Monday, April 30, 2012
I'm not sure what the most dreaded word in the English language is. It might be "audit" or, depending on your feelings about such things, "marriage" or "pregnant". The latter of those would certainly fill me with terror, though marriage for me has always been a delight. After writing this post, but before showing it to him, I asked my husband what he believed was the word we really hated to hear in Japan and he said,"muzukashii". Literally, that means "difficult", but, in reality, it tends to mean a variety of things. Most often, it means "no". The tone of it is different in each situation, but the bottom line is frequently a "soft" way of letting you know that you can't do something, they won't do something, or they believe something can't be done. It may have been my personal irritation at a word that got used far too often in my presence, but I hated hearing "muzukashii" in answer to a question. It will always mean, "I don't want something to happen or make it happen, but I won't come right out and say so."
I won't miss hearing people answer "muzukashii" in response to my queries.
Friday, April 27, 2012
You can see by the illustration that my description of isn't inaccurate.
It took me a long time to warm up to Japanese food because, up until I started snack blogging, I pretty much tuned it out based on early ignorance and habits. However, after I started paying attention, I found a wealth of goodies to enjoy and one of those is kintsuba, a block of jellied sweetened beans coated in a paste made from glutinous rice flour. You can buy it pre-made in shops, but it's really extraordinary when you can eat warm, freshly made kintsuba.
I'll miss the sweet, textural delights of kintsuba.
Thursday, April 26, 2012
I'm mentioned about a million times before that I can't speak to any other person's experiences in Japan. It's not only about the subjective nature of experience and how feelings and perceptions vary from person to person, but also how we all have different experiences. No one can live the life you live no matter how hard they try. So, when I say that "vacationing is difficult" in Japan, I'm speaking for me, though there were absolutely cultural factors that played into developing that sense and I didn't feel that way when I lived and worked in America and I don't feel that way now that I am back in the U.S..
I should note that Japanese people often take very short vacations because of pressure from peers and employers not to burden others with their work while they are gone. I have never known one Japanese person from among the hundreds I've talked to about this to take all of their vacation days in a given year (or any year ever). The foreigners usually have no compunctions about taking the time off that they are legally entitled to and granted by their companies, but the former president of my former company (not an eikaiwa/language school) fixed this by illegally setting limits on vacation time (7 days maximum, forever) instead of giving the legal mandate (10 days the first year, 1 added day for each additional year).
Besides this job, my only "regular company job" in Japan, I worked at schools and in situations in which "no work" meant "no pay". I never felt like I could comfortably take a vacation when I lived in Japan. The atmosphere was not conducive to it, my employers did their best to stop it, or I felt I'd be losing (a lot of) money if I did take time off. I don't miss feeling like I can never take time off and truly relax.
Wednesday, April 25, 2012
Some things become more awesome because they are unfamiliar. It's stupid, in a way, but it remains true. Stamps from most countries are pretty cool regardless of where they come from, but the kawaii (cute) and often elegant or particular nature of many Japanese designs makes them see that much more precious, beautiful or adorable (whether they are "Hello Kitty" or not). It probably helps that my father used to be a stamp collector and I spent some of my childhood looking through stamps from all over the world that he had in his collection and being in Japan reminded me of a time when I was in awe of the exotic nature of the designs in his collection.
I will miss going to the Japanese post office and seeing the cool stamp collections.
Monday, April 23, 2012
Nutrition information should be standardized so that customers can operate from a common framework when dealing with food. I've been told that it is common in Europe to offer information per 100 grams. In Japan, there appears to be no standardization, even across products that are extremely similar and from the same manufacturer. Drink data, for example, is sometimes given per 100 ml. and sometimes for the entire bottle.
Generally, the way in which nutritional information is offered serves the interests of the company and allowing them to present the best profile for marketing of the product, and I won't miss these inconsistencies which require me to remain constantly on my toes when inspecting labels.
Shortly before my husband and I left Japan and were dealing with the hassle of getting an address change, we were led up to the super secret sorting area of the main ward post office. The time at which we were taken there was during the lunch hour and as we sat waiting for people to work out how to handle our (apparently) unreasonable request to have our mail sent to an address other than our former residence, a group of postal employees started listening to music and doing group exercises. Some of them were into it, others followed along gamely, but not enthusiastically, and one guy was clearly phoning it in as he did a lackluster wave here and there, a brief and restricted hip wiggle here. Most companies don't do group exercises like this, but the post office and some large traditional companies still do. Additionally, groups of old people and school kids still get together in parks and public places to exercise together at certain times.
