Friday, January 28, 2005

A bunch of odds and ends today, nothing to justify a whole post in it's own right.

Tsunami
First off, I had written a while back that it appears all the people I knew had returned from their Thailand vacation unharmed. Indeed, the Japan times published an article the other day indicating all the English teachers all over Japan have returned back safely. I hate to call this good news in the wake of such a huge tragedy, but it's not bad news either.

Oita and Gifu-some follow up observations
A couple brief follow ups from the previous post: indeed the girl Shoko did point out a few differences between Kyushu and the Nagoya area. I thought just for the hell of it I'd jot down a couple more differences I've observed.
Obviously there is the difference in the dialect. Most notably the suffix "hen" is used to make words negative instead of the standard "nai". Therefore a word like "wakaranai" becomes "wakarahen". Easy enough to pick up on actually once you get used to it. Shoko found it very amusing that I've started speaking in Kansai dialect.
Also the word for something or some action that is undesirable or forbidden is not "Yada" but "ikan" or sometimes "akan". Still not sure what the difference is, but it sounds pretty cute when strung together, as some girls will sometimes shout out, "Akan, akan akan" at various times.

The driving here is a lot more aggressive compared to Kyushu, something both Monika and I noticed. (Monika was also stationed in Kyushu during her time on JET). I'm acquiring a lot of small stories about aggressive drivers. Most interesting to me is that even when I'm near school and driving cautiously to avoid hitting students the guy behind me will sometimes still decide to attempt to pass me on the narrow Japanese roads.

And one more thing that I didn't notice at first, but Shoko mentioned to me that her friends had commented to her she was getting fatter, and I thought to myself, "No one has called me fat for quite a few months now." (With the exception of Shoko when she came to visit). And then I realized that people in this area seemed more reserved about commenting on body weight than the people of Kyushu seem to be. In Kyushu a perfectly acceptably conversation starter seems to be, "You've been getting fat recently, haven't you?" or sometimes, "You've got a lot of acne today, don't you?" This bluntness at first confused me because it seems to fly in the face of everything I've been taught about Japanese politeness, but it appears perhaps unique to the Kyushu (perhaps Oita) area.

Of course I should qualify all of this by saying that, as with all my observations about Japan, these are not the results of scientific polling data, but just the way things struck me based on the limited people I interacted with. Someone else might have a different take, and if so I'd be interested to hear it.

Books
Another difference between Gifu and Oita is the library. (How's that for a smooth transition). The Oita library was terrible. Never any big less than 15 years old. I don't know how the Gifu library does it, but they have new books all the time, books that aren't even in the stores yet in Japan. Like "The Daily Show, America the book," or the "Bob Dylan Chronicles." I checked both out and have been enjoying them.

One thing that really struck me about Bob Dylan's book is how clearly he seems to remember certain events from his past. What the room looked like, the way a conversation went, etc.

I'm tempted to compare this with my own memory. Something I've been noticing lately, especially back in the States and meeting up with old friends, is how much I've forgotten about my college days. I did save all my e-mails, as well as kept a fairly detailed day to day journal, and I'm glad I've done that now because my memory is such crap. I wonder sometimes if because I've been in Japan for so long I'm away from daily cues, people and places and other things, that might otherwise jog my memory and help to keep the past fresh in my mind. I'd be curious how other people feel like their memories are working. And how many people believe Bob Dylan actually remembers the events with the vividness he described them, or how much he is embellishing.

Changing gears completely now to a different book...
I've recently finished reading "Norwegian Wood" by Haruki Murakami. A very popular book with in certain Japanophile circles, so if you've been to Japan you've probably heard of it already.

I've been avoiding reading Japanese literature so far because my Japanese isn't good enough to read anything in the original, and I'm always hesitant to read a book in translation because I feel like you're not really reading the author but rather the translator. I always think this, but then once I get into a book I get so absorbed into it I forget it's translated.

It's good to read the literature of a country because it helps you really understand the people. Even after so many years in Japan, sometimes all of the school uniforms and codes of politeness and emphasis on uniformity, et cetera can make one think that the Japanese don't have the same emotions we do. The thing that struck me about reading this book was how much I could identify with the main character. He seemed to go through life without really knowing what he was doing, take classes without a clear goal for the future, and get into relationships without knowing what he wanted out of them or where he wanted them to go. I thought, "man, that's me."

