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.

It’s never what you think it is

The weekend as I was getting my haircut, my hairstylist brought up the death of Michael Jackson. I was a little surprised at first and thought to myself the token Generation whatever I am thought, “wasn’t that three weeks ago?” but in retrospect, this news, within this time frame, is perfectly reasonable barber shop small talk. Furthermore, as I am his only American client, I am sure he felt that this was the topic where we could find some common ground. Michael Jackson was his mother’s favorite musician, Michael Jackson was American, I am American and thus must have some sort of anecdote that would segue into a solid, entirely not uncomfortable, conversation.

While I would have loved to tel him about the Michale Jackson 3-D Epcot experience I vaguely remember seeing when I was five. My Japanese is not quite there yet. I mumbled out a few sentences then got stuck on how to say “surprising”  in Japanese (odorokasu, maybe?). Odokorokasu. I then went on about how In Tokyo they played Michael Jackson everywhere I went all weekend. He was not surprised, Japan loved Michael Jackson. Also, I imagine that there was enough distance that they stayed away from the media grilling many of the US networks gave him in the 90’s and beyond (perhaps deservedly).

Just as we we were hitting he end of this line of conversation a really slow and terribly 80’s sounding soft-rock ballad came on. I was about to try and reignite the conversation by pointing out that I don’t enjoy this type of music very much, luckily, I was taking a while to formulate my sentences. As I was about to give it a go, he asked me if I like Mr. Big, and specifically lead singer, Eric Martin. I said that I liked the song, “To Be With You“. He then proceed to tell me how the song we were listening to was Eric Martin, and that he was very popular in Japan, and a very talented singer.

This Guy

Now, I had some peripheral knowledge that Eric Martin, was big in Japan. But I guess I assumed it was with the same type of people who were into Jimmy Buffet or Tesla in the U.S. not people who are also into cool stuff.   But here he was,  a guy much better dressed and more popular with the ladies than I am, he watches some of the same TV shows, and it certainly more tapped into what is cool in Japan than I am, and he’s raving about Eric bloody Martin. Maybe the most one-hit wonder of the one-hit wonder power ballad bands.

Within minutes, we had gone from talking about a an American artist that is globally accepted as cool, to another American artist, who is overlooked in his home country, but widely and transcendently  accepted in a country that doesn’t even speak the same language as his lyrics.

I remember reading Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point a few years ago and at first being riveted with insight and then later dismissively it all as formulated and selectively contrived anecdotes. But I think one thing I recall from the book, that maybe is evident in this situation is that grabbing the right audience/ consumer is more essential to success than having Quality or craftsmanship. Say what you will about the concept of a the collective unconscious but the conundrum presented at least is somewhat contrary to the idea that a universal artistic value is a dominate force in determining what is popular–if said force even exists (I hope it does and that Dan Brown feels its scorn). What’s popular is relative and often surprising.

Having avoided insulting the musical taste of man who holds the appearance of my hair over the next eight weeks in his hands, I counted my blessings and praised my poor Japanese.  As Calvin says, “never criticize a guy with a razor”.

We continued talking about Eric Martin, and his incredible vocal range. I made the comment that it was similar to Freddy Mercury (it’s not even close, but whatever). My Hairstylist gave me a strange look. I repeated, Freddy Mercury…you know, Queen? He continued to stare, so I did the “We Will Rock” you drum beat. He nodded, “Ah, yes, Queen, very good!”.  At least some things translate.

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.

Laugh it up Doctorheads
January 21, 2009, 6:47 pm
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In Japan, the network of independent and private doctor’s offices Americans are accustomed to doesn’t exist. Rather, if one is afflicted with any sort of ailment, they go to the Hospital. There are private hospitals and a small assortment private offices (there’s a pediatrician right next to my school), but they aren’t as prevalent or nor are they the standard ethos to treatment like as they are in America.