There's something inclusive and heart-warming about seeing people do this together despite how poorly some of them are capable of doing it and the public exposure. It's also, frankly, not a bad idea to encourage movement and health. It's a coming together of people and priorities, and I will miss seeing this type of group exercising.
Friday, April 20, 2012
This is Soup Curry from Dominika in Shinjuku. It is awesome, and unslurpable... at least until you eat all the big pieces.
This is an utterly ethnocentric and small thing and I know that I should be bigger than that, but the bottom line is that I really don't enjoy the sound of other people loudly consuming their food and I won't miss soup slurping.
Thursday, April 19, 2012
A "sakura teritama" burger. It's a ginger teriyaki pork burger with lemon sauce. The "sakura" part doesn't mean it's stuffed with cherry blossoms, but rather that there's a pale pink sauce which is supposedly infused with sakura flavor and it's like biting into spring. I'm not sure what spring tastes like, but there you go.
I try hard not to think something is strange because it suits Japanese culture, but not others. This is why I'm not clapping my hands together in girlish glee or extolling the adventurous nature of Japanese sweets and their supposedly "exotic" flavor. Peanut butter ice cream would be exotic in Japan. Kinako ice cream would be exotic in America. Both have fairly similar tastes and neither is exotic in each respective culture. That being said, McDonald's in Japan always came up with weird and strangely named burgers for their various promotions. I have numerous pictures of signs showing such offerings. Many of them, like a pasta croquette burger composed of cooked elbow pasta in a cream sauce, formed into some sort of mutant blob, breaded, and then deep-fried, are bizarre even by Japanese standards.
Though I never ate them (as I don't like fast food), I always got a kick out of the bizarre burgers that McDonald's Japan offered, and I'll miss seeing them.
Wednesday, April 18, 2012
I won't miss having to worry about the difference in electrical current when buying devices that are cheaper, more suitable, or only available in America.
Tuesday, April 17, 2012
I knew when I returned to America that a lot of things I'd never thought of when I was living in Japan would come to mind in terms of what I would and would not miss. One of the things that I never dreamed of being something I'd miss is the way in which Japanese people tended not to stick their nose in my business when I was going about the city. On very rare occasions, someone would walk up and ask if we needed help when we looked at a map (we didn't, but they meant well), but mainly the "bothering" we got was focused upon trying to sponge free English lessons. In America, I wasn't here an hour before someone shoe-horned into a private conversation with my husband and I to offer advice on where and what to eat. After years of being left alone, it seems like people are relatively consistently striking up conversations, commenting on my actions, or adding something when they hear my husband and I speaking to one another. I thought that I'd see this as friendly and welcome, but I'm finding it intrusive and disconcerting. I'm finding that I prefer being left alone by strangers in public, and while I know people are trying to be nice, it makes me uncomfortable.
I grew very accustomed to people minding their own business in Tokyo either because that is what they normally do or because I was a foreigner and they were too intimidated to do otherwise, and I miss it.
Monday, April 16, 2012
Japanese people can't see, smell, hear, taste, or feel the power in a power spot, but that doesn't stop them from going to them and advocating that I visit them as well and I won't miss that.
Friday, April 13, 2012
I once read an article written by a woman who spent three years in Germany and talked about how horrible it was for her to come home and face reverse culture shock. Though I don't want to engage in a reverse culture shock pissing contest, I have to say that it is hard not to snort derisively at the notion that three years in a Western culture is going to compare to the shock of returning after 23 years (the last 20 of which included no trips home for visits) in an Eastern culture.
Reverse culture shock comes in both big and small ways, and the truth is that I endeavored to prepare myself for it for quite some time. My husband and I have been talking about going home for the last 7 or so years and we knew we would not remain in Japan for the rest of our lives. When immigration officials offered us the chance to apply for permanent residency, we said "no", because we knew that wasn't in the cards for us. Though it may seem odd that we stayed so long, it was always intentionally on the "renewal plan". As an aside, upon returning to America, my husband's aunt sent us a copy of a letter that we included with our wedding invitations in which we said we were going to stay in Japan for "3-5 years". Nothing ever goes as planned, it seems.
