Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Random Thoughts: Space for Honesty

I'm taking a break from my recollections about the end of my time in Japan. Frankly, it's still an emotionally difficult thing to write about and this post has been percolating for awhile so I'll offer it here as a brief interlude. Thanks to those who take the time to read all of my prattle. :-)

As attentive readers may recall, my husband and I came back to the U.S. so he could go to graduate school and become a qualified therapist. This was a path I once pondered traveling, but have since decided is not for me - at least not at this time. Life experience was the main reason for my change of heart. Such work is not easy and requires a certain temperament and acceptance of the limits people have in regards to personal change. I can possess and have displayed such understanding and tolerance, but would prefer not to have it required of me on a regular basis - again, at least not at this time.

Given how hard I know the work can be, on several occasions, I have assured my husband that, if he has a change of heart and wants to abandon this path, it is okay. Even if  we spend all of our savings helping him achieve the credentials and he spends the years and 3000 hours of (likely unpaid) time to get licensed, it is not going to upset me if he decides to walk away and we just do something else. I didn't realize this until recently, but my saying that is providing him with the space to be honest. If I were to adopt an attitude of "this had better work after uprooting our life in Japan and spending all of our money," he would have to keep any reservations or changes of heart a secret for fear of creating a rift between us. So far, my husband remains absolutely satisfied with the path he's on and is 100% committed to doing the work he is training to do. I remain, however, open to the possibility that it could change and am emotionally prepared to accept that.

The topic of secret-keeping and lying has come more prominently to my mind because of a book I've been reading, but it's something that I have rolled over in my mind many times because of the cultural aspects of such things in various cultures. I've written before about "tatamae" ("public face") and "honne" ("true face") in Japanese culture and about how lying is much more socially acceptable in Japan than in the U.S.

People in Japan expect you to lie. In fact, they'd rather you lie than tell a truth which upsets the apple cart. Even if they know you're lying, it's okay because they often accept that it is in the service of keeping a (superficially) smooth relationship in place. It's not a betrayal or a deception in at least some cases. It's about harmony.

While thinking about the idea of providing people with the "space for honesty", I considered how little space there is for that in Japanese culture. Is there less of it and therefore lies are culturally accommodated, or is there simply greater "honesty" about the necessity of lies in all relationships? Is the very existence of terms like tatamae and honne an indication of a greater wisdom of the required necessity of dishonesty in life? I can't say I have an answer for that. It is a judgement call. I can only say that I admire discretion (withholding saying something disruptive or hurtful), but I despise dishonesty (actual lying).

Obviously, people lie in America as well. They lie a fair amount. They just don't tend to do it as often in the service of good relationships. In fact, it has been often the case that people in the U.S. obnoxiously spew out their "truth" because everyone must know their "honest" opinions. They absolutely must, no matter how hurtful, insensitive, or self-serving a "truth" is, reveal it. To do otherwise would be dishonest and inauthentic, right? The people in your life have to understand how you feel about things and, by God, we Americans are "brave" enough to put it out there even if it means we'll be disliked... except... well, we only do it in general with people who we don't care about or who care about us so much that our self-serving truths won't drive them away.

My sense with Americans is that they are not so much "honest" as incapable of self-control when it comes to things that they are emotionally charged about. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes the Japanese were impassive to the point of seeming to be dead inside. They didn't seem to get worked up about anything and recoiled at times at the very thought of being passionate about an issue as being distasteful. Personally, I think there's got to be something between these two extremes (and I speak in general here, so please don't make comments saying that you know people in both cultures who don't fit the generalities I'm offering - I can't talk about these things if we're going to account for every anecdotal experience - I also knew/know atypical people as well so let's all agree not to be pedantic just to stake out some territory in proving that I must be "wrong" as you/me/your uncle's cousin's dog know people in Japan who are opinionated and gentile Americans who wouldn't dream of sharing an opinion).

As I mentioned in a post about my leaving Japan, I was not myself with Japanese people and, during goodbye social occasions, it was remarked by one of my students that she did not know the "real" me. She knew this specially crafted person who acted only in accord with her needs. The truth was that I felt I had very little space in Japan to be honest near the end of my time there. At the beginning, that space didn't exist, but I tried to squeeze in some of my American-style "honesty" (i.e., braying about my opinions) whenever I could. I realized over time that that's not the way life works in Japan, so I sublimated large parts of my personality.

This change wasn't exactly painful, but it also wasn't easy. I listened to obnoxious, sometimes offensive opinions, and did not offer counter-arguments nor did I agree. Part of my withholding was knowing that I had to have good relationships with the people I was dealing with. Part of it was knowing that, no matter what I said, it wasn't going to change minds.

One of my former students liked to talk about how Korea should be grateful for how Japan occupied it during World War II. He made points about how the infrastructure was advanced by Japan's presence (which may be true, I'm not an expert), but I'm pretty sure the Koreans would trade the gains made in any area for a lack of the brutality Japan brought to their countrymen. Not pointing such things out to him, and not pointing out that the Japanese probably weren't (justifiably) grateful for what happened to them in World War II even though they came out (arguably) more advanced for having been beaten and occupied by the U.S., was largely in part because I knew he'd never think anything other than what he thought. Some part of not saying anything was also not wanting to alienate a student by giving an honest opinion. I knew there was no space for that in my relationship with him or pretty much any other Japanese person.

