29 August 2006


If I hold you with my emotions,
you'll become a wished-for companion.

If I hold you with my eyes,
you'll grow old and die.

So I hold you where
we both mix
with the infinite.


28 August 2006



According to the website, 25,000 young people are in Versailles every day, studying architecture, landscaping, perfume, and chemistry.

I'm getting very excited.

16 August 2006

Not Their Mothers' Daughters

Not Their Mothers’ Daughters
Japanese Women in Modern Society


In Japan, the weather makes the man. Everyone knows that Shizuoka’s mild climate means the people are even-tempered. Farther south, where the winds are strong, the men have short fuses and unpredictable mood swings. “Don’t go south to choose a husband,” my married coworkers advised. I wondered without asking if the same weather precautions applied to women.

From July 2005 to July 2006, I lived by myself in an old paper apartment on the northern side of Fuji City, Shizuoka. Shizuoka is a mountainous region, my neighborhood Fujimidai so named for the view of Mt. Fuji startlingly visible from everywhere on a clear day. I went to Japan as many young people do, an inexperienced English teacher with no Japanese language skills, having graduated from college only two months prior. What I knew of Japanese culture came from coffee table books on Zen Buddhism.

In college I studied French and international culture with a focus on the western world. I lived in Paris for six months and when I returned to America the following semester, I enrolled in a cross-cultural women’s studies course offered to students who had been abroad. I wrote about France while I edited my classmates’ papers about places I had never been before: Spain, Chile, Brazil, Cuba, Japan. One student’s paper stated that, despite Asian stereotypes, Japanese women experienced a full range of emotions, but were not “allowed” to express them in front of men. When I heard that my classmate and professor could locate very little research material on the modern woman in Japanese society, I was intrigued. I thought back to the popular novel Memoirs of a Geisha, and wondered what Japan was really like, not for a geisha but for a “normal” young woman like me. It was then I realized, I had dedicated my college career to learning about the world outside the United States, answering questions about other countries’ values and ideals—but I had never seriously explored the world beyond the West. If you stood from a place outside The West, French and American perspectives could look similar. So how could their differences be that significant? I needed to learn more.

I wanted to explore a culture that had no basis in or relation to my own; a place that would challenge my views on the most fundamental topics. A professor told me about the JET Program, and the rest is now history. I moved to Japan and promised myself that, in order to make the most of this learning opportunity, I would stay in Japan for the duration of my JET contract. No trotting off to Thailand, enticing as a beach vacation would sound. I knew that the best way to learn about Japan was to know the people, and that’s harder to accomplish if you’re always skipping out of the country. I left the US with the plan to squeeze the most out of my 365 days.

What struck me more than anything was the Japanese idea of love. It was, at times, totally incomprehensible to me, making it incredibly difficult to understand the interactions between men and women. This paper is in part an attempt to make sense of the questions I could not answer during my year in this eastern world.

But there are reasons beyond the personal to write such a paper. During my women’s studies course, my classmate noted a significant lack of English material about Japanese women. It was as if Japan, for whatever reason, had been left out of the feminist discussion completely. While plenty of literature appeals to the exoticism of geishas, bar hostesses, and Japanese women pre-World War II, where was the accessible information about women in today’s society? This is my attempt to fill that gap, and give a far-reaching voice to the women I have come to love and admire—not those doing big business in Tokyo or the office ladies pouring tea, but the middle class women in suburban and small-town Japan.

This is hard for me to write. It wasn’t hard for me to write about French women because I wasn’t close to them. (I made friends there but they were all American. I was close to a small number of French adults, but had no friends my age. I was pursued by French men, but not taken seriously by the women). In short, I didn’t know them well, and I was often lonely for a culture in which I wanted to play a role. What unfolded in Japan was completely different. Because of the strict social hierarchy, my role as The Young Friendly American English Teacher was well-defined, and I fell into it easily. I became a mentor to the students, and a friend to my co-workers. Interviews I conducted were not merely question-and-answer sessions, but unprecedented pokes into their private lives. And, generously, they let me in. The people I met opened their hearts, doors, and homes to me, and I will forever be in their debt for such kindness. The Japanese have an (appropriate) reputation for being overly-stoic or formal in public situations, but my relationships with them were anything but. I loved them, and felt loved in return.

