Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Random Memories #41

I grew up in a family situation which was very far from ideal. It certainly was not the worst experience a person can have, but it truly depends on where you put the bar on how bad an upbringing has to be in order to be considered a problematic one. For instance, if you consider that you have to be sexually abused or physically assaulted for a situation to be "bad", then I can proclaim that I was raised pretty well. Of course, you can move the bar anywhere you want based on others life experiences to make a dysfunctional upbringing seem pretty good by comparison. Children are sold into slavery, starved, or forced into prostitution at very young ages in some countries. Being beaten seems like a good deal if you compare it to those possible outcomes.

In terms of the issues I dealt with as a child, my father was a disabled alcoholic and my mother emotionally volatile. Both of them were products of their difficult upbringing. In the case of my father, he was beaten as a child, essentially abandoned by his mother to be raised by an abusive grandmother, and poor. My mother was raised by a judgmental, highly critical mother who made her feel like a failure at every turn, though she was marginally better off economically than my father. She felt unloved and unwanted as a child and got married at an age younger than the legal one at that time in order to escape the sense of her own black sheep status in the family.

My father was emotionally distant, as is unsurprisingly the case for a man who had to disconnect from intimacy due to lack of trust issues as a result of being beaten as a child. My mother, who needed lots of love because she'd grown up with such conditional positive regard, married him for validation that he could not give. As a result of how her sense of self-esteem was so low and her upbringing so emotionally unsupportive, she could not tolerate being wrong. Any time she asserted something dubious and was challenged, she lied. In fact, she fabricated stories and "evidence" so often that I'm sure she believed her lies over time. If you pushed back against these falsehoods, she rapidly became emotionally unglued and hysterical as a way of stopping the unbearable cognitive dissonance that resulted.

As a result of these experiences, I grew up very much opposed to lying about anything. I was incredibly blunt and straightforward because I was reacting to the false realities my mother was spinning daily. I could not or would not distinguish between a lie told to protect someone and a lie told to protect oneself or enhance ones own self-interests. As a child, I also did not realize that my mother was "indulging" in weaving her tales as a form of psychological survival. I just knew that I hated the cycle of lying, questioning those lies, hysteria, and then having to give up and walk away to escape the intense drama. If she had just been honest about what she knew and didn't know or been able to admit that she was wrong about something, I felt our lives would have been easier.  I guess the point was that hers would not have been bearable had she had to simply accept that she was wrong on occasion.

It's rather ironic that I moved to a culture in which lies are far more acceptable than they are in Judeo-Christian cultures. We have an undercurrent of not bearing false witness in such cultures (that's one of the ten commandments, for those who didn't grow up inclined in the ways of the Christian bible - and no, I haven't been a Christian for many years - and please do not turn comments into some sort of attack-fest or pissing contest about religion as that's not what this is about and as I'll be instructing my husband to boot such comments in moderation). In Japan, it tended to be the overwhelming experience that people lied to save faces - their faces, others faces, and the face of ideas and society.

The idea of "saving face" is often misunderstood by Westerners who romanticize the notion as some peculiar Asian thing. It really means that people don't want to embarrass themselves or others or face an unpleasant confrontation. That sounds so much less exotic than "saving face", but it's what it's really all about. As someone who hates to lie (and is bad at it anyway), it was a challenge for me to adapt to this culture without sacrificing one of my core values. Lying was simply unacceptable to me because, once you were lied to, you could not be trusted to tell the truth ever again.

Unfortunately, very early on, I found it difficult to be totally honest. In my days at Nova, I was constantly asked one question in particular. A completely honest answer would have been insulting to the Japanese and made me look bad in their eyes. Since I was teaching, and I wanted my students to enjoy their time with me, I had to skirt around the truth, and I hated it.

The question that I was asked hundreds of times was "why did you come to Japan?" If you think teaching is "easy", imagine what it is like to be asked the same limited range of questions with boring answers ten times a day, every day, for at least a year. "How old are you?" "Where are you from?" "Are you married?" "Can you use chopsticks?" "Do you like Japanese food?" "Can you eat natto?" "How long have you been in Japan?" "Why did you come here?"

One thing I can definitely say I acquired while working in Japan was a great deal of patience and tolerance. If you want to know what it is like to become truly zen, teach for a few years and be at peace with having to do and say the same thing over and over again. It's got to be much easier for the monk in his monastery praying and meditating while raking little plots of sand to be all zen about life than what a teacher does over and over again (and I'm not just talking about English teaching in Japan, but all teaching all over the world).

The real answer, the absolute, unvarnished, unadulterated truth to the questions of why I was there was because I had a dream month there with my husband before we were married and things had gone badly on multiple fronts for us when we were living in California. I didn't so much "love Japan" as hate my life in California after leaving Pennsylvania to live with my future husband. I was running from something more than to something. Also, frankly, both of us had college debts to pay back and we knew we'd make more headway economically in Japan than we would in the extremely expensive Bay Area. Sure, we had jobs there, but the cost of living was so high that we couldn't chisel our debt much if we remained there. Based on his year working in Japan alone before we got together, we knew we could make more money faster and pay everything back.

I couldn't tell students that I was there not because I loved their country and culture, but because I had a positive association with a wonderful time in my life which was not really related to Japan itself and I wanted to make money. The fudged answer was that I'd been there before and had a great time (absolutely true) and wanted to come back again to have more of such experiences (sort of true, but incomplete).