When I came back to the U.S., I was looking forward to being "myself" again and finding the space for honesty to be much bigger than it was in Japan. What I found was that the space here is bigger, but only when it is occupied by the other party, or only if you are indifferent to the consequences of being in that space. I have been very careful about how I offer counter-arguments with people and I have always made them deliberately with the full awareness that a brittle ego on the other side won't take what I say well.

On those occasions when I have been "honest" in ways that I wouldn't have been in Japan, the results have not been positive in general. In one case, I was stunned at how simply failing to agree or hesitating in a manner which made it clear that I did not agree without offering any overt disagreement brought forth a rather hostile reaction. On other occasions, I have found that overt emotionalism is often used to stop any sort of discourse which offers resistance to the opinion being proffered. Sometimes, that emotionalism is increasing agitation or abrupt changing of the subject. At others, it has actually been tears and overt expressions of anger.

It seems that, unless I want to alienate or upset people, I have just as little space for honesty here as I did in Japan. The main difference so far has been that I'm far more likely to be on the receiving end of polarized opinions from other people here and I'm far more likely to experience emotional outbursts when expressing my viewpoint. In Japan, the reaction tended to be that people withdrew or said nothing. I'd say that it's as likely in either culture that I'll actually lose a relationship or experience distancing. It takes on different forms, but I don't find that is generally a better response to honest opinions here than there was there.

For me, this is more than an academic exercise. Expectations play a big part in how we perceive the quality of an experience. As an outsider, I didn't expect the Japanese to conform to my way of thinking and didn't expect that they'd react well to honesty that wasn't in total agreement with their sense of things. As an "insider", I'm disappointed at the way people react in America. When I was "one of them", that is, when I was highly emotionally reactive and spewing opinions as if they were facts (and I used to do that, too - before Japan changed me), it didn't bother me. However, I've changed, and I can't go back to being insensitive and inconsiderate. I can't go back to saying whatever I want and being emotional with people who disagree and it is another piece of the difficulty I've experienced in returning to life here.

I want to make it absolutely clear that I'm speaking of is not expecting agreement, but merely not being abandoned as a worthy acquaintance or friend or treated with emotional outbursts in the face of disagreement. I'm also not expecting people to be utterly dispassionate or "Spock-like" in their emotional control nor for them to hold it together all of the time. We all have topics which send us over the edge emotionally. I've found that people tend to become agitated if they're not in an echo chamber of assent regardless of how important the topic is. I wonder if a piece of what has contributed to this is the fracturing of media and the ability to find someone out there who will feed your point of view (e.g., Fox news for conservatives, MSNBC for liberals) such that people decreasingly develop an understanding or tolerance for dissent.

What I'm looking for is some degree of respect and tolerance in the face of differing opinions. Going back to what I said about my husband and offering him space to be honest if he changes his mind about pursuing his current career path, I wouldn't be happy if we spent a lot of time, money, and energy and he ended up changing his mind, and he wouldn't be happy either, but I'd accept it without getting hysterical or worked up or trying to pressure him to change his mind. It's not about consent or agreement. It's about not making people regret their candor by punishing them in some fashion for it. I expected to be censured in some fashion in Japan for any sort of candor.

The way things have gone in the U.S. were not as I anticipated. I think that I've changed, but also Americans have changed. I believe that the more inner-focused life that most people lead (due to the effects of leading more insular lives - something aided greatly by the internet and the vast amount of television options and focus on devices like cell phones and tablets) has lead to less socialization resulting in poorer emotional management skills in the face of any sort of resistance, greater narcissism and a focus on agency over community, and even further unraveling of any notion that there are such things as societal "norms" in regards to behavior. Metaphorically, each person has a castle and each is a monarch and rules as he or she pleases. Those who defy the royal will face exile.

Space for honesty doesn't just mean you say what you think and feel. It means that, when other people say what they think and feel and you don't like it, you don't make them regret their honesty. I try to afford people this space when I talk to them. It doesn't mean I agree with them, but it means that I don't have a meltdown or become personally offended when speaking about issues. I exercised this control all of the time in Japan, and I do it here as well, but I've found that such space is rarely offered to me in return and I've got to find a way to be okay with that. This is part of my ongoing adjustment to life here in the U.S. I'm mentioning it not in the way of criticism, though it may sound critical, but merely as another big boulder I've discovered on the road to feeling at home in my own country again.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Won't Miss #540 - Japanese marshmallows

I haven't celebrated Easter for quite some time because I have learned that there are greater costs to eating sweets than the impact on your wallet. Every time I have seen Easter candy here in America, I have thought about how the idea sounds better than the treats will taste. That being said, I have always loved all things marshmallow and occasionally will indulge in them here. I've even found that there are lots of different flavors now that you can enjoy in various ways. I've used the holiday gingerbread marshmallows for rice krispies treats and the pumpkin spice ones in hot chocolate. These are yummy treats.

