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Your 89-Word Mini Florida Culture Lesson

December 29, 2008 in My Funny Irish Friend

Farmer’s Tan: a kind of tan commonly found in Florida natives. In the arms, the tan begins just below the line of one’s short-sleeved shirt and in the legs, the tan is restricted to the feet, leaving the upper arms and legs lily-white. It is referred to as a “farmer’s tan,” because it mimicks the tan a farmer would achieve if he were working out in the hot fields, barefoot. Thanks to spending several hours with my father at a Tampa Buccaneers football game, Sean has one now, too.

Christmas at la Casa Ibarguren

December 27, 2008 in My Funny Irish Friend, Oishii

Sean and I are Atheists but my parents and brother love the Jesus and the Mary. While we didn’t accompany them to Midnight Mass, we certainly enjoyed the Christmas dinner. An Ibarguren family tradition since 1980: homemade ravioli for Christmas Day. My parents haven’t gone through the hassle of making them from scratch since I was a teenager and admit they might be showing off a bit for the houseguest. If I’d have known that all I had to do to get the ravioli was bring home an Irishman, I’d have done it long ago.  They put him to work right away; slicing salami for the antipasto. My brother and I pretended to help to support him.

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In case you didn’t know, Pier 1 sells iced gingerbread cookies that you can decorate yourself with the included bakery marker. Please be advised that these cookies were decorated by my brother, not my parents.

At the moment, it’s 7:38 a.m. My father and I are enjoying breakfast; he, espresso and an Eggo waffle spread with jam and me, leftover Panettone eaten straight out of the bag.

Here’s a Tip

December 27, 2008 in Ex-Patriate Games, My Funny Irish Friend

I’ve been in the U.S. for nearly a week and I still can’t sleep properly. I’m either down at 9 and up at 3 or I can’t sleep at all. Instead of taking advantage of my sleeplessness and updating my blog, the only writing I’ve done has been in the form of facebook status updates:  Liv is home in New York City and freezing.  Liv is heading to Florida tomorrow; hush puppies, u-peel-um shrimp, gator tail, mudbugs, and cibo fatto in casa. Liv thinks her cat has become even more persnickety in the 2 years since she’s seen her. Liv enjoyed dragging Sean to his first American mall today. Liv and Heifer just played an intense round of “find the cat puke” at 7 a.m. Liv and Greta enjoyed driving around their hometown of Bumblefork and showing a confused Sean where they grew up. Grannie’s peach cobbler = raw dough mush.

It’s hot here in Florida; Sean, Diego and I have shed all of the layers of clothing that barely protected us in New York. Sean cannot believe there are parts of the world that endure 85 degree heat during Christmas, especially when other parts of the country are freezing at the exact same time. Sean also cannot get used to the wide spaces in Florida and is confused by the fact that people drive everywhere. What bewilders Sean most of all, though, is tipping. It isn’t done in Ireland except for very special occasions and in Japan, it isn’t done at all. It’s one of my favorite things about the country Sean and I live in and it rankles me, too, when I’m back home and suddenly have to tip everyone who so much as nods at me.

Sean wants to know why he must tip everyone. We explain that in America, wait staff makes below minimum wage and rely on tips for their income. Sean says that’s fair enough, but why must we tip hairdressers, porters, and bartenders? And does the bartender still get a tip if all he did was open a bottle of beer? How much? We must be joking.

When I originally invited Sean to come home with me for the holidays, I wondered if it would be strange to see him here, instead of in Japan, where we are surrounded by temples, pachinko parlors and walls made of cardboard.  As it turns out, despite the fact that Sean dismantles his “massive” diner sandwiches with a knife and fork, it hasn’t been strange for me at all; he seems to fit right into my old life. It is stranger for my family friends, who have never seen me bring home a man – regardless of our relationship status – and aren’t sure what to make of the situation. And it is a little strange for Sean as well, who has taken to grinning at me saucily when we are alone in my parents’ house.

“What?” I demand. “What are you grinning at?”

“You’re tiny,” he says simply.

This shouldn’t be news to him, since he’s seen me almost every day for the past 2 years. Most people figure out that I’m below average size within seconds and if I do recall properly, Sean also found it necessary to inform me of my smaller-than-average size within days of meeting me.

“It’s different,” he explains now. “You look really, really tiny in a normal-sized house. And you’re not surrounded by women who are close to your height.”

