Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Rants, Recollections, and Musings: A Review of Early 2013

Experiences and (Jaded) Commentary

Waiting anxiously in a hospital emergency room not once, but twice in a week does more than make you understand how Spanish-speaking immigrants in America feel. It leaves you feeling beyond helpless, blunderous and exposed in a world that "foreign" does not even begin to describe. Thankfully, my husband's severe stomach pains that led us stumbling into such incompetence were nothing serious. After some painstaking paperwork and tests, as well as sure incomprehension about how Japanese hospitals work, we were sent home (twice) with some medicine and "reassurance" that everything is fine. Really, we weren't feeling so reassured, due to many factors, chief among them: our limited Japanese (fruits and vegetables, colors, and random nouns and verbs do not help you at the hospital), the doctors limited English, and the fact that we went through the same process two times in one week in two different hospitals. We spent way to much money on tests that John's ridiculously expensive insurance should have covered.

But even in shadows, there is proof of light. After some intense reading about John's symptoms and the accuracy of the kind of test he was given, we've finally relaxed and are happy to report that normalcy (or what can be considered so) has returned. And now, of course, we have these lessons if this worst-case-scenario ever pops up again. For example, always ask for test results, as one hospital won't call another to get them, but will make you go through any procedure you've already done. There are certain people (who in all honestly are just trying to help) that you should not tell about hospital visits. These people will proceed to plan any necessary subsequent visits to the places they think best, even if there's a perfectly respectable English-speaking, technologically advanced clinic one hour bus ride away that you can certainly navigate by yourself.

In other news...well, there isn't. We are continuing to labor in our oh-so-unfulfilling "jobs". John's contract at the elementary school an hour and fifteen minutes away ends March 9. After that, I think he'll take some time looking for jobs in our city. It's about time he works closer, so he's not commuting two and a half hours a day. All that train time (see previous entry about Japanese transportation, with an erroneous title about whiskey that is subsequently explained in said entry) seems to be, from what I've read, a direct link to depression. Either he'll find a job he can bike to, or he'll tutor privately. We're both excited about this, because it gives him more time not only to be at home, but to employ himself in activities he actually enjoys. Some things he doesn't enjoy are: the train, inevitably filled with staring (and occasionally yelling) drunkards and sardine-packed-people; two graduate university classes costing upwards of $3000 that employ professors who can't understand English (in a TESL graduate program) and others who use the exact same activities from previous semesters; the two hour ride to said university; cucumbers; and his wife, who feels obligated and grateful to leave her usual bubble of activities, endlessly making social engagements.

Of course there are high points. We've heard from many expats that the six month mark is an unusually tough time of adjustment. Add to that a job where I'm sitting 6-8 hours a day (makes me oddly miss retail and not-so-oddly, movement) and you've got this: a bitter blog entry composed mostly out of a need to keep up with this project after skipping two months and to quell my boredom. (I am currently at previously mentioned desk with no internet and no lessons for today. I am typing in notepad because Word corrects me too much). Even with all this apparent hostility, though, my aim is to say yes to all of the Japanese experience. Though it's misunderstood and frustrating, there are parts that are truly beautiful. One of those is the community center English class I teach on Tuesday nights. That class is full of gengki (roughly translated as fine, enthusiastic, full of life) 50-70 somethings who teach me about Japan/ Japanese culture and speak English as eagerly as a children open birthday presents. As the lingua franca, when these people travel it's all they have. English literally opens worlds for them, and they are so happy and so grateful that I take the time once a week to speak with them and teach them. One woman in her early fifties, Miyahara-san, brings me omiyagi--a souvenir, memento, or keepsake; an object a traveler brings home for the memories associated with it-- every week. I've received books, candies, pictures, pamphlets, food and trinkets from her. She's taken John and I to see shrines in other cities, to Tokyo German town, Yokohama, and other places.

You can see Fuji San (Mt. Fuji) vaguely in the distance 
Ah Hell Naw!
Foreigners Graveyard 
February 24 she took us to a soba-making class, where we made Japanese noodles from scratch. It was a little frustrating, firstly because John and I both had colds, and were doped on OTC meds. Secondly, because it seems that the Japanese way of teaching goes something like this: show someone how to do something; let them try for about thirty seconds; tell them they're doing it wrong, and in the name of "reshowing", actually just finish said task. I see this everywhere, from mothers talking to children to teachers talking to students. It's amazing anyone learns to do anything...I guess they're practicing alone.

