You are browsing the archive for 2008 January.

Keys

January 31, 2008 in My Funny Irish Friend

Sean says:

“Are you ready?”

I say:

“No.”

Sean gripes:

“Ah, what do you mean, ‘no’? You were ready a minute ago.”

“I can’t find my keys.”

“Again? Ah, fer feck’s sake.”

Before Sean met me, he was under the impression that the old standard of the American losing their keys was a myth – perpetuated by and relegated to film.

“What d’you mean?” he marvels as I dig through pillows, lesson plans, layers of wrinkled clothing, bedcovers. “Ye Americans really do lose your keys?”

“I suppose so,” I say pertly, lifting bags and books to find only empty squares of floor.

“Brilliant!” he says.

“No.”

“Then don’t do it, so.”

“I can’t help it.”

“Why can’t you keep track of your t’ings, like?” he asks. “You’ve got no order, no met’od, my dear. Everyt’ing’s here, dere, everywhere.” he pauses. “It’s not like dis place is big enough ta lose t’ings in, you know what I mean?”

He’s right; my apartment is a match box. Theoretically speaking, it should be impossible to miss anything considering there are only about 2 places they can be. And yet – day after day, I lose something valuable. A lesson plan. A phone bill. My keys. Cells, when I bang into something simply by turning around. Dishes and cups, when they crash to the floor after toppling from an impossibly tiny dish rack. Call it a skill. Whatever it is, I’d lose things if I lived somewhere shoebox-sized, hatbox-sized or dollhouse-sized. It’s only more frustrating now since it happens in a matchbox.

There’s more: creating somewhat complicated meals in a one-burner kitchen has ceased to make me proud. There might be some sort of honor in it, but on the other hand, isn’t it slightly ridiculous? I have no counter space; I’ve lost more vegetables than I’ve cooked by trying to chop them on a makeshift plane, created by balancing a plate or a cutting board against the one inch of metal girding my sink. I must pull my toaster oven down from the top of the refrigerator and place it on the floor because the cord doesn’t reach to the one available outlet. I cannot use extension outlets because if more than 3 items are plugged in at any time, my apartment loses electricity. Thus – a constant rotation from phone charger, camera battery charger, vacuum cleaner, toaster oven, and hair dryer.

There’s no doubt about it – though I’m grateful to have had this space as a landing pad when I first arrived in Japan, too ignorant of the system to do any of my own hunting, I’ve outgrown the apartment-tini. Maybe it’s all of the coming of aging. Enough of the manipulations to cook a simple dish of pasta. Enough of the constant terror that my singing might be heard and deplored by a neighbor. Enough of being woken by my neighbors as they come tramping up the apartment step with shouts and squeals at 4 in the morning. Of course, with any communal living situation a certain amount of respect for one’s neighbors is necessary, but these leaf-thin walls are ridiculous; each inhabitant has rights to live and have fun in their own home, without fear of offending a neighbor with a simple phone call. I dread to think what they could have heard coming from the bathroom.

So it’s done. I sent my landlord my notice yesterday and he has accepted my decision. I will be out by the end of February.

Please, please, please, let there be more than one burner.

Chow Chow

January 27, 2008 in I'm Learning Japanese ... I Really Think So

“It is my meaning,” announced Bogey this morning, “to turn your Japanese speaking into true Kansai-ben!”

Bogey is my highest level student. We have had classes together for months but only recently has he caught on that I am studying Japanese with some success. My lust to learn creates a whiff around me and I can’t hide it anymore; studying for the 4-kyuu gave me focus where before I had little and finally, I feel as though I can communicate – albeit on a base level. I want more and everyone can see it.

Bogey has a notebook filled with musings about the English language; one page collecting an assortment of onomatopoeias, another page filled with tropes. He has begun to add musings about Japanese to his pages, and these he shares with me.

Three times a week, I teach in the Kansai region, which is noted for having a very distinct dialect. It is considered pure comedy, and it is no accident, perhaps, that many famous comedians come from Kansai. Carnitas is Kansai born-and-bred and has cheerfully taught me a few key sayings. I learn others from my young students, who tack on mysterious endings to their verbs that look nothing like what I’ve been studying in my textbooks.

Bogey handed me a sheet of paper, folded in half. He showed me one of the halves, upon which he had written:

“Look. It is a chow chow, isn’t it?”
“No, no, it isn’t a chow chow.”
“It must be a chow chow.”
“No, no, it isn’t a chow chow, is it?”

“How do you say this in Japanese?” he asked me.

I translated the first couple of lines: “Mitte – chow chow, desu nee? Iie, iie, chow chow ja nai …” but stopped just short of “must be” as this is grammar I do not know. Bogey chuckled.

“That sounds very Japanese.” he said. “But in Kansai dialect ….” he dramatically showed me the other half of the page, which he had concealed with a clever fold:

“Are, chow chow chow?”
“Chow chow, chow chow chow.”
“Chow chow chown?”
“Chow chow, chow chow chown chow.”