He’s got a bit of a point, at least about how we might look different to each other when not in Japan. There, I have absolutely no trouble locating him at any time. A 6 foot tall man with white Irish skin jumps out of a crowd of Japanese but in America, searching for him at KMart after he’s run off to navigate those huge aisles in search of a toothbrush, I’m at a loss.

Fake Wallet

December 23, 2008 in Uncategorized

It’s 12:16 a.m. on Tuesday morning but Sean and I both feel like it’s Tuesday evening. He’s on my brother’s couch, eating from a bag of Herr’s mesquite-flavored potato chips and we’re watching Dustin Hoffman teasing the Letterman audience with a “dirty and true” story about his time filming Tootsie. Spill it, Dustin.

Oh my.

We arrived in New York at 6:15 pm after a 12-hour trip in Economy that was as comfortable as such a trip can be. I consider a transworld flight to be a real test of friendship. Sean, who was claiming to be “on the verge of snapping,” several times managed to hold it in well enough to remain pleasant to me, even faced with the prospect of donating his fingerprints and his photo to Department of Homeland Security, so I consider us even bestier bestests now.

If the flight was long and tiring, immigration, customs and retrieving our luggage were a surprisingly pleasant breeze; we were in a cab in less than half an hour. Sean’s first impressions of New York City (and, thus, America): “Ye are a big people, aren’t ye?”

There was Lombardi’s for dinner last night and we gorged on real cheese and beer heftier than Sapporo. Sean showed me the “fake empty wallet” he was planning to plant in his slacks, in case we should be mugged. It made me remember my first day in New York City, when I was all of 18 years old, terrified to walk from my dorm to the KMart several blocks away. Living  in Japan has left me soft and, I fear, defenseless so while I encourage Sean to leave the fake wallet at home, I keep a close eye on my belongings, too.

Tomorrow, we’re heading to Florida to spend a few days with my parents. Conan’s somewhat pasty face is filling my brother’s plasma TV. Sean wants to know who he is and remarks that he thinks he’s “a bit of a weirdo.” I couldn’t care less, just as long as he doesn’t speak Japanese.

The Darker the Broth

December 21, 2008 in Uncategorized

Yesterday, I made my last cranberry chain and didn’t care that Daisuke was complaining loudly to his friends that he didn’t want to do the Christmas lesson craft. I bid goodbye to my coworkers and wished them a happy New Year in Japanese; correctly, I might add, since that morning I had embarrassed myself by telling my landlord’s flunky to have one, literally, a “happy New Year,” which is nowhere close to the actual Japanese phrase people use when wishing each other well in the coming year. I learned the correct phrase between 9 am and 2 pm and have been using it at every opportunity.

This morning Sean and I flew to Tokyo and spent our 10- hour layover wandering the grounds at Korakuen Park. We ate udon; the udon broth in Tokyo is indeed much darker and richer than it is in Kansai.

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Sean is sitting at the Starbucks nursing a coffee and I am typing until my minutes at the internet booth run out.

And so they have. My next post will be from New York and I am pleased as pie.

The Mystery of the Ubiquitous and Radiant Train Station Ad Model

December 18, 2008 in "Teaching" English, I'm Learning Japanese ... I Really Think So, Japanese Mix, Looking, My Funny Irish Friend, spazarific

She’s everywhere.

Serene and regal, her image stalks me from ad posters plastered all over the walls of almost every commuter train station I pass through. She’s always photographed against iconic Japanese backgrounds: a serene temple surrounded by deer and cherry blossom trees, a ryokan inn heated by the steam of a nearby hot spring. Sometimes the posters are small, clustered in groups of fives, and sometimes, as in the Osaka and Kyoto hub stations, they are giant; so large that her chin is at the bottom of the escalator and the crown of her short black hair is at the top. By the middle of the ride up I can look into her eyes; jet-black and gentle. She, unlike the prepubescent American models I’m used to, must be in her 50s and is so beautiful that I can never look away. She is quite literally the poster child for the gorgeous middle-aged Japanese woman; the kind I teach who have inspired me to drink green tea by the gallon. Her skin is fresh and radiant, accented by faint creases framing her mouth and eyes. These creases, I might add, are proudly visible, not airbrushed away. This impresses me even more. I don’t know who she is, but I must find out. 

