjoyed the performances, drank some more, bathed, and finally curled up to sleep. It was such a bonding experience and, even though I've spent time with teachers outside of school, this was the first time everyone has been so relaxed and in the same place. Each teacher has so much personality, and being with them in a different environment was the highlight of the trip.
Here are some random things and explanations of the above pictures. Unfortunately, some of the pictures are too dark because the banquet room was so big. Also, I have no control over the arrangement of pics when I post. But I'll explain the best I can.
- Everyone draws a number to determine where to sit; all the seats are on the floor along the walls.
- The festivities begin by toasting and everybody takes the first drink at once.
- During the meal the rookies (youngest teachers) hop inside the circle and move around serving, pouring drinks, and making small talk with as many people as possible.
- After all drinking, eating, and performing is finished, the evening comes to an official close when everybody claps once, simultaneously.
- I performed with Mayumi, Migiwa Sensei, and Takayuki Sensei. His costume is crazy because he did an impression of a very famous, very gay Japanese comedian called "Hard Gay Leather Lemon." Mayumi and I impersonated a band called Pink Lady, which was famous about 20 years ago. Migiwa is dressed as a maid, representing this new breed of Japanese dork entertainment, where maids serve weirdo dorky guys in shops that are a combination of arcades, cafes, and comic book stores. I can't explain how dork-serving maids, Pink Lady, and Hard Gay combined to form one 10-minute comedy skit, but trust me, it was absolutely hilarious. They loved us.
- The PE teachers--former national soccer stars--ALSO did an impression of Pink Lady, but their costume interpretation was slightly different from ours. (The picture is really dark, but look closely.)
- I missed Jun's skit because I was preparing my costume, but he did something as a reindeer with a bowtie.
- The principal and vice-principal performed last, pretending to be members of a boy-band, complete with cheesey (cheesy?) boy-band dance moves.
16 December 2005
- Today a teacher began toting a new coffee mug. It's covered in a Jamaican flag, a huge 5-pointed leaf, and the declaration, "Marijuana can't be that bad for me."
- The Japan Times ran an article about a Snoopy doll for sale in Tokyo. The beloved cartoon character, cast in platinum and gold, is going for the little tune of 5.5 million dollars.
- Since I'm on my 3rd cold, I needed to buy more tissues. I grabbed the cheapest ones and the packaging says, "Your skin will be touched softly and gently by 100% high quality pulp."
- Oh, Japan. No further comment.
12 December 2005
When my school has an enkai (drinking party), we go all out, heading for the best bars and restaurants in town. Tonight, the vice-principal couldn't make it, but he threw in 100 bucks out of his pocket just so we could have an extra-good time on a school night. I was out with my co-workers but I felt like I was out with my best friends (in Japan, of course). And that, dear readers, is why I am happy in this place. Connections among people.
People make everything.
08 December 2005
05 December 2005
I went to Tokyo with Mayumi and Jun. It was a whirlwind trip. I saw some great sights, bought some new clothes, ate at a great sushi place, and learned some more Japanese.
I was reminded a couple times why Mayumi is such an awesome friend, and why Jun can be such a nice guy.
I tried uni, raw sea urchin ovary. I mustered the guts a lot sooner than I expected. Uni is small, yellow-brown, mushy like firm hummus, and tastes absolutely gross. A pasty, chemical + grossly-biological taste. I'll stick with my raw tuna and seaweed, thanks.
I pushed through some barriers on purpose and had a very interesting discussion on love (and expressions of love) with Mayumi and Jun. Hopefully more on this later.
I ate some authentic-tasting Italian food.
I got an amazing email about the Duke game. I won't spoil it for those of you who may have taped the game without watching it yet.
Mt. Fuji is covered in snow, and all day you can see the wind whisping the flakes into a crowning cloud.
I tried to keep up the self-sufficient thing, and decided against asking Mayumi for help getting a kerosene refill. (She's my friend, but she still has her own life. It's not her job to cart me around just because I don't have a car. I thought I should do it on my own. Besides, I thought I was being Japanese, by thinking of the "group" and not inconveniencing anyone else.) So, I made it to the gas station in the freezing cold, asked for the correct fuel in Japanese, and dragged that darn thing back to the bus stop. I had to stop every 10 steps to switch hands. The container was HEAVY, and the handle was too small to use 2 hands at once.
The first bus came, and let people off, but for some mysterious reason didn't let me on. I thought the bus driver didn't see me, because it was pitch-black, even though it was only 5pm. I was disappointed but resigned myself to waiting, 20 minutes in 40-degree weather, for the next bus. I had put on extra clothes in preparation for this trip. But there was no way I was making the 30-minute walk home with 50 pounds of kerosene bumping against my thighs. I waited and waited, blew my runny nose, and waited some more. The next bus came, and let people off, but again totally ignored me and did not open the door for me to get on. I was stunned and this time, heartbroken. (Keep in mind I was already having an usually rough day.) Why did he not let me on the bus? Was it the huge jug of kerosene? I had considered this before I left my apartment -- maybe kerosene on a public bus was a safety hazard. But the bus took me TO the gas station, with the jug in full sight. So why wouldn't it take me BACK? Why didn't they even try to speak to me? This was the last frustrating straw in a very emotional day. I wanted to cry. And in fact, I sat on my damn kerosene, in the cold, in the dark, by the side of the rode, and I did just that. I held my head in my hands until the metal in my earrings began to freeze and hurt my earlobes. A few minutes later I stood up, dragged that jug of kerosene down to my school (where I knew Mayumi would still be), and asked for a ride home.