Also his descriptions of turning 20 reminded me exactly how I had felt at the same time. He said that first he was 18, and then he became 19, and it seemed like the natural thing to do was next to go back to being 18. Turning 20 seemed inconceivable. I'm paraphrasing obviously, but I remember feeling the same way at 19.

Also the description of dorm life reminded me of my time in the dormitories. The way jokes are often made about another persons quirks when that person is absent, and how certain people can supply the rest of the dorm with endless amusement. The sanitary conditions in the men's dorm, or lack there of, reminded me of my own living arrangements. The funny thing is whenever a Japanese person looks at my room, they often make some comment like, "Are all Americans this messy?" But according to this book, young Japanese people can be just as bad if not worse.

I may be rambling a little bit here. (The internet cafe I frequent has all you can drink coffee, and occasionally I abuse it, and I think being hyper on caffeine affects my writing style). But before I close off this section (if anyone is still reading) I think it is only fair to include a counter-review by Shoko, who has also read the book.

Shoko thought the book had way too much sex in it, and in fact read like a paperback pornography at some points (apparently there are a lot of those type of books in Japan). She also thought most of the women characters seemed unrealistic, and were not real women but what men often wished women would be like. (I conceded this point). And she thought the language the author used was un-necessarily crude, although obviously this didn't come through in the English translation.

Shoko asked if there was anything I didn't like about the book. I conceded some of her points, and then said I didn't like how cynical the author was about the student movement. (The book is set in the 60s). I said the world has a lot of problems in it, and it is important to try and correct these problems. Of course when you do this, you are bound to make mistakes along the way, and it is easy for people who are not doing anything to sit back and criticize things like the tactics or rhetorical excess of the student movement. (To quote Nathan Bierma, "I'm cynical about cynicism")

Shoko just laughed and said that was a rather Joel-esque criticism to have of the book.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

First a couple bloggy notes...
You'll notice perhaps my list of links is ever expanding. I've added Peter Bratt and Dan Luke, both friends from High School and in the case of Peter, Calvin College as well. Also I've found out Mike Harris has started up a blog. After my former neighbor Ryan got transferred, Mike was my neighbor in the town of Ajimu during my 3rd and final year there.

Since my successor in Ajimu, Josh, also has his own blog, and Aaron in the neighboring town of Innai is blogging, it is interesting to think that at present there is now a sizeable amount of English information coming out of the Usa-Gun (Ajimu-Innai area), which I suspect is the first time in history that this much information has been produced about this area. Fascinating thing the internet.

But before I get start making idiotic observations one quick point of interest on Mike's web log. Mike, a South African national, was intending to travel to the USA during Winter Vacation. He had to pay money for a visa application, and then travel all the way to Osaka for an interview. After all of which it appears he was denied a visa for no good reason, and had to make alternate travel plans. You can read about the relevant entries on his weblog here and here where he discusses it.

With all the terrible things our government is currently doing, I suppose this is probably low on the list. Still, if it is this difficult for a citizen of South Africa, a US ally, to get a valid visa, what is going on? My knee jerk reaction is that this can not be good for our tourism industry, and also if other countries enact reprisals against US citizens, international travel is going to become very difficult for everyone.

Moving on...
My Weekend

The girl came up to visit this past weekend. It was good to see her again, and we did our best to make the most of our time together and enjoy ourselves.

On Saturday we ventured into Nagoya, the 3rd biggest city in Japan. Nagoya is only about 40 minutes away by train, and the area I live in now is definitely part of the "Nagoya sphere of influence."

The girlfriend made some interesting observations, remarking that even though Japan is such a small country, cultural differences are evident between Kyushu and Nagoya. In particular she pointed out the fashion. "It's amazing how well the fashion here corresponds to the image we have of Nagoya," she remarked. "In Kyushu, even in a city of comparable size like Fukuoka, the fashion is much more casual. In Nagoya the girls are very heavily made up with permed hair and short skirts and big boots. Everyone is much more fashion conscious in Nagoya. Not that we don't have those kind of people in Fukuoka, but in Nagoya there are so much more of them."

