Monday, February 21, 2011


Did I ever tell you about the time I went to Korea? No? Well, here's the story.

About a month or so ago, I boarded an airplane to South Korea. I'd decided that I wanted to visit a college friend who was also teaching English. There was really nothing to the trip. I was just going to spend 10 days touring a little bit of the country, relaxing and catching up with an old friend. I'd just finished leaving my job in Japan and before I started teaching lessons again, I wanted to take a little vacation.

So I hopped on an airplane and took a two hour trip to Incheon International Airport. On the airplane we were fed a small meal consisting of a sandwich (I don't know what kind of meat was in between those two large buns), some potato salad, a pickle, a green salad and some orange juice. I usually try not to eat on flights for fear of getting sick, but I was a little hungry and decided not to be snobby about it. When I arrived at the airport, I followed the herd of people to customs. When it was my turn at the counter, the lady who spoke very good English said, "Passport and declaration paper." I handed her the documents. She typed something into her computer and asked, without looking up, "Is the friend you're visiting Korean?"

"Um, yes," I said. "Well actually, she's Korean American. She's just teaching English in Korea." The lady, who was not in the least bit interested, handed me my passport and began typing on her computer. I waited around for a moment and then assumed that she was finished with me. So I began to walk off. Then, on second thought I backed up. She didn't say, "Okay, thank you!" or "Have a nice day!" or "Welcome to Korea" after all, so maybe she wasn't finished.

I stuttered out, "Are you . . . uh . . . Can I go?" The lady looked up from her keyboard, gave me a nasty glare and waved me off. I walked past a huge sign that said, "Welcome to Incheon International Airport . . . Where Korea Greets the World." This was my first sign that I should have just gotten the heck out of the country. Either way, I took a monorail, and walked down a series of halls and escalators until I reached the main lobby of the airport. When I found the bus area, I bought a ticket and was greeted with the same kind of nasty attitude as the lady at customs (and the guard at the monorail station.) The odd part about it was that it didn't bother me. Not at all. I knew those ladies. I'd experienced them somewhere else, in another place and time. In fact, they felt like part of a familiar song that I couldn't quite put my finger on.

It would be 2 hours until my bus arrived so I sat down and got on the internet, attempting to "name that tune." And then it hit me like a ton of bricks. These rude people were the same as the cashiers and clerks and nasty attendants that I'd come into contact with in my own country. I'd been in Japan so long that I'd gotten used to good service and politeness. It was only when I arrived in Korea that I remembered that usually people in service positions (in ghetto terms) "don't know how to act." It was like I'd gained my bearings. Wakatta!

So with the newfound knowledge that I wasn't crazy, I walked toward the bus stop and chuckled to myself as the guy rudely snatched my bags from me and threw them into the compartment area under the bus. It's important to note, however, that along with this level of rudeness comes a certain amount of impatience and nervousness. So unfortunately, I began to feel rushed and excited, similar to how I felt in the U.S. at times, stuttering and unsure. But in South Korea I was at a much greater disadvantage. I didn't know a bit of Korean and the only thing I had going for me was a Lonely Planet book that my friend Bob gifted me with the day before. The book had a few phrases in the back, but they didn't prove very helpful amongst my impatient Korean brethren. I found my brain desperately grasping at random Japanese and Spanish words in an attempt to communicate with the people around me. Of course, my Japanish made absolutely no sense to them. Either way, I sat on the bus listening to my iPod and staring out the window. The air outside was bitterly cold, and there was snow on the ground here and there. The mountains in the background looked slightly different from Japan but I was too tired to identify why. The bus rattled and shook, stopping every so often to let passengers on and off. All of the signs were written in Korean script, which consisted of a series of circles and lines. There was no way for me to identify where I was.

After the second hour, I began to panic a little. Does my friend really live this far away? The driver stopped at what looked like a convenient store parking lot to let people off. He got out of the bus to take bags out and give them to their owners. I stood up and walked down the stairs looking for the nerve to ask the driver where we were. He yelled at me in Korean to "sit back down, this isn't your stop." I was thankful that he knew where I was supposed to get off, but a little embarrassed to get yelled at. Either way, I turned around and found my seat, a small part of me hoping that he would let the pathetic foreigner know when to get off the bus. So two more hours passed and the night got darker and darker. Finally, the driver parked the bus and actually turned off the engine. He walked over to the lower compartment, opened the latch and then walked away to go smoke a cigarette outside of the nearby department store. "I guess this is my stop," I muttered to myself as I pulled my bag out from under the bus. I found the Starbucks that my friend told me to stay at and waited with a cup of coffee. After 30 minutes, I pulled out my computer and decided to try my luck at getting wireless internet.

Now the wonderful thing about Korea is that wireless internet is EVERYWHERE. This is the opposite of Japan where, surprisingly, the concept of wireless internet is still a novelty. So I was able to contact my friend on Skype and sure enough, she showed up 20 minutes later wearing a long Kim Jong Il coat and a big, beautiful smile. We hugged, chatted a little and then headed for the bus station. As soon as we headed out the door, the cold air smacked us in the face. Although, I have dark skin, my face was as red as a cherry. It was the kind of cold that penetrates all layers of clothing and makes it hard to breathe because the cold air fills your lungs and makes you want to cough it back out. I moved around attempting to get the blood pumping throughout my body. My toes were a lost cause, however. By the time we arrived at her apartment, they were a different color.

Now the bus ride to her apartment was something different in itself. As soon as I dropped my money into (the wrong) slot, the bus took off, speeding through the snow and slush, swerving around corners and coming to quick stops like a stunt car. The way I wrapped myself around the pole, I looked like an overdressed stripper. It was extremely crowded as more and more people got on the bus. At one stop, an elderly woman began her descent down the steep stairs toward the snow filled street. My friend and I watched with baited breath as the bus began to pull off while the old woman held onto the bar attempting to gain her bearings on the road. It was a horrible sight to see. Fortunately, she was not dragged by the bus. Although, I'd hardened my emotions to certain things, I don't think I could have handled seeing an old woman dragged to her death on my first day in Korea.

That's all I got for now . . . stay tuned for Part II where I talk about delicious chicken.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Cherry Tomato That Broke the Camel's Back

(A detailed description of Bullet Point #1 from the last blog post)

It's been a while, and I apologize for my absence, but rest assured, I have a good reason for my disappearance as of late. By the title of this blog, you will see that I took the initiative to leave my English teaching job in Japan. Unfortunately, that cuts short some of the articles that I planned on writing about the different age groups, however, I have some of those on backlog and will publish them once I finish doing some much needed tweaking.