Money never entered the discussion, though students often talked about how foreigners came there to make a lot of money. The truth was that we didn't make "a lot" of money, but rather our expenses were lower because we didn't need to have a car and our transport was paid for and the exchange rate sometimes worked in our favor and sometimes did not. If you timed sending money back at the right moment, you did pretty well. It was like playing the stock market in that way. Also, frankly, there were expenses that we didn't pay because we didn't know we had to like health insurance and certain types of taxes. If the company didn't tell us about them and the government didn't send us any paperwork, there was no way for us to know what our obligations were.

I never grew comfortable with the answer I gave because I felt disingenuous about it. That being said, I don't think that being totally blunt would have served anyone except my own sense of having to be so. The truth was more complex than the students would probably have understood with their limited linguistic capabilities and more negative than the students needed to hear. The truth might have left a bad feeling in the room and cast a pall over the lesson. I can't say for sure what impact it may have had, but chances are that it wouldn't have been good.

As the years went by, I realized that my reactive bluntness was not an especially mature way of managing relationships. I still do not lie, though it is certainly true that I forget things and may unknowingly contradict myself as my opinions and feelings change over time. I remain dedicated to offering the best truth I can and even looking to documentation of the past to check my memory (and I fortunately have a lot of it). However, I have learned that it is not a lie to choose not to spill out every single detail or to talk vaguely instead of specifically. It is better to do these things than to say something which will unnecessarily make someone feel bad or damage your relationship with them.

I also learned that you have to know your audience and determine the level of information for the type of relationship. My students were likely indifferent to any reply I gave and satisfied as long as it was vaguely positive toward Japan and Japanese people. They weren't looking to hear my life story in excruciating detail. The truth is that they were just looking to make conversation with the limited vocabulary they had, not dissect the reason a foreigner arrived on their shores. It wasn't a therapy session or a lie detector test. It was the same sort of situation in which the clerk at the market asks, "how are you". He doesn't expect the truth and doesn't want to know that you've been having horrible menstrual cramps all day and as you stand in line are having a fresh wave while you wait for him to ring up the damn chocolate ice cream that you crawled out of bed to buy. He expects you to just say, "I'm fine, and you?"

I think that the risk of starting to view lies the way that they are seen in Japan is that it is often a slippery slope. Once you start lying for one reason, you can get into the habit of doing so for less virtuous reasons than smoothing over and simplifying interactions with acquaintances or avoiding embarrassment. More than one Japanese person lied in a self-serving way in situations which were incredibly pointless and damaging. Of course, the same can be said here in the U.S. as well. The main difference was that their culture, on the whole, views that less punitively than ours does and that can be a bitter pill for someone raised in a different culture to swallow, especially someone who grew up thinking that causing someone pain with the truth was better than lying.

In many ways, the repeated questioning and exposure to the types of situations I encountered in Japan helped me mature in my responses to people. Rather than being so absolute about "the truth" because I grew up with someone who lied so much and so often, I learned that things are usually more nuanced. I may have learned that had I stayed at home as well, but I'm guessing that it would have been at a greater cost as I would have had to lose friendships over time to my bluntness before I got the message. The circumstances in which I found myself created a learning environment that I'm not sure I would have had had I stayed home. I was able to adopt a different perspective which included finer discrimination of circumstances with far less heartache because I was operating in a culture in which the rules were different and that made me more open to changing myself and my views.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Won't Miss #29 - "Japan has 4 seasons" (reflection)

It's a winter wonderland, isn't it? This is part of what four distinct seasons looks like in Tokyo.

Since returning to the U.S., I have not experienced one person for whom their weather is a point of pride. Of course, living in the Bay Area, "their weather" is "sunny and hot" or "sunny and not so hot". The seasons here are pretty much "the grass is brown" (summer) or "the grass is green" (winter). Frankly, I hate the weather here because there's too much sun. I don't hate it nearly as much as the summers in Japan, but I do miss the presence of rain as well as the winter and all too brief autumn in Tokyo.

So, I guess it's no wonder that a place that appears to have two seasons wouldn't go on about how it has four of them, but even those who live in more seasonally differentiated area (like my sister, who lives in Pennsylvania) never speak of their weather as if it were unique and worthy of remarkable interest.

I absolutely do not miss people telling me again and again and again that "Japan has four seasons" as if it were the only area on the entire globe that possessed this special status. 

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Will Miss #23 - copyright infringement (reflection)

These are almost certainly unauthorized bits of Hello Kitty merchandise. This character's copyright is probably one of the most infringed worldwide. Though these were in Harajuku, I doubt anyone from Sanrio was walking around with a lawyer.

I learned a thing or two about copyright back in my days as a KISS (the rock group) fan. In the early 90's, KISS had lost a lot of their popularity and finding information about them in magazines was difficult. The fans, who were hungry for their KISS fix, found a way to make up for the fact that their favorite band no longer graced magazine covers by making their own magazines or "fanzines". A plethora of them popped up and a handful gained fair popularity.

These magazines were absolutely a labor of love as it was very expensive to print and distribute them. No one was making money off of their work. In fact, most people were lucky not to operate at a loss. The best they could hope for as a way of benefiting was to gain access to KISS information via press kits or the ability to communicate with management for news. At the top of the list of potential perks was a backstage pass if your fanzine caught the eye of the band or their handlers.

Despite the fact that fans were promoting the band for free and not making any money in the process, KISS's lawyers sent them a letter and asked them to cease and desist in all use of the band's trademark logo with two "lightning bolt" S's. This seemed like an enormous slap in the face to those who loved the band. Why would they be so petty? Well, it is about copyright laws.

