Thursday, April 17, 2014

Will Miss #43 - liberal ideas about birth control (reflection)

My husband and I were talking about some theoretical concepts regarding life and how people choose to live. It's all pretty complex stuff, but it comes down to the choices we make and how we "buy" ease in the present at the expense of some benefit in the future. For example, you might decide to buy a frozen pizza instead of making your own dinner. You spend more, get a less nutritious meal, and probably have less overall satisfaction with the food. You're borrowing money and health from your future for convenience in the present.

I'm not criticizing this tendency. We all do this in different ways and this isn't about morality, but an observation about how we lead our lives. The way in which this relates to birth control is how the role of children has changed in developed societies. Having babies used to be a way of buying an easier life as more kids meant more potential economic, lifestyle, or work support. In the present, having children is actually a way of forfeiting future comfort for the immediate gains of enjoyment of babies/kids or simply avoiding the use of birth control.

Because having children tends to be about future hardship rather than future gains these days, birth control plays a pretty important role in modern lifestyles. A lack of moral hang-ups about whether or not to use it (and not discouraging it from being freely available to young people) allows people to be thoughtful and make certain choices without any sort of psychological baggage. I still miss the way in which the Japanese were non-judgmental and pragmatic about such issues rather than emotionally activated and dogmatically oriented.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Random Memories #71 - the last weeks in Japan - part 3

The beautiful laser-cut card that the two sisters gave me.

Here is part 1 and part 2 of this series.

When you have met as many people as my husband and I met during our time in Japan, there are a lot of goodbyes to offer. Our last few weeks were full of trying to balance preparation to leave with meeting people and saying goodbye to them. Some of them would see the last of us in classrooms or in my apartment for a final lesson. Others were actually going to go out to dinner or lunch with us and finally meet the "real" us. 

One of the sometimes trying aspects of life in Japan for my husband and I was that we never really felt that we could "be ourselves". There was always the gaijin mask that we had to put on in which we accommodated the passivity of the Japanese, the need to be gentle, quiet, patient, and always being responsible for the conversation and comfort of the other person. Even in social situations, we were always the ones who had to hold back as our natural assertiveness could so easily overwhelm our Japanese friends and acquaintances. We weren't exactly "pod" versions of ourselves, but we often felt like the hosts of any exchange even when we were actually the guests. 

During those final weeks and outside of situations in which we were teachers, we allowed some of that to slip away. I had two students who I truly loved teaching and treasured knowing. I taught the older sister for awhile and then her younger sister came on board. Both of them were intelligent, educated, sophisticated, well-traveled, and more Westernized in their demeanor than average. 

The older sister was actually born in Tennessee and could have chosen to be a U.S. citizen or a Japanese one. Unfortunately for her, she didn't have the option to be both since this is not allowed between her home country and mine. She was only in the U.S. as an infant, and left by age one, and chose quite reasonably to become a Japanese citizen at the age of 19. I've always felt that it was unfortunate that dual citizenship was not possible, but I'm pretty sure that this choice is made on the Japan side since American permits dual citizenship with many countries and, as far as I know, Japan allows it with none. So, my student who is not fluent in English and belongs to a family of Japanese people chose Japan.

The older sister told me that she got into trouble on more than one occasion because of her propensity for being blunt. I'm pretty sure that she didn't pick this habit up from being born in the U.S., but it is a very American personality trait. She told me that she could "scare" men in particular with her habit of speaking her mind and that she really needed to tone it down. She once made a grown man cry, though sometimes that is like shooting fish in a barrel - especially in Japan where men aren't accustomed to being challenged in general and especially not by women. The truth is that she reminded me of myself when I was younger in this way. I frightened all but the strongest of men away and I married the one who was never intimidated by me. She and I had a lot in common in terms of our "rough edges". A lot of mine had been filed away, but this made me like her all the more.

Teppanyaki - manly food for manly men who eat slabs of cow. If he touches the bean sprouts though, he's a big fake!

Since I liked these sisters so much, I was delighted when they suggested that we all go to a goodbye meal. My husband and I had been to a teppanyaki restaurant in Takadanobaba which we really enjoyed the first time around and suggested we do our goodbye meal there with the sisters. As the end came, we found we felt more and more melancholy about all of the places that we'd enjoyed going to, but knew we wouldn't be able to go to again. The place is called Daitokai Honkan and their web site says they are located in Meijiro, but we accessed them via Takadanobaba station.