You're probably asking why I decided to walk away from my wonderful job. Well, to be honest, there were a ton of reasons, but the main reason was health related. Also, there were some conflicts of interest that were beginning to wear on me day in and day out.

In order to clarify what this means, allow me to revisit a running theme that surrounds Japanese business culture as well as many other businesses all over the world. The pressure and stresses one faces at work are real. These stresses can cause the more "vulnerable" of souls to sacrifice their moral integrity in order to reach goals and keep clients. This can also manifest itself through the treatment of one's workers. Unfortunately, there were things that I was asked to do that I wouldn't do in any country, and that is where the conflict of interest arose. Either way, I don't want to focus on that. As you could see in my posts, I enjoyed working with my students and they enjoyed my lessons. And fortunately, I was able to take advantage of the many requests for English lessons that were solicited by members of my congregation as well as some folks in the community . . . so that's been pretty awesome.

My decision to leave may seem abrupt, but it definitely wasn't. It took months and months of deliberation and consultation from friends and family. But in the end, what it all really came down to was a tomato. Yes, you read right . . . a cherry tomato.

Well, let me just get to the story. I was having some *ahem* traffic problems and uh, well to put things into perspective here . . .
everyone poops.
Let's just say I was having a hard time. I can see some folks getting uncomfortable reading this. (Sorry big sis! But you should read this book, apparently everybody does it - except me, in this particular instance.) So unbeknownst to me, constipation is a big problem that people face when they are overseas and getting used to a new diet and let's face it . . . stressed out. I was all of those things. Unfortunately, I'd been dealing with my digestion problem since Mt. Fuji. However, it took me 3 months of drinking tons of water and eating tons of raw vegetables and some weight gain to finally get the nerve up to go to the doctor again. So after a last phone call to my mother, I walked over to the hospital in order to see what was ailing me.

Embarrassed and confused, I didn't know how to explain my problem except by pointing to my stomach and showing the doctor words such as "bulged" and "hard" on my iPad. After about 10 minutes of pantomiming, the doctor wanted to speak to someone fluent in the Japanese language. He called one of the Japanese teachers that I worked with and she sped down to the hospital as soon as possible. "Why didn't you tell me you wanted to go to the doctor?!" she asked, obviously upset and a little worried.

After an introduction, the Japanese teacher answered her own question and began a 20 minute dialogue with my doctor that went into depth about all of the reasons why my stomach was big and disgusting looking. Occasionally, the doctor would scribble words on a notepad. He drew a picture of a digestion track and some squiggly lines inside, I guess that represented the uh, *ahem* the excretion. He then wrote words on the pad like, "colonoscopy" and "pregnant," and "gynecology disease." I sat and pondered ways that I could kill myself using his pen. Occasionally, I asked her what they were talking about and she would respond with brief answers like, "He's just telling me what you told him earlier." Finally, the doctor and my coworker decided that I should get a blood test and an MRI. They did a secret Japanese handshake and lead me to the changing room down the hall.

After the MRI, I walked back to the doctor's office and he told me that despite the fact that I could use more iron, my blood came up just fine. As far as the MRI goes, he said that I was not digesting food properly because of stress and he gave me some laxatives and told me to return for a refill when the problem comes back.

I took a deep breath of relief and thanked God that a human being actually uttered these words in front of my coworker. "Stress."

(For the record, my American coworkers and I have been accused of "easy lifestyles" in comparison to our Japanese counterparts. Unfortunately, many Japanese people can be consumed by their jobs, some to the point of committing suicide so the idea that a "lazy" American could be stressed out, is often met with incredulous eye-rolls.)

Regardless, I was now a part of this culture and I was stressed. Everyday I came home with a migraine. I was always tired and I didn't have more than 30 minutes to myself at any given moment during the day. I spent 9 hours of my day in a closed environment, surrounded by people who did not understand or (to be honest) even like me. I was stressed. And now, I would return to work and my manager would have to understand that I was "stressed" and maybe life would be a little easier at work. Maybe she would discipline my particularly brutal students a little more or I wouldn't have to do my student's homework for them, or she wouldn't ask me to do impromptu English lessons on my 10 minute breaks. Just maybe.

So I begged my Japanese coworker not to utter a word of my digestive issues, of which she promised she wouldn't. As soon as she steps over the threshold, she tells my manager everything and the office is a-buzz with my "stomach problems." They watched quietly as I sat down and took my lunch. That particular day, my lunch was a piece of bread, some water and some fruit jello (which is sometimes a quick snack for me on days when I am not hungry but need some kind of nourishment.) It was then that my manager begins to ask me questions.

"So, BG . . . do you eat vegetables?"

Me: Uh, yeah. I eat them all the time.

Manager: How often do you eat them?

Me: Well, uh, probably everyday. I like to eat them for dinner when I get off of work-

Manager: (interrupts, ignoring me) Yeah, because you should eat vegetables.

Me: (Steve Carrell voice) Yeah.

Manager: What kind of vegetables do you eat?

Me: I eat broccoli and uh, spinach. I eat a lot of spinach. And let's see, I like . . .

Manager: Do you eat tomatoes?

Me: Why uh, ye-

Manager: Here! (pushes a small carton of cherry tomatoes toward me) This is called a cherry tomato. Please try it.

(Watches me as I put it in my mouth)

Me: Thank you.

Manager: How is it?

Me: It's good, thank you!

Manager: They are very good for you. Have you ever eaten a cherry tomato before?

Me: Yeah, I -

Manager: I used to not cook or drink water either. When I went to Canada I didn't cook because I only want to eat meat and fast food. So that is all I ate until my friend, he told me to eat a vegetable.

(At this moment, my mind fades out. I felt like this woman was patronizing me, not listening to a thing that I said and judging me according to "American stereotypes." I'd been eating nothing but vegetables for 3 straight months. I worked hard, sometimes staying up as late as 2am in the morning cooking soups and stews to aid my digestion, ate nuts and berries as snacks and drank nothing but water and vegetable juice. Since I'd been to Japan, I could count on one hand how many times I'd eaten fast food. As my friend K would put it, I could feel "the anger" becoming more prevalent. I decide to be patient and force my teeth to stop grinding together so I can listen to her simpleton advice.)

