Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Random Thoughts: Where I go from here

As of yesterday, I finished my 1000 things, 500 good points and 500 bad points. There were times when I thought I would not make it, and times when I was certain that I would. In terms of the full content, I'd say that I'm not happy with some, but am mostly happy with the vast majority of my posts. As Dave Barry used to say, and I paraphrase, 'they can't all be gems'. Not every post is an earth-shattering observation or an exploration of a nook and cranny of life in Japan that is of optimal interest, but that's not what this was all about.

What this was all about was remembering my time in Japan and doing so in a way which was more meaningful than an album of pictures from a trip to Mt. Fuji (which I never went to, incidentally) or a vague recollection of a certain experience years after it had occurred. It was about details of my experience, warts and all, as well as processing and reflecting on them in a personally meaningful way. It was about pausing in the sleepwalk I did through that life and taking careful notes of what was around me and how I felt before I left that environment and lost the luxury to do so.

In terms of where I go from here, I have no intentions of stopping this blog, though I clearly cannot continue to churn out new content at the same rate as I have in terms of stacking on more new "things". Obviously, I've been mulling this over for some time as the end drew near and my plan is as follows:
  1. I will be adding in new posts as the ideas come to me. The truth is that there are still ideas in the buffer that have not been used. While the last 4 posts were written a very long time ago in anticipation of the end and the way in which I wanted to round out my 1000 posts, there are little things that never got into the mix for various reasons (usually, the fact that I could not locate a photo that had an even limited connection to the topic). Those things will be added on, as will new ones that come to mind through time. 
  2. I will be opening up all posts to comments conditional on people making ones in a respectful way. People don't have to be positive toward me, but I have zero tolerance for snotty, nasty, angry people who just want to prove something or treat me like their personal stress relief punching bag. If you've got something to say, say it, but pretend I'm your boss and you have to behave in a civilized manner. Otherwise, my moderator (my husband, who screens all comments before I see them) will kick you to the curb. Don't see making a comment as a way of "getting" to me even if you don't get published. There's a protective layer between me and jerks with emotional issues. I hate that I have to say this, but early commenting experiences on this blog compel me to do so. 
  3. I will be re-editing and re-posting past posts. That is, I will be re-reflecting on what I said a long time ago and adding in new ideas, possibly expanding the initial posts and going to a more long-form style with some of my old ideas. I'll also be using new photos in some cases. The purpose of this is three-fold. It will allow me to break out of the box I put myself in initially with short-form posting and it will permit me to reflect on how I felt while I was in Japan compared to how I feel now when I'm in America. Essentially, I'll be able to talk about whether or not I actually do miss those things now or whether my speculation was incorrect. It will also allow commenting on old posts (which I can't open for comments retro-actively on a macro level) so that those who wanted to say something when the topics first came up will now have the chance to do so. Again, see item "2". 
  4. I will continue with "Random Memories" posts as long as I have things to share from my memory books from my earliest time in Japan. 
It's possible there will also be other surprises. Now that the "burden" I placed on myself to do an arbitrary number of posts is over, I can go anywhere I choose. It remains to be seen just where that might be, but I sincerely appreciate everyone who came along for the ride and anyone who chooses to keep going along with me. I really do appreciate that people take the time to read what I write, and hope you continue to enjoy whatever comes in the future.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Will Miss #500 - living abroad

When I first got on to Facebook and started connecting with my former classmates from elementary school and high school, they saw me in a particular fashion because I was living in a foreign country. Automatically, my life was more interesting and everything I talked about was more exotic, even when I was talking about things which were present in American culture as well. The idea of living abroad imparts a sense of circumstances being "special", both to those viewing that life and those living that life. It's an achievement of sorts to merely operate in that environment. It affords a sense of automatic "success" because every day you are accomplishing something merely by coping with the challenges of that culture.

