Monday, August 28, 2006

I am a total fucking mess.

Warning: The images in this post are kind of icky. Viewer discretion advised.

Ever since coming to Japan, I feel like I’ve been progressively falling apart physically. The day after I arrived in Shi-town, Colin and I went to a barbecue that our Canadian friend, Mark was holding at a park in A-town. Mark has been here for about six years, making money almost solely from tutoring gigs, so that means it can be done, though the work visa system sounds complicated. Anyway, at this barbecue I met many of the Saga JETs and their Japanese friends, we compared the various accents of the Brits, Aussies, Kiwis, Canucks, and Yankees, and they were for the most part quite lovely, though of course not more qualified than me. I practiced my terrible Japanese, and Colin talked to a Japanese girl for about half an hour before I went over to join him and lament that Japanese is too hard. As soon as Colin introduced me as his girlfriend, the girl started scanning the area, and caught sight of the two Matts from England. She asked, “Do those boys have girlfriends?”
I told her that the brown-haired one did, but I didn’t know about the other one. So I leaped up to ask, always wanting to be helpful/confrontational, and probably too tipsy and cheerful to realize that this girl had been hitting on my boyfriend. I had a brief exchange with London Matt, and returned to inform the girl that he didn’t have a girlfriend.
“[The brown-haired one doesn’t?]”
“[No, the yellow-haired one.]”
“[What about the brown-haired one?]”
“[Brown-haired one, there is a girlfriend.]”
The girl looked disappointed, and said of London Matt, “He is very active, yes?”
“Uh…yes.” He is indeed muscular.
She shrugged, deciding this white guy must be good enough, and slinked across the patio to introduce herself. Japanese people can actually be uncomfortably direct when it comes to foreigners, especially when pursuing foreign ass, it would seem.

But that doesn’t have to do with me falling apart. This does: As night approached, a fog of mosquitoes fell upon the entire pavilion, feasting upon our ankles and bare legs. I applied bug spray so many times throughout the night, but that did nothing for me, and I think the bugs were attacking me more than they were most people. Eventually, we went home because they were driving us so crazy.

The next day, my legs and feet were covered in giant red welts. They itched in such a way that I was in horrible, horrible pain all the time, and cortisone did nothing. I’ve even experienced bad mosquito bites before. In my childhood, my arms and legs were constantly covered in scabs from old mosquito bites. I remember a girl mocked me at recess once by telling me I had the chicken pox. So I hit her. My grandmother told me I just had sweet blood. I’m familiar with this kind of thing, but nothing to this degree of severity. I spent the next couple of days trying not to scratch my legs, applying cortisone every hour, taking oatmeal baths and being miserable. I couldn’t really even go out, I was so distracted by the pain. Not to mention the fact that I looked like a freak with puffy, gangrenous legs. Colin’s Irish JET friend, Annick, struggled similarly with bad bites, and bought me some topical Japanese stuff her predecessor had left her. It worked like a charm. I couldn’t believe how ineffective the cortisone was compared to this.

Anyway, the swelling went down, but the bites became bright red, oozy, and infected, and I had to apply antibiotic ointment. My left leg was the worst. Observe:

I actually thought I had blood poisoning or something, but it turns out you mainly get that from catheters. It’s much better now, but I still have scars. Mosquitoes still bug the shit out of me, but I haven’t had a reaction like that again.

And now for the second example of myself falling apart. On Saturday, Colin, Annick, and I headed to Karatsu by train for a beach party, which involved changing trains a lot and about two hours of travel time. While we were waiting at one of the train stations, I walked down two perfectly normal steps and landed with my foot perfectly normal, except somehow my ankle decided to go crazy and snap to the side. I almost fell in front of a whole bunch of Japanese people, and they all watched as I clutched Colin’s shoulder, attempted to put weight on my foot, and had to be helped to one of the chairs with my eyes tearing up. Annick gave me a cold water bottle, and I rested it on my ankle for a while. After a few minutes, it wasn’t feeling nearly as painful as after the initial snap. I kept saying, “It’s not that bad.” When the time came to get on the train, I walked slowly but sort of normally. Even though I wasn’t putting any weight on it while standing on the train, it starting hurting more, so I sat down next to some schoolboy. When Annick asked me if it was swollen, I looked at it and told her I didn’t think so. But then I poked at a protrusion that wasn’t actually my ankle bone, but a golf ball sized lump. Comparing it to my other ankle was pretty impressive, actually. It was very swollen, but not that bad, really. I even walked the five to ten minute walk from the station to the beach, albeit carefully and not very well.