Manager: (cont'd) . . . so I eat a vegetable and I feel better. Oh, and drink water. When you wake up, don't drink soda. You should drink a water.

Me: (rather my patient side) Okay! Thank you manager. I will try all of those things. (smile and rise from the table to dump my trash)

Tada! Take that Buddha. That's what I call "pulling a Jesus" - and turning the other cheek, baby!

And then, my manager pulled a "Confucious."

Manager: You can't live with me.

Me: Excuse me?

Manager: I can't take care of you. You have to learn to live on your own. You have to learn to take care of yourself.

And so, a month later I pulled an Alanis Morisette "Isn't THIS ironic?" and quit. (I'll save the actual "quitting" story for the book version of this blog. *cough, cough* Hello Random House Publishing *cough, cough*). Within two days of my leaving, the headaches went away and my digestion went back to normal.

And it was all because of a "cherry tomato."


Friday, January 28, 2011

America Through the Looking Glass

First of all, I apologize for the sporadic posting. One of the things about being a good writer is that you have to take breaks from writing in order to fully experience the life you're writing about. Hope that made sense. Also, I've been taking the time to fulfill my true passion of video recording (and in the future, hope to provide some video blogs.) Either way, I'll catch you up on the last couple of months in a series of one sentence summaries.

#1 After a number of stress related health difficulties (and a few other things) I decided to limit myself to teaching private lessons to members of my church congregation.

#2 I travelled all over Japan and then later visited South Korea where I had a terrible experience complete with getting sick, being stranded in the middle of nowhere and of course, eating delicious chicken.

#3 I returned to Japan and have moved into my lovely (yet really really tiny) apartment.

#4 I have been spending endless days with the quirky, yet love-able members of my congregation and learning TONS of information about Japanese culture (and I mean the real deal).

#5 I will be returning to America in a month.

Please feel free to comment (this includes facebook) or email me at if you want me to go into detail about any of the above statements. (If I don't get more than 3 responses, then I don't think it's worth explaining. In other words, what happened in Japan -and South Korea- will forever remain a mystery.)


Okay, so here we are . . . I've been in Japan for about 8 months. I haven't mastered the language yet, but I have mastered the ability to have superficial conversations about food and the weather. I know how to read 2 of the Japanese writing styles, navigate the train stations and I also know my way around the grocery store. I have my own apartment and know how to use my bicycle to get from A to B in my little neighborhood. Believe it or not, these things are leaps and bounds in Japan and armed with "Oishii!" (this is delicious) and "Samui desu nehh!" (It's cold isn't it?) I am living as the Japanese would put it the "Nihon no sekatsuyoshiki" or the Japanese lifestyle.

I spend a ton of time with the wonderful folks from my congregation and through our every day interactions and their millions and millions of questions about American life, my viewpoint (and confusion) about my homeland has changed a little bit.

For example, I was having a friendly conversation with a girl just yesterday and I asked her to come visit me in America some day. The girl paused for a moment. "Are there guns there?" she asked while mimicking the actions of someone popping off a pistol.

I paused and said, "Well, yes. There are."

She then asked, "Does everyone carry one?"

I laughed and assured her that everyone does not carry a pistol and that in my 26 years as a resident in America, I'd never seen a civilian citizen holding one. And then at that very moment, a terrifying memory flooded into my brain, making me a complete liar (and giving me cold chills for a moment).

(True Story)
One night, when I was maybe 6 or 7 years old, my family was returning from the grocery store in my mother's rickety old Ford Thunderbird. We stopped at a video rental place - right before it closed - to pick out a movie and when we returned to our car, it didn't start. My mother told my 2 sisters and I to lock the doors and sit tight while she ran to the pay phone (remember those?) to call for help. Right at the moment that she returned to the car, a grizzly looking man in a beat-up, dark blue car pulls up beside us in the lot. Now being that it was very late at night, the parking lot was empty (except for the 2 vehicles) and the video store was now closed. My family sat and watched as this strange man slid over to the seat closest to our car, took out a pistol and placed it on his lap. For maybe a half an hour or so, he stared at us through the window. I don't know if you can call it a hostage situation but for that long moment, I only remember everyone in my family being very still and silent and my mom praying. Finally, as the man opened the door to get out of his car, pistol in hand, our relief drove up and the strange man hopped back over to the driver's side of his vehicle and drove off.

And that . . . is my pistol story.

Now aside from the fact that me - an (average, boring) American - can have a memory of something so terrifying and not immediately recall it to mind is bad enough. But it's equally interesting that up until now, I've never really given much thought to the idea that my country allows regular human beings the right to carry around weapons that are only meant to kill . . . and this is really going to blow your minds guys . . . other human beings. (I'm talking about handguns). Now in Japan, handguns are illegal and they find it strange that we are a country that is 4th from the top when it comes to the most deaths by gunfire homicide, yet we still allow folks the right to carry around concealed and in some states openly displayed weapons. So they think that normal Americans literally walk around shooting each other. And after working in news for 5 years and editing stories about homicides every day and then moving to Japan, a country that is relatively free from gunfire homicide, I've started to share these sentiments and honestly, I'm a little terrified about coming back to the states. (But I would never let my Japanese friends know this - because I want them to visit me in America, afterall.) Either way, I just thought this was something that our government should be concerned about. Our reputation as an intelligent country has always been questioned, but I don't think it's understood that our status as a civilized country is . . . well . . . slipping. (*shrugs*)

Speaking of trains . . . I really, really think they should introduce the Shinkansen to America. I know I wrote about it in the last post, but I want . . . no, I need you to think about this. Imagine that you could get from New York to Washington, D.C. in just a half an hour? Just think about that . . . let it marinate in your brain juices for a minute. If you could get from one end of California to the other in 3 hours? Can you comprehend how that would change things? Being able to turn a 12 hour road trip into a 4 hour train ride? Why have we not done this? Why are we not doing this? Who did the airline people pay off? And how much did they pay?

