Wednesday, April 23, 2008


I'm off to Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos for the next twelve days. I'm totally not going to step on any landmines.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Crime in Japan!

Last night someone tried to rob the Hokka Hokka tei in A-town. For those of you not in Japan, Hokka Hokka tei is a popular chain bento shop. Anyway, when my friend Hiromi picked me up for our yoga class last night, she couldn’t wait to tell me the news, because it had happened near her house. The area was crawling with police—it seemed like they’d sent out SWAT teams—so she had wandered around the street watching everything go down and gathering information. Apparently someone had tried to rob the place when it was filled with customers, and everyone working there ran away, leaving just the robber and the customers. The robber tried to open the safe but couldn’t, so he ran away.

“[Did he have a weapon?]” I asked Hiromi.
“[He had a knife, I think. Not a gun.]”
“[A knife? That’s not scary.]”

Hiromi was very amused by my response. When we met with the yoga class of middle-aged women from various nearby towns, they were all marveling at the details of the very frightening attempted robbery, and Hiromi was sure to quote me: “Sore amari kowaikunai.” I explained a little that if I were in the cashier’s position, and the place was filled with customers, it wouldn’t be hard for someone to get the knife away or call the cops. They thought I was really tough, and probably stupid. I didn’t share with them the rest of my thoughts on the matter, because they revealed that as a result of my experience with crime in America, my way of thinking was pretty dark. At Hokka Hokka tei, there’s an entire long counter between the customers and the workers. If someone pulled out a knife and said give me all your money, what if you just said no? What could they do with a counter between you? Throw the knife at you? Are they some kind of deadly, circus-trained knife-throwers? In America, for such a robbery to work, they’d need a hostage to begin with. In that situation (a crowded shop, a counter between you and danger), to be that intimidated by someone with a knife the robber would need to already have it to someone’s throat so they could say, “Give me all your money or I’ll slice this guy’s neck open.”

Colin was driving to Saga City not long after this happened, and when I told him about it he said, “So that’s why there were cops everywhere.” And Saga City is pretty far away from A-town. Colin told me that today his school had a staff meeting about safety concerns in regards to the attempted robbery. They made a really big deal out of it, and announced to the students to return straight home from school, and to take special caution. I wonder if these cautionary school announcements were limited to the Shi-town tri-city area. Several months ago there was actually a murder with a gun in Takeo, a city about half an hour’s drive from here. It was a yakuza hit gone wrong. Apparently, the guy was supposed to whack another yakuza who had been in the hospital recovering from a heart attack, but he had already checked out and the hitman ended up offing an innocent guy who was in the same bed for a bike accident. Of course it’s really sad and kind of scary, especially if you were going into the hospital anytime soon, but the fallout was amazing. All over the prefecture, places nowhere near Takeo, people were freaking the hell out. Some schools were let out early, after-school clubs were canceled, and parents were encouraged pick up their children rather than let them walk home. Did they really think that this gunman was going to come out of hiding just to nab elementary school kids? I was reminded of the kind of incidents that inspired such caution in the school systems back when I was a kid. For a while there was some kind of gang warfare going on in the area around my middle school. It was those drug-runners from Chicago, they said. Someone got shot one night a block away from the school, so the next day it went on lockdown. That meant that we were only permitted to use the front entrance, and the side entrances were guarded during the day by police officers. I can’t really remember, but I think this went on for a week or two. But this didn’t change anything at any of the other schools in the city. There were no announcements to take extra caution or to hurry straight home after school, and certainly no one in the surrounding cities knew anything about it.

When Colin’s grandparents visited Saga about six months ago, they stayed at the Saga City home of a colleague’s widow, a Japanese woman who had traveled all over the world. When we were taking his grandparents to the Shi-town area for the day, and mentioned to the woman that we were making a stop in Kouhoku, she balked at the idea. She exclaimed that Kouhoku was dangerous, that there used to be a mine there that closed down so there are many low class people, and a few years ago there was a murder. Kouhoku is one town over from us, and we stop there often to go to the video store or the Jusco (a big shopping center). Did she actually think that we were in danger of being murdered by out of work miners?

When I was growing up in Iowa, there was a murder in my neighborhood. That place was predominantly rich and white, too. It was drug-related—a dealer and his girlfriend just wanted a dark street where they could shoot this poor crackhead, and 42nd street was nice and dark. They didn’t even live there. I remember my friends and I playing near the spot where the kid was killed. It was under a weeping willow, and there was a big, human-sized bloodstain that just wouldn’t wash away, with rusty-colored bars running off the shoulder of the road. Maybe it was kind of a big deal then, but we knew that those people had little to do with us or our neighborhood, just like whatever out-of-work-miner murder that might have happened in Kouhoku a few years ago is no point of concern when I’m stopping there to rent a DVD.

