Friday, September 26, 2008

Continental Drift

Japan is getting farther and farther away from me. I see pictures, videos, read updates from my friends, and pieces come back to me. Like how the crowds always started clapping along the instant someone started performing music, no matter how good or bad. Or the way people slept on the train wearing business attire. How everyone was so kind and well-meaning, but as soon as you brought up discrimination or cultural differences or a similarly uncomfortable issue, they would turn stoic and voice opinions far more nationalistic and conservative than nice people like them should have. What’s happening in Japan now, it no longer directly pertains to me. Their issues aren’t my issues. I’m not on facebook much these days, but when I go on I see strangers mixed in with pictures of friends I haven’t spoken with since I left, doing all the early bonding that new teachers do at all the places I used to go to. I see their misspellings and misconceptions in the captions, and honestly, it makes me feel territorial, but I don’t have any claim anymore.

I thought that repatriation would be more of a process. And believe me, starting all over again in a new country is a fucking process, but it shocks me how quickly Japan slipped away. I don’t remember a whole lot about my time in Prague anymore, but that was two months. Japan was two years. I guess my last few months of Japan, I wasn’t that present. I taught classes, but didn’t report to an office, and spent most of my time at home, not studying. Plus, I was bitter and pretty isolated. I learned how one can live in a country and not learn the language beyond the communication level. You just have to stay alone in your safe space for most of the day, consuming things that are familiar to you.

Today the internet guy came into our apartment to set up our modem. Having a stranger here, I wondered what the décor said to him. I noticed our sake bottle on display, the Japanese wall hangings we’d either received as gifts or purchased at hyaku-en shops, the fans, the Chinese paper dragon. I noticed that my computer was open to an e-mail in Japanese from a friend who had finally checked her mail and replied to me. When he went to his van to get a longer cable and returned, he took off his shoes at the door. I didn’t realize we’d neatly lined up our shoes at the door, and would have never asked him to take his own off. It’s just habit for us. Perhaps Japan is still more ingrained in us than we realize.

I was disillusioned in Japan due to my abundance of free time, and now I’m disillusioned here for the same reason. But I’ve noticed that in America, alienation doesn’t feel quite as lonely. Probably because living in alienation is more of an accepted way of life here, like youthful rebellion. In Japan, you’re supposed to belong to a group, and if you don’t, well, you don’t really exist.

I dreamed about the Kita family last night. I was leaving Japan all over again, and all four of the kids and the parents were determined to see me one last time before I left. They all trickled in while I was trying to pack, but there were dozens of them, and they were basically bringing me a party, and giving me courses of food even though I was stuffed. I needed to leave, but first I needed to give them my e-mail address so we could stay in touch. I couldn’t find paper, then I could only find the kids who wouldn’t know what to do with my address, then I couldn’t get the dad’s attention because he was trying to make me eat. I don’t know if I succeeded in the dream, but the reality is that Japanese people don’t do that much e-mail. And I know that I gave them my e-mail in real life, months ago when they said they wouldn’t be taking classes with me anymore, and it hasn’t made any difference.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

I’m convinced it’s not healthy to be left alone with your mind for too long. A lack of an external life leads to an overly active internal life, which for me is just exhausting. Thoughts and wisps of potential writing are tumbling around my brain, yet everything I’d think to write is either far too personal, too embarrassing, or just off-topic. At the end of the day I can’t stop my thoughts, and I want a drink, and if I decide not to have a drink, then my thoughts don’t stop and continue along the vein of the drink I’m not having. I want to write about depression, or addiction, or anxiety, but that’s overshare, and this isn’t a diary. Plus, it couldn’t be very interesting to read.

I used to write fiction. I wonder if I’ve run out of stories, because I don’t even think of them anymore. I guess I gave up on it because the value judgment system got to me. Every story has been told, so you have to find a really unique way to tell it, but if it’s too unique it winds up seeming undergrad-writing-student-ish. I didn’t have anything significant to add, so I stopped. Even by the time I graduated high school, my writing was taking on a first person, confessional quality that I eventually tried to steer away from in the interest of diversity. But I only wrote about myself in my diary.

Now the only writing I do is about myself, and it just feeds into the whole living too much in my head thing. In the writing world, authorial identity can make all the difference as to whether a book is a bestseller or passed on for publication. I haven’t read a memoir that turned out to be fake, unless you count Go Ask Alice, but I wonder if they could have stood alone as works of fiction. Authorial identity is so important people want to pass off fiction as their own stories. They’re part of the narrative. They live as their own carefully constructed character.

