The children aren’t supposed to speak Japanese in class, but they do. I’m supposed to discourage them but, out of laziness and selfishness, I don’t. Lazy, because when they speak Japanese to each other I can tell if they understand the day’s lesson and selfish because I’ve learned more than a few good turns of phrase from my cheeky little monkeys. In the past year and a half, they’ve exposed me to slang, insults, plain verb forms and Kansai dialect more times than they could possibly guess. Some of the slower ones still haven’t figured out that I can understand them some of the time, so they’ve also exposed me to their feelings about English (boring and difficult), poop (AWESOME and ENDLESSLY FASCINATING!), and classroom procedures (annoying). Every once in a while, they also unwittingly let me in on their observations about me.
A brief catalog:
I’m not funny
I am funny
I have gray hair
I’m wearing a cute shirt/necklace/shade of lipstick
I have a hole in my stocking
I draw creepy stick figures
I don’t understand Japanese
I might understand Japanese
My “E”‘s are strange; my “W”‘s look like butts
I’m singing again
I sing better than they do
I need to hurry up
I need to stop
I already told them we have homework; why am I telling them a third time?
I made a mistake and will hopefully do it again
They’re little; it hasn’t dawned on them yet that foreigners might be able to speak languages other than English. As such, I’m sure the temptation to speak freely is irresistible, something they could never do in regular school or in the presence of any other adult. That sense of freedom is something my friends and I struggle with as well. Of course many Japanese can’t speak English; it’s why the government gave us the Visa. Of course they won’t understand us; we’ve taught enough classes to know firsthand that the question “How’s everybody?” sends them into a state of deer-in-headlights shock. That girl is wearing a T-shirt that says “God Bress” – what can I say but “You’ve got to be kidding me”? Of course I could wait until we get off the train, but something about the great probability that she won’t understand has erased all sense of human decency from my mind. I have to comment. I have to say something! I don’t. That’s just one of the differences between me and an 8 year old. It’s a pity I won’t be there the day they realize I’ve been listening in the whole time.
As for the mothers, they think I have an adorable tiny head.
… and as if I needed even more motivation to get cracking on my Japanese study, I have discovered Emily. Emily – a nice, super-intense American gal – is something of a YouTube Celebrity, made famous by her “Pretty Intense Japanese Lesson” clips. Sean and I have been staring at her videos for the past couple of days, fascinated by her skill, fluency and excellent accent. But she’s so young. But she says she’s learned to speak Japanese from just books and J-Pop. But she’s so intense!
Quirky Emily’s “Intense Japanese” lessons mainly consist of her grinning ironically, making peace signs and teaching her viewers a smattering of random vocabulary words. Those are enjoyable enough, but this is the video that made me dash for my Japanese books:
I wilt in jealousy, but I have no one else to blame but my lazy self. My comfort is that I can understand 50% of what she’s saying. As you can see, I’m real a “glass is half full” kinda gal.
Six months to go until the Japanese Language Proficiency Test and what have I learned? That I wish it hadn’t rained today. He made me forget my umbrella! Whenever I forget my umbrella, I get wet! So I made him buy me cookies. For an apology. Whenever I eat cookies, I become happy. Cookies? Crunchy, right? My heart goes pit-a-pat! Knock knock! Who’s there? My grumbling stomach! Whenever I see cookies, my eyes sparkle. They are like stars! Sir, may I humbly offer you my delicious cookies? Here you are … oh! You dropped it. Aw, what a waste!
Do you know the Japanese word for the male genitalia? I do! It’s because my honorable 8 year old students so kindly deigned to teach me. I have, however, learned almost no new kanji, therefore I still know only around 500.
Times have changed; I’ve been in Japan for over a year now which means I’ve finally been accepted into Japanese society (!!!) … at least when it comes to the cost of living. As an expatriate, my first year in Japan had been a blissfully inexpensive one, especially compared to my life in New York City. However, now that the government has a year’s worth of paychecks to calibrate my taxes by, this means my previously low income tax has gone up. As an extra bonus, a letter from the Ward Office states that my previously very low health insurance has tripled. This all adds up to several hundred extra dollars gone each month from my already halved part-time paycheck. Man, it feels great to be part of things.
Naturally, being me and the way I am – the way that equates parting with money to parting with a limb – this has sent me into money restriction mode.