It all makes me wonder a couple things. First, what’s wrong with me that violent crime is so banal? And second, how do Japanese people manage to travel the world without being paralyzed by fear everywhere they go? Young Japanese women in particular have a fascination with Europe, mainly France and Italy. Western or European restaurants and clubs are supposed to be hip and sophisticated, while Japanese style things are provincial and silly. But all European-style food or drink or club is sent through the Japanese filter, which generally makes it either really strange and cheesy (not literally, though. That would be great, I love cheese) or just a weak imitation. Though it’s far from stylish according to hip, young Japanese kids, I prefer Japanese style pubs, sake and beer. Apparently there’s been a wave of young Japanese women traveling to places like Paris or Rome going through shock upon discovering that it’s not like the romantic nights and gondolas of their imaginations and whatever mini-replication they experienced at Tokyo Disney. Sometimes those places are dirty, or rude, and sometimes there are pickpockets and sometimes people take advantage of you. It’s not like Paris is particularly dangerous, it’s just not Japan.

When I was discussing this with one of my housewife friends, she told me a news story she had heard a few years ago, that I have yet to have confirmed over the internet, so I can’t attest to its validity. She told me that several years ago, six young Japanese women were traveling together in Italy, and they were all abducted by one crazy Italian guy with a sword. According to my friend, he held them hostage in his apartment for days, just him and his sword, and he raped all of them. He had samurai delusions. Eventually they escaped, but when my friend heard the story, she was angry. There were six of them, and just one of him and a sword. Young women are raised to be so naïve, she said. They should have done something. I found myself thinking the same thing, but remembered the first tenet of good feminism, NEVER BLAME THE VICTIM. There’s no denying that Japan is a bit of a follow-the-leader, groupthink kind of place. Maybe they just believe in obeying the guy with the blade. But it’s not like weird issues with obedience is strictly a Japanese problem.

My friend also told me about going to Singapore for a week, and being pick-pocketed twice, both times for just being unaware and having her bag slung behind her. So maybe it is hard for Japanese people to travel and learn to not trust everyone. But it makes me wonder what’s wrong with us? I’m from Iowa, and Iowa is supposed to be safe, but I know to always watch my possessions and not listen to the people on the street who ask you for money or other favors. A lot of these places are developed nations, yet we still can’t trust each other. What’s the deal?

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Shanghai: Part II

In the morning we step out of our hotel and onto Nanjing road, where we notice a thin fog of persistent rain, and us with no umbrellas. As soon as we step onto the street, a woman comes up to us trying to sell us bags and watches. Although we’ve only been in China for about fourteen hours, this woman is something like the fiftieth person who’s tried to sell us the same stuff. Having lost my Midwest super-politeness, I said, more to Colin than her, “If you were selling umbrellas, then we could talk.” But since I had said anything at all, she decided to follow us for half a block. If I ever go back to Shanghai, I’ll stay away from Nanjing road. It’s stressful having someone aggressively trying to sell you something every twenty seconds. And sometimes they even look like completely normal people who suddenly emerge from the crowd of all the other normal Chinese people going about their business to try to sell you things. It’s a little unnerving.

Within a minute we see someone selling umbrellas, interestingly, just sitting out of the rain with her merchandise in a Tupperware container, not pursuing anyone, and we buy two, then head to the Shanghai Museum. Hardened from our fourteen hours, Colin and I were wearing our “leave me alone” faces. Anyone who greeted us, asked us where we were from, or tried to tell me how beautiful I was, we had to ignore completely, because we knew the next thing to happen would be them trying to sell us something. It was hard, because that’s kind of the opposite of my role as a good Samaritan in Japan. I’m always answering questions from strangers, and trying to smile and be warm, but in Shanghai, you just can’t. Anyway, when we reached the museum, we saw that the line to get in wrapped all the way around the building. Apparently, museum admission had just become free, which is great, but as a result it was crazy packed. Since the museum was one of the main sights we came to see, we decided to wait. We were comfortable with our umbrellas protecting us not only from the light spray of rain, but from the attention of the umbrella-hawkers walking the length of the line.

We had been waiting for about fifteen minutes when the woman in front of us in line turned around to say hello in English and started trying to coerce her young daughter to talk to us. We were guarded at first, but since they were fellow line-waiters we decided they really were just practicing their English. So I transitioned back into friendly foreigner mode as the little girl hid behind her hands and squealed in embarrassment while her mother suggested things to ask us. Even though she was mostly too embarrassed to say anything directly to us, from the phrases she ran by her mother, we were pretty impressed with her English. It was definitely better than most Japanese adults. When she asked us where we were from and we told her America, she exclaimed “Oh my goh!” That’s one phrase she has in common with Japanese kids. Then she started pointing to a phrase in her English book that translated as “In China, we believe in communism.” During the wait, the girl spelled the word “museum” for us, then asked Colin to sing, but was very displeased by his singing. Then he asked her to sing, and she did, nervously and in Chinese. It was a good time.

