Thursday, March 27, 2014

Will Miss #537 - lack of sprinklers

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Random Memories #68 - Alyson - part 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

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

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

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

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Will Miss #40 - people doing their own thing (reflection)

If this guy were in America instead of Akihabara, he wouldn't bother wearing headphones, he'd just blast that music aloud.

At some point within this past week, my husband and I were crossing a street and a guy on a skateboard crossing in the opposite direction was loudly and theatrically singing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." After he had passed, my husband asked me if I thought he was mentally ill (as a lot of such unfortunate souls are conversing with unseen parties) or if he was just unaware of how inappropriate his behavior was. My answer was that it was a case of neither and that, in my experience, he was just being a not atypical American.

I'm sometimes floored by how people behave in public spaces as if they were private. I'm not talking about people who hug or kiss in public in moments of unrestrained passion (also, hugging in public is a greeting in the U.S. so it's not so strange). I'm talking about people who seem mentally well who will sing aloud or talk to themselves aloud - without any sort of phone - I've seen people discuss the contents of their shopping cart with themselves. America has either really changed since I left it in 1989 or the Bay Area is vastly different from where I grew up, but people really seem quite unrestrained now in these areas.

In Japan, the people who did their own thing rarely sang or conversed to themselves (though it did happen). They, more often than not, would dance, do golf  or baseball swings, or some sort of movement which seemed unusual in public. Americans tend to be verbal about it. Japanese tended to be physical. Frankly, the latter was less disturbing because you could just not look. It's hard to not "hear" someone who is being loud.

I can't say that I miss people "doing their own thing" in public since it happens so often here, but I can say that I found the way in which it happened in Japan less disruptive and charming. That's a biased I've formed, no doubt, but I'm being honest.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Random Memories #67 - Alyson part 2

Part 1 of this short series is here.

From the straight arrow junior manager (CJ), Alison moved her attentions to a rock-and-roll student - literally a guy who was musician - who I'll call "Koji" (I don't remember his name). She was always thrilled when she showed up on her schedule for a conversation lesson. We even swapped classes sometimes to give her more face time with him.

Early on in my time at Nova, teachers could do this, though it didn't happen too often. Generally, teachers liked high level students and disliked low level ones. Koji's English was on the lower level at that time and I'd trade off his class for a higher level class of Aly's any day. Since the students never knew who their teacher was supposed to be (unless they requested a one-to-one lesson with a particular person), they never knew the difference, though I think old Koji may have caught on after seeing Alison's face on such a regular basis.

Aly's hunger for this musician with a Jon-Bon-Jovi haircut was not sated for quite some time. He resisted all of her attempts for several months. In the end, they had a drunken hump in an alley after some imbibing at an izakaya. If the experience had occurred between a foreign man and a highly-inebriated Japanese woman, I think people would have viewed it as predatory and maybe even called it rape. Since it was a woman who went after a man, I think they'd think he "scored". 

The truth was that Alyson's "scoring" was not going particularly well at this point. She'd had two liasons with two different Japanese men who she'd lusted after and neither had had a satisfactory conclusion for her (or likely for them). After the drunken back-alley boff, she and Koji were both too embarrassed to have any other exchanges of any sort and he eventually cut his hair and the shine really went off of him. After this, instead of trading for Koji's classes, she was trying to trade them away to other teachers. 

Alyson was one of several people whom I met in Japan who worked in a place that required a university degree yet they did not have one. In her case, she came to Japan on a tourist visa with a duration of three months. She did something that many people do who want to work in Japan, but lack the credentials. That is, she stepped out of the country briefly by visiting Korea and then came back with another tourist visa that would afford her three more months in paradise. She managed to accomplish a nearly unprecedented three times. Most can't go beyond twice, but I think being female and British helped her along as the Japanese were very unlikely to see her as a sponge or a criminal (and they couldn't see her tattoos).

After nine months, however, she was out of time and her pursuit of Japanese men had to come to an end. There was no way that the immigration officials would let her go for a fourth round so she had to leave Nova and Japan. She had to go, but she vowed to return. 