When you respect a nation’s people because you love a nation’s individuals, cultural differences becomes hard to judge. Instead of immediate criticism, I first questioned my own views. It was hard to judge right from wrong and to discern black from white. What I learned fascinated and confused me as my own world, now expanded, turned to gray.

For my research I chose to focus on one geographic region (Shizuoka prefecture). But I do believe, from the self-professed homogeneity of Japanese culture, that these ideas may be extrapolated to all of Japan, and that Fuji serves as a microcosm for most of the country. However, please do not confuse my own observations with fact or with the views of Japanese people.

While I would love to organize such a discussion under the neat headings of “Femininity,” “Marriage,” “Sex,” “Motherhood,” etc., it is impossible to write in truly distinct categories. The best way to understand one is in the context of the others. This is my attempt at revealing a whole picture; the real lives of women who balance each category every day —perhaps just as you would do, had you been born a woman on an archipelago in the Pacific Ocean, sixty years ago, or yesterday.

This is a rough (!) introduction to the paper I am writing. I have no idea how long it will be, or when I will finish. But if you would like to read more, please let me know. I won't post the rest on my blog but I can send you a copy.

11 August 2006


Remember about a month ago, I posted a photo of "the strangest flower" I had ever seen? The plant is called a passion vine but I nicknamed it "the jungle gym." If I remember correctly, I also told you that it was odorless. Evidently I didn't put my nose close enough for fear of inhaling all the ants. But an interesting coincidence taught me that the passion flower does, in fact, have a scent. A marketable one.

About the same time I posted the photo, my friend Em told me about Lancome's new perfume, Hypnose. Japan's perfume market is somewhat behind (because so few Japanese actually wear them), so I couldn't locate Hypnose in Shizuoka. I want to check it out because in my current unprofessional opinion (hah), Lancome consistently sells some of the most gorgeous perfumes out there. The first perfume I ever bought was Lancome's Poeme, which is really too mature for a 6th-grader, but I liked it anyway.

At home in the States, I still haven't found Hypnose in a department store, but I have done the next best thing: I researched its principle notes (or scents) on the net. As soon as I clicked a link, what else popped up on the screen but a huge photo of a passion flower -- my jungle gym -- along with more classic hints of (typical) vanilla, vetiver, and jasmine.


I hope the above link works!

If you smell this perfume before I do, please leave a comment and tell me what you think.

05 August 2006

Miss American Pie 2

More quotes:

May 16
Why is it we work so hard to be interesting to one another? --p.221



August 22
"Everything comes and goes, just like lovers and styles of clothes. Things you held high and told yourself were true, start changing when it all comes down to you." -- Joni Mitchell

August 23
Jesus wept--because Jesus knew.

August 24
I've failed, but there's a sense of freedom, too. The two emotions overlap. --p.249

--"Miss American Pie"

Miss American Pie

I'm reading a book my mother lent me called "Miss American Pie." It was written by a woman who works in Duke's Center for Documentary Studies, but even better, the author grew up in my parents' hometown. The book is basically a collection of her diary entries from middle and high school (in the early '70s). Even more interesting is the fact that my dad briefly dated the author's older sister (in early high school).

The author doesn't seem very close to her older sister, at least not during her years of teenage angst, so there's no way my dad is mentioned in the book. But I think the diary entries are so real and absolutely hilarious. Last night in the middle of reading, I jumped up from my bed and pulled out my own diary from 7th grade. (At one point I had considered burning all my journals, but I'm very glad I decided against it -- not because my journal entries are unusual, just because they are mine). Despite my entries being much longer than the ones in "Miss American Pie," it was frightening how identical some of them were. Especially ones like this:

June 20
Sometimes I [really want a relationship], but then sometimes I feel so peaceful being free.

June 21
Maybe I should become a nun.