As a result of a bug I picked up on on the plane during my flight home, I found myself in Japanese hospital.  It wasn’t an emergency, but I was having trouble hearing out of my left ear. Normally I embrace a situation and use it to my advantage, expanding my selective hearing bold to a boundless range or irresponsibility.  Unfortunately, I no longer have that option.  When you are trying to teach someone how to speak proper English and pronounce words correctly, your left ear (both of them actually) is a useful and necessary instrument and I can’t afford to get fired in this global economy.

I was sans translator, but flush with patience resources; every coat pocket carried some kind of document I assumed might be important or a conversational dictionary that I thought could be useful if things really deteriorated. Although the experience wasn’t as daunting as you would imagine or as my previous sentence would suggest.

First, it helped that I was equipped with very precise directions from my friend on where to go to reach reception (the second floor), and she had presence of mind to send me an email to my phone with the Kanji for “Ophthalmologist”, and a written request to see one. Secondly, you have to remember, the Hospital is one of those stages where the intentions of both parties are fairly evident.  Most of the script for a conversation is therefore already written out thus pretty consistent across the globe, in fact I could probably could have communicated what I needed to even if they all spoke Kilgon (God forbid I end up in a Kligon hospital,who knows what nerd injury/space travel scenario that might entail).  Essentially, they know I want to see a doctor, I know they want me to fill out some forms.

Perhaps the greatest lapse in communication occurred when two nurses handed me a thermometer while I was still in the lobby. They motion that they wanted me to put it under my arm right there, amongst the other patients and plebes. I was wearing a few layers, and proper placement of the thermometer was going to require a feat of wardrobe adjustment that would in most advanced civilizations be considered slightly awkward. This being winter, the “pale areas” would be be exposed and unguarded. I didn’t think Japan was ready for this, but they were persistent. It wasn’t until a third nurse  entered the fray and saw me start to reluctantly attempt to make the proper adjustments that she got the hint that maybe this wasn’t going to be something everyone would want to see. She kindly offered to escort me back to a room so a public viewing could be avoided.

I’ll spare you most of the glorious medical details, but I will say the Doctor determined that, for one reason or another, “irrigation” of the ear was the best method of treatment. This involves running a saline solution through the ear canal– it’s basically a really good thorough cleaning.

Now, it maybe have been because I was nervous, or wearing too many layers, or feeling dizzy from having a bunch of liquid throw off my equilibrium, but midway through I started to feel sleepy and the light in the room started to get really bright. The sensation was terribly painful or uncomfortable, but I decided that I really didn’t want to faint. I mean, who knows what was written on those papers I signed– I could be part of Japanese Candid Camera show right now and on the brink of becoming the you-tube fainting gajin sensation.

I needed some water and a minute to gather myself. Unfortunately, I haven’t learned the word for “stop” in Japanese. I’m not even sure what I said, but I think I tried to wave my hand and said “atsui” (hot) a few times. Apparently one of the three assistant nurses caught my drift and within seconds I had a cup of water by my side and my chair was flipped backward so that blood could rush to my head.  After a few deep breaths I was back in peak form. The doctor finished and sent me along my way.

In the lobby I could hear the staff and doctor rehashing the story and having a bit of a laugh, but I was more than happy just to be able to hear them.

November 10, 2008, 1:59 pm
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Ako in Fall

I took this cold, cloudy Monday as an opportunity to a little Fall cleaning. I think the results of this process were successful enough to finally unveil the contents of my “apartment” to the demanding public (aka. Hi Grandma!).

Before we begin, it should be noted that I am of the opinion that the term “apartment” is a bit grandiose to describe my living space. This is more of a glorified dorm room, with Japanese instructions written all over it. In summation, I have one window, one table and only two western-style chairs. Does this seems meager compared to previous living standards? Perhaps, but do I really need more than this? As cinematic Samurai Sanjuro once said “a long life eating ricegruel is the best“”

The Hygiene Hub

This is the area of the apartment that makes me presentable. The shower-sink combination is nice. You just close the door and the room is your shower. I don’t really use the tub because it’s square-shaped and my body is allergic to crouching.