I must not be a good observer because I never notice these things on my own. But hearing her say it I thought to myself that, yes, indeed, the fashion was different over here than what I had been used to in Kyushu. The girls were a lot more dolled up. The girl friend continued by saying so many young women in Nagoya carried brand name bags, like "Louis Vitton." The girl friend said these bags were so expensive that usually young women wouldn't be able to afford them, but in Nagoya all sorts of women in their 20s were already decked out with these "Louis Vitton" bags.

The obsession with hand bags is a rather odd thing in Japan. I had of course read about how high school girls would sometimes prostitute themselves to earn money for brand name hand bags. I had also previously dated a different Japanese girl who used to talk about taking on a second job to get money for a hand bag. But I had never known exactly how much these things costs. The girl friend then took me to a Louis Vitton department store to show me. The small bags were $300. The big ones were close to $2000. The shop was packed with women of all ages looking at bags and discussing payment plans with the clerks. So much for stories of the failing Japanese economy or tight fisted Japanese consumer.

On the way back we got into a crowded subway. The girlfriend and I were lucky enough to get a seat, but lots of people were standing. A woman standing right in front of me, roughly my age and decked out in the "Nagoya fashion" stared at me the whole ride. Of course every foreigner in Japan has had the experience of being gawked at, and I'm no exception, but I've never had it this bad before. She was standing directly in front of me and stared at me the whole time not even breaking off when I returned eye contact. I thought she was trying to shame me into giving up my seat, but as I had never seen a Japanese man give up his seat before, even when pregnant or old women were standing, I felt a little strange doing so and I just tried to ignore her for the duration of the ride.
Afterwards I asked my girlfriend if I should have given up my seat. "Japanese people don't do that," she confirmed. "If a guy ever gave up his seat to me, I would think he was hitting on me."
"Why did that girl keep staring at me then?" I asked.
"I noticed that too," the girl friend answered. "That was a bit rude the way she blatantly stared at you before. She probably had never seen a foreigner before."
"In Nagoya? This city is crawling with foreigners."
"She probably had never been up close to one before."
I guess Japan is Japan. In the big cities as well as in the country side you occasionally get really stared down.

We went and saw "Oceans 12" which was just opening in Japan that weekend. I suppose humor doesn't translate into sub-titles very well, because I was the only one in the whole theater laughing, as the girl friend pointed out to me. Oh well, I've certainly done more embarrassing things in my life.

The girlfriend was able to stay until Tuesday. Unfortunately my weekend ended on Monday, and I had to leave her in the apartment while I went into school. When I returned the whole placed was cleaned out, the first time it's been really clean since...well, ever, really, unless you count before I moved in. I'm going to do my best to keep it tidy now.

There was an interesting article in the Washington Post about Japanese Women enrolling in Princess vacations to Europe. I showed it to the girlfriend who thought it was interesting. The girlfriend commented that in Europe there was a culture of "Ladies first" that did not exist in Japan, and so Europe vacations were popular for Japanese women.

She further commented that many of her friends, when they found out she was dating an American, were very impressed and assumed I made breakfast for her and cleaned up after myself. "But I told them 'oh no'" the girlfriend said. "Oh, no no no."

Friday, January 21, 2005

Martin Luther King Day
I know I'm a bit late on this, but I beg your indulgence. Internet access is somewhat limited over here.

Anyway, I Martin Luther King Day comes and goes every year, and I usually let it go without too much preaching. Recently though I have gotten a book of Martin Luther King's speeches and letters from the Gifu Library, and have been reading through them. It is fascinating to see how the real King often differs from the version of King we celebrate today.

King has been elevated to a status of a modern day saint who is beyond criticism. King has become to modern politics the equivalent of what Jesus Christ is to religion. No one (at least no public figure) would dare say, "King was a good man but he was wrong about such and such." Just as no Christian would say the same about Jesus. And so what has happened with King and with Jesus is that they are very selectively quoted and very selectively remembered.

I often wonder if King were still alive today how many of the people who are now paying lip service to his memory would actually really support him, or if they would be telling him to shut his mouth and support our President.