I miss the experience and idea of living abroad, especially in the land of the rising sun, which is viewed as a difficult place to cope with compared to more European cultures. I miss what it meant to me personally and how it affected how I was viewed by those not living in that culture.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Won't Miss #500 - being a "gaijin"

While living in the United States, I am just a person. While living in Japan, I was turned into a "gaijin". This is an identity that was assigned to me by the Japanese and is given to everyone who does not suit the definition of "Japanese".  Even people who are actually Japanese, but don't look it, are given this identity. I've spent the last 23 years of my life being defined by my "otherness" . It has made me feel less than human and objectified for a very long time. There is no pride in being a gaijin and there certainly is no community support among foreigners for the difficulties involved in being slotted into this identity (as my many posts about the negative attitudes toward foreigners by other foreigners illustrates). There is only the feeling that you are an outsider.

I won't miss being a gaijin and, by coming home, I'm starting to feel like "just" a person again. 

Friday, October 26, 2012

Will Miss #499 - something to write about

I have yet to write about foot monkeys, but you can't cover everything... not even in 1000 posts.

One of my students aspired to be a writer. In fact, she had been trying to change her work from salesperson to something in the publishing industry for quite some time. The only problem was that she was a writer who didn't write. I encouraged her to blog, because you can hone your craft through writing one, but she said she couldn't think of what to say or write about. Many people have the same problem. They blog anyway, but they really have nothing to say so they go around reading what other people write in articles or say on their blogs and comment on it.

I am a writer, and I write about what I think (and I think a lot) and experience. The perspective I gained from living as an outsider as well as the experiences I had were invaluable in stimulating my written work. Living in Japan gave me a wealth of opportunity to express my voice uniquely on topics which not everyone experiences in the manner in which I do, and I'll miss that.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Won't Miss #499 - no sense of "home"

This shirt actually has nothing to do with the topic of this post, but the graphic fits. 

One of the hardest things about living in Japan was knowing that it was not and never could be my "home". Sure, I could have applied for Japanese citizenship or residency. I might even have been granted the latter, but Japanese culture is not one which accepts occidental faces as Japanese. It doesn't matter what passport you hold. I would never belong and I would never feel as if I was rooted because there would be a sense of not fitting in. It is said that "home is where the heart is," but my heart could never be seen as Japanese. Home is where you are always welcome and you feel that you belong. I couldn't say either of these of my time in Japan. Perhaps I would have felt differently had I been married to a Japanese person and integrated with a family on that level, but that just was not my particular destiny.

I was always the puzzle piece that did not fit with the others and therefore I knew I did not and could not ever belong. I won't miss the sense that I could never feel that Japan was truly my "home".

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Random Memories #13

Click this smaller image to load a bigger version.

I'm not sure, but outside of die-hard hoarders, I'm probably the only person on the planet with 24-year-old flyers from fast food places. It is a testimonial to my sense in 1987 that anything with Japanese writing on it was "neat" and therefore worth keeping. Well, it's also a reflection of the fact that anything my future husband sent me was something to be treasured and added to my enormous scrapbooks.

This Pizza Hut flyer lists a host of cities on the left to make it clear what an international business Pizza Hut is. I'm sure that they meant it as a reflection of their sophistication, much as major department stores list their branches in London, Paris, New York, and, of course, Tokyo. It comes across as a bit strange because it's not like fast food outlets aren't located in every major city. McDonald's could do a bang-up ad listing all of the major cities it appears in. Actually, they'd have to publish one the size of a phone book to cover all of their bases.

It seems clear from this flyer that Pizza Hut was positioning itself as a more elegant pizza option as compared to the other dregs like Pizza-la, Domino's, and Shakey's. The stalks and grains of wheat in the picture also seem to be saying, "natural" or "wholesome". This marketing was done well before KFC bought out Pizza Hut and the look and feel of the place was rather different than it is now.