This is the water bottle I filled with boiled tap water in an attempt to save money on bottled water. Because I’m thoughtless as well as miserly, I forgot to wait for the water to cool a bit before I transferred it to the bottle. Witness the white envelope in the background of the photo. It is the letter from the Ward Office telling me I will now pay over 200 dollars a month in health insurance; a sum that makes me nostalgic for my old health plan. In America.
As for other ways to economize, I present you with fish, seaweed and rice; it’s what’s for dinner on nights when I forsake buying groceries from the expensive imports section and go with the local treats.
That’s right: sushi!!! Made by me: Liv.
I’ve always wanted to try my hand at making my own sushi, but was under the impression that most people in Japan don’t, that it’s something you buy at the market or go out for rather than make at home. Besides, though I lust Japanese food, when it comes to cooking, I tend to stick with what I know: cibo Italiano. It has, of course, occurred to me that I ought to try cooking Japanese food considering I’m living in Japan. I should take advantage of ingredients I can’t get back home, but I’ve always felt nervous at the prospect of cooking Japanese food, as though I’d be genetically incapable. Silly, I know; I guess you can take the girl out of neurotic America but you can’t take the neurotic American out of the girl. Anyway, tomatoes, garlic and bottles of olive oil just seem to find their way into my shopping cart, and my eyes scan the racks of cucumbers in the market scornfully, always disappointed that they’re not zucchini. Summer is coming, though, and as I was browsing “no-cook” recipes recently I stumbled upon a recipe for sushi rice. It seemed so easy and inexpensive that I figured it was at least worth a shot … and there you have it: my maiden attempt at a coveted sushi dinner. There is apparently a trick to getting the sushi rolls just right so that they’re 3 distinct layers, like a bullseye, rather than the seaweed-y swirls I came up with, but I guess I’ll have to try mastering that another time. And see if I can’t pull together a sushi feast without scattering rice all over the floor while I’m at it. I mean, honestly!
The bowl in the center is my California Roll Don; I was craving American-style sushi (that is, involving cooked fish and vegetables) and had lots of rice, imitation crab meat, avocado and cucumber sticks left over when I became too lazy to make more rolls. As for the taste? I might be unbiased, but generally, if it’s fish I like it. Besides, for a cash saving measure, it certainly beats the time I drank Margarita Mix straight from the bottle.
My students have discovered that I – old and therefore clueless – might know something worth knowing from time to time. In between learning games, they love to find out exactly what knowledge is rattling around in this aged brain o’ mine.
“Mario to Luigi shitteru?” they demand.
“Yeah, I know Mario and Luigi.”
“Uh, yeah I know Snoopy.”
Cue the same routine for Doraemon, An Pan Man, Donkey Kong, Nintendo, Nintendo Wii, PSP, karate, karaoke, and, most amusingly, McDonald’s. Obviously, being American and born after 1960 I would naturally have never heard of McDonald’s which, as everybody knows, was invented in Japan. The children’s fresh-faced belief that Japan is the world moves me, and reminds me of the wonderful day I informed my Guatemalan cousins’ children that Inuyasha and Sponge Bob were not, in fact, Guatemalan. I wonder how I would even begin to pantomime the birth of McDonald’s in America to these inquisitive children. Then I start to think of Chicken McNuggets, delicious chicken McNuggets, so crispy and enriched by heart-healthy grease, and then I’m all hungry, and then, before I know it, I’ve lost the will.
,,, I was actually pretty relieved that our apartment didn’t come with a tatami room because, to me, tatami smells like pet store.
Speaking of the apartment, the no natural light issue is really becoming insufferable. Due to being shrouded in either catacomb-like darkness or piercing florescent office light, I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in months.
Hopefully, this should help:
11,500 yen worth of fake dawn. Never thought I’d see the day but these are desperate times.
I am jealous of Sean because his position as a children’s karate instructor gives him the perfect excuse to punt, kick and thwack the little buggers when they misbehave, whereas I have to settle for supremely ineffective time outs.
When my private student didn’t show up on Friday because of a business trip, I was faced with with long gaps in my work schedule. Obviously, it was the perfect time to head over to the bathroom and photograph the toilets.
