Teaching In Socks


Fill'er with Diesel and Bacon

Since January 15th of this year McDonald’s has been running it’s “Big America” campaign here in Japan. I assume the “Big America” title is supposed to be some sort of word play involving the “Big Mac” but all it makes me think of is fat, lazy McDonald’s-inhaling Americans (like myself). Basically, it’s a rather apt title.

The campaign has included four specialty burgers, The Texas Burger, Burger New York, the California Burger, and the Hawaiian burger (sorry Chris, no McRib). Here’s a list describing each burger. I can’t say I fully agree with the ingredients corresponding to their locations. What’s so New York about Monterrey-Jack cheese?or so Hawaiian about eggs? Do they even have eggs in Hawaii? If so they definitely aren’t indigenous. Please note, however, (as the author of the above link does) that all the burgers include bacon. Baconizing everything sounds very American We should be the United States of Bacon. Bacon, the most beautiful thing on Earth.

In Japan I try not to go to McDonald’s.  “Try” is the operative term though, I have gone a few times (they’re everywhere!) and each time I do, I feel like I am fulfilling a cliche. Even if it’s not the case I get the impression that the staff either looks at me and snicker at the humor of the stupid foreigner eating the stupid foreign trash-food or that the person behind the register sees me as some sort of McDonald’s expert who is going to enlighten them with my advanced McDonald’s knowledge. The sad thing is, when I look at the menu, I feel like I have advanced McDonald’s knowledge. I’ve seen McDonald’s items they cant even possibly fathom. Ordering McDonald’s in Japan simultaneously feels like cheating on my dream to be a worldly person and playing little league as an adult.

I went last week because the fries are still awesome, (even in Japan, even in England, even on the moon) and there is one down the street from my office. I resisted the brief temptation to order off the Big America menu. Huffing down a Big America burger would just put me one step closer to being a Big American.

No Pictured: The Jersey Burger- Bacon, Trash, and Tackiness--Class Free

I should also mention that the “Big America” campaign has been complimented by a number of strange commercials that involve a portable McDonald’s driving across America to deliver cheeseburgers to uncomfortably happy people. The whole things seems to be some sort of electric-kool-aid party gone corporate; in the commercials everybody dances as the tiny McDonald’s mobile delivers them cheeseburgers with bacon–which I guess wouldn’t be so bad, I mean bacon is involved.

Just a stranger on the bus
March 10, 2010, 4:29 pm
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In Japan, the public bus system is not used just by people who can’t afford cars and the mentally disabled.  It is used by them, but also other types of people as well: college students, the elderly, and working professionals. Japan has such a excellent comprehensive public transportation system that it really is possible –although not always extremely convenient–to get around without using a car.

I have recently started using the bus system for the first time since elementary school. Overall, I feel as though the Japanese Bus system is vast improvement over it’s American counterpart. However, in some ways this is it’s downfall. Because it’s nice, a wide variety of people use, and thus inside the bus there is a mixture of people with schedules and places to be and people who have absolutely no respect for time. I would even go as far as to say that it’s a metaphor of why communism, socialism, and basic kindergarten sharing all don’t work.

On the flip side I could see someone arguing that the Japanese bus system is evidence of why the previously mentioned ideals would/do work. The buses here are exceptionally clean, they leave their destinations on time, and in my experience, they are fairly safe (read: not made by Toyota) in terms of interior incidents and external accidents. In my opinion though, this viewpoint doesn’t look at carefully enough at the internal bus passenger interactions and overall atmosphere–it’s high tension.

I don’t think Capitalist or Americans are wired for bus riding. In my specific case, I take the entire ride too personally. If between my apartment and workplace the bus seems to take forever and stop at every single stop (as it did today) I take this as an omen that the rest of the day will be miserable. It should be noted that I often view things that I can’t control, such as stoplights, queues and commercial breaks, as God’s way of communicating messages to me (and about me). However within this paradigm it has become apparent recently that the bus ride duration holds a heavier often more dubious weight than the other mediums. Some might call it solipsist to believe that God communicates directly to me and about me through the number of bus stops I get to bypass (or not bypass) each morning but I prefer to refer to it as a brand or perfectly normal failed transcendentalism.

I would agree though that the bus proves the pervasiveness of solipsism even in a country as polite and conformed as Japan. Actually, maybe it doesn’t prove the pervasiveness of solipsism per se, but more specifically the blatant disregard people have for other people. This is perhaps what I find most irksome about the bus and where it really gets dicey.

