Monday, July 28, 2008

See youuuuuu

The weekend before I left was Shi-town’s natsu matsuri, or summer festival. It was a good send-off, since matsuri remind me of what’s really unique about Japan. It’s characteristic of pretty much every matsuri to have stalls upon stalls of fried food on sticks, music, chanting, and locals wandering the streets to watch or participate in the festivities, many in traditional kimono or yukata. There are decorations and rituals from hundreds of years ago that are based on animism or ancestor worship, but often adapted into a Buddhist framework. There’s nothing like it in America.

Anyway, I was particularly excited about this year’s matsuri because Hiromi offered to dress me in a yukata, which is a summer kimono. I used to be kind of disdainful of the foreign girls I saw wearing kimono, but as soon as my chance arose, I was ecstatic. Hiromi owns a salon, so she’s experienced in dressing women in kimono for weddings or coming of age ceremonies. It was a lot more complicated than I expected, with clips and straps and cinching and pads. She even provided me with the highest hair I’ve ever had. “Hajimete, konna takasa,” I marveled. As soon as she brought me in front of the other women in the salon, they all gave my bust disapproving looks and told Hiromi that she needed to do something about my large oppai. Hiromi explained that she’d already stuffed the obi extra, and she proceeded to loosen it and add more padding to detract from my rack. “[I have the same problem,]” one of the customers said, “[As soon as I wear a kimono, my boobs come out.]” She didn’t actually provide words, but sound effects to describe breasts bulging through a kimono.

Colin joined us wearing jimbei, which look like Japanese old man pajamas, and we all headed toward the float on the main street. It was two stories high and had two long, thick ropes stretched in front of it for when we would pull it through the streets. On the second story were two life-sized dolls of a man and a woman, and I never figured out what their deal was, besides that Hiromi’s dad painted their faces. It was nearly dusk, and a crowd had clustered by the float waiting for the events to begin. Soon, we heard chanting in the distance. We looked down the main street, as the chanting and footsteps in unison became louder. Then the rows of men appeared trotting down the street, and climbed on the float. They began pounding on the big taiko drum and a few men played flutes, while the rest lead the crowd in chants. One man offered ladles of sake to onlookers. I actually thought it was water before I put it in my mouth, but alcohol is always a pleasant surprise. Then everyone began to take up some rope.

One man gave the signal, and we started to pull, all the while chanting “Yoisa! Yoisa! Yoisa!” We jogged down the street to the tempo set by the drum with the rope in our hands, stopping at pre-designated areas where people would come out of their houses to revel with us, then take up their own bit of rope when pulling time came. People would send their sons up the ladder to the second story of the float where one of the float guys would take care of them. Honestly, the float looked really, really fun, but only men are allowed on it because women would probably have their period all over it or something. It’s funny, I’ve been exposed to a lot of different religions now, but the common denominator in most of them seems to be the belief that women are inherently tainted.

Eventually we got tired of pulling the float around and let others take our place on the rope. We had dinner and drinks at one of our main Shi-town haunts. I got a delightful cell phone call that was only delightful because I felt it vibrating against my abdomen from where I’d tucked it into my obi. (Sidenote: When you wear kimono, you can either keep things in your sleeves or tucked into your obi. The word for cell phone in Japanese is keitai denwa, which literally means “portable obi phone”.) We walked around a bit, Colin saw many of his students, and I saw only a few of mine. I ran into the Kita girls all looking older and wearing yukata. We took a picture together and I told them about how I was leaving in two days. Later that night I saw the Kita parents, and I didn’t make myself known. I looked at them and wondered if I should say something, then they dissipated into the crowd and out of my life forever.

At 10:30, they carried the dolls down to the street and acted out killing them in order to release their spirits.

Yeah, I don’t know.

By the end of the night, I’d said a few teary goodbyes, and the following forty-eight hours disappeared largely in reflective seclusion as I tried to fit my life into two suitcases. Then I was at the Saga bus terminal waiting for my ride to the airport, and Colin was walking away. The thing about those goodbyes you say before air travel is, at least for me, there’s always the secret fear that one of us will die before we meet again. That’s why that goodbye is always more than “See you in two weeks” or “See you next Christmas”. I try to push the thoughts out of my head that that could be the last goodbye.