The way it works with copyright is that, if you don't protect it, you lose it. Even though KISS had no philosophical problem with their fans using their logo, if they didn't stop them from using it, they would lose the ability to stop others from using it. This is why Spinal Tap get together every once in a very blue moon and perform. If they don't, someone else can take their band's name.

One of the reasons that I think copyright infringement abroad is often not protected is that it is more trouble than it is worth tracking down and trying to enforce such rights. It is also the case that, rights are different in various countries so the laws often don't protect them. In the U.S., occasionally an entity will not protect its copyright. Calvin & Hobbes creator Bill Watterson comes to mind considering how many stickers I see of Calvin peeing on things. This situation creates the free-for-all of products which humorously usurp the copyright of various big wigs in the business world. I still miss seeing those products.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Random Thoughts: The Shape of You

Recently, I've been taking a graduate school class about substance abuse. This is my second and last free class courtesy of my husband's institution of higher learning. They have a policy of allowing the significant others of their students to audit one class per year, and I have availed myself of it to the maximum extent.

The education that I receive from it has been beyond the course content and has extended to affording me the chance to make new social contacts as well as proceed with my "re-acculturation" to the United States. It's only by being in such situations that I see just how uncomfortable I am with the culture I was born into after 23 years abroad. It also allows me to gain understanding into how I became so desynchronized with that which I was once effortlessly in sync.

The teacher of this particular class is someone with copious amounts of experience in counseling people with substance abuse issues and alcoholism in particular. She used to run a residential facility, is active in 12-step programs, and continues to counsel people with such problems. In this area, I'd say she's about as knowledgeable as a person needs to be to position themselves as an authority, if not an "expert".

The class that I took previously was on psychopharmacology and that teacher was a former nurse who knows a lot not only about psychology, but also about the body in general and how it interacts with drugs or manifests illnesses. Her expertise was in both physical and mental illness. Though it's hard for someone who is not a researcher to be an "expert" in such an area, she had a well-rounded knowledge and the wisdom that comes from diverse experience as both a therapist and a medical care professional.

Taking classes from these two women has taught me less about the body, drugs, and psychology than it has about how the type of life we live and the people surround us shape who we become. The woman who taught psychopharmacology does some of her private practice with a lot of Silicon Valley workers as well as a broad range of people with other issues. Her approach to teaching was interactive, supportive, and validating. She deals with people with problems, but most of them are not seeking help because they were mandated to do so by the criminal justice system. They are looking to improve their quality of life.

The substance abuse teacher, on the other hand, is dealing with far harder cases in her life. She's handling people who aren't seeking help because they want it, but because, in many cases, they have to get it or go to jail. Her approach in class is more didactic, directive, and invalidating. She can come across as dismissive and controlling. Her faith in her viewpoints and approaches is much more certain and she does not easily or quietly entertain the idea that her way of offering treatment may not be the very best. In her view, it's about work, and a particular kind of work, to deal with addiction. When asked for alternatives to her preferred way of dealing with those with substance abuse issues, she came up blank. The whole notion that another way should be planned for in case someone didn't find that AA didn't do it for them just wasn't on the radar because she is sure that the 12-step way is the best for everyone, if only they'll commit themselves and do the work.

It occurred to me after my third five-hour class with this woman that she has been shaped by her experiences. She has to deal with people in a fashion which is more judgmental, pushy, and direct because she deals with liars, criminals, and intractable addicts. The teacher who is a former nurse is softer, more supportive, and open because she deals with people who want to end their psychological pain, not pry a monkey off their back because they've got too many DUIs on their record.

I think that both of the women who I've received instruction from are smart, compassionate, and kind, but they have been unconsciously shaped by their respective experiences. To some extent, of course, we are drawn to what suits our characters, but our characters are also shaped by our experiences. We are, to some extent, poured into a particular mental shape, a mentality, by the world around us. This is where I come to talking about Japan again.

I realized very clearly how living in Japan has changed me. It made me more patient, more open-minded, polite, rule-oriented, and, oddly, racist while being all too aware of that growing racism. It was the old "familiarity breeds contempt" thing, and, no, I didn't like it and am ever vigilant about such feelings creeping up and trying to process them so that they don't grow into something ugly. Anyone who claims they are not racist on some level is lying to themselves and you by default. Racism is a weed that you have to keep pruning back, not a plant that you can exterminate from your inner garden, but that is actually a digression from my main point.

What I have realized since coming home is that America and the people around me are pressuring a "reshaping" of me. I feel myself growing harder, more aggressive, more defensive, and prone to fight back against the rampant uninformed and aggressively opinionated views that are peppering my experiences. I don't want to be that person, but I'm constantly buffeted by the things that happen around and to me. I want to be the person I was when I left Japan, but that person may be too "soft" for life in America. If you deal with a society which respects social order and rules, you can let your guard down and expect that it's less likely that people will take advantage of you for it. Here, I have learned that you have to constantly be on the defense or others will simply roll over and crush you. They don't see this as a "bad" thing because they expect you will do the same to them.

This occurred to me because I think that, had my teacher not gone into substance abuse counseling, she may have approached life very differently. I think that her relative absolutism, lack of validation of her students' ideas and opinions, and defensive reactions to counterpoints when they create cognitive dissonance for her are the product of the atmosphere she spends her working life in. Seeing how my two teachers are shaped differently reinforced my feeling that living in America is changing me and how it makes me unhappy, uncomfortable, and sad. Japan is a place where you can evolve into a kinder, gentler person, not because it is an inherently kind or gentle place, but because the social order allows for a certain protection that the chaos of public life in America does not easily permit. 