I initially had some concerns regarding the way the bathroom area is compartmentalized- toilet in its own room, shower and sink in the butt– but it seems to causes only a minor inconvenience. Specifically, when I have recently taken a shower but need to wash my hands while wearing socks. I have to ballerina it to avoid a damp socks predicament  Presumably the nature of this problem arises I’m not “doing it right”. Apparently the proper method for avoiding damp socks involves buying a pair of shower sandals– a staple in Japanese households, the Japanese love their sandals. I, however, stopped wearing shower sandals in 2005 when I and the Tulane University decided that I wasn’t a college freshman anymore. Thus, now I’m just a sophisticated gentleman with occasionally wet socks.

Kitchen Hall

Not much to brag about here. It’s more of a hallway with sink jammed in the middle of it. I don’t have a conventional oven, but the toaster oven gets daily use, and lately I have been cooking on the range–mostly for sport, I like a challenge. I think the miniature theme is most noticeable here than any other section of the apartment. It’s a bit like trying to live in a Disney ride. Amusing but  the gimmick wears thin rather quickly.

The Life-Space Extreme

This room is primarily what I am paying for; it takes all the concepts of the combined all-purpose room, combines the fun and excitement of a bedroom, and then jams them together to scale. Still, I can fit all of my possessions inside–which really the big (no pun intended) paradox of this room. Actual living space: about 150 sq ft. However, I have two closets and a rather substantial storage space underneath my bed; it’s completely disproportionate–almost letter worthy. I could live in the living space and rent out the storage space to roommate, he’d just have to comfortable sleeping in a giant cupboard.

The dining space is minuscule, but it’s not as if the kitchen lends itself to cooking for and entertaining large groups of people. Nothing is missed here.

The Communications center, or “Comm Center(” television and computer), is fantastic. However the CTU protocol setup is not by choice, but rather by necessity. As modern as Japan maybe, the number of electrical outlets (3) and placement of them seems a bit under-thought and hasty. In fact, the Communications Hub my be a fire hazard, I’m not sure about what’s an acceptable maximum ratio of plugs to outlets, 30:1?

Candy and Calligraphy
October 8, 2008, 3:57 pm
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One small fold for mankind

One small fold for mankind (via Pinktentacle)

First, I just want to say I think it’s cool that I live in a country that look up at the stars and wonders, how can we get origami up there. These ships are going to be thrown towards earth from the ISS.

Now to content:

My experience living in New York with a cleaner than usual roommate has left me damaged (read: civilized). Suddenly, it’s never clean enough any more. I even dusted the other day. In the near future, I promise to share the the details of my “apaato” with you, but in the meantime i haven’t been able to keep it up to Home & Garden photography standards (sorry, Grandma). Sadly, it constantly looks like someone lives here of something.

In the meantime, my mom went retro-summer camp style and sent me a packed stocked with Halloween candy. The amount of candy contained in this package was daunting and surpassed my best candy consuming abilities. Plus, I have a duty to instigate a little cultural exchange with my students from time to time. Apparently this is part of what they pay for.

Thus, I took potion of the stash  into school to share. Specifically, I took the jumbo bag of DOTS–sporting a ghost/”invisible mystery flavor” theme for the season. In retrospect, I see it was a bit cruel and perhaps and error of judgment on my part to try and pass along something with “mystery flavor” theme to my students. In my defense, certain items at the grocery store would convince one that nothing, let alone a :mystery theme” could inspire culinary shyness in a Japanese person.

However, this is exactly what happened. I admit was put off a bit when they approached it with the same reaction I approach Japanese candy. It was like watching Superman encounter Kryptonite for the first time.  They found the packaging a bit intimidating, and most of them cautiously took timid half-bites into the individual DOTS and reacted with a variety of faces. It was a winner with some of the students, but they all had an opinion to share. The stickiness of the candy certainly was a talking point.