I felt ashamed. But as Mayumi lifted the jug into her car, she squealed, "Are you crazy? Why didn't you ask me for help?" Then I burst into a big story about how I didn't want her to feel used, I wanted to do it myself, and not bother her or depend on her. She was my friend, not my chauffeur. She looked at me and said, "Lauren, sometimes I think you are actually Japanese. But in this case, you don't understand. No one can live a life alone. You don't have a car. So don't be stupid - just ask me for a ride!" I bit my lip but I promised her that next time, I would.
After that Mayumi and I sat in her parked car and talked for a long time. I needed to have that conversation. Lately I've just felt like the shit has begun to hit the fan, if it's possible for that to happen in waves. The whole attempt to assimilate in another country has taken me farther than I expected, faster than I expected. Some of the results are amazing, beautiful, and powerfully transforming. But others are not so pretty. When you enter the JET Program, if you take it seriously, you are signing on to accept an explosion of your social circles. People who never care to keep in touch with friends wouldn't have this problem. But I want to make sure all the people I love really know that I love them. So one leg is running in Japan, so smoothly it scares me. One leg is planted at home in water. By home I mean all the family, friends, and experiences I had before Japan. I say water because you know it's there and it's necessary for life. But water is also something that moves, changes, and takes the shape of its container, yet is impossible to pin down. It's really hard to run with one foot down a new path that you love more and more, and stand in water with the other. However, it should still be possible -- right? Because you have two feet!
But you're forgetting about the JET Program and that third leg you sprouted when you met all the other ALTs! Americans and British and Irish and Australians and Scottish people that, like you, are foreigners in Japan. You think you're in the same boat, and that you should all bond over common struggles in Japan. And you want to maintain good relations, because you think you're supposed to be friends with other people "like you" on the JET Program. The problem is, everyone assimilates at various speeds, to different capacities. Some people hate Japan, or dislike it at least, and you don't want to be around negativity when you're happy. Some people like Japan okay, and don't want to complain, but are clearly uncomfortable with the differences in your experiences. Others just don't care and it's like they never left home. But all of them, somehow (except for 1 or 2), make you feel more out of place than if you were just hanging around with your Japanese friends. And then you feel like a poser, or a traitor or something, for "forgetting your roots," or leaving behind what you know, or becoming too Japanese, or being naive because you're still "in the honeymoon stage."
And the weirdest part of all is when you realize your values are changing, and it begins to affect your everyday life. You gauge your interactions with Japanese by Japanese standards. And then you start to adopt their values, or realize their values match your own, and you can really flesh out your own way of doing things by being in a new culture. But you forget that you are changing! You think it's just you all along! (Maybe it was, and America socialized you into acting a different way!) So when you interact with other ALTs, or people from home, you start gauging your experiences with them by Japanese standards. And then you get so confused, and feel like you're being pulled in so many directions, and wondering what is best for you without rejecting too many things from Japan or too many things from your previous life that the next thing you know, you're sitting on kerosene and crying because the bus driver didn't even try to speak to you in Japanese. And you think, if he had just said, "No toyu on the bus," in any language, you would have understood.
02 December 2005
-I like chocolate.
By this point, my supervisor and I have had many of what I'd call mini-bonding experiences. One of the best ones by far was the day she brought me a box of Japan's newly-marketed 72% cacao chocolate. I was so delighted I thougt my eyebrows were going to shoot off my forehead. And she was so excited to give it to me, in fact, that her husband complained, "Why did you only buy Lauren a box? Why not one for me too?" Also, when I opened the chocolate Mom and Dad sent I felt such bliss it was like coming home.
-I have a weird little stomach.
I like to eat about every 2-3 hours. Literally. And I like to eat about a handfull at a time. I like a warm, heavier meal for lunch (chicken curry, can't beat that in cold weather), and a small thing for dinner (salad, yogurt, and God forbid - cereal). I have explained my strange eating schedule about as many times as I have consumed food. Aren't you hungry? Don't you like it? Aren't you American? Food at 9:30 in the morning - did you not eat breakfast? Do you cook? And to all of these questions, I very calmly answer, "Yes." I like the food, I cook a lot of it, I'm American, and if I'm still alive you can bet your rear I ate breakfast. If I haven't eaten by the time you see me, I either have a crazy Japanese medical check-up or I'm deathly ill and you should rush me to the ER. Because a huge part of my peace and happiness is based on my eating, I just don't bother trying to conform to the 3 square meals a day social ritual. I go out to eat if friends go out to eat, but other than that, the food thing I do on my own. It makes me much happier. Now I understood what happened in France, eating like I do all day long, wanting very little at night, but always sitting down to a 3-course meal with 3 matching glasses of wine.
