Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Eat your peas

   School children have lots of responsibilities in Japan, and one of these is school lunch. Lunch ladies bring the food to school in little carts, one for each class, with the correct number of trays, bowls, plates, and food already measured out. From there, the students (with the help of teachers) are responsible for distributing the food. Every day, about 4 students from a class are in charge of putting rice in the bowls, vegetables on the plates, and making sure everyone has a pint of milk and a straw. (They drink milk every day at lunch - probably because dairy is expensive and the schools want to make sure children are getting enough calcium.)
   These responsibilities start in Kindergarten, where you can catch the adorable sight of two 4 year olds lugging a milk crate down the hall to their classroom, shouting "So heavy! So heavy!" By the time students reach middle school, they have become a well oiled machine and no longer need adult supervision to get food on the plates in a timely manner.


   Another impressive feat is that every single child eats all the food they are given. Not all Kindergarteners can pull it off, but Elementary students are pros. Children are encouraged not to be picky about their food. They even have a phrase for this: "好ききらいは無し" (suki kirai ha nashi). Literally, it means "No likes or dislikes." As someone who used to be a picky eater (and still is), this never ceases to amaze me.

   Apparently it's a skill they carry into adulthood. The other day, as I was leaving a cafe, I brought my paper cup with half-drunk coffee up to the garbage can area and put it on a tray with some dirty utensils. (Throwing liquids into trash bags is a pet peeve of mine. Mostly because of the gross, brown slush that you have to pour down the drain in the back room before you can tie up the bag and take it out.)

As I left my cup on the tray, one of the employees walked past and said, "You can just throw that out!"

"There's still some coffee left," I replied.

"Oh!!!" she said, and gave the contents of my cup a shocked look.

And she was completely justified in being shocked, because I was probably the first person to do this in her history of working there. Whenever I see dirty trays at cafes, the plates are all licked clean and the cups drained.

   On a related note, milk in Japan is whole by default and slightly creamier than American milk. It's pretty delicious, even when you drink it with a piece of fish and miso soup.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Let's go to the mall

   Yesterday I went to the AEON mall to download a podcast on the speedy wifi at Starbucks. Starbucks in Japan is nothing like Starbucks in America. It's clean. The people who work there are cheerful and polite. They even chat you up sometimes, unlike any other Japanese chain. The pastries taste like they used to be living grains and plants, instead of chemical-infused plastic. The coffee is still mediocre, but compared to other coffee chains in Japan, it's decent. And I don't think I emphasized enough how clean it is. It's sparkly clean. There's never any spilled milk or sugar at the condiment station. There's never any trash strewn about on the floor. There are never any suspicious stains on your table. It's just clean.

   After I finished downloading the podcast, I headed to the bookstore on the third floor and discovered a little music shop with an array of electric pianos and a little door in the back labeled "Lesson Rooms." I asked the young man at the register if they had a real piano back there, or an electric one. He looked confused and said, "We have an acoustic piano." An acoustic piano? I didn't realize that's what you called them. I asked if I could reserve the room to practice in, without a lesson. He said, sure! and we set it up.

   I've really missed playing the piano, but it's hard to know where to look for one that I can use, no strings attached. I'm not that psyched about running to the mall every time I want to play. It's creepy. (People actually bring little picnic blankets and sit down and surf on their phones there on the weekends. What??) If this were America, I would try a local University, and I'll probably still look into that, because it would be nice not to have to pay to practice. I could also, in theory, ask to use the pianos at the local schools, but I'm still pretty intimidated by all of the rules here and afraid of causing an international incident.

     Anyway, this evening I noticed that I had two missed calls. I always panic when I get a phone call. It can't be good. Anything that can't be said in a text or email is serious business. Even if it's good serious business, like a job interview, it's still stressful. And now that I'm Japan, there is literally no one who could be calling me just to chat. Was work calling to tell me they changed their mind and were shipping me back home? Was the Japanese government calling to tell me I forgot to sign some important paperwork and had to pay them 200,000 yen? I googled the number and discovered that it was just the music shop. Figuring it had to be about the room reservation, I called back, and sure enough, the young man informed me that I had been booted from my room to give priority to a piano lesson. I had to reschedule to Sunday.

   I had that whole conversation in Japanese. I understood what he was saying. He understood what I was saying.  I even nailed the Aisatsu.

   Life here is finally starting to feel easier. 

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Poem by Ibaragi Noriko, translated

When I was most beautiful                        

When I was most beautiful
Cities crumbled to nothing
And from outrageous places
I could see something like blue sky

When I was most beautiful
Many people around me died
At factories    at sea     on uncharted islands
I lost my chance for paint and powder

When I was most beautiful
No one gave me a token of their affections
Men only knew how to salute
Leaving behind their innocent glances

When I was most beautiful
My head was empty and
My heart was obstinate
All my limbs shone chestnut brown

When I was most beautiful
My country lost the war
A crazy thing like that isn’t possible
I rolled up my sleeves and stomped around dejected streets

When I was most beautiful
Jazz poured from the radio
And with the giddiness of a relapsed smoker
I devoured the sweet music of another country

When I was most beautiful
I was very unhappy
I was filled with contradictions
I was absurdly lonely

So I decided     if I could, I would live a long life
Just like the French painter, Rouault
Who painted such beautiful pictures in his old age
                                                    you know?