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Won't Miss #521 - peanut cream

When I first arrived in Japan, it seemed that there was no familiar peanut butter on the shelves. It was only in later years that one or two of the bigger local markets started carrying incredibly over-priced and small jars of Skippy peanut butter. Not knowing what was going on, I bought a carton of the substance pictured above. It was stocked with the jelly and jam and had pictures of peanuts on it. It was also a lot cheaper than peanut butter. Of course, I could not read the Japanese at all.

The carton actually says "peanut cream" and it's not peanut butter. It's much more like a cross between jam and peanut butter. It's glossy, sweet, sticky, and pretty disgusting. To complicate matters, there is another version of this which is "whipped" that is very decadent, but is more like frosting than peanut butter. There may be some Japanese companies that make real peanut butter, but the only type I ever saw was Skippy. The whipped variety is fantastic, but really not "food" so much as a treat. You see it most often spread into French-style bread in bakeries.

I don't miss the peanut cream nor the absence of affordable peanut butter. 

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Will Miss #520 - hidden meanings

I was given my beautiful dragonfly pencil case by my students. My husband was given this one by one of his students. This one, unfortunately, was not lost. And, I'm pretty sure that it isn't particularly symbolic of anything other than a culture that enjoys itself some fish.

Just before I left Japan, my friends and students gave me a plethora of goodbye gifts. Two students of mine, sisters, gave me a dragonfly pencil case. It was dark blue with gold dragon flies artfully patterned on it. I say "was" because I somehow managed to lose it while walking around Monterey, CA earlier this year. Though I didn't need a pencil case necessarily, I loved it because it was from two students that I truly liked as people and because it represented something about Japanese culture.

There are many differences between old and young cultures. You don't realize this unless you come from one that is closer to one than the other. One of the things I came to understand about Japan is the refinement level you tend to see comes from a culture which has had a good many years to sort out what it values and assigned meaning to various things. In the U.S., we haven't had much time to think about what we want, and a lot of the time the country has been in existence has been devoted to matters of prosperity. Most of what we have is fairly arbitrary and meaningless in terms of symbolism. It's about logos and momentarily popular aesthetics. Logos indicate economic status as you can show what level of goods you are capable of acquiring. In Japan, it's about some deeper meaning in many cases.

My little pencil case was covered in dragonflies because they are a symbol of victory. Such cases are given to students taking tests to encourage the sense that they will be successful in passing their tests and getting into the schools they want to enter. This sort of symbolism is rife in Japan, and it's wonderfully subtle. I miss these sorts of hidden meanings and how they pepper life in Japan.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Random Memories #40

Tokyo Disneyland is now 30 years old. This is a 5-year anniversary guidebook that I received. The math tells you that, indeed, I am quite old.

There are people out there who are absolutely bonkers for Disneyland. I'm not sure what the appeal is, but the place really does something for them. They'll post pictures of themselves next to staff members in costumes of Minnie, Mickey, or Goofy, or all three of them. Emotional attachments are made to the food or the attractions. What is most puzzling is that you've got people who are 50 years old who are willing to wait in phenomenally long lines for a chance to ride some less than exciting rides or see things they've seen dozens of times before.

The magic of Disneyland has always escaped me. When I was a kid, there was a T.V. program called "The Wonderful World of Disney". It showed Disney movies that were once shown in theaters or old television shows that they had produced from the 50's and 60's. My sense of Disney was related entirely to these moldy oldies that were on at 7:00 pm on Sunday nights and the somewhat dazzling opening sequence which featured an animated Tinkerbell flying around Cinderella's castle. I'm not sure I even was aware that Disneyland or Disney World existed when I was growing up. I certainly never aspired to go there. 

When I met/visited my boyfriend in Tokyo for the first time in the spring of 1989, he planned what we were going to do with our month together. He had been there for around eight months and hadn't done much in the way of sightseeing. Most of his time was spent working, record shopping, and talking to or listening to me on cassette tapes. Part of what he planned for us was to see KISS in concert at Budokan. Another was a trip to Nikko to see temples, because you have to see temples in Japan. And, we planned to go to Tokyo Disneyland.

I didn't approach any of these plans except the KISS concert with any degree of anticipation or with any particular expectations. I didn't really care about the itinerary. I just wanted to finally spend time with him in person. The rest wasn't so much "gravy" as side dishes that I didn't give much thought to.

Yes, this is the original group from 1989.

The truth is that I do not remember much about what we did at Disneyland and, when I look at some of the pictures of us doing activities, I don't recollect the experiences at all. Most of what I know actually comes through listening to tapes sent contemporaneously to my husband's parents. He told them about my visit and relayed a particular story in which he and his brother stood in an area high above a group of Japanese visitors in a canoe who were rowing. They were rowing in time to an employee who kept saying, "ichi-ni, ichi-ni (one-two, one-two)" in order to guide their strokes. My boyfriend and his brother yelled down at the canoe, "san-shi, san-shi (three-four, three-four)" as a joke. As is so often the case, the Japanese took the goofy foreigners in stride and gamely smiled and waved at them for their efforts.

Ah, they were so friendly and tolerant.