-I like feeling self-sufficient.
Living in Japan is often like my image of living on a farm. I say this for two reasons: I don't have a car, and my apartment is old. All the water heaters are gas, including the one for the shower, and if I want to create heat in one room I must do the following:
1) grumble about the lack of central heating
2) force myself to get up and put on 3 more layers of clothing
3) open the kerosene heater trap door and pull out the big metal box
4) lug the big metal box outside, where it is pitch black and cold, to my locker where the small tank of kerosene is stored
5) open the tank, open the box, grab the plastic pump and pretend to perform very crude surgery as I pump, pump, pump the refill kerosene into the empty box
6) pretend it's dawn, instead of pitch-black at 7pm, and that I have gotten up early to go milk the cows and watch my breath form little clouds
7) pump, pump, pump and damn it's cold
8) store the tank and the pump, shut the box lid and lug it back up to my aparment
9) insert box into heater, wait for the glub glub of kerosene refill
10) press START button on heater
12) wait 5 minutes for the warmth
Then I feel totally satisfied with what I "did all by myself," as proud as if I had accomplished all of those steps on brain-power alone. There's something to be said for the little, daily labors slowly eased and erased by technology. I used to take being warm for granted: Cold? Walk to the thermostat and push that dial to the right. Voila. And even though maintaining my previous level of comfort takes a lot more time and effort, I must acknowledge the fact that I am lucky to have an apartment that gets cold in the first place, and I am lucky to have the money to buy the kersone. It's easy to complain, but after I've done something so necessary to my existence, without consulting anybody, I feel so good. And I'm not cold anymore, either.
- I am a frugal big-spender.
For some reason, the more money I make, the more I want to keep. I'll refuse to spend a lot of money on something I need (a new kotatsu, for instance), and go for weeks spending a minimal amount of dough. I bought bath towels, in the exact color I wanted, for 2 bucks at the dollar store. (I happen to prefer thin towels, thank you!) But if I've wanted something for a while, like a specific bottle of perfume that would cost 30 times my bath towels, I feel totally comfortable spending the money. It's all about discrimination -- the good kind, that is.
30 November 2005
One quote in particular I really wanted to share. A Japanese woman and her husband moved to Australia, and the way she describes the language barrier is EXACTLY the way I feel:
"How strange it was to hear words emerge in a language not that of her thoughts...[but] at the same time she made surprising discovery: that for most day-to-day purposes she really didn't need language, for her lack of English posed few difficulties. How oddly insubstantial words turned out to be! The remarks exchanged regularly over tea or cocktails weren't words, she concluded, but a succession of polite noises. When she lived in Tokyo, her everyday conversations had had just as little weight, and yet it wasn't until she'd encountered them in a different language that she noticed how slight -- and monotonous -- they could be." ~ "Betty-San," Michiko Yamamoto
I didn't feel this in France because, well, I could speak in that country.
And then an (American) friend shared this Japanese proverb with me: "Words are the root of all evil." Really, I think fear is the root of all evil. But unless you're trying to create something (literature), usually words just spew out and make a big mess. Despite how much I like to write, and blab on this blog, I'm starting to think that actions are much more elegant. Maybe that's why I wanted to join Maxwell. You didn't have to make small-talk at the parties, you just danced.
28 November 2005
This is no small task, as I could already fill a closet in my well-designed + ample storage-space apartment. But just think how rewarding it would be, to size-up your enormous stash of desserts at the end of the year, and say to yourself, "Damn, I could have eaten all that." Then instead of eating them, you examine the little packages to relive the time and event, as if the frosted cakes were actually dusty photos, documenting all the good and bad things that happened to people you care about.
In the past two days I've received about 7 omiyage, some western and some very Japanese. They all came from people I know fairly well, and they were all given for meaningful reasons: a thank-you for helping a student pass her English exam, a symbol because someone's mother-in-law passed away, a token of friendship after visiting a family in another town, a gift to keep me warm during the winter...etc. etc. In other words, people don't just throw gifts around in Japan because it's tradition and they can't remember why they started in the first place. There's always a reason behind it. For the average American this is still overwhelming, because I want to pay it all back. I want to do nice things for all these people. But I don't know when they learned to keep up!
It may sound strange, to say that getting a pear tart or getting a blanket from someone is enough to change your mindset. But the circumstances are so broad, yet so intricate...that you just get confused and begin to realize you are changing somehow, without really knowing where you're going. Relationships have so many dimensions, and cultures have so many ways of expressing them.
21 November 2005
Anyway. Because of her brief alliance with this very traditional family, she learned a lot of traditional Japanese arts: how to cook, how to knit, how to wear a kimono. She offered to teach Mayumi and me, and we gladly accepted. So next year, right after New Year's, she'll dress us in her (silk!!) kimonos, and we'll go pray at a shrine, and then have tea in a garden. This is all worth mentioning because: the time we chose to get dressed was very important. Because kimonos are tied so tightly around your waist, we had to carefully coordinate an eating, meeting, and dressing schedule, to give our stomachs ample time to shrink back down to acceptable, traditional, Japanese women-sized stomachs that will stay obediently contained by silk kimono sashes. The scene was just really interesting to me: three 20-something women discussing when and how much to eat so they can properly fit into a centuries-old style of dress. And agreeing on what time we would simultaneously, but independently, eat lunch was the most important and difficult part of the planning.