“Oh, you’re kidding.” I said. “Does ‘are‘ mean ‘look’ in Kansai dialect? I hear my kids saying it all the time but I get confused because doesn’t it also mean ‘this’?”

“Yes, it does,” said Bogey. “The inflection is very important. Chow-ouuuuun; going down. Chow chow chow – the last going up. This is a real conversation in Kansai. It is my meaning to turn your Japanese into Kansai Japanese!”

In contrast, Himalaya-sensei corrects me when I use Kansai dialect, much as my grandmother does when I use the earthy Roman dialect instead of Florentine. What would either of them say if they heard me the other night, shouting, “Nan da nen*!?” at a reckless teenage girl on a bike who careened past me?

*What the heck!?

My grandmother – though originally from Rome – corrects me out of Italian language snobbery but Himalaya-sensei is my teacher and therefore has a duty to train me properly. Naturally, I want to learn standard Japanese but I cannot resist the rowdy, lusty bleat of Kansai-dialect. I like that I can communicate in dog breeds and that I now know that “akande” means “you mustn’t.” Some of my students say it often when the antsier ones are stealing flashcards or howling over me when I drill vocab. It’s nice to know they’re on my side.

Mukatsuku and Haiku, Too

January 26, 2008 in I'm Learning Japanese ... I Really Think So

Yesterday, at the end of Japanese class, Himalaya-sensei slid a sheet of paper across the folding table. I narrowed my eyes at it but it didn’t help me read it any faster.

“Last year … class … one year ….” I mumbled, passing my fingertips over the text. Himalaya-sensei came to the rescue; it was a Year’s End student survey.

“Ah so.” That made sense; come March second, I’ll have been taking the class for a year. I peered at the questions again – somehow, with that simple explanation, the words began to take on meaning.

“What is my favorite … Japanese?” I asked. That didn’t make sense. Then again, in Japanese class, I’m dumb and often need a little hint.

“Favorite word.” supplied Himalaya-sensei.

Asoka …” I said. “Okay … eto … ‘Mukatsuku.’ I like mukatsuku.”

Himalaya-sensei burst into giggles, as she often does after I speak.

“No, no, Ribu-san,” she said. “It is too bad.”

“But it’s my favorite!” I protested. Mukatsuku – I learned it from a fellow teacher last April, during an otherwise idyllic Cherry Blossom Viewing Party. He said it meant “frustrating” but, according to Carnitas and other Japanese people I’ve gleefully tested it out on, the power of mukatsuku is expletive-strength. “People get killed because of mukatsuku,” said Carnitas. Now, I don’t condone word-related violence and since teaching young children, my use of swearwords has dropped dramatically in the past year. Still, I can’t help but admit that the word is useful and just plain fun to say.

“Bad, Ribu-san,” repeated Himalaya-sensei.

“Okay,” I said. “If so … how about ‘hage‘?”

“Bald” – I learned that one from watching “Kill Bill”. My 13 year-olds shout it at each other. It, too, if said with the proper spiteful inflection, has an absurdly powerful ring to it. Hage!

“Too bad,” scolded Himalaya-sensei.

Mouuuu,” I complained in a conscious imitation of my more annoying students. “Okay. If so … tako.”

Tako!

“Yes, tako!” I said, with gritty resolve. I already had been thwarted twice – there was no way “octopus” could be considered offensive. Tako it would be!

“Ribu-san,” giggled Himalaya-sensei. “Silly!”

“I love tako!” I said.

“Okay, your favorite Japanese word is tako,” she agreed. Satisfied, I read the next question; it was a word I didn’t know.

“‘Reason’.” Himalaya-sensei explained, in English. I gripped my pencil and, in my miserable excuse for hiragana, quickly scrawled: “Dakara!*.”

*Because it is!

“Ribu-san!”

“What?” I said innocently. “Okay, okay. Look -” I scribbled “delicious” in the left margin of my original reply.

Dekita*!” I triumphed.

*Did it!

I was giggly. I’d been giggly all class, as usual – not only because I like Himalaya-sensei but because even though our conversations have progressed from “My name is Liv” to “My ex is Greek so I know a lot of Greek foods. You should try moussaka” I am aware that I make many, many mistakes. It’s far from an issue for me – I amuse her and I amuse myself. For one brief hour a week, I am the student, mystifying a teacher with my wretched grammar and convoluted reasons for imagining that the verb “torimasu” (to take) means “to fly.”

(“Tori is bird,” I explain. “Torimasu – to fly!”

Kawaii, Ribu-san,” chortles Himalaya-sensei.)

I passed my survey back to my teacher. I had filled in a couple more blanks: Nagori Yuki for my favorite Japanese song (“because it is pretty. From Iruka”) and “sushi” for my favorite food (“because it is fish”). She giggled again and passed me a long, narrow piece of blank cardstock, its edges girded in gold. I immediately perked up and put on a sober, non-bratty face; I recognized the cards from Sean’s calligraphy classes.