Things are different now than they were five years ago. With the normalization of blogging and social networking sites, we’re selecting details to present our narrative, and in the case of social networking sites that narrative tends to be flattering. Through our photo albums, notes, and wall posts, we can inform all those people from high school, exes, and “friends” that we’re doing fabulously, thank you very much. It’s a new kind of narcissism, and if I were more into blogging it might cause me to explode into myself. In Japan, any detail I happened to mention about my personal life was met with an awe-struck, captive audience. “Your sisters are twins? Really?” “Your boyfriend plays guitar?” “You often make tuna sandwiches for lunch?” If I ever was unsure of what to do for a period of time in my adult conversation class, I knew all I had to do was give some details about my life for my students to be interested and wanting to ask questions. I got used to being interesting, and I know for some foreigners it gets to their heads. I still get some reinforcement here, in that whenever I mention to someone that I’ve spent the last two years living in Japan they’re generally impressed. But I guess I’m thinking about this blog, and how occupying the expat in Japan niche gives you a pool of people who will be interested in your writing. The repatriation niche isn’t so established, and I’m afraid by coming home I’ve lost a potential audience. I know that coming home was the right thing for me, but I wonder about my “authorial identity”. If only I were a little more interesting, this thing could keep going and people would read it. Now it’s just me, me, me, reflection without cross-cultural insight. I wonder about possible ramifications of seeing yourself as a sort of character in a life narrative, and I think the insufferable, tumbling thought cycles might have to do with it.

Speaking of narcissism, here’s a picture of my cat:

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


One thing this country has given me besides huge, heaping plates of lettuce called “side salads” and all-you-can-eat chicken fingers is an unparalleled level of anonymity. In Japan, my foreignness infiltrated every aspect of my public existence. Every single interaction I had, whether it was with the people at the gas station, the clerks at the 7-11, or the landlord who wanted to explain why my garbage had been rejected, every interaction was pervaded by my otherness. I could go through the checkout lane at the grocery store with the same proficiency as a native, but it didn’t matter, I was different. It explained why I was always buying broccoli but rarely fish, and I insisted on putting small purchases in my purse rather than a plastic bag or a designated “reusable shopping bag.” It explained why I walked places within a few blocks of my apartment rather than riding a bike or driving. Sometimes I got so used to the foreigner way of thinking, it affected me in my own apartment. As in, “I can’t open this jar, I’m too foreign to figure it out.” It didn’t help that all the doorways there were half an inch shorter than me.

Since I lived in a small town, I was sure that every time I went outside my appearance would be noted by anyone I happened to pass by, and likely by many of the people who drove by in cars, as well as some people completely hidden to me who were watching me from their windows. I knew this because people would report back to me. “[I know this is the first time we’ve met, but I saw you coming out of Marukyou the other day. You were wearing a brown skirt and carrying a green bag.]” Or better yet, “[I saw you on the train last month. You were writing in your notebook the whole time. Where were you going?]”

Living in an orthopraxical society, I was particularly conscious of publicly deviating from the norm, because I knew people I couldn’t even see would probably be watching me and maybe even discussing with their friends what that crazy foreigner was doing, and eventually run into me and ask me about it personally. When I was outside, I had the mentality that I had to go from point A to point B, no investigation of snakes I might see in the river, no lingering in certain areas or taking shortcuts that involved me climbing over something, because that was all too weird. Once, during the school day, I drove to a convenience store near Colin’s school to meet him and drop off something he needed for his class. After I gave him his item, he leaned against the car and started to chat about his day.

“Go back inside! Everyone’s a spy,” I told him. I didn’t think it was a big deal for him to be off school grounds during the day if he had nothing to do, but every person in town recognized him, and they all knew he was doing something wrong if he was talking to his equally conspicuous girlfriend during school hours, and some of them had connections with people in the school they might decide to inform. It seems really paranoid, but it’s true. People love talking about the activities of the resident foreigner, especially if they were doing things they weren’t supposed to.

Possibly the weirdest thing I regularly did in public was go to an abandoned house in the area to feed the stray cats that lived there. I tried to be sneaky about it at first, but pretty soon the entire neighborhood was aware of it, and I had the woman at the grocery checkout counter asking me how the cats were. Yeah, they probably thought I was some weird, infantile cat lady, but whatever. Recently I’ve been seized with sudden panic attacks thinking about those cats, and what happened to them after I left.