I know it’s cliché to say so, but for the past few years life has been full of goodbyes, and they don’t get any easier. Maybe it’s better to regard everything as being more transient—people, homes, families. They all go away. I don’t know if I can take these kinds of goodbyes every couple years. They’re always filled with regrets and missed opportunities. I didn’t even finish everything I was going to write as an expat in Japan. I’m no longer an island of gaijin among rice paddies, and I no longer have the authority to advise the new-comers not to use the term “gaijin” around Japanese people. I guess I’ll just conclude this chapter with some randomness.

Some things I’ll miss:
Karaoke, impeccable service, secret shrines, matsuri, beautiful nature in bite-sized portions, ramen, daiko, being considered devastatingly interesting, vending machines every ten feet, 7-11 onigiri.

And a confession to every Japanese home and small office I set foot in (including my work place):

I never wore the toilet slippers. If your bathrooms hadn’t been so immaculately clean in the first place, I would have considered it. So for the past two years, I’ve been tracking my pee feet all over your floors. Sorry.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Misconceptions about Japan, in no particular order

Japan is more technologically advanced than the rest of the world

Maybe fifteen years ago, there was some kind of renaissance in Akihabara and it was a really cool, futuristic place to be. These days, Japan is generally only more advanced in (1) cell phones, (2) cars, and (3) robots. When it comes to computers and the internet, the average person is incredibly incompetent, and harbors weird superstitions about how it all works. The single computer at my office was so slow it was literally a twenty minute process for me to open internet explorer, log into my gmail, download a text document, and print it. I usually spent those twenty minutes swearing. I couldn’t even imagine trying to do research on that computer. At my office, most tasks that a computer would have taken care of back in the U.S. were done by hand. No one knew how to fix the computer, and they rarely admitted anything was wrong. Even really simple “tech support” tasks are allocated to the computer guy, and everyone else has no idea how it works. Many ALTs are met with resistance when they try to bring their own laptops to school, even when there’s no chance of it being used for the internet, because it “compromises school safety” and could give their computers viruses. I even heard of a teacher insisting that you can’t enter students’ grades into a computer that’s connected to the internet, because the information could leak. It seems like people take impeccable care of their cars and buy new ones every couple years, but if they have a computer it’s usually about ten years old. People have cell phone mail addresses, but if they have an e-mail address they probably don’t check it regularly. Also, areas that the internet took over long ago in the West are still thriving and performed by human beings here. Like travel agencies. Instead of planning their vacation on Orbitz, people actually walk into a physical office and talk to a real person who is dressed in an impeccable uniform and speaks incredibly politely. They sign real physical papers and agree to contracts and receive paper receipts and periodic calls from their agents over bureaucratic matters and everything. Crazy, right?

Most Japanese people can speak at least some broken English

People who can communicate in English are in the minority here. When I say communicate, I mean make those broken sentences that Americans who have little to no overseas experience are so fond of mocking. The people who make those broken sentences have a particular interest in English, and have probably been studying it for years. The people who are fluent have usually studied abroad, since the educational system really doesn’t support language learning so much as test taking. Most Japanese people cannot speak English at all. A lot of tourists don’t understand that this means they can speak as slowly or as simply as they like, but the random person they’re trying to communicate with will probably not understand. Pretty much every adult knows “My name is…”, and numbers, and while most people can recall days of the week they often mix them up. If you can only speak English, you should feel lucky to have been born into the international lingua franca that will get you far in most other countries. But it won’t help you a lot here. Better try sign language, or Japanese.

Japanese people are very delicate and indirect

Cultures are weird, so what we consider taboo, the Japanese might find totally acceptable. They are often indirect communicators, but they also talk freely about their bad case of diarrhea with co-workers. Every time Colin saw his old supervisor, she used to comment that he’d gotten fat. I’ve heard of this happening to foreign women too, but it thankfully hasn’t happened to me, because I’d probably cry. I’ve only had people insist that I’ve lost weight when I probably hadn’t, which was just their way of expressing general concern for me. Then they’d talk about their kidney stones and someone would share information about a kind of sugar that cures constipation.

