You are browsing the archive for 2007 December.

Street Hot Springs

December 29, 2007 in Uncategorized

There was lunch with the ever-lovely Miss Koko at Republic in Union Square – one of our favorite old haunts. New home, new job, new coat - same Koko. After inhaling glass noodle memories and parting ways, I strolled through the farmer’s market in Union Square that still cradles the exits of the Union Square subway station with organic bread and dairy-fresh cheese. There are also street vendors who sell jewelry and art; pounded silver, sketchy portraits. One of the current crop of artists is selling a lovely watercolor print of Audrey Hepburn in her famed “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” pose, her face painted like a geisha and “Breakfast Tepani” painted in shaky hiragana next to her lovely face. Upon seeing the print, I was smug not only because I know that the attempted translation is grammatically incorrect and Tiffany is mispelled, but because I also know that “breakfast” should be written in kanji and “Tiffany” should be written in katakana.

Another moment of smugness: dinner with Evan at my beloved Dojo’s – a Japanese-inspired health food joint – yielded the usual encounters with the huffy Eastern European waitresses, as well as plenty of glances at their black T-shirts. A year of studying kanji like a fiend made what was once unintelligible but cool-looking Japanese writing pop out at me: ladies and gentlemen, the Dojo’s staff wears T-shirts that read: “Street Hot Springs.”

*

My coat is from Japan, my boots are from Japan, my pants are from Japan. My hair is Japanese straightened. My brooch – a gift – was bought in Japan. My Japanese writing righteousness also comes from Japan.

And yet, I’ve been stopped and asked for directions twice.  Apparently, I can’t shake my New York face.

Kawaii in the City

December 27, 2007 in Uncategorized

My beloved Washington Square Park is closed – surrounded by fences and dead plants due to reconstruction efforts. Popeye’s on 13th and 1st is gone. Astor Place Wines and Spirits has been replaced by a Walgreens. Benny’s Burritos on Thompson! Dallas BBQ on University and 8th – the scene of countless sauce-stained rib and giant frozen drink goblet dinners – is also gone. It will be replaced by some bank, because grumpy security guards and endless lines are obviously so much better than spicy slathered ribs and scrumptious yam mashed potatoes. Just fantastic.

Spice on University and 10th is still there (lunch with the parents). Marie’s Crisis on 59 Grove is still there. Likewise, Curry in a Hurry in Murray Hill (dinner with Cheech) and Veniero’s on 11th and 1st. The black cube on Astor Place. Bigelow’s Pharmacy on Avenue of the Americas. Gray’s Papaya on 8th endorses Bloomberg for President and promises free hot dogs on Inaguration Day. My neighborhood has suffered a few losses but, by and large, does not shock me.

I stood at a street corner, waiting to cross. Two Japanese girls stood next to me and, I noticed one of them giving me the ol’ up and down – a long, langorous, jealous glance.

Bu-to wa kawaii*,” she said to her friend.

*cute boots

“Arigatou,” I said instinctively. The Japanese girl gave me a strange look and giggled. I prepared to add: “Nihon de kaimashita*” but the words stuck in my throat – why the strange look? Was she surprised and embarrassed that I’d understood? Or had she not been talking about me? Talking about my boots? Was she perhaps talking about the boots that were in the store window in front of us? I glanced down – my boots were barely visible below my brown cordoroy pants.

The light changed. Confused and mortified, I fled.

*I bought them in Japan

Crostata

December 26, 2007 in Uncategorized

The holiday was quiet; I met up with my Catholic parents and brother for lunch when they returned from St. Patrick’s and, back at Diego’s apartment, gave them the Japanese treats I had brought. There were momiji maple cakes and kibidango rice patties for my sweet-hungry father, hair products plus a fish griller and a slouchy leather belt pouch printed with Engrish for my fashion-conscious brother, as well as a geisha-style red brush-tip liquid liner (which, if I’d bothered to read the label, I’d have seen was actually eyeliner) and calligraphy scrolls for my artist mother. A sumptuous burgundy and gold table cloth from Thailand for my parents rounded out the bunch and my suitcase is now a bit lighter – to make room for all of the shampoo, facial products and gluten-free things I will schlep back to Japan with me.