We were to meet the sisters at around noon, but they were both late and my husband and I were avoiding cell phones up until the bitter end so there was no way for us to contact them. The younger one was less late than the older one, who arrived tottering a bit on high-heeled shoes about fifteen minutes past the appointed time. I did mention that they weren't typical Japanese, and this type of lateness was just one of the smaller indications of this point.

Tofu chicken burger... which felt a little unclear on the concept of vegetarian food, but I'm sure that was not what it was all about.

The main point of teppanyaki is grilling meat in front of the customer, but I am not a fan of steak or any of the other popular types of meat so I ordered a "tofu chicken burger". The concept seemed a bit strange as the point of tofu in the eyes of Western folks is to avoid the shedding of animal blood in the interest of satisfying human appetites. There was minced beet with soy sauce on top and a big side of bean sprouts. This entire meal would have been an experience in total gustatory virtue if it weren't for the fact that a big bowl of white rice came on the side, as is required by Japanese law, I'm sure. I really enjoyed it though, and would have had it again had I not been planning to leave the country pretty much forever in a few weeks.

A lot of the time was spent talking about our plans for the future. The older sister remarked during the end of our two hours there that she realized that she didn't really know the "real" me and that the "teacher" me was not truly me. I felt that this was particularly astute on her part as I'm sure few of our students realized this fact, though I guess even fewer got to spend two hours with me talking and not worrying about their impressions of me.

You can conclude that we are all wanted by the law for some reason (in Japan, it could be for not eating all of the rice they served) or that I'm trying to protect everyone's privacy.

Near the end of the meal, as we were enjoying coffee and tea in beautiful china cups, the people in the restaurant offered to take our photo. I wondered if this was like one of those things that used to happen in the 1960s and 70s when they'd take your picture and then make you pay for a copy of it, but they said that it was a free service and provided us with a card and the photo. The people at the restaurant were incredibly nice and professional. This wasn't even an especially expensive place, but the service was excellent. 

After sitting with these two lovely women and having the sort of conversation that you have when you're not a teacher and responsible for helping someone advance their language skills, I thought about how an opportunity had been missed. Since we were leaving, it was also one that would never come again. Of course, you cannot know how such goodbyes will go or what people will do until you try, and this was the best of all of the farewell social occasions that we had. Some of others were far more difficult and complex. (to be continued)

Monday, April 14, 2014

Won't Miss #539 - being one down

I can't pretend that I know what it is like to be a minority in the U.S. I can say that I know very well what it is like to be a part of a tiny minority in a culture with an overwhelmingly dominant culture. White people are something like .2% of the population in Japan. To that end, we do suffer at least some of the standard problems that minorities have to deal with in other countries. One of the things which was often the case was that we were always considered to be "one down" or at a status disadvantage when we are dealing with a situation in which we are negotiating for something.

One of the primary examples of this which I recall that had big consequences involved not me, but my brother-in-law. When he was negotiating to buy a house, he was tricked into putting down a very large deposit and believing that, if he changed his mind, he would get all of it back except a small administration fee. He felt that, since his Japanese wife was in the room, he might be insulated against misunderstanding and shady deals, but he was wrong.

He was sure that this would not have happened to a Japanese person, and if it had, the agency would not have pushed back so hard against a protest and may have capitulated when he demanded his money back. He could be wrong about that. I could be wrong, but it is all too often the case that Japanese business people saw someone who they could push around when they were dealing with a foreigner. I think this type of situation and the feeling of powerlessness that being one down makes you feel is one of the reason why so many bring on the gaijin smash. They knew, and I often experienced, that we had no rights or ability to fight back. The laws do not protect minorities and, when they do, they are rarely enforced.

I don't miss the feeling of being one down in status and helpless in situations in which I was treated unfairly or cheated.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Will Miss #538 - whirling dervish women

During my recovery from depression after quitting my long-term office job in Japan, I was looking around trying to figure things out. I wanted to feel "normal" again. In fact, I wanted to actually be "healthy" and I started to attend to the way I saw Japanese people live their lives. I figured that they seemed to be doing okay. They knew what they were doing to live life as best they could despite some of their societal issues - issues that often made women less empowered than men and put them in relationships which were more like business deals than romance. Whether or not they knew how to keep their act together or not, one of the things I took note of was that most of the women were active pretty much all of the time. I particularly noted that my neighbor's wife seemed to be a acting like a bee in a hive all of the time. She was always buzzing around doing something.