If time and energy permitted I would like to write much more on this subject, because there a lot more to say on the issue. But I find myself tiring away from a long post, and I'm not the first writer to broach this subject anyway. Media Mouse has a nice post here on it here, which contains a lot of the same ideas I would have said, and links I would have sought out, had I the energy. Although I might have left out the part about the government complicity in his death. It is an interesting theory, but perhaps the point is better served by focusing on what there is no doubt about, such as King's own speeches and writings.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

First a quick note to any one who has e-mailed me in the past month: running a bit behind e-mail at the moment. Hope to bang out some replies sometime soon. Internet access limited, etc etc etc, bear with me on this one.

Tsunami and Me
When I was back in the States, a lot of people asked me if Japan was affected by the Tsunami. It wasn't, but that's an understandable mistake to make. After all the very word "Tsunami" is a Japanese word, so it's only natural to associate the two of them together.

However many of the areas hit by the Tsunami are popular vacation areas for both Japanese people and English teachers living in Japan. I knew several people who were in either Thailand or Malaysia at the time (both Japanese and Western friends). From my perspective it seems especially unfortunate that the Tsunami struck during the Winter Vacation period although Monika, who has been to Thailand in the past, assured me there is no time when the beaches are not crowded with foreign tourists.

I followed the yahoo e-mail listserves for both Oita Prefecture English teachers and Gifu Prefecture English Teachers with interest during this period. For a while there was a lot of chatter on both lists about "Have you heard from so and so?" And is "So and so okay?" But it now looks like everyone from both prefectures has returned safely.

Even at the school I work at, I knew 3 Japanese colleagues who were in affected areas during the vacation. They have all returned safely as well.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Back in Japan
Before I go any further, I want to quickly update the previous post. It does appear that the alumni magazine either fell for my false update, or decided to humor me, because the update has been printed in full on their webpage here.

With that taken care of, I have indeed arrived safely back in Japan. I thought I'd write a few reflections on my trip back to the states. First of all as to the question of...

Reverse Culture Shock
I get asked a lot if I experience any reverse culture shock when I return back home. The answer is not really. In fact most of the time it feels as if I never really left. But from what I've read reverse culture shock, like normal culture shock, often takes a while to set in. So the fact that I was back in America only two weeks probably prevents experiencing it. Also I was never without the knowledge that within two weeks I would be returning to Japan, so many of the classic symptoms of reverse culture shock (yearning for the previous culture, feeling a sense of loss by returning home) obviously did not ably to me.

There were however certain things I noticed. And even though I notice them every time, I had forgotten the intensity with which they strike me. So that on this most recent trip as well I was once again surprised by how strongly I noticed these things.

I had lunch with Monika today and was relating these feelings to her. Before I got to listing what these observations were, Monika stopped me. "Wait, let me see if I can guess what they were," she said. The quickness and accuracy with which she predicted my observations indicate that these are not unique to me, but perhaps universal for people who have lived in Japan. Also, as Monika is Canadian, it indicates that these observations are not confined to the United States only.

1). How fat people are. Not everyone certainly, but there are a lot of fat people in the USA. I never noticed this so much when I lived in the States, but now I notice it immediately from the moment when I get off the plane. And with each trip to the shopping mall or super market, I was amazed at all the fat people around me.

2). Since Japan is a very homogeneous society, a big shock at an international airport is noticing how racially diverse the United States is; something I tend to forget while living abroad. However this observation is coupled with the fact that upon returning to the US I for some reason think I recognize every Caucasian face I see. It makes it very difficult to walk through a crowded airport terminal. It happens every year, but this time in the airport I actually called out to some one I could have sworn was a friend of mine. Imagine my embarrassment when he turned out not to be the person I had thought he was.

Why this happens to me every time I return home I can't really say. I had thought it was because in Japan, especially rural Japan, all the white people are usually people I know, so I get into the habit of thinking I know every Caucasian face. However Monika said that after being in Japan for an extend period of time all white people start to look the same.

According to Monika, when one first arrives in Japan, it is hard to distinguish between Japanese people. However after staying a while, the eye becomes accustomed to the Asian look and becomes good at distinguishing one Asian face from another. However when returning to America (or Canada), the eye is then unaccustomed to differentiating Caucasian features, and the brain starts to group similar facial features into different types of people which, within a given type, become hard to distinguish from each other.

I would never have thought this on my own, but after hearing Monika say it, it did seem to ring very true with my own experiences.