Fortunately for her, Aly had worked for a printer in England. She went home and used her old connections to create an extremely realistic-looking fake diploma. Since she wasn't relying on some mail order place that was photocopying them off for cheap, she could do a much better job than most.

After a suitable interval back in England to insure that she wouldn't get turned away at the gate for coming back too soon for a tourist visa, she came back and looked for a job at which she could get visa sponsorship. She found work at a kindergarten that would sponsor her and augmented her work there with jobs at a juku ("cram school" - like a prep school or augmented learning depending on the school) and a culture center. "Culture centers" in this case meant areas sponsored by local governments to allow bored grannies and housewives to spend their days doing something other than shop and fret over their kids' futures.

Through Alyson's work, I learned a bit more about the Japanese education system and the structures that exist to support it. Since she worked with kids for the most part, she  had experience with a situation that I didn't want to go anywhere near. For instance, I learned that, when a student failed one of her tests at the juku, she had to make a new test that was easier so that they could pass it. What the student learned was less important than the students' ability to feel successful. The juku was a business, after all. They didn't want the customers to feel bad about going to them for help in passing their university entrance exams.

It was also through Alsion that I discovered that teachers were expected to do pretty much everything with the kids when they taught at the kindergarten level. This included taking swimming classes at a pool at the school. This was something which Aly could not do because of her tattoos so she had to lie and say she was deathly afraid of water or she would call in sick. The employees there were critical and overtly expressed doubt, but they did not insist that she don a bathing suit and get in with the little ones.

While she was working at these places, Alyson developed a higher interest in learning Japanese language. When she was at Nova, she was pretty indifferent to it and, in fact, overtly expressed that she had no interest in learning the language. She also found that no one really wanted to speak or learn English even at the culture center that catered to older women who studied volitionally. It was easier and more enjoyable for her to just chatter in Japanese with people so she started studying seriously.

Around this same time, my husband also started to go to Japanese school and study Japanese seriously as well. In fact, we decided that he would quit his job and I would work full-time to support us while he did so. We did a full role reversal and he was the househusband and I was the breadwinner. I note this because, unfortunately, this turn of events would eventually bring about the end of my friendship with Alyson, but I don't want to get too far ahead of the story.

As several years passed, Aly started to change her look and attitude. She stopped wearing her hair in enormous and voluminous waves in her natural brown and started to dye it black and iron it flat. She lost a little weight (she was never fat, nor really even plump, but just had a bit of meat on her bones) and became downright petite. She also dressed far more conservatively and gave up her billowly Bohemian look for plain clothes in more tailored cuts in black or sedate colors.

It was clear that she was "turning Japanese" in overt ways. She not only wanted to talk like the natives. She wanted to look like them. This was, to be honest, somewhat disconcerting. I'd never known any foreigner who had modified their appearance in order to fit in with the look of Japanese people. I could certainly understand why she did it, but, at the same time, I thought it was probably not really good for her to abandon her unique identity in an attempt to adopt a compliant one with a group of people who would never accept her as one of them. 

By the time Alyson had entered her Japanese-look-alike phase, I had entered the phase of adaptation where I was angry and hated everything around me. She told me, likely more than once, that I should leave Japan if I disliked it so much. This didn't put a rift in our friendship, but it probably didn't help hold it together, especially now that we were working in different places. (to be continued)

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Won't Miss #537 - mold

The wall behind my washing machine - it turned nearly black with mold that grew in warmer months and died in colder ones then came back around again the next year.

During my first year in Japan, one of my coworkers told me about how mold seemed to spring up everywhere in his apartment. He told me that a pair of shoes that he left in his genkan (entryway) had even seen a crop of the stuff take up residence. When I expressed that that sounded incredibly gross, he said it was no big deal and that "mold is a gentle creature" and he just wiped the stuff out of his shoes.

My previous post reminded me of something I would have rather forgotten. That is, the ease with which mold tended to take hold in Tokyo. I can speak for every single place in Japan, but I can say that mold seemed inescapable in the humid sub-tropical weather there. It did not matter how well we ventilated our home. In fact, it was so poorly insulated that there was no way to make it anything but drafty both against the summer heat leaking in and the frigid cold in winter.

