How Christmas Comes Early

24 12 2011

Apparently, a group of reasonable, relatively responsible adults, without a unanimously recognized authority figure and in the presence of a veritable mountain of colorfully wrapped gifts (and under the influence a not insignificant amount of alcohol) will utterly lose any shred of self control and rip into their presents a full two days early. Not for any reason other than proximity and desire.

It all started out reasonably enough. Debates on the tradition of Christmas itself, the arbitrariness of a date selected by a religion none of us actually follow, selected largely as a convenient way to convert pagan contemporaries. The futility of waiting. The extra time to play with our new toys. But what it boiled down to was the number of cocktails. Pass a certain number and the wrapping paper basically falls off the presents of its own accord, and then what can you do but indulge?


Bicycle bicycle bicycle race

24 06 2011

I’ve lived in rural Japan, where a bicycle was my only means of transportation, and I biked at least an hour a day just going to classes and the grocery store; where I panted and sweat my way up hills and flinched at the spiderwebs draping across my face as I rushed downhill.

I’ve been to Amsterdam, where a sea of bicycles line the sides of every building and every bridge, so tangled and chaotic I couldn’t imagine finding a single bicycle, much less extracting it.

I’ve spent summers in small town Michigan, biking to town for brightly colored superman ice cream cones and to watch sunsets at the harbor, watching the colors shift and melt and dance across the surface of the lake.

I live now in Seattle, where cyclists in brightly colored spandex, with taut chiseled calves and sporty sling bags and rearview mirrors affixed to their helmets, labor beside SUVs and sedans.

But passing a man in an untucked plaid button down and slacks cycling past the interstate, my immediate thought was that be must be a Mormon missionary, the only individuals who would bike in the blanket of humidity and endless heat of Florida.

Tis the Season

23 11 2010

I have had limited experience with snow, which means that a few specific memory pop into mind when I’m exposed to it.  Thanksgiving in Cincinnati, when I went sledding with my cousin and joined forces with her against my uncle in a vicious snowball fight.  He slaughtered us with his experience.  While we lobbed soft, crumbling snowballs at him, he would let his melt a little in the sun before bringing them back to the shade to harden; they felt like rocks.  Christmas in Wisconsin visiting my stepmother’s family; the morning race for the best sled, eyes blurred and fingers stiff with cold as I tried to dress myself.  Winter in Hakuba with my friends, walking down dimly lit streets in search of open restaurants, slipping with every step on the icy streets and clinging to my friends to stay upright.

I don’t really know how to dress myself for winter.  Winter in Wisconsin featured articles of clothing I’d never heard of and have never seen in stores: thermal long-johns and thick padded overalls my stepmother called “bibs.”  Scarves and hats and gloves have always interested me as accessories, but winter in Florida is so mild and changeable that such things inevitably resulted in being too warm.  I can never remember to put on a hat, or wrap a scarf around my neck when I’m leaving the house; it’s all I can remember to put on a jacket over my hoodie, the only article of clothing required for winter in Florida.

But I’ve been watching what others wear.  J-ko seldom leaves the house without a warm hat and his coat.  Women walk with their faces obscured by thick scarves.  Coats are always buttoned or zipped, not flapping in the wind the way I’m accustomed to wearing mine for fear of overheating.

When I saw the snow outside, I planned more carefully.  I debated finding my double lined trench coat, but it’s buried in my largest suitcase behind my temporary closet, and I decided I’d be warm enough without it.  Long-sleeved shirt, knit vest, hoodie, jacket, extra-long borrowed scarf wrapped twice around my face and once around my neck with 6 inches dangling free on either side, knit hat, and boots; I was as warm as my wardrobe allowed.

The snow fell gently as I left, dusting my scarf and hat.  I could still feel the solidity of the road under my feet, the snow mostly destroyed by the passage of cars.  Snow clung to the trees and just barely covered the grass, only a few hardy blades poking through.  A tiny patch of snow attached itself to the pointed tip of my boot with each step until I tapped it against the pavement to dislodge it.  While I waited for the bus, I set slow, deliberate footsteps in the snow, digging my heels into the thin hard-pressed snow on the sidewalk.