This was the first step I took toward making some sort of serious change. I decided that I was going to push little by little past the lethargy I felt both physically and mentally and start just getting up and doing whatever I could as often as I could. Mind you, I was taking care of the house, shopping, and cooking, but not any more than minimally necessary to get by. I started to do better and more.

By the time I returned to the U.S., I was a dervish. I rarely sat around doing nothing. I was cooking from scratch all of the time, cleaning, and offering to do whatever needed to be done for others. If I had to sit around for awhile, I got antsy so I took walks. People remarked on how I didn't sit down much. The truth is that, I prefer it this way. I think it's better for me, not as a distraction, but because I feel more alive than I would if I sat around staring at the T.V. or playing around on the computer for hours. Frankly, I can see why Japanese people sometimes view Americans as "lazy" by comparison.

 I think that I learned something from Japanese women and I appreciate it to this day. I miss seeing those women who were constantly on the move. 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Random Memories #70 - the last weeks in Japan - part 2

Seiyu supermarket with shelves picked clean in the wake of the March 11, 2011 quake.

This is part 2 of short series on my final weeks in Japan. Part 1 is here.

As I mentioned in my previous post, as my husband and I headed for the wire on our planned departure - a date which was chosen three years ahead of time - there were some late complications in the form of the discovery of a tumor in my neck. There was, however, an even bigger event which threatened to upset the apple cart on our time line and that was the March 11, 2011 earthquake.

Though very few people knew well ahead of time that we were leaving (for reasons I mentioned before), our families had been told of our plans. When the big quake occurred and the subsequent nuclear crisis in Fukushima, family members were encouraging us to leave a year ahead of our planned time. The thinking was, since we were planning to go anyway, why risk remaining? 

The temptation to join the flocks of what people were waggishly refering to as "flyjin" ("gaijin"/foreigners who were flying away in the wake of the disasters) was present, but neither my husband nor I were really "ready" to leave on multiple levels. Dropping everything and running was possible, but we were neither physically nor emotionally ready to leave. Ironically, remaining for that extra year boosted our economic gains prior to leaving since I got an additional part-time job rather easily with all of the Western chickens flying the coop. We saved more money than expected in that final year.

At any rate, both of us lived in the crisis with the thought in the back of our minds that it would have been "nice" if all of this could have waited until after March 2012 instead of happening a year before we left. The truth is that we were glad to have toughed it out, but would rather have been spared. There remains a sense of living through a shared experience with the other inhabitants who endured the quake, but I'm not sure if it has enhanced my life in appreciable ways. Mainly, it's about a sense of solidarity with people who were also there. 

When I say "tough it out", I'm not only referring to the shortages in food, water, and, oddly, toilet paper or managing the jishin yoi (earthquake sickness) and the moments of panic at the multitudes of aftershocks. It was also being surrounded by people who were more scared than we were. The emotional impact of being surrounded by panicky people who had to be talked down all of the time was also stressful. I spent more energy calming my students' fears than my own and it wasn't alwasy trivial keeping a lid on my own nagging concerns about drinking potentially radioactive water or breathing in winds blowing from Fukushima's nuclear zone. 

Knowing we were going to leave anyway made the entire experience that much more complex. We were the least settled we'd ever been and the "stay or go" question was a very serious one and our quality of life, at least in the moment, was not especially good. What was worse was that we couldn't talk about this quandry with anyone except our families since our planned departure was essentially a secret up until the last moment. And our families, who had our best interests at heart and were concerned for our health and well-being, were, in the most subtle of ways, pushing us in the direction of leaving. 

In the end, we decided within a week of the Fukushima crisis to definitively remain for another year. Making the decision and pushing early departure off the table made everything easier as we did not have to occupy a state of emotional limbo. After a brief period of indecision, in which even Japanese people were trying to escape their own country, we decided to stay on schedule for our March 2012 departure.

