Teaching In Socks

Kid Tested Visa Approved
July 28, 2009, 6:09 pm
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Today is 368 Days after my arrival to Japan. On Monday, I picked up a renewed Visa, permitting me to stay for another three years (I made an impression). While It’s not necessarily and achievement, it’s nice to go another year without getting deported.

In terms of the previous year, I think as these things tend to do, it has differed slightly from what I expected. Then again, as it has been a year, I can’t exactly remember what I expected. I stopped believing in time capsules and seventh grade and since then I have refused to play the Nostradamus game of writing down expectations and revealing either how naive I am, or how predictable life is.

That said, let’s review some facts.

In my year here, I’ve been to three castles and something like 15 temples. I’ve met enough new deities to throw a party, but most that are worshiped less than Wolverine at Comic-Con. I’ve either met no robots, or a bunch of really awesome robots that are too life-like for me to identify.

I have not been attacked by an Sea Monsters (or Monster in general) but if they exist, I probably have eaten them.   I have eaten parts of animals that I don’t know the Japanese names for. I have eaten animals and plants that I don’t know the Japanese names for. I haven’t thrown up once (there has been a close call or two). I have given up hope and eaten McDonald’s five times.

I have probably executed three correct bows; they probably weren’t the three I wanted to get right.

I have picked up a couple hundred words, but I can count the number of “successful” Japanese conversations I’ve had on one hand. I have probably said th word “hai” meaning yes 100,00 times. I say it when I’m confused, I say it when I’m nervous, I accidentally say it instead of “hello” sometimes. Just today a man came in to ask me about studying abroad. He squawked at me for 15 minutes, while I intermittently replied “hai” and somehow he didn’t seem to grasps that I had very little understanding of what he was saying to me.

The war has come up a few times, but it yet to be unmanageably awkward.

I’ve only seen three anime. I have yet to start dressing up like a cartoon character (besides Jon Arbuckle). I haven’t appeared on any game shows. I haven’t eaten any bugs. I sill have all my fingers.

I’ve been called Harry Potter a few times, I’ve made a few inquisitive kids double-take but the important thing is I’ve never been chased to the embassy–still somedays I feel like I’m only a poorly timed “hai” away.

Hit Ball Hard
July 15, 2009, 4:03 pm
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Even before I arrived in Japan, the mythology of Japanese Baseball and it’s fans made going to game here an item on my Bucket List.  However, since my arrival there have been a  number of setbacks (sold out games, my inability to read a schedule, the offseason) which have prevented this from happening.

However, a visit from a friend and a trip to Tokyo provided the proper inspiration and I finally found myself at the Tokyo Dome, taking in a game between the first place Yomiuri Giants and the second place, cross-town rivals (although not main rivals) Yakult Swallows.

* It should be noted here that with the exception of the Yokohama Baystars, teams take on the name of the corporation that owns/sponsors them, not the region or city they represent.

At the game, surprisingly (not at all surprisingly in Japan) the first thing I noticed was the cleanliness. Japan is a remarkably clean country–despite seemingly to be devoid of public trash cans- yet to maintain this standard in a stadium of all places is remarkable especially considering that in America stadiums are cultivating their own brand of military-grade grime and shirtless fat people.

It’s a little depressing that the twenty-year-old Tokyo Dome is noticeably cleaner then the three-year-old McStadium the my hometown Cardinals play in, but you have to appreciate a job well done. That’s not to say I would eat off the floors here, but it is to say that said floors weren’t cheetah-spotted with old gum, nor were they coated in the traditional stadium flooring treatment of spilled beers and a mystery film that is physics-defying slick and sticky at the same time.

We were able to bring food and beers into the stadium with us which may be one of the reasons was the Nippon Professional Baseball league has struggled financially at times. Still, this seemed like an appropriate throwback to the right way to conduct a baseball game.

The biggest difference, and  the thing foreigners are bound to be most curious about is the food. I did a thorough scan of the concession board and here’s what I can report; Yes, there were Hotdogs (although the Japanese variety tastes a little different), there were also pretzels, chicken wings, Baskin Robbins ice cream (no helmet cups though). However, all of this was placed right alongside BBQ Eel, onigiri, and mystery meats on sticks. The only absence I noted was nachos, but let’s be honest they are obviously the least cannon and most digestively suspicious of  standard American Ballpark fare.

Now as much as I’d like to tell you I went on some bold culinary baseball journey, I didn’t. I stuck to the safe picks and avoided mixing beer and dairy. I did knock down a foot-long (or 30 cm long…whatevs) dog, some chicken wings, a pretzel and few draft beers (I forgot to mention that sake and whiskey were options as well).

The conventional theory is that you can tell a lot about a Culture by how they support their sports team. And while I think this theory often lends itself to blanket generalizations; on the regional level it does provide an interesting colloquial snapshot from which to draw some shaky insights. Thus, I was somewhat interested to see what fans of the Giants are like.

