22 February 2006

Language Skills

Learning Japanese is a slow process because 1) the written language is ridiculously complex, and 2) I haven't been studying enough - I've been too busy doing and living and asking people what different Kanji characters mean. So while comprehension is a priority, studying a book has not been. And when I'm surrounded by fluent speakers, I feel that I know nothing.

But yesterday that changed a little bit. Hattori Sensei, the librarian and tea ceremony manager, asked to show me something in her office. It was a children's book about being grateful for the little things in life. Hattori Sensei bought the book for her grandchildren but thought I could read it, too. The illustrations were adorable, and I looked up from the cover to smile at her with pity. I could just imagine her disappointment when I'd sit down to read and wouldn't understand a thing.

But I pretended everything was fine and sat down with her anyway. I cracked the cover, admired the pictures, and stumbled through the foreign syllables. Reading outloud was a slow process. Slow like the ice in my chest that melted and the joy that grew up in its place when I realized I could understand the book. I tip-toed through Hiragana and said thank you to the sun, the flowers, kitty cats, moms and dads, zoo animals, and the night sky...and I was so grateful to Hattori Sensei for simply showing me that I could do it.

After that small milestone she suggested I start a journal in Japanese. She offered to correct my mistakes and teach me new verbs and phrases. "Is she crazy?" I thought. "I don't know enough to write a journal." But again I smiled and told her I would do it. Her offers to help me were really generous so I didn't turn her down. I still thought it was impossible though.

Today I bought a small notebook and wrote my first entry in Japanese. I'm sure it's riddled with mistakes, but the message was solid, and once again I was surprised -- I could say more than I thought:

Today I'm excited because my friend is coming from America. He is a friend from my university. Now he lives in New Jersey.

Yesterday Iizuka Sensei gave me a small speech about how instant soup is bad for your health. This is disappointing, because instant soup is good and cheap, and I eat it almost everyday.

Not bad, eh? Then I decided to keep up my French while I'm at it, so I flipped the page over and wrote the same thing in French, with a little elaboration. I think this will be great practice and a great way for me to learn. Thank you, Hattori Sensei.

21 February 2006


...and I am SO EXCITED! He gets here tomorrow night and will stay for about 6/7 days. I got a lot of work done early so I'll be taking a few days off. Here's the tentative schedule:

-eat lots of traditional Japanese food, visit neighborhood restaurants, look for Mt. Fuji through the unseasonal rain and haze, etc.
-come to school and learn about the tea ceremony
-visit a temple and sit in zazen (meditation, but if there's another monk with a stick, Dan's on his own and I'll be reading in the next room - fair warning)
-go to Tokyo and see as much as possible
-go to Kamakura and see the big Buddha and the bamboo forests
-go down the peninsula/coastline to Ohito to visit an onsen and another favorite traditional restaurant
-free day....

Whoo hooo!!!!

And right after all this, I return to school for the graduation ceremonies and lots of exam-grading...but no one's thinking that far ahead.

Dan I hope you get here no problem.

14 February 2006

Food & Fat

The inner frustration has gone on long enough and it's time I let it out. I could discuss this with Mayumi, but she doesn't need a diatribe on Americans and fat, either. It's too far removed from her everyday reality.

In general (IN GENERAL), French people stay slim because they monitor their consumption like hawks, and they walk or ride bikes a lot. Chocolate after dinner? No no no, I'll just have this apple. I ate chocolate on Sunday with Abby at La Duree. Drive to school and back? Hell no, Paris traffic is crazy, I'll take my bike.

In Japan, most people stay relatively thin for a couple reasons (my own observations):

1) Genes. I've watched people eat TONS of noodles on a regular basis and remain thinner than I am. I've also watched Japanese people consume tons of tea, alcohol, and sodium (through soysauce and other forms), yet drink little to almost NO water. But they never seem dehydrated. When I go out with friends and ask for water, they always tell me it's strange. You don't want beer? You don't want tea? You drink a lot of water. That is strange for us. I've never seen a Japanese person drinking plain water, and it's unusual to find bottled water in a vending machine amongst the 10 different types of teas, colas, and sugared coffees, all of which dehydrate you. I may be wrong, but I also haven't heard of many kidney problems.

I've noticed that Japanese women don't really swing their hips, but seem to swing their legs out at the knee instead for better mobility. In fact, it looks like it is physically impossible for them to move their hips from side to side. Then I read that a certain tendon is significantly shorter in Japanese women than Western women, making it nearly impossible for them to swing their hips. Western women may have larger hips, but I like being able to swing 'em. It makes dancing much more fun.