Japan is not a "luxurious" country but I swear the longer I'm here, the more I feel like the backwoods cousin who's excited about having indoor plumbing. There are so many things that I get sad about going without once I get back to the states. For example, cameras and/or phones attached to the doorbell. A room that turns into a dryer when I want to dry my clothes indoors in an eco-friendly manner. Clean public restrooms with toilets that "bidet" me. (I know that "bidet" is not a verb . . . but you know what I'm saying). And for the record, the electronic toilet is pretty standard. You can find them everywhere. Going to an onsen and walking around naked with other women and knowing that I'm not going to get judged or attacked, and that the people I am "onsening" with have washed thoroughly before getting into the shared water environment. (Yes, you might run into a few monkeys here and there but that is a problem that's only unique to Japan and for the most part, the monkeys are safe and just want to relax like the rest of us).

Either way, being on the outside of my home planet and looking in occasionally through the news paper and the Jon Stewart show, I get a little sad for the future generations of Americans . . . particularly my nieces and nephew. Currently, I'm living in a country that makes fiscally responsible economic decisions, passes legislature (such as "no handguns") that protects its citizens, doesn't rely on gasoline as much as we do, creates and actually USES technology that is super-efficient, eco-friendly and beneficial for its citizens as well as has a reputation for creating competitive, reliable products that it exports to the rest of the world. Oh yeah, and they are all dead-set on learning the English language (as well as Chinese - and I'm not even going to get started on China - I'm sure you already know that they own us). Now, I'm not going to say that Japan is perfect (there's definitely a lot to be desired in this country and their government is just as corrupt as the next) but I will say that all of the Americans that I've talked to who have lived in Japan for as long as I have (and longer) have a more sobering outlook on things. Our conversations are no longer a matter of "will we ever go back to being #1?", it's now a matter of "when are they going to start filling the emergency rafts with regular people."

Start teaching your children Chinese.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Things I take for granted in Japan

After being in Japan for 7 months, the honeymoon period starts to wear down and one's perspective gradually becomes . . . well, jaded. The endless hours of work signature to the Japanese lifestyle (see karoshi) and the complexities of every day life can often serve as the smudge on one's rose-colored glasses. However, the sure fire way to hit the restart button on life in the Land of the Rising Sun would be to look at things through a brand new set of eyes.

Last week, I had the fortune of accompanying a family friend from my home planet of America. This visitor was nothing but smiles the moment he set foot on Japanese soil and it forced me, in a way, to reevaluate my perspective and remember all of the wonderful things about Japan that I'd began taking for granted. In case you haven't noticed, I'm a big fan of making lists, so I decided to list all of the wonderful things that make Japan a wonderful place to be. And here they are . . .

The Beautiful Scenery
Rushing about with my head down . . . from the train station to the hotel, to the ramen shop and past Japan's many industrial zones . . . my friend pointed out the one thing that I hadn't noticed in a while. The beautiful mountains in the distance. "Look at that!" he said, full of awe.
"At what?" I asked, squinting and looking around.
"Those beautiful mountains!" he said, pointing to the sky and taking out his video camera. It may sound strange, but it's pretty easy to forget when you walk past those very same mountains everyday. Regardless, I was brought back to a time when I actually took a moment to stop and look up at the ominous mountains. And now after having climbed Mt. Fuji, it's even more gratifying to take a gander. So that's what I've been doing lately. Trying to take it all in before I head back to the states, where I will no longer have that luxury.

The Kindness of the Japanese People
We walked out of the train station from the airport and was approached by a stranger. "Where are you going?" he asked. I answered immediately, while my friend stood by looking a little suspicious. The man said, "I help you. Let's go!" and I took off after him, not phased by his "strangerness" or questioning whether he was going to take us into some dark alley and rob us. We rushed through the streets and in and out of the train station following our mysterious navigator. He took us to the information area and asked the lady where our destination was located, asked us if we had tickets - to which we responded, "no," went to the terminal, bought two tickets and waved "goodbye" to us as we boarded the train with confusion and exhaustion. When we dismounted, we were at my friend's hotel.
"That man was amazing," my friend said with delighted bewilderment. "I can't believe he did so much to help us."
I shrugged my shoulders, "That's just how they are."
"Yeah, but could you imagine someone doing something like that in Philadelphia?"
I stopped for a minute and thought about it. The blaring answer was, of course, no. In fact, it's the complete opposite. Where I'm from, it's not even okay to look confused, because that might invite someone to rob you.

The Trains
The first time I ever rode a train (about 2 years ago) was a very low period in my life. My colleague who thought way too highly of my intelligence and who took the train everyday, decided to help me (an idiot who would drive to my own mailbox if possible) attempt to take the train all by myself for the first time. Unfortunately, the ordeal ended with me taking the train in the wrong direction and riding to the end of the line, crying in the back of the train-car as the workers snickered and pointed at me while continuing to tell me the wrong information. Not understanding how to read the schedule, my only question was, "Does this train go to Queen Lane?" and not one of the these three snickering fools could answer that single question. 2 years later, I'm in Japan. Not having been here one month, I am navigating these rails like a native. And what's better, if I am confused about which line to hop on, I don't even have to speak Japanese to get a quick and easy answer that tells me what time the train is running, where to go to catch it and if it's going to my destination. There have been times when I have walked up to an attendant and said, "Okayama" and that person immediately said, "Three" and that was enough to get me to my destination. When my friend visited, he was a navigating the rails in no time. "This is easier than I thought it would be," he said. I couldn't agree more. Unfortunately, it's not so simple to get around on my home planet.

The first step to admitting you have an addiction is . . . well, admitting you have an addiction. (Wait, I think I said that wrong). Any who, I am addicted to shaved ice. I would eat it every day if I could. I have always crunched on ice (due to an iron deficiency) but this place makes my addiction waaaay worst. I measure my coordinates everywhere I go by how far I am from a place that serves kakigori. It's not just the flavors that are inviting, it's the actual texture of the ice. Like pure snow. I LOVE it. I will miss it dearly when I come back to the States. I heard they sell it in Hawaii but unfortunately, I don't have "Hawaii money," so I am going to have to take this wonderful treat to the East Coast. My friend tasted the pure delight that is kakigori for the first time and decided that he is going to help me start a kakigori chain in the United States. Watch out Dairy Queen . . . we're coming to getcha!

Vending Machines Everywhere
One of the first things my friend noticed was all of the vending machines. He was amazed and intrigued by the various different drinks they had. Beer, water, hot chocolate, hot or cold coffee, hot or cold tea, fruit drinks, pancake drinks (don't ask). The snack machines contained everything from ice cream to hot corn soup. You can't walk for two blocks without coming across a vending machine. It got to the point that my friend would say, "I'm thirsty . . . eh, I'll just wait until we get to the next vending machine." It's something I've been taking for granted now, but when I get back to the States, I am going to miss the heck out of that wonderful convenience.