I grew up with relatively humid summers in Pennsylvania, but we never faced the sort of mold that I encountered in Tokyo and I absolutely do not miss it.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Will Miss #536 - having a laundry hook-up in the apartment

The beige tray on the left (under the water spigot) was the home of my machine for more than two decades. You can see that there are disadvantages - mold developed on the walls behind and in front of it from moisture (both from the machine and the bathing area behind that door). Those trash bags were the things we were tossing out when we were vacating the apartment. It's not garbage so much as possessions that weren't worth carrying back to the U.S.

Prior to spending most of my adulthood in Japan, I had not lived in a truly independent fashion. I spent 23 years in my parent's house and then a year in California in my husband's best friend's house. The ease of living in a house was something that I took for granted. I had never rented my own place in the U.S. so I had no idea how that all tended to work when I returned to the U.S. at the age of 48. One of the surprises in store for me was that most apartments, at least in the Bay Area, don't have their own laundry facilities or a space in which one can set up a machine.* You have to rely on public or communal apartment (pay laundry) machines. Though the apartments here are bigger inside, people seem to prefer filling that space up with their crap instead of having the convenience of on-site laundry capability.

In Japan, there was space in my apartment for a washing machine. It had a plastic shell and a built-in drain. It was in the space next to the area with the tub and shower so I could recycle water from the tub if I wanted to by putting it in the washing machine. After spending some time back home dealing with the hassles of public laundry facilities which often consume my quarters without offering full service (either because the machines malfunction or the dryers are anemic), I truly miss having the ability to just toss my clothes into a machine any time I want. 

*Note: I know I can buy a portable washing machine and manually hook it up to a sink. However, this is not the same as having a dedicated space with a drain and water faucet. Lugging a machine back and forth and connecting it to the sink is not something I want to be doing - not to mention I'd still have to use the laundry room's dryer since there's no space for hanging clothes up to dry in most of the apartments here.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Random Memories #66 - Alyson - part 1

Recently, I've been renewing my interest in chemistry. It was one of a handful of majors that I considered when approaching college and it is one of the few topics which I have not revisited with any intellectual vigor. Fortunately, YouTube and other outlets afford me the chance to "attend" lectures on nearly any subject I may want, at least at the elementary level. A brief search and about an hour later, I was (somewhat happily) struggling with some of the same concepts I'd struggled with back when I was 15.

In the first lecture that I watched, the paths of electrons around the nucleus of an atom was reviewed. Most of us are very familiar with the line drawing of a spherical nucleus with several electrons orbiting it like multiple moons around a planet. At least you're familiar with it if you've watched the Simpsons and know Similin' Joe Fission - part of his body is comprised of a similar graphic. 

In real chemistry, it doesn't work so much like this as the electrons occupy multiple positions rather than follow such tidy, static orbits. We can only talk about the probability that it will be at a point close to the nucleus or one further away or follow a particular path. The closer an electron is to the nucleus, the higher the likelihood that the electron will occupy that space as it takes more energy to be further from the center.

Why am I talking about electrons? It has to do with the probability of things that happen in our lives and how occupying a space close to whatever is central is far more likely than occupying a space further from it. The reason I am amazed that  my husband and I got together was that the probability of our coming together given that we had no "nuclear" connection was quite low. If we were electrons, we would only have managed to find each other while occupying the highest energy orbit of the unlikeliest shell. This makes it seem more like fate than random chance.*

The fact that proximity creates relationships is a fact that we embrace wholeheartedly when it suits our worldview and abandon entirely when it does not. It is easy to accept that, as a general rule, you meet your friends and your significant others because you just so happen to reside in the same place - occupying the same "nucleus" as I say in my analogy. Things seem less "meant to be" in those situations and more like they are just the most likely outcomes based on higher probability. 

My friendship with Alyson was one of those things which happened because of probability and it never had a sense of fate. We were not meant to be "best buddies" or, as the kids say these days, "BFFs". We did, however, spend quite a few years as exactly that. 