The POINT of all that was to say: Japanese bodies are truly different from Western bodies, in multiple ways. They must process foods differently, as evidenced by their uncanny ability to take in large amounts of carbs and salt and relatively little water, but remain healthy and slim.

2) Diet. In general, the Japanese diet is one of the healthiest in the world. Aside from all the beer, tempura (deep-fried foods), fatty meats and oily, high-calorie ramen dishes, Japanese eat FISH, RICE, and VEGETABLES. You know this already. But what most people don't acknowledge is that it's very easy to eat yourself fat in Japan: there's PLENTY of junk food and fat.

Before I came to Japan I was clueless about the food. I read a couple books on Japanese cuisine to familiarize myself with the basics, but I expected one of my biggest hurdles to be enjoying the food. As it turns out, that hurdle was much easier to jump than I expected, and I like a good majority of Japanese cuisine. But the problem I never expected was being so unfamiliar with things that I literally did not know if it was healthy or not. Sometimes I couldn't tell if something was meat or vegetable. (And you thought you'd ALWAYS know that difference, for SURE, right? Nope.) Sometimes I couldn't tell if something came off the land or out of the ground or from the sea. Sometimes I still can't tell how something is flavored. I try many foods but I usually have no idea if what I'm eating is healthy or not. Obviously fresh vegetables are good for you. But what about that slightly-rubbery, slightly-squishy, slightly fibrous, clear-grey, brown-speckled sliver of material that's been covered in a spicy sauce? What the hell IS that? Does it provide any nutrition at all? Is it full of fat? Is it just added to the dish to help fill you up, a different kind of white rice? Turns out it's a high-fiber substance made from seaweed called konyakku. They say it's good for you...and now I have come to enjoy it. But to have no idea what you are putting into your body is unnerving, to say the least. I am constantly asking people, "Is this healthy? Is this unhealthy?" And the answer I usually get is, "No, it's high-calorie," or "Yes, it cleans your blood."

3) Regulation. Japanese people pay attention to their current states. (I love this because I'm hyper-aware of what is going on with my own body. It may annoy my friends and family, but I think it's fascinating.) For example, if a Japanese woman has eaten too much junk food in the past day or two, or just consumed too much in general, she says to herself, "Hmm, I've felt different lately," or "My pants are a little tight," or "That blemish near my mouth means I've been eating too much." (Yes, they actually believe that, but I swear it's true. Since different body parts are connected like in acupuncture, they believe that if something is wrong with your stomach, it will show up around your mouth, as a cold sore or pimple or other blemish. Pay attention and you'll notice it's completely true.) Anyway, they keep themselves in check, and are constantly adjusting to find an equilibrium. If they've eaten too much for a couple days, they cut back for a couple days. In the long run, this means they don't get fat. Americans, on the other hand (myself often included), believe in the "What-the-Hell" effect. My friends and I coined this phrase in high school. Oh wow, I want a second slice of cake. Well, my first piece was big and already bad for me, so what the hell? On to the second slice. I've been eating so much sugar lately. I guess one more bite won't hurt me, what the hell. In goes the gummy-worm. But you can see how in Japan the logic is different, and ultimately much better.

How any American stays thin is a mystery because everyone is overly-obsessed with it. Including me. Yesterday a teacher gave me a whole flourless chocolate cake. It looked incredible, and I made a joke about sharing it with others so I won't get fat. "You?" he said seriously. "You are afraid of getting fat?" And my immediate response was, "Of course I am, I'm American." It was a joke, and we both laughed, but later I realized how true it was. Why must Americans think about it so much? And why do Americans treat health like FASHION? This annoys me no end. Eat low-fat. Eat margarine. Eat butter. Eat low-carb. Don't eat chocolate. Now eat dark chocolate. Buy this book. Watch this TV program. Go to the gym. Do spot-work on your abs. Actually, spot-work doesn't do any good. Make yoga into something completely unspiritual and fashionable and aerobic. Add pilates. Drive your car to the gym.

Then I see crazy things on the internet, about how obese people are unfairly discriminated against, about how people eat so much they can't walk through doors, about how being overweight is blamed on genes and thyroids and advertising, about how obesity is a "disease" like alcoholism, about how McDonald's should be held responsible for people's health problems, about how an obese woman sued an airline company because they asked her to buy a 2nd seat on the plane....and it all makes me want to scream.