What you want to communicate: That smells horrible/rank/disgusting/worse than gym socks mixed with camembert left outside on a Fuji City summer day.
What you say: That kind of doesn't really smell too good.
This kind of indirectness is one of the most fascinating things about Japanese culture...just because it's so different from my own. In America, it takes guts to be direct, guts that are usually admired. In Japan, it's just rude and tasteless. I thought writing was the only art form with words, but it turns out speaking is an art as well. I'm trying to improve my skills.
I still don't know when it will work again.
But I found a free hour at work and wanted to update on some random things:
-The guy rules are totally different in Japan. I guess America is always homophobic compared to other countries...but Japanese guys have no qualms touching, or standing with arms around each others' waists, shoulders, etc. The most unusual one is that they will massage each other in class. There's always a leader, and the guys around him will take turns massaging his hands or calves WHILE class is going on! I seem to be the only one who thinks it's weird. Even if I walk up to them in class, to check their work or answer a question, they just look up at me innocently, one hand on the pencil and one hand on someone else's shoulder, back, hand, etc. Sometimes it makes me uncomfortable, but it's completely normal for them. When I first saw this I thought the guy was hurt, so I asked if he was okay, and it was clear they had no idea why I thought he might be injured. This also happens at John's school, so it's not just my students. Hmm.
-A couple weekends ago, a teacher I met at the disabled/special school invited me to play tennis with her family. (Dad, Mom, Coach Crump, thank you thank you -- you have no idea how many friends I've made from tennis). She picked me up at 9am. I expected to meet her parents, play for a couple hours, then return home. Ohhhh, no. We met at a tennis club and played rounds of doubles with 15 - 20 other people for about 3 hours. (I still have the blisters to prove it.) "So now," I thought, exhausted, "it must be time to go home." Wrong! They invited me for lunch, and I was thrilled, because I was starving. I thought lunch = restaurant. Wrong again. The people spread tarps and blankets on the ground, made tables out of cement blocks and 2 X 4s, and hooked up mini gas stoves to cook a parking-lot feast of: yakisoba, seafood curry, salad, more salad, rice, and tons and tons of alcohol, from red wine and beer to cold sake and hot sake (served from a pitcher with a fish inside, so that when you poured the hot sake little flakes of fish skin were deposited in your cup. It was actually pretty good). So, lunch was a huge production, and the people were incredibly friendly, and everyone offered me their best dishes. It was delicious. When I was full, tired, sweaty, tipsy, and sleepy, I thought, "So now...it really must be time to go home." NOPE! These die-hard tennis people, after drinking 3 times the beer I did, got back out there TO PLAY MORE TENNIS! I couldn't believe my eyes! I was so tired and tipsy -- how on earth did they hit the ball?? Luckily, my teacher friend was tired as well. After 3 hours of tennis and 2 hours of eating, we went back to her place for a nap while her PARENTS continued to play. Then we met them again for a "light" dinner of various fried foods. They said "light," I kid you not. What they meant by "light" was "small." And...after that, we went home. So my day was about 10 times crazier than I expected, but the food and exercise were great and I was happy to have made another friend.
On Monday, another teacher asked how I spent the weekend. He's one of my "tennis buddies," so I proudly said, "I played tennis -- for SO long!"
"Oh really?" he asked, genuinely intrigued. "How long?"
"Three hours!" I said, with such finality, and I waited for him to be impressed.
"Only three hours?" he said. "That's not so long!"
If I had a tail, it would have been between my legs.
17 November 2005
Fuji – San
I have lived in Fuji City a mere four months. But I don’t think it’s brash to claim that I already know how to love Mt. Fuji.
When I photocopy lesson plans, when I struggle to recall the name of a sea urchin’s ovary but confuse it with the word for raw salmon eggs, when my students’ eyes light up because they have made me laugh, when I’m thinking about something so hard all I see is my right foot, my left foot, and my right foot again on the sidewalk…in any of these moments, I might happen to look up. And there is Mt. Fuji.
Just there, like she was the day before. So stereotypically huge, yet so freshly unimposing – unaware that she exists, much less that she is beautiful. (I say “she” because my friend Mayumi insists that Mt. Fuji is a woman. And without asking for an explanation, I agree.)
I realize that I have a lot in common with her. Maybe the humidity reflects so much light that she is invisible – the clouds are an illusion that look not like the shroud of an ancient volcano, but like an open gap in the landscape. Maybe at dusk she is blushing in the naked wink of the sun. Maybe you can barely discern the vague trace of her shape, and in the dark you are left to wonder about the living texture of her body. Maybe the snow, shocking in its purity, has crept to the tree-line that is finally visible after the haze of summer.
Every day there is something new to learn, but every day I know that she remains. Perhaps the spirit of Mt. Fuji is not really a woman. But I think within every woman, there is the spirit of Mt. Fuji. Unlike the Japanese word for salmon egg, this understanding need not be taught.
