Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Random Memories #78 - the last weeks in Japan - part 11

This final installment is more of an epilogue than a memory, though it will include memories. I'm sure that people who have gone away for a short trip or even a somewhat long one imagine my return to the U.S. was like a breath of familiar air as I stepped out into the world into which I was born. It wasn't. It felt more like being expelled from the womb into the bright, noisy, painful light of day. Coming home taught me a whole new understanding of the phrase "gaijin bubble".

For those who are not Photoshop geeks and don't know what a gaussian blur is, I offer this example with the right half blurred and the left half clear.

The bubble that I lived in in Japan was one in which I was outside of society and not entirely aware of what was being said, written, or done in my presence. Because of my incomplete language skills, much of my life in Japan was like a version of reality that had had a gaussian blur applied to it. I could work out most of what was going on, but I had to focus and concentrate. If I didn't feel like paying attention or studying a situation, it was easy to not even know it was there. Tuning out was far easier than tuning in.

Suddenly, I had popped out into a world in which everything was crystal clear. I knew every word. I had to communicate with every person because I had no excuse for not doing so. There was no shaking my head and smiling while waving my hands and either pretending that I didn't understand in order to abdicate any responsibility or escape a situation or actually not understanding enough to fully take part in it. I was fully engaged and had no way to walk away that I didn't have to be fully responsible for. After years of purposeful tuning in, I was utterly out of practice when it came to tuning anything out and it was a full assault. Even now, two years later, I find it hard to place much in the background and remain hyper-aware. I can't undo over two decades of patterns in such a short time.

Living in Japan was like having spent 23 years in a cocoon that both protected and isolated me from the outside world. Sometimes, I hated it because I wanted to be more engaged with things and I resented the limits that shell placed on my life. Only after leaving it did I realize how well and truly it protected someone of my nature from things which would potentially do me harm. I'm a highly sensitive person, as I've said before. I see, hear, smell, and feel things more strongly than average people. I'm easily startled and my nerves are quickly jangled. I'm like a wind chime that tinkles in the slightest breeze whereas others are like rocks that are only moved by great force. I have no choice in the matter. It's the way my nervous system is built, but I didn't realize how being in a different culture buffered me in ways I did not appreciate until after I'd gone.

What was worse than being fully present in this seemingly new reality was the fact that I was a child in the ways it now worked. I didn't know how to use a debit card, work a gas pump, use a self-check-out, or when and how to pay for things in various circumstances. I didn't know that you could sign your name on a credit card transaction on a screen using an electronic pen or that you could tip on your credit card bill at restaurants (as I didn't have a credit card before I went to Japan and they don't tip).

I spent a lot of the first six months of my time in America apologizing to people for my ignorance and mistakes by mumbling about how I'd been out of the country for over two decades and didn't know how things worked. In essence, I fumbled around everyday things in the U.S. the same way I used to bumble my way through them in Japan in the early years. The only difference is that, there, I was a gaijin (foreigner) and my ineptness was excused because no one expected me to know what I was doing. Here, I was just an idiot who couldn't do or understand what even many kids knew and understood. A ten-year-old had greater mastery of the American environment than I did.

I've realized all too often, even now, that Japan isolated and insulated me in ways I failed to appreciate while I was there and being able to bumble and not be snorted at derisively was another piece of the gaijin pie. My foreignness kept me in and others out, but that had enormous benefits that I failed to see until I'd lost them. Yes, it was harder to keep and make good friends, but I've found that the free and easy access that people have to me here has been enormously disruptive and disappointing at times. People contact me when they need something from me and don't when they aren't in any need of my assistance.

Often, the lack of that old cocoon means people can be invasive and blocking them is awkward for me or impossible without alienating them. I'm sometimes taken aback at the vitriol that can be incited by putting up any sort of boundary with people in the U.S. It's as if there is no greater insult to them than failing to meet their needs. The attitude seems to be that I am obliged to give them whatever it is that they want to take and my not permitting them to barge in and grab as much as they want when they want it is an affront. There is frequently no consideration for me or my needs. There is little understanding of boundaries. The entitlement people display is shocking in its size and boldness. The boundaries in Japan were often frustratingly thick and often impenetrable, but they protected me, too.

While Japanese people often had curiosity about my life and asked about me, often because they saw me as an alien being that they wanted to understand - an objectified way of seeing me - people in America rarely express any interest in me or my life at all in social settings. Curiosity in the U.S., it seems, is dead, or at least wheezing its dying breaths. I have had social gatherings with people for hours and hours and often multiple times in which not one question, including "how are you," has been asked of me.

I've also had people act as if my asking them certain questions, ones that I routinely asked of people in Japan and an eyelid was never batted, is an affront or invasive. In social situations in the U.S., I'm not sure how we're supposed to talk to each other if they don't ask me anything and they're so touchy about what I ask them that I have to navigate a field of social landmines. Most people think you magically "know" what is right according to their values even when they are not explicitly offered and they won't offer helpful feedback about them when you trespass on their issues. There is an assumption that "correct" social mores and manners are their own private ones despite the lack of an organized social code or set of manners in the U.S. When you unintentionally step on one of their (often idiosyncratic) landmines, they are offended and hold a grudge, often acting out passive aggressively in future interactions as they continue to lick a wound you never meant to inflict or anticipated would be hurtful.

In Japan, this was far less of an issue for me. My foreignness engendered rapid forgiveness. Sure, I was the dull-witted pet gaijin, but the underestimation of me that accompanied their sense of my inferiority in comprehending their culture also meant that they forgave me when I piddled on their cultural carpet. The fact that the rules are more explicit and most people shared a common mentality also meant that, at least eventually, one could figure things out and act in rough compliance. If you screwed up, you were forgiven. If you did things right, you got a lot of credit. It wasn't always that way, but it often was.