For those unaware, the Giants are Japan’s equivalent of the Yankees. They are the oldest and most successful team. They play in the biggest city and their players are often the biggest names making the most money. I have to say, the crowd was were the comparisons ended; they were polite and fantastic.

There were the organized chants and synchronized towel waving, and inbetween it was a crowd that was paying attention with watching with a knowledgeable eye. While there was lots of energy, my friend and I were perhaps the most rambunctious of the people around us simply because of the instinctual  American custom express displeasure when the umpire makes a questionable call–oh and my friend was giving out high fives to strangers around us in the midst of a global pandemic scare, regardless, the people in our section were extremely friend and patient. It was a wonderful balance.

They weren’t comatose and clueless like Atlanta Braves fans nor did I have some yelled umcomfortably close in my ear at inappropriate moment like I was at Fenway. And unlike St. Louis, everyone kept their shirt on.  I guess my only complaint was that it wasn’t strange enough. I wanted something odd and colorful to happen and all I got is a bunch of nice people being happy and expressing it a sociallyly acceptable way. I suppose I’ll have to wait for a Hanshin Tiger’s game for the real eccentrics.

By far the most promising thing Japanese baseball offered was the beer girls. It’s amazing how the complexion of the spectator experience changes when you replace the sweaty, potentially a sexual predator beer guy with a potential target for the former; a peppy twenty year old girl with a pony keg back pack dressed in bright neon clothes. Also, instead of muttering swear words under their breath, these girls seemed to have an endless supply of pep and energy (and they aren’t even getting tipped). Even after eight innings of huffing a pony keg through the stadium aisles their enthusiasm seem unwavering. It was impressive and a bit scary. Who knows what else they are capable of.

In the words of my mother, we brought home a winner and it was a ncie way to ease into the water of Japanese baseball. I’m looking forward ot catching the local team, The Hanshin Togers in action soon. They are known for being the loud, wild and absurdly passionate fans–which basically means there are at leats two ballon launches per home game. Interpret that however you will.

No substitutions

I suppose one cultural note that I have forgotten to manage over the last year is that ordering off the menu is completely unheard of in Japan.

When I first arrived, I viewed this as a culinary adventure (in addition to all the other adventures it is) and thus never even considered trying to ask for a dish other than how it was presented on the menu–not that I could have linguistically managed it anyway. I ordered, ate and kept my complaints to myself (most of the time). It has become such a habit that I have completely forgotten that food alterations and specifications were physically possible.  And I don’t feel like I missing some necessary meal-enjoyment tool, which is odd, because I feel like I should be. There was probably a period in my life (forever) in which "On-the-side Reilly” would have been an apt nickname (“hold the salad”and “I’ll make a PBJ” would have also been appropriate).

In a sense, the language barrier brought down a culinary barrier. Even this past weekend I discovered at both lunch and dinner that I had ordered dishes with capers in them. Privately I thought, “fucking capers” (because I was hungry and I use curses word rather liberally in my thoughts when I am hungry) but in no way did I ever consider the possibility  that I could have requested the same meals devoid of capers.

That said, being deprived of their certain inalienable customization rights seems to be one of the few drawbacks visiting Americans encounter.  In both cases where I’ve had visitors, there has been occasion where we have been out a meal and the visitor says, “can we get it without X?”. This request is always something that seems relatively logical, and uncomplicated.  Then I start to give the standard “ehhhhh” response and their first inclination is to say, “oh because you don’t know the Japanese?” and while the answer to that question is usually yes, the more important answer is that anything I say will undoubtedly confuse the hell out of our server. It likes going to the bank and asking them for haircut–they really don’t know what to do with what you’re saying.

In one instance, a restaurant we were eating at had spicy-sour shrimp and spicy-sour beef  on their outdoor menu. Inside, the menu we were given had only the shrimp. We asked if they could give us the beef (they had many other beef dishes) with the spicy-sour sauce. This seems like a simple request; they have the beef, they have the sauce and the ability ot mix the two.  The waitress first titled her head in they way that all animals do when they are painfully perplexed. After processing what we were trying to ask her, she replied without hesitation said that it was impossible. I suppose there is a small price to pay for not having to tip your servers.

The only success I’ve ever seen was a friend who studied up on the Japanese names for ingredients of a McDonald’s hamburger and then drew a diagram that indicated that he wanted only ketchup. While his method was successful, I think we can all agree that a man who goes through that much trouble to get a plain burger is mentally unstable and is most likely eating burger that contains ketchup and lugee well, they’d  They’d never do that in Japan actually, but definitely ketchup and mental lugee.

March 11, 2009, 5:41 pm
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On nourishment…
August 25, 2008, 2:59 pm
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I could be wrong about this, but I suspect a number of you back home are wondering what I eat here in Japan. For those of you who aren’t interested in my Japanese dietary habits, just keep hitting the “refresh” button until I write another post.

My answer to the curious bunch: For the most part, ice cream. It’s summer, and nothing, let alone a trans-Pacific move, will keep me from my daily summer sugar, cream, and ice ritual. Aside from saccharine pseudo sacrament, I do eat real food on occasion.