A few days ago, another teacher who has never spoken to me in my six months in Japan, stood by my desk silently watching me eat some Chinese pudding. I endured his stare because people always watch me eat. I hate being observed while eating, but it's a part of life I am still learning to accept as a foreigner in a small town. But then, this teacher who I've never heard SPEAK, much less speak to me, in English, smiled like a wise Native American / Indian chief and dubbed me, "Eating Spirit." He said only, "Eating Spirit," and then walked away. I had to laugh. Naturally, I don't stick to any meal schedules. I eat when I'm hungry, and I abstain when I'm not. This means I eat at crazy hours in between meal-times, which makes it look like I am constantly eating. I know some people around me think I eat all day long. What they don't realize is that I eat about 3 bites at a time.

Anyway, I thought this teacher named me "Eating Spirit" because he thinks I eat all the time. I was a little embarrassed and self-conscious and fell back into my hole about Americans thinking of fat and eating all the time. Later, another teacher told me he said "Eating Spirit" not because he thinks I'm getting fat, but because he was impressed with what I'm willing to try. Even though I never had a conversation with this teacher, unbeknownst to me he was noticing WHAT I ate. Evidently he was so impressed with the variety he opened his mouth to say only, "Eating Spirit," similar to "Daring Spirit" or "Adventuresome Spirit" or "Fighting Spirit." Being American, of course, I thought it was in reference to calories or fat or weight-gain.

I don't know why America is so fat and so obsessed with being fat. I don't know how the French are disciplined enough to eat chocolate eclairs only once a month. If they eat so little sweets, how do all the bakeries stay in business? The biggest mystery, though, is how the Japanese avoid kidney problems.

I DO know that I eat when I'm hungry no matter what time it is, that I eat what I am craving at the time, that I don't eat when I'm not hungry (no matter what time it is), and that I absolutely hate being pressured to eat or drink more when I am full. I think if I stick to my gut and walk to work instead of always riding the bus, and do yoga when I feel like I need yoga, and play tennis every now and then, and go skiing once a year, I'll be okay. And so would you. Do not blame McDonald's because the only one putting the fries in your mouth is you. And pointing fingers at major franchises or your mother or your own thyroid gland just really pisses me off.

10 February 2006

I'd Rather Be...Skiing

Gone skiing for a couple days, please leave a message! Snow, whoo hoo!

08 February 2006

Cat's Tongue

Today was a challenging day. If you don't want all the details, skip down to the 3rd major paragraph, and then keep reading.

Yesterday, the high schoolers stayed at home, and the classrooms were filled with nervous junior high students trying to pass my high school's entrance exam. Even though my school is public, kids have yet another exam to pass and yet another acceptance to worry about, before they even hit their equivalent of 9th grade. I tried to be as friendly as possible to the little, big-eyed students in their military uniforms. Seriously, their outfits look like juvenile navy uniforms. Straight-laced, wide-collared, brass-buttoned, uptight, and unforgiving.

Today, I had to grade the English compositions of those 350 kids. I worked with 2 other English teachers from 8 am to 5 pm with one 30-minute break. Between each set we took a 2-minute stretch break and rotated seats so our necks would be bent at various angles throughout the day (my idea, I was proud of that one because evidently it had never occured to anyone else).

Reading the same ideas over and over was tedious, and grading fairly on a scale from 1 to 6 was difficult...but the truly hard part was acting Japanese. I can't decide if this is a good thing or a bad thing, but I realized I have become much more adept at keeping my opinion to myself. Especially when I disagree, this truly feels like a sacrifice. But I'm acquiring the skill.

Now I understand just how often and how comfortably I disagree with people, go my own way, and do my own thing without giving it a second thought. In fact, in America this behavior is often considered a strength, an attitude I've received compliments for being "brave enough" to possess. But in Japan, of course, it works the other way. The strong person is the one who does not express her opinion or her own desires if they are contrary to the group. Harmony, harmony, harmony. If you conceal your emotions and conceal your real opinion you're golden. If someone asks directly for your opinion and you give an ambiguous, indirect answer, you're golden. For example, I was the main person responsible for the English compositions, because I'm considered the resident English expert. But in true Japanese fashion, I didn't grade anything independently. I worked with 2 other teachers and we read and discussed each essay before agreeing on the final grade. Since I'm a native speaker, finding mistakes and repetitions and patterns was extremely easy for me. I could judge the score in about 5 seconds. But instead of declaring my opinion as soon as it came to me--as I would do in America--I waited for someone else to speak first. I listened to them discuss, compare, re-read, ask questions, etc. while I silently nodded my head in agreement, or made a sharp intake of breath if I didn't agree. Usually I agreed with the other teachers' ideas, but I never expressed my opinion assuredly. If I definitely agreed I would hesitate as if I were still thinking, and say, "I think so..." and trail off as if to say "Maybe, I could be wrong, but maybe..." That meant "Yes." And they understood.