We took a day trip to Brooklyn, to see the neighborhood my parents lived in when they first emigrated to the United States in 1975. They experienced a sleepy, sweet nostalgia similar to the one I experience now; here – look, this wasn’t here before. This was a Cuban deli and now it’s a Sleepy’s mattress store. How many times did I cross this street on my way home? I cried when I first saw this building, you know – there was a garbage strike and the building was falling apart. Look at it now - they redid the cornices and everything is beautiful. My parents stood with their hands on their hips,  eyes full, and remembered the New York whose existence only 70s film can confirm now. Dark, gloomy, spoiled, rough – and yet, worth cleansing.

“Everything,” said my mother, “is new here.” I prepare for a similar sensation when I travel downtown; P-Jay has warned me that several of my beloved old landmarks in the village no longer remain. I shouldn’t be surprised - my return from my 3-month stint in Guatemala yielded similar shocks. I’m only glad that P-Jay warned me about the presence of the owner-less bench that suddenly sprang up on East Houston. True, it’s already been taken down and its creator has come forward but I’m glad I didn’t have to run into that curiosity without warning.

Back at the apartment, there were the usual long-distance holiday calls to Italy and Guatemala. Two of my cousins brought their new significant others to the family party and, far away, I am greedy for news and drama. After marvelous dinner, jet lag claimed me and I fell asleep on my brother’s couch. When I awoke, my parents were gone.

I padded to the kitchen and cut a slice of crostata, already half-finished by my mother. I brought my brother’s tantalizing sesame crackers into the living room, where we were watching Extras on HBO on Demand. Diego, the Neatness Nazi, eyed me warily as I climbed onto the couch with my joy on a plate.

“Don’t you be getting any crumbs on my couch.” he warned. “I’m going to be watching you like a hawk.”

“I won’t,” I promised, my lips trembling as I gazed at the gorgeous crostata before me on the white paper plate. “Ohhhh!” I shuddered, with emotion.

“And don’t you make any stupid noises while eating it, either,” he groused.

“You don’t understand!”

“I don’t care.”

I ate it. I ate the Christmas ravioli, too. Earlier, for lunch at Madison Diner – to prepare for my trangressions - I ordered a spinach salad, which came in a tub large enough for an office party. Small portions in Japan have shrunk my stomach even smaller than it was before I moved; needless to say, I did not finish the spinach forest.

Tomorrow I will go downtown – to my old neighborhoods. I intend to weirdo-watch in Washington Square park, see if The Creative Little Garden on 6th and B still offers free Yoga in the Park, and take reckless turns in the skewed, angled streets of the West Village. I intend to get myself hopelessly lost; so lost that I suspect I’ve somehow skipped the Path Train and ended up in New Jersey, so lost I befriend a whole crowd of strangers to serve as my new pack, never to be seen again once I find my way.

Perfection.

Meno Male

December 25, 2007 in Uncategorized

My mother is right; I am too skinny. I had noticed that my pants were fitting a little loosely but I do not have a full-length mirror in my apartment-tini so I didn’t notice the whole effect. I have been this thin before and I don’t like it. Hmph.

I do not take off my shoes when I enter my brother’s home unless I feel like it. I sit on his buttery soft leather couch and flip channels on his new 40 inch plasma TV and delight; here, there are hundreds of channels which show programs I understand 100% of and do not involve some idiot with a bandana screaming “umaiiiiiiiiiiii*!” every 5 seconds.

*great!

I troll drugstores and can read everything on the bottles. I enter a Food Emporium and within seconds find dozens of gluten and dairy free products, including gluten-free pasta made solely of rice flour, soy flour and water. Several brands.