Haiku,” said Himalaya-sensei, drawing several more, already completed, out of her sack. Three vertical lines of bold, black Japanese calligraphy ran down each card, two shorter lines sandwiching a longer line, forming an intricate latticework of poetry – verbal and visual.

Haiku!” I yelped, suddenly so excited I could barely sit still. “Really? Is this homework?”

“Yes,” she said. “All the students will display them in the learning center.”

Now that’s what I’m talking about. Though teaching gives me the opportunity to invent creative means of dealing with problems that arise in the classroom, it’s been a very long time since I was asked to create anything for the sake of creation itself. It’s a fact that is increasingly upsetting to me. I originally came to Japan as a career break, hoping to figure out what I really wanted to do. Now that I know, teaching feels secondary. Yet, as a non-Japanese speaking foreigner, there is little else I can do here, if I want to stay. And I do. It’s a quandry that could feel problematic if I let it. Some days it does. In the meantime, I’ll go part-time with my company at the start of the new contract. And leap at projects like creating a haiku in my broken, ridiculous Japanese for my Japanese class.

Eagerly, I picked up my pen to scrawl a draft:

Tako ga suki
Kara ippai tabemasu
Oishii ii na!*
*I like octopus
so therefore I eat a lot
Isn’t it tasty?

“Ribu-san,” choked Himalaya-sensei, gurgling on her laughter.

“What??” I blurted. “I love tako!

Foolish and scrappy for my teacher and, only a few hours later – grave for my goofy students. My New Year’s flu hasn’t quite left me and at intervals I am seized with coughing fits that last several minutes and cause me to dry heave with a vivid scarlet face and watering eyes.

Sugoi*!” breathed one of my 9 year olds as he marveled at my brilliantine face.

*super!

I shot him a stern look. My throat continued to seize shut and for a few precious minutes my boys were silent, spread out over the flash cards; the only sound, my coughs.

It’s Sick and Sad Because it’s True

January 22, 2008 in Japanese Mix

The sick, sad truth is that I wear my shoes inside my apartment and, sometimes, yours, too, but you don’t notice, because my pants are too long and I tread lightly to make sure of it. And that I am secretly pleased each time a dental-masked student shrinks back from my rasping coughs. That I like my voice hoarse; it gives me much-needed charm. I jay-bike as well as jay-walk because Osaka’s stoplights take about 10 minutes to turn green. I told a student to shut up the other day because he was being a brat. I think it’s funny when the 3-10 year olds swear but want to slap the 13 year olds each time they say something more colorful than “No.” I have a slight girl crush on Rihanna since my trip back home and listen to “Umbrella” several times a day. I am also in love with Roxette again like it’s 1988. Often, I don’t care if the entire paper-walled building can hear me warbling along to “Fading Like a Flower” – after all, they don’t seem to care if I can hear them shouting on the phone at 4 a.m. Out of loneliness and desperation to know what’s going on with my old circle back home, I stalk your blogs every day and unless you’ve figured out that your Japan hit is me, despite the fact that you never officially gave me your URL, you don’t know about it.

My secret wish is to be a model for a Japanese company that advertises its cell phones, coffee, or gym memberships with big, splashy posters on the subway; that “exotic,” coveted Western face with the word bubble coming out of their mouth should be mine. I am afraid of drinking tap water here because 97% of my students have rotted teeth. I’m more disappointed than I thought I would be about most likely having to miss my 10 year high school reunion – something I swore I had no desire to attend until I realized I probably wouldn’t be able to. Thus, the principal at Utajo school’s recent decision to keep the radio on the 90s station annoys me almost as much as the music did the first time around.

Washing the dishes will always be last on my list of priorities. And even though I say I’m on there at all to help you plan your impending marriage, when I look at wedding cakes on theknot.com, it’s for me. Incidentally, I don’t think liking mint green bridesmaid dresses makes me a bad person.

I’m sorry. They’re just pretty.