If I disagreed--and had logical, rational, persuasive reasons for disagreeing--I didn't say anything if I was already outnumbered by the others. I let the cat hold my tongue, so to speak, and I went along with what was already agreed upon. Let me tell you, it felt like a sacrifice. It felt like willingly wearing handcuffs. If someone asked for my opinion and I didn't agree (for example if they thought the grade should be a 5, but I thought 4), I would say, "Yes, it might be 5...but well, maybe it could be 4, I'm not really sure, it's difficult." That very clearly meant "I think you're wrong, it should be 4." And they understood that as well. So if I disagreed we had to spend at least 5 more minutes talking about what was the best conclusion.

One time we could not reach a consensus, but I simply couldn't give up my opinion -- I felt sure that I was right. I totally disagreed and well, trying to fit into Japanese society does not mean you want to toss everything aside and become Japanese. I had to stick by this one. I wanted to cast off the chains and stand by my unharmonious, individual opinion, even if it went against the group. And this is how I expressed my complete, utter disagreement: I looked them in the eye and shrugged. I never said a word, but the message was clear. I lost the battle 1 to 2.

An American suppressing her opinion or needs can feel oppressed, snubbed, undervalued, even helpless or depressed. Of course, I can very well say whatever I want, and I know it will be excused because I'm American. But I'm really trying to be beneficial here, and I won't help anyone if I'm constantly adding stress or strain as the token gaijin.

When we finished, the teachers thanked me generously for my hard work, doting on how tired I must be (even though they just went through it all with me). Then they looked at each other and said, "Wow, grading this year was very smooth. That went really well."

I smiled to myself. Those 2 sentences mumbled at the end of a long day were all the positive reinforcement I needed. Maybe they had no idea how hard I'd worked to help things run smoothly. But I felt like I succeeded.

In Japanese, there's no expression for "Cat got your tongue?" That implies someone is waiting to hear your opinion. There is, however, the expression, "cat's tongue," which I most definitely have. It means you're sensitive to hot foods and have to let things cool before you can eat them. It works wonders to explain why I'm not drinking my tea right away. "Cat's tongue," I say knowingly. And they understand.

02 February 2006

Snooze No More

I'll admit something ridiculous. For the past 2 weeks, I've set my alarm for 6 am with the intention of getting up to exercise. Instead, I've spent every day hitting snooze, dreading the cold, and getting out of bed too late to eat breakfast at home.

But today was different. First, I was awakened at 4 am by the newspaper delivery people. All the bike-riders in Japan, but these guys ride motorcycles. Today was one of the rare mornings they had a conversation under my window over the roar of muffler-free engines. When I was awakened from a deep sleep, I thought that vandals were taking over our apartment complex, or that I'd caught a teacher in the act of partying until 4 am. Then I remembered the newspapers--which I can't read--that are delivered to all my neighbors.

My alarm went off at 5:30. I hit snooze one time, once again bowing to that evil cycle. But as I dozed I had one of those half-dreams you confuse with reality. Usually I half-dream about getting dressed, brushing my teeth, etc., so I think I'm accomplishing something when I'm actually just lying there half-conscious. But today I dreamed about another teacher (the funny one who lived in America and likes 70s music) laughing at me.

"Hehe, you lazy Americans are all the same. I knew you wouldn't get up."

That was enough motivation for me! I kept thinking, "Oh yeah?? Oh yeah?!" and got my ass out of bed.

I rolled onto my tatami floor, did yoga while the sun came up, showered, put on more makeup than usual, pulled on some clothes I don't wear all the time, made a cup of coffee (and even frothed the milk, thanks to Meegan!), and drank it in silence as the crows began screaming at 7am, like clockwork, just as they do every day.

I felt really peaceful and happy, with that inner quiet that can only come from feeling the sun rise. I even welcomed the crows and their obnoxious barking. After coffee I did a few chores and left early enough to make the 30-minute walk to work. By the time I reached school the endorphins had kicked in and I was supressing the urge to twirl on the sidewalk. It was wonderfully ridiculous.

Despite the fact that I'm sleepy now, there is only one word to describe how getting out of bed for all that makes me feel:

Sexy. Never thought I'd see the day when "5:30 am" could mean "hot."

Am I getting old? Or just turning into my father?

I guess either of those options would be just fine. :)

01 February 2006

Dream Chaser

I can honestly say I am no longer in the honeymoon phase. And I can honestly say I love this place, and especially these people.

Today, I signed the form and decided to leave Japan in August.

As my friend Doug so eloquently put it, "I could stay another year. But it's time to chase my dreams somewhere else."