I've read that Pizza Hut started in Japan in 1973, but when my boyfriend sent me this flyer, it was not a common eatery in Tokyo. He was delighted to find one, but I don't think he ate there more than once because it was rather expensive. At present, the situation for Pizza Hut has changed because there are no sit-down restaurants for it in Tokyo. In 1987, there must have been at least one that you could go to and eat in as the flyer mentions a salad bar. I'm not sure at what point they vanished, but all of the Pizza Huts in Tokyo are now delivery or pick-up only. I guess that means their attempt to establish themselves as an elegant international eatery must have failed.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Will Miss #498 - "only in Japan" moments

People love to post wacky pictures of strange things in Japan and then caption them as "only in Japan". However, there is strangeness all over the world and the main difference between what I saw there and what I see back home is not the look of the people and the type of pop cultural influence behind the funky self-presentation. For me, "only in Japan" has much more to do with individual acts and experiences which I doubt would happen elsewhere. It's about people who (generally tend to) wait patiently in long lines without cutting or shoving or how they slowly and gently lay something on your desk instead of smacking it down because they don't want to appear crude or disruptive. It's about how people apologize for things that aren't their fault and many, many more lovely (and not so lovely) things which I talk about in this blog.

A lot of the psychological elements of which I speak are what I think of as "only in Japan" moments, not the goofy, wacky shots of atypical people and things, and I'm going to miss those experiences which are deeply and quintessentially Japanese.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Won't Miss #498 - being called a parasite

I talk a little about my background in the "About Me" section, but that's hardly the full picture. For instance, I worked at a Japanese office, and part of that job was teaching. Another part was that I created textbooks. I not only wrote content, but I did desktop publishing. To that end, I taught myself how to use Adobe Photoshop, InDesign, and Illustrator. I not only learned them, but I did so very well and passed the test to be an A.C.E. What is more, I did everything at my own expense. I even used my own personal computer and scanner in the office because the company was too cheap to buy machines new enough to run professional software. My company benefited from money I spent, time I invested, and skills I cultivated for over a decade and they invested nothing. They paid me about 1400 yen an hour for my time in the office, and that was it.

I also paid taxes in Japan and have contributed (literally) tens of thousands of dollars to the Japanese National Health insurance system. I barely used that system beyond routine dental care and two surgeries (which I paid 1/3 of so I know that I paid for many times over the cost of the treatment) and received nothing but rudimentary social services (e.g., trash pick-up). I have never received one yen in social welfare from the Japanese government. I have done work people wanted and provided services they were happy to pay for, yet I have been called "a leech", "a mooch" and "a parasite". I am labeled so because I worked in the English language industry. For some people, the yardstick for measuring my value in Japanese society was based solely on the extent to which I use Japanese language in my work or daily life.

I won't miss being called a parasite because I don't measure up to an extremely limited notion of what constitutes a person or life of value that is applied only to foreigners in Japan.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Will Miss #497 - reminders of shared humanity

No matter what your nationality, Martians will be happy to eat your head. It's a nightmare we all share.

Whether we realize it or not, we spend a lot of our time awake but "sleepwalking" through life. We're not aware of what is going on around us, particularly when we're not making a conscious effort to scrutinize our surroundings. One aspect of visiting a foreign country as a tourist is that you tend to pay more attention. An aspect of living in one is that you can find yourself eventually going back to the same sort of sleepwalking you did back home. Ironically, I have found that when I'm walking around Tokyo and have a sensory experience which is the same as one back home, it "wakes me up". If I walked by a "coin laundry" in Tokyo, and smelled that familiar smell that I experienced when walking by laundromats back home, I was pulled fully into the moment and out of my waking sleepwalk.

These moments always made me think of the fact that Japanese and American people exist in very different life "tapestries", but sometimes we have the exact same threads running through them. This is a reminder of shared humanity through the minutiae of daily life, and I'll miss that.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Won't Miss #497 - open office plans

One of the cool things about teaching in Japan? No open office plan (usually)... though my husband's second job did have such a style. The noise was awful. This was one of the cubicles I taught in at my last job in Tokyo. Ah, luxury!