On Japanese buses you pay a staggered fare based on how long/far you rode the bus. In order to pay this fare, you have to pay exact change. If you don’t have exact change, there is a change machine at the front of the bus (right next to where you pay). More often than you would think college slackers, indignant seniors, and just general self-absolved jerkfaces at the back of the bus signal that they want to get off at the next stop, then only when the bus has come to a complete stop at their desired stop do they get up and saunter to the front of the bus. Once at the front they suddenly, “oh, I have to make change so I can pay my fare, Let me do this while everyone waits and watches”. Then we, the lucky fellow passengers, get to wait to while this genius makes change, sorts out how much he needs to pay, pays and then finally leave the bus. I have seen people try to hold conversations with the driver while they do this, I’ve seen people look at the change in their hand as if they are doing algebra, I have seen people pay and then stand at the top of the step and look at as if they are some 18th century sea captain surveying a new island –it’s as if they have no clue that there are other people on the bus who have places to be.

I know I sound a bit like a curmudgeon complaining about this. However, being American abroad, I am aware of our reputation as clumsy, impolite fat lazy walking cheeseburgers. In the spirit of constantly wanting to prove people wrong (whatever the dispute may be), I have tried to be acutely aware of proper etiquette and basic public decency. This means giving up my seat on the train to the elderly, holding open doors for excessively long periods of time (one time in Osaka I was worried that I would stuck there until closing) and most recently chasing after a girl through the train station who had unknowingly dropped her cellphone on the ground.

Thus, it ticks me off when it feel like I’m the only one trying over here. Never mind all the little rules I break constantly because I don’t even know them, when people don’t prepare their exact change before arriving at their bus stop it makes me feel like God hates me.

box forts
March 4, 2010, 4:32 pm
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I didn’t intend to take a month off, however it appears that’s how long it takes to move and get Internet in Japan.  Actually, it takes a few days less than that, but if complain about NTT not giving you your Internet password information for a few days while also not checking your mailbox  that is exactly how long it takes.

During the process, I have learned a couple of interesting new tidbits about Japan:

1. The moving process is not enjoyable, not in any country, not ever.

2. A fourth-floor walk-up is a fourth-floor walk up even in Japan where it seems like the stairs are miniature stairs.

3. The Ikea in Kobe is exactly like the Ikea in New Jersey which is both great and terrible.

4. In Japan you can bargain with the sales staff even in the big-box electronics stores. This really surprised; not only have I been getting ripped off but I have been missing out on the thrill of used-car dealership-type negotiations.

Still, it’s great to be in a new apartment. I have a great view of the Akashi Bridge and Awaji island in the new place. Also, I have real furniture that didn’t come with the apartment and is not bolted down in any way.

The new place considerably bigger than my old one (but still small) full of appliances, Ikea furnishings  and a bunch of empty cardboard boxes. Why do I still have all of these boxes? Because in Japan there is a proper way to do everything and in Japan that way with boxes is to cut them into tiny pieces, wrap the pieces into bundles with string and then dispose of those bundles ONLY (ONLY!) on the first Saturday of every month.  Anything else is is an insult to your neighbors (and yourself).

I find this box-disposal methodology a bit cumbersome. It’s a lot of work for something they’re probably just going to incinerate. Also, the waiting time is a far cry from New York, where you could bring anything from your apartment outside and put it on the curb at anytime of the day on any day of the week and within hours that item that you put on the curb would become part of someone else’s home. The upshot of Japan’s way of doing things is that the neighborhood doesn’t always smell like trash; my apartment however, smell like cardboard boxes. Obviously, the only viable solution is to build a box fort in my apartment and just live in the fort until the night before the first Saturday of the month, at which time the fort will have to be sieged and raised. It’s the only logical solution, but that may be the box fumes talking.

Bread winning
January 21, 2010, 3:40 pm
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I apologize for the delay between posts. There have been a number of changes here at Teaching in Socks HQ. I’ll  probably talk about those at some point, but for now I would like to stay on the lighter side of things and talk about bread.

For the first few weeks I lived in Japan, I was confused about how sometimes after making a few sandwiches during the week I would end up with an extra, lone slice of bread and other times the math would work out perfectly. It took me a little while, but then I realized the large number printed on the side of the bread bag had some significance. “6” a bag with six slices of bread and “5” equals a bag with five marginally thicker slices of bread. I’ll will admit that despite having bought bread numerous times in the U. S., I am ignorant of American bread customs and standards. I feel like the denotation of the number of slices is something only bakeries and fancy breads do. In fact, I can never recall seeing a number on the side or a bread bag. Sizes I understand; “sandwich”, “thick”, “Texas toast”. Numbers, however, are new to me.

Pick a side Fatty

This predicament made me wonder, who buys the bags of five slices. I mean, presumably they are the same amount of bread divided up differently, but Japanese bread is already extra thick. Why would you want less slices. Taking a bag of five slices not only hampers your rationing ability but it completely bungles your sandwich math. I get the draw of thicker slices–Texas Toast is the greatest invention since somewhat thickly sliced bread–but even then I feel like the wizards at the bread factory are smart enough to put in a even number of slices.