I met her at Nova conversation school when we both started working at the Ikebukuro branch at the same time. We trained at the same time, had lunch at the same time, and went through our initial phases of being a foreigner abroad at the same time. There is a powerful bond when you are with someone who is experiencing the same things at the same time as you. Unfortunately, it is not necessarily a bond that is built to last.

Alyson and I were both 24 when we started working for the infamous Nova. She was from England and had worked at a printers shop that made large scale items like posters. The fact that she got hired at all was a reflection of Nova's desperation to get gaijin asses in chairs sitting across from stunned-looking students because she never looked the part. In the late 80's, it was not common for people to have tattoos and nose rings. She had both. She also dressed in a very Bohemian fashion, favoring flowing shirts and pants made of thin textiles. 

Alyson's hair was an enormous tangled pile of brunette waves that I found out that she only washed once a month and only combed out at that time as well. Her boyfriend at the time, a fellow British subject who was a hair dresser when he wasn't in Japan, had advised her to follow this regime. He said that it was unhealthy to wash or comb out too often. Considering the fact that Alyson once complained that her boyfriend "didn't like to wash his bits", I'm surprised that she took his opinion to heart in any regard when it came to cleanliness.

Alyson's look was extremely exotic, and while they didn't make her wear conventional clothes, Nova told her she could not reveal her tattoos or wear her nose ring during classes. After one class in which her shirt slipped a little low in the back and a student saw the tip of the tattoo of a dagger that she had on her back, she grew extremely concerned that the student might tell someone in management and she'd be fired. That may seem pretty paranoid, but tattoos on women at that time were connected to yakuza molls and prostitutes. Fortunately, the student did not bother to say anything, but Alyson sweated the possibility for several days. Taking out the nose ring was quite a bit easier, but she did fret that, if she didn't remember to put it back in long enough, the hole might close up.

During our first three months, Aly, as she called herself and suggested we do the same, shared the same schedule as me. That meant we had plenty of time to eat lunch together and talk about what it felt like to be in Japan. I wish I had saved recordings of conversations from that time, but I would be shocked if a lot of it wasn't talk about how confusing the language was, particularly the written part. We also gossiped a lot about our various coworkers and which ones we took a liking to and which ones we did not. 

As I mentioned in a previous post on my memories, an extremely immature coworker named Steve took a shine to her, and she found herself uncomfortably rebuffing him on several occasions. He knew she had a boyfriend, but I think he may have felt she made him up as a way of making excuses. 

In the end, Aly and her British boyfriend broke up, but not because she wanted Steve. It turned out that both she and her soon-to-be "ex" were far more drawn to what each of them viewed as the delicious-looking natives than to each other. After traveling the world together for quite some time, they parted ways so they could each pursue others. 

Alyson was the first woman that I had experienced in Japan who was very, very strongly drawn to the physical type that most Japanese men constituted. There were women who found them attractive, but she was crazy for them. She liked their (by and large) slender, hairless appearance and the first target of her attention was a young man who was doing some time in Nova's lower management before moving on to the upper management. She was my exact opposite in this regard as I'd grown up a KISS fan and wanted someone hairy and meaty who reminded me of Gene Simmons. The merits of particular male aesthetics were not infrequently on the table in our conversations given our divergent tastes in men.

The object of her initial desire was slumming it along with the female managers in order to learn the ropes in the field and then he'd move up to the head office and occupy a desk for the rest of his career. I don't remember the young man's name, but he went by the nickname "CJ". He couldn't have been older than 28 and had a smarmy smile and a pleasant demeanor. He was always polite and business-like and I wonder in retrospect if she was drawn to his polish and professionalism. It could also be that seeing a man in a well-fitted suit did a number on her, and most of the Japanese men we experienced were very well-dressed every single day.

After months of trying to get together socially with the target of her lust, Alyson finally managed to hook up with CJ. This took no small amount of scheming as she had to convince him to go out for a drink with her and others on a few occasions to warm him up to the ideal of a tryst with her. When they finally enjoyed a carnal evening, she was very disappointed. He insisted on wearing not one, but two condoms. I am guessing that this had more to do with her gaijin girly part cooties than his fear that he'd impregnate her, but I cannot know for sure. She did not go into explicit details, though she did indicate the interlude was brief, and she did relate that it wasn't in any way what she'd hoped it would be. Also, at one point she pulled out a tube of "lip cream" (Chapstick) and said, "that's about the size of it."

