Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Take a break. Eat a cookie.

Ah, it’s been a while since I wrote a totally immature post about breasts. In the midst of all of my angst, why not write about something light for a moment, then go back to all the hating. Ideas surrounding breasts are different here, and sometimes they make me feel like a bit of a prude. It’s not unusual to see an exposed nipple in magazines or on movie covers in the video store. The context is almost always nonsexual, but I’m always a little surprised when I see it. In America, finding an illustrated home breast examination pamphlet would delight any ten-year-old. I knew this lax breast censorship was true for most of Europe, but I didn’t expect it in Japan, a country that’s animated pornography industry is booming because real human pornography legally requires a mosaic over pubic hair. But enough about pornography, let’s make an uneasy transition to my work with small children.

I used to work mostly with little kids, often in their homes. That means that I often spent time drinking tea and chatting with their mothers who usually had other young children toddling about. Not long after experiencing the grabby-hands pre-school for the first time, I was having tea with a mother of some of my students. We were sitting on the floor, and her two-year-old daughter was being particularly fussy. The little girl threw herself on her mother’s lap and began grabbing at her shirt, whimpering, “[Breast! Breast!]” At the time, I nearly choked on my tea. The mother just laughed and repeated to the girl, “[Yes, breast, breast.]” She turned her attention to me and said, “[Do you know what breast means?]” I informed her that I did. As I write this now, it seems so obvious what was happening, and anyone who has raised children will probably think I’m an idiot. Her daughter still nurses. Since then I’ve seen her nursing. She’s pretty old, so that’s probably why I didn’t immediately assume that. No evidence yet on whether kids breastfeed longer in general in Japan, but that would explain a lot.

I feel the need to confess my translation methods. They may be a little misleading. I have been, and will continue to translate the same word in different ways. The word is “oppai”. It means breast/s. Unlike English, Japanese doesn’t have a lot of different words for mammaries. There are a few, but by far the most common one is oppai. It’s used by doctors and perverted little kids alike. It’s probably even used by lovers. It dominates all the other words referring to fun bags. One thing about English is that it has endless words to describe teeters, trouser snakes, quims, and making the beast with two backs. I thought about using a different English word for tittays with each invocation in this entry, but it didn’t pan out since each word has a different connotation, many of them crass, and many referring to a specific variety of blouse bunny. People call them euphemisms, but how is calling breasts “rib balloons” covering for an unpleasant reality?

Back when I was a starry-eyed idealist who thought teacher’s lady lumps should be off-limits, I was mortified by being groped by pre-schoolers. I thought it must have been because I have freakishly huge cans by Japanese standards, and they just couldn’t help but cop a feel on the elephants in the room. In time the boob-grabbing died down a bit. One day we had a guest teacher, one of Sayaka’s friends filling in for the third teacher. She was a normal Japanese girl with a normal Japanese physique. It wasn’t long before of a flock of kids was chasing her around the room gleefully jumping up and grabbing her boobs. She crossed her arms over her chest and tried to avoid them, but she mostly just laughed, like “Oh you pesky kids”. So apparently checking out the teacher’s rack is just part of their getting to know you process. While it isn’t exactly sanctioned, it’s viewed more as mischief or a mild annoyance than with the severity of the American school system (*gasp* That is a very private place and you need to keep your hands to yourself! Do you need to sit in timeout?).

I was a longtime veteran to perverted little kids when Akari and Kristina came to class. Akari was a Japanese college student who was working for us part-time in the summer, and Kristina was her American exchange student who had only been in Saga for about a month. Before class, I deadpanned to them, “Just so you know, the kids will probably grab your boobs. That’s what they do to new people.” Akari laughed, with an “Oh, great,” kind of attitude, but Kristina was aghast and turned bright red. I had forgotten that there was a time that I too was so shocked by the notion of being violated by four-year-olds. Kristina had time to prepare mentally, so when the groping came she handled it pretty well. I remember I had initially been so embarrassed about getting groped in front of my boss, but a few months later, while we were standing outside her condo having a serious conversation, her six-year-old daughter jumped up and grabbed Yoshiko’s breasts, exclaiming, “[Boobies!]” Yoshiko gave her a stern look and continued the conversation.

So that’s kids. But more than once I’ve been asked by adults why all foreign women have large breasts. I’m more likely to entertain an answer about the variety of body types in different parts of the world if it’s a woman asking. Before coming here, I was warned that kids might ask you your size, meaning your bra size. The first person to ask me this was someone who should know better. He was an English teacher, and had spent time in Australia. He was also very drunk.

“What size? A, B, C?”