In Japan, there are also variations on marshmallows, but there is something wrong with how they work. Flavored marshmallows are generally filled with goo. This can be good, or it can be quite a bit less so. The main problem is that they are sticky, don't melt properly, and have a texture which is a bit stretchy or rubbery. They also sometimes have a funky aftertaste. I never tried to use them in marshmallow treats (as finding rice krispies was never easy), but I did try them in hot chocolate and they just sort of sat there vaguely melting, but not doing what I expected of them.

It is a small thing, but life is composed of delights both tiny and gross, but I didn't like the marshmallows in Japan and I don't miss them.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Will Miss #539 - the sound of Japanese sirens

This is, obviously, not my video, but this type of siren is very close to the ones I heard. The pitch is different, but it is otherwise the same.

I seem to have had the misfortune of living not too far from a street that is close to a fire station both in Tokyo and in California. That means that I hear more than my fair share of sirens going off. One of the things that I have come to really hate in the U.S. is the sound of the sirens. They seem stretched out, harsh, and like an electronic scream.

On the other hand, the sirens in Japan, while far from a pleasant experience, sound closer to that of a toy. They sound (at least to me) like they are based on British sirens and tend to have less of a "screaming" effect and more of an alarm one. The ones I heard regularly (there are variations) were almost musical.

The obnoxiousness of the sirens I hear in the U.S. have made me actually long for hearing Japanese sirens again. 

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Random Memories #72 - the last weeks in Japan - part 4

H.'s goodbye gift to the husband and me - she chose this because she wanted to give us something to remind us of her house, which is two stories tall, but is not red and brown nor did it have a cat or bird.

When it came to saying goodbyes, my husband and I had to find a balance between his students/friends and mine. We couldn't possibly fit in goodbye get-togethers with everyone, much as we might have liked to have done so. The truth is that we both had to suffer a bit of guilt turning down invitations to go out with people who wanted to spend some time at a restaurant or an izakaya (Japanese pub) with us. We didn't fool ourselves into thinking we were so insanely charming and appealing that people were clamoring to spend social time with us. I think some invitations were as much about a sense that they should be proffered as anything else. Some were, of course, very sincere.

I think most of the people who invited us knew that it was impossible to see everyone and we did have a goodbye party scheduled for our mutual workplace at which many of the students my husband had taught for many years would be able to take part. Since I had worked there for less than a year, it wasn't as sentimental for me, but I was still pleased to be able to go there and feel I belonged since I worked there as well. I will talk about that job and the goodbye party at a later time, but I really did like being there and it made it that much harder to leave Japan.

The one and only invitation from one of my husband's students that we accepted was from a woman who I will call "H." H. was a music teacher who tutored people in her homes and my husband functioned more as her default counselor than a simple English instructor. She was one of those all too common Japanese mothers who formed a stronger bond with her son than with her husband. When the son got a girlfriend, she wrung her hands, gnashed her teeth, and tried to tighten the apron strings. When her son finally decided to get engaged and move into his own place with his girlfriend, he told everyone but his mother. He didn't want to deal with the hysterics so he just vanished and she was told after the deed was done.

H. was a nice lady and she wanted things to go well for her kids, but her own emotional needs, at least at times, overrode their desire for autonomy. This is certainly not uncommon among parents. This selfishness tends to be present as much among Western parents as Japanese ones. It just tends to manifest differently in the West.

My husband was generally quite sympathetic to H. and, when he told me about her, he spoke positively of her. When she invited us to an evening at her home for dinner, we were both happy to accept. She even picked us up at the local train station in her car and drove us to her place. It was rare for us not to have to wander around finding our own way or to have to figure out bus schedules and routes to get around to areas far from the station.

When we arrived, we chatted with her and her daughter for a bit over Coca-cola Zero (purchased just for us) and snacks. Eventually, her son came home by and her husband came home and they rolled out an enormous dinner for us including an extremely gorgeous roast chicken that had also been prepared especially for my husband. The meal also included something that looked like and resembled guacamole, but was made with hard-boiled eggs and mayonnaise in addition to avocado. It was one of those things which I'd never make, but is right at home on a Japanese dinner table as mayo by the bucket is not the least bit unusual.

After the meal, at which we spent most of the time talking about food and tastes, we had one of the most memorable and beautiful experiences of our time in Japan when H., her daughter, and her son (who were also musicians) performed Pachelbel's Canon in D for us. This was the song that we played at our wedding in lieu of the wedding march - my husband and I walked in together to this music rather than do a more formal or traditional ceremony. I don't know if they chose this music because he had told them that or if it was just a happy coincidence, but I remember thinking that that was the sort of experience that I would almost certainly never have had in the U.S. I was fortunate to have my digital camera with a video recording capability and have it preserved for posterity.