No Tax, No Tip
Speaking of convenience, I will especially miss not having to worry about tipping after a meal. Don't get me wrong, I'm not afraid of dropping an extra 15% on the table to further express my gratitude for good service, but I'm not going to's nice to be able to walk into an establishment and know exactly what I am going to pay within 5 minutes. There are no taxes on food, so if you are eating at a restaurant and order something for 500 yen, that will be the price of your evening out. No tax, no tip . . . just a check showing that you ate one bowl of ramen. I dig the simplicity. After a while you forget about all of the excess money you'd have to dish out in the States. When I'm in America, I KNOW I am going to overreact the first time I get a restaurant bill.

All right, that's all I got for now. To all of my Japan friends, feel free to throw in some things that you take for granted about Japan, but find absolutely wonderful.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Meet the Gaijins

I already did a post addressing the subject of "Outsiders" or Gaijin, but I'd really like to dive into that topic a little more from a different angle. Today's post is about actually meeting these "aliens."

Now amongst my friends, I call it "bumping into some foreigners." There are dozens of different kinds of foreigners who visit/live in Japan, but 80% of the time, you're going to run into a Caucasian American person or an East Indian person. When I "bump into" a Black person (from any part of the world), the result is always hilarious (but that's for a different post.) Either way, when Gaijin meet other Gaijin, it's usually a strange experience. I don't really know how to explain it except to say that there's a lot of "self-reinvention" going on overseas and the easiest way to blow someone's cover (or blow your own) is to run into someone who speaks your language.

. . . and the awkwardness ensues.

To make this easy for you, I'l categorize the people I've met thus far.

There are people who exist that still believe there are civilizations yet to be discovered. And for the record . . . there aren't. These people have passports tattooed with an abundance of Visa stamps (that they will gladly pull out and show you).

"Yes, the sushi in Japan is great," they'll tell you, "but you haven't lived until you've been to (insert random country) and tried the (insert exotic dish)!"

I call these people "Modern Day Magellans," because in their minds, every human being (whether they know it or not) is in a competition to travel to every country in the world. Out of all of the foreigners I've met in Japan, this group is the most abundant. And you can recognize them within the first or second sentence. The 1st MDM I met described herself as an army brat (code word for MDM) and when I asked her what she thought about Japan, she tossed her hair back and said, "Well, I've been all over the world, so this is nothing to me."

Now let me interrupt this flow of consciousness to say that I am an MDM's worst nightmare. Not only have I been absolutely nowhere in the world (unless you count 2 trips to Disney World) but I am conversationally slow and don't offer the proper follow-up questions you're supposed to ask an MDM like, "Oh really! That's amazing! Where have you been? Would you please tell me all about your adventures?" No, I just smile and say, "That's nice!" And this is not to say that I wouldn't be interested in hearing about an MDM's journey. I'm not a hater afterall and my very presence in Japan speaks to the idea that travel is something that interests me. It's just that I'm not a big fan of (what I like to call) conversation date-rape. Conversation date-rape is when a person takes advantage of a casual conversation by attempting to force their favorite topic in without picking up on the social cues. No means no! Just because I asked you how you liked Japan, doesn't mean I want to be subjected to your trip to Indonesia, France and Australia. I like to let a conversation progress naturally so that I don't feel used . . . you know, in the ear-hole.

Either way, MDM's can be pretty good people once you get past the endless conversation slide-shows. If you run into a particularly generous MDM, they'll actually let you get a word in edgewise (which is nice). They're also a wealth of knowledge. Most of the MDM's that I've met have amazing information retention abilities. They'll hold onto any bit of information they receive so that they can regurgitate it at the most convenient times (which can be annoying, but REALLY helpful). So when you need to know the name of some exotic food or where you can find the best souveniers an MDM is an excellent resource to utilize, BUT I would never EVER suggest anyone spend too much time with an MDM if they decide to live overseas. Why? They will stunt your ability to adapt. MDM's can be a bit over-aggressive. If you're at a restaurant, they will order for you. If you want to go somewhere, they will take the map from out of your hands and lead the way. If you plan on depending on them for everything, this is good, but this can be terribly bad for 2 reasons . . .
#1 - These people are often wrong. MDMs can be a cocky bunch and because they have something to prove, they'll sometimes make decisions with haste and little consensus from anyone else. This can consume a lot of time while traveling.
#2 - Who goes overseas to depend on someone else completely?

One thing I've found out by living in Japan is that empowering yourself is the best thing you can ever do. So if you're ever in another country and run into an MDM, mark my words. Listen to their story, find out where you can get the best (whatever) and then run away as fast as humanly possible.

Now this group can be summed up pretty quickly. The Runaways are usually (not always) recent college graduates who don't know what to do with their lives yet. They use their time overseas to work some strange job or other (ie. teaching English), kill some time while padding the resume and then return to their country with an adventure under their belt and some clarity about what they want to do with their lives. Most runaways are scared out of their minds. They feel the pressure of expectations of becoming "an adult" and don't want to face the reality of being a 20-something with nothing to show for their 4 years of college except the ability to hold their liquor. In the end, most of these "runaways" decide to just go to grad school (thus easing out of the college experience as opposed to jumping out with both feet.)

It's been said, "No matter where you go, there you are." I never really understood this saying until I met what I like to call the "Square Peg" (also known as "Losers Back Home" by some of the more brutal Gaijin out here).

Square Pegs are people who don't quite fit in in America. These people often travel the world looking for their "square hole" and many times, they actually find it. But unfortunately some Square Pegs find that the world is . . . well, round.

Anywho, some Square Pegs are subtle while others couldn't be more conspicuous if they tried. The tell-tale sign that you have encountered a "Square Peg" is the way you feel after you part ways. If you're confused, annoyed or creeped-out odds are, you have just come in contact with an SP.

These people are eccentric at best and absolutely nuts at worst. In the middle is a variety of desperation, control issues, insecurity, awkwardness (beyond the normal variety), defensiveness, sarcasm, fear and anger.

I met a "subtle" SP a couple months ago (back when I was brave enough to still talk to "gaijin").
I was sitting in a sushi shop on a Monday night, reading a book and enjoying a late meal alone.