After my errands, the snow picked up, slicing diagonal white lines across my vision as it fell.  It invaded my eyes behind my glasses, which fogged with my every breath.  The snow had piled by then, my foot disappearing with a soft crunch with every step.  At one point, I missed the edge of the pavement and stumbled into deeper snow in the buried grassy area along the road.  Snow imbedded itself in the fabric of my pants.  The wind howled over the blaring of my headphones, making me turn thinking it was an approaching car.

I’d done an admirable job dressing myself; although I longed for gloves — which I do not currently possess — and the thinness of my pants, I succeeded in keeping myself warm.  I peered through my fogged glasses and admired the delicious wintery scene.  The houses strung with Christmas lights looked especially charming against the blankets of snow on their front yards.

But passing the last street lamp before the dead end leading to the house, on the steep hill leading to the pitch black stretch of pine-lined road, I slipped, falling flat on my ass, my bare hands buried in the snow.  I tried to stand and slipped again, sliding several feet down the hill on my butt.  I pulled my hands from the snow, brushing them clean only to find them burning and numb. In the dark of that last few yards to the house, with my burning hands shoved in my pockets where melted snow pooled, I no longer found the snow charming.  Nor was the crunch beneath my feet now that I feared the lack of traction on my boots.  My feet felt frozen, and I resented the clumps of snow clinging to my shoes.

As a child, I always loved the idea of winter.  I longed for the soft blankets of pristine white snow to herald the coming holidays.  I imagined daily snowball fights and sledding and snowmen with charcoal eyes and carrot noses.  Snow days!  Glorious school-free days to build elaborate snow forts from which to wage imaginary wars, days that ended in hot chocolate and marshmallows.  My parents tried to convince me otherwise, telling me tales of shoveling snow and the horrors of driving in snow, but I wasn’t convinced.

The mild winters of Japan — with its occasional light snow fall and 30+ degree weather already convinced me that winter wasn’t for me.  In Saijo, riding my bicycle with snow flying into my eyes, or biking to class — flying downhill with the cold wind blasting in my face, dreary endless gray days, I just wanted to hibernate.  In Tsukuba, with our rented traditional house with one window unit that heated a single room, the bedrooms icy in spite of the halogen space heater and thick comforters and blankets, I came to despise the season.

J-ko told me, when I was first thinking of moving here, that Seattle’s winters were mild.  I had understood from what he told me that Seattle winters were not unlike Florida winters.  Last night, as we scurried through the cold to his car, clutching our jackets around ourselves and shivering, I accused him of lying.  “You said that Seattle winters weren’t cold!” I shouted at him as we reached the car.  “I said they weren’t that cold,” he answered.  He reminded me that in the midwest, the temperature often dropped below freezing, a level of cold I cannot even fathom.

I’ve forgiven him for his deceit, more or less, but I’m aware that it’s only November; what exactly will the real winter bring?

Being Female

16 11 2010

I was, at one point, blissfully unaware of Lady Gaga. I saw her lampooned on television (something about her possibly possessing a penis?) without understanding the reference. Oddly enough, leaving the country brought her existence to my attention.

The Japanese love Lady Gaga, which isn’t really surprising given the prevalence of visual kei performers, not to mention that the Japanese music industry is chock-full of stunning examples of the styleoversubstance precept. She writhes on TV screens in record stores and second hand shops, and blares on speakers in crowded night clubs packed with bobbing Japanese youth. I broke my policy of ignorance when I heard that Alexander Skarsgard appeared in her video.

I think I got to the part where she dances on forearm crutches (3:14) before I really lost it.

But I can’t hate things with the proper intensity if I remain uninformed. I spent the rest of the night going through her videos with growing rage until I practically foamed. Female pop artists being overly sexualized is nothing new, but in none of the videos I watched that night did she offer anything that didn’t involve pelvic thrusting or writhing against a flat surface or — better yet — a sweaty pile of men. And I found myself thinking, “What sort of message are you sending??”