There is less of such forgiveness in the U.S. in my experience. I'm simply supposed to be like everyone else magically in social circumstances while also being an individual who is unique and different from everyone else. Is it any wonder Facebook is filled with drama when we all operate by different unwritten and unspoken rules because we're all just so non-conformist and individualistic yet we expect others to read our minds? We expect order and are offended when life does not unfold in accord with our sense of it, yet the culture is incredibly chaotic. Having been outside of that long enough, I can see that about American culture now. When I lived inside of it, I had no idea that it could be any other way.

Since returning, America has very often felt like the "foreign" land full of people who have ways of living which annoy and frustrate me. Their unfamiliar ways cause me to hate it here sometimes and be angry and disappointed a fair bit of the time. Frankly, it's just like my early time in Japan when I was going through the stages of cultural adjustment, but it sometimes feels worse as this is supposed to be my home and it "shouldn't" be so difficult. Part of the reason for that is that this is supposed to be my home culture, but a bigger part of it is that I don't have that nice hazy, gaussian-blur-like filter of not understanding exactly what is going on to block out a lot of the annoyances or that big, comfy cocoon that separates me from the outside world.

Sometimes, it feels like I'm being pelted by hail the size of baseballs and there's nowhere to run for cover. This sense of being under siege by a culture I lost touch with has abated somewhat, but I strongly miss the odd sort of "protection" I had in Japan more than anything else. This, more than anything, in my opinion, forms the unconscious backbone of why many people find it so hard to leave Japan and the sense that it's a Neverland in which we can avoid the pain of growing up and responsibilities of the "real' world of our home countries.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Changes to My Blogs

I've been blogging regularly and steadily on both of my blogs since each one's inception. Both were created to serve several purposes from the outset. One was to bookmark experiences regarding life in Japan so that I could remember them as well as share my perspective on things both trivial and important with others. Another was to set myself a task such that I would develop my writing skills in different directions by focusing on a particular niche (Japanese snacks) or a particular style (short form for 1000 Things About Japan). Still another was in hopes of generating some income for my writing work. Despite my spotty proof-reading, I do put a lot of time and energy into my blogs.

I have realized two of my three goals. For various reasons, I make nearly nothing from my blogs despite having a pretty decent readership that has continued to grow at a slow pace. This is disappointing, but not the primary reason for the changes that are to come.

For some time, I've been writing a book. It's well over 100 pages now, but I keep having problems finishing it. The primary reason for this is that I tell myself each week that I'll do my eight blog posts (five for Japanese Snack Reviews and three for 1000 Things About Japan) and then I'll work on my book. All of my energy and time is taken by the blogs such that there is not enough left for the book and I have decided that has to change.

I've always been the sort of person who believes in structure and discipline. One of the reasons that my posting is regular is that I think that you have to set a goal and stick with it in order to make sure you achieve it. On 1000 Things About Japan, I met that goal awhile back when I hit 500 "Won't Miss" and 500 "Will Miss" posts, but I kept going and added in other content. On this blog, my goal was the number and type of posts and I've steadily stuck with each of my goals for a long time. It is time for my goals to change to getting the books I want to write finished instead of writing a certain number of blog posts each week for each blog.

In terms of what this means, I'll say first what it does not mean. It does not mean these blogs are ending or dying. I will continue to post, but I will be posting like most other bloggers do from now on. That is, these blogs will be second or third in my writing priorities rather than occupy first place as they have for so long. I will blog essentially when I feel like it rather than according to a self-imposed rigorous schedule.

For my kind and faithful readers, this means you'll have to track changes in some way rather than know when something new will be here. I recommend using an RSS reader (like Feedly) as it will automatically notify you of new content when it arrives, but you could simply pop in occasionally to see if anything has been posted. My best guess is that you'll see at least one post per week, but I can't say now as I haven't yet embarked on this new path.

As a postscript, I have to also say that this sort of change was inevitable since I knew at some point that I'd have to start leaving my connection to Japan behind and focus on making new and different ones. That connection will always be there as I spent so much of my adult life there, but it will fade. I love to write, so I will continue to do so, but it will likely branch into other areas rather than be monopolized by all things Japan. I hope you'll stick with me and read when I have something to say. I appreciate all of the kindness and support I've been shown over the years and look forward to continuing to offer something to those who enjoy my writing, albeit on a less frequent basis.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Will Miss #543 - "gift" wrapping

Dave Barry tells a story in his "Dave Barry Does Japan" book about a woman whose son gives his son a small gift-wrapped package that contains candy. Since it is not likely that the boy was carrying around candy in case he ran into a child that he wanted to give a little present to, Barry is initially puzzled as to how the Japanese boy was able to produce such a present so rapidly. He finds out that one can get even a bit of candy bought at a kiosk gift-wrapped in Japan. It's a small and insignificant item that costs about 100 yen (about a dollar), but you can still get a clerk to wrap it up as a gift for you.

There were some little touches to life in Japan that I didn't think I'd miss, but now that I'm back in the U.S., I find that I do. On occasion, I've wanted to pick up a little something and give it to someone as a gift - a nice bar of chocolate, a candle, or a box of cookies. At such times, I am left with only two options. I can take it home and wrap it myself or hand it over in the plastic shopping bag (assuming I got one) that I purchased it in.

In Japan, in nearly any type of store, you can probably get someone to do some sort of gift wrap on an item you buy and I miss the way in which you could have nearly any item, no matter how big or small, gift-wrapped in Japan. 