I can't speak for offices around the world because I only have experience with two countries - America and Japan. In the U.S., most people work in a private office or a cubicle with partitions on 3 sides. I can't say why this is done, but I've always believed it was to avoid distraction, control noise, and offer privacy. It's a lot harder for your coworkers to interrupt you if they have to get up from their desk and walk around your walls or through your office door than if they can just speak to you across a desk or two. You also get muted sound from their phones and work habits.

In Japan, it is most common to use what is called an "open office plan". That is when there is one big room and the whole staff for a section (or even a company) has desks next to and/or facing one another. This style is cheaper and allows companies to move employees around and cram others in at a whim. It is also a style which has a negative impact on productivity and creates more stress for employees. Most people hate this, but the overwhelming majority of Japanese companies use this style. They say it builds their team spirit, but the truth is that it's about keeping an eye on people and saving money. What was worst about my personal experiences with such plans was that they were horribly cramped. You weren't only operating in a barrage of stimuli and experiencing a plethora of interruptions, but you were crammed in like sardines.

I hated the open office plans in Japan and I absolutely will not miss them. 

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Random Memories #12

One of the only good things about having had a boyfriend in Japan while I suffered the difficulties of a long distance relationship was that the gifts were awesome. More than one of my female friends expressed envy and outright jealousy at what they saw as the opportunity afforded me by his location, especially in regards to KISS collectibles.The funny thing was that I was less interested in the KISS items than I was in Japanese stuff, including robes and those oh-so-well-known T-shirts with funny sayings. That is not to say that I didn't love the KISS junk that I got. In fact, I had the best collection ever because my boyfriend could only show his love with cassettes of him talking, written correspondence and gifts. One of the easiest options in terms of gifts was those collectibles.

For my first birthday, my future husband gave me a shirt which said "lusty members club" (among other things). That wasn't the last shirt that I got, and many of those early shirts are ones that we still quote to this day. One of our favorites had the line, "beat his monkey ass until it ain't no fun." Another, less obvious one was, "Use Venus Soap, It Saves Rubbing." My future husband said that we never used said soap because the rubbing was the funnest part. That's the sort of talk that made me fall in love with him.

At the top of this post is a tag from one of the funny shirts my then-boyfriend sent me. The tags were as good as the shirts. The back of the tag, just above this paragraph, shows the size as "F". That's as in "free" size. I'm not sure what size "free" was, but I guess it was supposed to fit nearly any Japanese physique. I didn't see any shirts using this sizing system near the end of my time in Japan, which may mean I didn't look hard enough or they had changed over to the S, M, L, and LL system which seems more common these days.

The odd thing about the "Engrish" shirts is that they got a lot less funny as time went on. There were fewer of them, and they were less nonsensical. I'm not sure why that should be. Maybe I just didn't go to the right stores as I got older, or maybe the English in Japan really did get better. At any rate, I do have fond memories of those shirts, and wish I hadn't worn them all until they completely fell apart.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Will Miss #496 - furoshiki

A personalized furoshiki, given to me by a student as a goodbye gift. The paper is instructions on how to tie this beautiful cloth.

I remember watching cartoons when I was a kid which showed a hobo walking around with his bindle tied to a stick. The hobo, as someone who lacked funds, used this little folded up bit of cloth to carry his possessions. This was back in the days before we could buy cheap backpacks and there were plastic bags being tossed in our faces every time we made a purchase. 

