Friday, July 29, 2011

Won't Miss #347 - monthly pay

This is a MUFG (Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group) building, which is very tentatively linked to this post. I'm using this picture because of the man and poster person staring in awe at the silver scrotum sculpture in front of the building, which is more interesting than a generic bank picture. 

In the U.S., I was paid every two weeks and some people are paid every week. I think the system is set up in that fashion in order to compensate for the fact that most Americans are poor at budgeting and tend to spend all of the money they have on hand a bit too rapidly. Yeah, I know how that sounds like I'm bashing my home country, but it does reflect a culture in which many people often talk about "being broke until payday". Personally, I haven't had problems budgeting myself and I don't mind the fact that Japanese companies pay you once a month from that viewpoint. The problem for me isn't about being a spendthrift. It's about seeing the banks swamped on the 25th of the month (and the next few days for those who lag) and not being able to do any sort of simple transactions there if I happen to forget that it's close to payday or must do something necessary. Note that because I'm a foreigner and my money gets held onto longer by two of the three agencies that pay me for various jobs, I don't get paid on the 25th anyway, so it's not like I'm waiting for a deposit to withdraw money. Sometimes, things just come up and I need to go to the bank when everyone else gets paid.

I won't miss having to fight massive lines at the bank once a month because everyone else is getting paid at the same time once a month.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Will Miss #346 - teaching English (the good)

I've already written that I love my students, but that is because I currently mostly work freelance in a situation which allows me to work with people who are rather different from the general population of language learners in "eikaiwa" (English conversation schools). Because of my specialized circumstances, I have fewer of the passive people I mentioned in the previous post, and more active talkers. The truth is that I "moved on up" to an office job after being a teacher for a few years, but am happier having moved "back down" to teaching. From a personal growth and experience viewpoint, it is much more fulfilling. It's not only that I learn about people, but that a lesson that carries out beautifully from the viewpoint of material selection, pacing, energy levels, and tone is a thing of beauty, and I make it that way. I'm not a monkey teacher jumping around and acting foolish to entertain. I come across as "a real person" with my students, and they love that. And though it may appear effortless, it most certainly is not. Knowing when to listen, when to speak, when to wait, how to phrase a question, how to react, what topics to discuss with a particular student, etc.  takes a lot of skill. What is more, I often provide an emotionally therapeutic environment for students. Often speaking in English is more liberating for Japanese folks and they'll confess frustrations, opinions, and other feelings that they can't or won't share in Japanese. I'm sometimes told at the end of such lessons that the student came into the lesson stressed, and is leaving feeling lighter.

When a lesson comes off smoothly, elegantly, and at the end feels like I just spent a pleasant hour with another human being or when I know the interaction I've had with a student is cathartic and makes them feel better, I know I've accomplished something and done my job well. I'll miss that.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Won't Miss #346 - teaching English in Japan (the bad)

I've already written about the bad attitudes and misconceptions some people have about teaching in Japan, but there are negative aspects associated with it that have to do with the work itself. Foreigners who once taught but moved on to other jobs look down on those who remain in that work because they think it's a job that requires no skill. It requires a lot of skill to do well, but many people undermine the value of that skill because it is not linked to knowledge of linguistics, but rather is linked to social ability. The truth is Japanese people don't need a grammar teacher. They all have very good book-based knowledge of English from high school. They need real practice.

One particular problem with teaching in Japan is that Japanese people, on the whole, are passive so they require a great deal more energy to engage, and this all the harder when they speak English at a low level and have limited capacity to communicate. There is also the fact that teaching is relentlessly engaging with the student peering expectantly at you for the duration. English conversation lessons are a marathon of social obligation and pressure to keep the conversation going, but not at the expense of the student's opportunity to be the person who is speaking most of the time. When it's bad, it's like doing an hour-long interview with someone who gives dismally short replies but with whom you must be infinitely patient, gentle, and kind as a facilitator of the conversation. Anyone who thinks doing that well is "easy" is being willfully stupid or a liar. It's not merely sitting down and chatting freely as if you were with a friend. It's often chatting with a timid and conversationally unhelpful friend and not having the option to simply end it and walk away.