3). The lack of politeness. I say "lack of politeness" here instead of "rudeness" because it is not so much rudeness . It is just that Japanese society is so ultra polite, that after becoming accustomed to this politeness, its absence can be startling.

Again, this is something I notice every year (although, as with the previous two observations, every year I am startled anew by it). I remember last Christmas in the Osaka airport observing an American woman yelling at the Japanese clerks because their English was not good enough. The Japanese clerks just apologized repeatedly. Arriving on the other side of the pacific, the Japanese students I had brought with me were treated very roughly by the customs officials because they could not speak English.

This year the first shock this year was again at the airport, having just exited the plane. I had to go through security again to transfer flights. I put my check in bag through the X-ray machine, then proceeded to empty my pockets into the accompanying tray that was also to go through the machine. The woman working there looked at me with disgust and said, "Uh-uh. Why ain't your jacket on there?" From this I inferred she wished the fleece I was wearing also be placed on the tray, but it was a clear sign I was not in Japan anymore.

Other Ramblings
It's really good for me to get out of Japan every now and then because it helps me enjoy the place that much more. The month before I left I couldn't wait to get out of Japan. Now I feel glad to be back. Of course the two weeks I was back in the States were all two short of a vacation, and, of the three times I've been back so far now, the shortest time yet. Especially with many friends gone for or pre-occupied with holiday celebrations, I felt like I only really got in one good week of meeting people. And then all of a sudden it was time to turn around and head back again. I hope to be able to be back again soon, although I hate to make promises about when that will be.

Now halfway through my fourth year in Japan, I have long ago past the point where life here stopped seeming like an adventure, and started seeming just like ordinary, boring, everyday life (albeit with a few interesting stories every now and then). It was therefore a bit of a surprise to hear some people back home talking of my experience in such exotic terms. This seemed to be especially true of older people, perhaps because older generations have not had all the opportunities for studying and working abroad that has been afforded to my generation.

I remember in particular a gentleman in his forties telling me how great he thought I was because I was able to withstand working in foreign country. "Truth be told," I admitted, "It's a bit of a cushy job. I'm paid just to speak my native language to Junior high School students." He responded with even more praise, saying that my acknowledging it was a cushy job showed even more strength of character, and that most people wouldn't even have the strength to jump over the hurdle of accepting work in a foreign country to begin with.

I suppose it's all a matter of perspective. To me, when I was graduating from college, the easiest thing in the world seemed to be to go abroad. It allowed me to delay the tough choices of choosing a career, and the hard process of applying and interviewing for jobs in that career, and at the same time seemed like a fun adventure. People who are not afraid of entering the real world, who know what they want and immediately pursue a career in that field, seem to me to be the people with the real strength of character.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Me and the Alumni Magazine: Who is smarter?
I've really enjoyed being back in Grand Rapids these past few days. It has really been great to get in touch with a lot of people. However the more people I get in touch with, the more I'm reminded of all the people I've lost touch with. I suppose that's just an inevitable part of getting older to a certain extent. But from my high school class I can count on one hand the number of people about whom I still know what they are up to.

And then it was brought to my attention that there was a website maintained by my high school where people could send in information about what they were doing, and it was printed on line. I began to think of how I could play with the system.

It's a bit like a poker game. I want to send in something totally ridiculous, like, "I'm currently serving as the Brazilian Minister of Information." But obviously no one would believe that and it would never get printed. I have to send something in that pushes the envelope just enough, but is still somewhat believable.

I bounced a few ideas off of my sister. My first thought was to say that I was in self-imposed exile in Algeria until the Federal government would drop charges against me. My sister said Algeria was too exotic, and she was probably right. We batted ideas back and forth against each other, and eventually I ended up submitting this:

A youthful indiscretion has necessitated a temporary relocation to Europe, where
I have been traveling for the past couple years. I am awaiting certain legal
complications to be resolved and optimistic that I will be granted permission to
return to the United States in the near future. In the mean time I am enjoying
European life. My French has become quite good, and I have undertaken to study
Spanish. The lack of a steady income has taught me a lot about living on a small
budget, and I have become greatly indebted to the kindness of strangers here. I
have fond memories of everyone from Grand Rapids Christian and hope they are all
doing well.

Perhaps pushing things a little too far. Perhaps not quite going far enough. Difficult to say really. Let's keep our eyes on the website, and see if it gets printed.