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Random Memories #77 - the last weeks in Japan - part 10

I wish that I had written my memories of the last weeks in Japan shortly after I'd lived them. Two years down the line, there are things I remember with perfect clarity and things that I'm sure have slipped away. The same goes for my early experiences after returning to America. There were some very important things which happened when I had just gotten back that I wish I had taken the time to type out, but I think that it was just too difficult to manage emotionally. Even now, two years later, it's a chore for me to go back to those last moments. It has been the case on more than one occasion that writing about my memories has brought  me to tears and I'm sure the writing on some of these posts has suffered for it.

The final day in Japan is still hard for me to write about and I don't know if I can really make others understand how difficult it was to just let it all go. I can say that I knew something for sure that I can't easily make others completely comprehend. That was that I knew without a doubt that I would never live in Japan again and I was nearly as certain that I'd never go back there again for any purpose. 

I've talked about that sense - that strong feeling of knowing - with others and they have generally misunderstood what I've meant. They seem to think I'm saying I don't want to go back or don't feel I can afford to. It's not that at all. I want to go back. In fact, I'd love to go back again, but I knew in my gut that the chances that I'd ever set foot on that island again were infinitesimally tiny. This "knowing" amplified my grief in the last day. It wasn't simply a "see you later" or "maybe... possibly... ", but it was "I'll never see you again." The book of my life there was finished and no new chapters were going to be added on. Everything that has happened since my return to the U.S. has confirmed this and I have not for a moment felt otherwise. What I want is not a part of the equation, but rather what I "know".

I had my last twenty-four hours completely mapped out long before the day came. As I mentioned in the previous post, I wanted to go to Akiyoshi for our last real meal and I wanted to wake up and walk around and have "choco cro" for breakfast. Those two things accomplished, it was time to face getting in the cab and heading away.

The landlord and his wife were incredibly kind and supportive of us that final morning. They helped us haul our four enormous suitcases out and put them in the cab. I am a person who believes in mindfulness of experience and not simply blowing past life or sleepwalking through it. This has not only helped me as a writer, but also helped me understand the world. The last thing I did was purposefully look around our home of the past 23 years and take in the atmosphere that it held for us. It was, as could be seen in the previous post, dirty and decimated of most of its belongings with nothing but trash left behind. It was also as or more familiar to me than the home I'd grown up in as a child.

I'd spent 24 years of my life in the same place in rural Pennsylvania and 23 years in which I was much more self-aware and verbally capable in our apartment in Tokyo. How could it be any less of a space that I'd strongly identify with than my family home? It wasn't. It was more of a "home", especially since my childhood home had long been sold and plowed to the ground and covered over with earth during my long absence.

I looked out the window of the bedroom where the osmanthus tree had grown, bloomed, and aged during our stay. The tree had some weathering or bark loss on the side that faced our bedroom and I always felt it had absorbed some of the negative energy of my life from the frustrations I'd felt living in Japan and taken on some damage. It also gave up its fragrance every autumn and reminded me that, though I lived in a concrete box, nature would find a way to be a part of my life.

The window behind the living room showed the view of the noisy old neighbor's entrance. I thought about how they'd stood out there so many times having loud conversations punctuated by "ne" so many times that it seemed as though that word constituted a quarter of the vocabulary. They also banged around their miniature garden and loudly snapped shut their screen door more times than I can remember, yet I never got used to it or learned to tune it out.

Of course, despite its poor condition, I looked at the space itself inside the apartment. I loved that small space and the way that it was shaped like a square and had sliding doors that opened or closed off compartments as needed to capture heat or cool air according to our needs. I loved how it was small, but felt bigger than it was. I loved that I could always feel my husband's presence no matter where he was and the sense that he was never very far away from me. Most of all, I thought about how much we loved each other and whether or not any of the positive energy of two people who felt passionately about each other would have embedded itself in the walls or the earth. We knew that nothing materially would be left behind, but would anything energetically remain for the next inhabitant?

As I stood at the door giving it a final look, I started to cry and cried all the way to the cab and during the loading of our things. The landlady looked at me sobbing away with such compassion and kindness that it made me weep all the more. We had always had a very cordial and formal relationship with the landlord and his family and I think that was the first time that we connected on a profoundly emotional level that quite clearly made us all humans rather than partners in a contractual relationship.

The cab drove along a route with which I was extremely familiar. It was along Ome Kaido avenue from Asagaya to Shinjuku. I'd traveled this path hundreds, possibly  over a thousand of times in 23 years and walked or ridden a bike the entire length dozens of times. When the big quake hit on March 11, 2011, my husband walked home along that large street. As the cab made its ways, I intently watched every building as it went by in an attempt to burn the experience as deeply into my memory as possible. I can still recall with perfect clarity how it felt as I watched those all too familiar buildings go by.

I hadn't gotten on a train for Narita in 20 years nor set foot in the airport since 1992. Things had changed a lot since then. Service had gotten far worse and more perfunctory as well as automated. We arrived early, as one is supposed to for international flights. It turned out that the United counter didn't open until 12:30 and we spent a lot of time standing in line watching the staff mill about doing nothing while they waited for the clock to force them to start managing passengers. We had hoped to check in to relieve ourselves of our heavy bags and then wander the airport, but some of our precious time was being stolen away by unexpected changes in availability.

When we finally were allowed to check our bags and get boarding passes, we were confused by the way in which you use machines to feed in your passport and get a printed pass. We were regarded as being dim-witted because we were unfamiliar with the machines and a woman who was in Japan as a tourist rather smugly instructed us in how to manage. At the time, I thought that I'd like to see her manage the Tokyo public transport system. Everything is easy when you're familiar with it.