Don’t judge me. Toilet culture in Japan is schizophrenic, and therefore fascinating. Even after a year and a half here, I am still unable to understand how this Jetson-age bum warmer, bathroom noise sound proofer and bidet combo can exist in one stall:
… and how this gaping porcelain maw can exist in the stall right next to it:
Everyone knows that Japan’s technological prowess is beyond compare; entrances to nearly all public places are automated, robot pets actually seem cuddly and the free cell phones make the ones from Verizon look like figments from an episode of the Flintstones. Prior to arriving in January of 2007, I imagined that toilets like the one in the first picture would be the norm. My disappointment over the fact that the toilets in homes are usually not super-powered was soothed only by learning that the Kanji symbols on either side of my own toilet’s flusher meant “big” and “small.”
I had my maiden encounter with a squatter shortly after arriving in Japan, during my first authentic sushi dinner with Carnitas. I moseyed on over to the bathroom, a happy belly full of cups of green tea, and flung open the stall door. My eyes – and my heart – plummeted to the blackened ceramic-framed hole in the grimy tile floor, then, to the roll of toilet paper which was, naturally, empty. Panicked, I jogged down the length of stalls in the, thankfully, empty bathroom; squatter, squatter, squatter, squatter. I was faced with a dilemma: spit on a lifetime of cultural education or hold my tea for an undetermined amount of time?
I’ll spare you the gymnastic details. Suffice to say, you must NEVER turn down the free tissues companies hand out at train stations and, when one’s bladder is involved, anything is possible. I returned to the sushi restaurant, more triumphant than shaken, and ordered another plate of tekkamaki. My unsavory introduction to the squatter was only the first in a series of culture-bending experiences; next up was the shocking realization that I could, in fact, eat organ meat.
So why squatters when robo and not-so-robo toilets are readily available? I’ve been told that the squatters are for the elderly who grew up using them and who, if confronted with the slick musical model, would just try to stand on the seat. That explains the persistence of squatters in public bathrooms, if not their presence in bars and clubs. Anyway, if you ask me, a sit-down toilet would be far more convenient for the elderly since it’d be easier on the joints and require far less aim … but who am I to judge? I’m not you, after all – a work break toilet picture taker judger. Besides; when in Japan, right?
You get the hang of it. You really do. Oftentimes, there’s no other choice. You’re in a bar. There have been countless glasses of nama biru. It has to happen. And, after numerous messy encounters, you eventually find that, with the aid of a clothes hook, it can.
It’s not as though the robo cans don’t come with their own set of issues. Ask Diego, who came bum-to-bowl with them when he visited me last August. Despite his hotel’s international flavor, the commands on the fancy loo’s control panel were all in Japanese. My parents and I were flipping through TV channels when our ears were pierced by a bloodcurdling scream emanating at decibels previously believed to be accessible only by 10 year-old girls. While the bidet feature of these toilets is very thoughtful, it really is so much better when you expect it.
Another quirk of the robo pot: the flushing noise. I’ve heard that some play soothing rain forest music instead of flushing but the goal is the same: to cover up the unseemly sounds that might come from within the stall. While I’d rather listen to a flushing toilet than other kinds of music, it seems more like an admission of guilt to me than anything else – merely replacing what it’s trying so earnestly to cover up.
It’s useless to hide. Everyone knows what you’re doing.
A large portion of my students are businessmen who must learn English for their jobs, but perhaps a larger percentage of my students are housewives who’ve taken up English as a hobby. A ridiculously large chunk of these 45+ women is absolutely. Freaking. Gorgeous. “How gorgeous,” you ask? Stunning gorgeous, I say. Envy of all the 20-something Western women in the room gorgeous. Inspirational gorgeous. GM even IL to F gorgeous. That’s how gorgeous these middle aged women are. Like just about everyone, I’d heard legends of middle-aged Asian women who didn’t seem to age as badly as their Western counterparts. Friends, I’m here to tell you it’s not a myth. My 10 year high school anniversary has come and gone, more and more gray hairs are sprouting at my scalp, guaranteeing a Cruella Deville streak just in time for my 30th birthday and to top that off, I’ve discovered that the cute little crinkle between my eyebrows is actually my first wrinkle. So, yes, I’m gaping at these women whose skin is so smooth that, if I didn’t know they had grandkids or grown children, they could have fooled me into thinking they were 15 years younger than they actually are. I’m sorry, Kayako-san, but I don’t want to explain why “want to” and “wanna” mean the same thing. I’d rather discuss how you’re 45 and can still totally pull off that Winnie the Pooh-print baby doll top whereas if I wore it, I’d look like Baby Jane.