The interesting thing about this experience as I reflect back on it is that this is the sort of thing that we would not do by the time we left Japan. Part of the joking around was youthful behavior. We all do silly things when we're young, and, in this case, at least it was good-natured and the Japanese saw that. However, I do believe another part of it was that this early time in Japan was one in which our perception of life there was that it was somehow less "real" than life back home. We were either indifferent to or oblivious of any consequences of how we were perceived in public. That being said, and this is certainly true, it really did not matter what we did because we would always be stared at anyway. Perhaps yet another part of it was that it was easier to be a big goof in public when you knew you were going to be seen as a weirdo anyway.

Other than this story, I only vaguely recall a few things that we did. I knew that we rode the sorry little train that takes you through some sort of jungle area with animatronic animals and other bits and some models of the American West and that we rode Space Mountain. I also know from a tape that I made to a friend, but never completed, that we saw Captain Eo, but we apparently spent the entire movie groping each other in the security of the darkness.

Despite the vagueness of my memories, Tokyo Disneyland was to end up occupying a special place in our personal history. That is not to say that we suddenly became fans of Disneyland or went there on yearly pilgrimages. The truth was that we went only twice, in spring of 1989 and late winter of 2013. 

It became a touchstone for the beginning and end of our life in Japan. The reason for this was that, on both occasions, my then-future, now-current brother-in-law was with us and he is a very good photographer who took a lot of pictures of us while we were there. There are more pictures of us together at Tokyo Disneyland than at any other event excluding our wedding (though the count may be pretty close). These pictures reflect how joyous we were being together after such a long and difficult separation and how incredibly in love we were/are. They're very romantic and loving, and we returned there in 2012 to recapture some of the classic poses from our initial visit. We have a "then and now" comparison of two pictures in the same spot in roughly the same pose. The pictures represent bookends to our time in Japan. Tokyo Disneyland unintentionally became a very special place for us, not because of its attractions or cartoon characters or atmosphere, but just because it was the photographic backdrop for the beginning of our in-person relationship.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Won't Miss #28 - aggressive drivers (reflection)

Early on in our time back in the U.S., my husband and I had an experience which came to represent one of the many psychological differences between Americans and Japanese. There was a judgement call at a crosswalk in which a pedestrian who had not yet entered the crosswalk was walking fast down the street toward it as our car approached the intersection. There was no crossing light but there was a stop sign. Since the pedestrian was not in the intersection and was somewhat distant from it, my husband had to make a guess as to whether or not to pull up to the intersection to turn right and proceed. He went up to the intersection, and was preparing to turn when another vehicle came up rapidly and he had to halt in the crosswalk due to the unexpected change in conditions.

The pedestrian deemed this to be a violation of his right of way and the law that cars yield to pedestrians because he could not merely saunter straight through the intersection. He had to walk about 4 feet back around the car or he had to wait for our car to clear the crosswalk. Never mind the fact that he wasn't in the intersection when these events rapidly played out (which is a clear indication that a car should yield and stop before the crosswalk). He felt so entitled to walk across the moment his pace took him to the crosswalk that he banged his fist on the back of our car in angry retaliation at what he viewed as a violation. What it was was an issue of timing and judgement, and an unclear understanding of when he was actually going to enter the intersection and the impossibility of predicting that another car would come and our car could not clear the crosswalk as anticipated. The pedestrian is, at least in California, king.

In Japan, no pedestrian expects that cars will yield to them unless the light has been on "walk" for quite some time, and even then you have to be apprehensive. In America, I've seen pedestrians scream or behave angrily more than once over perceived failures to yield. In Japan, drivers behaved far more aggressively toward pedestrians than they do here because there are rarely consequences either legally or socially. I don't miss the way cars would regularly run lights and cut me off while the police stood by in their koban (police boxes) and watched it happen. 

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Will Miss #27 - 100-yen shops (reflection)

I've mentioned on my other blog that Daiso Japan branches are located in California. There was one near where I used to live, but I moved, and that shop closed down around the same time. For those who don't know, Daiso is a 100-yen shop in Japan. In the U.S., it's a $1.50 shop. 

The American equivalent of a 100-yen shop is a dollar store. However, there really aren't that many actual dollar stores in the area I live in, despite it being pretty full of shops. I have come across several of such stores, both in San Francisco and in the Bay Area, but they've almost uniformly been dismal affairs. Not only is the selection of goods poor and unattractive, but most of the stores are shabby, dirty, dingy, and located in areas that you may not be entirely comfortable walking around in at night. 

In Tokyo, the 100-yen shops were almost uniformly clean, tidy, well-stocked, and in good areas of the city. Not only that, but some of them, the Lawson 100 chain, were actually mini grocery stores that sold fresh and frozen food that you were happy to eat. It wasn't scary, creepy or nearly outdated like the food you see in the dingy areas of dollar stores here.

I truly and totally miss the 100-yen shops in Japan. They were convenient, cheap, clean, and fun to shop in.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Random Thoughts - Emotional Irregulars

Early in my time back in the U.S., I had a discussion with a relative about mental illness in America as compared to that in Japan. This stemmed from a comment I'd made on Facebook about how I was seeing so many adults standing on streets and corners holding up signs asking for money in which I said that that was unlikely to happen in Japan. There are multiple reasons for this. One is that Japanese people would be ashamed to ask strangers for money. Another is that families are expected to and generally do look after their relatives with problems. This is not always the case, but it is more often the case than in the U.S.