Mochi sweets, explained in English (which is not usually the case in Tokyo)

I'm sure that being in an airport is not a meaningful experience for most people. For me, however, it was a way station between two worlds. It was the point at which I was in limbo in a spot which straddled life in Japan and life in America. The mix of travelers, the shops that catered to both domestic and foreign tastes, and the bilingual services made it feel like the last stop that would fully cater to the Japanese on the road to the rest of my life.

As we headed down the escalator after passing the security checkpoint and into the final area through which we'd end up boarding, there were signs (shown at the top of this post) saying Japan awaited our return. Seeing them made me start crying again because Japan will be waiting a very, very long time to ever see me again. It was an incredibly bittersweet moment when I saw what to most people was a meaningless PR move.

My husband and I had popped for the extra couple hundred dollars to get seats at the front of a row because my knees are pretty bad and the idea of keeping them bent in a tiny cramped space for nearly 12 hours was not a happy one. I had my plan in place for how to kill the time. I'd saved Baye McNeil's book to read on the journey. This was a good idea as the book was incredibly engaging and helped pass the time and distract me from thoughts of what was to come and what was happening.

I've flown away from Japan three times in my life and I spent two of those trips crying my way through the trip to America. The first time was because I was flying away from my boyfriend (later husband) and the last time was because I was leaving the place where I'd spent most of my adult life and had built a tiny little place that was "home". Japan wasn't home, but the space I occupied was all I had and could conceive of as home. I sobbed all that much harder when the plane touched down and I entered a world that was both familiar and alien. (to be continued)

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Won't Miss #56 - slow payers (reflection)

During my twenty-three-year absence from the U.S., a new way of doing business popped up. It became possible for people to do something which I never imagined that they'd allow them to do. That is, they could check themselves out at the register. In fact, there are some places which only do self-check-out ("Fresh & Easy"). At first, I found the prospect intimidating. Now, I wish every store had that option.

The reason that I love self-checking out is that it means I don't have to wait behind some granny or grampy who doesn't seem to understand the fact that money will have to exchange hands at the end of the transaction. The idea that the logical conclusion of events should also be preceded by the removing of ones wallet from a bag or pocket also seemed to come as a shock to many customers in Japan as they only reached for their cash when the checker had his or her hand (or cash tray) out and asked for it.

There are still slow payers in the U.S., but the use of debit and credit cards as well as self-check-out makes it less frequent and offers a way to get around such people. I certainly don't miss the slow paying people who seemed to always be in line in front of me in Tokyo. 

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Will Miss #55 - mochi (reflection)

When I was 24 years old, I thought I was as smart as I was going to get. Seriously. I thought I'd had a lot of experiences, grown beyond a lot of my psychological issues, and that I had pretty much worked everything out. As I got older, I didn't get dumber, but I did come to realize that I wasn't nearly as worldly and knowledgeable as I believed myself to be.

One of the conceits that we tend to have when we're young, and many continue to have when they're older, is that they can understand the world from their particular perch. I learned in Japan that how you view the world, what you know and don't know, and the opportunities you have in life are influenced heavily by where you are. It's not enough to read about things. It's not enough to think or write or learn. Living it is always different.

When I wrote this blog originally, my conceptualization of my future life in the U.S. was based on the limited view of life in America that I had up to age 24. I didn't know that there were places in the U.S. which would afford me continues and copious access to Japanese food of various sorts. That possibility wasn't even on my radar, let alone living within a reasonable drive of a "Japantown". It turns out that I don't have to miss mochi, or a lot of types of Japanese food, because I can still get it here. I'm sure that, if I lived somewhere else, I'm sure I'd feel differently because my worldview would be colored by the limits I'd experience elsewhere. 

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Random Memories #77 - the last weeks in Japan - part 9

The, mostly, empty living room. That box is the cable box, which the landlord said he'd look after. I also realized that we left behind not one, but two carpets that we'd installed (layered on top of one another in that room) and that power strip mounted on the wall. Oops, but there were no hard feelings. The landlord has written to us a few times with nothing but positive feelings.

The last two weeks before we left Japan, besides being filled with goodbyes, were filled with whatever it took to get things done. My husband spent no small amount of time filling and rearranging our suitcases with our possessions so that they wouldn't exceed the seventy-five pound weight limit. We didn't have a proper scale for such things, so he'd get on our bathroom scale and weigh himself, then pick up the suitcase and see how much it added. He spent hours doing this to balance things across four cases. Part of the process was packing all that we wanted to take and then removing what wasn't essential when the suitcases were too heavy. 

The chore of packing and repacking was nothing compared to the grief of sorting out mementos, well-meant gifts from friends, and necessary possessions. Throwing out what didn't make the cut was difficult because of the mental energy spent on thinking about things such as how this student who I liked a lot and taught for a long time gave me this, but it's not as useful as that item and it's heavy so it gets left behind. Weight and bulk also was an issue. Anything that was flat or super light made the cut. Fragile items or things which weren't particularly Japanese (like a set of utensils which were pretty generic fork and spoon kits) were far more likely to have a date with a trash bin. All of the things made of fabric (and many of them were beautiful) made the cut.

My memory of the overwhelming generosity of those we knew - a lot of this made it home with us, but not all of it.

The guilt of this sort of culling was with me throughout the entire packing process. It wasn't only materially wasteful, but it made me feel as if I didn't fully appreciate the sentiment behind the gift. Nonetheless, we knew we'd be moving a lot in America and we couldn't be dragging a lot of "stuff" behind us like an anchor. I took pictures of everything both individually and en masse so that I'd remember what was given even if I couldn't keep the item itself with me. It was the best I could do under the circumstances.