My mother laid an issue of Lucky magazine on the arm of the couch. I flipped through it and found photographs of people, ostensibly celebrities, whose faces are unknown; I might as well have been looking at an issue of Hello! or Vanidades. Brad and Angelina are not broken up. I should have known better.

Tonight, there was the traditional Italian Christmas dinner; fish upon fish and the unnecessary chocolates and panforte morbido for my parents. A sumptuous prune crostata lays innocent yet wicked in a brown paper parcel in the kitchen. I have announced to my family that tomorrow will see some willfull cheating and it will involve that very same crostata.

Meno male*,” says my mother grumpily.

*Not a bad thing

Grilled Salmon Arigatou

December 24, 2007 in Uncategorized

It is ridiculous to hope for a gluten and dairy-free meal on a plane. Vegetarian and kosher options exist as a matter of course and I wouldn’t be shocked if gluten-free meals were available, too but in my usual brilliance, I didn’t bother to check or pre-pack a suitable dinner. I nibbled the fruit plate and nibbled at the salad as the plastic square dish of beef and linguine steamed before me invitingly. 13 hours, I thought. 13 hours.

So I et the entree. And then I et the white chocolate strawberry almond bar that I’d had to buy at Narita to break a 1000 yen note and intended to bring home to my family. They were  both delicious – the linguine more so than the chocolate bar, if you can imagine. Each time the surly flight attendant came by, I asked for more water. And more water. And still more. I thought: I’ll wash it all out. Get it out of my system. Fight glue and mucus with water.

The man next to me slept the entire time. In the aisle seat. I was in the window seat. Trapped, for a possible 13 hours. The gluten and dairy – missing from my system for so long – began to take effect somewhere around hour 8 when my stomach began to cramp violently, causing a sharp ball of pain in my gut. I couldn’t take it; I had to disturb him. And then another time around hour 11. What’s a girl to do?

*

Erma, delayed 4 hours for her flight to California, met me at the American Airways gate. What is it like to unexpectedly see one of your best friends for the first time in a year, when so much has happened, and, at times, you missed their friendship – the serious talks, the insignificant details of lunch – so much you ached? Surprisingly, apart from everything wonderful wrapped up in your friend’s hug, it’s very natural. I would have imagined that her face would have glowed out of a crowd, like that of Christ in a religious painting, but there she was – just Erma, bearing a small sign on notepad paper bearing my name. And, after a brief flurry of girly tears, it was as if I had been gone only a minute rather than a year. Naturally, this meant we had to gab on a bench for an hour. So, a little late in meeting my folks at my brother’s apartment.  

My mother thinks I am skinny, and asks how much weight I have lost. I know the amount in kilograms but can only guess in pounds – maybe 6? While my coordination, mental processes and logic are lacking, I have always been very talented at accidentally losing weight. My mother says she might have to try this anti-allergen diet herself.

There was dinner at an Italian restaurant. I am giddy and talkative and find myself stumbling over others’ words, speaking at full New York speed only moments after I arrive. As the grilled salmon and spinach was set down in front of me, I mumbled a quick “arigatou.”

I sleep on an air mattress in my brother’s apartment, surrounded by bowls filled with clementine peels and the holiday boxes of Torrone, Sapori, Panforte Morbido, Panettone; the holiday bowl of walnuts and almonds looming large on my brother’s new rough-hewn wooden dining room table. The apartment is completely changed – a dark leather couch, a white and chocolate woven rug and minimalist manly accents have replaced what existed there before. The excitable dog Saul has also gone with my brother’s ex. It is a totally new apartment, and yet, the same, as are the smells of pine-tinged New York City Christmas air, the homeless men whose camps are not neatly organized cardboard box homes, the stately brownstones and Duane Reade nirvanas.

My brother’s doorman wants to educate him and sends up copies of Neo-Christian texts. This morning, as Diego opened the door, he found a plastic shopping bag lovingly hung from the knob, containing another leather-bound volume. Now that – that, sir, is a blast from the past.