(to be continued)

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Won't Miss #42 - Disney obsession (reflection)

It's interesting how, the presence of something annoying can be grating, but it's absence not appreciated. This isn't a thought which came to me over the memories of Disney bags and small dangling Mickey figures on cell phones. It came to me a long time ago when I was suffering from chronic and oppressive pain. When you don't have pain, you don't think about its absence or appreciate being free of it. When you have it, all you can think about is how badly you'd like it to go away.

While being exposed daily to a bizarre Disney obsession (among adults, no less) is nowhere near the same as being in pain, I've found that its absense has simply meant that I just don't think about it at all (much as I don't think about pain when I'm not in it). Honestly, I've found that America has its fair share of childish or neurotic omnipresent bits of flotsam that people use to boast their affiliations as well (sports teams, "Hello Kitty", etc.). I could do without both of them. I don't miss the Disney obsession in Japan, though I can't say that I've given it much thought over the two years since we left Japan.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Will Miss #41 - no tipping (reflection)

I read several blogs devoted to food and cooking and little is more contentious than the custom of tipping in the U.S. One side claims it is a system designed to allow restaurants to justify grossly underpaying their employees. The other side says it allows the customer to be empowered in a fashion the promotes good service. My reply is, "can't it be both?" I am also only too aware that there are wait staff in some restaurants who make a good deal more in wages due to tipping than they would if they were paid minimum wage or even above it. It is a complex situation which has room for both abuse of and benefits to employees. There is nothing out there which does not have a good and a bad side, as this blog has endeavored to show for the years it has been in existence.

All arguments aside, the bottom line is that tipping is a pain. While the math doesn't trouble me, the need to calculate a tip after paying the bill adds this layer of hassle at the end of a meal which detracts from the overall experience of dining. It causes you to reflect not on the experience, but on the quality of service and how much you will want to "reward" the server for a job done well or poorly. It's simply not the way to finish a special evening in which you're not cooking and cleaning. I miss the fact that there is no tipping in Japan.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Random Memories #69 - the last weeks in Japan - part 1

OK, I lied. It was four suitcases and two backpacks (and my husband's jacket).

Time is a far more complex and odd business than we generally give it credit for. It can appear to move fast or slow. We have sayings which indicate that time moves rapidly when we're enjoying ourselves ("time flies when you're having fun") or glacially when we're waiting for something to happen ("a watched pot never boils"), but time is supposed to be a static thing which can be objectively measured.

Time can also appear to match our conception of self or be vastly divergent. There's a scene in the television series "Roseanne" in which the title character asked her mother how old she "feels" on her 62nd birthday. Her mother says, "62, I'm 62." This frustrates Roseanne because, inside, she feels 16 despite her middle-aged exterior. Sometimes we feel younger or older than we look. Though most tend to go the Roseanne route - feeling like a teenager in an old person's body - I have always felt like an elderly person in a young body. When I was 17, I felt like I was 70. If I thought I could know what it was like to feel over a 100 years old, that'd be where I am now at 49.

Of course, if you get into some theoretical Physics, they'll tell you that time can't be proven to exist at all. This has actually been my stance for many years. I think time is an illusion through which we experience this particular reality. That being said, even if it is simply some sort of imaginary prism through which we experience life, we cannot escape looking through it every moment of our lives on earth nor living through that reflection.

As of March 29, my two-year anniversary of returning to the United States passed by. I mention the experience of time because it has absolutely flown by and I feel like I have aged a decade in a short time. My time here has been filled with adjustments of all sorts, many of them logistical and experiential, but the hardest ones have been psychological. I would not be exaggerating if I said that being here has not made me happy. Despite this, I have never wavered from my firm conclusion that this was the right choice.

The truth was that I "knew" in 2009 that it was time to leave Japan. Everything between 2009 and 2012 was preparation in every conceivable way to go. Emotionally preparing myself to leave over a three-year time span was probably the best possible choice after having been there for 20 years (as of 2009). Logistically speaking, spending three years paring back possessions and changing our lives to be one oriented toward leaving rather than staying was just barely enough. It wasn't because we had so many possessions (though we did - but less than many people have), but just that it was so hard to divest ourselves of what we'd spent so long building.