It was the echo of a voice from my pre-adolescence, back when I was a middle school student at a private Catholic school, listening to “Baby One More Time” after commandeering the car’s radio. After listening to the chorus, my father demanded to know the meaning of the song. “‘When I’m not with you I lose my mind…Hit me baby one more time’? Is she condoning domestic violence?” he asked me. Given his background working with victims of domestic violence, I suppose it wasn’t an unreasonable question to ask. Without having ever tried to analyze the lyrics, and with my limited 12-year-old understanding of the world, I was hard pressed to convince him that that certainly wasn’t the message of the song, and that, even if it were, it’s not the type of song whose lyrics are internalized as scripture. At least not by me.

Instead I muttered about how he was so lame for not “getting” it. He shook his head. “I don’t think she’s a good role model for girls your age.”

Obviously, given my childless state, it’s not the fragile young mind of my impressionable offspring that I’m trying to protect by protesting the hyper-sexual nature of the image Lady Gaga portrays. Rather, I’m alarmed by mainstream images of femininity, which reflect the current cultural gender climate as well as influence the future evolution of gender ideas.

“To be born a woman has been to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men. The social presence of women has developed as a result of their ingenuity in living under such tutelageA woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself…She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because…her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another…Thus she turns herself into an object…”

It’s been argued that such self-objectification empowers women to celebrate their own sexuality, but ultimately such objectification — whether willfully achieved or not — subverts the female identity, making it not about what the woman herself wants but what she believes men want. Having surveyed herself as she would be surveyed by a man, a woman determines her own self-worth.

Lady Gaga’s frequent peek-a-boo gestures to her eye while maintaining eye contact with the camera  reveal that she’s aware of her objectification. “I’m watching you watching me,” it says, suggesting that she agrees with the supposition that self-objectification is empowering. Lady Gaga takes this point of view a step further. She ends several of her videos by killing the men who objectify her (Alexander Skarsgard in “Paparazzi,” Jurij Bradač in “Bad Romance,” and Tyrese — although he objectifies Beyonce rather than Gaga — in “Telephone.”)

This violent end to objectification would seem to uphold the idea of empowerment; a great “fuck you” to patriarchal society, but the process of becoming an object relies on the internalization of male dominance, an actual subversion of the perspective.

“Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male; the surveyed female.”

Regardless of the outcome of such objectification, in order to become an object a woman must first internalize the male perspective, thus alienating herself from her own point of view. Rather, this self-objectification encourages women to accept male dominance by subverting their own view of themselves in favor of the male perspective.

That Lady Gaga suggests that self-objectification as a means of violent empowerment is ultimately detrimental. That she does so actively and willfully is appalling.

A Poor Translation

5 11 2010

The Japanese appear, at first glance, to have embraced western holidays.  In October, the stores break out plastic orange jack-o-lanterns and put up pictures of witches.  They hang garlands of black and orange spiders and sell full suit costumes and masks.  I visited Tokyu Hands in Shinjuku last October and couldn’t navigate the costume floor for the wads of Japanese people crammed in the aisles browsing and trying things on.  They had silly hats and masks and a full wall of wigs.

But there is no trick or treating.  I’ve seldom seen anyone actually in costume.  And although they have plastic jack-o-lanterns everywhere, there are no pumpkins, and thus no pumpkin carving.  As with Christmas, while the Japanese get very into the hype — the decorations and the delicious western-ness of it all — the day of is mostly a let down.  Christmas brings cake without presents.  Halloween lacks the candy and vandalism.

The past few years have conspired to make Halloween uneventful for me.  Two years spent in Japan without costumes or parties, and one in the ghost town of my university, most of my friends having already graduated and moved on.  But Halloween is a big deal for J-ko, and he apparently throws a giant annual party.  Just days after I arrived, the house was strung with cobwebs stretching over the ceiling in every room, even the bathroom.  A few days later, I looked up and saw plastic spiders clinging to the webs.  Black lights and red light bulbs replaced the normal ones — again, even in the bathroom.  J-ko told me of the effort he would put into making a sturdy zombie pinata.  This year, Halloween would be huge.