(Sidenote: Mom, I suggest you stop reading now.)

(Suit yourself then! You've been warned)

So a strange looking man stood outside of the window staring at me with bulged eyes. He was obviously not Japanese (actually, I think he was Hispanic or partially Black), so I assumed that my being stared at was the result of the shock Gaijins have when they see a woman of color (in my neighborhood especially). I'm not going to lie, I've done it to other people of color myself.

So this guy walks into the shop with his eyes glued to me, as if he was literally in a trance. He grabs a stool next to me and without blinking or taking his eyes off of me, he sits down.

Him: Hello!

Me: Um . . . hi!

Him: I'm sorry if I'm freaking you out, it's just that you're the first foreigner I've seen in this town since I got here a few weeks ago.

Me: (Laughs) That doesn't surprise me.

Him: Yeah, I'm sorry.

Me: It's no problem.

Him: (Eyes still bulging out of his head) I'm not freaking you out, am I?

Me: Um, well . . . your eyes . . . uh, not blinking. That's a little . . . um . . . scary.

Him: Sorry. I didn't get a lot of sleep last night. (Still doesn't blink or take his eyes off of me.)

So we talk a little and he tells me that he's from the Mid-West. The guy (I forget his name) was an engineer for some kind of company that makes a certain machine. He traveled the world fixing glitches in those machines and also helps to update the equipment. Throughout the conversation he kept asking me if he was "freaking me out." I kept reassuring him that he wasn't and this is what kept "the crazy" inside of him contained. Until, that is, I slipped up. That's when . . . well, I'll show you how it happened.

Him: Am I freaking you out? I'm sorry, I didn't really get a lot of sleep so . . .

Me: No, I'm cool really. Actually, just a couple of weeks ago I met some strange foreigners and had an experience that freaked me out a little.

Him: Really? Tell me about it.

Me: Well, um, I don't know. The people were just really strange.

Him: Strange how?

Me: I don't know. (pause) You ever think that maybe some of the foreigners here are . . . (long pause)

Him: (practically falling out of his seat) Are what?

Me: I don't know . . . running away from something?

*Snap!* (That's the sound of his crazy breaking free from it's cage.)

Him: Running away from something?!?! Why does it have to be running away from something. Maybe they had to get out. (Getting louder) Maybe they needed to escape. There's nothing in Detroit. NOTHING!!!

At that moment, the sushi guy hands me the check and says the place is closing. I said a quick "goodbye" to my crazy friend and peddled home as fast as I could. All night, I was "freaked out" remembering his bulging eyes and wondering if he ever really existed at all.

That was one of my more extreme stories. But for the most part, you'll run into the Square Pegs of the milder variety. For example, here's a quick snippet from my one of my favorite SP experiences. I met a guy who looked like Cee-Lo while on my way to my apartment one night. It was really random, especially in my neck of the woods. We both stop.

Him: So am I the first Black person you've run into here in Japan?

Me: Uh, no.

Him: Oh

(awkward pause)

Him: What company do you work for?

Me: I work for --blankity blank-- How about you?

Him: Well, I used to work for --blah blah blah-- before they got shut down. Have you heard of them?

Me: No

Him: How long have you been here?

Me: About 3 months.

Him: Yeah, I can tell. Well, anyway . . .

(After that, I stopped listening. My mind checked back in when he said . . . )

Him: So let's exchange information.

Me: Well, I don't know my phone number yet and I don't have my phone on me. (That's my default reply)

Him: No, I mean facebook info.

Me: (immediately) Okay, what's your name? (So I don't have to give him mine)

Him: Do you know the famous scientist?

Me: Uh, no.
Me: (continuing) Could you tell me his name?

Him: Blah, blah, blah

Me: Okay, see you around.

So that's it for the SP's. Neurotic, insecure, awkward, condescending, etc. Collect'em all.

I think you can tell where I'm going with this category. Unfortunately, for Asian women, there are some men who have watched the movie "Full Metal Jacket" and only remember one scene. These men are known on the West Coast as "Todds" or "Brads." On the East Coast, they're known as "Jerks" or "Douchebags." Regardless, these men have bought plane tickets and flown to Japan with hopes of finding easy Japanese women.

You can recognize these men because there is always something "slightly off" about them. Maybe their "man-bangs" are dyed some odd color, maybe they are wearing sunglasses (at night), or maybe their skinny jeans are a bit too skinny. Either way, these guys are fun to watch. They usually roll out in small groups of like-minded individuals, and you will almost NEVER see them with a foreign female. If anything, they tend to run in the opposite direction of any female who is not Asian which is good for the rest of us, but kind of bad for the Japanese ladies. But then again, some of these Japanese ladies out here have their own motives, so I guess it all works out in the end.

I guess I would fall into this category. This is the group of people who are well past the fear of "what am I going to do with my life" and are just trying to hit the "refresh" button on the life they've already started. Sometimes, EPL'ers leave in order to get some clarity on their present situation or just to see the world because . . . well, why not? There's not a lot of these folks out here in Japan. Actually, I think I can count on three fingers how many EPL'ers I've met. There's really not much to an EPL'ers motives and this is what confuses people the most.

"But why are you here?" I've been asked in frustration. You can guess the questions that are running through these people's minds. If you're not looking for a mate, you don't have something to prove, you're not a recent college grad, you're not a misfit in your own country . . . why Japan? We EPL'ers don't really have an answer for that, so we just do this . . .

So those are the different categories of Gaijin. Of course, there are a bunch of exceptions that don't fall into those categories. For example, those who are working real jobs over here (like engineers or corporate people) or people who have gotten married to a Japanese spouse. There are also the people who have a strong (and genuine) fascination with the Japanese culture. My favorite are the middle-aged, middle America mom and pop type who pull out their cameras and take pictures of everything. I find it endearing and a little embarrassing at the same time.

For the most part, though, the people you meet in Japan will fall into the aforementioned categories. So have fun looking for them if you ever visit another country. And don't say I didn't warn you!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Japan's Business Culture is Not Bad . . . Just Soul-Crushingly Different

So on my roughest days, I have crawled home from work, peeled off my sweaty clothes and cried like a baby cracked open a self-help book or two with the objective of learning how to cope with life in the "Land of the Rising Sun." Being that I spend 9 hours of my life at work, 99% of my anxieties are work related. "Realize that nothing about your host country is bad or wrong" the self-help books repeat, "just different." This advice is perfect. It's fair, it's logical and it's the truth. "Just different" I imagine a soothing voice saying. "It's just different," I repeat to myself.