Saturday, May 18, 2013

I think I can

   This is a huge plate of sashimi that I ate with the help of one other person. For some reason the photo came out poorly, but there are three separate piles of raw fish adorning that gutted fish. To be honest, I can take or leave sashimi. The taste is ok, but the soft texture is pretty gross. I usually enjoy the first slice, and then the rest seem like work. However, people here seem to be under the impression that I love it, and I finally figured out why.
   People love to ask foreigners, “Can you eat [random Japanese food]?” They say, たべれますか?(taberemasuka?). Tabereru is the potential form of the verb Taberu, to eat. The potential form usually means “able to ~.” For example, if you say “Miremasu ka?” (Can you see?) you mean, “Are you physically capable of seeing right now?” So when people ask me if I can eat something, I always interpret it as “Can you eat said food without a) throwing up, b) having an allergic reaction, or c) breaking some religious or philosophical belief?” But I notice that after I say that I can eat something, people usually try to foist lots of it on me. Incidentally, this is the same with alcohol. They’ll ask “Nomemasuka?” “Are you able to drink alcohol?” And I’ll say, “Yeah, I can drink alcohol.” And then they’ll get this big smile and try to bring me drink after drink. Meanwhile, I’ll be thinking, Wait, just because I’m physically capable of drinking doesn’t mean I want to right now.
   Last night, after soldiering through that huge plate of raw fish, all of the evidence finally penetrated my thick skull, and I realized that when people ask you if you CAN eat or drink something, what they actually mean is “Do you LOVE to eat/drink this food?”

   I wish this had been in one of my Japanese textbooks. It would have saved me a lot of unwanted raw fish and Japanese beer.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Descended from monkeys

This weekend I went and did parkour with some other people. I hadn’t used my hands in weeks, so they got pretty blistered. It was fun.

Here are the awesome training exercises I learned.

The Monkey Walk
It’s called the monkey walk because you are walking on your hands and feet, but if you ever used to pretend to be a cat as a child, that’s a way more useful image.
Start on your hands and knees. Come up to the balls of your feet, lifting both knees about an inch off the ground. Keep your butt down and your back parallel to the ground. Reach your Right hand forward about 6 inches, and step your Left knee right behind your Left hand. Reach your Left hand forward, and step your Right knee right behind your Right hand. Etc. Take short deliberate steps.
It looks like you are climbing a horizontal wall.

The Backwards Monkey Walk
Then you do it in reverse.

The Sideways Monkey Walk
You start on your hands and balls of your feet with your knees close to the ground and back parallel to it, same as the Monkey Walk. But this time, imagine that there are two parallel lines going off to your right: one under your hands, and the other under your feet. You are going to hop and sidle your way down these lines. Place your hands off to the right along their line. Put your weight on your hands, and with your legs, hop to the right, landing in a squat with your feet behind and to the right of your hands. Pick your hands up, place them to the right of your feet, and repeat. Again, try to keep your butt down – definitely not higher than your shoulders. When you’re done moving to the right, do it again to the left.

The Sideways Monkey Walk with a Twist
This time there are three parallel lines. Your feet stay on the center line, but you move in half circles, placing your hands first on the line to the left, then on the line to the right. Again, hop and sidle your way down the lines.

The Ridiculously Hard Monkey Walk That Looks More Like a Lizard Walk
This is exactly the same as the original Monkey Walk, with an intermediary step. When your Right knee and Right hand come close together, instead of bringing the knee behind your hand, place your knee on top of your elbow with your shin parallel to the ground. Bend your elbows and do a little pushup. Step forward and do the same on the Left side.
Again, if you try to take big steps you will fail.

These exercises get pretty much every body part, but they especially got my quads and shoulders.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think that in America if a dozen 20 somethings got together to do parkour, this is how it would go. They’d show up a few at a time, and they’d probably stretch and warm up independently while chatting. Then one by one, they’d start doing their own thing. Some people would be working on the same thing, and they’d give each other advice and feedback and try to put their own spin on things. There would probably be several things happening at the same time.

Well, that’s what happened eventually. But this is what happened first:

Once everyone was there and ready to start, we stood in a big circle. The leader outlined 3 points that we should all hold in mind. Be aware of your surroundings and don’t be a nuisance to people walking by. Be aware of your own physical limits and take a break or drink some water when you need to. You might get injured, so keep that in mind and remember that if you do, it’s not just sucky for you, it also burdens the other people in the group. He listed these points in formal Japanese. Then we all said Yoroshiku onegaishimasu.
When we moved into stretching and warm ups, it stayed pretty organized. When we were stretching we stood in a circle. When we were running or doing the monkey walk, we moved in two lines. If someone ran off to go to the bathroom, we all stopped and waited for them to come back. People chatted and joked, and occasionally someone would wander off for a moment, but overall it was very structured.