The situation is complex, and I'm sure even talking about it in a format as limited as a blog post will generate some trouble with those who are intent on not taking any caveats about that fact to heart, but I will talk about it nonetheless. It was my impression that this relative felt that I was being inherently unfair to Americans and portraying them as heartless and selfish. While I don't believe Americans are heartless (far from it), I do believe that from the Japanese perspective on some issues, they are quite selfish, particularly when it comes to matters of their homes.

One of the things I realized about Japanese families, in general, but certainly not specifically, is that they feel a strong sense of obligation to look after one another. A good example of this is the case of adult children with hikikomori, a mental disorder in which one seeks social isolation. In most cases, the family accommodates  a member's disease by finding a way to financially support and house them. They do not issue ultimatums to "get better" or "get out". They do not insist on treatment or expulsion from the home. The parents or other family tend to accept the burden and live with it. 

One might ask how I know this or if I'm basing my conclusions on anecdotal experience. Because those who suffer from hikikomori are in social isolation, it's not like I was going to run across them or have the experience of teaching them. My information comes from a broader source. I met a woman in Japan who was doing her PhD and as part of her dissertation was visiting and interviewing a large number of these young men (it's almost always men). I also saw her actual dissertation and part of what she said was that insisting that your mentally ill relative do whatever was in his or her power to get better or face having to leave simply "was not done". 

By contrast, in the U.S., and I worked for two years in a halfway house for people who had been institutionalized or hospitalized after having had a psychotic break, so I have first-hand experience with this as well, American families tell the people with such problems to get their crap together or get out of their homes. If they are too ill to actually do that, their families find a way to off-load them onto a social service system in not a small number of cases. I was part of a system onto which such people were off-loaded and some of the things I discovered about the families of people who couldn't get rid of their mentally ill were, at times, horrifying. In one of the worst cases, the sister of one woman who found her way to our facility routinely locked her in a closet or beat her when she didn't want to deal with her. 

My point in this post is not to paint Americans as evil people who do not care about their families, but rather to point out how we handle mental illness in the family differently. While Japanese people are far more likely to hide or obfuscate such illnesses because it brings shame to them, Americans are likely to try and push people out of their lives and insist on treatment at any cost. As I may have mentioned in a post before, this is because Americans are tolerant on a macro level (society at large), but intolerant on a micro level (within their own homes) whereas the Japanese are the opposite.

This is all an introduction to my larger topic and that is about how the manner in which we are treated when we have an emotional or mental problem greatly influences how that problem will manifest. As part of my discussion with the aforementioned relative, she offered an anecdote about the boyfriend of an acquaintance of hers who was narcissistic, selfish, lazy, and refused to take any work that was "beneath" him and was therefore utterly dependent on his girlfriend for support. She asserted that the only thing to be done with a person with such a personality disorder was to expel him or he would forever be a leech on whoever he was with. She tasked me with explaining how a Japanese family would deal differently with such a person. To this, I said that, whatever personality disorder he was biologically inclined to have would very likely manifest differently in Japanese culture. 

The seeds are the same in all of us, but the plant that grows sprouts differently depending on the soil, water, sunlight, and care that it is given. This is a fundamental notion that people who have lived within the perspective of a single culture have difficulty understanding. A man who is at risk of such a personality disorder in the U.S., with its culture of entitlement, consumerism, and emphasis on material gain, might see his tendencies manifest with a tendency to be parasitic on those around him even when he has skills and potential. In Japan, such a man would be unlikely to do so because his culture would teach him that it would be shameful to do so. He may end up being a tyrannical boss who foists work that he feels beneath him onto his subordinates. It is hard to predict precisely, but there are more or less likely outcomes for people with similar biochemical vulnerabilities to various mental illnesses based on the shaping of ones culture.

I have been thinking about this as of late because, even after a little over a year back home, I remain shocked and often distressed by the manner in which Americans will act out emotionally, often with strangers. I deeply miss the emotional regulation that Japanese people often displayed and a culture in which it was believed that only children acted out in such a fashion because only they had not yet learned to control their emotional impulses. 

I once read a study, and wish I could find it to link to, but have not relocated it on the web, which said that Japanese people experience a limited range of emotions relative to Westerners. If the saddest we can feel is a "1" and the happiest a "10", most Western folks will experience that full range from time to time. Most Japanese people will tend to operate in the 3-7 range, unless they live abroad for awhile.

This all links to what I was saying about how culture shapes our mental life. If you are raised in a culture in which emotional expression tends to be suppressed, your brain chemistry is shaped such that you are less vigorously emotionally activated less often. Acculturation in Japan leads to better emotional regulation both because emotional outbursts are not only discouraged, but can result in social censure, and because such control is heavily role-modeled. In America, no such acculturation occurs and role modeling of outbursts, particularly those meant to "teach" people a lesson about bad behavior by venting openly at them, is the norm. This emotional dysregulation which is a part of American life is at the root of the ugly American image as well as the tendency to be openly and vociferously opinionated. We are not taught to be in control, so our minds do not develop like those of people who are taught to be in control. 

I have been reading a book about the brains and bodies of criminals and how the development of certain areas of the brain are critical to whether someone behaves aggressively. People who behave violently have certain characteristics which are highly correlated with aggressive and often criminal behavior, but such characteristics are not deterministic. The "right" environment will prevent someone with a biology that is oriented toward aggression to act on those impulses in a less destructive manner. The "wrong" environment will have them engage in risk-taking or aggressive behavior. One thing that is evident as I read through this excellent book is that the support of the family when people have such biochemical risk factors is enormously important and can make the difference between someone who acts out and someone whose destructive behaviors remain relatively contained or re-routed in more productive ways.