I have to say that the student who gave my husband $200 in cash will forever have my gratitude. It's not that the money was useful, though it was, but that it spared any sort of emotional considerations. And, though the money is gone, he is not forgotten for his thoughtfulness. Besides, the money is no more or  less gone than the items I had to toss away (like the goofy eyeglass holder house that the woman who ruined our departure from Narita gave us).

The trash men, tossing out the desks we used for over a decade in our apartment. The was part of a multi-stage abandoning of our furniture. 

The next to last day saw one of my students dragging away my one-year-old washing machine. Her parents needed a new one and I was more than delighted to give them mine. It wasn't only that I didn't want to waste a perfectly functional machine, but also that it was one less enormous piece of furniture that we would have to arrange to have carted away. I tried to give away more of our stuff, but, as I said before, it was hard-going. It was supremely annoying that the old machine crapped out so near our departure time, but we figured it was no more expensive and far more convenient to just buy another machine than to schlep our clothes to one of the not-so-local "coin laundry" shops.

The worst and most difficult item to rid ourselves of was our sofa. I don't know how Japanese delivery people get things in through narrow walkways and doors, but I imagine they must have extensive training in puzzles in which they have to figure out a way to maneuver large and heavy objects through narrow holes without damaging either the orifice or the object. They probably start with trying to get a stick of gum through a keyhole and, if they bend the gum or get any residue on the keyhole, they don't get to move along to the next task.

My husband and I had a horrific time getting that sofa out of our place, and the men who brought it in seemed to do it so smoothly and skillfully that we had no warning that it would be a nightmare. Both of us were in our late 40's when we left and not especially strong (and probably both on the verge of developing stress-related colds). If you've seen the scene in Friends where Ross is trying to get his sofa into his apartment, you have only a small idea of how awful such an experience could be. By the time we'd wrangled our sofa (which you can see hosting all of our gifts earlier in this post) outside, we were hot, exhausted, and fairly close to being at each other's throats due to multiple failed suggestions to figure out a way to get it through the door and pivoting it down the narrow walkway. The fact that it was a sofa bed that would flop open if you held it at certain angles only made it harder.

The last night, we went out for dinner with my brother-in-law and his wife at our favorite yakitori place. In pictures from the dinner, I look as haggard as one might expect someone to look who had been in a state of stress and chaos and who was getting sick. That evening was an oasis of peace before the final morning. We reminisced and talked about what we were going to miss as well as talked about our plans for the future when we got "home".

The state of that wall is the product of 23 years of humidity behind our dresser and other furniture. Also, the closet floor is warped and cracking from the same moisture issues. Oh, and the closet doors fell off along ago, but we didn't bother to have them replaced because, you know, we didn't care - I just hid the doors behind some shelving and covered the front of the closet with a curtain. This was what our bedroom looked like on our last day. You can see the tatami is also worn through (we had it covered with a carpet for years). It never looked so terrible when we lived in it because those decaying bits were always covered with other things. It was monstrous when we peeled everything away.

We were lucky that our landlord agreed to manage getting our queen-size bed out for us so we could sleep in our own apartment up until the end, but also the memory of that sofa struggle made his kindness even more appreciated. If the sofa was that hard to remove, I couldn't imagine how tough it would be getting the enormous mattress and box spring out as well. We left them behind with the proper large trash ("dai gomi") stickers sitting on the shelf in the closet. Buying those stickers allowed us to pay the expense at least. We had to pay, but he or whoever he paid to clean up the place was going to have to fight their way with our bed through the door.

A small selection of items that I was giving to another student - that's an iPod speaker box there (a nice one), a relatively new microwave, and my coffee maker. I think the coffee grinder is in the paper bag on the right. Those post-it notes say that my student will take them after we leave. Of course, this had all been arranged already with the landlord, who graciously put up with all of this nonsense.

Just because the landlord was managing the bed did not mean the last morning was the leisurely affair I'd hoped for. I knew what I wanted to do and that was to buy a couple of croissants at ChocoCro, brew some coffee on the coffee maker we still had, but would be picked up by another student later on (along with the microwave that I was going to use to reheat the croissants), and take one last walk around the neighborhood, particularly the shotengai. I didn't think it would take so long to complete certain activities that last morning. We did take a little stroll around the neighborhood, but it was the calm before a considerable storm of activity.

The refrigerator was going to be picked up by a recycling shop (down the street from us) and those bags contain our sheets, pillows, comforter, and my winter coat which I abandoned at the 11th hour for weight purposes. The wall there is discolored from the toaster oven and years of various items being placed in front of it and, of course, moisture damage from the Tokyo summers and rainy seasons. I realize I also left behind my Apple magnets. :-(

There were things that had to be bagged and thrown away that final morning and I filled up an enormous space in our kitchen with "trash" - our pillows, sheets, and blankets that we'd been sleeping on for many years. It took a lot longer to cram everything in the bags than I'd thought, especially since everything was insanely bulky. If you ever get a job cramming bedding into plastic bags and you're paid by the piece, trust me when I say you'll make a lot less money than you think. It is like herding cats because they're so unwieldy due to being large, puffy, and squishy.

The way in which trash goes out in Japan (certain types of trash only on particular days) made it impossible for us to get rid of our garbage. I also had to abandon a pretty nice carry-on suitcase at the last minute due to weight issues. The bags are labeled by trash type so the landlords could sort it out and put each out on the proper day. That horribly dirty wall was created by the washing machine being in that space for so many years - it was humidity central with very little space between the wall and machine (which breeds mold). We never saw it until the machine was taken away, then it was pretty ugly.