Beautiful Mhuinteoir

January 18, 2008 in My Funny Irish Friend

An bhfuil cead agam dul go dti an leithreas ma se do thoile, a mhuinteoir.
This impenetrable phrase (plus several accent marks my computer failed to produce) means “May I please have permission to go to the bathroom, teacher?” in Irish. Like all Irish schoolchildren, Sean and his classmates were required to recite this phrase properly and in full each time they wanted to use the restroom. If students couldn’t remember the whole phrase, they were made to sit at their desks in lock-kneed agony until either recess came or an Irish language epiphany hit – whichever happened first.
Unless one speaks Irish, this phrase is unpronounceable. Sean wrote it out for me on a piece of paper, complete with a pronunciation key below each word in parentheses. I stuck the paper on my refrigerator and toss out the phrase from time to time, only to be hooted at for my pronunciation mistakes. This, from a man who pronounces “death” and “debt” the exact same way.
My young students, apart from randomly yelping “Oh my god!,” and aping the phrases I repeat for them over and over, do not speak English. At all. Some of the staff members have taught them to raise their hand and shout, “Toilet!” when they want to use the restroom. With the younger ones, it’d just be an uphill battle to teach them a more polite version of a potty request since they always confuse “how are you?” and “how old are you?” Honestly, I don’t even care that much – a classroom with one less student is a quieter classroom and the sooner that can be accomplished, the better. My older students – namely, my bratty 13 year-olds – could do with some more discipline but teaching them manners usually takes a back burner to restraining myself from flinging something sharp at them.
Last week, Hitomi and Rina amused themselves by scrawling my name on their worksheet, next to kanji I couldn’t read and several mounds of steaming poo. I punished them by keeping them after class and, when they left, showed the confiscated worksheet to the principal. She, ever-fretful about loss of business, merely said, “So bad,” and therefore, was about as useful as a stack of bricks. Alone as usual in my struggle with the consistently disrespectful 13 year-olds, I brought the paper home. Something told me I ought to keep it – either as a badge of duty or evidence, should the staff ever back me up in my weekly complaints about the 13 year-olds. I stuck the paper on my refrigerator, next to Sean’s Irish lesson.
Next class, Rina raised her hand. “Toilet!” she bellowed, scraping her chair back as she did so, full of expectation that shouting would magically earn her the right to relieve herself.
“Sit down,” I said, pointing my white board marker at her. I began to write with a deliberate, calculated slowness.
May I please go to the bathroom, beautiful teacher?
“Ehhhh!” screeched Rina, who could only read a couple of words in the phrase.
“Let’s try it together!” I said cheerfully. “May … may I …. may I please … no, no, try again. Please. La la la. Please. May … I
… please … “
“Ehhhh!” Rina shrieked.
I have benefited from Sean’s Irish childhood. And perhaps added a little something extra to Rina’s English education.

I am …

January 15, 2008 in Uncategorized

Unsmart … because Coming of Age Day is not static. In 2008, it fell on January 15th – yesterday – which is why I had a day off from school. I have seen the honored 20 year-olds in their kimonos, pushing through subway gates, as I headed to the park for a lazy sunset walk. Alas, no pictures.

Unimpressed … by my students’ machinations and ways to put off doing work. “Yes,” I tell them for each “No!” they shriek. And “yes,” it is.

Apparently Unaffected by Gluten or Dairy … and as such I declare the trial over. I noticed a market improvement in my skin issues after using a product I picked up back home. I know for a fact it was the product, not the diet, because the day after I got back to Japan, on a whim, I read the label of the supposedly gluten-free buckwheat noodles I’ve been eating almost every day since my experiment started. Wheat flour was listed as the second ingredient. All of my experimental suffering and eschewing of delicious Japanese and American foods had been for naught – I’d actually been ingesting refined, enriched white flour nearly every day. Yet, my skin looks better and despite “cheating” in New York I never noticed any stomach discomfort or worsening of my appearance – apart from the sunken look of my face and waist due to accidental weight loss. So there you go – aided by the power of glycolic acid but unaffected by gluten or dairy. I have, however, been quite affected by my nutritional research and intend to continue on a low-gluten, low-dairy, low soy, high fiber and no junk food diet. Continuing with the heaps of fruits and vegetables I’ve been eating but incorporating whole grains several times a week and skim milk products in very small doses. Supplements, too. I am dazzled by my discoveries but depressed by how ubiquitous the very malnutritious enriched flour is in the Western – and now the Japanese – diet.

Eternally Spastic … as evidenced by my first foray to a public bath last week. It might have been ultimately relaxing, but my several breaches of conduct, I’m sure, gave the naked little old ladies plenty to tell their families about. In the Japanese public bath …

Do:

  • Be prepared to see an awful lot of unsightly body parts, casually strewn about like dirty floppy socks.
  • Leave your shoes in the lockers outside the dressing area and your clothes in the dressing area lockers.
  • Realize that being nude in the baths is simply the way – compare it to wearing a bathing suit in a public pool in the West. You wouldn’t do it any other way, would you? Just do it. No one cares. Once you finally wrest off your shirt – huffing and wheezing with terror – it all feels strangely normal anyway.
  • Bring your bath kit to the bath house in a furoshiki, but leave said furoshiki in the lockers. Bring the bath items into the bathing area in the plastic buckets provided.
  • Wash your body and your hair with the faucets before you enter the pools themselves.
  • Know enough Japanese to read the signs above the pools, or you risk electric shock in the electric current pool. Electric current pool – yes, I am serious.

Do Not:

  • Drip dye from your furoshiki onto the bathing area floor
  • Feel too proud that you are undoubtedly the fittest one there – after all, you are the only one under 70.
  • Stare at the others conspicuously, even if you are just trying to make sure you’re getting the protocol right.
  • Jump and yelp when you get shocked in the electric current pool
  • Tip toe from bath to bath, testing the water with your big toe
  • Attempt to make small talk.
  • Forget your towel

Back to me. I am also:
Cute … according to Kazuki, one of my 3 year-old students. “Ribu sensei kawaii!” he said thoughtfully to his mother. Though I am supposed to pretend I don’t understand, I couldn’t resist thanking the boy for his good taste.