A furoshiki, is an elegant form of a bindle, though it is usually used to wrap and carry boxes (especially bento) or as a lovely gift-wrappings. I received two sets of personalized chopsticks from what must have been expensive shops wrapped in furoshik, as well as a furoshiki with my name on it in Japanese and I'm grateful for these memorable items. These were my last experiences in Japan with these bits of cloth, but my first ones came when office ladies at my former company would use these to carry their lunches, though more often than not, people just opted for a plastic bag. On those rare occasions that I did see these, they reminded me that Japanese culture was once not only thrifty, but also that there were these ways of doing things which were beautifully executed and taught through generations. They did this not only for special things like gifts, but also just for their own daily use. It reflected how old and developed Japanese culture is as well as their well-known attention to detail.

I'll miss seeing furoshiki, both as wrapping as in gift stores, but especially because of what their use said about Japanese culture.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Won't Miss #496 - fixation on blue eyes

Surely, the tears of angels fall from blue eyes.

I had many discussions with students about their preconceptions regarding Western people, and, to them, "Western" (occidental), meant "white". It meant not only white, but mostly blue-eyed white people. In fact, I was told on more than one occasion that they believed most of us have blue eyes. I learned a long time ago when I studied basic genetics in junior high school that blue eyes are recessive and therefore less likely to be present. The ever handy Wikipedia says 33.8% of the U.S. population has blue eyes. That's certainly a lot more than the number of Japanese who do, but hardly a majority.

The incorrect notion that most occidental people have blue eyes isn't really something you can "blame" Japanese people for believing. After all, most T.V. shows have a stunning imbalance in terms of eye color. I've watched shows in which 80% of the cast are blue-eyed, and it is frequently the case that the main cast are blue-eyed. The thing that annoyed me in Japan was the fixation on blue eyes as something that is incredibly positive and worth noting. Students would tell me they wanted my eye color. Some actually preferred teachers because they had blue eyes and felt that they were getting a more "authentic" experience in learning if their teacher's appearance matched their stereotype.

Undoubtedly, I benefited from this fixation on blue eyes (and light hair), but it always made me feel objectified and uncomfortable. I think the worst part though was knowing that people who were dark-skinned, dark-eyed, and dark-haired were being rated lower in desirability for arbitrary reasons. This fixation made me acutely aware that I was given a benefit for something that I had nothing to do with, and I won't miss it.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Will Miss #495 - volume control (personal)

I'm not saying everyone can control their personal volume. 

I'm a person who likes order. In fact, one of my pleasures in life is the sort of anal retentive organization that makes the Felix Ungers of the world "squee" with delight and the Oscar Madisons scoff with disdain. I enjoy knowing where things are enough to invest energy in setting up a special place for them and placing them in it in a highly logical and tidy fashion. You might see where the focus on orderliness in Japan was attractive to my ilk.

While I did appreciate the order in Japan, I didn't realize the deep extent to which I'd become comforted by the predictability it provided until I came back home and was exposed to more "chaotic" behavior. For instance, it's not unusual in America for people to be shouting things at each other on streets or in stores as if they were in their personal space trying to get the attention of family members. The yelling is not in anger in most cases, but just being loud without respect to the people around them or the public circumstances. In Japan, people did shout at times, but mainly as a part of work. You didn't tend to just have random people yelling at each other at random times. There is a sense of propriety in general (but not always) and people aren't so randomly loud.

At the moment, at least, as part of my reverse culture shock, I find it disconcerting and not a little stressful when people are yelling at each other in the streets. I miss the way in which Japanese people, who could be noisy, but not necessarily because of loudness or shouting, would keep their personal volume nobs turned down relative to people in America.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Won't Miss #495 - "worn" = "dirty"

Yes, this is a real place in Tokyo (in Hamadayama). I don't know what it was all about, but the elaborate garbage placement nearly made it a work of art. 

I have a real ambivalence about the way things worked in Tokyo in terms of the constant renewal and the waste associated with it versus the pristine sense of things being clean and new. Since coming back to America, I have been struck by how profoundly grubby things seem at times, even when they are actually technically "clean". Stores, even large, modern ones, in particular can sometimes shock me with the wear and tear on their structures which make them appear rundown. In Tokyo, customers generally felt uncomfortable with any sort of visible wear such as cracks, chips in paint, age-based yellowing. Anything that resembled age-related loss of quality was generally kept to a bare minimum. Most things felt pretty fresh and relatively new, if not actually "new". It didn't hurt that cleaning was done thoroughly, not simply "regularly".