Emptying a space sounds pretty easy in theory, but, in practice, it's the death of a thousand cuts. The time that we had before we needed to hop into a cab and leave for the airport felt ample when we mapped everything out. In the end, despite my best laid plans (and they were very good plans indeed) it was rather rushed and hectic. Our apartment also seemed to be in an enormous mess despite my thinking (hoping) I'd leave it relatively tidy and hollow for the landlords. I looked back for the last time at our dirty, crumbling apartment with no small sense of guilt at what I was leaving for them to manage as well as a great sadness of leaving behind this place I'd settled into for nearly 23 years. Be it ever so crumbled, it had been "home". (to be continued)

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Won't Miss #543 - "Japanese food is healthy"

One of the things you notice about not living in Japan is that people aren't nearly as interested in talking about it. That means that I no longer find myself hearing comments about how Japanese culture is superior in this way or that way on a regular basis. One of the highest grounds that people tended to occupy when it came to expressing how much better Japanese culture was than others (usually American, because everyone knows America is a horrible place full of horrible people who do and produce horrible things) about how the cuisine was so incredibly healthy. To hear my students talk, Japanese food never strayed from the fish, tofu, rice, soup, and vegetables that most Western folks believe make up the core of the Japanese diet. The truth was that the Japanese diet consisted entirely of those items in the same way that American diets consist only of burgers, fries, and pizza. People in neither country consume stereotypical meals.

The stickiest point for me when it came to how supposedly healthy Japanese food was was the enormous consumption of white rice. In the U.S., if anyone ate so much of a white starchy food, the food police would cuff them and take them in for blood sugar crimes. In Japan, it's somehow the core of a "healthy" diet, and Japanese people almost universally eat white rice. Brown rice is only consumed because people are sick or if they are following an atypical diet. I also found that consumption of fruit and fresh vegetables was shockingly low (as was the drinking of water). If you don't believe me, do a web search on images of Japanese bento and see how ornamental fruit and vegetables are - a few grapes here, half a strawberry there, a cherry tomato or three here and there, a few slices of flower-shaped carrots. Mostly, it's rice, fish, and, if there's a salad, it's a bit of shredded cabbage drenched in mayo or thousand island dressing.

At any rate, as someone who saw and talked about what people actually ate, and who had to struggle to find and pay much, much more for anything that was brown (bread, rice, pasta, etc.), I found the claims of how healthy the Japanese diet was in terms of composition over-rated. Frankly, I think the diet in Japan is better because of portion sizes and variety - not because all of the food is so much healthier on the whole. I don't miss hearing people pompously assert how healthy the Japanese diet was.

Note to commenters: This is not a pissing contest. It's not about "Japanese food is healthier than (other country's food)," but whether or not the Japanese can universally and smugly claim their diet is "healthy". If you want to simply say, "X is better than Y," then you already "win." Congratulations.  Your comment will not be necessary. 

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Will Miss #542 - relative income equality

I've lived in two different apartment complexes since returning the U.S. and, in both places, homeless people came by several times a week to poke through the recyclable trash for bottles and cans that could be redeemed for deposit. Though my half of the complex locks its trash containers, the other half doesn't, so I'll see someone with a borrowed shopping cart parked in front of their blue bins looking through other people's junk for something worthwhile.

The thing about this is that I live in an area in which people are in the solid middle class (albeit one of the most ethnically diverse areas of such types in the country) and that borders on or is close to areas which are extremely affluent (Cupertino, Palo Alto). I can see the income disparity in living, breathing form every single day and it makes me very sad and a little angry. Seeing a designer dog boutique selling frozen yogurt and cookies for canines next to a coffee shop at which a homeless person is routinely booted away from bothers me even more. People have money to give their dogs hand-made treats, but not to help the homeless guy living out of a shopping cart.

In Japan, there were homeless people, but the income disparity there is much smaller than it is here. Most people are in the middle with some who are fairly rich and some who are fairly poor. However, the super wealthy don't tend to be clearly delineated between the middle class as they are here. And, while there were homeless, there weren't nearly as many, they weren't as young, and they were often mentally ill rather than down on their luck.

I miss the relative income equality in Japan and the impact it had on the daily living experiences and sense of comfort that everyone had. 

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Random Memories #76 - the last weeks in Japan - part 8

Among the earliest of my tribe of returning students was a woman who contacted me late in 2011. She had studied with me for about six months several years earlier and had stopped when she ran out of money. I will call her "M", and the memory of how I finished my time with her is one I've been dreading telling.

"M" was almost the same age as me and, like me, she grew up in a rural area and in far less than the best of family circumstances. At the time that I taught her, she was in contact with her mother and had a brother who she infrequently talked to, but with whom she didn't have an especially close relationship. Her situation with her father was the type that you see in movies, but people don't imagine happen in "normal" Japan. All too often, I found that they weren't that unusual and that people just didn't talk about them because of the shame involved in revealing the skeletons in the family closet.

M's father hadn't been in her life since she was in her early teens. He had gotten involved with organized crime and had some debt because of a business failure. When she told me he had made a lot of debt, I asked specifically if he had gambled and she said he had not, but had pursued a business interest that was not profitable for far too long. In order to not taint his family with the shame that he'd brought upon himself - and possibly to isolate them from any strong-arm tactics or harassment - he divorced his wife and abandoned his family. M hadn't seen him since that time and had no idea where he was living or what had become of him.

From my ethnocentric viewpoint, the father's choices were an act of cowardice. This was an opinion that I did not share with M because it really was not my place to do so and I knew it was a culturally biased perspective. She felt that he'd done them a great favor and made a sacrifice for the greater good. This was despite the fact that her mother had to work hard at a relatively menial and low-paying job to support her kids. In fact, her mother, despite being around 80 years of age, was still was doing the same job. My vague recollection was that the job had to do with preparing bento meals. I imagined it was the type of work that is behind things like the super cheap bentos (400-500 yen) sold in stands in busy districts in Tokyo.