Still rapt with childlike wonder … after a much overdue visit to the Osaka Aquarium. Steve and I had both wanted to suggest it when we made plans to catch up after Winter Break but Steve was sure I’d already been and I was sure he wouldn’t want to pay 3500 yen. No, I hadn’t been – and admission is 2000 yen, not 3500, as I’d thought.

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Penguins on parade.

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Why you don’t go to Osaka Aquarium on a Sunday afternoon.

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Steve Irwin-killing jerk.

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Snarky … these are biscuits, Mr. Sean O’Doyle:

And these are cookies:

Antsy … and thinking of changes. Another year. The first flew, as will the second, but am I only idling, as I did back home?

Unable to sleep.

Unwilling to blog.

Coming of Age Day

January 8, 2008 in Ex-Patriate Games, I'm Learning Japanese ... I Really Think So, My Funny Irish Friend, Oishii, spazarific

Last night, I went down to the 1st floor of my building to visit Sean, who I found sprawled on his bed next to a large open box of decadent Swiss chocolates. Before he noticed me lingering at his door, his face was a mixture of beatific contentment and chocolate lust.

“What?” he asked. “They were a Christmas present from my mum.”

“Hold on,” I said. I ferreted my camera out of my bag and clicked.

“Grand, just grand,” he groused. “Would you put that away now, please?”

“Yes.” I agreed amicably – after all, I had my proof of his greediness.

It wasn’t until around 5 pm this afternoon that I realized I’d left my camera in Sean’s apartment. It wouldn’t matter except that I want the camera because I am sure that today is Coming of Age Day. I would have liked to head out to the streets and take pictures of what surprised me my first night in Japan, a year ago today. As I dragged my two enormous and oppressively heavy suitcases through the airport and train stations, I’d noticed what seemed like a rather large number of young girls wearing kimono. As far as I knew then, kimono were only worn these days on special occasions like weddings and festivals. Being ignorant then of Japanese festivals beyond Girls’ Day, which I knew to be in March, I was curious. After my landlord picked me up at Otako Station, I asked him why so many girls were wearing kimono. He told me it was Coming of Age Day, a day to celebrate young women and men who will turn 20 (legal age) in the present year. I thanked him for the information, coughing and sniffling due to the wretched case of American Human Flu that had descended upon me in a sickening swoop the night of my Going Away party and tortured me through what could only be a hellish 14 hour flight.

My landlord eyed me warily as I hacked into my wadded tissues.

“You’re sick,” he noted flatly.

“Yes, I am.” I said. “I got sick right before my flight and have felt terrible ever since. I’m so glad you picked me up in your car when you did because after 14 miserable hours on a plane and then dragging my suitcases through the airport and train stations, I don’t think I could have made it.”

I continued to cough as my landlord showed me my impossibly tiny apartment. I picked up on his unmistakable discomfort and then his palpable relief when he bid me goodnight and good luck in Japan. I thought it strange until much later, when I realized that after 11 years in Japan my Canadian landlord has been Japanified. In Japan, Sick Days do not exist; it is unacceptable to miss a day of work for a common flu. This is why there are about 50 varieties of Vitamin C drinks available at convenience stores and why, anywhere you go, at least a handful of people will be wearing dental masks in public as soon as the weather drops. It’s not a horrible idea.

Sean’s at work now, rendering my camera scheme hopeless. It’s dark. The girls will still be out and about, I’m sure, tip toeing into izakayas and artfully arranging their obi behind them as they sit down to order edamame and, if they are already 20, Nama Biru. I wonder, how many years must an expat live in Japan before they can celebrate their own Coming of Age? I’ve been here a year. I’ve got a cheap Uniqlo yukata, which isn’t anywhere near suitable but kind of looks like a kimono from a distance.

Among the top questions I was asked last month back home in New York City – my first time visiting since I’d moved – was “How’s Japan?” It’s a catch-all question that, depending on the asker’s intention, could mean anything from, “What is it like living abroad?” to, “How are you?” I usually replied in analogies, particularly for the “What’s it like living abroad?” crowd. As the 9 days of my trip went on and I was asked the question multiple times by multiple people, my analogy evolved.

“Moving abroad,” I would begin in bars, at friends’ homes, on walks to old favorite restaurants, “is like being reborn.”

You begin completely in the dark, thrust forth into someplace brand new. Like an infant, you crawl, wide-eyed, and slowly you begin to walk. You touch everything. You put everything in your mouth; or maybe you are a picky child and won’t eat anything. You learn to speak. You say, first, “Hello,” “Goodbye,” “How are you?” “Cat,” “Dog,” “I’m hungry” and “I’m sleepy.” Eventually, you learn to tell people how you are feeling and what you want. Maybe some day you will learn to discuss politics and the weather. You observe everything and try a little more each day. You make friends. You become increasingly confident in your surroundings. You can walk home by yourself. You can tell the new people where to buy snacks or how to use the soda machines. The world, as you know it, has begun to make sense. You have likewise begun to understand the people in it. You like the world. You might even love the world, for it is new, different and, above all, untainted in its newness.