After their disappointing night, things were fairly awkward around the office. Alyson went from daily talk of how "yummy" CJ was to regarding him with scorn and disdain. It seemed in retrospect that he was right to resist getting involved with someone in the office because of the resulting interpersonal animosity. For several weeks, they only shared brief and officious exchanges over scheduling and student files. Business as usual, sans Aly's drooling and longing for a coworker, eventually returned. (to be continued)

*If you're a chemistry geek who knows about a billion times more than me (not a difficult feat), please don't go into deep lecture mode and tell me how dumb I am. The fact that I'm reviewing lectures in introductory chemistry means I already know how dumb I am.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The March 11, 2011 Quake Remembrance

Yesterday, we received a copy of the Wall Street Journal that included an article on the anniversary of the quake. Of course, it was dated yesterday because Japan is a day ahead of us and they have already observed the third year passing. The article talks about how the mental toll on the areas most strongly affected by the quake continues to this day. I also know from my contact with folks in Japan that recovery continues as they volunteer to assist in rebuilding even now. I'm shocked, in some ways, that things aren't better for the victims. In other ways, I'm not surprised at all. Japan can move very fast when the choices have been made to do so, but can be very slow when they have not.

The quake was a part of Japanese history that I lived through and will never forget, but my experience is absolutely nothing compared to what people in the path of the tsunami have endured. My heart goes out to the people who continue to suffer from the devastation, particularly the mental anguish they continue to deal with. I remember them on this day. 

Won't Miss #49 - frozen construction (reflection)

As I mentioned in the original post, my issue with construction which took forever to complete was that areas that I had to walk through were often obstructed by it. In particular, it seemed to take forever for any work being done on stations to be completed. The question as I look back on that situation is, "does it take forever in America, too?" The answer to that is definitely "no". In the U.S., the problem isn't that construction never gets done, but that it seems to recur quite often, especially on roads. 

So, while I might have to walk through a taped-off, walled-off, narrow space for over a year in Tokyo while construction seemed to proceed at a crawl, I didn't tend to have to do it more than once in a long span of time. Nonetheless, I don't miss having to walk around or work around glacially paced work.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Will Miss #48 - sleep anywhere (reflection)

Shortly after we moved to the Bay Area in the late spring/early summer of 2012, my husband remarked that he thought it was nice that some people felt free to just sack out on a picnic bench somewhere. It wasn't something that we saw often, but, on occasion, people would sleep in public after a hard day or during lunch. This is the uncommon sort of sleeping in public that I see here in the U.S.

The more common type of "sleep anywhere" in America is homeless people. Sometimes they are stretched out in parks (which also happened in Japan) and sometimes just slumbering in front of the local library or even on a street near a shopping area. More often than not, the vibe from public snoozers is not a happy one.

In Japan, most of the people sleeping in strange places, and the range of areas was far greater than it is here, are clearly employed and homed. The vibe you get is a curious one, perhaps even a little amusing. I miss seeing people sleeping anywhere they're too tired to go on and feeling like it's actually kind of cute rather than sad. 

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Random Memories #65 - Mr. Matsubara

One of the things that used to happen to my husband or me on occasion in Japan was that we'd run across a person who'd stop us on the street and look at us with recognition. This person would then say, "do you remember me?" Sometimes, we would remember this person, but, at least half the time, we would not.

In the long history of my work in Japan, I spoke with hundreds of people face to face. If you count the people I did telephone lessons with, then I easily spoke to thousands. The problem with being a teacher for a long time in Japan is that you see so  many people and they see so few of you. It's easy for them to remember one of a handful of English conversation teachers they've met in their lifetimes. It's rather hard for you to keep track of the enormous numbers of students.

In order to remember one particular student, one of two things has to happen. You will have had to have taught that student a lot relative to any other student or over a very long period of time. If not that, then that student would have to be incredibly memorable when seen in contrast to other students. Given how hard Japanese people try not to stand out, particularly in a  small room while taking part in an English lesson, this is not really a common occurrence. They want to be invisible in the group, not recognizable.