Even after 2 years in Japan, Japanese media is still very much a closed community to me. I rarely watch TV or movies. I only flip through magazines at doctors’ offices. I’ve learned who a handful of Japanese celebrities are through osmosis and reading the news, the way I did back home, so by now I’ve learned that SMAP is 1/5th attractive and the Kana sisters are filthy. For the most part, though, those grinning faces in the coffee and breath mint ads remain strangers to me. Obviously, the ubiquitous and radiant train station ad model must be the spokesperson for some massive Japanese ad campaign but my Japanese isn’t good enough to completely understand the ad copy. Thus, both the product she’s selling and her name are a mystery.

Her gaze follows me as I refill my ride card and watches me knowingly as I slurp ika udon at a train station noodle stand. She’s imploring me to do something but what? Buy stylish yet modest clothing? Appreciate Japan’s natural beauty? Think like a Japanese woman and wear SPF 50? I somehow feel compelled to do whatever she asks. I stare at the writing on the ad, picking out a few place names and phrases with grammar beyond my level. Soon Nara will close to you? For your family’s summer do ___ and ____? One day, while waiting for the Semi-Express train to whisk me to work, I notice the kanji for Kintetsu. So she’s a model for Kintetsu? But Kintetsu is a train company and in these ads, there are no trains in sight. 

I ask Sean if he knows who she is. We are standing on the train platform, heading to Tsuruhashi in Osaka for yakiniku, and a large poster of the mystery woman is right across from us. Tonight, she is stiffly bound in a plum-colored yukata, sitting in seiza at a tea ceremony. Her half-smile is that of a Madonna. 

“Her?” Sean growls. “Lord, I hate that woman.”

I’m shocked. “Hate … her?” I sputter. “How? She seems so lovely and kind.” 

“She’s evil,” snorts Sean. “Her eyes. She’s so smug. And these rubbish posters are all over the bloody place. Just look at her, like!”

I look. I see only placid wisdom and the luminous honest beauty I want when I myself am 50. 

I choose to ignore Sean, who is doubtless drunk, and take a radical second step in learning the woman’s identity: asking my students. Normally, I wouldn’t do this unless I was desperate as I’ve learned all too well that the cardinal rule in teaching English as a Second Language is to never believe a word your students say. If I were to take my students at their word, I’d have to believe that they molest their pets (“I like to touch animals”), hang out with high school kids (“I go to drink with high school students,” = “I’m hanging out with old friends from high school”) and send their children to learn kendo from men who bite them for making mistakes. My students have sent me to 6 different supermarkets in search of Pillsbury-style refrigerated cookie dough (that doesn’t exist) and have also told me that their infant sons defecate each time they laugh. No, I never trust the students but this time, my curiosity is too intense to ignore. After all, the ad campaign is so widespread that surely one of them must be able to piece together, “model,” “Kintetsu,” and “who?”

Naturally, the first person I ask is Nakata-san. I imagine it will be one-stop shopping since his English is good enough to understand the question and he’s always so keen to boast that he knows everything. When I ask him, I am surprised – and, yet, not surprised – that Nakata-san can’t help me after all. Why? Because Nakata-san is too rich; he never takes public transportation so he’s never seen the ads. Of course. 

I ask some other students on Thursday, all of who seem to be stuck on, “Who is the model who …?” despite the fact that we learned that grammar last week. Then I ask a group of “Intermediates.” Miho is stuck on, “posters in the train station,” Yuki is 16 and doesn’t know any celebrity over the age of 30 but Kenji gives me my first clue. 

“I don’t know,” he says. “But maybe Takeshita Keiko. She is Kintetsu model.” 

“Asoka!!” Miho’s face floods with recognition and relief. “So so so so so … Takeshita Keiko. She is actress.”

“Is she a TV actress or a movie actress?  Is she very famous?” I ask. Kenji is not sure but Miho is “pretty sure” that Takeshita Keiko used to be on TV. They both assure me that she is famous and, yes, probably in her 50s. 

On Friday, Mika tells me that 20 years ago, Takeshita Keiko was on a quiz show and “maybe” a samurai drama. Nobuya tells me that he knows who she is but doesn’t think she is that all that special. By the time I see Nakata-san the next week, I am armed with facts and need only to mention the name, “Takeshita Keiko” before Nakata-san puffs up with satisfaction.