I'm not offering any of this as a condemnation of Americans or as an elevation of the Japanese. As is the case with all things, there is a yin and a yang. The emotional suppression that happens in Japan, as I have said before, carries a heavy price to the people who have to exercise it and I personally believe that the high rates of suicide are a part of that. It is also one thing to say that the families supporting their mentally ill is a better thing than finding a way to outsource their care or leaving them on street corners holding signs asking for money and another to live that life. Having a mentally ill person live with you is very hard on everyone, and in Japan the burden for care-giving of the disabled of any sort disproportionately falls on the women of the family. Additionally, I often felt that the Japanese were denied the heights of passion as a result of the limited emotional ranges they tended to display. Not experiencing the lowest of the lows sounds good, but not experiencing the highest of the highs is a far less pleasing notion.

My point in talking about this is two-fold. One is that I'm fully aware that one of the benefits I had as a foreigner living in Japan was that I lived among people who were well-regulated emotionally in a manner in which I personally did not have to be regulated. I had the benefits without having to pay the same price. That being said, after years of being in that culture, I actually gained far better regulation and have much better emotional control than the average American. This has been a very hard experience for me upon returning to the U.S. I often feel as if I'm living in a nation of mentally unstable people, but that is part of the reverse culture shock I have been experiencing. I don't know if I'll ever feel comfortable with what I perceive as a great deal of instability around me, but it has been overwhelming and made me socially cautious in a manner I did not anticipate.

My other point is to open up my readers minds to the idea of how the common biochemical seeds of illness or aggression can grow different plants based on acculturation. There's a reason we don't see hikikomori in the U.S. or high levels of suicide and the Japanese don't see dissociative identity disorder or nearly as much crime and they are based on what we teach and raise our children. No country or culture is immune to the genetic tendencies to have certain problems, but what we do with the people with such issues shapes how they act out in each society. 

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Won't Miss #520 - shaking hands with Japanese people

When I was working for a correspondence school, we spent most of our days either correcting the homework that was sent in or conducting five-minute telephone lessons. When we were in a non-busy period, we wrote and made textbooks and other learning materials. One of the things my boss and I made was a guide to how to shake hands. Part of my work was drawing transparencies that illustrated the various types of "bad" handshakes and, as the final slide, a "good" handshake.

Somewhere in my archives, I have drawings of these types of typical Japanese bad shakes. They were the "dead fish" (limp and weak), the "bone crusher" (too hard by a mile), the politician (grabbing the other person's hand) and the finger shake (offering only two fingers). In group orientations, we'd often go out of our way to teach people precisely how to shake because they were often so bad at it. Even my private students had to be taught how to offer their hand, how many times to shake, how to grip, and when to release before taking part in interviews.

I don't miss the uncomfortable handshakes that I used to receive in Japan from people who believed that their way of greeting (bowing) was so sophisticated that they needed a detailed and explicit guide, but assumed that our way was so simple that they could just wing it. 

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Will Miss #519 - cabbage

These are cabbage potato chips. Yes, indeed.

When I was a kid, my mother liked to make a disgusting, sloppy stew of corned beef and cabbage. It smelled horrible and was this wet concoction of awfulness that made me believe that, while many vegetables seemed to be the spawn of the devil, cabbage was old Beelzebub himself. I couldn't imagine ever coming to like the awfulness that was cabbage, and then I went to Japan. 

Japanese cuisine taught me to love cabbage because they served it fresh, often thinly shredded and served with fatty dressing alongside crispy, expertly cooked fried pork cutlets (tonkatsu). When you went to most tonkatsu joints, they'd also give you heaping added servings of it, free for the asking. This was in a country which was incredibly stingy about free refills on most things. Eating this extremely fresh pale green stuff created the illusion that the experience of chowing down on breaded fried cutlet and salty miso soup was almost a healthy endeavor. 

There is cabbage for the buying in the U.S. In fact, I can buy at least 4 kinds of it at most supermarkets around here. That being said, it's not being served to me with the vast majority of most meals, and, most disappointingly, not with Japanese food when I expect it to be so. The cabbage in Japan was just there, and it was always crispy, fresh and tasty. I miss the presence of cabbage as a casual side dish as well as the texture and quality of the kind that I encountered in Tokyo.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Random Memories #39

Not every memory that I have of Japan is a weighty one. In fact, I think that life is made up of a series of little memories that will flutter away like leaves on an autumn wind if we don't think to hold onto them and stash them away in a box of keepsakes. This is one of the reasons why we take a million boring pictures during our vacations. They are visual cues about what we saw and did, especially if what we were doing was mundane yet meaningful in shaping our world.

I have many memories of such experiences in Japan, but most of them don't pop into the forefront of my mind when I think about life there. Things like being told we weren't welcome at a restaurant in Nishi-Shinjuku or watching a homeless guy with his penis hanging out of the front of his pants as he trudged down the street of our neighborhood are sitting front and center. They scream "pick me!" when I shuffle through the file drawer of my Japan memories. 

Smaller things, like remembering that there used to be a little mom and pop convenience store that we'd browse late at night when we were bored and restless after getting off at 9:00 pm is harder to recall. That store, which vanished about 10 years before we left, was a much bigger part of our experience than either of those one-off weird encounters with exposed genitalia and racism. Not only did it serve as an education in Japanese convenience food early in our time in Japan, but the nice lady who ran it once complimented the design on my husband's and my wedding rings. It was one of the first kind things that someone said to me that I actually understood in a foreign language.

