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August 31, 2008 in I'm Learning Japanese ... I Really Think So, Japanese Mix, spazarific

It’s JLPT season again and the 500 yen application forms are being sold at bookstores across Japan. Sean kindly brought home two this week – one for him and one for me. He sent his off the other day but mine is still on the table; unopened, untouched. When I passed the Level 4 exam last year, trying for Level 3 seemed like a no-brainer but here I am, 8 months later, with hardly any more Japanese under my belt. Thus, I debate. Thus, I court the support of my Japanese co-workers.

When I arrived in Japan, I spoke no Japanese. Unlike Thailand and other South Asian countries, Japan – or at least the city I live in – is not a very foreign language-savvy place, and I was finding Japanese a lot harder to learn than I’d imagined. If a Japanese wait staff member or ward office employee could eke out a few words in English, I was overwhelmed with relief and gratitude. My friends Bob and Sean, on the other hand, were deeply offended. For them, long time Japanese students who have mastered Japanese to the degree where daily life translations are unnecessary, being spoken to in English is a supreme insult.

“It’s the assumption,” they explained angrily after a waitress greeted us by saying “Herro. What you order?” “It’s the assumption that any foreigner in Japan can’t speak Japanese; that they won’t or can’t learn.”

“Fair enough,” I said and returned to my picking at my okonomiyaki, desperately hoping they’d change the subject; we’d only met recently and it was the first time I’d seen them so upset. I understood their appeal intellectually but I was a long way from understanding it emotionally – in fact, I wondered if they were being a bit cynical. Couldn’t the waitress have been leaping at the chance to practice English? Couldn’t she have been being polite? On the other hand, I was a newcomer; what did I know? For my part, I still needed the translation and welcomed it with open arms on the few occasions it came.

Over a year later, I understand their frustration. There are, of course, many foreigners in Japan who refuse to learn Japanese because it’s “too hard” or “worthless back home”, relying on Japanese friends to conduct their business for them. However, I and lots of other foreigners have worked hard to achieve the level of Japanese we can now speak so on the very few instances where I’m spoken to in English first, I struggle to understand. Are they merely seizing the chance to practice their own English? Trying to be welcoming to foreign peoples? Or are they, as Bob and Sean claim, acting on the assumption that we’re too culturally ignorant to bother learning the language of the country we live in? I find myself leaning towards the latter suspicion more and more, especially when I use very simple Japanese phrases and receive applause – literal applause – from co-workers, as though I’m a three year old who has just mastered using the potty by all by herself. Yet, this perhaps-condescension becomes galvanizing when I am teetering between “Level 3″ and “No Level 3.” I’ve told myself that if I plow through my book, 4 chapters a week, my skills might be up to snuff by the time December rolls around and, at this point, it seems possible. But first, before I commit, I find myself playing the fool just for the praise because, right now, every bit helps.


August 29, 2008 in Ex-Patriate Games, Japanese Mix, Oishii, spazarific

I find that the definition of a bad day varies depending on where you live. For example, I grew up in Bumblefork, Florida, where a bad day involved:

  • Getting sideswiped by a senior citizen whose drivers’ license should have been revoked ten years ago
  • Getting heckled by a Joe Dirt-type individual
  • Discovering that no less than 500 love bugs have smashed themselves against your windshield
  • Feeling in the mood for a sophisticated cultural evening and then remembering where you live
  • Being told that the crab shack is out of mudbugs and gator tail
  • Finding a perhaps cancerous mole on your skin. Thanks, sun.
  • Having your hopes dashed – the rumor that a Boston Market is coming to town is, in fact, false
  • Hitting yet another manatee in your speedboat. If they weren’t so stupid, maybe they wouldn’t be endangered.