One More Thing

December 23, 2007 in Uncategorized

My plants will die and there is nothing I can do. Sean is gone to Ireland, Bob is gone to New York, Carnitas is being peaceful somewhere in Oregon, Steve is going to Vietnam and the few other people I know slightly have plans which, I’m sure, don’t include watering my plants.

Despite my early false starts, these plants have grown quite nicely; the basil yields me deliciousness, the bonsai grows more tree-like by the day and the strawberry in a can shows great promise. It is a shame, a great shame.

To remember them as they were:

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My delicious basil and the strawberries that never were.

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The mamebonsai I have nursed back to health several times since July. Already, it wilts in desperation.

I will give them an extra good watering before I leave for Shin Osaka station and hope for the best. They’ve already gone through so much under my care, is it impossible that they will survive 11 days without more water? Most likely. Oh, my plants.

One last thing:

I’m going home.

With Visions of Gray’s Recession Specials Dancing in My Head

December 22, 2007 in Uncategorized

The children appreciate my coloring – they tell their parents so and comment about it amongst themselves. One of my three year olds watched me intently today as I colored in a picture of an elf and held her hand out for my crayons before I had finished coloring each bit. She then copied my design to the best of her efforts.

“Sensei’s picture is better,” said Hitomi as we crafted Christmas cards out of construction paper. “Sugoi, sensei!”

“Sugoi,” echoed Shino, the copycat who was still holding my crayons for ransom.

“It’s because sensei is an adult,” said Yuko matter-of-factly.

“Sugoi,” sighed Hitomi again, and then surprised me by adding, in English, “Great!” This makes Number One for instances of my younger students speaking English when I wasn’t asking them to.

I did not have a beer on the ride home from Utajo because I didn’t think of it. It would have been a great opportunity; the nights grow dark early and I no longer have to fear snarky stares from passengers who think it’s rude to drink in daylight. Also, today marked my last day of class before Winter Break. It would have been an excellent time to have a beer and yet I was too preoccupied and giddy; tomorrow I will head back home!

Items Found in My Drawers and Cupboards as I Packed:

  • About 80 baht
  • 1 taupe colored lacy shoe liner
  • 1 blue poo sock
  • 1 pink poo sock
  • half a dozen unused American bank checkbooks
  • approximately 30 crumpled conbini receipts
  • a dozen bobby pins
  • my long-missing Shiseido Waterlip lipbalm
  • several dimes
  • a litter of silver-colored dust kittens I shall name Juan, Kaori, Mel B. and FuQuan
  • half a pack of basil seeds
  • gifts I meant to send but never did
  • unused and melted packets of Cepacol lozenges

The packing is done. The bathroom and kitchen are clean. The garbage bags are ready to be thrown out, sure to incur wrath from the neighbors for being put out a day before garbage day. The multitudes of presents are packed. I am antsy, as I always am before a trip, even though my bags are as they should be.

The idea of being back home excites and worries me in waves; I have recurring daymares of being government-napped in immigration at JFK … for what, I don’t know. Perhaps some bill I forgot about? Perhaps some court summons that went to my old address and never reached me? Silly, I know. Similarly, the 3 hours on a train and then the 13 hour flight do not excite me. What about getting back into Japan come January? My visa situation is all up to date, I know that, but, well, these are the thoughts of the dumb and restless few with too much time to think.

Nobody is online, and I am hyper when I should be getting sleep, with visions of Alphabet City crackheads dancing in my head. P-Jay mentioned the F train the other day, which stirred up memories of work commutes gone by and the childlike excitement in my soul. And then I thought of my old rambling walks through familiar neighborhoods that became strange at the turn of a block corner, yielding impossible delights in the form of brand new shops with dazzling window displays that had actually been there the whole time. Of knowing exactly where I am at all times and knowing exactly what to say in each situation without having to resort to my phone’s dictionary. For the majesty of the buildings and the madness of the people. Oh, for a fried egg bagel sandwich at Cozy’s. Oh god, a Gray’s Papaya hot dog. Mustn’t think of the Recession Special. For a night at Marie’s Crisis, howling show tunes around the rickety upright and devotedly bringing Darin more shots. For my friends. For my family.