16 November 2005
When I photocopy lesson plans, when I wave good-bye to the cross-country team, when I struggle to recall the name of a sea urchin’s ovary but confuse it with the word for raw salmon eggs, when my students’ eyes light up because their American teacher is laughing, when I’m thinking about something so hard all I see is my right foot, my left foot, and my right foot again on the sidewalk…in any of these given moments, I might happen to look up. And there is Mt. Fuji.
Just there, like she was the day before. So stereotypically huge and majestic, yet so freshly modest and unimposing – unaware that she exists, much less that she is beautiful. (I say “she” because Mayumi insists Mt. Fuji is a woman. And without asking for an explanation, I agree with her). Every day Fuji changes, but every day she is there. When I notice this, I realize that I have a lot in common with her.
Maybe the humid Fuji sky reflects so much light that she is invisible – the clouds have become an illusion that look not like the shroud of an ancient volcano, but like an open, empty gap in the landscape. Maybe you can barely discern the vague trace of her shape, and you are left to wonder about the living texture of her body. Maybe the snow, shocking in its purity, has crept to the tree-line that is finally visible after the haze of summer. Maybe at dusk she is blushing, embarrassed by the naked wink of the sun.
Every day I learn something new about her. But as time reveals her changes, I always learn that she remains. Perhaps the spirit of Mt. Fuji is not really a woman. But I think within every woman there is the spirit of Mt. Fuji. Unlike the Japanese word for salmon egg, it is an understanding that needs not be taught.
10 November 2005
Anyway, this guy spent his college days in America in the 70s. As a result, he loves (American) 70s music, which is kind of a novelty in Japan. When we talk about Lynyrd Skynyrd or CCR I feel like we're speaking a language no one else understands. He boasted about his collection of 1200 CDs, and today he brought in some Lynyrd Skynyrd albums for me to borrow -- all 6 of them.
Tsunoda Sensei saw Lynyrd Skynyrd in concert, in America, one month before their plane crash. He said this as we both happened to be staring at the album entitled, "Endangered Species." We noticed it at the same time, looked at each other, and cracked up.
I don't think anyone else I know in Japan would have gotten that joke. It felt good.
So I pulled open the door and stepped into Mos Burger.
Welcome to the McDonald's of Japan, and for now please ignore the fact that no one would appreciate that comparison. It's a chain burger joint, where the chicken nuggets are seafood tempura and the milkshakes are 5 times smaller (and 5 times better) than the ones at McDonald's. Just right.
I ordered a cheeseburger and a coffee shake. I considered my stack of newly-acquired library books: The History of Sake; Body Language (I know, but I can't help myself); and Interpreter of Maladies. The library had a decent collection of foreign books. And I was pretty satisfied because that transaction had occured completely in Japanese, without any hang-ups.
My burger skills, however, weren't so hot. Right before I paid, the cashier asked me something totally incomprehensible. A cook had to come around the corner to help.
"Here?" he asked in Japanese. "You eat here?"
Of course! "For here or to go?" -- what else would they ask at a fast-food place? Hah.
I smiled, paid, and sat down at the corner table by the window. I opened a book and a few minutes later the food arrived. Maybe it's because I was starving, or maybe it's because I don't remember the last time I ate a hamburger. But it was good. Nihon burger bliss.
05 November 2005
1) Some people will disagree with this post. That's lovely.
2) I am not pretending to fully understand all the ideas that I'm about to throw out.
3) I do not speak for every other woman on the planet -- just me.
I just received my recontracting papers in the mail. In short, I must decide whether or not to leave Japan after one year, or stay for two. John, the other ALT, is decidedly staying for two. I was discussing with him the possibility of leaving after only one year, telling him about my goals for Japan and my goals for the rest of my life. After hitting on many subjects, most of which were not related to love or romance, he snickered, turned his head to one side, looked at me shrewdly from the corner of his eyes and said accusingly,
"You just want to get married."
I don't remember how I responded, but I can promise you, I was pissed off.
The first time I played a friendly game of doubles at my high school, Jun was my partner like he has been every time since. We were paired against two older men and, despite the differences in age, sex, and serving ability, we were well-matched for an exciting game of tennis. For some reason, though, I had trouble keeping score. I felt like an idiot because the three men had to correct me constantly when I called out the points. Not until the game was over did I realize why I had been confused: without informing me, they all decided that Jun and I should get a 2 - game handicap, because I was a woman. "But," they told me, "we think you are more skilled than most women, so next time you won't get the handicap." (Jun and I won the match.) Oh, joy. Then one teacher rattled of Japanese, and the other two men laughed. "What'd he say?" I asked. An English teacher hesitated before translating, "He said your volleys are better than his. He doesn't like it."
This reminds me of the time I played Halo with a bunch of Maxwell guys, and it wasn't until after the game they told me why I managed to stay alive for so long: they had all agreed to the rule that no one was allowed to shoot at me unless I engaged first. Unlike tennis, I really did suck at Halo, but this still pissed me off. I asked to play with them because I wanted to play with them. I didn't want special treatment.