All of that being said, I couldn't help but believe that it was immensely wasteful to refurbish or replace things simply because they were worn in appearance yet did not have diminished utility. In this day and age of concern about resources and the environment, it felt like an immense indulgence to a particular aesthetic to be replacing things that were perfectly functional, but superficially somewhat unpleasant.

My students used to tell me that they didn't like certain things like their old clothes, bags, or apartments because they were "dirty", but what they almost always meant was that they looked worn or used. I won't miss the waste associated with this mentality.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Random Memories #11

The scanner really picks up the tiny bits of dust embedded in the grooves. What looks so dirty and dull here looks very shiny, gold and clean in person.

One of the things which is clear from my memory books from 1988-89 is that Japan was a different place at that time. The positive effects of the economic bubble were still intact and a lot of things were more elaborate than they were after it burst. The item above is a reflection of good times. This is a plastic gold coin which was given away by Kentucky Fried Chicken. I believe you could have figured out who issued it without my saying that.

The "50" on it does not refer to the number of years they've been in business in Japan. This is supposed to emulate the Japanese 50-yen coin and this could be used to get 50 yen off of your meal at the shops. It's called a "thank you coin" and the date of issue is written on the back as 9-3-62. I wonder if people who don't know about Japanese calendars may misinterpret the date on it as September 3, 1962 and wonder if that is the year KFC started in Japan (they actually started in 1970 in Kobe). This date corresponds to the 62nd year of the Showa Emperor, which is 1987 by the Roman calendar that we use. That nearly pinpoints when my future husband obtained this little bit of memorabilia.

I wonder if one took this to a KFC in Tokyo and offered it over if they'd take 50 yen off your purchase as there is no expiration date on the coin (see comments - the date given is the expiration!). That being said, I wouldn't want to give it up. While it may be worthless, it is likely the last time KFC Japan would squander money on such a discount token. These days, they'd simply offer paper coupons or internet coupons rather than spend so much these types of things. It's not only a cool way to play "heads or tails", but a memento of better economic days.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Will Miss #494 - herbal "nodo ame"

Image pilfered from Kanro's web site.

The notions of too much or too little of anything are culturally relative. In Japan, they always served me too much rice by my estimations. They gave me too little protein. The medicine was too weak and the coffee was often like tar. Before undies are wadded at that coffee comment, I should say that I like strong coffee like Italian espresso, but what passed for strong coffee in Japan tasted like the stuff at the bottom of a diner pot after it had been sitting on the hot plate all day.

Given my recent post about medicine being too weak for my gaijin physique, it may come as a surprise that some "medicine" was actually stronger in Japan than it seems to be in the U.S. That is what the Japanese call "nodo ame" (のど飴) and what we might call "throat lozenges or drops". As a teacher who taught in air conditioned settings very often, I frequently needed a little relief and my "go to" option in Japan was Kanro's sugar-free lozenges (pictured above). There were a plethora of really obnoxious tasting herbal cough drops in Japan and it took me awhile to get used to them, but they were very effective. Upon returning home, I've found that nothing comes close to these. What is more, the drops are individually wrapped in sealed packages and don't get gummy and sticky over time. I've found that the twist wrappers on American drops (or just loosely-packed ones) absorb moisture and get icky surprisingly quickly.

It's a small thing, but I really miss the Japanese herbal cough drops and how effective and well-packaged they were.