10 years ago, I moved to New York City and those bad days in Bumblefork slowly became such a misty memory for me that I had to really rack my brains to come up with that list. Contributing factors to bad days in New York, however, remain fresh. They involve:

  • Waking up hours before your alarm is set to go off because of jack hammering on your block
  • Handing over most of your monthly paycheck to your landlord
  • Taking public transportation on a day that is either snowy or rainy. Think: Heaving crowds and slippery wet dirt.
  • Missing the train because your Metro Card expired
  • Losing your freshly-refilled Monthly Unlimited Metro Card
  • Discovering that your favorite restaurant/club/haunt has been shut down and will be replaced by yet another Tasti D-Lite.
  • Having your feet trampled by rats “playing” in the subway station

Etcetera. I could have probably included “Overhearing the tail end of a hipster’s conversation” but that would have been too expected and slightly untrue; call it a guilty pleasure. You’ll notice that a lot of my “Bad Day” criteria involved the MTA; New York’s public transportation system which I once thought was brilliant. That was, of course, before moving to Japan, where a bad day can involve:

  • Missing your train. The magnificence of the Japanese train system elevates this daily annoyance to a full on disappointment.
  • Being “late” for work. In Japan, arriving even one minute past official starting time will often require you to fill out a lateness report.
  • Realizing your train is late because someone threw themselves in front of it.
  • Discovering you accidentally bought – and ate – a past due-date onigiri and the convenience store.
  • Being stared at. Even though it’s almost always genuine curiosity, it really does get old. You’re not a penguin at the zoo, for pete’s sake.
  • Overhearing the word “gaijin” and, because you don’t really speak Japanese, wondering for the rest of the day if it was directed at you, directed at you in a negative sense, directed at you in a neutral sense, or directed at some Hollywood movie star. Again – Negative? Neutral? Oh, the possibilities.
  • Opening your mouth and realizing that, today, your Japanese is worthless and, once again, you look like a fool.
  • Shopping for underwear and having to buy a “Large.” In America, you’re an X-Small. Or … you were an X-Small. What has all this curry rice done to you???
  • Biting into what looks like a lovely sugar-covered donut and tasting red bean paste. Or fish.
  • Stepping on a dead cicada.
  • Being hit by a speeding bicycle.
  • Coming home from work only to discover that your bicycle has been stolen – again.
  • Being drooled on by a sleeping sarariman on the train.
  • Hitting your head on a doorframe built for a Japanese-sized person. So I hear.

Regardless of my location and stage in life, the constant is that there are few things that can’t be fixed by a good old raw fish fix.

Speaking of which.

Cooking in Japan

August 27, 2008 in Ex-Patriate Games, Japanese Mix, Oishii, spazarific

The truth of the matter is that even the Japanese can’t live on Japanese food alone. Witness the multitudes of ethnic restaurants and the hordes of Japanese people who hungrily flood McDonald’s every day for a nice triple-beef patty Mega Makku. Cooking Japanese style is fun, easier on the pocketbook and simpler on the shopping list than cooking the foods I know and love but sometimes I just need a hit of olive oil. Thus, I resign myself to breaking my weekly shopping budget … if I can even find what I need. That’s just one of the joys of living far from home, the constant question: “Can I find that here?” Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

One afternoon in 1987 or so, my friend Roxy had come over to play and my mother left us to our own devices in the house. Obviously, this meant we had to bake a cake. We hauled out the kids’ cookbook I’d been given for my previous birthday and found a recipe that seemed interesting to us, if only for the mere fact that it listed chocolate chips and orange juice as ingredients. We immediately set about to digging through the pantry and the refrigerator. Flour, check. Eggs – not 4 but 2, check. Chocolate chips? No. Cooking spray – no, but we did have butter. Water – yes. Sugar – yes. Baking soda – a touch. Orange juice – no … but we did, happily, have a juice box of Hi-C Ecto Cooler. Quickly, Roxy and I began folding all the ingredients together, ignoring the fact that the batter was strangely runny and had a sickly neon green hue from the Yellow 5 in the Ecto Cooler. We couldn’t reach high enough to put the oven heat to 375 so we settled for 225, congratulated each other on a job well done and sat back to wait for our delicious cake. Needless to say, my mother was not happy when she returned home and neither was my brother – it had been his Ecto Cooler we used.

Cooking Italian food in Japan is something like that. The only bread crumbs available are panko, which work beautifully in kushi katsu but are not quite right for things like pollo alla milanese, calamari fritti or suppli. There’s one kind of basil in the produce section, and it’s the wrong kind. 700 yen for lasagna sheets? Guess we’ll be having spaghetti … again. The “prosciutto” is appalling – upwards of 400 yen for several slices of tasteless vinyl, strangely soapy to the touch. As for pancetta – where? A ball of mozzarella smaller than my fist goes for 400 yen, and forget about finding pecorino, parmigiano not in a canister, or any kind of cheese, for that matter, that isn’t made of plastic unless you want to spend upwards of 1000 yen for a packet the size of a thumb. The only rice available is Japanese, again, unless you want to spend 500 yen for a 1-serving packet of an imported risotto side dish. There is no oven or broiler in my kitchen, just a toaster oven, so I’ve been known to stick a pan of frittata inside that, with the handle sticking out of the ajar toaster oven door. It’s a circus, it really is.