Going back to John's "you just want to get married" comment. First of all, why does he say it like he's accusing me of something? Most guys act like this, and many women do, too: it's wrong, weak, old-fashioned, dependent, unadventurous and shrewish to desire marriage. Not to mention, everyone knows that marriage is a trap into which all women try to lure all unsuspecting men, with the single goal of making them feel miserable, trapped, and bored for the rest of their lives. In my experience, all guys seem to think all women want this. Guys want to sleep with you, and they have no qualms voicing these desires. But if you let on that what you prefer to a string of meaningless, soon-to-be-boring-if-not-confusing hookups is a real, intimate and fulfulling relationship with one person...well then by God, "you just want to get maried," and men should avoid you and your traps at all costs.
Second, what John "accused" me of is simply not true. My young-womanhood fantasy does not involve me running back to the US, spending my spare time curling my hair and reading Cosmo, desperately bar- and/or church-hopping to find Mr. Right, who will then propose to me and solve all my "single gal problems." No. Listen-up, fellas, this is what I really want. This is my fantasy:
Return to the States and live in an exciting, relatively traffic-free city with cultural events aplenty and fast, easy access to a pristine lake in the mountains where a shell awaits me constantly and in excellent condition. I will live --newflash!-- not under the same roof as a fiance or husband, but alone. I will happily and ambitiously pursue my dream job as a successful novelist and creator of real literature, not a columnist or blogger or any of the other forms of writing I see as the "junk food" of literature. I will get regular exercise and be a fantastic cook. Then, unexpectedly and without trying, I will meet a man and we will fall madly in love. He, in turn, will live alone, and he will also ambitiously pursue his dream-job that allows him to be financially independent. He will have his circle of guy friends with whom he can go out drinking, bowling, rock-climbing, or whatever it is he enjoys doing. And I of course will have my circle of girl friends, with whom I can talk about everything, shop, exchange cooking recipes and yoga routines. Our lives will be full and exciting, with the comfort of knowing that my significant other is there for me. And I, in turn, will be there for him. We will spend our time together relaxing--not bitching or complaining about work or stupid people--but visiting museums, going hiking, checking out new restaurants and bars, having intellectual discussions, watching college basketball, going on romantic picnics, reading in parks, playing tennis, going to hear quartets, staying on the couch all night to watch movies, grilling steaks and drinking red wine. Sometimes we'll cook together and then do dishes together. But the laundry, the vacuuming, the picking-up and the money-earning will be done on our own, independently, because we ultimately live in our own spaces. We'll have the comfort of loving and being loved enough to marry the other person, but we will also have the freedom and the space necessary to be truly happy in such a close, committed relationship.
Then maybe, when I'm about 30, I'd like to marry this man, and take a brief hiatus from my career to raise our two beautiful children. I refuse to be one of those women who insists she can "have it all" and do everything at once, because that just triples her workload and makes her more tired, stressed, resentful, and frazzled than I ever care to be. One thing at a time, and I will make the most of everything.
Happily unwed until the day that I am wed.
Hopefully this is as "Carrie Bradshaw" as I get. :) Now she's an adjective.
PS -- There is nothing in here to suggest I cannot have all this with a man I've already met.
02 November 2005
Then John insisted we hike to the grocery store in the freezing wind. I cursed him then but thanked him later when I had real food to cook.
After that, I was swept away by some Japanese friends who took me to the top of an unnamed mountain in an undisclosed location for a night-view of our city from many miles away. Very romantic. But the evening would not be complete without an arcade visit, where we spent most of the time taking those ridiculous tiny pictures kids like to stick on notebooks. We put so many fake stars, hearts, bubbles, and cherry blossoms on the digital printous that you can hardly see us. But if you're in Japan, you can't pass up the chance to play in a photo booth -- especially one big enough for three people. I came home happy and exhausted.
Then I got up for a day I'd been dreading for a long time. I'm not proud of that statement, but it is true nonetheless. I had to teach at a school for mentally and physically handicapped children. I will visit 9 more times before the end of the year, teaching kids of various ages with various disabilities. I have no clue what I'm doing.
This morning I was surprised to enter a beautiful, gleaming facility that was 5 times cleaner (and larger) than my own. Students clean my school, like most places in Japan...so you can imagine how humbling it was to learn that the handicapped kids are the ones responsible for their school, too. It was incredible.
Like almost all my experiences in Japan, I arrived unsure of what to expect, but was immediately comforted by the warmth and friendliness of Japanese people. The other teachers were so kind and appreciative of my time (once again, a humbling experience) and the children seemed thrilled to see me. They were so beautiful. I don't remember the last time I saw such raw, genuine, unguarded smiles. One little girl couldn't speak to me, so I timidly reached out to touch her hand. (The teachers were encouraging me to shake hands, "English-style.") I was afraid she'd withdraw because 1) I don't look Japanese, 2) I was a stranger, and 3) my hands were incredibly cold. But when I touched her hand, the smile that melted across her face made me burst into tears. I was so embarrassed and angry at myself for thinking that these children were so different and so less fortunate than I am. Before I met them, I pitied them. Many of them lead difficult lives, yes. But so many of them were happy, and responsive, and so real they couldn't have been anything but beautiful. The elementary kids were thrilled to shout out numbers and even more excited when I gave them stickers for it. I even got to use some Japanese and speak with them during lunch. ("What are you doing tomorrow? Is that delicious? Mine is delicious too! Do you like school? Do you like soccer?") And after that, I went outside to watch them ride bikes on the playground. They organized races by themselves, and I helped them count down to "blast off!" in English...