There are a handful of people who shower us with such kindness. If I can't return what they've shown to me, I can pass it on.

Currently, I'm skimming through a interesting book full of commentary about Japanese culture. It's quite an academic read, and after about ten pages I have to put it down in exchange for a novel, newspaper, or the NYT crossword. However, it's teaching me so much about the culture.

"Uchi (inside) and soto (outside) have metaphorical extentions in Japanese like in no other major language. These metaphors have cultural social, and cognitive implications and underlie key concepts of the culture." Some people would say that uchi space is up to one's skin, composed of the brain and other inner workings. But Japanese takes it much farther, so that it can mean one's house or home. A Japanese house is usually surrounded by either brick walls or fences. There is always a gate. Once you enter the gate, you feel the first sense of uchi, being inside the walls. But this is ambivalent, since it's still between the soto and uchi of spaciality. The ambivalence continues in the genkan, where your have to take off your shoes, no option. The genkan might seem like the inside because it is under the roof, but it is lower in height than the entrance, and acts as a sort of holding space before one is invited in. Still, once past the genkan, you are not in uchi, though it may feel so. The layout is designed so that guests are rarely able to access the innermost areas.

Uchi space is not just physical but also social. This space is one of involvement. As with collectives, people rely on expanded rather than individualized ego. There are other key cultural concepts that identify the uchi/soto relationship, respectively:
1. real wishes vs. stated reason
2. humane feeling vs. social obligation

overall, these metahpors (uchi/soto) help to explain  various cultural as well as linguistic phenomena (such as why people never say excuse me in crowded areas: you are outside their uchi space). The distinction between uchi and soto also help one to understand the many different Japanese linguistic forms, which change depending on who you're talking to and where you are. For example, there are four different ways to say what translates as "I understand," depending on if the person you're talking to is a superior, peer, family member, etc.To learn more see "Uchi and Soto as Cultural and Linguistic Metaphors", by Seiivhi Makino, a chapter in the larger collection Exploring Japaneseness: On Japanese Enactments of Culture and Consciousness, ed. Ray T. Donahue, 2002.

There are some examples of this. So far, I've watched two Miyazaki films (Japanese animated movies) that are aesthetically quite beautiful and teach you about Japanese mores the same as fairy tales inform one about American ideals). One is called Spirited Away ( Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi "The Spiriting Away of Sen (name) and Chihiro (name)" in Japanese). The film tells the story of Chihiro Ogino, a sullen ten-year old girl who, while moving to a new neighborhood, enters an alternate reality inhabited by spirits and monsters. After her parents are transformed into pigs by the witch Yubaba, Chihiro takes a job working in Yubaba's bathhouse to find a way to free herself and her parents and escape to the human world.  Another is called My Neighbor Totoro (pronounced toe-toe-row). It follows the two young daughters of a professor and their interactions with friendly wood spirits in postwar rural Japan. I learned from this movie (and indirectly from a teacher at my school) that children and parents bathe together well into junior high school (Again adding to the sense of home and family as uchi territory) .

There are some 50,000 convenience stores in Japan. These places are surprisingly convenient, unlike anything we'd compare them to in America. You can buy bottled drinks, alcohol, produce, some groceries, ready-to-eat (but fresh daily) food, vitamins, school supplies, some OTC meds, and other things. You can also buy an assortment of magazines, anime and otherwise. On this aisle long rack of printed pages, there are many anime pornos, in plain sight of anyone reaching two-and-a-half feet, featuring big-busted women fingering themselves or tied up and crying.

In Okuizumo, Japan, a replica of Michelangelo's David was installed without much warning last summer. The famously nude biblical hero is raising eyebrows-and reportedly scaring children- in this town in Shimane prefecture. The sixteen-foot-tall statue was donated by a local businessman who hopes the town's residents will learn to appreciate the sculpture. However, the townspeople are calling for underpants.

That's right, underpants.
on a statue.
Of David.

Despite the reputation of some Japanese for- shall we say- esoteric sexual predilections--full frontal nudity is illegal in photos or on film.

Oh, I forgot to mention that the anime women were "wearing" scantily drawn bras.