“Ahh, Takeshita Keiko,” he says. “Yes, she is very, very famous actress. She is model for Kintetsu. You will see that every poster has scenery from Mie prefecture, which is last stop on Kintetsu line.” 

“Ohhhh!” I sigh. Not clothes for the stylish grandmother. Not a campaign to inspire the Japanese to embrace their traditions. Train travel. I suppose I could have figured it out myself had I not been blinded by the beatific light beaming from Takeshita-san’s expression. 

“She is for ordinary people,” continues Nakata-san. “Ordinary people who ride train and go to shrine in Mie. Boring!” He guffaws lustily. 

“So why did they choose Takeshita Keiko-san for their model, do you think?” I ask. 

“Once upon a time,” begins Nakata-san, using the phrase he’s adopted since I broke him of the habit of saying Such a time, “Ordinary people thought Takeshita Keiko was Japan’s ‘ideal wife.’ Every man wanted to marry her.” 

“Even you?”

Nakata-san chortles. “Not me,” he said. “But ordinary people like her and ordinary people ride trains to go to boring shrine so Kintetsu chose her for their campaign.” 

“I see.” I’ve developed a rule that if Nakata-san says the phrase “ordinary people,” more than 3 times I must change the subject to keep my annoyance from showing on my face. We begin to discuss his upcoming New Year’s trip to Switzerland. 

“Yes, Switzerland,” he says. “My wife and I will stay in 6 star hotel and eat caviar.” 

“How lovely,” I reply. 

So the woman in the train station posters is Takeshita Keiko. She was once Japan’s Sweetheart and a famous television actress. She’s advertising trips to the Kintetsu line’s furthest point. And so far, no one seems to agree with me that her beauty is breathtaking. In fact, when I mention how beautiful I think she is, my students look surprised. 

“She is so natural,” I insist. “She is in her 50s but she is a model. She is stylish but not trendy. In America, our 50 year-old actresses try to look 20 and they always hide their wrinkles. I like her because she she seems so kind and she is beautiful without hiding her age.” 

“I don’t think she is so beautiful,” says Miyabi. “But I like her meaning.” 

I tell Sean that I have discovered the identity of the woman in the ubiquitous train station ads, as well as what she’s selling.

“Kintetsu trips to Mie? I could have told you that,” Sean grumbles. 

But he didn’t and by now, internet searches have revealed that, for once, my students aren’t talking nonsense. I’ve found photos and interviews which tell me that Takeshita Keiko was considered to be “the perfect wife” because of the strength, gentleness and intelligence that I see in her face every day in the train station. While I technically belong to the young set, I’m nonetheless looking forward and would consider myself a lucky woman indeed if, at 50, my face could still amaze a woman half that age. Without wearing trashy clothes. Without dating a himbo. Without french kissing a starlet. Without surgery and photo tricks. What a country, I marvel. They might no longer treat their elders like royalty but at least they can appreciate beauty of all ages. 

On Saturdays, I teach a group class of Pre-Intermediates. Naoko is studying English literature at Kyoto University, Taro is a sales rep, Shoko is a Takeshita Keiko-esque radiant grandmother and Junko is an office worker. I like to tease Junko for working too much overtime but I don’t know exactly what she does. 

By now, I know enough about Takeshita Keiko to feel satisfied but am still curious for more opinions about her character. So I ask Naoko, Taro, Shoko and Junko what they think. Taro is old enough to remember when Takeshita Keiko was Japan’s Sweetheart and grins broadly when I mention her. Shoko is neutral, Naoko doesn’t know who she is and Junko … 

Junko is the graphic designer who retouched the most visible wrinkles on all of Takeshita Keiko’s Kintetsu ads. 

 

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Hot Lunch

December 12, 2008 in "Teaching" English, Oishii, spazarific

The quality of my work day lunch depends on where I’m teaching. On Thursdays, I work near a seemingly endless shopping arcade and the choices are rich. I favor a steaming bowl of ika tempura udon soup, spiked with lots of spicy red pepper and black sesame seeds. For my mid-evening snack, I stroll past a sushi shop and order a tekkamaki to go, watching carefully as the sushi chef packs the brilliant red tuna into the  rice-lined seaweed sheet and, with expert twists of his large hands, twirls the combination into a compact and delicious sushi roll. I take a bottle of green tea with my sushi and if I’m feeling saucy that day, buy a couple of crunchy meat croquettes from the department store food market. Or a chocolate cake doughnut from Mister Donut. Or a package of dried cranberries emblazoned with the words: “Nuts of the World.” 