As I sat there listening to them play beautifully, I cried. It was the sort of moment near the end that I wanted to hold onto. It was one perfect experience that I'd link forever with Japan and I was immensely grateful to H. for providing it. Unfortunately, that memory was not to survive without becoming tainted.

To explain that statement, I have to jump ahead to the very last hours of our time in Japan and over several more events/goodbyes. We visited H. about a week before we left and the time between being at her home and going to the airport was hectic and generally pretty terrible. I'd gone through so many emotional and wrenching goodbyes and worked so hard to get everything together that the stress suppressed my immune system such that I got sick. The morning that we left, I was exhausted emotionally and also physically. It was hectic and difficult on many levels, but I will get to that in a later post.

When we finally got to the airport and unloaded our four enormous suitcases, all I wanted to do was relax for a bit and take in the last moments in Japan in a sort of peace that I'd not experienced for quite some time. I wanted to just ease into the end and be alone with my husband as we closed in on the moment when we got onto the plane and flew away.

As our last bit of "work", my husband and I struggled to use his laptop with the airport Wi-Fi and make a Skype call to his father to let him know what was going on since he was going to pick us up on the other end. Once this was done, we wanted to slowly and peacefully stroll around Narita and reflect on what we were leaving behind and what was ahead. It was a private time, a short window to say an internal as well as an external goodbye after some extremely draining weeks. The truth was that I was a shambles in every way possible. I was at the very limit of any other event happening to me which was going to tax me in any way. I needed some time for quiet reflection desperately and for all of the turmoil to just stop for awhile. I needed both emotional processing time and some physical rest.

As we just started out to make a thoughtful trek around Narita, my husband's name was called out by a woman out ahead of us. It was H., waving and shouting with an enormous smile. We did not invite her. In fact, we did not tell her when we would be there or what airline we would be flying on. She only knew the day we were departing and she had done detective work on her own to track us down.

I was stunned that she felt it was appropriate to stalk us to the airport on our departure day and furious that she would show up cheery and excited at a time when she was not in any way welcome. That last thing I wanted to do at that time was put on my happy gaijin mask and entertain this woman who clearly had no clue about what limits and boundaries meant. I could barely manage to be civil as my husband tried to talk to her pleasantly for a bit. After barely a minute of forced chat, I excused myself saying that I was not feeling well at all - which was true, but not the only reason I extricated myself. My husband talked to her a bit longer then escaped as well. He felt that she had absolutely no empathy for what we were going through. Not a thought in her head was directed at what we might have been experiencing or needing at that time.

I was so furious at H.'s behavior that I will forever associate her not with that beautiful final evening, but with that inappropriate and unwelcome insertion into my final hour or so in Japan. She had no idea what she had taken from me at a time when I was least able to give anymore than I already had. The selfishness and concern for only her needs and feelings which she had displayed with her son was now being shown toward us. She only cared about amusing herself by following a couple of gaijin to the airport on their last day. It was all just a lark to her.

My husband mumbled that, if she was going to drive all the way out to the airport, the least she could have done was offer to drive us and our suitcases there to spare us the hassle and expense. However, that would have assumed that she was thinking about our feelings and not her own. It was a bitter experience that left a dark mark on my farewell to Japan. Japanese people can be just as self-involved as Westerners - this I already knew - but this was a time when I least expected it and when it cost me the most personally. (to be continued)

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Won't Miss #50 - anime-style advertising (reflection)

I have to admit that I have an enormous personal bias when it comes to the sort of animation that is all over the otaku (geek/nerd) parts of Japan like Akihabara. The infantilized and sexualized imagery really irritates me. It's not only freaky, but creepy. If real people looked like the women in that artwork, they'd look like hideous alien creatures. It's so distorted that I view it not as art, but as a form of advertising/recruiting for body dysmorphic disorder. The fact that girls in Japan will do cosplay to look like such characters including freaky contact lenses to make their eyes look enormous only supports my sense that this is so. That Ukranian "living Barbie" woman only strengthens my sense that there is a toxic nature underlying what appears to be innocent "art".

This is my issue. Maybe I'm an old fuddy-duddy. Maybe I just don't "get it" (though I can say that my brain is open-minded enough to "get" most modern art). However, I still don't miss anime-style advertising and dislike seeing it in the U.S. when it sneaks up on me on occasion.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Will Miss #43 - liberal ideas about birth control (reflection)

My husband and I were talking about some theoretical concepts regarding life and how people choose to live. It's all pretty complex stuff, but it comes down to the choices we make and how we "buy" ease in the present at the expense of some benefit in the future. For example, you might decide to buy a frozen pizza instead of making your own dinner. You spend more, get a less nutritious meal, and probably have less overall satisfaction with the food. You're borrowing money and health from your future for convenience in the present.

I'm not criticizing this tendency. We all do this in different ways and this isn't about morality, but an observation about how we lead our lives. The way in which this relates to birth control is how the role of children has changed in developed societies. Having babies used to be a way of buying an easier life as more kids meant more potential economic, lifestyle, or work support. In the present, having children is actually a way of forfeiting future comfort for the immediate gains of enjoyment of babies/kids or simply avoiding the use of birth control.