Japanese children are trained from a young age how to behave as a group. In school, each class begins with formalities: Everyone stands and greets their teacher in unison, and usually the class representative will say a few words about how the class should behave for the lesson. “Let’s listen quietly to the teacher and answer questions with a big voice!” If a student is slow to stand or put their things away, these formalities are postponed until they’re ready. If one kid runs off to the bathroom, the class doesn’t start until they get back. And if one kid makes the class start late, everyone gets scolded.
This education seems to give them a template for how to carry out group activities for the rest of their lives in a way that would not occur to Americans. I don’t know if the average American 20 year old could follow the order, “Let’s line up!” without a sense of irony or irritation. But when you grow up with your classmates being assigned the task of keeping order or starting the class, being the leader doesn’t have to mean being an authority figure. It’s just the person who’s responsible for making things run smoothly.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Simply shocking

Some of my friends who live in Japan tell me that when they first arrived, the culture shock was terrible. Some of them even became ill from the stress of it. I haven’t experienced anything like that. In fact, I had seen so many Japanese movies and TV shows that the landscape, the customs and rituals, even little things like the way the light fixtures look, all seemed familiar to me.

 Well, I still don’t feel shocked by the culture. But I do feel a little out of place.

Back home, I knew how to be serious, funny, sarcastic, cheerful, helpful, sassy, friendly, irascible, and any number of other things. Here, I’m never sure how I’m acting. I might think I’m being funny but actually I'm coming across as incoherent. I might think I’m being polite but to other people I seem rude. Some of this is due to the language change. A response that would come easily to mind in America takes a while to formulate in Japan, not because I have to translate a sentence in my head, but because I have to say something slightly different. For example, if someone brings you a cup of tea or coffee in America, you would say "Thanks!" and be done with it. But in Japan you might say "Thanks!" or you might say "Sumimasen!" which means something like, "Sorry for the inconvenience (and also, I'm grateful)." Another difficulty is that Japanese people can be very indirect. Let me give you an example.

The other day, it was raining. I went to the nearby Apita mall to buy some groceries. Now, usually at grocery stores or convenience stores, or really, any kind of store, there is a small stand outside the door for you to leave your umbrella. This is because Japanese people never bring their umbrellas inside. Umbrellas drip water on the floor and that is terrible. If it is acceptable to bring the umbrella into the store, they provide you with a long, thin bag to contain your umbrella and the offensive water droplets. But for some reason, at Apita on this particular day, they didn’t have any umbrella stands or plastic bags waiting for me at the door. Maybe it wasn’t raining hard enough, or maybe I was supposed to run from my car to the door without an umbrella, like everyone else. Whatever the case, I had my umbrella, and there wasn’t a place to leave it, so I brought it in the store with me.

The universe didn’t implode. Instead, when I got to the register, the checkout lady, who usually follows the standard script of “That’ll be 840 yen,” asked me politely, “Was it raining outside?”

“Yup,” I said. “Still raining.”

In Japan, this is how you give feedback. This is how you tell someone, “You’re doing something weird.” You make polite conversation about something tangentially related. If you want to give more direct feedback, you do it through a third party to soften the blow. I come from a place where people are very direct with each other. Sometimes complete strangers will give you unsolicited advice because they are God’s gift to mankind and you should really know what they think. To go from that to a place where I almost never get any feedback is very disconcerting.

In Japanese, there is a phrase, “空気よめない (kuuki yomenai).” Literally, it means, “Can’t read the air.” You use it to describe a person who can’t pick up on social cues and consequently blunders through life making other people angry and uncomfortable. In a world where most people are pretty indirect, reading the air is an important skill. If you can't do it, you force the people around you to either put up with your whacky behavior or else speak their mind, neither of which they want to do. 

I think I can read maybe 75% of the air particles in Japan. Figuring out how to respond is a little more difficult.

Saturday, May 11, 2013


   I decided to enable commenting on the blog! Please help me keep the blog anonymous, and otherwise, feel free to speak your mind!

   Here are some photos from my trip two weeks ago that I haven't gotten around to posting yet. It was a suburban town that reminded me a little of America. I walked down this huge road with wide sidewalks, lined with big office buildings. It was almost like they weren't worried about packing as much as possible into a tiny space.

   This was a pretty little residential area off of the main road. Some of the houses had basketball hoops out in the street. One thing that I've noticed about Japan is that no matter how fancy a house is, it almost never has a lawn. If there is a yard of any kind, it's either a real garden with vegetables or decorative plants, or a so-called rock garden, which is a collection of rocks artistically strewn about with a little path running in between them. I don't really understand the attraction of the rock garden, except that it's low maintenance.
   A consequence of this is that nobody mows the lawn. Summer arrives without the smell of freshly cut grass and a whiff of gasoline. You don't wake up on Saturday morning to the buzz of a lawn mower. I guess the concept of a huge rectangle of decorative grass would seem as crazy to a Japanese person as a tiny rectangle of decorative rocks seems to me. 

   The other reason this town reminded me a little of America is because although it had all these fancy buildings and artistic rock structures adorning the sidewalk, it looked like it wasn't being kept up very well. There were weeds growing in the cracks in the sidewalks - a thing which I definitely haven't spotten in my own town. Although to be fair, we don't have sidewalks in my town.