And yet, the cooking must be done. I am lucky enough to have a male roommate who happily eats whatever I serve, declaring everything “brilliant,” right before he suggests that maybe the pasta is “a little too hard and salty” and next time I might make it bland, limp Irish-Anglo style. The blasphemy barely grazes my ears, and I focus instead on his compliment, which helps boost my sagging spirits after I’ve created a 2000 yen lasagna that serves 4, partially with decent mozzarella and partially with mortifying handfuls of lousy pizza-grade grated mozzarella from a pouch. Tonight’s seafood risotto will likewise force me to do things that will no doubt send me into the shower, fully clothed, to sob until the dirt is rinsed off.

Reason #42 Why It’s Great to Live in Japan

August 26, 2008 in Uncategorized

Vending machines. Everywhere you look. Almost literally.

Drinks. Batteries. Sake. Toys. Snacks. Ties. Disposable cameras. Cigarettes.

And my personal favorite:

Beer. It’s on the go. And it’s legal to take it with you.

Turkish Delight

August 23, 2008 in Japanese Mix, My Funny Irish Friend, spazarific, The Children

The vacation is over and, just as in my own school days, a bitter pall hangs over the classrooms. As a student, it would never have occurred to me that teachers could feel depressed about the end of summer vacation and yet we mope, picking solemnly at the piles of candy brought to school by the staff members who left the country for the vacation. Tim Tams from Australia, Turkish Delight from the UK and chocolates with Korean writing line the front desk, as well as a hand sanitizer from Walgreen’s. Vacation tales are swapped. One teacher went to the Philippines. One teacher went to Malaysia. This little teacher stayed in Japan but no hard feelings – I’m planning a mega South Asian tour at the end of my contract in April and enjoy all the travel advice I can get.

Sean has returned from Ireland, winking and clicking his tongue to beat the band. He also read my blog while he was away and has corrected a couple of my entries on the Sean’s Dialect list:

  • Yer Man and Yer One, not “Your” Man and “Your” One. I should have known – proper spelling in Ireland? Playa please.
  • Langer Usage 3) Jerk. “I can’t stand that langer!” Not that an Irish person would say they “couldn’t stand” anything. Langa please.

As expected, he’s brought something new back with him – an entirely new grammatical form that I have to get used to, just like I once did, “Yer man.”

  • After – sometimes used to mean “Just having done.” Example: “I’m after coming home,” or “He’s after getting his degree in Science.”

Something else Sean has brought back with him are two bottles of Head and Shoulders Smooth and Silky Shampoo for me: Liv. Sean has heard me complain many times about the lack of decent dandruff shampoo in Japan and kindly helped silence my cries for at least another couple of months. My hair will be flake free again, and just in time for the weather to cool down, meaning my hair will also be less puffy and I will be this much closer to being presentable. The last few days have been lovely and because the weather has cooled, the issues with the door have also abated – I can now open the lock and leave the apartment without Sean’s help. Too little too late, however – Sean hadn’t been back for a couple of days before he made an announcement, hovering in my dark doorway, rubbing his eyes like a cranky 3 year old.

“I have to move,” he blurted. “I can’t take not having light.” He cites being back home in Ireland, in his father’s house with plenty of natural light, as the straw that broke the camel’s back – there, for the first time in months, he slept peacefully. As he spoke his piece, excitement fluttered in my chest: I had been on exactly the same wavelength and had been looking for the straw to break my camel’s back, too, and put him out of his misery. So now Sean and I are once again on the hunt and after an apartment.


  • Two burners on the stove
  • Furnished or at least semi-furnished
  • As cheap or cheaper than our current apartment – this part-time schedule thing has hit us hard
  • Storage space
  • Convenient location
  • Natural light

It’s 2:01 A.M. here, and I’ve been up since 12 A.M. I fell asleep after returning from work at 5 because, due to the light issue, I’d lain awake on my scraggly futon all night long. As much as I hate moving, the change will be very welcome. And now that I think about it, a bed wouldn’t be a bad thing, either. Getting a good night’s sleep could only help me at work, as I fear my frustration with the job is venting itself in unintentional ways: yesterday, while waving puppets around to entertain my 2 year old dollies, I accidentally whacked one of their mothers in the face.