On Fridays I work near a convenience store. Since I’m unable to get my act together and pack a lunch, that means cup noodles, onigiri, bento, potato chips, cookies, protein bars and Chinese-style meat buns. If I want to rebel against the MSG in any of the above choices, I buy a yogurt cup. Common flavors: grape, aloe, apple and strawberry. I’ve OD’d on negitoro onigiri so if I go that route, I’ll opt for a pickled plum speckled one, shaped like a triangle. I always shun convenience store sushi and have grown tired of cup noodles, too. Today’s lunch revolved around a new flavor of Chinese-style meat bun, the name of which I’ve forgotten but curry and potatoes were involved. I went without sweets today  and  tried a new kind of potato snack; chips shaped like potato wedges and doused with salt. They were excellent.

On Saturdays, I work near a convenience store, a bakery, a McDonald’s and a branch of my beloved CocoIchiban curry. The smell of curry follows me to work in a cartoon wave but I only have enough time to grab a sausage roll and a sugar-dusted ring doughnut before my shift begins. It doesn’t really matter what I buy; on Saturdays, my schedule is packed and I have no time to do anything but gulp mouthfuls of sausage roll while standing over a desk 5 people are using at once. There are no scheduled lunch breaks at my company – we’re paid to “teach,” not to eat – so all lunches and snacks are eaten in this dodgy manner, unless you’re really bold and sneak out to the McDonald’s, score a Juicy Chicken sandwich and retreat to the bathroom to wolf it down in semi-privacy, your blissful swallows punctuated by the sound of flushing.

And Another Thing ….

December 10, 2008 in Uncategorized

I am officially switching my cell phone contract to SoftBank

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December 10, 2008 in Ex-Patriate Games

It’s been over  a week since I updated. This wouldn’t be unusual or upsetting except that I vowed to myself that I’d update more frequently due to my rapidly diminishing time in Japan. You know, lock in all those sensory details, brand names, annoying conversations, and daily humiliations before they start to fade. The doors to my bedroom are Japanese-style and they slide open and shut; I buy Kagome canned tomatoes; I heard a student inform the others that only foreigners can snap their fingers; I told my landlady to “hurry up” instead of telling her that I was in a hurry. I have less than 6 months left in Asia and though I know I need to move back West to yank my career out of stasis, I’m starting to feel nervous. I live here but because I’m not particularly tied to the country by family or work, it’s never felt like “real life.” But, really, if it’s not “real life,” then what is it? It’s not like I’m living inside my own imagination. I’m affected by others and, likewise, my own actions have consequences. I’m eating, breathing, traveling, creating, helping and learning. To tell you the truth, I’m doing a lot more of all that than I ever did back home.

But I know readjustment can be difficult. Places change, rules change, relationship dynamics shift, and my career field is hard enough to break back into without the national economic crisis. On the opposite end of the pole, sometimes nothing changes at all and it’s as if you never spent whole afternoons strolling through temple grounds. Or riding an elephant. Or shouting at ungrateful children who will certainly forget you. Or trying to decipher the letter your phone company sent you. I’m not afraid of the career or relationship challenges I’ll face when I return to the West; I’m afraid of forgetting, of getting comfortable. The language and cultural barriers I face daily in Japan can certainly be difficult, but on the other hand, they keep me sharp and they train me to think outside of a box I never knew existed.

The JLPT was Sunday and that is all I’m going to say about it for the next 2 months. That, and now my head is clearing from the study cloud. I’ll be home in New York in 10 days and even though Kojima Yoshio is surprisingly hot when fully clothed, I will always think he’s a complete tool.

You Are Jealous of My Lunch, Again

December 2, 2008 in My Funny Irish Friend, Oishii

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It’s a chicken katsu bento, complete with black sesame-flecked rice, raw cabbage, pickled radish, pickled cucumbers (hidden behind the luscious, plum sauce slathered chicken katsu), a hunk of steamed egg, some spaghetti and a fresh slice of satsuma. Note, the beer is not mine; its empty shell is another leftover “present” from Sean.