It wasn't just "moving". It was dismantling our entire married life and much of our adult existence. Few people can really embrace what it feels like to intentionally throw away nearly everything you've owned. We took back four large suitcases. Everything else had to find a new home or be tossed out. We didn't ship back anything. That's a lot of memories to toss on the scrap heap. Most people leave some boxes at their parents' houses when they move on or take it all with them if they're old enough to have consolidated everything they've owned. We didn't have that luxury. If you sit down and truly imagine what it is like to throw away everything you own but what can be crammed into two suitcases (two per person in our case), then you can begin to understand how Herculean a task this might be.

The last two weeks in Japan was a whirlwind of getting things done after quitting our jobs layered with trying to squeeze in a few more journeys to places we'd never been but wanted to go, or places we'd been to and wanted to say see once more. It was also full of incredibly difficult goodbyes. In fact, that last few weeks was so awful that it has taken me this long to write about it. It did not go as I'd hoped in many ways and was better than expected in others. Before it fades too deeply into the recesses of my memory, I'd like to write about it over several posts. Since it was one of the hardest experiences I've ever had, it's one that I want to remember.

I will start by saying that I had told my students that I was leaving Japan in March 2012 over a span of about a week in January 2012. Though we had planned this departure in the late spring of 2009, the truth was that there was a fallback plan in place all along and various life issues made the delay in telling necessary. We were committed enough to get things in order, but not committed enough to do anything that would irreversibly rupture our lives should we for some reason change our minds.

One of those things was not telling students until it was very late in the game because telling them earlier may have seen some of them deciding to abandon us as teachers. Though it would have been kinder to give them an enormous lead time, it would have been incredibly stupid economically, and a little premature considering we weren't at the point of no return until we actually purchased tickets to leave Japan.

The biggest factor in our decision not to tell them until January 2012 was my surgery for removal of a thyroid tumor shortly before Christmas of 2011. The fact that I even might have a tumor wasn't known until September 2011 and wasn't confirmed until November of the same year. Despite some encouraging pre-operation tests, I was told that they could not be certain that it was not cancerous until after they'd actually removed it and could do a little puree of thyroid gland.

Early tests indicated that it was benign, but there was no way to know for sure until after they'd done their slice and dice. If the tumor had been malignant, there was a very  high chance that we'd have to remain in Tokyo and I'd have to receive treatment for cancer. If that had happened, our planned departure schedule could not be kept. Indeed, we may have had to remain for much longer than expected depending on the prognosis. With no health insurance in the U.S., I could not go back home and get treated without going into deep debt.

The stress of leaving was greatly compounded by this uncertainty, not to mention the reality of having my neck cut open and bits of my original equipment excised. It was as if we'd been planning our ball game for three years and now someone was saying there just might be an enormous storm on the horizon which would indefinitely wash everything out. Telling my students that I would be returning to America in light of this 11th hour complication did not seem like a good idea from either side, so I told them only after the coast was clear.

Fortunately, for more reasons than one, we got to keep our date with destiny. I told my students we were leaving after I was told with certainty and finality that the tumor was benign. That was the green light from fate letting us know that we were good to go. It was confirmation of what I so strongly felt in my gut in 2009. It was "time" to leave. We were ready to move on, but not without some unforgettable final weeks.

(to be continued)

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Won't Miss #538 - the bacon

Having done over 1000 posts (Blogger tells me 1285 at this point), it is difficult at times to remember what I have and have not said so I try to double-check my past posts to see if I've already mentioned a particular topic. When it comes to this particular topic, I cannot believe I had not wrote about it before.

For the duration of our stay in Japan, my husband was disappointed in the bacon. He's not an enormous bacon eater, but he does like to have a bit now and then. Compared to most American appetites for bacon, frankly, he's a super lightweight. When he does eat it, it's never more than 2 strips and he only has it once every week or two. Nonetheless, when he wanted some in Tokyo, it always tasted like disappointment.

The main issue with bacon in Japan, in our experience, was that it generally was not cured well. It tasted more like plain old pork - what my father used to refer to as "fresh side" - rather than bacon. There's a sweet and salty quality to bacon that generally was missing in Japan and we (especially my husband) do not miss it.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Will Miss #537 - lack of sprinklers

You can't tell, but these were in Okubo in Tokyo along Ome Kaido Avenue. Yeah, flowers pretty much look like flowers everywhere.