This line of reasoning has gotten me over quite a few "Japanese-life" hurdles . . . except one. And that, dear reader, would be anything workplace related. That is where my feeble American brain shuts down and the only thought that escapes is "This is crazy!" Now I'm not bashing Japan and I'm also not saying that everyone's situation is like mine. But this is my blog and I can only tell you about the world that I see.

So when it comes to the "business end" of Japan, things get a little . . . (how do you say?) . . . tight. Pun intended.

THE most important thing to realize is that hierarchy is EVERYTHING. One of the first things that I was handed when I started my job was a notebook. On the first page of this notebook was a list of everyone who worked for the company and their respective titles. The president's name and title was first, followed by the vice president and so on and so forth. Near the bottom of the list the names started to disappear and there were only titles. And gracing the edge of the paper, at the very bottom, the lowest position on the list was that of the Native English Teacher. Of course, at the time that I received this notebook, the symbolism was lost on me. I suppose if they'd have straight out told me that this was a totem pole and that I was at the bottom, it would not have been very appealing. Especially with my coming from the United States, a country where everyone wants to believe that they are special. (Ahh . . . Silly Ahmellicans)

In America they give "the little people" incentives to make them feel special. Gold stars to wear on their name tags, employee of the month posters to display, $50 gift certificates to Best Buy or the Olive Garden. "You can call me Bill!" you're friendly American manager might say on your first day of work in order to give off a more "friendly" and "personal" vibe. Followed by, "We're all like a family here." (Which, by the way, is the kiss of death for any job and means you should probably run as fast as you can in the opposite direction.)

Which reminds me of a story. When I was on my way to meet my manager for the first time, I was flustered because I realized that I'd forgotten her name. I sat on the train, purging my memory for any detail I could remember. Finally, when I met her, I gave up.

"I'm sorry, but may I have your name again?" I said apologetically.

"Oh! No name . . . you call me manager," she said.

I remember it taking a while for this to digest. (Feeble American brain, remember?) Regardless, "Manager" is what I call her among many other things. Later on, though, I learned that in Japan employees are called by their titles and not their names. This is kind of a constant reminder of where you stand in the grand scheme of things. You are never to forget your position. You're position is prevalent in every interaction and it means everything.

Anywho, along with this whole "title" and "hierarchy" business, there's the business of decision making. And I'm definitely not knocking the Japanese way of getting things done (because it works for them), but seeing things from this side of the fence really sheds some light on how America and Japan differ when it comes to making decisions.

Okay, I'll just get right to it. In Japan's business culture (meaning my job), everything takes time. A very lonnnng time. The process to grant a vacation request takes so long that sometimes you are still waiting for approval 2 months later, while you are on vacation. And it's not because everyone is just sitting around twiddling their thumbs. The problem difference lies in the fact that when it comes to getting something done, as a friend of mine would put it, "Japan's got more hoops than the circus."

At my job there are 4 or more higher ups that must approve every decision. Book requests, vacation requests, sick day requests, etc. And often times, these people are very . . . particular. They want you to fill out a request, several months in advance and then submit it to your manager. Your manager must then add her 2 cents to the request as to whether she approves of your plan. Then up the steps of hierarchy your request goes, sometimes getting knocked all the way back down, meaning you have to resubmit and start all over again. You can track the process online and I swear, sometimes it's like watching a bill become a law.

One day, I thought I was doing the company a favor by insisting that two of my students purchase a certain book as supplemental material for their lessons. Being that I decided against using a book from an outside publisher, so that the company would profit from selling one of their own books, I thought that I would get some "brownie points." But instead, I got just the opposite.

"Are you sure this is something you want to do?" my manager asked, with a little more intensity than I thought the situation called for.

Me: Umm, yeah. (confused face . . . as usual)

Her: (Deep sigh and walks away)

Apparently she had to submit a bunch of requests to get this decision to go through. And considering that along with the sale of these two books, there was a possibility that the company would have to purchase one (yes, just one) teacher's manual to go with it, well . . . this was what dragged the situation out for 2 straight months. My manager tried to explain to me that it was too much trouble, but I just didn't get it. I couldn't understand why they would make such a big deal out of a couple students deciding to buy some of their books. Yeah, they would have to buy a teacher's manual for me, but they'd still be making a profit. I've seen them sell books before. They'd even told us to push students to buy books that month. So here I was, doing just that, and I was getting dragged through the mud. Regardless, the decision was finally decided in my favor when the company realized that there was no teacher's manual for the book that I was requesting. I guess they forgot to check in the first place.

Either way this leads to something else. The "no" factor. Now this may just be my truth, but at my job, I've noticed that every request is given a "no!" before it is granted. And it used to bother me, but now I just realize that "no" is more of a reaction than an answer. It's more like, "You want what?! . . . NO! . . . wait, what did you want again?" Kind of like a grumpy old man who thinks that everyone's trying to get over on him.

Regardless, it takes patience and a quiet strength to get through the day sometimes and this is something that, I'm sorry to say, I have to work on. I've never realized how quick and impulsive America is. And as an American, I've always prided myself on my ability to (as it says on my resume) "assess a situation and react accordingly," or "my determination to be goal-oriented" and "results driven." But here in Japan, that's not a selling point. It's not about the results, so much as the long, strenuous, agonizing process. If your superior has reason to believe that you are not respecting the process (in other words, if you're making it look easy), they don't care what the results are . . . they will shut you down with the quickness.

Now there are some jobs in America where the people are like this. For example, every office has that person who walks around looking like they are going to have a heart attack. You know, the "oh-my-god-my-life-is-so-hard-why-god-oh-why-do-I-have-to-bear-the-weight-of-the-world-on-my-shoulders-every-single-day-'do-you-need-help?-"no, because-only-I-know-how-to-do-this-and-you-wouldn't-understand-it-even-if-I-explained-it-to-you" person.

Well, that's how most of the managers are at my specific company and if you think you are going to mosey on up to them and nonchalantly get something done, your casual-ness might come off as reason to get a quick "no" because well, you're not respecting the process which is "complicated-and-oh-my-god-what-do-you-think-you-can-just-come-to-this-country-and-get-anything-you-want-you-silly-American-things-take-time-and-work-and-seriousness-and-you'd-better-just-wait-a-minute-what-did-you-want-again?"