As an added note, I've found the closest thing to the Japanese ones that I have found are Ricola original drops. They're not quite as good, but still better than most American stuff.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Won't Miss #494 - being hung up on (a lot)

Wrong numbers are a fact of life in any country. The main difference between getting a call from someone who is confused or dials incorrectly in Japan as compared to the U.S. is that, if you answer in English, and I always did because that was the language I expected my callers to speak, you will more often than not be immediately hung up on. This isn't just because you are speaking English as salespeople (and NTT, damn their souls to a purgatory in which someone tries to sell them something they want and then never follows through, is the worst) will start blabbing on in Japanese even if you have the audacity to say "hello". It is because people think it is okay to be rude to foreigners or because they are so shocked that they panic and slam the phone down (perhaps they fear gaijin cooties being transmitted through the phone lines). Seriously though, I got very tired of people who mistakenly called me and didn't have the courtesy to say, "I'm sorry" (gomennasai/ ごめんなさい) or "I made a mistake" (shitsurei shimashita/失礼しました。) before disconnecting. The worst ones would not only call and hang up on me, but then they'd do it again with the same mistaken number and hang up once more without a word.

I won't miss wrong callers simply hanging up on me without so much as an "I'm sorry."

Friday, October 5, 2012

Will Miss - #493 drinking soup from a bowl

Since coming to America, my husband has refused to eat soup with a spoon. This is the result of having been "spoiled" by the Japanese custom of conveniently tipping the bowl up to ones mouth and taking a slurp. Though I have no problem at all with his doing this at home, I feel a little strange about the possibility of doing it in public. I'm going to blame the Europeans for creating nonsensical rules about soup rather than following the more pragmatic way of the Japanese (and likely other parts of Asia). As someone who is actually better with chopsticks than a spoon (I often manage to spill things on my shirt), it would save me a few stains to just up-end the bowl.

The Japanese way of drinking soup from the bowl rather than precariously ladling it up to our mouths with a spoon makes a good deal of sense, and I'll miss living in a culture in which this is considered correct manners.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Won't Miss #493 - castella

Castella is a kind of sticky, coarse-textured cake which is somewhat sweet and has no strong flavor. It is often sold in blocks or rectangular wedges and can be found pretty much everywhere in Tokyo including 100-yen shops that carry food, convenience stores, markets and tony department stores. Not only can you get this low quality cake pretty much anywhere, but it is frequently used as a base for a variety of other foods including rusks and filled whoopie-pie-style sandwiches. While no one ever force fed me castella, I was given plenty of it either in the office I worked in as a souvenir or as a gift because the assumption was that I'd love it because most everybody does in Japan (hence the reason it's sold all over the place). While it certainly is no blight on the food landscape, it's really not very good sponge cake. It's fatty, sticky, and somehow too dry all at the same time with insufficiently strong flavoring (like, oh, say, vanilla) to make much of an impact. It's like the mutant offspring of a loaf of Wonder Bread and a yellow sponge cake from a Betty Crocker mix. 

I won't miss being given or gifted castella, and having to pretend that I liked it in order to protect people's feelings. 

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Random Memories #10

Click any image to see a larger one.

For a good portion of my young adult life, the postal service was of incredible importance to me. At the age of 17, I had 19 pen pals. At 22, I was in a relationship with one, albeit not one of the 19 that I had known since I was 17. No, I fell in love with him within several months of having first heard from him. When lightning strikes, it hits hard and fast.

The mailbox was like a surprise factory for me. I'd open the box sometimes and find letters, cards or packages. In the pre-internet days, it was a delight to find such things at random intervals. I'm not sure if people younger than me can begin to understand the delights of personal correspondence in the box considering the way in which the immediacy of mail, chatting, and voice talking over the internet has changed how we view communication. People had to address me in a structured and purposeful manner. They didn't so much casually include me in some little detail or generalized mailing. They had to organize, customize, and personalize what they said and how they said it. It was truly a delight and I'm sure my practice at that age informs my love of writing now.