In order to prepare for the inevitable departure, even when we were uncertain of when exactly it might happen, I attempted to divest my identity from that of being a foreigner in Japan. Part of that was carried out via this blog. It may seem strange that I would write about Japan to extricate myself from it, but fully digesting my feelings about it has been a form of catharsis. Talking about it has helped and continues to help me let it go. Continuing to talk about it may assist in fully internalizing and divesting from the experience through time. You don't "get over" reverse culture shock after more than 2 decades in the same place in a few weeks. I'm not even sure it'll be over in a few years. I can say that it certainly has not abated after a few weeks.
The initial stages of reverse culture shock can be recognized in the little things which you notice yourself thinking or doing which you've been doing on auto-pilot after years in a different place. For instance, my first trip into a public restroom at Seatac airport yielded several incongruous thoughts. I walked into the ladies room and first wondered if there would be a line (as there so often is in Tokyo) and whether there would be any Western-style toilets free. I even had the impulse to check the doors for the little illustrations telling me which were Japanese and which were Western.
Many little things also occurred to me before I left the airport. When my husband got coffee, I asked if he wanted an artificial sweetener packet as I carried them in my wallet all of the time in Japan. He smiled and told me he already got one, as they carry them in the coffee shop. American restaurants and shops usually have sweetener. Japanese ones do not. We bought a muffin and were surprised that it was so good and moist. Of course, most muffins are full of sugar in America and that gives them a better crumb.
Another small habit which is hard to break is the compulsion to make sure I have my wallet and identification with me at all times. Since I had to carry my gaijin card with me at all times in Japan by law, it was something I had to remember every time I put one toe outside of my front door. In America, I don't have to carry I.D. all of the time, but I still feel weird without it.
These incidental things are rather quaint and interesting as they show that thinking something again and again and again over many years conditions you to keep thinking them even when circumstances have changed, but these are not really the earth shattering things nor the essential essence of reverse culture shock. The true essence is psychological. You walk around and everyone understands every word you say and you understand every word they say. People overhear your conversation and make comments, offer advice or intrude on what you're saying. You feel exposed and uncomfortable after years of public "privacy" via linguistic differences.
We've also found ourselves uncomfortable asking questions about certain daily living situations because we don't know if our ignorance is reasonable or if we're asking about something which everyone who has living in the U.S. for a long time knows how to do already. For instance, in Japan, we knew how to charge and use Suica cards, but we don't know about the system for debit cards in the U.S. since people were still writing personal checks when we lived here. We also don't know the procedures for various activities which once included the presence of a human, like self-service gas stations that take credit cards and have no personnel at all or self-check-out at markets. These are not highly complex things, but until you've got experience, you can stand there investigating what the machine tells you in a way which is not natural for people who have been doing it for years.
My husband and I also are uncertain about how to interact with service people in American after years of dealing the style of service in Japan. American service is often portrayed as being inferior to Japan's, but that's not true. It's different and the shock of it is not that people are not helpful (they are), but that they are seemingly too friendly and casual while they're helping you. After decades of dealing with formally polite people who kept a professional distance and had an almost robotic manner in which they handled customers, dealing with people who treat you as an equal, ask how you are, and infuse their customer interactions with individuality is discomfiting. Dealing with people who lack spontaneity over many years has the effect of removing some of your ability to be spontaneous as well. As part of my reverse culture shock, I have learned that years of acting as expected in order to better fit in with Japanese society has made it harder to act naturally in a society which is freer and more flexible. I've forgotten what "natural" is for me after so many years of acting in an artificial manner to make the Japanese more comfortable.
The biggest part of what has constituted our reverse culture shock so far can be summed up in an astute comment my husband made shortly before we left Japan. He said that being in America would mean we would be "heard", but not "seen" while we had spent our years in Japan being "seen" but not "heard" (even when we were speaking the language). We learned to operate in the environment based on the pattern of being noticed, but not listened to or understood. Now, we need to learn to operate based on being listened to and understood, but not noticed.