August 19, 2008 in Japanese Mix, Oishii, spazarific

Because it’s summer vacation and there is no school the next day, the nights are for fun. Movies. Drinks. Long ambling walks. Dinners at previously unexplored places. I, personally, favor uphill bike rides to meet friends at an izakaya for some midnight socializing. Because it’s 35 degrees, an ice cream cone from the conbini sounds ideal and I buy it from a slightly flirtatious college student, just as soon as I remember that I’m on bike, not on foot.

I figure I can ride and bike, so I position my bike in the center of the sidewalk and, balancing carefully, unwrap my prize. As I prepare to take the first licks, my keitai rings and it’s my father, calling from the States, so I must pick up. A keitai in one hand and an ice cream cone in the other means I can’t ride my bike unless I am feeling particularly stupid, which I’m not. I am, instead, sitting on it after lugging it, with my legs, to the side of the road with one arm outstretched and the other close to my ear. The cicadas, making their usual mind-numbing racket, drown out what my father is saying from all those miles away and in the end, I have no choice but to end the call – I am late to meet my friends, the cicadas won’t shut up, and my ice cream cone is melting down my arm. We agree to talk tomorrow when I am not late, tottering precariously and covered in chocolate ice cream drool. With one hand free, I now begin the long, one-handed bike ride uphill, slurping on my cone as I ride.

Three hours later, long after the last train has left the station, I’m whizzing home downhill on my bike; high on fried potatos, yakitori, gyoza, orange chu hi and silliness. The chu hi came to the table with an actual orange, sliced in half, and served on a metal squeezer for me to squeeze into my chilled glass mug of what looks like water instead of the slightly alcoholic beverage I ordered. Bob said he wasn’t so keen on the set up; what was the point of ordering an orange chu hi at a restaurant if the fruit squeezing wasn’t already done? What was I paying for, after all? Same thing with yaki nikku restaurants – why leave the comforts of home in order to cook raw meat in public? Sure, the raw meat, which is on the menu, is provided for you, but isn’t the point of going to a restaurant to have everything done for you? He had a point. I guess I could have bought my own orange chu hi at the convenience store for 130 yen, ready for my consumption. I could have had it along with my chocolate ice cream. It wasn’t a horrible idea – I’ve always loved the taste of chocolate orange.


August 17, 2008 in Japanese Mix

In case you didn’t get it, Cheech, this is a T-Rex from JAPAN. Happy birthday, Hoser.

My Obsessions

August 14, 2008 in Japanese Mix, Oishii, spazarific

I saw Kung Fu Panda last night – perhaps the first movie I’ve seen in Japan that actually felt worth the 1800 yen ticket. I left the theater energized, hungry for dumplings and, as always, in awe of Jack Black’s awesomeness. I fear that a desire for dumplings will grip me as did the desire for soumen, which I have eaten perhaps 5 times a week since returning from camp. It is just so delicious and refreshing in these scorching dog days of Japanese summer. It is cheap as well, and so easily customizable. Today, I enjoyed soumen with cucumbers, tomatoes and okra. I then took the remaining cucumbers, threw them in a plastic bag with soy sauce and vinegar and squeezed out the air to kick off the pickling process. Tomorrow, I will have a bag full of delicious Japanese cucumber pickles to enjoy with … tomorrow’s soumen.

This isn’t unusual for me; when I discover something I like, I am very easily obsessed. Any of my roommates will tell you that I become unbearable when I get “into” a song, playing them on loop for weeks. Anyone looking through my personal photos will notice the same shirts following me throughout the years, becoming increasingly tattered. Food is no different and in some respects, since it is food, I become even more zealous.

My time in Japan has seen me through quite a lot of food obsessions. First there was negitoro (tuna and scallion) onigiri: cheap, delicious, and super handy for a quick lunch on the go. Then there was Japanese curry, which inspired such a fervor that I dubbed Wednesday evenings “Curry Night.” Then there were bento lunch boxes – so compact and delightful to behold. Green tea. Vitamin Water. It’s the same story every time: I become obsessed and must, absolutely must, eat these delicacies several times a week. And then, after several months, I can eat no more. What was once delicious becomes bland and I subsist on foods that, while tasty, just don’t move me the way the others did. And everything is still until the moment I discover what that new food obsession might be.