All in all, my day was tense and definitely exhausting. But the way I felt was so different from what I expected: I didn't feel sorry for these kids. I felt grateful because they were making me smile.
And if there were ever any doubts in my mind, today just reinforced the fact that if I have children, I'm gonna be one fierce mother. I'm terrified that I'll love my kids so much I just won't know what to do with myself.
Phew! I've got a while. :)
31 October 2005
You get what you settle for.
Or, for the English critics, "You get that for which you settle." Yes, I am aware of the preposition rule.
I saw this on a Maxwell friend's profile about 4 months ago, and it's been nagging me ever since. Why? I have tried to live my whole life knowing full and well why I do the things I do, going for what I really want, and never settling for anything. Living like this does not come without consequences (people saying you're too picky, too uptight, or you struggle to maintain a balance between achievement and contentment, etc.) But perhaps I just hit the nail on the head: the balance between achievement and contentment is something I've been trying to figure out ever since a great conversation in Norway about 3 years ago. I can't see where my life is going. I believe that, at this point, I can still make it anything I want. I am happy with where my life has been...but I am no closer to answering this question than I was before.
I think Thelma and Louise got to me because I can feel myself sliding more and more into the contentment side of things. If you're happy with the way things are, you stop striving for so much. I can't decide if this is good or bad. It also makes me feel like I'm getting older. I remember learning in my Developmental Psych class that the older people get, the more content they become with the way things are. They come to accept their decisions and their places in life, and they stop worrying so much about "getting somewhere" else. But should I allow myself to fall into that comfort mode so soon? I think not! But it's starting to happen! Help!
Or, should I just be happy about it, and let it all go? Go with the flow, go where the wind takes me, what happens happens, and I'll be content with whatever.
As much as I agree with Buddhism, this is the snag that gets me every time: if you're content NOW, there's no reason to IMPROVE. Which side of this coin is more important? The obvious answer is, "Well both, of course. You have to find a balance." But that's taking the easy way out. Right now, I AM LIVING the balance...yet this question is still bothering me after 3 years.
I want to shout, "Settling is bad! Keep going! Always strive for the absolute best!"
But are those really my own thoughts, or someone else's?
Goethe said, "When you trust yourself, you will know how to live."
But if your self is telling you two different, diametrically opposed things...you're stuck.
Who was Goethe, anyway?
30 October 2005
When I get to school, the first thing I see is a circle of construction workers. (The gym is under repair to better withstand earthquakes.) Every morning at 8 am the construction men--decked out in hard hats and knickers that date back a few centures--stand in a circle to stretch, bend, and pliee (sp?) their way to flexibility for a productive day of gym repair. Because they all stretch in unison to an obvious count, it looks like ballet class. A ballet class of Japanese men in hard hats and knickers.
28 October 2005
24 October 2005
Nobody told me the teacher soccer teams were mainly MEN. Mayumi and I were the only women on the field. And we subbed for each other, so we were never playing at the same time. The whole second half, I was the only woman out there, and of course the only foreigner at the school. When Mayumi handed over her jersey, she said, "They're afraid of offending women, so when the ball comes to you, they won't get close." She was right. I did manage to get my foot on the ball a couple times, but that's as far as my ten-year-rusty soccer skills would take me tonight. But have no doubt, I had an absolute blast. All the teachers, including the prinicipal and vice-principal, plus the guys' baseball team, and the guys' soccer team, were cheering for us. It was embarrassing, yes, especially when the baseball team kept yelling something at me that I couldn't understand. And we lost 0 - 3. But nobody really cares -- they're just happy to be out there participating. And that is what makes me happy, too.
I think Maxwell House--if not my high school tennis team--was a good introduction to be part of a group. Maxwell was close, but other than party preparations, there was not much group effort or codependence. The goal was mainly to have fun together, which fostered a group mentality, but only to a certain extent. It goes way beyond that in Japan. Unless you never participate in school activities (which some ALTs choose to do) you are immediately expected to be part of the group. And the more you get involved, the more you get involved. (There's an away soccer game next Monday! I'm going!)