This isn’t a new or insightful thought, but Halloween for women has turned into a sort of slut contest.  Or at least that’s what costume shops everywhere would have me believe.  Shopping for a costume usually involved flipping through uninspired cheap plastic dresses that all seem to have been intended for sex shops; the sort of outfit a woman in a stagnant relationship might don to spice up a floundering love life, or for a Valentine’s Day or birthday present.  For Halloween, I could be a sexy nurse, or a sexy witch, or a sexy cop, or a sexy maid.  I see those sorts of costumes and I start to lose interest in Halloween.  I start to think up lazy uninteresting costumes like a sim or the tanuki pajamas I bought in Japan.  But usually, one of my lazy joking costumes ends up catching my fancy, and it takes on a life of it’s own.  A costume that moves in the opposite direction from the sexy something I’m supposed to buy into.  A costume that it wholly unflattering and hilarious.

A few years ago, I was Drunk Housewife, hair in curlers, bad 70s makeup smeared all over my face, a brandy glass and a cigarette in hand.  I shouted and slurred and cursed, demanding silence while I watched my stories.  A chilling look into a potential future.  This year, I was a drag queen.

I once met a drag queen at a club in Japan.  A comic drag queen, with an unshaven face, bad wig, and crookedly placed fake eyelashes, wearing a bright orange tropical dress.  What we didn’t know is that drag clubs in Japan work like hostess clubs; a seat fee is required for entry, and then bottles of alcohol are purchased so that you and your drag queen hostess can drink together.  The two pretty queens in the corner, already drinking with the only other costumers, were delighted by our presence. “My god you have big boobs!” they called to us after we’d sat. The comic queen, on the other hand, seemed alarmed by us.  She told us repeatedly that it was a drag club, and when we waved her off, saying we knew, she started asking us if we wanted to sit separately.  When she told us the price — 5,000 yen just to sit, with bottles of booze costing at least another 3,000 — we decided to leave, much to the dismay of the two adorable queens.

I had that comic queen in mind when designing my costume, which I decided should include a 5 o’clock shadow.

And the party was great.  There was booze and food and lots of people.  Dr. Horrible was there, and I even convinced him to sing for me after he’d had a few drinks. The nasty-things-in-boxes-that-you-touch ended up being hilarious because the first three boxes were easily determined as what they really were, but the last one was so realistic that everyone ripped their hands out of the box in disgust.  My pumpkin whoopie cookies were a huge hit, and we all had a blast.  It was exactly the way Halloween should be, not sleepily sitting at a chain restaurant in Japan, drawing crazed clown makeup on my unresisting friend to distract myself from the utter lack of costumes, candy, and revelry.


15 10 2010

Japanese people really enjoy making foreigners consume very traditional Japanese dishes that they know foreigners will despise. They love the horrified faces we make when we bite into something that we expected to be tasty.  In Hiroshima, I went drinking with a guy named Shuuji, who offered to order for us so that we wouldn’t have to use the pointing method we’d grown accustomed to.  Unfortunately, though he ordered for us, he gave us no explanation of the menu, so we ended up ordering fried cartilage and liver, which had looked innocuous and tasty on the menu.  When we expressed outrage, he just laughed and said, Yeah that stuff is nasty. I don’t know why you ordered it.

On my first outing with Sen’s friends, they ordered sting ray.  It’s delicious! they announced, dipping slivers of stringy sting ray meat into wads of mayonnaise.  I tried a piece — without mayonnaise.  It was salty and fibrous and felt like it had little pieces of sand imbedded in the flesh.

Probably the most traumatic experience was when we went out with the manager of our favorite restaurant.  He took us to an izakaya nearby and after asking watching us puzzled and giggle over the menu for 10 minutes, just went ahead and ordered a whole mess of stuff.  One dish that came out was a gelatinous white mass that looked a bit like brains.

CHALL ENGE! our Japanese friend shouted, thrusting the plate and a pair of chopsticks at us.  Sen wisely declined, but never one to turn from a challenge, I took as small a bite as possible — not an easy task when eating with chopsticks, which are not meant for cutting.  It tasted pretty much as I had expected it to (not exactly foul but certainly palatable by any means).  What is it? I asked.  Ransou, he answered.  What the hell is that? I asked.  Um, well you know testicles? he asked.  The opposite of testicles.  You know, in women.