The beach party was fun. I even went in the ocean, though I didn’t do any serious swimming or anything. The water may have even helped the swelling. It was pretty cool to see the horror on people’s faces as I directed them to look at my ankles, and then insisted that it wasn’t really that bad. I cut my legs sitting on some rocks (I’m such a fucking mess), and I ate and drank and was merry, except for a brief wave of extreme bitterness at JET for rejecting me. The more I drank, the less I noticed my injury, so I was probably walking a lot more than I should have been.

The next day, the ankle that I had insisted wasn’t really that bad looked terrible. My entire foot had swollen up and was covered in a dark bruise. In this case, I think the picture doesn’t quite do it justice, especially since you can't see the swelling so much from this angle. Ladies and gentleman, my right foot:

Funny how you can still see the scars from the mosquito bites. Anyway, walking was quite difficult, so I stayed off it that day, and wondered how the fuck I could survive in Japan without walking. I had the same plan to stay off it again today, but I still ended up limping a few blocks to the 7-11. It’s a lot better today, though. As I’ve been saying all along, it’s really not that bad. Hopefully I’ll be able to walk again soon. Hopefully I’ll be able to stop being a human disaster as well.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Teburu no Shita

My plan was to write in at least some sort of chronological order, and I’m about to disregard that for this entry. Most of you were directed here from Colin’s website in which he said that I maybe had a job. So you don’t die of anticipation, I’ll go ahead and tell you that it’s true. I maybe have a job. But don’t get your hopes up.

Colin had been in contact with one of the outgoing JETs in the Shi-town trifecta that consists of A-town, F-town, and Shi-town. (When you read a little further, you’ll understand why I’m trying to keep my location undisclosed on the web.) Anyway, this JET, Joe, told Colin that he had a friend who was opening a cram school in F-town, and he could ask if she was looking for English teachers. It turns out she was, so Colin gave Joe my contact info, and during my first week here, she called. Speaking Japanese and understanding Japanese over the phone is incredibly difficult, so I mostly resorted to very simple English.

After two awkward telephone conversations, we agreed to meet outside S Bank in A-town. I rode my bike there, and saw that Joe was going to be an interpreter for the interview. We spoke in Japanese a little, but I mostly spoke in English because that’s what I was interviewing to do. Just because you’re a native speaker doesn’t mean you can speak English well. She didn’t seem very impressed with me. I wasn’t very impressed with me. I understood most of the things Joe and Y said to each other, but I really didn’t sufficiently show my Japanese ability. I forgot that in Japan, the general belief is that if you're white, you can speak English well. You could be from Norway, but as long as you have blond hair and blue eyes, the English teaching offers will be coming in left and right. At least that’s what I’ve heard.

Despite the awkwardness of the interview, Y said that she would try me out for two months part-time, and if she liked me, she would switch me to full time and sponsor my working visa, which is a pretty generous thing to do. She asked if it was legal for me to be working on my visitor’s visa. I told her that is wasn’t really. She conversed with Joe as to how she was supposed to pay me if it wasn’t legal for me to work. Joe said, “Teburu no shita”, which translates to “Under the table”, which literally means “under the table” in Japanese, so she looked fairly confused. But she got the idea after a little more explanation. She told me that she would call me next week, and we would start training. It’s now quite late in next week, and I still haven’t gotten a call. I don’t have her number. She has my house phone number and Colin’s cell phone number. I really need my own cell phone. It’s impossible to live as an individual in Japan without your own keitai. You can’t get one without a gaijin registration card, which I can’t get as a visitor, so I’ll have to make Colin get a second cell phone under his name. Anyway, I haven’t gotten a call, and I’m freaking out.

This job is probably the best opportunity I could possibly get, though the schedule isn’t ideal. Since I’d be working nights, Colin and I would have opposite schedules, and we’d probably only get to see each other asleep or on the weekends. I don’t know, we’ll see what happens. I hate being unemployed.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

In the Manner of Sei Shonagon

Amusing things:
Colin screaming softly at the sight of a spider that has spun its web in the doorframe.
Colin screaming softly at the sight of a small green frog on the railing his hand nearly grazed.
Colin screaming loudly as a cicada flies into his ear.

Things that are near though distant:
The train ride to anywhere remotely urban.
The expiration of my tourist visa.