With a certain type of student, teaching English can be very draining and difficult and I won't miss it.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Will Miss #345 - recycling pick-up trucks

If you want to throw out a large electronic item in Japan, you have several options, and most of them will cost you. One is to contact the local government and pay them to remove it. Another is to contact the manufacturer of your item and pay them even more to have it removed. Finally, if you're having the large item replaced, you can pay even more to have the store that is delivering the new item to cart away the old one. If you're a little patient, however, you have a shot at unloading such items for free. Trucks seeking certain types of discarded electronic items drive around Tokyo asking you to surrender your junk. They'll take those items and recycle them either by stripping the materials and parts or by fixing them up and reselling them. It's convenient  because they're right at your door, and it's also free.

I'll miss the way in which these trucks make disposing of large items easy and cost-free.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Won't Miss #345 - Costco as a Herculean task

If the trip alone isn't enough to wear you out, being in a food court full of rude people, shrieking children, and people who hog the seating for as long as possible will. 

Living in central Tokyo can be awesome. Your commute is shorter, you're near a lot of interesting shops and restaurants, and the public transport is convenient. That being said, Costco can't afford to place its giant warehouses in close proximity to the center, so if you want to go there, it takes about 5-6 hours round trip to shop there. It also costs between $10-$18 per person in train costs and requires the shipping of boxes of your purchases and a heavy backpack that you have to schlep back home if you don't have a car (and I don't). Once every 3-4 months, my husband and I wear ourselves out for a nearly an entire day to benefit from greatly reduced prices on many essentials. The fresh and frozen food in particular at Costco is much better than most local offerings, and monumentally cheaper. Given how expensive life in the metropolis can be, it's hard to simply say it's not worth the effort and not go. Though the benefits (in prices, quality, and selection) make the trip worth it, I dearly miss the days when we had a car and could comfortably drive to a Costco when we were back in the U.S.

I won't miss these quarter yearly sojourns and how exhausting they are.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Will Miss #344 - new word inventions

"First food, fast food", "to-may-to, to-mah-to".

Because I spent over a decade doing work which required me to correct written English, I have a very good grasp of what Japanese people commonly mishear when they listen to my native language. They not only write these odd concoctions when they take dictation, but they use them in their own expressions without checking the dictionary to see that what they are saying are actually words or phrases in English. Among the things I experienced people writing again and again were "firstable" which is what many people though "first of all". I sometimes wonder if there are English-Japanese dictionaries out there with "firstable" as a word considering how many times I've heard/read it.

I'll miss the amusing ways in which people invent new "words" based on what they thought they were hearing.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Won't Miss #344 - futon beating

In addition to being pretty uncomfortable, futon need to be aired out regularly in order to get all of the cooties out of them. Fortunately, I have a bed, but that doesn't stop me from experiencing the second-hand "joy" of futon beating. When my neighbors whack the hell out of their futons or order to chase out all of the creepy crawlies, they do it so loudly that I can't have a conversation with a student over the pounding. Additionally, the upstairs neighbors send down a rain of dust from their balcony to mine, and mine often has my clean laundry drying on it. There's nothing like transferring their dust mites to my undies. The thrashing they give their bedding is so hard that I wonder if this is the way in which women get out all of their frustration from days filled with "gaman".

I won't miss the noise or flotsam from futon beating.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Will Miss #343 - lunch sets/deals

A fairly typical lunch set including salad, pickles, dessert, an entree, rice, and soup. This one went for a mere 650 yen ($7.94).

Eating out in Tokyo is expensive if you order dinner, but it can be both economical and awesome if you eat out at lunch time. Back home, I know that there were occasional lunch specials, but it's an art form with restaurants in Japan. You pay between 500-800 yen, and can often get a meal that includes a variety of dishes and a drink. There is nothing that I like more than having a tray full of various dishes served up to me, usually including a finish with a few bites of dessert. It feels like luxury, even when it's not.