When I was in High School, I stupidly and briefly took a job as a sandwich artist at Quiznos. I never stayed long enough to learn how to make any of the sandwiches, but I did learn how to cut them (diagonally) and how to apply lettuce (liberally, by the fistful). One night one of my jackass friends came in an order a sandwich. While he was razzing me and making ridiculous toppings requests, I proceeded to cut his 12-inch sandwich into twelve slices. What’s important here is not that you shouldn’t be a jerk to a person preparing you a sandwich (actually that is important) but that i cut the sandwich into an even number of slices. Why? because those are the mathematical law under which bread should operate.

“What about the Big Mac” you say? The Big Mac is not a sandwich, it is a burger and it is an atrocity. What about Club Sandwiches? Club sandwiches are awesome, but I dare you to tell me that they wouldn’t be better if the middle slice of bread was actually two thin slices of bread (law of evens) and if there was a little more bacon (maybe two slices up top and two slices down below).

Anyway, I see the decision to offer bags with five slices of bread as a shot across the bow in a war on sandwichry. Slicing and packing bread in odd numbered slices presumes that their is some alternative or superior usage for bread. This is foolish, and petty.  Don’t be surprised if you hear about The Sendai Sandwichcraft Trials  (I’m sorry). I should have been suspicious simply fact that they call bread by it’s french name, “pan” (in France are pans called “bread”?).

I feel like this bread predicament is just another issue that forces people apart instead of bringing them together. We are all forced into one camp or another. Are you a Coke or a Pepsi person? Leno or Letterman? Ford or Chevy? 6 slices or 5? Every time the clerk scans my items at the check out she labels me a look that says “you are a 6”. It’s degrading. I am not a number, I am a free, sandwich-eating man.

Nerd alert
December 15, 2009, 5:04 pm
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Two weeks ago I took the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. taking the test was a voluntary exercise; my employer didn’t require it or recommend it, nor will I receive any sort of performance-related benefit based on the results. I simply wanted to challenge myself and give my studying motivation a little boost. If my grade school self heard about this he probably would have called me a nerd-face and then pushed me off the jungle gym. He would have had a fair point.

My present day self also took issue with this decision when it was discovered that the test started at 9:30 on a Sunday morning. This was compounded by the fact that my assigned testing site (and this was the closest venue) was in Kobe–and not event convenient central Kobe, but the outskirts of Kobe, at a university that required me to switch trains, take a subway and then walk a bunch. Thus, I found myself awake at 6:45 AM on a Sunday morning, which is never something I’m happy about.

I was able to overcome my allergy to mornings and make it to the testing site without any problems–which, given the degree of difficulty in my situation, should probably have counted towards my test score (or maybe that should have just been the test, howdoyoulikethem apples?).

The test experience was far from what I expected. First, there was not element of danger. I was not placed in a hexagon of death, no one was chasing me, and alligator clips were not attached to any of appendages.  Secondly, the nationality make-up of the testing pool was far different from what I imagined. Now, this certainly didn’t bother me in any way, but I suppose in imperialistic subconscious, I imagined the kind of people who studied Japanese and who took this test were American, British, or Aussies who are in country and trying to learn the language. What I neglected to logically think about where the hundreds of thousands of continental Asians that come to Japan to study abroad or work. Thus, in my classroom of fifty people, it was me, a girl from Switzerland,  a thirteen year old Indian girl and mixture of forty-seven Vietnamese or Chinese students. I guess at the heart of the issue, I was under the impression that at a test for foreigners I was going to be able to hide in the crowd for the first time in a while. Instead it was the continuation of my everyday experience, life as a spectacle.

One thing I did expect, was the Japanese would run their test very tightly. On this note, I was correct. They had three proctors for each room, and each proctor had a red card and yellow card they could issue you for a variety of offenses (ringing cellphone, talking, cheating).  Each classroom at the testing site (and possibly throughout Japan) was synchronized to a radio broadcast, which provided us with instructions and listening passages. I will admit that i assumed the the carding systems was merely for show, and something that wouldn’t be put into use–and it was that way for a while. Then during the first listening question, someone’s cellphone alarm went off. Then some of the students taking the test were warned for talking. It was a Millwall v. West Ham fixture it was sort of perplexing to witness someone receiving card during an examination.

When the test was finished, I didn’t feel very confident about my score. Apparently, the testing system will be changed next year, and thus many of the mainstay topics in the vocabulary and grammar sections have been changed already. Still, the benefit for me is not in a passing grade but in all the studying I have done, and the fact that test is only given once a year so I can’t talk myself myself into waking up before 7 on a Sunday for entire year.