On the one hand, I am a Westerner (Soto space). Granted, the women are drawn, and parents can keep their children from seeing what's inside. But seriously, aren't drawn pictures of sexually exploited women (uchi,culturally) much more offensive than artistically sculpted penises (soto, culturally). Also, did I mention that not only do parents and children bathe together, but people (men and women separately  often bathe in public bathes together. Kids see "private parts" on a daily basis. Instead of fearing a sculpted member I'm afraid these little boys and girls should fear becoming call girls who stand dressed in school girl outfits to entice men inside, or businessmen who are married to their jobs instead of their wives. Japanese businessmen are required by custom to get so shitfaced with their bosses after work that by the time they realize it, twenty years have passed, their children are grown, and they've never made their wives moan.

I've also noticed that compulsory education in Japan is a lot less about subject matter and a lot more about teaching children "how" to be Japanese. There are countless assemblies with limitless rituals, students stand and sit and move according to custom and always in a group. They're told to work hard and study without actually being taught anything (they're told many things; they're taught nothing, except, by example, to always appear busy and sacrifice oneself for the group). OF course, this group mentality does have some merit. Americans are taught in sports and groups that "there is no I in team," altruism is (usually, omitting Ayn Rand and her sociopathic brain farts erroneously labeled books) celebrated, and we're taught to work together despite our differences. These are lessons, in individualist America, that I think are very important. But here, the worst extremes of "doing as your told" are all summed up in one example.

I was in class with a Japanese English teacher, not teaching, of course, but repeating and murmuring words in "native" tongue, whatever that means, since "native" English varies from Alabama to Boston, Yorkshire, or Sydney. I've decided that my job here is less as a human being and more as a robot. "Greetings children. I am from Alabama. Where are you from? Do you speak English? How do you say __ in Japanese? That's right. In English it's __." sigh. Never am I asked to plan lessons, or talk about how second languages are actually acquired. Mindless repetition is the way in education though, from Tokyo to Montgomery we're wasting malleable gray matter on cramming. Save critical thinking for college, board members say. Fcuk the board members. I know why it's not happening here, but I don't know why American teachers aren't on the goddamn streets taking legislative buildings by storm. When/ if I move back to America I envision myself a radical. I'll picket and protest and rip flags and bare breasts. I'll use all my time to study Spanish and then volunteer at City Hall to help immigrants fill out paperwork. Non-native speakers need friends. Educators needs to burn multiple choice tests. ETS needs to fuck themselves.

In the Japanese class my rant pulled me from, the students were doing a worksheet. At the end of class, the teacher had written on the chalkboard

11 and 12 were sentence answers while the others were just words, so they got lines. Students were called on to write the correct answers on the  board. Things were running relatively smoothly (as defined in a classroom at this school) until number 11. A student was called up to write the correct sentence answer. He began to write but there was not enough room on the line. Then, the strangest thing happened. He just stopped. He didn't write beyond the line, or below the line, he just froze, like someone had just asked him to figure out the square root of a decimal in 1 second flat. This fourteen year old adolescent couldn't finish the sentence because the line on the chalkboard wasn't long enough. He didn't want to write outside the line. He couldn't until he was told to do so. So he froze.

This is what memorization and regurgitation is doing to children's brains. They're so concerned with vomiting up the wrong answer, or in this case, "coloring" outside the lines and standing out, that they can't think at all. Of course, we can't blame the students. Thinking has never been modeled for them. The "resolution" came about 90 seconds later when the teacher realized the student was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Teacher apologized profusely (for not providing the adequate dimensions of what to do/ how to act) and drew the line a little longer. I am continuously stunned at the thought of this episode.


We're waiting for the weather to warm a bit so we can continue to explore the Boso peninsula- the southernmost part of Chiba prefecture. We went once, unexpectedly, but an old single-car diesel train all dressed up for the day, and then hiked up dirty hills and slid down frozen-leaved paths.