California, where I'm currently living, is in the grips of a long drought. This is a unique experience for me as I lived in a place that had what appeared to be five seasons. The fifth one was "the rainy season, of which there actually appeared to be a major and a minor one. Water was rarely in short supply. In fact, I heard one year that the collection tanks in Tokyo were in danger of being so over-full that floods were a possibility.

At any rate, despite the lack of water in California, people seem to be good with watering their lawns on a regular basis. This is somewhat irritating, but not nearly as annoying as the fact that the automatic sprinklers that they use to do so seem to spend as much of their precious liquids on the sidewalks as they do on the grass. I like to walk and it's very, very common to have to side-step sprinkler systems that are sending rivers of water down the streets and threatening to douse passersby.

In Tokyo, I never had to deal with this. Even in areas with artificially maintained greenery (such as the government building that was not too far from my home), they seemed capable of making the water hit the spots it was supposed to and keep it off of the ones it didn't belong in (like the streets and sidewalks). I very much miss the lack of obtrusive and wasteful lawn sprinklers.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Random Memories #68 - Alyson - part 3

This is the 3rd and final part of a short series of my memories of my coworker named Alyson. Here are parts 1 and 2.

During her tenure at the juku, Alyson grew smitten with a 15-year-old boy named Kenji. At the time, she would have been 25 or 26 years old. Both she and this teenager wanted to get something going between them, but she was afraid of statutory rape charges being brought against her if anything happened before his sixteenth birthday. She investigated the legal age of consent in Japan and found out that it was 16 for Tokyo at that time. They kept their pants on until the magic day passed and it was noisy sexcapades in the apartment she shared with two other fellows (one of which I knew and who lamented the carnal din to me at one point). 

Aly and Kenji had a relationship, or as much of one as a person can have with a teenager from another culture, for three or so years until Kenji decided to go to Temple University in the U.S. Alyson was heartbroken that he was leaving and I think she genuinely loved him, but I don't believe he saw her as anything more than an interesting stepping stone on the path to his maturity. I'm sure he was sad at their parting, but their communication at a distance degraded markedly over a limited time.

I have no way of knowing how Kenji felt, so I am speculating based on how things ended, but she told me that he was fairly matter-of-fact and resigned to the end when it came. She told me this one day soon after he left at a point at which she said she had grown furious with me at 1:00 a.m. in the morning on the day he left because she felt I should have "known" magically that she was devastated at that point in time. She knew it was unrealistic and unfair, but she needed comfort and I wasn't there for her. 

After Kenji left, Alyson's days in Japan were numbered. She had planned all along to leave and work translating Japanese to English in England, but she lost her enthusiasm for being in Japan at all once he left and started to tick off the days until she had enough money saved to leave and comfortably wait out the job-hunting process back home. This career plan was part of why she pushed herself to learn Japanese so well.

For Alyson, with her chances to speak Japanese every single day in a variety of natural situations, relative fluency came fairly fast. For my husband, who started to study around the same time as Alyson and who went to a school and had nothing more than casual exchanges at shops for practice and a one-hour language exchange in which he spoke with a woman in Japanese, such practice was much harder to come by. His speaking ability lagged behind hers, unsurprisingly, though his kanji ability was as good or better than hers.

Within a year or so of Kenji's departure, Aly did go home and find a job at a Japanese pharmaceutical company as a sort of glorified secretary. She mainly used her Japanese to scan newspapers for news of interest to her boss and did whatever clerical work was required. She wasn't exactly translating, but she did put her knowledge to some use. 

It should be noted that one of the things both of us had in common was that we were great correspondents at a time that pre-dated e-mail and cheap Skype calling. Keeping our friendship alive at a distance was relatively easy. She told me about her work back home as well as her personal life. Surprisingly, she got involved with a man named George who was hairy and meaty (totally off-type for her) and became accidentally pregnant. I talked her through the anguish she felt as she debated keeping the baby or having an abortion. 

She decided she wanted to keep it despite looking at a future as a single mother as she wasn't sure she and George were to be a couple. I supported her entirely in her decision and I believed she had the potential to be a good mother, though I knew that there was going to be a lot of hardship in her future. Unfortunately, she suffered an extremely dangerous ectopic pregnancy and lost the baby. 