Because having children tends to be about future hardship rather than future gains these days, birth control plays a pretty important role in modern lifestyles. A lack of moral hang-ups about whether or not to use it (and not discouraging it from being freely available to young people) allows people to be thoughtful and make certain choices without any sort of psychological baggage. I still miss the way in which the Japanese were non-judgmental and pragmatic about such issues rather than emotionally activated and dogmatically oriented.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Random Memories #71 - the last weeks in Japan - part 3

The beautiful laser-cut card that the two sisters gave me.

Here is part 1 and part 2 of this series.

When you have met as many people as my husband and I met during our time in Japan, there are a lot of goodbyes to offer. Our last few weeks were full of trying to balance preparation to leave with meeting people and saying goodbye to them. Some of them would see the last of us in classrooms or in my apartment for a final lesson. Others were actually going to go out to dinner or lunch with us and finally meet the "real" us. 

One of the sometimes trying aspects of life in Japan for my husband and I was that we never really felt that we could "be ourselves". There was always the gaijin mask that we had to put on in which we accommodated the passivity of the Japanese, the need to be gentle, quiet, patient, and always being responsible for the conversation and comfort of the other person. Even in social situations, we were always the ones who had to hold back as our natural assertiveness could so easily overwhelm our Japanese friends and acquaintances. We weren't exactly "pod" versions of ourselves, but we often felt like the hosts of any exchange even when we were actually the guests. 

During those final weeks and outside of situations in which we were teachers, we allowed some of that to slip away. I had two students who I truly loved teaching and treasured knowing. I taught the older sister for awhile and then her younger sister came on board. Both of them were intelligent, educated, sophisticated, well-traveled, and more Westernized in their demeanor than average. 

The older sister was actually born in Tennessee and could have chosen to be a U.S. citizen or a Japanese one. Unfortunately for her, she didn't have the option to be both since this is not allowed between her home country and mine. She was only in the U.S. as an infant, and left by age one, and chose quite reasonably to become a Japanese citizen at the age of 19. I've always felt that it was unfortunate that dual citizenship was not possible, but I'm pretty sure that this choice is made on the Japan side since American permits dual citizenship with many countries and, as far as I know, Japan allows it with none. So, my student who is not fluent in English and belongs to a family of Japanese people chose Japan.

The older sister told me that she got into trouble on more than one occasion because of her propensity for being blunt. I'm pretty sure that she didn't pick this habit up from being born in the U.S., but it is a very American personality trait. She told me that she could "scare" men in particular with her habit of speaking her mind and that she really needed to tone it down. She once made a grown man cry, though sometimes that is like shooting fish in a barrel - especially in Japan where men aren't accustomed to being challenged in general and especially not by women. The truth is that she reminded me of myself when I was younger in this way. I frightened all but the strongest of men away and I married the one who was never intimidated by me. She and I had a lot in common in terms of our "rough edges". A lot of mine had been filed away, but this made me like her all the more.

Teppanyaki - manly food for manly men who eat slabs of cow. If he touches the bean sprouts though, he's a big fake!

Since I liked these sisters so much, I was delighted when they suggested that we all go to a goodbye meal. My husband and I had been to a teppanyaki restaurant in Takadanobaba which we really enjoyed the first time around and suggested we do our goodbye meal there with the sisters. As the end came, we found we felt more and more melancholy about all of the places that we'd enjoyed going to, but knew we wouldn't be able to go to again. The place is called Daitokai Honkan and their web site says they are located in Meijiro, but we accessed them via Takadanobaba station.

We were to meet the sisters at around noon, but they were both late and my husband and I were avoiding cell phones up until the bitter end so there was no way for us to contact them. The younger one was less late than the older one, who arrived tottering a bit on high-heeled shoes about fifteen minutes past the appointed time. I did mention that they weren't typical Japanese, and this type of lateness was just one of the smaller indications of this point.

Tofu chicken burger... which felt a little unclear on the concept of vegetarian food, but I'm sure that was not what it was all about.

The main point of teppanyaki is grilling meat in front of the customer, but I am not a fan of steak or any of the other popular types of meat so I ordered a "tofu chicken burger". The concept seemed a bit strange as the point of tofu in the eyes of Western folks is to avoid the shedding of animal blood in the interest of satisfying human appetites. There was minced beet with soy sauce on top and a big side of bean sprouts. This entire meal would have been an experience in total gustatory virtue if it weren't for the fact that a big bowl of white rice came on the side, as is required by Japanese law, I'm sure. I really enjoyed it though, and would have had it again had I not been planning to leave the country pretty much forever in a few weeks.

A lot of the time was spent talking about our plans for the future. The older sister remarked during the end of our two hours there that she realized that she didn't really know the "real" me and that the "teacher" me was not truly me. I felt that this was particularly astute on her part as I'm sure few of our students realized this fact, though I guess even fewer got to spend two hours with me talking and not worrying about their impressions of me.

You can conclude that we are all wanted by the law for some reason (in Japan, it could be for not eating all of the rice they served) or that I'm trying to protect everyone's privacy.