Of course, I can’t ask; these women aren’t paying my company so they can give me beauty tips. Besides, I already think I know why they look as youthful as they do. Keep in mind this is just a stab in the dark – I’m no expert by any means. I was, however, a very science-conscious cosmetic critic and did my share of research on skin care so if I were pressed to give my slightly-more-educated layperson’s opinion, I’m guessing it’s all that antioxidant-loaded green tea. Green tea: it’s what’s for breakfast, lunch, dinner and any time in between. While the traditional East Asian diet has changed dramatically post-World War II when the staples of rice, vegetables and fish began to be regularly alternated with Western-style wheat products, red meats, junk foods, and sodas, the green tea remains a constant.
It’s just a slightly educated guess, but somehow, I don’t think I’m totally far off. So lately I’m chugging it like a madwoman, going through a couple of bottles a day. I’m not much of a drinker so imbibing this much liquid has required a little bit of effort. There are, as a result, bloated tummies, not to mention a lot of trips to the conbini. As such, my green tea expenditures have gone up, er, [fancy math] percent. But I must tell you that I’m already seeing benefits to my recent spike in green tea consumption. Behold:
This is the brand of green tea that I usually buy, and these are the lovely gifts that are lately coming with it. I’m guessing it’s a summer promotion, because prior to this, I’d never noticed green tea coming with free little preciouses attached.
Each present is nicer than the last. My first present was the handkerchief – the perfect thing to wipe away sticky summer sweat. Then came the little plastic stash box. Next, the panda cell phone charm. My most recent gift was the adorable little plastic mirror, complete with its own reusable pouch. Needless to say, I am delighted. And, unfortunately, getting quite spoiled.
This is the green tea section of the vending machine at the train station near my apartment. The other day, I plunked in my money and pressed the button for the bottle with the donut charm, since I figured the pretzel would clash with my little panda. (A panda and a pretzel??? That’s ridiculous!) Imagine my shock when the bottle clunked down … naked. I assumed that the machine had simply made a mistake, until I looked more closely at the red sign below the green tea bottles and saw that it clearly stated that there was only a chance of getting a prize. I was appalled – no prize with my green tea? But there are always prizes with my green tea. I … I … I have a handkerchief and a mirror and a tiny plastic panda and I … I wanted a little donut charm to go with the panda and … and … and I paid 150 yen so obviously I should get something for my contribution to the company and it’s summer and I want it I want it I want it!
Turns out the age-reversing benefits of green tea start with the psyche.
At least once every few years while I was growing up, my parents, brother and I visited my father’s family in Guatemala City. These were always highly anticipated visits; from the instant the rolling green mountains swam into view from the plane window and we lugged our luggage into the great, cedar-fragrant Colliseum-shaped arrivals area of La Aurora airport, I felt ready to implode with excitement. After the joyful reunions, there were the usual celebratory fiestas at my aunt and uncle’s apartment building. There were the giddy whispered catch up conversations with our cousins, huddled into whichever secret space we could cram ourselves into as the adults enjoyed rum and cafe con leche. There were the longed-for meals; spicy green pumpkin and chicken jocon stew ladled lovingly over rice, bowls heaped with mounds of creamy black frijoles accompanied by steaming baskets of delicate pan frances plus the star in my fevered dreams of Guatemalan fare – the earthy corn tamal, steamed in a banana leaf, stuffed with chicken, red peppers and olives, squeezed over with squirts of lime.
And, of course, there were the obligatory day trips to Antigua that made my cousins groan – ay no; otra vez??? – but stirred within me a secret delight.
the famed Santa Catalina Arch
from a cafe window
Antigua, once the capital of Guatemala, is characterized by gorgeous colonial Spanish architecture and narrow, cobbled streets. Squat, square houses in shades of pink, green and yellow line the cobblestones, interrupted by grandiose palatial churches and squares lush with stone fountains. Everywhere, native Antiguans in their traditional garb sell traditional Guatemalan wares; sweets, ceramics, wooden furniture, brightly colored woven textiles. When I was a child, a visit to Antigua was like a trip in a time machine, one that never failed to impress me. I was a huge fan of The Mysterious Cities of Gold, after all. My father, who was born in Antigua, liked to tease me by telling me that he had seen Esteban – the child of the sun! – just around a corner. Even as an adult, I can still imagine I see him there.