Since I carried on a long-distance relationship between Pennsylvania and Japan, I spent a lot of time at the post office, not to mention a lot of money. On the Japan side, my then-boyfriend (now husband) was paying even more than I was, though oddly his rates went down by the time he left and my rates went up. In 1988 or '89, he picked up some plastic sheets from the post office that showed the stamps that were on sale at the time. These types of things were not being given away by the time I left Japan and are rather different than the ones that were posted in the post office to show new stamp issues. First of all, current stamp displays were paper and these are plastic and I'm not sure if they can be taken by the public (I never saw stacks of them to be taken). Second, and most interestingly, these old ones have advertisements for businesses across the bottom. Clearly, there was a time when the post office's advertising was sponsored by businesses and it was likely abandoned by the merchants as Japan's economic downturn turned into a  two decade slump. My guess is that giving out plastic sheets of new stamp designs would be prohibitively expensive without the economic assistance of other companies.

In case you don't know how the postal service works, here is an illustrated story. I'm sure that thousands of mystified Japanese were immensely gratified to understand the complex mechanisms which caused mail to be moved from point A to point B.

At the time that I got these, I didn't understand any Japanese, of course, but now I know that NTT (Japan's equivalent of AT&T), a discount store, and a school are among the advertisers. My boyfriend sent these mainly so that I could see the nice Japanese stamp designs. Rather ironically, even though we were in communication for approximately a year and exchanged hundreds of pieces of mail (and not one was lost!), I don't have many of the actual stamps because most of the packages came with metered postage rather than stamps, but that's okay because I'm not really a stamp collector. These plastic sheets are their own bit of history, and far more durable than real stamps to boot.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Will Miss #492 - my illusions about America

One of the reasons that I do this blog is that I want to show a more fully rounded perspective about life in Japan. Of course, that perspective is always subjective, but I am at least trying to find a balance by talking about the positives as well as the negatives. For many years in Japan, I also tried to be balanced about how I viewed America. One could never have accused me of being overly positive, but I did often feel that many perspectives on the U.S. were overly negative, especially as they came from an ethnocentric viewpoint. Of course, people who weren't from the U.S. would hate the food. They weren't used to it. Of course, they'd think that the overly familiar and casual way that service people deal with you was not polite enough. It isn't their way in their country. Of course they'd feel we were loud and too expressive when they are usually reserved and passive. That doesn't make one way "good" and the other "bad", just different.

In the end though, there were things about America that I either remembered wrong or have changed since I stopped living here 23 years ago. In Japan, I was often treated as a resource rather than a person. People wanted to use me for free English practice, to learn about a foreign culture, or as a token foreign friend. I did not expect to feel as though I was being "used" in the same way upon returning home, but I frankly feel that people regard me similarly here for different reasons. Perhaps it is the focus on "networking" or the consumerist culture, but I often feel that people mainly look at me as a resource or as a potential customer here as well. There was an illusion that I held about American people and culture and that people valued one another for the "right" reasons. I was able to maintain that only because I was living in Japan and removed from the reality.

The illusions I had about American people and culture were comforting and helped counterbalance some of the negative experiences I had in Japan, and I miss them.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Won't Miss #492 - competitiveness about "correct" English

Before coming to Japan and encountering people from many other English-speaking countries, I never gave a second thought as to whether one type of English was "true" English. After working around people from England, New Zealand, Australia, and Canada, I've come to realize that there is an attitude of competitiveness about which type of English is "correct". To me, "colour" and "color" are simply two ways of spelling the same word, not grounds for arguments about linguistic origins and which is "right" or "wrong" (as both are in respective dictionaries for each region's English), but you'd be surprised how it can set off a battle among more territorial English speakers. A big part of the reason this becomes an issue in Japan is that most Japanese people are taught American English, and this sticks in non-American craws. Personally, I teach from British-based as well as American-based texts and teach my students that all of it is correct English, but this is not a sentiment that is shared by all other foreigners.

I won't miss this petty competitiveness about what sort of English is the best or "correct".