Ovaries?????? I yelped and dove for my dictionary.  Sure enough. I’d eaten fish ovaries. And not even blowfish ovaries, which would have been kind of cool, but just some random fish’s ovaries.  Fabulous.

Recently, upon telling that story, I realized that I no longer remembered the word for ovaries, which is apparently a dangerous thing.  So I looked it up on my favorite online dictionary.

And I found this:


That’s right. Not one, but two ways to say dried sea-cucumber ovaries.  It’s a wonder I was able to eat anything at all while I was in Japan.

The Welcome Wagon

9 10 2010

There are reasons I’m sad that I’ve left Japan. The second I set foot on American soil and found myself faced with signs in only English and Spanish, I was seized anew with panic that the Japanese I’d crammed into my head over the past six years would immediately evaporate.  I already miss the boys with their elaborately styled Cloud Strife hair, skin-tight clothing over their emaciated skeletal frames, their pointy shoes extending half a foot beyond their actual feet, their hips wrapped in sparkling belts or skirts. I miss the sea of celebrities adorning grocery store displays and the televisions in department stores playing commercials on a loop.  I miss taiyaki and okonomiyaki and Qoo.

Then again, Seattle has Daiso and Kinokuniya and Uwajima, so most of my more violent cravings can be soothed.

And then of course, there is ample reason to be happy about being back in the States.  There are ovens and fresh baked cookies and  Mexican food and clothing that fits and piles of friends.  There are smiling, friendly people who compliment my outfit and make change for me when I’ve stupidly assumed that the buses in Seattle are like the ones in Japan.  There are washing machines that fit weeks worth of laundry rather than a handful of dirty clothes.  There is Hulu.

I spent my first day in Seattle in a state of exhaustion induced hyper activity, zooming from random mundane thing to the next.  I entered a discount grocery store only to marvel at the size and price of maple syrup, gasping loudly and fondling the bottle before flailing my arms and scampering towards the next amazing display.  I lost any semblance of sanity when face to face with the tortilla display:

An older woman watched me taking my photo before deciding to go around the open freezer behind me.  The Mexican man at the cart where I got my quesadilla grinned at my spastic joy, a phenomenon I noticed all day; strangers smiling in my direction. Only shop clerks in Japan approved of my silliness; a shining moment of interest in an otherwise dull workday I suppose.

Tonight, we baked home-made pizzas in the oven while store-bought knishes baked in the toaster oven, a luxury that nearly made me weep.

It’s good to be back.

What Japan is Missing

27 09 2010

My abuela once told me that I should have been born Mexican. I’m not sure what a Mexican person would think of my zealous consumption of their cuisine — whether my obsessiveness would elicit approval or disgust — but it wouldn’t stop me from guzzling salsa and cramming bucketfuls of juicy shredded meat down my throat.

It’s the hardship I’m most aware of living in Japan — the lack of Mexican food.  My tongue weeps for the tingle of spicy salsa, and my stomach roils with unfulfilled desire. As I consume my tuna and mayo onigiri, I remember the once weekly cilantro-doused burritos of my past and stifle a sob.

So it took approximately 3 seconds after being sent this link to change my plans for the day and head to Odaiba.

Mexicans!  Real live Mexicans!  My joy burst from me like candy from a pinata. Within minutes of arrival, a Mexican man overheard BJ and I exclaiming over everything and called to us. “It’s amazing right?  I’m fucking Mexican and I haven’t eaten Mexican food in months. What am I doing in this country??”  Moments later, he fed Japanese staff members shots of tequila before flipping them over his shoulder.

The festival took place alongside a mall, which also housed a main stage.  There, university students in brightly colored traditional outfits sang and danced, drank water from a leather pouch (which was much more impressive than it sounds), and had a mock bullfight with a midget carrying bull horns.

I’m not even kidding.

After the university students’ show, a mariachi band played.  They were somber in their matching tan suits with their giant sombreros, but the crowd was lively, whooping and shouting and swaying to the music, until, during the last song, one of the mariachis pronounced it dance time and a swarm of middle aged latinas stormed the performance area and danced with abandon.  BJ and I pushed through the crowd to the front and shimmied and swung our hips and laughed and whooped along with the music until we sweat.