I think internalizing this difference in particular is crucial in readjusting to life back home. In Japan, I could get jobs more easily based on my hair and eye color as well as my gender. Here, I've got to earn a job with what I say and how I interact as well as my skills. I knew this well before I came home though I imagine living it will feel rather different than simply having an awareness of it at the forefront of my consciousness. There are advantages I had in Japan which I don't have here, not the least of which is that I am no longer part of a minority that is prized for superficial reasons. I've written before about how, for white folks, being in Japan is like being the prettiest girl at the party for the first time and getting a lot of unearned attention. Being home is like being part of the crowd that people don't pay particular attention to. Though I knew that this was coming, I'm not quite sure how to respond to the situation, but I'm figuring it out pretty fast. The long-term question isn't how to interact in my home culture once again, but how I feel about interacting in it. Only time will tell.
Thursday, April 12, 2012
A life-size life-size reproduction of an Edo-era building (that's a real person in front).
I will miss the Edo/Tokyo museum and all of the cool exhibits and artifacts contained therein.
Wednesday, April 11, 2012
The confusion that Japanese people have with foreign names and first and last names is understandable given the differences in how family and first (given) names are offered in respective cultures. When students called me "Mrs. Shari", I knew why. However, there is another layer of complexity which I struggled with and my students never seemed to understand or act upon even when they actually did understand. In Japan, by law, a person must take the family name when marrying. The man can take his wife's family name or she can take his family name, but they have to have the same family name. In America, a woman can keep her own family name so a married woman should not be addressed as "Mrs. (her maiden name)". She should be called "Ms. (her maiden name)". I kept my family name because I made a mistake on my marriage license, but that ended up being easier anyway as I never had to modify my passport, driver's license or Social Security information. However, it did mean that I could not be called "Mrs. (my maiden name)". That is how my mother would be addressed, but not me.
My students insisted on calling me "Mrs. (my maiden name)" because they could not compute any other way of addressing me with the knowledge in hand that I was married (a fact the Japanese staff shared with them, not me). While I understood the confusion, this rigidity in thinking and inability to accept that I'd like to be addressed as "Ms." became frustrating over time and I won't miss it.
Tuesday, April 10, 2012
A fortune teller and her customer in a cubicle in the Nakano Broadway shopping arcade.
There are psychics or fortune tellers in nearly every culture. The main difference is not their presence, but how they are regarded and how their presence is made. In Tokyo, psychics are a part of everyday life. They have cubicles in shopping areas, sometimes in department stores. They set up little tables along the streets and await customers. Japanese people regard with varying degrees of amusement and seriousness. Some people think it's nonsense. Some think they have valuable information to impart and are willing to pay a lot of money to speak with the most popular ones. Most think that they are essentially entertainers and go to them for fun. A lot say that they believe what they want to believe when presented with a prediction for their future and discard the rest. A lot of Westerners have a smug attitude toward such people that borders on or blatantly treads upon scorn and disdain. That's why you rarely see such people out in the open and even more rarely see them serving their patrons in public spaces. It's just too embarrassing for the just-too-savvy-Western customers to let other people know that they're consulting a psychic in many cases.
I will miss the way in which psychics and fortune tellers have a place in Japanese society and the lack of disdain with which they are regarded by people.
Monday, April 9, 2012
She looks like she's standing still here, but she was actually riding around with her phone glued to her ear.
I always loved the idea of people riding bicycles in a country instead of taking cars and originally, it was a great point about living in Tokyo. As the years went by though, things got to the point where both being a cyclist and encountering them became increasingly frustrating. Bike parking was made nearly impossible for more than the shortest time period and long term parking was troublesome as the desire for clearer sidewalks edged out accommodating cyclists. What was worse though was that cyclists became increasingly stupid and reckless with the advent of cell phones. It's technically illegal in most places (bike laws are different from area to area, even in the same city) to use a cell phone while cycling, but people do it all of the time and the police rarely (if ever) uphold the law and fine them.
Between their attention being divided and one hand being on the phone (sometimes sending or reading text messages!), such cyclists are a huge hazard and I won't miss nearly getting knocked over by those idiots.
Friday, April 6, 2012
I can't exactly show a bunch of bits flying through a phone line, but I can show this bootleg Disney backpack.