I’m getting bored writing this. I get the feeling no one will read it or care anyway. So I’ll end it quickly. The museum was excellent. We walked to the French quarter afterwards, which was very interesting, and Colin bought a cell phone strap that was a panda eating a piece of bamboo. The bamboo broke off within a week. We had a delicious lunch consisting of those steamed, meat-filled buns. I can’t remember what they’re called. At night faced my big fear and took the subway again during rush hour to get to the Shanghai circus. It wasn’t nearly as bad as before. And the circus was fantastic, like Cirque du Soleil only Chinese and awesome. For our late dinner, we ended up at Pizza Hut, and I would feel guilty but oh my god it was so amazing. I didn’t even like Pizza Hut in the States, and thought I wasn’t so big on pizza in general before I came here, but once it’s gone completely for so long, the taste of actual pizza without mayonnaise or seafood or corn or anything can give you such a mouth-gasm. The next morning we walked to Yuyuan Gardens, which was beautiful and pretty different from Japanese gardens, and we also petted a really nice garden kitty. Colin bought a pocket watch that had Chairman Mao shaking his fist on the face. He argued the price down quite a bit, but the watch still stopped within a couple days. By the time I left, I felt good about China as a vibrant, interesting and historically rich place. I’d definitely go back. I hate ending a post so stupidly, but nobody will read it, so who cares.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Shanghai: Part I

There are plenty of downsides to being severely underworked, but at least I have time to travel. Back when I was at the cram school, I was overworked and underpaid, and there was no such thing as vacation or sick days. Half the time I was there, I had classes six days a week, so I had to look on with puppy-dog eyes as the JET ALTs went on their weekend excursions to totally fun places I would love to go to if I only had the time. But asking for days off to travel anywhere was always out of the question, because I had completely fallen for the Japanese company loyalty thing. Everyone else was working hard, harder than me, and they never got to travel. Yoshiko and Sayaka always told me that they were so unimaginably busy now and didn’t even have time to eat or sleep because it was time for midterm exams/entrance exams/post-entrance exams/graduations/preparation for the new school year/summer school/English programs/winter study-camp and so on until eternity. After having been there for a full year, I realized that these times that everyone was so busy their heads would explode could actually just be described as spring, summer, fall, and winter. It was all the time, just different reasons, and as soon as entrance exam season was over, something new would come up. So now I’m underworked and underpaid, and not only do I have time to travel, but because of my sketchy visa situation, I have to. Lucky for me, Colin is underworked and overpaid.

For my most recent pond-jumping adventure, we wanted to go somewhere that was cheap, close, but interesting. We’d already been to Korea, so we decided on Shanghai, the next closest metropolis. We had a full two days there, so we planned on making a mini-vacation out of it. I was really excited about going to China, and had learned some Mandarin on the awesome language-learning game on the plane. I annoyed the shit out of Colin as we were waiting for the Maglev by repeating “Wan an. Wan an. Tsao an.” Oh, and let me tell you about the Maglev. It’s a train, and the name stands for magnetic levitation, which is exactly what it sounds like. It doesn’t actually touch the tracks, but hovers smoothly above them—magnetically. It’s one of the fastest trains in the world, with speeds up to 430 kilometers an hour. We took it from the airport to the subway station, where we were to get on the train toward Nanjing Road, where our hotel was located.

Just from being in the airport and train stations, I was able to gather a number of first impressions about China. People spoke loudly and expressively, and favored rushing ahead of people over the line, which is Japan’s best friend. Maybe it’s just me, but I found it fascinating that the women weren’t clompy and stumbly in their high-heeled shoes, and the only knock-knees I saw the entire time were on a Japanese girl. Grace noted in her blog that many women in Japan seem to walk like they’re mildly disabled, and I often wonder why that is. I also saw hardly any short-shorts, and some women didn’t wear makeup.

I was still happy and eager to experience Shanghai when we got on the subway with our backpacks and one piece of checked luggage. At each stop, more people poured through the doors, and we found ourselves being pushed further away from the exit. More people came aboard, and I was pressed uncomfortably against an old man. I had told Colin to hold his backpack in front of him for the train ride, because China wasn’t safe like Japan, and I was glad because soon a group of shady-looking guys had flooded aboard and took their place directly behind Colin and at a vantage point where they could gawk at me. I reminded Colin to watch his stuff, and tried not to look worried, which I definitely was. They were staring hard, at me, then at our duffle bag, then at me some more. I became even more conscious of the fact that we were the only white people in sight, and as such, clearly looked like money. Moreover, as the train became more packed, we wondered how we could get to the door in time to get off when we kept getting further away from it.