Soon, home to New York City, the city that was home for me even before it was.

Cards and Coal

December 20, 2007 in Uncategorized

Classes are winding down this week before the winter break starts. We make Christmas cookies out of construction paper and stickers; snowflakes for the windows, and cranberry chains that result in pricked fingers. I inform the adult students that chocolate “Christmas cake” is a Japanese invention and that Westerners wouldn’t even dream of eating KFC for Christmas dinner. They are completely shocked.

The children are excitable, giddy with thoughts of presents, vacation from torturous English class and – still -Kojima Yoshio. Zero attention span for vocabulary, yet their obsession with the hack pulses on. They hoot, “Sonna no kankei nee!” while I show them flashcards of presents, of Rudolph, of the man they call “Santa San.” They copy Kojima’s moves, bumping into tables and chortling. I made the mistake of calling Santa Claus “Santa no kankei Claus,” just to get their attention. It was, suffice to say, a hit – they said nothing else for the rest of class.

At the end of the day, we give the children Christmas tree-shaped cookies, but not before they tell us what the cookies are, in English. The proper answer is “Christmas tree cookie,” but either “Christmas tree” or “cookie” will get them a prize. The spirit of Christmas, everybody; language extortion. The children will do anything for refined sugar, even speak a foreign tongue. And I will now stop referring to them as “the children” – I am feeling a little bit too much like Bill Cosby for my own good.

There are cookies and chocolate candies on every desk, parties held at every school. I dragged Sean to one. We brought Beard Papa eclairs and ate our fill of sushi. Gil, my Australian coworker, drunkenly insisted on toasts at every turn. A middle aged woman I’d never met before turned to me and, to introduce herself, proudly declared: “I have a friend from Canada!” A tall, thin man in his early 70s informed the crowd that Sean was handsome and, from what we could tell, continued to deliver a lecture about the beauty of the Western face, made extra beautiful by the high relief of our angled noses. At least that’s what we hope he was saying; Sean couldn’t quite make it out, either.

Sometimes, there are gifts. I don’t know why I was surprised to receive several small tokens from the parents of my younger students; after all, when I was young, didn’t my parents press similar bundles into my hands each December to bring to my own teachers? “What will we get Mrs. Benzinger this year?” they would fret. Usually it was a package of chocolates, which my father would eye with a keen mixture of envy and regret.

An amazing card from Ren, one of my spunkiest 7 year olds:

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Ren hides from me in class, underneath chairs, giggling so hard he coughs. He refuses to give back flashcards, hiding them under his shirt or inside his desk. His mother told me that he used to hate English class but now enjoys it. His tiny little sister – her eyes bloated by enormous glasses – peers into the classroom as I teach, calling, “Ribu! Ribu sensei!” and waddles after me when class ends. This card is going on my refrigerator like woah.

Despite my intention to hang up the card, I’m not really a Christmas person; I’m an Atheist who is doubly uninspired by the religious aspects of Christmas and what feels like pointless secular celebrating. Yet, I am still capable of being touched by kindness and in return, I shop like a fiend. Sunday will mark my first trip back home and my beloved ones deserve Japanese goodies.

In Japan, Santa is one-dimensional; he gives presents to all, his dark side apparently unknown. We must give small gifts (foil-wrapped chocolates, stickers) to our young students but there are a few who deserve lumps of coal instead. I expressed this thought to one of the Japanese staff members and she was surprised. I took the chance that she was surprised by the coal idea rather than my dark attitude towards children and explained:

“In the West, the idea is that Santa only gives presents to good little boys and girls,” I said. “Of course, all children get gifts but you have to scare them into behaving if they want to get anything on Christmas day. So we tell them that Santa will only bring them coal if they don’t behave.”