One of the down sides to living in a foreign country, as I've mentioned before, is that you aren't in touch with the pop culture back home. It's not the least bit uncommon for me to be on a Skype call with friends or family and have people talk about how much they enjoy a T.V. show which I have never heard of, and I feel out of the loop and like I'm missing something. Fortunately, one of the things you can do in Japan with little fear of retribution from your ISP or legal entities is pirate television shows via Torrent sites. Back home, such behavior wouldn't be necessary because those shows could actually be watched there. In Japan, well, you have far fewer options aside from waiting until an entire season has ended and buy a DVD set (something which my husband and I tend to do with shows we've downloaded and enjoyed) and play it on your region-free player.
Japanese ISPs tend to look the other way about this particular behavior as long as one is not completely egregious with downloading, and while it's not an admirable thing, it is something that I will miss having the opportunity to do when there's a T.V. show I wanted to see and have missed the initial airing of.
Thursday, April 5, 2012
I understand that there are long lines everywhere at popular attractions around the world. This is a given and Japan's long lines at places like Tokyo Disneyland are understandable.What is less understandable is the random long lines at little places at which there is no special product or limited supply. In the picture above, some sundry goods are being sold in front of Ito Yokado. There was nothing unique about them and the prices weren't spectacular, but there is a tendency in Japan for people to join a line simply because other people are in the line. I've spoken with more than one person who has said that they figure that, if people are lining up for it, it must be good so they'll get in line, too. Sometimes, I think that stores actually intentionally create lines in order to drum up business because they know about this attitude.
Sometimes I just want to buy something and move on and when the place I want to go to is afflicted with these sorts of lines, it can be very frustrating. I won't miss the random long lines at places at which it makes no sense for them to have a line.
Wednesday, April 4, 2012
My first month in Japan was spent in Kita-Senju, and going there always awakens a lot of good memories.
If you could live in a place which connected you to the absolute best time of your life on a regular basis, wouldn't you want to live there? I wrote about how I originally came to Japan back in 1988 and spent a month with my then boyfriend (now husband) on a vacation which was so wonderful that it seemed like a dream. I have very specific and unique memories of my time in Japan during that month. Since Japanese people have a high desire for novelty, it is actually quite rare for anything to remain the same for long. The clothes I saw and bought, the food I ate, and the places I visited have changed since that time. In fact, my husband and I went back and visited the place where he lived at that time, and it was quite different, but some of those places really sparked strong feelings. Recently, perhaps because such things have a life cycle, I encountered not one but two things which I connected to that time. One was a housecoat which my husband bought me back then. The design is old-fashioned, and I hadn't seen it in decades. The other was a package of blueberry pies which my husband bought during that visit, but hadn't purchased since then. We hadn't seen them for years and years. Japan will always be the place where I first met the man I loved face to face and had a first month which was as close to heaven as I'll ever know on earth.
I will miss random encounters with things which remind me of that very special time because I'll never see them again after I leave Japan.
Tuesday, April 3, 2012
When spring rolls around, which apparently is any time between February and April depending on who you speak with, the sakura-flavored food starts rolling out. Sakura means "cherry blossom", not "cherry". The taste of sakura runs the gamut, but it is often a bit on the soapy side and overly floral. It's not a bad taste really. However, it's not one that I find especially good. I would say that it's probably a better fit for people who like the taste of lavender or rose in their tea than for the likes of me.
I won't miss all of the sakura-flavored treats that come out in spring, and the fact that I'm so careless that I buy them thinking they are cherry or strawberry.
Monday, April 2, 2012
As part of my goodbye socializing, I went to a teppanyaki resturant with a few of my former students, now my friends. Teppanyaki, incidentally, is when meat and vegetables are prepared on a large flat grill in front of you by a skilled chef. I think it tends to be rather theatrical in America and is merely carried out with great skill in Japan. However, I'm not a big meat eater so I have limited experience with teppanyaki. At this restaurant (a great place in Takadanobaba called Daitokai Honkan which I heartily recommend), I ordered a tofu chicken "healthy lunch" and one of my former students remarked that burgers in Japan are different from those in the West because the usual burger of pressed meat is too dense and strong for Japanese tastes. Nowhere is the ability to dilute ground meat in a flavorful manner present for me than in tsukune, a chicken meatball which is grilled yakitori-style.
Tsukune is one of my favorite items when I go to yakitori-ya (grilled chicken restaurants/shops), and I will miss the flavor and texture. While I can make a good chicken meatball, I'm sure I could never recapture the flavor imparted by the grilling process nor could I easily get the "tare" sauce that it is served or prepared with that is sold in Japan.