Near the end of the meal, as we were enjoying coffee and tea in beautiful china cups, the people in the restaurant offered to take our photo. I wondered if this was like one of those things that used to happen in the 1960s and 70s when they'd take your picture and then make you pay for a copy of it, but they said that it was a free service and provided us with a card and the photo. The people at the restaurant were incredibly nice and professional. This wasn't even an especially expensive place, but the service was excellent. 

After sitting with these two lovely women and having the sort of conversation that you have when you're not a teacher and responsible for helping someone advance their language skills, I thought about how an opportunity had been missed. Since we were leaving, it was also one that would never come again. Of course, you cannot know how such goodbyes will go or what people will do until you try, and this was the best of all of the farewell social occasions that we had. Some of others were far more difficult and complex. (to be continued)

Monday, April 14, 2014

Won't Miss #539 - being one down

I can't pretend that I know what it is like to be a minority in the U.S. I can say that I know very well what it is like to be a part of a tiny minority in a culture with an overwhelmingly dominant culture. White people are something like .2% of the population in Japan. To that end, we do suffer at least some of the standard problems that minorities have to deal with in other countries. One of the things which was often the case was that we were always considered to be "one down" or at a status disadvantage when we are dealing with a situation in which we are negotiating for something.

One of the primary examples of this which I recall that had big consequences involved not me, but my brother-in-law. When he was negotiating to buy a house, he was tricked into putting down a very large deposit and believing that, if he changed his mind, he would get all of it back except a small administration fee. He felt that, since his Japanese wife was in the room, he might be insulated against misunderstanding and shady deals, but he was wrong.

He was sure that this would not have happened to a Japanese person, and if it had, the agency would not have pushed back so hard against a protest and may have capitulated when he demanded his money back. He could be wrong about that. I could be wrong, but it is all too often the case that Japanese business people saw someone who they could push around when they were dealing with a foreigner. I think this type of situation and the feeling of powerlessness that being one down makes you feel is one of the reason why so many bring on the gaijin smash. They knew, and I often experienced, that we had no rights or ability to fight back. The laws do not protect minorities and, when they do, they are rarely enforced.

I don't miss the feeling of being one down in status and helpless in situations in which I was treated unfairly or cheated.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Will Miss #538 - whirling dervish women

During my recovery from depression after quitting my long-term office job in Japan, I was looking around trying to figure things out. I wanted to feel "normal" again. In fact, I wanted to actually be "healthy" and I started to attend to the way I saw Japanese people live their lives. I figured that they seemed to be doing okay. They knew what they were doing to live life as best they could despite some of their societal issues - issues that often made women less empowered than men and put them in relationships which were more like business deals than romance. Whether or not they knew how to keep their act together or not, one of the things I took note of was that most of the women were active pretty much all of the time. I particularly noted that my neighbor's wife seemed to be a acting like a bee in a hive all of the time. She was always buzzing around doing something.

This was the first step I took toward making some sort of serious change. I decided that I was going to push little by little past the lethargy I felt both physically and mentally and start just getting up and doing whatever I could as often as I could. Mind you, I was taking care of the house, shopping, and cooking, but not any more than minimally necessary to get by. I started to do better and more.

By the time I returned to the U.S., I was a dervish. I rarely sat around doing nothing. I was cooking from scratch all of the time, cleaning, and offering to do whatever needed to be done for others. If I had to sit around for awhile, I got antsy so I took walks. People remarked on how I didn't sit down much. The truth is that, I prefer it this way. I think it's better for me, not as a distraction, but because I feel more alive than I would if I sat around staring at the T.V. or playing around on the computer for hours. Frankly, I can see why Japanese people sometimes view Americans as "lazy" by comparison.

 I think that I learned something from Japanese women and I appreciate it to this day. I miss seeing those women who were constantly on the move. 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Random Memories #70 - the last weeks in Japan - part 2

Seiyu supermarket with shelves picked clean in the wake of the March 11, 2011 quake.

This is part 2 of short series on my final weeks in Japan. Part 1 is here.

As I mentioned in my previous post, as my husband and I headed for the wire on our planned departure - a date which was chosen three years ahead of time - there were some late complications in the form of the discovery of a tumor in my neck. There was, however, an even bigger event which threatened to upset the apple cart on our time line and that was the March 11, 2011 earthquake.

Though very few people knew well ahead of time that we were leaving (for reasons I mentioned before), our families had been told of our plans. When the big quake occurred and the subsequent nuclear crisis in Fukushima, family members were encouraging us to leave a year ahead of our planned time. The thinking was, since we were planning to go anyway, why risk remaining? 

The temptation to join the flocks of what people were waggishly refering to as "flyjin" ("gaijin"/foreigners who were flying away in the wake of the disasters) was present, but neither my husband nor I were really "ready" to leave on multiple levels. Dropping everything and running was possible, but we were neither physically nor emotionally ready to leave. Ironically, remaining for that extra year boosted our economic gains prior to leaving since I got an additional part-time job rather easily with all of the Western chickens flying the coop. We saved more money than expected in that final year.