Anyway, in America, but particularly where I live, people are unafraid to be as weird as they want to be, loudly and in public, and no one thinks anything of it. I can walk down the street without anyone looking at me, and I can even lie down on a bench or feed some random cats if I want to, and it still feels like I belong. The other day I saw this guy standing on the street corner singing and all-out dancing to whatever was playing in his headphones, and he didn’t even seem mentally ill. It’s kind of comforting that America gives so many people permission to be freaks. But I’m still stuck in a Japanese mindset, because when I see random acts of weirdness, I catch myself thinking that those people are just selfish.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The last you will probably ever hear of the riots in St. Paul

I know it's over, but it's not over for me, and for those of you who don't live here I'd hate for my lame account to be the only source of information you have about what happened here. So here's a link explosion.

A really good account from a photojournalist plus the best pictures I've seen

Video and appalling story of the arrest of three accredited Democracy Now! journalists

A protester minding his own business in a John McCain mask gets attacked by a Republican candidate for congress, arrested

Props to Zachary and Eileen for sharing these with me.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Our streets

Our move-in day for our apartment in Minneapolis was September 1st, also Labor Day, also the first day of the Republican National Convention in St. Paul. While we were sweating up two flights of stairs, thousands of people were taking to the streets in St. Paul, some of them peaceful, some of them not. One of them was our friend, Zachary, who at least helped us with a few boxes before marching. What followed were clashes with the riot police who used hoses, tear gas, rubber bullets, and sometimes smoke bombs to try to disperse the crowds, and hundreds of arrests. While I can't agree with the protesters who were violent, broke windows, and threw things, many of the people arrested were just standing there. Some of them even had press credentials. The damn local news crew even got arrested. Luckily, Zachary avoided the bad stuff.

The protests continued throughout the convention, and on the fourth, the last day, Colin and I went to a rally that convened at the capitol building, and was supposed to continue as a march to the Excel Center where McCain would be giving his speech. The city had given the protesters a permit for the rally from four to five, but after that any action would be illegal and punishable by arrest. The rallies are always the worst part of a protest too, in my opinion. Really good speakers are rare, and propaganda abounds. At the capitol building, the riot police were ready with their billy clubs and zip-ties, on bike, on horseback, and on foot.

The trends in signs seemed to show an exasperation with the high volume of arrests.

The number of ironic signs was interesting. One read, "9 out of 10 killer robots vote Republican", another read, "What would Big-foot do". It's so hard for people of my generation to be sincere about anything. I've noticed it about myself, I've noticed it about Colin. He can't say "hilarious" without sounding sarcastic, and when you ask if he was being sarcastic, often he can't answer.

At 4:50, some kind of tank-like police vehicle drove on the lawn, interrupting the speeches to warn everyone that their right to protest would expire at five PM, after which the city would be forced to take legal action if they didn't go home. I didn't see anyone who seemed to be deterred, and we all proceeded on the march. After all, I think the marching is the fun part. We got until a bridge over I-94 when the mounted officers blocked our way downtown.

There were even snowplows prepared at the top of the hill. I've thought about it a lot, and even though the bill of rights gives us the right to free speech and freedom of assembly, it doesn't really exist. We can only practice our free speech in the free speech zone, at the free speech time, and everything else that's unpleasant or challenging is illegal. The police were telling us that we couldn't walk on our own streets and voice our own opinions, because it wasn't the right time of day, or the right place.

That video doesn't really show the craziness, but whatever. Anyway, the police stood back for a while, blocking us but not hosing or gassing anyone. At the opposite end, a guy started skateboarding around the intersection that was being guarded by bike cops, then some protesting bikers joined him. Before long, the intersection was filled with bikers, and one guy dancing. Here's some video of the beginning of it all.

The police put on their gas masks and gave everyone a five minute warning to disperse or be tear-gassed. The group split, some staying at the bridge, while others went back to the capitol and more still went to random downtown intersections. Colin and I aren't hardcore at all, because we had a dinner date with Zachary's dad to get to downtown. On the way, we saw some contingents of protesters who seemed to be in a standoff with the riot police at one intersection. We ate, had a nice time in otherwise deserted St. Paul, and on the way home we couldn't get back on I-94 because the on-ramps were blocked by protesters and police. By the end of the night, we heard there were 396 people arrested. During the four days of the convention, we heard there were over 800 arrested, but official counts are still out.

Watching the news and seeing some protesters heckling the police, I shake my head. There were many different views represented at the march (that was supposed to be focused on an anti-war agenda), ranging from pacifists to democrats to anarchists to punks who want to break shit. I can't agree with everyone's methodologies or their rhetoric, but at least finally it seems like we're awake again.