I say all of this to say that casualness is the kiss of death in the Japanese workplace.

So, about me. I've been working for a Japanese company for 5 and a half months now. My routine is not perfect, but it's stable. I wake up every morning, make and eat breakfast, read a few bible passages, make a feeble attempt to clean or do something useful but just end up on Skype chatting to my friends and family, I turn on my favorite dvd full of music videos (a REALLY thoughtful gift that I got from a friend) dance around in the living room for a while, get dressed and then admire myself in the mirror for a few minutes. I am a tall, lean, caramel complexioned Black woman wearing a dark suit, a silk blouse and heels. My makeup is done and I like to wear my dread-locked hair in an elegant up-do. I don't look like I am going to a job that requires me to crawl around on the floor with 2 and 5 year old babies. I don't feel like I am ready to listen to some overweight 11 year old with spiky hair attempt to be sarcastic to me in broken English. I don't look "child-friendly" and I don't feel "child-friendly." But this is the costume of a working person in Japan. So I tell myself, "it's just different" and I hop onto my bicycle and ride past other souls, who are also going to their daily grind. These brick-faced individuals, all wearing the same kind of dark suits, look like Japanese versions of me. No more thrilled to be going to work than I am. We all blend together like a swarm of black bumble bees, collectively charging toward our prison cell to be held captive for 9 or 10 hours. The whole time I ride to work, I am blasting my iPod at full volume, purging all of the happiness and rhythm that one can muster from a Luther Vandross song.

" . . . who needs to go to work to hustle for another dollar.
I'd rather be with you 'cause you make my heart scream and holla! . . . "

When I arrive at work, the music stops. I hop off of my bicycle and prepare for the (as I like to call it) "9 hours of silence." I teach English during this time and run around with "the midgets," make small talk with my adult students and just try to look as busy as possible. My interactions with my coworkers are pleasant but limited. There's something about the environment that sucks the life out of everything, I don't know whether it's my business suit, or the fact that no one understands "natural" English or that it's always too hot or too cold in the lobby but gradually my desire to converse at work diminishes and I am left with the feeling of introspection. And honestly, I don't mind this at all. Actually, I think this is something that I probably needed to work on anyway. It feels like a bootleg version of meditation. (Maybe one day I'll work my way up to real meditation.)

During these moments, I look around and take in my environment. I listen to the conversations that I hear from the parents as they gossip in the lobby. I watch the way the Japanese teachers plug away at whatever project they are working on. I watch my poor manager run around the lobby looking worried and smiling desperately at children. I wonder what kind of lives other Japanese "business-people" are living and if this is how they imagined they would spend the majority of their lives. At work for ten to twelve hours a day. My meditations have lead me to believe that "work" is a kind of religion in Japan. The purpose for life. Sometimes, I look at the children running around in the lobby, playing with hand held video games and cell phones and wonder if they are ready to worship at the shrine of corporate industry. And then I decide that I don't feel sorry for these children because they don't know any other way. Just like my boss and my coworkers. This is their way of life. As my Japanese coworker said, defensively, (after I told her that I don't like spending so much time at my job), "Life isn't about having fun!" My initial thought was, "It isn't?" but I guess that's just a reflection of American culture. Here in the U.S. we judge a person's success by how much leisure time they have, while in Japan it seems (in my opinion) that a person's success is judged by how much they work. So here I am complaining about something that any other Japanese person would (maybe) feel blessed to have. Eh, either way . . . these are the thoughts that run through my mind during my 9 hours of silence.

. . . just different.

So at the end of the day, I hop onto my bicycle and the music commences.

". . . Oh my love!
A thousand kisses from you is never too muuuuch"

Monday, October 18, 2010


With how much I write, I don't think I post enough pictures. So in order to satisfy your insatiable desire for voyeurism . . . here's more pictures and less words.

My Hood

This is the apartment building that I live in. Good ole' Hime Tifany. Strange, all of this time I never noticed the sign in Romaji letters.

The view of my apartment from the front (or back - I don't really know which one it is. I just know that this is where I come in and go out.) I live on the second floor.

I ride down this little street every day.

This is where I park my "ride." Mine's the black one with the blue umbrella.

The creepy graveyard I have to pass by every night on my way home from work.

The driving course next door.

The main road off of my street.

A woman doing some gardening alongside the river stream gutter I don't know what it is.

The Family Mart around the corner.

The grocery store across the street from me. It's called "Co-op." Thank God for this place.

"Sir Barks A Lot" - The annoying dog in front of my apartment.

Yours truly. (I know it's blurry, but I like how brown my locs look in this picture.)

I found heaven an art store.

Visiting Bob

This guy is one of my dearest friends from High School (and one of the reasons that I came out to live in Japan in the first place.) So yeah . . . he's kind of a big deal.

I thought his living room was really cute, so I took a picture.

After trying to catch up on the past 6 years and reliving High School memories, I crashed on his futon/couch for the night.

Bob had gone to work when I woke up, but left out some coffee, cereal and this nice little note.
. . . now that's a real friend!

When I saw the "New Jersey" postcard on Bob's refrigerator, I got a little nostalgic.

A store with a very strange name.

Taking a "Me Day," visiting the local Art Museum.

Summer Festival

Strange girls at the festival who were not shy about posing for this picture.
I've seen quite a few of these kinds of ladies out here.

A Few of my Favorite Things

I caught "the cooking bug" a little before I moved out to Japan. Occasionally (despite a long day of work), I'll go home and whip up a meal. On this particular night I made spaghetti.
My kitchen is microscopic as you can see.

Every week, I have dinner with the wonderful people from my congregation.
And they. can. COOK!!!

A sister from my congregation was kind enough to bake this for me.
It's like a huge loaf of chocolate chip bread, but they were calling it a "pancake."

I'm addicted to reading and eating kakigori (shaved ice).
Every other day I go to the same Udon noodle place and order dinner and kakigori as dessert. The people get a kick out seeing me so much, but they know I'm a good customer and are always very kind.

I have wonderful friends and family who send me all kinds of awesome goodies. This is the first of many boxes I would receive.

I received some flowers from home the other day.

More pics to come . . .