Things that give a pathetic impression:
A person afraid to leave her single air-conditioned room.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Sort of Lost in Tokyo

I don’t know how anyone comes to Japan without knowing any Japanese. The transportation system seems to be purposely opaque, and it makes me long for Prague’s red, yellow, and green lines. My goal was to get from Ueno station to Tokyo station, which is only two stops apart on the Yamanote line. Once at Tokyo station, I buy a ticket for the Shinkansen (Japanese cross-country bullet train), and ride it until the end of the line, which is Hakata Station in Fukuoka. It’s so incredibly simple sounding. As it turns out, Japan is hard, even when you’ve shipped your enormous luggage ahead of you.

I found Ueno station, but it’s huge, sort of multi-level, and spans a few blocks. The various entrances have signs that indicate different lines, but I couldn’t find the Yamanote line anywhere. I wandered around the station for a while until I found a giant subway map spanning an entire wall. Underneath the map, there was a row of computerized ticket machines that everyone was hurriedly tapping things into then scurrying away. The map made no sense to me. It was just a tangle of black lines with little dots and kanji that I couldn’t read. I knew the kanji for where I was going, and where I currently was, but somehow I couldn’t locate either, and didn’t really know what I was supposed to be getting from this map, anyway. As I stared at the map, an older man in a subway employee uniform walked up to me.
“[Hello. Where are you going?]”
My first instinct was to cautiously back away from the man (I’m so weird), but I realized that I was about a minute away from asking for help, anyway, and this man had just offered it. “[I want to go until Tokyo station.]”
“[That costs one hundred _____ yen.]”
I repeated the amount to myself, though I would forget it after my next question. “[Yamanote line? Where?]”
“[That’s over there, on the left side.]” He gestured to one of the ticket entrances. I thanked him, then tentatively approached one of the machines. Although the man had been very helpful, he hadn’t solved the mystery of the machines. I felt like one of those technologically challenged old women at the Cub Foods self-checkout lane. With the rows of lighted buttons in front of me, I gathered that I chose my own fare amount, which was determined by where my stop was on the map, but the man had already told me the amount. Unfortunately, all I remembered was that it was one hundred something. So I played it safe and typed in one hundred ninety, and headed toward the Yamanote line, which was only labeled as such once I went through the gate, where I encountered multiple tracks and somehow picked the correct one.

I bought my Shinkansen ticket at Tokyo station from an actual person, but this didn’t help me find the correct train. I just kind of wandered around the area for a while looking at my ticket and trying to determine how it told me where I was supposed to go. I eventually figured it out, and as I stood on the platform, in the line to enter the non-reserved seating car number 3, I was finally at ease. But that only lasted for about a minute. As I was waiting, a large Saudi man dressed entirely in white came up to me and said, “Where you going?” I told him Fukuoka.
“Is that where you stationed?”
“This train no go to Fukuoka. This train go to Kokura. My friend go to Kokura. My friend, he make same mistake.” His friend was a younger man who was standing in the line several people back, looking on nervously.
Once again, my confidence had disappeared. I began studying my ticket again, and comparing it to the sign in front of me. “But…it says 18.”
“You go wrong train because you no speak English good, you no speak Japanese, like my friend.”
Hey, man, you don’t even know me. We had to settle what was turning out to be a dispute over my lack of linguistic ability. I turned to the man behind me and asked in my best Japanese accent, “[Excuse me, does this train go to Hakata?]” The man not only confirmed this, but my accent must have been so good that he also rattled off a lot of other things in Japanese I couldn’t understand. Surprisingly, the Saudi man jumped in and exchanged words with the man in Japanese. Then he turned back to me and said. “My friend go to Kokura. He no speak English, he no speak Japanese. You help him.”
What? He was just telling me I can’t speak English or Japanese, then he wanted my help? We started boarding the train, so that was the last I heard from him. The younger Saudi man sat near me, and was nervous during the entire ride, which for him was almost five hours. Every time the train stopped, he asked either me or someone near him if the stop was Kokura. He didn’t really listen to me, or maybe didn’t understand. He seemed to understand simple Japanese better than simple English. I felt sorry for him. He was so much worse off than me, but he made it.