When I was teaching M. She focused on how things turned out okay for everyone in her family, but I thought about how things would have been better if her family hadn't been impacted by her father's mistakes. She saw self-sacrifice as a bigger part of the situation and I saw her father's poor judgement which lead to the need for the choices he made. This difference in our perspectives on life illustrated something very important that was to later become an issue in our lessons.

M's  English was fairly advanced. Her vocabulary and listening comprehension were quite high because she had lived in Canada for some time, but her vocabulary since leaving our neighbor to the North had atrophied to a great extent and her pronunciation could be rather tenaciously poor at times. Her katakana English was something she was aware of and wanted me to help her correct, and I did my best, but such issues are one of the hardest to overcome. In the years between her initial lessons with me and those taken before I left Japan, this problem had only worsened. Since she occasionally needed to communicate with guests from abroad at her work, and had sought me out specifically to prepare for certain guests, she wanted to be able to speak more clearly.

M's job was one of those non-descript office jobs that Japanese women tend to hold. It was so unremarkable and she discussed it so little that I cannot remember what she did besides sit at her desk and work with office software and do paperwork. She wasn't paid poorly, but she also wasn't paid especially well and I think she was conservative with her spending because she knew she had no support system if she didn't save her yen. Her mother had no assets to leave her and her brother was looking after his own interests.

I'm sure she saved a fair bit of money by Western standards, but not nearly enough for someone who was facing retirement alone and without property, prospects, or connections. One of the other things M and I had in common was that we had no financial safety net if our lives fell apart and we had to work hard and make our way entirely on our own. Sure, I am married, but my husband was in the same boat as me. No one paid our way. No one was helping us with anything and, no one would catch us if we fell. I knew why M lived a simple life and saved. I was doing the same thing for the same reasons.

From her description, M lived an small, old apartment with no air conditioning. Her style of apartment is called a 1DK (DK = dining kitchen) in Japan. She rarely ate meat and said she was fine living mainly off of tofu because it was a far cheaper source of protein. Unlike many people in offices who went out for dinner and lunch, she usually prepared her own meals because it was so much cheaper. Sometimes she felt quite vulnerable in that place as she'd been telephone stalked at one point by a former boyfriend, but she was generally okay with living alone.

M's social life wasn't vast and mainly seemed to involve the occasional meet up with old friends for lunch, but she complained to me that her life had become incredibly "small". She expressly said that she felt her life was stagnant and wanted badly to "grow" beyond her little life, but expressed fear at ever doing so. She couldn't bring herself to strike out in ways that might have improved her quality of life. She didn't have a cell phone (nor did I at that time) nor did she even have internet at her apartment. Her free time was spent doing daily chores or reading books, mainly second-hand English books that she purchased at a dingy old shop in Koenji.

It's important not to mistake her saying her life was "small" with seeing her as "small". She was not only physically larger than most average Japanese women - that is to say, somewhat taller and with bigger bones - but she was no wilting flower. M was much more assertive than the average Japanese person when speaking to me. She never mentioned much in the way of difficulties with her Japanese compatriots, and I suspect she knew where to draw the line with various people, but the fact that she had lived abroad for some time showed in her personality.

M was a curious mix of rigid Japanese mentality with Western assertiveness. I'm sure it got her in trouble from time to time with people, but it likely caused her more suffering than anyone else. She knew the box that Japanese culture expected her to live in, but she also had the impulse and energy to want to break out of it This is what happens when one has lived outside of that box for some time and knew what it felt like to be free of such thinking. I know this feeling well since I also lived abroad long enough to feel like an alien in my home culture. It creates internal forces that make you constantly feel at odds with everything around you, but you cannot act on your feelings without appearing strange or even crazy.

I've written before about women who dream of landing a Western husband, and M's path in life was an example of what happens when such hopes do not play out as planned. The reason that she had lived in Canada for some time was that she had been co-habitating with her Canadian boyfriend. They lived together for a number of years, but the relationship fizzled out. There were some cross-cultural issues, some of which I experienced with M in discussions in our lessons, and ultimately he ended it.

The problem with what happened to M was that Japan, at least at that time, was an especially unwelcoming place for women who allowed themselves to be "sullied" by consorting with a foreign man. She was essentially "tainted" after years of living abroad with a foreigner and she came home at an age that was considered too "mature" to be appealing. Keep in mind that the idea of "Christmas cake" (no good after the 25th - in the case, a woman lost her appeal after she passed beyond her 25th birthday) was still in play when M was younger, so she was fairly well past her sell-by date by the time her Canadian relationship had fizzled.

M invested a lot in a dream of marriage and life in Canada and I think she gave up to some extent after coming home to Japan. Part of the smallness of her life was likely related to pinning her future on the wrong person in the wrong place and finding the window of opportunity for a conventional path to happiness tightly sealed. She lacked the confidence or the personality type to strike out on an unconventional path. She knew the limits she was putting on herself, but didn't have whatever that special something is that makes people take risks - or she once had it when she moved to Canada and was burned sufficiently badly that she decided not to take such a chance again.

When M got back in touch with me, I told her immediately that I would be leaving soon. In the first lesson, she told me that she admired how I'd changed my life since she'd last talked to me and wished that she could take the risks that I was taking to move ahead with life and expand my life and experiences. I told her that I thought she could do it, too, and tried to encourage her as much as possible. She said she wanted to do so, and that my situation inspired her to want to try a bit more to branch out.