I have mentioned before that I spent two years at Nova conversation school when I moved to Japan in 1989. There are very few students from my time there that I remember because everything was so new and much of it was a blur. I remembered the teachers far better than the students for the most part, especially the ones that I socialized with and the crazy one. One of the few students that I remember, and can't imagine ever forgetting was Mr. Matsubara. I've mentioned him in passing before, but never fully talked about the experiences I had with him or the reflections I've had as a result of having known him.

For the overworked and underpaid teachers at Nova, Mr. Matsubara was a pain in the ass. For starters, he was there practically all day most days. Nova sold lesson tickets and the cheapest way to get them was to purchase 300 at once. Most people ended up wasting them as there was a time limit on redeeming them. This is how Nova kept afloat financially despite their low prices, at least in those days. They didn't make money off of high volume and low margins, but rather off of purchases they never fulfilled.

Mr. Matsubara wasn't someone who was going to lose his lessons. He'd book the entire day taking either a group lesson with one teacher after another, hop-scotching through the schedule leaving disappointed teachers in his wake, or parking in the "Voice" lounge for as long as possible each day.

The "Voice" area, for those unfamiliar with the way Nova worked, was a large room with comfortable chairs and sofas in which students could sit and "chat" with teachers as if it were a sociable encounter and not a lesson. There was no lesson there, just free conversation, though it was incredibly hard work for the teachers as students were often passive and stared mutely while waiting for the teacher to yammer on and entertain or to query the students endlessly to get them to actually speak. Voice was the most exhausting part of work there even though it was supposed to be more "relaxing" for teachers.

Every time one of us discovered we had Mr. Matsubara in a lesson or spied him in the Voice room, we'd audibly groan at the burden being placed upon us. For one thing, he could get angry for inexplicable reasons. If he didn't like the way the teacher was approaching the lesson, if he happened to be stuck in a class in which he'd already done the text material before (which happened a lot due to Nova's limited scheduling and small pool of course material), or if he was just having a bad day, he'd clam up and refuse to take part. An air of fury surrounded him at those times as his eyes darkned, his jaw clenched, and his brow furrowed. His countenance was not unlike that of a child ready to have a tantrum. This turn of events not only made the teacher uncomfortable, but the other students as well.

Even when he was feeling like participating in a lesson, strange things would happen with Mr. Matsubara. He would be talking in halting English with poor grammar that the most careful and consistent correction could not unhinge, and suddenly, he'd just stop. I don't mean he'd stop speaking English, I mean he would stop. He'd close his eyes and go unconscious for up to a minute. Suddenly, his eyes would pop open and we'd all be looking at him expectantly. He'd act as though nothing had happened and just sit there waiting for the teacher to carry on. Eventually, you learned to start carrying on long before he popped out of his fugue state as there was no point in waiting it out.

At the time, I knew that this was almost certainly petit mal seizures that he was having and I assumed that was the reason that he no longer had a job and spent his days making the teachers crazy and the students uncomfortable. Over time, and with increased understanding of Japanese culture, I came to understand that it was almost certainly more than that. Something really terrible had happened to Mr. Matsubara and we all knew it, but we never knew for certain what it was. And, lest I mislead you, there isn't a surprise coming in which I reveal what happened to him. There's just some speculation. We would never ask him why he didn't work anymore even though he couldn't have been older than 55 and he would never volunteer to tell us. It will always be a mystery.

One thing which was always puzzling about Mr. Matsubara - one thing besides the blanking out and going dead and the mood control issues - was that he always wore a suit and tie. Though he was spending all day in English lessons in which other men were wearing casual clothes if they could (if they weren't coming after work or during lunch), he always wore a full businessman uniform. I realize that this was likely because he was going out every day and putting on the appearance of a normal Japanese businessman for some particular reason. 

