30 November 2005

Talk & Lit

It may sound obvious, but I decided now would be a great time to learn about Japanese literature, and I mean more modern stuff than Basho. So I checked out a few women writers at the library (English translations of course). All this is generalization, because I've only read 2 books so far. But even though there is a 20-year difference in their publication dates, each book had a similar tone: dark and mysterious, with the main characters feeling trapped and melancholy from some force you can't quite pin down. At the same time, though, the characters are fully aware of all the beauty in life and love. Each author said things that immediately made me think, "I want to write that down and remember it forever." (I have read "Kitchen" and "Betty-San.")

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


I decided to conduct an interesting study: save all the omiyage I receive, instead of eating them.

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

Kimono Day #2

There is a new, young, (unfortunately) temporary teacher at my school called Migiwa Sensei. She doesn't speak much English but Mayumi and I have hung out with her and, thanks to Mayumi's translating skills, things are going pretty well. She gave us a Japanese cooking lesson last week and then she decided to share her kimonos with us. (She is only 28 but recently divorced because she married the oldest son who traditionally has to live with his parents -- evidently the mother-in-law was so awful she couldn't live there anymore. Plus, Migiwa wanted to continue teaching, but her husband wanted her to stay at home. I don't know why she didn't know these things before she married him, but I think it's quite unusual for a Japanese woman to get divorced, so young, for such "modern" reasons. But I have to save that for another discussion.)

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.

Japanese Communication, Lesson 1

By "communication" I mean HOW TO USE THE WORDS. I do not mean WHAT THE WORDS ARE IN THE FIRST PLACE. (That you gotta' learn on your own.) But if you want to sound Japanese even while speaking English, start with a simple example:

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.


The internet mystery has been solved: John forgot to pay the bill. See title for my feelings on that one.
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, Take 2

Here's an edited version of a recent post. It's about 350 words, but I want to submit it for a JET publication that has a cap of 250 words. If you have suggestions on what to cut, please let me know.

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


Japan is still “new” for me after a mere four months, whereas others have lived in and defined this land for thousands of years. So it would seem brash to claim that I understand some parts of Japan beyond translation. But I don’t think I oversimplify when I say that I know how to love Mt. Fuji.

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

Endangered Species

Some of my fellow teachers are undeniably cool. There's one in particular who's about 50, and I always enjoy talking with him because his English is incredible and we have the same sense of humor. Nothing like a good laugh to make you feel connected. This is the same teacher who previously asked me to explain the "Can you make me one with everything?" hot-dog vendor/Buddhist joke. Since then, we've been on the same page.

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.

Sweet Burger Bliss

(Wait, will I die if I eat one of those in Asia? No, that's just the Japanese media yelling about imported American beef and BSE. So it must be okay, because all burgers I'd eat here originally came from my own country. Right? Or is it the chicken that's imported? Oh yeah. It's the chicken that could kill me. Phew.)

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

What a Semi-Modern, Semi-Traditional, Semi-Romantic, Semi-Feminist (Young) Woman Wants

Or, "The Ideal Life as fantasized and described by a female in her 20s who is happily bringing home the bacon and can do as she pleases, yet doesn't feel old enough to describe herself as a full-fledged 'WOMAN' because she believes that you're not really a woman until you're 30, or until you give birth, whichever might befall you sooner."

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.

By the time...

By the time you swear you're his
Shivering and sighing,
And he vows his passion is
Infinite, undying --
Lady, make a note of this:

One of you is lying.

-- Dorothy Parker

02 November 2005

Crazy 24 Hours

After explaining Halloween to a group of beautiful, wide-eyed Japanese girls who understood about 20% of my language, my team-teaching partner decided we had to plan the rest of the semester in one day. So I didn't leave work until about 7 pm, when my work hours end technically at 4 pm. But no big deal.

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. :)