“What is coal?”

“You know the black rocks that you use to make a fire? That’s coal.”

“So so so!”

“‘He’s making a list and checking it twice’,” I quoted atonally. “Gonna find out who’s naughty or nice … he knows if you’ve been bad or good so be good for goodness sake.’”

Recognition burst across her face like a star.

“Ehhhhhh??” she gasped. And just like that, years of previously meaningless Kurissumassu carols made sense.

I didn’t dare get into “Silent Night.”

Frog Yoga

December 18, 2007 in I'm Learning Japanese ... I Really Think So

Like many little girls with generous, well-intentioned parents, I was sent to dance classes. Though I’m sure they were thrilled to see me prancing around in the spangly, sequined costumes of the 80s, even Underwater Saffron Snorting would have been a better fit; my coordination, grace, and desire were absolutely nonexistent. All of my unfortunate efforts to plie, shuffle ball change and tour jete resulted in what my brother joyfully called “frog dancing.” Happily, all of my spastic movements were lovingly recorded on BetaMax, captured by some unknown parent’s unsteady hand. The videos provide further proof of my insecurity; each performance recorded during those 6 garishly costumed recitals clearly shows me with my head turned to the left, staring desperately at whichever crimpy-haired girl I was next to for the entire number, so afraid I would make the wrong move. How I managed to survive those numbers without smashing into one of them, I’ll never know.

My yoga classes now are much the same.

*** **** **** **** **** **** **** ***** **** ***** **** inhale *** *** *** one, two, three, four, five **** exhale **** *** **** ***** *** ***** ****** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** right leg **** breathe while jumping **** one, two, three, four, five *** little downward dog **** **** **** one, two, three, four, five *** **** **** **** **** hands on the waist, right foot at 45 degrees, left foot at 90 degrees **** **** **** one, two, three, four, five **** **** **** **** **** **** exhale, inhale ***** ****** ***** ***** ***** ***** exhale while jumping **** **** ***** ***** *** **** ***** relax **** ***** ***** **** **** **** ***** if it hurts, do the easy pose ***** ***** **** **** one, two, three, four, five **** ***** ****** **** downward dog **** ***** ***** ***** **** **** ***** ***** good work!

I suppose I catch the important stuff but yoga is no joke; I constantly worry that the *****’s reveal something crucial. Certainly all of the relaxation benefits are lost on me; if there are beaches we are supposed to be picturing, I am picturing torn ligaments instead. I keep my eyes on the mirrors, on the students who practice silently alongside me. I watch my face in the mirror – reddened, bloated – as I hang it upside down, parallel to my shins. I invariably choose the “easy pose” as my instructor and the other students lift their legs and torsos above their heads. I topple over each time our feet must leave the floor. Did she say left foot or right foot? I peek at my fellow students. Usually I am right. Sometimes I am too distracted by staring and lift my leg instead of my arm.

La la la la

December 17, 2007 in Uncategorized

A student asked me: “When do you reave to New York?”

“Watch my mouth,” I said for the fifth time that lesson. “La la la la la,” – taking extra care to visibly flick my tongue between my teeth. “La la la. Leave.”

“Ra ra ra ra.” said my student.

“Watch me. La la la.”

My student opened his mouth to try again, but this time, neither “ra” nor “la” escaped – only a short, deep belch. He clapped his hands to his lips. “Oh no!” he cried.

“Oh no!” I echoed cheerfully. “Try again. Watch me. La la la la la.”

“Ra ra ra,” he said, red-faced. I smiled extra wide to comfort him.

After class, I prepared to swipe on some lipstick and saw that my teeth were spotted with black specks, perhaps from the (gluten and dairy free) nuts I’d eaten before my shift.

What a pair.