And then you are 13. You are 13 and everything that once seemed lovely – people, order, politics, customs, food – has begun to seem ridiculous, pathetic, and wrong. The people you thought were so fantastic? They’re actually not that great; and worse, they’re all alike. The order you thought made sense? It actually makes no sense. You are irritable and maybe your body is changing, too. Clueless, you blame the delicious new food; how many calories are in this dish again? Animals are farmed illegally to make it, you say? And what was that you said about the war crimes? Why do people do the things they do? What’s the sense of this, what’s the sense of that? Why are certain things allowed to happen? Whales should not be killed, people should break out of the box, haphazardly stealing other cultures’ customs without understanding anything about them just because you think they’re cool is really annoying, women should stand up to men, and that comedian is not funny; anyone who thinks so is a moron. What a place. What a world. What a sham. Why did you have to learn the sad truth?

And then, finally, you are an adult. The people you thought were idiots are suddenly very wise. The food you avoided for its fat content is suddenly nourishing and because you are now wise, too, you know that life is far too short to avoid tonkatsu. The customs that seemed appalling now make sense. You learn to see beneath what made you angry as a teenager, and how to rise above the things you still believe are wrong. Learning to love; not just puppy love for new, beautiful things but a mature love for life grown out of a true understanding. There is acceptance. There is Coming of Age.

At the moment, in Japan, after one year, I might be 16. I hit 13 at around the 10-month mark and maybe 15 last week, after a turbulent 14th year spent back home, where I could read everything and my dearest loved ones were all within arms’ reach. Why even return to Japan? I sometimes thought over giant bottles of Newcastle in my old bar haunts. I hate teaching, I get stared at constantly, and even making a phone call to inquire about a missing suitcase can result in disaster. It’s so easy here at home. So incredibly easy – how could I not have seen it when I lived here?

Why return? Because if you’re smart, you don’t commit suicide in middle school, when the relief of adulthood is only several short years away. Because even though you can’t stand the sight of your parents, you love them underneath. Because even though the people around you worship a moron in a Speedo, they also invented sushi.

My Christmas trip back home was surprisingly emotional for me. In Japan, I felt content from the start, even as my cultural adolescence took hold. I almost felt as though going back home for such a short time and such high expense was unnecessary. I began to make plans to renew my contract and stick around for about another year; I was having too much fun learning Japanese and living abroad has become oxygen for me; it is now something I would not forsake for all of the sauerkraut and onion hot dogs at Gray’s Papaya. What I absolutely did not expect when I returned home was to be felled by how easy and beautiful it was to see my friends and my family and know exactly where I was at every turn.

Unexpectedly moved, I surprised myself by crying as I saw the city skyline blur into focus when I landed at JFK. I asked a series of unnecessary questions at each restaurant simply because I could. I abused phone privileges to leave my friends ridiculous and abusive voice mails – again, just because I could. I talked to homeless people, read every bottle in Diego’s shower, and fantasized about how easy it would be to get any job I wanted simply because I wouldn’t have to worry about updating my Visa. I browsed clothing stores with adult clothes actually suitable for adults and reveled in the fact that I didn’t have to dodge traffic on the sidewalk. I giggled with my friends and my brother and didn’t feel the need to take many photos because I didn’t feel as though I were on vacation. It felt as if it had always been.

I cried, again, as I sat down on the plane back to Japan when I realized that I no longer had the navy hat Erma had crocheted for me for Christmas of 2006. I hoped against hope that I had left it at Diego’s or inside my suitcase but as phone calls and – two days later – baggage checks proved, I had done neither. I must have left it in the cab on the way to the airport, in my sleep-deprived state. Slowly, upon realizing this, I began to sob like one of the children I teach, unconcerned that I was basically in public, surrounded by blabbing Americans and dental-masked Japanese. I dug through my purse and coat pockets over a dozen times but there was no denying it – the hat was gone. After cherishing it as loving symbol of my far away friend, after nearly losing it in a foreigner bar had spawned the title of this blog, I had somehow stupidly let it slip through my fingers. I cried like a fool for the better part of an hour.