Before coming here, you should have your business cards ready

Yes, business cards are a big deal, and a lot of people will give you theirs. It’s useful to study what to do when you receive one (take it in both hands and look at it for a while, nodding approvingly while holding it awkwardly or setting on the table in front of you until the person leaves, at which point you can pocket it). However, unless you are coming to Japan for business reasons (business meaning selling things or dealing with clients) your cards are a waste. If you’re a coming as a teacher, a student, or a tourist, you do not need cards. You’d just end up giving a couple away for the novelty of it, and leaving the rest to gather dust. I’ll tell give you an example of how much business cards aren’t as big of deal as everyone says. My old company was failing, and it was obvious that I needed to recruit new students for my classes. When the company underwent a name change, they took down all the employees’ information to create new business cards. As I’d never received any business cards, I was excited. They took down my information, but the cards never came. I asked about them once, and Sayaka said, “Hmmm, I wonder where they are!” When Yoshiko told me that she needed me to pull in more students, I told her I could better do that if I had business cards to distribute, since I meet people all the time who are interested in learning English. I hinted at it a bit more over the months, but it didn’t get through to her until October, about eight months after they took my information, that I still didn’t have a card and it was pretty much impossible for me to recruit anyone without one. I reiterated during a meeting that I could better find students if I had a card, and Yoshiko acted surprised that I didn’t have one, as if she were hearing this for the first time. I got my cards the next day, and used them for business purposes twice before I was laid off in December. I burnt all the cards on Christmas. If you, for instance, have your own business where you need to gather clients and work with customers, then you need a card. I needed cards, but no one even bothered to give them to me. So that’s how important they think a foreigner with a business card is.

Japanese students are perfectly disciplined little machines

Hahahahahahaha. This stereotype must come from the fact that they take tests very seriously, and are indoctrinated to behave for ceremonies and rites of passage. All the times in between, however, anything goes. It’s all about appearances. They “do their best” when it matters, and it usually only matters when they’re taking an entrance exam, which they prepare for in cram school rather than regular school. When Yoshiko traveled to Washington DC and observed American public schools, she commented to me on two things: (1) some girls were pregnant and (2) the kids were really well behaved. This surprised me, because my first reaction when she said that she observed DC public schools was, “That sounds terrifying.”

For women, it’s rude to put on your makeup in public

Unless you’ve been reading up on what you should know before going to Japan, you probably haven’t heard this one. The thing is, I’ll buy that it’s rude, sure. But I’ve seen more Japanese women putting on their makeup in public than I’ve seen any women do in any other country by far. In America, we don’t have any rules that it’s rude to put on your makeup in public. I have the idea that you shouldn’t do it anyway because it destroys the “illusion”, plus it seems kind of self-absorbed. I read things about how you shouldn’t put on your makeup in public in Japan, but then when I came here I saw women doing it all the freaking time. Why did someone want to make it such a point to foreign women that it’s considered rude to do this when it’s fairly commonplace for Japanese women? Did they want to make sure foreigners understood that despite what they may see, this activity is rude, and all these Japanese women are horribly crass? I think this taboo is missing a part, which is that it’s generally considered rude for a woman NOT to wear makeup. Jewelry is mostly off-limits in a professional setting, but a woman should come to work in full face. So these busy women who are rudely putting on their makeup in front of others are perhaps just trying to avoid the rudeness of not wearing makeup in front of their clients. And their clients matter way more than the people on the train. So it’s kind of a matter of which is ruder, putting on makeup in public, or not putting on makeup at all. Luckily, that’s a rule foreigners are often exempt from. I’m not sure why. When I first heard of this from one of my Japanese friends, I told her, embarrassed, that I often went out without wearing makeup. She responded, “But you are foreigner.”

All this misinformation at least shows that there’s been an ongoing dialogue. There are a couple of reasons I think people in the West are so fascinated by Japan. One is that it’s basically the wealthy, first world country in Asia, yet it’s so different from all the other world powers. The other is that nobody can quite get it. We can visit, observe, ask questions and postulate, but in many ways it’s such a closed culture that we’re bound to get some things wrong. Even bilingual Japanese people can’t necessarily explain it, because it’s endlessly difficult to analyze your own culture to outsiders. Kind of like how I can’t explain the difference between “You fucked up” and “You have fucked up”. The spies like me can either be too much of an outsider or too much of an insider to provide proper insight. There will always be interest in people’s theories on Japan because nobody can quite get it right. I do what I can, but I’m definitely not an ultimate authority. So, fellow spies, what misconceptions would you add to this list?