Recently, however, since it's still winter, we've been exploring the Tokyo city-scape. Saturday, February 23, we went to Roppongi, in Tokyo. Known as a favorite expat watering hole, this town became a hub for westerners after the war, and as a result there are a number of what I'd call titty bars, with big Nigerian men constantly on cell phones try to pull you inside. "Ladies free. Free champagne for ladies!" Mmm, no thanks. I'll stick to the vegetarian restaurants and art museums, thank you. For lunch we went to a chain restaurant called Frijoles; John called it "basically Chipoltes". It's the first burrito I've had in Japan that I didn't make and it was amazing. Veggie burrito with fresh guac and a dos equis; yeah, the rest of the day had to be awesome. Luckily, it was, with the exception of John's credit card getting stuck in an ATM it took thirty minutes to find and an additional forty-five for someone to remove.For dinner we went to Chien-Mai, an all vegetarian Taiwanese restaurant. It was small, as every restaurant in Tokyo is, and the waiter was very gengki. He was a skinny old bald man, full of life and an ear-to-ear smile. He wore a bow tie and spoke fast and sweet. Other than the art, I think he was my favorite experience. We went to a place called Mori Art Museum that was showcasing an artist named Makoto Aida.Controversial and diverse, his art was the perfect commentary on Japan and 21st century society. Graphic, colorful, and raw. The exhibit had everything from school-boyesque sketches to installation pieces. It was exceptional. You should look 'im up.

Being Gone

Back in Alabama friends have had babies, and others are getting married. People have moved, visited, grown, and changed. Life, as always, continues. I've found that a very dependable feature of people who live abroad is hearing them talk not just about their homelands, but about the experience of leaving. One thing that undoubtedly exists between all of us-regardless of the from...to differences- is fear. There is a palpable fear to living in a new country, and though it's more acute in the first months, even year, of your stay, it never completely evaporates as time goes on. It simply changes. We're still in the "How do I make friends, adjust, and master the nuances of language?" phase. Next comes the "What am I missing?" phase, which takes this paragraph round full circle. As we settle in to our new lives, time passes and becomes less a question of how long we've been here and more of how long we've been gone; we'll realize people have grown up, moved, married, they will have become completely different people--and we will too.

It's hard to deny that the act of living in another country , in another language, fundamentally changes you. Different parts of your personality sort of float to the surface, and you take on qualities, mannerisms, and opinions that define the new people around you. And there's nothing wrong with that; it's the reason we left in the first place. I wanted to evolve, to change something, to put myself in an uncomfortable new situation that would force me into a new phase in my life.

Having to start from zero and rebuild everything, having to re-learn how to live and carry out everyday activities like a child, fundamentally alters you. Yes, the country and its people will have their own effect on who you are and what you think, but few things are more profound than just starting over with the basics and relying on yourself (and perhaps your wonderful husband/wife) to build a life again. There is a certain amount of comfort and confidence that you gain with yourself when you go to this new place and start all over again, and a knowledge that-come what may in the rest of your life- you were capable of taking that leap and landing (however hard) at least once.

But there are fears. And yes, life has gone on without you. And the longer you stay the more profound those changes will become. Holidays, birthdays, weddings, births-every event missed is a tick marked on a seemingly endless ream of paper.

I know that after this experience abroad I'll look back and realize that so much has happened in my absence. Who knows how hard it will be to start conversations with people after two years, when I am the outsider to inside jokes.

To live in a new place (no matter how truly frustrating, foreign, and difficult; as an outsider in an isolated place) is a beautiful, thrilling thing, and it can show you that you can be whoever you want - on your own terms. It can give you the gifts of freedom, new beginnings, curiosity, and excitement. But to get on that plane doesn't come without a price (and I don't just mean the $1500 just to get our suitcases and our bodies here). I cannot be in two places at once, and from now on, I will always lay awake on certain nights and think of all the things I'm missing out on back at home.

1 comment:

  1. Great to hear your thoughts on living abroad! I didn't expect to read through the whole post, but I have had and am still having so many of the same thoughts. I feel like we are still adjusting to working in China, and that I am just now beginning to understand teaching. I really am sorry to hear that they won't give you flexibility in lesson planning and classroom management. The example with the teacher apologizing to the student for not providing an adequate line is a great story, but underlines a huge cultural difference between Japan and China and how not all ESL classrooms are equal. I don't want to make this comment too long, but I also really empathize with the feeling that the world is spinning around you; that life is still going on everywhere, but it feels like you're moving at a different speed. So much has happened since we came to China: I hated it, I accepted it, I loved it, I settled in, and soon I will be leaving. At the same time, so much has happened back home: family members have died and others have moved past that, friends are moving to many places, lives are changing, a president was chosen. Even though it's been a year and a half, I feel like I'm just beginning to understand my experiences and to be able to look upon them with the wisdom of time. Thanks for sharing! Hope you guys are doing well. Enjoy Thailand!