I started back at school yesterday. The children were well-behaved and though I barely managed to conceal nearly nodding off through my adult classes due to lingering jet lag, my adult students told the principal that they had really enjoyed my class and asked what days I teach. I am slightly sick again; when I wake in the morning my throat is sore, my voice is hoarse and I cannot sing. But all in all I feel good; certainly better than I did on the plane ride back to Japan. Being home for 9 days after a year of struggling to make myself understood was, of course, sure to be deceptively easy. I lived in New York City for 8 years, I know all too well how difficult it can be to live there. I’ve worked 4 jobs at a time to pay exorbitant rent; hopping from Long Island City steno pools to 2nd Avenue Manhattan Irish bars, offices in 5-story Chinatown walk-ups and child-filled East Village homes … all in one day. I’ve been suddenly laid off and stonily ignored when I sent out hundreds of resumes, hence the waitressing, nannying, transcribing and extended stay in a dead end editorial job. I’ve commuted in blizzards, even. I’ve seen my city terrorized. I’ve been robbed and pick pocketed. I’ve dated strings of pompous city nitwits. I’ve shivered in the cold when landlords didn’t respond to my broken window call and languished in the heat when the 2003 blackout cut all the power to my apartment’s fan. I’ve had roommates disappear without paying bills. I’ve gone through the frustrating and time consuming apartment searches only to live in places with holey walls and loft bedrooms that were actually closets. How silly to think that simply because no legal issues would stand in my way that I could have any job I wanted; I, of all, people should know better. I mourn the distance between myself and my thriving social network in New York but that was a network I built up over 8 years. Looking back, my first year in the city was as insular as my first year has been in Japan.

In Japan I have few friends and face barriers daily, but I also have the dazzling opportunity to expand my mind by learning a completely foreign language and I foresee another series of voyages in 2008. Perhaps China. Or Vietnam – Vietnam on the brain these days. A prolonged stay here will also give me the chance to crack apart what was one year ago a completely impenetrable ostrich egg of a culture. Perhaps I’ve now wedged a fork into the shell, but what of the mysterious yolk inside?

I have found the camera. It was inside my purse – I did not leave it in Sean’s apartment last night after all. The entire introduction to this blog posting is now defunct. When I publish, I will pack my furoshiki and finally, after my dirty year, indulge in the public bath around the corner from my apartment. I will hopefully also catch a glimpse of some excited, fresh new 20 year old, tipsy red-faced in her kimono.

I look forward to the day I myself am 20 in Japan – when my elders suddenly seem wise after all and though I might not like something, at least I understand why it happens.

Work, Schmork

January 5, 2008 in My Funny Irish Friend

In something of a New Year’s miracle, my plants are not dead. Some of the leaves on my basil are a little brown and my bonsai could be perkier, but my strawberry in a can is, if anything, taller and greener. I would show you photographic proof but my camera’s battery is dead and both the battery charger and the USB cord are in my suitcase which is, at this moment, en route to me from Tokyo. In just a day, American Airlines went from being my new friend to rising to the top of my Deplored Personages List; after an exhausting 14 hour flight, at least 50 other passengers and myself were subjected to a two-hour line to get to the American Airlines desk in order to file our missing suitcase complaint and leave our address for the complimentary delivery service. Bright side to the annoyance: nothing absolutely imperative was in my suitcase and at least I no longer had to schlep it from Tokyo to Osaka. Downsides: from what I could make out, the delivery service representative said the suitcase would be delivered sometime Saturday, which is when I work and since everyone in my building also works on Saturday, no one will be around to sign for it.

Which reminds me:

Konnichiwa! Eba inakattara, ****-**-**** denwa shite kudasai! Arigatou gozaimashita! Eba kara *.

*Good morning! If E isn’t here, please call ****-**-****! Thank you very much! from E

This is the note I am leaving taped to my door before I head out to work. Hopefully, it helps.

Jet lag can be amazing. Today, just back from Ireland, Sean rang me at 7 in the morning.

“Will I get you anything from the conbini?” he said. “I’m on my way out.”

“You?” I said. “Mr. ‘Do not disturb before noon’?”

“Yes, me,” he said. “Do you want anything or not?”

Yes, but I doubt they have Gray’s Papaya at Seventh and Holding.

Gray’s Revisited

January 2, 2008 in Uncategorized

American Airlines is more thoughtful than ever: about 30 minutes ago, I received a call from a representative informing me that my flight to Narita has been delayed by 1 hour and 20 minutes. I babbled to her, thanking her for her kindness in contacting me personally, because I know that in a day it will be back to speaking only in wretched Japanese to staff and officials.

I could go back to sleep now, if I could sleep at all. It has been a very restless trip. I am not sure if it is jet lag or boundless excitement that has woken me up each morning at 5 or 6 am, bursting with energy, singing Japanese songs in the shower, and incurring Diego’s eternal wrath. This morning zeal has its down side; I often found myself passing out as soon as the sky darkened or nodding my head violently in bars, at plays, at dinner.

“What’s the matter with you?” people asked. “Where’s your energy?” If only they could have seen me at 5 a.m.

Diego’s apartment faces into another large apartment building; countless windows, most of their shades drawn. When I first came to the city in 1998, I used to imagine how many stories accompanied each glittering window in each apartment building. I still like to think about it. Right now, I’m thinking more about the trip back to Japan – 45 minutes to JFK, 14 hours to Tokyo, just under 1 hour to Tokyo Station, just under 3 hours to Shin-Osaka, then one and a half hours to Sakiio and a 20 minute walk back to Maison Otako with my suitcase, now bulging with Milano Cookies, gluten-free pasta, self-tanner and Herbal Essences. My new hairstylist in Osaka has informed me that Japanese water and hair products have fried my hair. How fortunate, she said, that you will visit America. Buy American. Your Western hair can’t handle what we’ve got.