At any rate, both of us lived in the crisis with the thought in the back of our minds that it would have been "nice" if all of this could have waited until after March 2012 instead of happening a year before we left. The truth is that we were glad to have toughed it out, but would rather have been spared. There remains a sense of living through a shared experience with the other inhabitants who endured the quake, but I'm not sure if it has enhanced my life in appreciable ways. Mainly, it's about a sense of solidarity with people who were also there. 

When I say "tough it out", I'm not only referring to the shortages in food, water, and, oddly, toilet paper or managing the jishin yoi (earthquake sickness) and the moments of panic at the multitudes of aftershocks. It was also being surrounded by people who were more scared than we were. The emotional impact of being surrounded by panicky people who had to be talked down all of the time was also stressful. I spent more energy calming my students' fears than my own and it wasn't alwasy trivial keeping a lid on my own nagging concerns about drinking potentially radioactive water or breathing in winds blowing from Fukushima's nuclear zone. 

Knowing we were going to leave anyway made the entire experience that much more complex. We were the least settled we'd ever been and the "stay or go" question was a very serious one and our quality of life, at least in the moment, was not especially good. What was worse was that we couldn't talk about this quandry with anyone except our families since our planned departure was essentially a secret up until the last moment. And our families, who had our best interests at heart and were concerned for our health and well-being, were, in the most subtle of ways, pushing us in the direction of leaving. 

In the end, we decided within a week of the Fukushima crisis to definitively remain for another year. Making the decision and pushing early departure off the table made everything easier as we did not have to occupy a state of emotional limbo. After a brief period of indecision, in which even Japanese people were trying to escape their own country, we decided to stay on schedule for our March 2012 departure.

(to be continued)

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Won't Miss #42 - Disney obsession (reflection)

It's interesting how, the presence of something annoying can be grating, but it's absence not appreciated. This isn't a thought which came to me over the memories of Disney bags and small dangling Mickey figures on cell phones. It came to me a long time ago when I was suffering from chronic and oppressive pain. When you don't have pain, you don't think about its absence or appreciate being free of it. When you have it, all you can think about is how badly you'd like it to go away.

While being exposed daily to a bizarre Disney obsession (among adults, no less) is nowhere near the same as being in pain, I've found that its absense has simply meant that I just don't think about it at all (much as I don't think about pain when I'm not in it). Honestly, I've found that America has its fair share of childish or neurotic omnipresent bits of flotsam that people use to boast their affiliations as well (sports teams, "Hello Kitty", etc.). I could do without both of them. I don't miss the Disney obsession in Japan, though I can't say that I've given it much thought over the two years since we left Japan.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Will Miss #41 - no tipping (reflection)

I read several blogs devoted to food and cooking and little is more contentious than the custom of tipping in the U.S. One side claims it is a system designed to allow restaurants to justify grossly underpaying their employees. The other side says it allows the customer to be empowered in a fashion the promotes good service. My reply is, "can't it be both?" I am also only too aware that there are wait staff in some restaurants who make a good deal more in wages due to tipping than they would if they were paid minimum wage or even above it. It is a complex situation which has room for both abuse of and benefits to employees. There is nothing out there which does not have a good and a bad side, as this blog has endeavored to show for the years it has been in existence.

All arguments aside, the bottom line is that tipping is a pain. While the math doesn't trouble me, the need to calculate a tip after paying the bill adds this layer of hassle at the end of a meal which detracts from the overall experience of dining. It causes you to reflect not on the experience, but on the quality of service and how much you will want to "reward" the server for a job done well or poorly. It's simply not the way to finish a special evening in which you're not cooking and cleaning. I miss the fact that there is no tipping in Japan.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Random Memories #69 - the last weeks in Japan - part 1

OK, I lied. It was four suitcases and two backpacks (and my husband's jacket).

Time is a far more complex and odd business than we generally give it credit for. It can appear to move fast or slow. We have sayings which indicate that time moves rapidly when we're enjoying ourselves ("time flies when you're having fun") or glacially when we're waiting for something to happen ("a watched pot never boils"), but time is supposed to be a static thing which can be objectively measured.

Time can also appear to match our conception of self or be vastly divergent. There's a scene in the television series "Roseanne" in which the title character asked her mother how old she "feels" on her 62nd birthday. Her mother says, "62, I'm 62." This frustrates Roseanne because, inside, she feels 16 despite her middle-aged exterior. Sometimes we feel younger or older than we look. Though most tend to go the Roseanne route - feeling like a teenager in an old person's body - I have always felt like an elderly person in a young body. When I was 17, I felt like I was 70. If I thought I could know what it was like to feel over a 100 years old, that'd be where I am now at 49.

Of course, if you get into some theoretical Physics, they'll tell you that time can't be proven to exist at all. This has actually been my stance for many years. I think time is an illusion through which we experience this particular reality. That being said, even if it is simply some sort of imaginary prism through which we experience life, we cannot escape looking through it every moment of our lives on earth nor living through that reflection.