In a state of fret over reaching the door through the crowd and avoiding getting robbed by the sketchy guys behind us, we decided to exit through the doors of the next car, which we had practically been pushed into anyway. After observing the natives wordlessly shoving their way through the crowd of people in the course of getting on or off the train, we made a plan to get to the door by any means necessary. Once our stop came, I plowed through the crowd, repeating “I’m sorry, I’m sorry” as I pushed through the wall of standing humans with literally all my strength. I would have knocked people flat to the ground had they had any room to fall. But it wasn’t enough, as the doors closed while we were just feet away “Shit!” I said loudly.

We were stuck in the new car, several feet from the door, unable to move, and we had just made a huge scene. We were waiting uncomfortably in the midst of a sea of people we had just attempted to knock into oblivion. Then it happened.

I got molested on the subway.

My line of work really lowers the boundaries you have with your body. I have kids climbing on me all the time, sometimes, as I've frequently discussed, grabbing some private areas. I don't necessarily notice anything out of the ordinary if a hand is resting on my butt on a train so crowded that everyone is touching everyone. When I sense fingers applying rhythmic pressure to my ass-cheek, I think it might be the vibrations of the train. I announce to Colin, “I’m possibly being molested,” and turn my body away from the offending hand. But the hand finds me again. I look at the guy next to me. I become fully aware of what’s happening to me, but I wonder if it might just be easier to let some perv fondle my ass until our next stop. Maybe just stay in a state of denial.

Our stop is the People’s Square, and it’s a popular one. There’s one last definitive squeeze before everyone begins flooding out the doors, and I elbow the guy standing next to me hard in the sternum.

When we get above ground, we’re encountered with futuristic scenery straight out of Blade Runner. I’ve been to Tokyo, but Shibuya Crossing’s got nothing on Shanghai. We rolled our heads back in a daze as we saw buildings crawling with lights and advertisements (so much for communism) and skyscrapers that literally disappeared into the fog. As soon as we stepped foot on Nanjing road, the pedestrian shopping street where our hotel was located, we started being accosted by touts trying to sell us watches and bags. I’m usually unnecessarily nice, and smile and say no thank you, but I was so traumatized from the subway ride that I just looked at them blankly and shook my head.

When we finally found our hotel, we were checked in by the front desk staff of harried Chinese women. There aren’t the same trends of service people being nauseatingly polite to customers as in Japan, but I don’t mind. Actually, the Chinese don’t even bow very much. Between this, the ease with which the Chinese have conversations that other people might be able to hear, and a few other things, I realize that Japan really does have a stick up its ass. I’ve been to a few other Asian countries now, and none of them are as weirdly rigid as Japan. I love Japan, but right now it’s sort of like a love you have for a family member that annoys the hell out of you.

Even though I’d rather curl up in the room and hide for the rest of the night, we set out looking for food and to see the famous view of the river at night. I felt numb and in a fog. I’m too sensitive. But it wasn’t just being groped, it was the cumulative experience on the subway that had affected me so much. First worrying about those shady guys who were staring at me, then having to shove all those people only to fail and be forced to stand with them until the next station. It was against all of my Midwestern sensibilities; we don’t push, we say please and thank you and excuse me, and we’re uncomfortable in conversations where people interrupt each other. Plus, I was beating myself up about elbowing that guy, when there was no way to tell who was actually groping me. Sure, it probably was him, but I may have assaulted some random guy, who had just seen me violently shove through all those people like some crazed white barbarian. Really, getting molested was just the icing on the pile of shit.

After wandering a bit we settle on a restaurant with an English menu, which turns out to be pretty high end. But high end in Shanghai means a meal costs about twelve bucks, so it wasn’t a big deal. It was one of those set-ups where you order a lot of dishes and share them, and since I was confused, we took the waitress’s recommendation, which looked like some kind of shrimp or fish in the picture. The food was pretty decent, except the waitress’s recommendation turned out to be fish eye-sockets. You're supposed to eat around the ring of bone and savor the soft, fatty area, which I guess is a delicacy. It was gross.

We walked to the Bund, and saw the view over the river. More people aggressively tried to sell us things. We met our first child-beggars. There’s a picture of me that night, looking lost and despondent against the dark city backdrop. After that night, I didn’t know if I could get past the experience and enjoy China. But over the next day and a half, miraculously, China redeems itself.