Since M only wanted to take lessons with me for a finite time - again - because she didn't have the money to do ongoing study, she didn't mind that I was leaving soon. She told me that she really thought I was a good teacher and was very happy to have the chance to study with me again. The truth was that she was one of the very few students who I'd taught who I saw as a true contemporary and the only Japanese person with whom I thought I could have been "equal" friends with had we not gotten to know each other at first through a business relationship.

When I say that we could have been "equal" friends, I mean that I felt there was a chance that I could be, at least to some extent, the "real" me with her instead of the me that was carefully designed to cater at every moment to the needs, wishes, interests, and limits of my students. In fact, I entertained the possibility that she and I might have a distance friendship of some sort after I had left Japan. Unfortunately, I blew it.

In my lessons with M, she was fairly candid with me in ways which other students were not. She would tell me that I was being impractical or unrealistic about what was possible in life and needed to simply accept what was rather than complaining or asserting that things could or should be different. At one point, during her next to the last scheduled lesson with me, we had a conversation about the medical system in Japan and America. This happened naturally, but it was a time in my life when such issues were very much on my mind. At that time, my sister had been diagnosed with stage 3 cancer and had lost her health insurance at work due to down-sizing. She was staring down the barrel of enormous medical expenses and her prognosis was uncertain.

M was lecturing me about how the medical system was what it was and that I should just accept that there were economic limits and some people simply couldn't get the best care. She was telling me how we had to live with what was rather than complain about what should be. I wasn't in any state to put up with her compliant Japanese mentality and instructing me with an air of exasperation to just placidly accept what was without complaint and I rather emotionally (holding back tears - not shouting or angry) told her that my sister had cancer and that, for some people, the issue was not just an academic topic. Real people were sick. Real people might die. Real people's lives were destroyed or damaged by such things, and my sister was one of them.

The truth was that I lost it and the way things turned out was all on my shoulders. She was being insensitive, but she didn't know that was what she was doing as she had no way of knowing what was going on with me. I allowed my real life and feelings to intrude on a lesson and, unsurprisingly, this put her off rather badly. She felt guilty for what she'd said and apologized at the end of the lesson. I could tell that she was very shook up and wasn't surprised with she cancelled her last lesson with me.

We also had arranged for a "goodbye dinner" at a local curry restaurant at which she was going to meet my husband. She apologized for not being able to make that engagement as well and gave some flimsy excuse that I'm sure she knew I wouldn't believe. She didn't say that this was because of what happened in the lesson, but I knew that it was. When I e-mailed her back, I told her little more than "I understand." "I understand" is frequently code in Japan for 'we're both lying to avoid the unpleasant truth and to spare embarrassment on someone's part'. If you ever deal with a Japanese company, "I understand" is a pretty loaded statement most of the time so consider reading between the lines when you hear those two words.

I left it at that, because, though I could emotionally justify what had happened, I could not do so professionally or humanistically. I closed the distance between us when I should have kept it intact. It may have happened because I had hopes of being friends with her after I left Japan. It may have occurred because I was on edge due to my sister's cancer and extremely tenuous situation. It may have been the result of my change in attitude toward life in Japan as the date of departure drew near. It was probably all of these things and more, but this memory of how I messed up has stuck with me and made the thoughts of the end of my days even more complex.

It's important to make it clear that I wasn't upset about what happened because of the lost chance to be friends with M. Chances were that not much could have been built through correspondence anyway. I'm not even especially angry with myself for a lapse in professionalism, though that is a tiny piece of it. I did pride myself on being able to keep my interests at bay with students and my feelings in check, but this was an unusual situation on my part. I don't often have my only sibling and closest family diagnosed with a potentially fatal disease and facing complete economic ruin. I still wish I'd done things differently, but I can "forgive" myself such a lapse as I would forgive anyone else in a similar situation.

The biggest piece about this that I'm unhappy with is how I left things with this woman with the small life. I'm concerned that she felt bad about herself for what she said and how it made me react. I'm unhappy that I could have been a small conduit through which she could have found the courage to make her tiny, boring life bigger and that was lost because I lost my composure in a situation in which I had no right to do so. One of the messages that I took away from my time with students in Japan was that, for the most part, my presence changed their lives for the better. In this case, I left with the sense that I certainly left M no better, and may have left her slightly worse. I'll never know for sure. (to be continued)

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Won't Miss #55 - hanko (reflection)

For those who don't know, a "hanko" (or inkan), which used to be referred to as a "chop" by Western folks, is a little seal that you apply ink to and use instead of a signature. In Japan, many families use them to "sign" official documents instead of writing their names. You can get them made for fun, but to use them for banking or contracts, you have to have a registered hanko (jitsuin). They're more expensive and you have to go through some bureaucratic rigmarole to get it squared away... and who needs more of that, especially in the land of red tape?

Every time my husband and I did something official (banking, money exchange, work or rent contracts), we were asked to present our hanko. We never had a hanko and refused to have one because we viewed it as a security risk. It was rare, but it did happen that people's bank books and hanko were stolen on occasion. If someone has these two items, they can go to a bank and take out money from your account. The idea that I could lose or have my "signature" stolen was one I couldn't overcome.

I tried hard to see the value of all aspects of Japanese culture. My guess is that the use of hanko was something that made sense as a way of allowing all family members to manage official documents, not to mention that it probably allowed for a uniform comparison of seals and permitted illiterates to still apply their mark to papers back when more people could not read or write. It no longer makes a great deal sense to use them, but they are still used. Sure, there's a certain "cool" factor because of the novelty in Western minds, but would you really want to have something which would function as your official legal sanction rolling around in a desk drawer or at the bottom of your handbag?

I still don't miss being asked if I have a hanko, and having to sign my name in the tiny little circle where the stamp was supposed to be made when I revealed that I didn't have one.