I guess it was a bit ethnocentric of me to expect them to worship this as the gold standard of candy. Also, I was thrown because Japan is a gel/food culture. I think this has to do with their fish-centric diet. In this respect, DOTS are perhaps the most Japanese of the canon of classic American candies. Perhaps, the medium is the message, and that medium full of English writing, mystery flavors, and only semi-goofy pictures of cartoon ghosts says “strange” to my students.

I suppose i might end up bearing the weight of making sure this candy does not go to waste. There might be a number of nights during the next month that I end up like good ol’ Hariett . Pray for me to make it until All Saints Day.

This week I have also undertaken the task of learning Hiragana. It’s one of three Japanese systems of writing, and perhaps the easiest of the three. It’s phonetically based, which is nice. I’m enjoying the process. Today, one of my students was giving me some help when she decided she wanted to figure out a couple of ways to write my name in Kanji (a pictograph system of writing). She could only think of one symbol for “Te” which was the symbol for “Hand. The two options she gave me for “Do” (there is no ending “d” sound in Japanese”) were the symbols for “sand” or “door”.  So there you go, I am either “hand sand” or “hand door”. I think those both suit me well.

And now, “sophisticated” Britons let loose in Japan:

The Disparity of the Thrones
October 2, 2008, 5:48 pm
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I am going to try and keep this discussion as mature as possible. Please try to do the same, we’re all sophisticated here.

Today, I want to discuss international discrepancies in the bathroom, specifically, toilets.

As I have traveled Japan, it has come to my attention that this countries offers a startling range of toilets. A veritable array of models with interchangeable parts and customized options. I find this variety of WC’s fascinating.

I always had the impression that Americans viewed the toilet was the great equalizer. Yes, there will be some variation in size and shine on the home front and public facilities were generally encouraged to offer the “motion sensor” option, but for the most part, America had reached a consensus on porcelain. Tank, seat, and handle, for everyone; nothing too special, but still retaining a certain degree of sophistication when managed properly.

Japan, however had decided go a different route: the route of toilet diversity.

At one end, you have the squat toilet. This hole/ground apparatus is perhaps the most frightening contraption I can ever imagine. Even when they dress it up and layer it with porcelain it still strikes a certain amount of terror within me.  I have heard some nonsense that the position required to use such a facility is a "healthier" way to relieve oneself, but I feel that this is utter nonsense. It looks entirely uncomfortable, potentially hazardous, and positions the operator entirely too close to the end product. Hell, even the hole-in-the-ground (let’s face it, pit) outhouse at Mastodon State Park was affixed with some sort of a seat contraption.  Seats are common sense.

The pits

The pits

At the other end of the spectrum, Japan put their obsession with technology to use, producing a toilet more complex than the Large Hadron Collider. For an American, using one of these is like driving a Delorian- a little frightened by the way the doors open but also a little excited too. These toilets are straight out the mind of Tim Taylor. There are programmable modes, automatic flushing, automatic-motion-sensored seats, heated seats, self cleaning modes, and a bunch of other options that I can’t even understand. It’s impressive yet perplexing.

One major fear does remain: Have the Japanese created a toilet that could one day become self-aware? Are we prepared to deal with a self-aware toilet?

Toilets for Terminators

Toilets for Terminators

Still, these modern electronic toilets are, and I’m guessing (cough cough) convenient. Programmed with a "courtesy" flush mode and deodorizer they certainly do offer an improvement to the experience. Also, you don’t even need to lift the lid, the lid lifts for you. The Japanese took one of the laziest activities I can imagine, and it made it require less effort. When first came across the advanced throne, I couldn’t believe that these hadn’t crossed the pacific en mass. On principle alone, i could see them being more popular than the Prius and Nintendo Wii (you thought those had a waiting list!?). Then I recalled how most Americans still can’t program their VCR, now DVD player. The likely potential for millions of Americans to be sucked into the abyss while hitting buttons in a panic is an indignity my nation is unwilling to suffer.

Progress takes time, and we’d rather not imitate Vespasian nationwide.