I'm so used to working and doing and pursuing on my own -- granted, I do everything with the support of many loving people, and for that I am grateful. But in the ultimate moments, I am alone. I am American. I'm strong. Hence, I'm independent, and "alone" is a good thing. But not in Japan. If you make an initial, genuine effort to get involved, Japan offers a positive group mentality that I've never experienced--and don't think I could ever experience--in the United States. Now, this does not mean I know everyone well, or that everyone is my friend. That is certainly not the case. At first, I even felt smothered by this system. If you spend all day at work with the same people, why would you want to socialize with them after hours? Don't you need to get away? But I tried to supress that reaction (which I blame on American culture, if not my own ideals) and just go with the flow. These are your people, and you chose to come here, so fall in line with everyone else. When in Rome... And as you gradually get used to it, and start to understand things a tiny bit more, you come to appreciate it so much. I am accorded a certain amount of respect for showing up and participating, which I am in turn expected to show others. And because I do make an effort to show others that respect, I feel like I have a purpose. There is an understanding that everyone needs, and therefore helps, everyone else. Some of my closer friends have told me that I'm lucky, because the people at my school are friendlier than most. And I think this is true, but if you look for this anywhere in Japan, you'd know what I'm talking about.
I guess being the foreign girl, I get lucky with both sides of the coin -- I get the benefits of the group, but because I stand out so much, I also get individual attention that is really undeserved, but given to me anyway.
And then I get to come home to my own apartment, and be truly alone, for the first time in 12 hours. And I can't help but think of everyone in the States, the people who love me even though I am all the way over here. For right now, I don't know how else to give anyone a part of this, or share it, except to write this silly blog, and send ridiculous emails, and hope they make you happy.
How lucky we are to be where we are. Take care.
And today, there's a teacher soccer match against another high school. I don't play soccer, but participation is "mandatory" for young, single people. So after I help carry out gallons of hot tea and miso soup, I'll be kicking a ball for the first time in, oh...10 years. Damn I'm old. :) It's pitch black and freezing outside, but I'm excited anyway.
Last time I played soccer I was in braces. Maybe tonight my lips will stay in one piece.
22 October 2005
-- Sogyal Rinpoche
20 October 2005
Yesterday a guy friend IMed me with the greeting, "I will never understand the female mind." And to this I replied, "Honestly, me neither." I tried to help him, but who knows if any real progress was made.
The American guy here and I fight all the time -- more than I've ever fought with anyone. It's ridiculous and the "discussion" is always the same. It begins:
"Wow she's hot" or "You look good in that" or "Why don't you drink some more alcohol?" or (so classy), "There's my baby's mamma."
Then, I respond with something resembling the following: "Could you save those comments for your guy friends? I'm not a guy. You sound so chauvinistic."
He says, "I'm not chauvinistic. You're a femme-nazi."
She says, "All you look for in a woman is her body. I feel like you don't respect me at all. And if by pointing that out, I become a femme-nazi, that just proves my point even further. Let's not hang out anymore."
He says, "Fine."
And I feel relieved and happy for a little bit.
Until we start hanging out again.
Real mature, I know, but it goes on and on like this, again and again. Finally tonight I said,
"If there's something you want to tell me directly, then say it. Get it off your chest. I'm tired of this pent-up hostility and I'm tired of arguing with you. What's the problem?"
Guy responds with muddy words (so this is not a direct quote), "You accuse me of things when you don't really understand. I'm not chauvinistic. But I like you and you don't like me back. So how do you expect me to act around you?"
Me: What? Like me? What are you talking about? If I don't want to date you, that means you should pare all women down to their boobs? And anyway, at what point in your ramblings about how hot other women are was I supposed to know you like me? You brag about how you have more romance in your pinkie than most men have in their entire bodies -- but trust you, you haven't worked your magic in Japan because nobody has been worthy of your sparks -- where in this was I supposed to realize or understand or guess that you liked me? Or that you were ever trying to show that you liked me? And why on earth do you like me if we're always fighting about such fundamental ideas?
I think all this, but I say only, "I don't understand what you want."
He says, "I guess I don't either."
And so it goes.
A friend of mine in college studied abroad in South America. One day, he sent an email declaring his love for a Chilean girlfriend. Funny thing was, they could barely speak because of the language barrier, and he was the first to admit it! At the time, I laughed at him. "He thinks he loves some girl he can't even hold a conversation with." But really, how much better do I understand a guy because we can talk to each other? Most likely, the level of communication stays the same, regardless of who is saying what and how. Guy will always speak "guy," and girl will always speak "girl," and this talking at each other will be labeled "communication."
Even if you can both write in Kanji, you probably can't speak the same language. Suddenly the term "language barrier," at least in matters of the heart, doesn't mean much to me anymore. People think English is hard because there are many exceptions to the rules. But love doesn't have any rules -- there's no foundation from which to deviate.
I think I'll be alright with Japanese.
17 October 2005
We were supposed to go hiking, but it was pouring on the trail...so we drove through to Nagano for a picnic and temple visit instead. Pic details: The smoke cures sickness and brings good health when it touches your head. Families celebrate when girls turn 3 and 7, and when boys turn 5 (I think that's right). Ice cream, however, is for all ages...and check out those dogs walking themselves!
15 October 2005
What does this say about my future? I have no idea. Just don't tell anyone, okay?
Today, I tried explaining the terms "dork" and "nerd" to a fellow teacher. I described a smart, antisocial, skinny guy with over-size glasses and a pocket protector.
"Ohhhh," she laughed, "there's one in every class."
"Yeah," I agreed.
The truth is, there are at least two dorks in every class. But only one of them is a skinny guy with a pocket protector.