June 22
Read up on nuns and I think I'd make a better veterinarian. --p. 92

or this:

March 21
I feel funny right now. Or it's more like I don't know how I feel. --p. 50

or an entry I can't locate that says basically:

Went to youth group at church to see X because I'm in love with him, but then he wasn't even there.*

So 20 years later and 14 hours north, a totally unrelated middle school student wrote the exact same things in her diary. Should this surprise me? No. But does it surprise me anyway? Yes. When Native Americans said that time is not a vertical or horizontal line, but a spiral, I think they were on to something.

*Entries taken from "Miss American Pie" by Margaret Sartor.

SAME Blog Address

Sorry guys, the France blog address was unavailable, so I'll just stick with the original http://laureninjapan.blogspot.com Keeps it simple for everyone.

02 August 2006

Flip It and Reverse It

This post will include a lot of obvious things that weren't so obvious to me until now.

The saddest part of the "real world" adjustment has nothing to do with waking up early. (Put me on a regular schedule and I feel totally whipped into shape, ready to get up and enjoy coffee with the sunrise in the peace and quiet before it gets too hot!) No, the alarm clock does not make me sad. What is difficult, however, is having to make a constant effort to even talk with the people you care about; to carve out time days in advance for a phone conversation with someone you effortlessly saw every day of your life all four years you were in college. And this is the age of mobile phones for crying out loud.

Even though I have spent 21 years of my life in the US and only one of them in Japan, the sudden and complete change in diet is an adjustment I would classify as reverse culture-shock--one of those things you don't expect to feel awkward, which is exactly what makes it difficult. (We may be creatures of habit but I'm not an old dog yet.) When you love American food, Southern food, and your mother's food, you just don't expect returning to it all to be an "adjustment." Not all adjustments are negative, but every change requires that you deal with it. And one week later that is precisely what I am still doing.

Related to food is body image. Not a day passed in Japan that someone didn't tell me I was beautiful. This is quite common for MANY foreigners in Japan, beautiful or not, and it is actually not an accurate reflection of my "stunning good looks." To prove this, people who know me know that I'm basically white as a sheet--or porcelain, or milk, or ghosts, or blinding light, or however you want to describe it. In Japan I would walk by girls shrieking in Japanese about how beautiful my skin was. It was very embarrassing, mainly because I felt like it was undeserved. It's all about conditioning and perspective, after all. In America you're taught to be ashamed of pale skin. One day I turned to some girls and said, "You know, in America, they don't sell bleaching creams like they do here. They sell tanning products so people like me can have darker skin. In America this kind of skin is not beautiful. In fact, people tell me I should look more like you." Naively I thought this would halt the chatter and make me feel less self-conscious. But I just got blank stares in return, as if they hadn't understood a word. They understood alright, but it just didn't matter. It would be like me telling you all, "It's okay that I'm so pasty because in Japan they think it's beautiful." So what? Nobody cares about another country's standard of beauty; it's just as irrelevant to high school girls in Japan as it is to women in America.

My point is, the standards vary greatly from country to country. So to culture-hop successfully, you must have a very solid grip on what makes you happy about your own body. Otherwise I'd be candy-striped white and orange from all that American self-tanner I should be buying.

The other big issue is everyday social interaction. I re-learned how to communicate in Japan and it's totally different from in America. I am still struggling with how to interrupt people (nobody interrupts in Japan, it's more like monologue turn-taking), and maintain a low blood-pressure when everybody talks at once and suddenly you can understand the language everywhere around you instead of it being nothing more than Japanese white noise while trying to remember the fact that people at the next table can understand you no matter what you say or how quickly you blur your words together.

Also, because such value is placed on your presence in Japan, there is less of a need to "perform" socially and project an image of yourself by talking. In America it almost seems like a competition; if you go out but don't talk "enough," people will think you are a weirdo or a loner or that you have "no personality." Coming back to the States, I realize that Americans are constantly working to verbally project an image of themselves, so everybody is just talking constantly. In Japan it's not like that at all. People assume you have personality and don't require you to constantly prove it to be worth their time. What did Mayumi tell me? She said, "We [Japanese] value the moon behind the clouds." You don't have to see the sun to know it can provide sunlight worth waiting for.

So, I am adjusting to home, and appreciating all the luxuries that are a part of my new--yet very old!--equation.