Obviously, the general American consensus is that they eat a lot of sushi here. My suspicion of this stereotype was confirmed when almost everyone who learned I was moving to Japan asked, “wait, do you LIKE sushi?”. I get it, we don’t hear much about Japan cuisine that doesn’t involve raw fish, and I don’t really give off the “sushi aficionado” vibe.

I admit I may have had a reputation in the past of confining my culinary preferences to a few options. However, the days of “Ted doesn’t eat anything green” and “Ted fears the prospect of uncooked fish on top of rice” are over. I eat things. And as part of the travel experience, sometimes those things are weird.

However, I have only had sushi once since my arrival–today in fact, and it tasted soooo cliche. One might say it was comparable to uncooked fish on top of rice in America.

Aside from the occasional squid-fest (as I mentioned in a previous post) I try to keep a diverse palette, including both Japanese dishes and a number dishes with varied ethnic origins. The Indian restaurant in the same shopping center as my school is a nice asset because they serve a decent curry and they speak English. In fact, if they didn’t aggressively blast Bollywood soundtracks over their speaker system all day, I would probably refer to this restaurant as The American Embassy. For now, the “Japanophone” yet American influenced KFC, McDonalds, and Baskin-Robbins (aka: 31 Flavors) food court takes that title.

In terms of traditional Japanese cuisine, so far the highlight has been Okonomiyaki. This is essentially a pancake of sorts filled with whatever you want–pork, shrimp, beef, vegetables, and topped off with “sauce” (BBQ sauce) and mayonnaise. It is not as good as my grandmother’s pancakes, but aside from those, It’s probably the most delicious thing I have eaten; unsurprisingly, it has a health value of negative five.

My only complaint about Japanese food is the temperature. While many people, clearly with sushi and noddles on their mind, associate Japanese foods with being cold and slimy, the truth is quite the contrary. Anything ordered hot is served at near sizzling temperature. Fries from Mos Burger, roasted chicken. an even the “hot” towel they give you pre-meal, all clock it somewhere between searing and meltdown on the thermostat.

Thus, I generally burn my mouth three to four times a week. It’s a painful and inevitable process. I’m sure there is a Taoist/Buddhist/Zen element to this that Japanese people have mastered, but I clearly have not studied those texts diligently enough. Regardless, as an American, I fear the level of patience necessary is not in my repertoire. However, there is a silver lining: One no longer fears a strange or unfamiliar food when he is aware that all scalding food tastes the same (think about that Lao Tzu!).

For when I want American food with a Japanese feel.

Mos Burger: For when I want American food with a Japanese feel.

backwards week
August 5, 2008, 4:09 pm
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Today commences the beginning of my first full week of solo teaching. The beginning of the week is the easiest. I have only 2 classes and the rest of the day to plan or kill time, whereas Saturday I have about 8 hours of teaching and rarely a spare second. Any mistake I make early in the week will domino to the end of the week unless i take care of itpromptly or find some elaborate way to hide it. Emphasis on the latter being more likely.

For a number of reasons, including the aforementioned,  mywork routine here is drastically different than my previous corporate gig. For starters, my school is in a mall. That’s right, I basically work in retail education. This mall is a bit different than your standard American commercial complex. Let me give you a rudown of the space.

Across the hall is a movie theater. It plays 3 popular japanese films– I can’t wait to see the anime classic “Major: Dramatic Baseball Movie”– and a popular US movie; currently this means the Mummy III. The only other contribution of establishment is making mezzanine smell of popcorn (provided you are into that).

Next door, is a pediatrician’s office. Between that and the movie theater you can imagine the amount of kid foot traffic we get. It’s balloons and candy all day.

On the other side is a small lobby area with about 6 vending machines ( everything from coffee to candy to cigs) and a locksmith’s booth. I think the vending machines do more business than the locksmith, but I could be mistaken. If I am indeed correct, I think it’s only logical the locksmith should look into converting to a vending machine format as well. We all must conform at some point.

Also on my floor, is a hair salon, a bakery, an indian restaurant run by indians  (where i go to speak English and down a curry in a hurry), and a ramen shop. This  surely is someone restaurateur wizard’s idea of an international food court.  Sadly, he is a Fazzoli’s and a Friday’s short. If only there were more space!

Downstairs, there is an optometrist, a 100 Yen shop (Read: dollar store) that coiver everything from garden tools to  bath towels, and a teeny-bopper clothing store named “Bug’s Fruit”. I can’t explain the name of that last one, so don’t ask– thre does appear to be an insect theme to the store from what I can tell, but maybe that’s just a standard Japanese retail style.

The shopping center is connected to a train station and while there are side streets, quaint shops and a Uniqlo down the way, my mall is basically the shopping epicenter. It seems a bit thin, but in retrospect what does a city need besides the smell of popcorn, affordable trinkets, and a university-educated English master?