*

Last night was the last hurrah, and the hurrah was good. After some much needed girl time with Peaches and Erma, there was dinner with Squirrel and her boyfriend. I made a new friend – the manager of the restaurant – and we will be friends for life, I believe, although we do not know each other’s names. After dinner, there was, at long last, Marie’s Crisis. My beloved Darin did not play; it was, instead, a lively young woman I’d never met who declared herself at my service after Diego so generously gave her the 20 dollar bill in my wallet. I recognized none of the patrons, probably because I never usually went on Tuesdays or also because many people might still be out of town. This unknown lady pianist does not bang the back of her head against the wall to keep time like Jim Allen or belt Dionne Warwick like Darin, but she plays entire catalog of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, something I never before witnessed in my years of haunting Marie’s.

I had my Gray’s. I had a piece of lasagna last night, too, with Squirrel. I had a KFC biscuit. The Gray’s was, by far, the most amazing. Any time I’ve cheated on my diet this trip has yielded fewer moments of bliss than I expected. Fewer side effects, too, leading me to wonder if gluten and dairy are really causing my skin issues after all. But if not gluten and dairy … then what?

I had one dog at Gray’s; tangy sauerkraut and spicy onions on a toasted bun, with a small pina colada drink. As it should be. And that’ll be it for me for at least another year. A brilliant cap to a New York visit that will end as soon as Diego gets out of the can so I can tell him goodbye.

“The wrath of Papaya,” he groaned, before disappearing. I’ll give the boy another 10 minutes before pounding on the door. The plane awaits.

But I wanted to go grocery shopping. And have an all-nighter that ended up with breakfast at a diner and a walk home at pink dawn. And have a cupcake from Crumbs. And try this yolato business that’s been cropping up over the West Village. And drink a Canada Dry Mandarin-flavored seltzer water. And find Hostess cupcakes to bring back for Sean, who has been deprived of cupcakes with peelable plastic icing all of his sad Irish life. And stroll in Central Park. And hit Kenka on St. Mark’s. And see Jiggy. And finally get to see Koko’s and Peter’s new house in Jersey. And completely forget that screaming little Japanese children exist to make my job miserable.

It’s snowing out.

 

Rock Bandin’ New Year’s Eve

January 1, 2008 in Uncategorized

New York City is vibrant, exciting, and vast; heaping with opportunities and options. Yet, nobody knows what to do for New Year’s Eve.

“What are you doing for New Year’s?”

“I don’t know. I was calling to see what you were doing.”

“Ugh, I don’t know. My friend knows some people who are having a thing, but it’s in Cobble Hill.”

“Oh god.”

“I know.”

“There’s a coworker of mine who rented a room at a bar in the Village ….”

“Oh, nice!”

“… but he’s charging a $20 cover to break even for the rental fee.”

“No.”

“Right.”

“Well, I guess you could come over to my place. We’ll watch the Countdown and hate Ryan Seacrest.”

“That’s actually a great idea – in fact, my New Year’s resolution is to hate Ryan Seacrest even more than I already do. I’ll have 11 people with me; is that cool?”

“Uh … well, wait a second. I live in a studio.”

“Never mind, then.”

“Look, I’ll call my other friend and see what’s happening.”

“I’ll call mine, too.”

Add several more friends; repeat.

As for me, I ate pizza, drank champagne and played Rock Band on XBox with Erma, Bill, The Swede, Mrs. Swede and Brown Cow in Brown Cow’s apartment. I have zero desire for large parties here, surrounded by people I don’t know, spending needless amounts of money, shouting over music I didn’t choose when I could instead be having quality time with my friends. For quality time, nothing beats being indoors and being silly. And I will say this about Rock Band: it only entered my life yesterday but I will never be the same.

The building’s residents crowded together on the roof at midnight to watch the ball drop and I strained on my toes, tried to lift my neck as high as it would go. It was the only time I’ve missed Japan since I came back to New York: over the crowds of giant inebriated Americans, I couldn’t see a darn thing.

My brother – drunk – called me at Brown Cow’s party to inform me that he will not be returning to his apartment this evening, but his friend, however, will be crashing here. Rock Banded out (for now …) and back in his apartment, I have hauled out the air mattress and notice that, after 8 days of being surrounded by sick people, there is finally a sinus cold blooming in my throat and in my nose, just in time for the end of my trip. How fitting that I should suffer from a common disease on the 14 hour flight to Japan in 2008, just as I did in 2007.

Some Resolutions for 2008:

  1. Make real efforts to make more friends in Sakiio – though I’ve had countless opportunities, I’ve preferred instead to be very insular. My visit back home and time spent with my wonderful friends here reinforce this idea. It’s just enough now.
  2. Study Japanese more intensely
  3. Learn more about nutrition
  4. Become awesome at Rock Band.

I have no X-Box. This is the real reason for resolution number 1.