I'll miss sampling the lunch sets of various restaurants and the bargain prices they often come at.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Won't Miss #343 - the envelopes

A counter with forms and a glue dispenser at a post office. They know you're going to need it.

Back when I first came to Japan, I wrote to a lot of folks back home, and this was before home computers were cheap and accessible for all, let alone e-mail being the norm. At that time, I had ample experience with the frustration of Japanese envelopes and I was reminded of that recently when sending something by snail mail. The envelopes here come in three flavors - flaps with no glue on them, flaps with glue on them, and those with peel off strips that reveal sticky goo and allow you to seal the envelope. The last type is the most expensive and not particularly common. The first is most common and the second, which are the type you usually buy in the U.S. and lick the dried glue to seal, turn out to be one of the worst purchases one can make if one lives in Tokyo. I found this out when I stored a box of Christmas cards with envelopes which I bought from home. By the next year, every single envelope had self-sealed because of exposure to summer humidity. It was at that point in time that I understood why most envelopes have no glue on them at all and require you to fussily mess with a glue stick to seal them up. Glue sticks aren't hard to use, but envelopes aren't the type of thing you can slather glue on willy-nilly. You have to place the flap on a piece of scrap paper because you have to apply glue up to the edge and only apply glue to the outermost part (or you will glue the flap to the letter inside).

I won't miss the annoyance of having my envelopes seal themselves or carefully applying glue to Japanese envelopes.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Will Miss #342 - Japanese gardens and parks

One of my friends recently took a tour through a Japanese garden in San Francisco. It had all of the stuff you expect to see in such a place, particularly if it is designed with tourism in mind. It's also not exactly the type of thing you tend to see in Japan since all of the elements of that garden don't tend to appear in one place here. For example, you don't tend to see cultivated trees, meticulously groomed flower beds,  and sparse rock gardens together, but rather as individual entities. Japanese gardens and parks tend to have characters all of their own, and many of them look like little snapshots from a book of fairy tales. Walking around Tokyo, I'll sometimes chance upon such places amongst the urban and suburban sprawl (and the greatly more common "dirt parks").

I'll miss the sense of whimsy, care, and beauty that such gardens give me.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Won't Miss #342 - washing rice

Somewhere under that cloudy water is my rice. That color is telling me my work is far from done. And, no, I don't use a rice cooker for something as simple as making rice. 

One of my students lives and works in Tokyo, but her home town is in Miyazaki. I've never been there, but she tells me it is vast tracts of nothing, but she goes there because she's a wonderful person and a good daughter. When she visits, her mother always does a lot of cooking and doesn't ask anything of her daughter except that she wash the rice. The mother doesn't mind doing the plethora of repetitive tasks that come along with traditional Japanese cooking like making several different dishes from scratch or cutting things up into chopstick-accessible-size pieces, but she hates to wash the rice and I know how she feels. It's tedious, time-consuming, and ultimately a task which you can't do in any way which adds quality to the final dish. At least when you chop a vegetable, you don't do it the exact same way every single time and it doesn't take about 5 minutes of swirling, draining, and refilling with water.

It may seem like a small thing, but trust me when I say that after hundreds of experiences washing Japanese rice, you get pretty sick of it and I won't miss it.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Will Miss #341 - living far from family (the good)

Most people have complicated relationships with their families. In my case, that is even more so than many others. My relationship with my mother is especially bad, and the truth is that we haven't spoken in over 15 years, though we are each informed about each other through my sister who lives with my parents and who I am in almost daily contact with. This hasn't happened because of any sort of falling out, and if I needed help, I could go back home without any ifs, ands or buts. The silence between us is because living all the way over here means I have very little to offer her and she doesn't care about my life if there's nothing in it for her. You'd be surprised how many families take little to no interest in the lives of their family members abroad. It's a common complaint amongst women who marry Japanese men and I've read many tales of disappointment in "gaijin wife" blogs. Our families live in their own "bubble" and our lack of interaction with them means our respective spheres of existence overlap too little for them to relate to us in many cases. I don't say this to be critical, but merely as a reflection of the reality of the situation.