The train ride was interesting. Somehow I ended up in the smoking car. At first I didn’t think it would be so bad, since smoke doesn’t bother me that much, but I guess I didn’t realize that people who choose to be in the smoking car do so to chain-smoke throughout the entire ride. Seriously, a couple people sitting near me never stopped smoking. Breathing was difficult. I also learned that much like the Greyhound or the Amtrak in America, the non-reserved smoking car was a big draw for people I will refer to as J-trash. The guy sitting across from me was wearing big gold chains and dark glasses and blatantly ignored the rule, “Please use mobile phones gently and switch to silent mode while inside the car.” His phone was ringing constantly (as were several others in the car), and he definitely wasn’t using it gently. I wonder what kind of business he was in that he had to be on his phone all the time. Anyway, the plus side was that I got to see all of the Japanese countryside between Tokyo and northern Kyushu, and it was fucking gorgeous. I met Colin in Hakata, and we took another train here, where I’ve mostly been doing a whole lot of nothing. But that will all be covered at a later date. Hopefully my future entries won’t be so boring, but I’m not making any promises.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

That's about enough, terrorists.

I have nightmares about packing. My plane is taking off in an hour, or the bus is about to leave, or a tornado is about to demolish my house, or something similar, and my necessities are strewn about everywhere, and every time I locate something and put it in my suitcase, something else disappears. When I finally get everything packed, the nightmare starts over again.

I’ve ridden on planes since before I can remember, and still every time I’m on one my stomach is tight as I suppress thoughts about a fiery death. I’m not terrified of planes or anything, but it always crosses my mind. I’m anxious. One thing that doesn’t help my anxiousness is the airport PA system screaming every five minutes about an orange terror alert for air travel. It reminded me what I already knew—no liquids on board, even when purchased in the safe area, no liquids or gels of any kind allowed through security, everybody must take off their shoes and submit to additional screening at the gate. Man, I am so sick of terrorists.

Unlike what the PA system promised, only people holding non-U.S. or Canadian passports were submitted to additional screening. But just so no one would think I was a terrorist, I emptied my water bottle before boarding each plane. Not being able to have water was a big deal for me. I need it to live, which is why I kept my bottle so I could ask the flight attendant to fill it on the international flight. The flight attendant, a tall, thick, Minnesotan-looking blonde cheerily took my bottle, but when she returned to hand it back to me, she said with a tone so serious it sounded like a joke, “Everyone’s wondering how you got this on board. You know that, right?” It wasn’t a joke, because you never make a joke about airport security on an airplane. “It was empty?” I replied, a little stunned because 1) she was being pretty stern about an empty water bottle, which I was certain was not airplane contraband, and 2) how would I know that everyone was freaking out about my water bottle? Oh, and I actually could have just walked onto the plane with it since no one checked my bag. She quickly returned to her jovial self, explaining that everyone was just asking about it. By the way, this flight attendant, who looked significantly more gaijin than me, spoke flawless Japanese. I found this both encouraging and intimidating. Encouraging because someone just as tall as me, thicker, and blonder was able to successfully spend enough time in Japan and interact with enough people to become fluent, and intimidating because it made me realize that my god, my Japanese is terrible. Also terrible was the water she gave me. I’ll drink almost any tap water, but this was not potable, and left an awful aftertaste that would stay with me for the rest of the flight. Which was only supposed to be twelve hours.

But it was more like fifteen, because half an hour before we were supposed to land in Tokyo, after they’d announced their final descent and shown us a little “Welcome to Narita” video, they announced that the runway was too wet to land on due to rain, and we’d have to circle for a while. You’re such a cocktease, American Airlines. We circled over the ocean for almost an hour before the captain announced that we needed to refuel in Sapporo, which was an hour away. We landed, it took another hour to refuel, then another hour to get back to Tokyo. In the customs line, I saw an official lead away a group of confused-looking brown people into a room of fogged glass with automatic sliding doors that looked like a futuristic torture chamber. The hour ride on the subway to Ueno was scary, as I wasn’t sure I was on the right train for the first half hour. My getting on the train at all depended on an American woman who offered to help me with one of my two fifty pound bags, and my getting off depended on a Japanese guy who goes to Michigan State helping me with my bags for far longer than was necessary. Everyone stared at me on the train, and I couldn’t tell if it was because I was the only white person or because I had two enormous bags I was trying to hold onto. Maybe both.

When I arrived at the hotel, I spoke in broken Japanese. The clerk said to me, “[You speak Japanese, yes?]”
“[Only a little.]”
“[Well, your Japanese is fantastic.]”
I did the sociolinguistically appropriate thing, which was to laugh and avert my glance, looking a little embarrassed, which I guess I was since my Japanese was crap. When I got to my room and looked through my bags, I realized that the liquid/gel ban apparently didn’t apply to the nail polish and the suspiciously explosive-looking gel lip gloss in my carry-on that I didn’t even know were there. Once Al Qaeda starts recruiting awkward white girls, we’re really in trouble.