As of March 29, my two-year anniversary of returning to the United States passed by. I mention the experience of time because it has absolutely flown by and I feel like I have aged a decade in a short time. My time here has been filled with adjustments of all sorts, many of them logistical and experiential, but the hardest ones have been psychological. I would not be exaggerating if I said that being here has not made me happy. Despite this, I have never wavered from my firm conclusion that this was the right choice.

The truth was that I "knew" in 2009 that it was time to leave Japan. Everything between 2009 and 2012 was preparation in every conceivable way to go. Emotionally preparing myself to leave over a three-year time span was probably the best possible choice after having been there for 20 years (as of 2009). Logistically speaking, spending three years paring back possessions and changing our lives to be one oriented toward leaving rather than staying was just barely enough. It wasn't because we had so many possessions (though we did - but less than many people have), but just that it was so hard to divest ourselves of what we'd spent so long building.

It wasn't just "moving". It was dismantling our entire married life and much of our adult existence. Few people can really embrace what it feels like to intentionally throw away nearly everything you've owned. We took back four large suitcases. Everything else had to find a new home or be tossed out. We didn't ship back anything. That's a lot of memories to toss on the scrap heap. Most people leave some boxes at their parents' houses when they move on or take it all with them if they're old enough to have consolidated everything they've owned. We didn't have that luxury. If you sit down and truly imagine what it is like to throw away everything you own but what can be crammed into two suitcases (two per person in our case), then you can begin to understand how Herculean a task this might be.

The last two weeks in Japan were a whirlwind of getting things done after quitting our jobs layered with trying to squeeze in a few more journeys to places we'd never been but wanted to go, or places we'd been to and wanted to see once more. It was also full of incredibly difficult goodbyes. In fact, that last few weeks was so awful that it has taken me this long to write about it. It did not go as I'd hoped in many ways and was better than expected in others. Before it fades too deeply into the recesses of my memory, I'd like to write about it over several posts. Since it was one of the hardest experiences I've ever had, it's one that I want to remember.

I will start by saying that I had told my students that I was leaving Japan in March 2012 over a span of about a week in January 2012. Though we had planned this departure in the late spring of 2009, the truth was that there was a fallback plan in place all along and various life issues made the delay in telling necessary. We were committed enough to get things in order, but not committed enough to do anything that would irreversibly rupture our lives should we for some reason change our minds.

One of those things was not telling students until it was very late in the game because telling them earlier may have seen some of them deciding to abandon us as teachers. Though it would have been kinder to give them an enormous lead time, it would have been incredibly stupid economically, and a little premature considering we weren't at the point of no return until we actually purchased tickets to leave Japan.

The biggest factor in our decision not to tell them until January 2012 was my surgery for removal of a thyroid tumor shortly before Christmas of 2011. The fact that I even might have a tumor wasn't known until September 2011 and wasn't confirmed until November of the same year. Despite some encouraging pre-operation tests, I was told that they could not be certain that it was not cancerous until after they'd actually removed it and could do a little puree of thyroid gland.

Early tests indicated that it was benign, but there was no way to know for sure until after they'd done their slice and dice. If the tumor had been malignant, there was a very  high chance that we'd have to remain in Tokyo and I'd have to receive treatment for cancer. If that had happened, our planned departure schedule could not be kept. Indeed, we may have had to remain for much longer than expected depending on the prognosis. With no health insurance in the U.S., I could not go back home and get treated without going into deep debt.

The stress of leaving was greatly compounded by this uncertainty, not to mention the reality of having my neck cut open and bits of my original equipment excised. It was as if we'd been planning our ball game for three years and now someone was saying there just might be an enormous storm on the horizon which would indefinitely wash everything out. Telling my students that I would be returning to America in light of this 11th hour complication did not seem like a good idea from either side, so I told them only after the coast was clear.

Fortunately, for more reasons than one, we got to keep our date with destiny. I told my students we were leaving after I was told with certainty and finality that the tumor was benign. That was the green light from fate letting us know that we were good to go. It was confirmation of what I so strongly felt in my gut in 2009. It was "time" to leave. We were ready to move on, but not without some unforgettable final weeks.

(to be continued)

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Won't Miss #538 - the bacon

Having done over 1000 posts (Blogger tells me 1285 at this point), it is difficult at times to remember what I have and have not said so I try to double-check my past posts to see if I've already mentioned a particular topic. When it comes to this particular topic, I cannot believe I had not wrote about it before.

For the duration of our stay in Japan, my husband was disappointed in the bacon. He's not an enormous bacon eater, but he does like to have a bit now and then. Compared to most American appetites for bacon, frankly, he's a super lightweight. When he does eat it, it's never more than 2 strips and he only has it once every week or two. Nonetheless, when he wanted some in Tokyo, it always tasted like disappointment.

The main issue with bacon in Japan, in our experience, was that it generally was not cured well. It tasted more like plain old pork - what my father used to refer to as "fresh side" - rather than bacon. There's a sweet and salty quality to bacon that generally was missing in Japan and we (especially my husband) do not miss it.