This isn't a confessional about the hardship of my upbringing or problems with various relatives because that'd take a whole blog all by itself, but let's say that one thing I will miss is the gigantic buffer zone between me and people who may expect certain things of me while expecting less of themselves.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Won't Miss #341 - living far from family (the bad)

I once had a discussion with a student in which I taught her the word "fallback". She was talking about how being married with a working spouse allows the other party to take career risks because there was one stable income to rely upon. Our talk was about how vulnerable single folks can be economically as compared to married ones. However, I reminded her that she had a fallback in case of economic hardship in that she had her family. If her world suddenly fell apart, she could live with them (and indeed had done so up until two years ago when she moved out of her own volition to experience independence). One of the things about being a foreigner in Japan is that you don't have any fallbacks. Many people who think we live an awesome life of overpaid ease and adventure don't realize that most of us remain here without a net. If the chips fall, no one will be there to help us pick them up. The impact of this is that small blips in the stability of your life can feel like large upheavals because you have nowhere to go and no one to turn to if things take a turn toward the worst. Indeed, I think this was part of the psychology that fueled a lot of the foreigner flight from Japan after the big earthquake on March 13, 2011.

I won't miss knowing that in cases of medical, financial, logistical, psychological, or disaster-induced hardship, my husband and I have no fallbacks because the kind of people who we can ask for such support are half a world away.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Will Miss #340 - "food is fuel", as it is meant in Japan

Delicious, salted fuel.

It's very easy to misunderstand the statements made in other cultures, and one thing that I often hear American dieters who have spent a short period of time in Japan smugly assert is that the Japanese stay trim by viewing "food as fuel". When a Western person says this, they think this is about minimizing the pleasure of food such that it is diminished to being mere sustenance. They think that the Japanese see food in this way as a means of avoiding the pitfalls of eating cakes, chocolates, and salty delights. Here's the thing: this is not what the Japanese mean when they say "food is fuel". There's a reason this country has entire shows devoted to the delights of food and that Tweeting about what one ate for lunch is so popular among the Japanese. There's a reason that they market "stamina" food full of fat and carbohydrates as if it were a good point. They adore food and are not reducing it down to being the mere gas they use to fuel their bodies. When they say, "food is fuel", they are talking about making sure they eat enough to keep their motor rolling, not eating as little as possible or forgetting that food is a source of great pleasure. It's about eating more, not eating less when the Japanese say "food is fuel".

The way in which the Japanese view food as fuel in a positive fashion is something I will definitely miss, particularly after I return to the U.S. where people have so many hang-ups and value judgements about what and how much they eat.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Won't Miss #340 - process over outcome

 Click this version to see a larger version which is readable.

One of my students was corresponding with her company's head office in Italy and she wanted to tell them that an error had been made in the paperwork. The ultimate outcome would not be altered by this mistake, but she simply wanted to let them know someone had carelessly entered the wrong data at an initial stage of the process. The response from Italy was essentially to say that it was all going to work out in the end so 'what the hell is your problem?' In Japan, the people are meticulous about making sure they dot every "i" and cross every "t". In fact, they are often more concerned with this than they are with the results of the work and you can sometimes get yelled at not for the results of your work, but for some tiny insignificant error or lack of adherence to policy along the way.

I'm a pretty careful person who pays attention to detail (when I'm being paid to do a job, not so when I'm blogging, I'm sorry to say), but the frequent emphasis on process as much or more than outcome can be tedious and irritating even for a careful person who rarely makes mistakes and I won't miss it.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Will Miss #339 - old Japanese houses

I'm a fan of all old houses in general, though the truth is that I like those in a state of disrepair best. In Tokyo, where there is constant renewal, finding an interesting old house is like locating a prize in a Cracker Jack box. Such houses have a special appeal because of the relative infrequency of seeing them, but also because they are increasingly rare snapshots of Japanese society from a past era. They reflect not the distant past, but the state Japan was in when I arrived 22 years ago or somewhat before.