Light-up situation
December 2, 2009, 5:45 pm
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Two weeks ago I went to (and this verbatim from the ticket stub) “Scarlett Maples Leaves At Night in Eikando Zenrin-Ji” in Kyoto. Eikando Zenrin-Ji temple is famous for its brilliant fall foliage (and a buddha statue with it’s head turned round like an owl).  Apparently, a few years ago someone at the temple got wise to the fact that the Japanese love technology + everything and realized it would be a great idea to charge people 600 JPY to see the autumn foliage lit up at night. I, on the other hand ,was intelligent enough to pick a holiday weekend in right at the height of tree-viewing season (if such a things exists–which it does) to pay 600 JPY to see trees at night, because I also wanted to wait in line outside the temple beforehand.

I also had the great misfortune of going on a cold and rainy night–which only makes the line-waiting better. Inside, the leaves and lighting dynamics were stunning. I was worth the prcie of admission. However, it was hard to appreciate them while dodging umbrellas. For all the emphasis the Japanese place on respect and social protocol, when a large group of people are gathered in a small public space it might as well be a Metallica concert. Elbows are thrown, common decency is tossed out the window.

Also, my height–compared to that of the average Japanese person–doesn’t bode well for me when umbrellas are involved. It somehow always works out that the rusty brim of the $1 umbrella (so that’s unregulated Chinese rust) that the guy in front of me is holding  is sits right at eye-level.  It’s at times like these that I am thankful that I wear glasses but curious about when my last tetanus shot was. The rule of thumb on tetanus shots of course is: if you have to be curious, it’s been too long.

Still, in retrospect, fun and danger go hand in hand.  While I probably appreciated it less at the time, there really is something to leaves in Kyoto. I’m by no means and expert on the quality of autumn foliage, but the mountain air seems to enhance the saturation of the color in the leaves–or it could just be the lighting.

injury free, master of this domain

Kobe Biennale
November 16, 2009, 4:03 pm
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I’m usually not a huge fan of installation art–I find it too often grays the area between art and furniture. Not that the two mediums are mutually exclusive. Instead, I would say that it’s extremely difficult to be just a good artist or just a good interior designer. The ambitious blending of these two fields  tends to result in things like pieces of garbage hanging from the ceiling with fishing line or chairs made of broken glass.

That in mind, this weekend I went to Kobe Biennale art exhibition. The exhibition takes place at many sites through the city, however the focal point was in Meriken Park, at the Port of Kobe. There, organizers had a erected a small, improvised outdoor museum.

Origami was promised- "Origami Shrine" by Goco Tomohisa

The highlight of the Biennale was the “Art in Containers” International Exhibition. Thirty contemporary artists–all who have some connection to Kobe–were chosen, and each were tasked with creating an installation piece inside a 40 ft.  deep  shipping container.

As I said before, I am not a huge fan of installation art; however, I do think the utilization of shipping containers buoyed the effectiveness of some of these pieces. Having a defined space provided a clear segmentation between each piece while elegantly condensing and focusing some of the art in a manner that enhanced the experience.

Cardboard sculpture Buddha- "BUTSU" by Honbori Yuji

That’s not to say that I loved every piece. Some of them were the typical over-thought and under executed installations that modern art is often criticized for. There was the boring 3-D animation from the early 90’s on a wall container, and another that was simply a dark space with weird sounds. I actually didn’t stay in the any of the darkened containers  for any extended period of time. I’ve seen to many crime shows to feel safe when alone in a pitch-black shipping container; at any moment the door could slam shut and not reopen until days later some detective finds your frozen, dead body in Arkhangelsk and he then has to get in his Lieutenants face just to start making inquiries with the local organized crime syndicates.

On the whole, many of the installations were interesting. My particular favorite involved a container where the walls and ceiling were covered in tiny wall clocks. The sound of hundreds of clocks ticking simultaneous was one of those unique art experiences (clock shops excluded). Also, a in the container at the same time as me lady had the audacity to touch one of the clocks. Of course, the clock she touched and another fell off the wall and shattered on the floor.  I somehow was able to catch the entire spectacle from her initial arm extension to her sever and instantaneous reaction of regret (it’s a universal expression). I don’t really like performance art either but this was like my own private candid camera show, except for the part where she actually looked at me and I had to quickly reply “daijobu” (everything is okay).

Walk into the light

Also, this is Japan, so there was some cool large scale origami. There were other containers that had a more circus atmosphere–funny mirrors and one with just a bunch of fans and mounds of confetti that you could play in. While one might dispute the artistic endeavor of these installations, the fun quotient of them can really be debated.

watch your head