Though we shared our time in Japan and being great at letter writing, one of the things we did not have in common was our view of relationships. Aly's parents had divorced and she believed no relationship could truly be sound or have lasting potential. Her parents divorce situation was quite ugly and her view of the bonds between people were permanently stained by what happened between them. She could not see anything other than the ultimate disintegration or loss of love in relationships. Even though my husband and I had been together for 5 or so years and were still deeply in love, she believed that it would not last.

At one point after she went back to the UK, she suggested that my husband's Japanese level should be far higher than it was. The things that she said made it clear that she felt he was using me to earn income and was dragging his heels on his studies so he could procrastinate at home. I was extremely offended by this both because it cast me in the role of an unknowing dupe and him in the role of a user. This was not the situation at all. His level wasn't advancing as fast as hers did because he couldn't spend hours when he was supposed to be teaching people English shooting the breeze in Japanese for practice. She told me that she rarely taught anything at the culture center and spent more time chatting with the teachers at the kindergarten than teaching the kids.

Being a foreigner married to another foreigner meant that he had to find every chance to practice and it was hard carving out the time and finding the right person to practice with. He went through a couple of conversation partners and found most of them wanting. They often spoke too naturally for his level, doing what was easy for them rather than assuming a vocabulary and topic level which was appropriate. I explained this to her, but she responded by saying that people want you to tell them "the truth", but then get angry with you when you do.

That was the end of my friendship with Aly. I will tolerate a fair bit in the way of differing viewpoints with others, but I won't accept people insulting my husband because they have their own issues to work out. In retrospect, I wish I had managed things more empathically and understood that this was the damage she suffered as the child of a divorced family manifesting and it had nothing to do with my husband and me. At that time, however, I couldn't see it as anything but an insult and an unfair judgement.

Since the advent of Facebook, I've tried to track down Alyson, but she either has no presence online or her name has changed. It also doesn't help that there are so many people out there who seem to share her name so it's hard to sift through them all. I'd like to think she ended up really happy, and I'd like to try to mend the rift with her that ended things.

I sometimes talk about things which are hard for others to understand because I'm the sort of person who finds science amazing and interesting, even when it is complex and hard to understand. So, forgive me for what I'm about to talk about. There is a chemical in our bodies called oxytocin. It is often referred to when people talk about what is released when we fall in love. It gives us a sense of well-being and calms us down. Mothers and children bond because of it. Lovers feel paired because of it. However, friends and friendship also create oxytocin. Without Alyson, in my early days in Japan, I would have suffered a lot more stress and emotional issues because she was the only friend I had. She provided me with oxytocin at a time when I had few others to turn to.

I didn't understand the mental health benefits of a really good friendship then, but I know it now. Friendships aren't mere distractions or for help when you need it. They sustain our bodies and our brains in ways we don't tend to think about. Without them, our entire quality of life, including our physical health, can and will likely be affected.

Though I don't think our friendship was one of those great ones that was fated, she was an integral part of my early life in Japan. During those early days, when my husband and I only had one day off in common and I was on my own one day a week, she and I explored parts of Tokyo together (as well as chatted at work a lot). We used to meet up for shopping or talking and talked a lot. She was always kind to me and, up until that future rift, quite supportive and giving. I loved talking to her and I don't know how I would have coped through those early years without the comforts of her friendship. I'd like to express that appreciation and apologize for the lack of compassion that accompanied my ending things with my reaction to her statement, but the truth is that I have no guilt over what occurred. I just think sometimes those orbits stop intersecting when the nucleus changes.  

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Won't Miss #41 - willy nilly food serving (reflection)

I can't say that I have eaten in a lot of restaurants in America, but I have eaten out about once every month and a half for the past two years. In all but one case, everyone at the table was served their food at the same time, and, unsurprisingly, that was at a Japanese place. For a culture in which people do everything together, I'm surprised that nobody cares if everyone gets to eat at the same time at the table. Food is served whenever it is convenient for the servers and the kitchen rather than in accord with the customers' needs or desires.

I don't miss sitting down to eat a meal at a restaurant and finding that I was eating 20 minutes before my seatmates because the kitchen and wait staff couldn't be bothered to coordinate.