It was during one of these happy day trips to Antigua, perhaps when I was 13 or so, that my mother broke from our crowd, fished her camera out of her purse and scurried over on her high heels to a Antiguan woman who had set her wares out on a street corner and was now sitting among them on a red woven blanket. I watched, horrified, as my mother snapped a picture in the woman’s face.
“How could you do that?” I blurted as my mother returned, triumphant.
“You just took a picture of that woman like she was … like she was La Merced Church. Or a penguin at the zoo! ”
“What?” my mother said. “She was beautiful.”
“You can’t do that!” I said, with the first traces of a righteous fervor that would one day result in my being diagnosed with Bleeding Liberal Heart syndrome. “People aren’t tourist attractions. They’re people!”
“Well, I’m sorry.” my mother said. “I just didn’t think. I thought she looked so wonderful sitting there with her ceramic houses all around her and her hair all braided with the ribbons and her robes. I thought she’d make a beautiful picture.”
I wouldn’t hear it; mortified, I dared a glance at the woman who, from the looks of it, hadn’t even registered the fact that for a few brief seconds, she’d been my mother’s muse. It was a small comfort.
15 years later, I live in Japan. Each day, I leave my bat cave apartment and step into weather that is increasingly sunny and moist. I walk down the shopping arcades and spy upon cases of fresh red tuna or pass a serene shrine haplessly located between a McDonalds and a Tsutaya store. It is inevitable that I will run into people, and it is inevitable that the people I see on the streets will be doing or wearing something that catches my breath, because it will be something I consider so emotionally evocative, or so representative of my experience here in Japan. And then, despite myself, I begin to feel what my mother most likely felt on the streets of Antigua that day so many years ago. They are images that mustn’t be kept to myself, and they are so vivid that I fear my words won’t do them justice. Sometimes, I feel my fingers curl around my camera inside my purse. I imagine that the woman I want to photograph won’t even notice me because she’s busy buying takoyaki. I imagine the children will forget I’ve photographed them like a tourist attraction the minute they get distracted by a neon sign. I try to imagine that I can forget it, too but know I cannot.
And then I see a teenage girl standing on line for the train, dressed in a mint green kimono emblazoned with large butter yellow blossoms, her white obi artfully folded into a swirled bow at her back, her hair swept up in delicate curls, barely hiding her Ipod’s fuchsia rhinestone earbuds. Or I see an elementary schoolboy waiting for the train in his pale blue school uniform, his navy shorts cut high above his knobby knees, his shiny black hair covered by a crisp brimmed hat and his back laden down by the stiff, gleaming leather box-like backpack all children get when they begin kindergarten. These backpacks are reminiscent of something Heidi would have worn and I glowed with the idea of buying some for my friends’ kids until I learned that these backpacks cost hundreds of dollars.
I see a homeless man, his hair matted into dreads that cascade down his back, his exposed muscles wasted but his gapped smile full of blackened teeth wide as he sits besides his immaculate cardboard box home outside of the Matsuya in my neighborhood. He washes himself with a long, rumpled skein of plastic wrap, grasping it between two fists as he saws it back and forth between his shoulder blades until the caked dirt slides off. His cardboard home is hardly unusual – several of these are lined up outside the train station gates to form a fantastic cardboard suburb.
I see toddlers, squirmy and fat, with fresh pink cheeks and bare feet with chubby toes squealing in their mothers’ laps and playing with their cell phones as they point to the women on the train and proudly dub them either “onei chan” (big sister) or “mama.” I won’t tell you which one they deemed me. My three year old student, Masa, flaps his little hand at me at the end of each class and chirps, “mata!*” I don’t want to stop at just a picture for him – Masa deserves his own video.
*until next time!
I see sarari men, vermillion-faced, staggering out of izakayas, bellowing Kojima Yoshio’s famous catchphrase, before they spew the contents of their previously beer-filled stomachs onto the izakaya wall, sending the wait staff into a tizzy of “Excuse me”s and a hunt for air freshener. I see teenage girls in school uniforms crowded outside a shrine, discussing what I’m sure has nothing to do with the shrine’s history or what they learned in school that day. I see garu clattering down the streets in 6 inch platform shoes, fake tanned skin the color of satsuma, their Barbarella hair arching towards the sky and goth makeup smeared down their cheeks. Sometimes there are girls wearing flouncy, tiered Strawberry Shortcake dresses and giant, floppy berets to match. When they pass on the street, even school children turn to giggle.
People impress me every day and my fingers itch to capture them so that I never forget. But words will have to suffice.