My response was something drunk and flippant. Whenever the question has come up since then, I’ve just said that I don’t know because the Japanese sizing system is different. This kind of casualness suggests that breasts are viewed as being more medical than sexual, but then how would you explain all the hentai art of women with ridiculously huge boobs straining through a shred of fabric? Of course Japanese people always apply different rules when dealing with foreigners that may tend towards the skeezy/molesty, but maybe Americans are just prudes. We don’t get naked with our co-workers either, and little boy penis is too hot for TV. It’s been a while since I’ve had one of my classes interrupted by an old lady suddenly popping her head through the sliding door and calling “[Breast!]” (She was telling the mother that her baby needed to nurse.) But I think if that happened now, I wouldn’t choke on my tea or anything.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Japan is hard.

Occasionally when I’m chatting with the locals, I hear the question, “Nihon ga sumiyasui desuka?” “[Is it easy to live in Japan?]”

I hear this from well-meaning, yet provincial strangers, usually following a short conversation and an exclamation of how good my Japanese is. I have the same conversation over and over again:

Where are you from? Are you an English teacher? Where? How long have you lived here? Do you like Saga? Wow, your Japanese is good!

The same conversation. With some optional elements here and there. Sometimes they linger on food and skip on weather, sometimes they cover both. Usually there’s some comment on how tall I am.

Then comes that loaded question: Is it easy to live in Japan?

I never know how to respond. If I were to answer honestly, I would say no, it’s not easy to live in Japan, but not for the reasons that you would expect. It’s not because I can’t eat fish or use chopsticks. It’s not because I’ve never seen this curious thing you call rice and don’t understand how one can eat it every day. Nor do I have a problem with tatami or futon, or taking off my shoes when entering a house or office or hospital. It’s not even because I can’t understand enough of the language or writing. I get by.

Truth be told, gentle shopkeeper/farmer/housewife/random old person, Japan is fucking difficult. Pumping gas is difficult. Buying envelopes is difficult. Taking out the trash is difficult. Sometimes, every simple action becomes an impossible task, just because of some specific knowledge you don’t possess. Even small errands can be intimidating if it’s something you’ve never done in Japan before, because there’s likely an elaborate process behind it. But you get used to those kinds of things. There’s something else that can’t be easily articulated. Culture shock doesn’t come right away. It sneaks up on you after months of constantly relying on the kindness of your employers or co-workers, who really are oh so nice, and never knowing what the hell is happening. At first you thank god for those people who can help you through this confusing world, then you wonder if it wouldn’t be more convenient for everyone if they just took a minute to explain a few things to you. The tenth time you go to work and discover that there’s no place for you to plan your lessons because there’s some weird presentation going on that’s being videotaped and taken very seriously and everyone looks at you like you’re interrupting, it gets to you. Or when you go to work and discover everyone is celebrating a big going-away party for one of the teachers getting married, but you were never invited. Or when you drive all the way to your class in a town hall in a different city only to find the doors locked and no one there because of some reason everyone understood, but no one decided to inform the teacher about. Small reminders that you will never, ever be one of them.

But then there are the people who assume that the Japanese language and culture are a completely indecipherable enigma to someone foreign. This includes the service people who refuse to speak to you and only point at things or use some kind of primitive sign language, even when you try to confirm or respond to their gestures in Japanese. It also includes those closer colleagues or associates who are an endless source of obvious information that they think will be helpful to you because you must know nothing. Every time you meet them, they’re surprised that you can speak Japanese, despite that being the only way you’ve ever communicated with them. They know so little about anything outside of Japan that they have no idea what might be confusing for someone foreign. While you try to educate those people, they quickly discard any new information you tell them and cling to the exact stereotypes and expectations they had of you before. You are not here to educate people. You are here to give a foreign, one-dimensional happy face to the system that is still thoroughly entrenched in Japaneseness. You are there to dance, monkey, but do not provide any input, because you couldn’t possibly contribute to this intricate Japanese system. People may like you, may think that you’re good-looking and lots of fun, but do they think of you as human? Not really.

Japan is such a nice place, so safe, so clean, and most people are outwardly kind to you, yet there’s this slow feeling of suffocation. Another arbitrary rule, another suspicion that a person you considered a friend was just being polite and doesn’t actually give a shit about you, and it becomes harder to breathe. It’s hard to breathe, and it’s hard to live, and meanwhile you have to smile at every gawking child you see and appear warm and welcoming because you are an ambassador.

So no, stranger, it is not easy to live in Japan.

But I never say that. I always just smile, and say, “[There are difficult things, but overall, it’s all right.]”

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

I just need to write something now to prove that I exist. I wanted to write something that people would respond to, not because it’s the next great work of literary journalism, but because it’s something, because it resonated, because it was what it was. I’ve long given up the notion that I could produce the next great anything. But if some people read it and like it, maybe that’s enough. I’m in a state now that I hate everything I try to put to words, even when I toy with a few different subjects that are on the list of fragments going stale. All day, I’ve thought, I take so much, I consume so much, I need to produce something. And nothing came out. So I write about how nothing came out, because if I don’t, it will be another day I may as well not have existed, another day of an empty inbox and an internet that updates too slowly. At least I’m leaving this one footprint. I was alive on February 13, 2008, and I couldn’t write anything at all.