Funnily enough, I’ve never OD’d on sushi. I’ve been steadily obsessed with it since Koko introduced me to it back in high school. Sushi: that first taste of raw tuna cradling the packed white rice opened the floodgates to heaven for me. Never had I eaten anything so exquisite. Never had I eaten anything so exotic. The fish combined with the wasabi and the ginger only catapulted me further into ecstasy. I was immediately and irrevocably obsessed. But in Bumblefork, Florida, sushi was so scant that I was never able to eat enough of it to OD. Sushi dinners required at least an hour of driving and their prices meant I was always hungry afterwards, even if my itch was sated. When I moved to New York sushi was ubiquitous but, again, the cost kept me from eating my fill. When I moved to Japan – the land of sushi – my Japanese vocabulary consisted of “train,” “ticket,” “name,” and all of the names for sushi fish, which I’d learned from years of staring at the standard issue menus in sushi shops; printed with pictures of each kind of sushi and its name in Japanese. Sushi is everywhere here, and at kaiten sushi shops, finally affordable. I even live across the street from such a shop where the dishes are as cheap as 135 yen.

So why have I never become obsessed with sushi? Perhaps this is because, subconsciously, I know myself too well. Even though sushi could not be more available to me than if I lived in the sea, I still find myself eating it only sparingly, a physiological guard against what I know will be the physical result of eating sushi every day: revulsion.

I ate curry for the first time in months last week. It was tasty, but inspired none of the same euphoria it used to send tingling up and down my nerves. Already, I see where my obsession with soumen will end as the summer heat dissipates into the early fall.

Sushi is ecstasy. It must never become anathema to me.

You Say Po-tah-to; I Say Po-tay-to

August 11, 2008 in My Funny Irish Friend

I imagine life as my roommate is difficult for Sean; I eat potato chips, french fries, and cookies and when I’ve finished off the bags, I put them in the trash. Sean doesn’t do any of these things: he eats packets of crisps, chips, and biscuits and puts them in the rubbish. He talks low and in a melody his students can’t penetrate. He comes home from work in a rage because he has been asked by yet another principal to speak slower, or at least more like an American.

There have been times when Sean and I have come to odds over a fried potato product. If I ask him for a potato chip, he will refuse to help until I call it by its “proper name.” Sometimes we compromise and use the Japanese terms for potato products or snacks: fureido poteto or okashi. All is calm until I offer him one of the Oreos I got at the foreign goods store.

In honor of Sean and his lovely musical Cork dialect, I would like to offer a list of things my funny Irish friend actually says:

  • Rubbish: “Don’t forget – it’s rubbish day!” “That movie was absolute rubbish!”
  • Wanker: “Oh, God, I don’t want to teach dose li’l wankers today.”
  • Bollocks: “Oh, bollocks, do I really have to wear a suit today? It’s roasting outside!”
  • Your Man: “I saw your man at the cafe today.” Note: this does not mean “I saw the man who is yours”: it means “I saw that guy.”
  • Your One: the female version of “Your man,” equating to “That woman.”
  • Langers: a multi purpose term. Usage 1: “I had 10 pints of beer and I was completely langers.” Usage 2: “Excuse me now! Do you really think I’m going to whip out my langer right here in the middle of the park?” (this said to Bob who suggested Sean relieve himself near a tree)
  • Cuppa and a Biccie: “biccie” being the children’s version of the word “biscuit.” “Would you like to pop up for a cuppa and a biccie?”
  • Shocking: Bad. “Your attempt at an Irish accent is shocking, like!” This, of course, is a bald-faced lie because my Irish accent is BRILLIANT.
  • Brilliant!
  • Grand!
  • So. At the end of his sentences, much the way Americans use “then.” “Are you going to have that last crisp, so?”
  • Sweet Jaysus, Mary and Joseph, heav’n aboov (please note: Sean is an Atheist.)

My friend is a walking James Joyce novel. Have a great trip home, ya wanker.

Reason #145 Why It’s Great to Live in Japan

August 9, 2008 in Japanese Mix

There is never, ever, ever any sort of mess whatsoever on a public toilet’s seat.