The design, the decay, and the way in which the people who continue to live in such places carry on their daily lives interest and intrigue me, and I will miss that.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Won't Miss #339 - the idea that I represent all foreigners

One of the things that I get tired of is the notion that I must not only behave well in Japan, but that I must be a paragon of human virtue because the Japanese will judge all foreigners by the behavior of the worst of us. If one foreigner neglects to do something properly, the rest of the community clucks their respective tongues and wags their fingers while moaning about how one bad apple makes us all look rotten.

The idea that I must behave better than the average Japanese person or be perfect at all times because any mistakes or human flaws I may exhibit will tarnish all foreigners is something I will not miss.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Will Miss #338 - Good Morning Bakery

There's a chain of bakeries called "Good Morning" and one branch is in my neighborhood. They also sell their baked goods on consignment at supermarkets (such as Ito Yokado) so you can get their offerings even if a cafe or bakery is not in your immediate area. While there are tons of excellent bakeries in Tokyo, this place has a koshian (red bean paste) bread which is sublime. It's soft, lightly sweet and incredibly delicious. It looks like marble cake, but it has texture and subtle flavor delights that might convert even the most red-bean-hating person to the appeal of this traditional substance. Good Morning also has a fantastic maple pastry for the most conservative of foreign eaters and is one of the very few bakeries to sell authentic and well-made sourdough bread.

The aforementioned koshian bread. So good, even if you aren't a red bean fan.

I'll miss Good Morning Bakery, and the delights it offers me on a regular basis.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Won't Miss #338 - low protein (and veggie) meals

An extremely delicious Sri Lankan meal that I ate in Shinjuku with a tiny salad, 3 bites of chicken (with skin), rice, potato salad, and bread. Three carbs in one meal - great if you're running a marathon, or want to expand the size of your ass. Despite the carb overload, I heartily recommend this place - Court Lodge. The staff is wonderful (attentive, friendly,  offering more gravy as needed) and the food is tasty and moderately priced.

My husband and I spent more years not eating at restaurants in Japan than eating at them. That wasn't because the food here isn't good, nor was it because the portions are small or things can be expensive, though the latter was definitely a factor. The main problem is that most of the restaurant food you get in Japan is low protein, high carbohydrate, and low in vegetables. If you're Japanese, it seems that getting a giant noodle, rice, or bread portion with a couple of bites of meat and garnish-size amounts of vegetables seems to be okay, but it really isn't a good balance nutritionally. In fact, I often see people getting even more rice or bread on top of the heaping portions they already have. I always end up eating half of the carbs (or less) and my husband always has to order a(n often pricey) side dish with more protein to balance things out. 

The food here is often fantastic, but I'm often dissatisfied with the nutritional balance based on the usual composition of protein, carbs, and vegetables.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Will Miss #337 - alien nation

There was a movie made in the late 80's called Tokyo Pop which shows a scene with the main character, a young singer from America, walking through the crowds in Tokyo. Her blond head and blue eyes stand above a sea of dark heads going in the opposite direction. That comes as close to anything I can say or show about the sense I'm trying to describe. I've been in Japan for a long time, so I tend to sleepwalk through life much as I did back home. Every so often, like Rubin's Vase or other optical illusions that you suddenly see as one thing instead of another, I snap back to a profound sense of how alien the world around me is. It's like realizing that I've been living under water and I'm neither a fish nor capable of surviving without special assistance. I've been wearing a breathing apparatus for so long that I've forgotten its there, but suddenly I realize the truth. The moment is terrifying in its starkness, and makes you feel intensely vital.

I will miss those moments which snap me into another sense of reality, and how alive it makes me feel.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Won't Miss #337 - expensive digital cameras

Things tend to be fairly expensive in Tokyo (and Japan in general), but over the past 20 years the prices of electronics items between the U.S. and Japan have become roughly equivalent. One exception to this is digital cameras. Even low end cameras are more expensive here than they are in the U.S., and they are made by the same companies and very similar models. There's no qualitative difference, but the cameras are 50%-100% more expensive in Japan. Based on my pictures on these blogs, it will come as no surprise that I use a low end camera, and that it's pretty important to my daily life.

I won't miss having to pay a lot more for a digital camera in Japan.