Among those tiny little memories is the experience of going to Vie de France. For those who have not lived near one of these places, either because they are thousands of miles away in their home country or just not located near one of the many branches of this bakery and cafe, this is a chain shop that offers a variety of baked goods, many of which include French-style bread. There are branches of it in the U.S., but the market saturation is not nearly what it is in Japan. Also, by looking at the American web site, it is clear that the menu is very, very different in each country.

Vie de France is owned by Yamazaki Bread Company and most of what they offer is not baked on the premises. Though the food tends to be quite fresh, it's clearly baked off site in most cases (though not all) by a major manufacturer and taken by truck to various locations. These days, the "cafe" angle is definitely the most potent component and you can go there for a light lunch and sit in an overheated room and enjoy bread stuffed with green tea cream, apple danishes that are light on everything including the apple, greasy bland donuts, super-sized melon pan, and various bits of French bread with a handful of Japanese and European-style stuffing. There is always croque monsieur on offer. It's extra greasy, though not particularly cheesy or full of ham. 

My earliest experiences with Vie de France were ones of food survival. It may sound odd that I "needed" to go to a bakery to eat, but it was when I neither spoke nor understood any Japanese. If you go to a restaurant and you're deaf, dumb, and illiterate, it's hard to order or communicate. If you go into a bakery, all you have to do is pick up a plastic tray and some tongs, select what you want, and pay at the register. No communication is required, and the food quality is more than a cut above convenience store sandwiches and bento. 

I was frequenting Vie de France long before they'd expanded their shop size and become more cafe than bakery. There was a tiny hole-in-the-wall shop that I'd turn to on days in which I wanted lunch on the run. It was always packed to the gills with housewives and school girls noisily conversing. Since my "lunch" was late (4:00-5:00 pm) due to the schedule I kept as a teacher at a conversation school, the tea time crowd, looking to catch a quick nosh and some gossip, was out in full force.

I recall having to fight my way to the register on more than one occasion as the food was crammed into the corner just to the right of the entrance and the register directly across from it. Indecisive customers who had to inspect the quality of every last crumb and ponder their choices among quite limited options as if the fate of the world hung in the balance would block both my access to the food and to the people who I needed to pay.

I did not have an image of this particular item, so this one is from another person's site. Oddly, the actual image isn't on her site anymore, but here's a link anyway. These are the potatoes wrapped in bread with a dollop of mayo.

The truth was that I generally chose the same thing on every occasion in which I went there. At that time, I was refusing not only beef (which I continue to eschew to this day), but also pork. There were a plethora of ham and sausage options and nothing with turkey or chicken so my default was what I felt was the least offensive option. I generally went for a bun that encased a small baked potato with a bit of mayo on it. I'd usually pick up one of these and buy whatever passed for "salad" in the refrigerator case and believe I was having as "healthy" a lunch as I could manage on the fly. 

Keep in mind that I was 24 years old and didn't have much cooking experience and was operating from a kitchen which was not exactly well-stocked at that time. A refrigerator the size of the one we had belonged in a college dorm room, not an adult kitchen, and it was mainly housing milk and soft drinks with a few odds and ends for dinner as that was all that could be crammed in there. I also had one pan, no or few spices, and no clue as to how to shop in Japanese. I couldn't manage to toss together my own lunch at that point in time because, to me, making my own lunch meant "sandwiches", and I couldn't locate anything resembling American meat or cheese to put together such a thing. It was all I could do to cope with learning a new job and finding my way around the public transport system without having a daily meltdown, so hitting whatever convenient areas with food I could comprehend was the natural choice. 

In retrospect, I can see exactly how this sort of eating helped me gain weight in Japan rather than lose it, despite my efforts to avoid anything that appeared overtly fattening and my early dislike of the food in Japan. That dollop of mayo and the buttery potato carried a fattening punch, and eating mostly carbohydrates ensured that I'd be starving by the time I got home. I eventually left Japan weighing less than when I'd arrived, but not until after I'd figured out how deceptive the food could be. It may have looked smaller. It may even have felt lighter and was less sweet, but somehow, it still managed to fatten me up. It took awhile to figure the whole thing out and my early days of hitting Vie de France did not help matters any.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Won't Miss #26 - Idols (reflection)

I wonder when the first annoying teen musician first appeared on the scene. Was there some pretty boy cave man who wow'ed the post-pubescent girls with prominent brow ridges? Perhaps it all began with the advent of the first mass media. I think that the first one that I can think of was Enrico Caruso. Though I am old, I'd like to make it clear that I was not actually present during his years of incredible popularity. That's no only because he was in Europe during most of his performing years, but also because he died 43 years before I was born. In this day and age, Caruso would have never cut it as an idol in either Japan or America because he was not "cute". While a perfectly fine looking fellow, he didn't have doe eyes and full pouty lips.

Here in the U.S., my exposure to idols is limited to strolling past the school supply sections of some stores and seeing Justin Bieber's mug plastered on notebooks and binders. In Japan, I saw a lot more of that sort of thing, and I don't mean more junky fodder for "Beliebers", but rather just a lot of wide-eyed nymphettes and girly-boys. Part of the reason for that was that I lived in a city so I saw more product and advertising, but another is that "idols" in Japan aren't just for the younger set. They're also there for adults, particularly men, so there's a wider audience for such fodder.

I really don't miss seeing the endless, almost identical parade of similar-looking boys and girls that comprised the "idol" set in Japan.