I don't know if he was lying to his family and saying he was going to work when he was not or if he was just putting on a show for the masses of strangers who rode the trains with him, but he was keeping up a front. Beyond that, he possibly was clinging to his identity as a working Japanese man as it is very likely the only identity he had in his adult life. This was 1989-1991 when Japan was still in an economic boom and a man without a job was a man without a life or a reason to live. That's still the case now, but the continuous decline of the economy makes a man who isn't going to work everyday less a failure than one of his country's politicians and business concerns.

The other point about Mr. Matsubara which was a clue to me that something more than the bouts of unconsciousness were the reason for his lack of employment was his temper problem. More than one Japanese person told me that they believed only children failed to control their emotions. What was more, in the Voice room, Mr. Matsubara argued his point of view with teachers. Most Japanese people, when confronted with a counterpoint, will clam up - that's if they're willing to offer an opinion at all. In many cases, a student will only offer an opinion after the teacher has expressed his or hers, and even then only when that opinion agrees with the teacher's.

I remember one Voice conversation in which Mr. Matsubara was having an argument with a teacher over what constituted "culture". I wasn't taking part in the conversation and was listening as another teacher - there were always two teachers stuck in the Voice room at that time - was debating with him. As the discussion grew more heated, Mr. Matsubara asked me what I thought was "culture" and especially wanted to know if language was included in it as that was part of his point. I told him that I believed "everything" - food, holidays, clothes, etc. - was included in culture, including language. 

He was smug and triumphant in what he felt was a victory of viewpoint. I had never seen a Japanese person behave in such a way before and never since. That doesn't mean there aren't people who do what he did on a regular basis. In fact, my guess is that many do it, but generally after some beer and in an izakaya (pub), not when fully sober and around other Japanese folks who are virtual strangers or around foreign folks. Being so overtly confrontational, opinionated, and loud about your opinions is generally frowned upon in Japanese society. It's a ticket to being ostracized and I heard many students tell me they had to keep their traps shut because of this.

Now that I know a lot more about life in Japan, I think that it is far less likely that Mr. Matsubara's health issue with going unconscious would have gotten him fired from a job. My experience demonstrated to me that most Japanese companies will tolerate considerable mental and physical health problems in employees. In fact, they were incredibly tolerant of their Japanese employees in this regard. My company allowed someone who was depressed to take months and months off without question or threat of dismissal. I also knew severely physically disabled people who were employed at a variety of companies.

In retrospect, I suspect that it was the inability to keep his opinions to himself and his emotions under control that likely got Mr. Matsubara expelled from working life in Japan. I suspect that the emotional control problems may have been related to the neurological issues that made him go dead for short periods of time, but that would be, again, pure speculation.

I sometimes wonder what happened to Mr. Matsubara. It's been 25 years since I first met him and he wasn't a young man at that time. Chances are that he has passed away by now or, at the very least, is well into his dotage. I was annoyed by him back then because I was a new teacher at a job that was draining physically and emotionally and he made my life that much more difficult. Now, I just feel sorry for him and hope that he went on to a better life with some sense of personal peace.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Won't Miss #536 - fear of being arrested

I don't think having your picture taken with the police mascot would have been an arrestable offense, but I wouldn't take any chances.

Early on in our time in Japan, my husband and I knew that the Japanese police could hold you and disallow contact with the outside world entirely if they chose to do so. "You" means "foreigners", of course. This could happen for no reason at all or for something trivial like if one of us happened to step outside for a moment without our gaijin cards and a policeman was walking by. This was an oddly not uncommon experience in my neighborhood as they seemed to go around to the houses not infrequently). In theory, a police officer could refuse to allow us to step inside our apartment to get our I.D. and show it to him. He could haul us off to the local police station and hold us until someone brought the gaijin card. Oh, and they don't have to let you call someone and ask them to bring it.

So, my husband and I had an agreement that, if one of us seemed to vanish, we'd start with going to the police station to see if one of us had nabbed and disallowed a call. Does this sound far-fetched? Yes, it was unlikely, but it did happen to people on occasion - yes, even white people. It was one of the first things I was told about and warned against when I arrived in Japan in 1988.

I don't miss fearing that I'd be arrested and held without the ability to contact my husband and let him know what had happened to me - small as that chance may have been.