February 25, 1999
I think I have finally managed to sever the several umbilical cords, electronic and otherwise, that kept me from feeling at home in Japan. It used to be that I could not survive without my daily dose of email, without that dose of English from friends and family. I physically needed to check my email before doing anything else in the morning, and that little bit of love would see me through the whole day (and woe was me if I didn't have any messages). I also used to check my regular mail each day with a feverish hope that I would get a) anything, b) anything in English, c) anything in English that I cared about, or d), the holiest of holies, that week's Sports Illustrated.
As some of you have already noticed, my unforgivable email slacking is a tip-off that I am not as dependent on it anymore. I tend to see this as sort of a weaning period. Today, for the first time ever, I forgot to check my email before leaving for school. And, although the SI arrived yesterday, I still haven't taken it out of it's serrated plastic shell. Of course, had it been the swimsuit edition, that would not have been the case.
Conventional Wisdom (tm) has it that people living in a new country, indeed sometimes even a new city, go through phases. First, everything is new, and you are a bit starry-eyed, so you love it. Then, you get mighty homesick all of a sudden on a slow day, and you hate it. Then, you kind of resign yourself to your new life, and little by little the good things start sticking out more, and you start loving it again. There are various other phases that you are supposed to go through, to a greater or lesser extent. Everyone keeps on telling me that I am in this "phase" or that "phase" whenever I make a comment, be it good or bad. Personally, I think all of that stuff is a load of bunk. I never loved everything, I never hated everything, and if I complained a lot it's because, as I have mentioned to some of you, after four years at Swarthmore my most honed skill is the art of complaining. I mean, stick with what you know, right? Of course, someone is probably going to tell me that this denial of the existence of phases is just a phase that I am going through.
All that being said, I re-read some of my more recent ramblings and noticed a definite negative tone. That was _not_ because I was in a "phase." It was because I believe bitter sarcasm to be the highest form of humor. However, several people asked why anyone would want to visit a place such as the one I described, so I have dedicated this email, minus everything above, to happy thoughts about Japan. So, everyone put on your warm and fuzzy hat.
1) If you smile, people smile back, and they do so immediately and unselfconsciously. Almost without exception. Even when you are in the middle of attempting to scale the mighty language barrier and hopelessly failing, the person to whom you are talking is almost invariably smiling encouragingly (or nervously).
2) I love the fact that one of my English teachers can get away with wearing a sweatshirt that says "Cal Poly Dad," especially since _she_ has never even heard of the California Polytechnical Institute.
3) There is very little "coolness" and angst compared to American teens -- even most ninth graders will happily draw a picture in class. Try to get a ninth grade boy in the States to draw a picture of the teacher standing under a tree, with birds in the sky and one of their friends on a bench reading a book.
4) Remember natto, the fermented (aka spoiled) soy beans covered with a slimy (yet healthy) fungus? I ate all of my natto yesterday during school lunch. And I liked it.
5) While the volunteering of information is not a strong point, if you ask for help there is no end to the lengths to which people will go. A week ago I asked whether it would be possible, just possible mind you, to buy a jacket like my students all wore, and two hours later a guy from the jacket supply store came in with 10 different jackets for me to try on, then happily special ordered me a different one and took all ten of those jackets back to the store. And all I had done was ask whether it would be possible to buy one the next time they ordered.
Then today, I asked for some help reading a train schedule, it being in Japanese, and the English teacher, school secretary, and vice-principal helped me for a solid hour. Just as they finished, the guy from the jacket shop walked in with my jacket. I am at a different school this week, and he had gone to the other school first, found out I had moved, and promptly drove across the city to give me the jacket. Now _that's_ service.
6) The aforementioned school secretary, an awesome guy named Mr. Motegi, who has no hang-ups about the PC-ness of the title "secretary," recently ran a 10 kilometer race here in Kiryu in a tiger mask and faux tiger-skin cape. One of his friends ran it in full samurai armor, and another dressed as a soba (noodle) chef. There was also one guy running the 10K who had to be at least 172 years old. I mean, I hope I'm breathing, let alone running, when I am his age. He got a big "ganbatte" from me ("ganbatte" is the polite equivalent of "you go, boy," and all the spectators yell it at the runners).
7) Sushi. Everywhere there is sushi. Almost every restaurant has sushi. The supermarket has sushi. 7-11 has sushi (I'm not kidding). And it's _all_ good. I even like the weird, slimy sushi. I'm just waiting for the introduction of McSushi -- after all, there is already a McTeriyaki Burger (I'm not kidding). And the best part about all of this sushi is that when you go to a real sushi restaurant, it's even better.
8) When someone invites you somewhere, they really mean it. Last weekend, one of my adult class students invited me to a driving range, and then out to lunch. I tried to pay for the golf, but he wouldn't hear of it. I tried to pay for lunch, but when he had slipped out to the "bathroom," he had actually paid the bill before I could offer him money, and although I offered after the fact he just laughed.
9) My students like me, and they show it. They are happy to see me in the halls, and there is a rush of excitement when I walk into the classroom. This is certainly the most gratifying part of Japan for me, even though I know that a large reason for it is that usually when they have class with me they get to play games rather than just listen to the teacher lecture. But usually I don't think of that, so it makes my day every time it happens.
10) I love the appreciation of pleasantness. An important tradition is that when the cherry trees bloom in the summer, everyone gets a blanket and sits under the trees and eats and drinks sake and just enjoys the beauty that surrounds them. The whole point of the experience is that it is pleasant. Similarly, there are many historically and culturally important temples and shrines all over the place, and the best thing that a Japanese person can say about one of them is that it is pleasant and peaceful, a fine place to spend a relaxing afternoon. In an extreme example, the Amanohashidate, or "Bridge to Heaven," one of the three best views in Japan, is said to be best when turning your back to it, bending over, and looking at the bridge framed by your own legs. This is supposed to be a more pleasant view this way. I am skeptical, but I am going in May, so I'll let you know.
11) It cracks me up that there is a list of the top three views in Japan (called Nihon Sankei, "san" meaning three). Boy, does that make it easy to plan a trip -- you already know what the best thing is. It's also amazing that everyone in the country could agree that these are THE best three views. Try getting everyone in America to believe that Delaware even exists.
12) We found a Peruvian restaurant called La Bodeguita II which serves the single best condiment ever made. It's a sauce, but that word hardly does it justice. I guess you'll have to come here and try it for yourself. It might worth the trip -- yes, it's that good.
13) You can set your watch by Japanese trains. I know, because I've done it. And while most of the announcements are in Japanese, it doesn't matter, because if you know when your train is supposed to be at your destination, you can just get out at that time and know that you are there.
14) And finally, the single best
part of my life in Japan is the group of friends that I have made. I guess
it takes a special kind of person (read: weird) to put your life on hold
and come to Japan. But when a bunch of weird people get together, fun stuff
tends to happen.
I am sure that this list could go on forever, but I am equally sure that your attention span will not. So here we are, at the end of message.