And did I mention the food?

Meaty and fragrant and deliciously seasoned.  Viva Mexico!

Softbank Hates Foreigners

13 09 2010

Because of its White Plan, which only costs about 900 yen a month, Softbank became the cell phone provider of choice at my company.  Each school has a Softbank cell phone, and many of the other teachers have identical company-provided cells.  The White Plan offers unlimited calling between Softbank cell phones but charges twice as much per minute to non-softbank cells as any other company, a fact that offends me and led me to going with another provider.  Shortly after my arrival, one of my coworkers asked me about my cell phone, and when I told him that I’d gone with AU, he said, “Well that was stupid.”  Do you even know how your plan works? I asked him. “No, I just pay directly through the company every month.”  But I’m the stupid one.

All of which conspired to make me loath Softbank.  That and the fact that they’re advertised by SMAP, a boy band whose members are all not only actively unattractive, but also old; most of them are in their late thirties.

When Sen told me that she wanted to get her own phone rather than her crappy company phone, I immediately offered to help her set up her account — provided she didn’t go with Softbank.  By the time her replacement, Kel, moved to Japan, I’d repented my irrational hatred of Softbank and relented to helping her set up service with Softbank.

We were immediately greeted by a shop clerk who handed us the latest cell phone catalogue and asked if we had any preferences, but before we even started to really look at cell phones, he brought us a translation of the service packet which said that unless Kel’s visa was two years long — the length of a contract with Softbank — she would be ineligible for all Softbank deals; there would be no discounts on the cell phones, and she wouldn’t even be able to play for her cell phone over time as is the norm: should would have to pay up front for a cell, the cheapest of which was $300. Knowing that others had successfully set up accounts with Softbank with no trouble, we headed to a different store, only to be told the same thing with a second caveat: although Kel’s visa had been extended for a year, her foreigner registration card still had the old expiration date — only two weeks away.  In that case, they said, you can’t get a cell phone at all. Lies and shenanigans.

So we went next door to the AU store.  We explained the situation, showed the shop clerk Kel’s new visa and her foreigner registration card, and asked if she could get a cell phone.  I’m not sure. Let me check, she told us.  A five minute phone call later and she’d determined that there was no problem and collected a wad of free cell phones to show us.  Ugly free cell phones.  Could she get a cuter, expensive phone and pay over time? Of course! You can either pay over two years, and if you end up canceling pay the balance then, or you can pay over one year. What about this phone?  Oh that phone is free! And it’s the last one. I’ll set it aside for you. Will Arashi (the AU advertiser) come teach me how to use my cell phone? I wish they would teach me!

Throughout the exchange, I was practically giddy.  Not only was there a tremendous sense of accomplishment as I was both translating and helping do something complicated in Japan, but I’d been right about Softbank. Without any preaching from me, Kel had accepted that AU was superior in every way to Softbank, in spite of her hatred of Arashi.

As we were leaving, she told me, “I’m glad I ended up with AU. SMAP is cool and Ken Watanabe (who advertises for docomo) is awesome, but I know what Arashi means to Japan.”


The Dreaded News

6 09 2010

I don’t think people quite believed me when I said that I knew I was going to fail the JLPT.  I think they thought that I was being modest or self-deprecating.  But what they should have remembered is that I’m the first one to toot my own horn.

When I said I wouldn’t pass the JLPT, I didn’t mean it was unlikely, or that I wasn’t smart enough, or that I was afraid to hope.  I meant that I knew the level of the test, and I knew my own level, and I knew that I was short, even if I studied my butt off (which I did.)

So it was no surprise when the letter finally came and 不合格 (failure) was written at the bottom.  Rather than the pass or fail, I was much more interested in knowing how much I’d failed, since this is a new test and the scoring has changed.  The old test required a 70% to pass. Supposedly, the new one would change annually depending on the difficulty of the test, and the pass rate had not been announced when I took the test.

I looked up the new pass rate last night and found that it had been posted: 100/180.  My score: 85/180.  I’m not sure if that’s better or worse than I expected, but it calmed me a bit. I think it’s entirely feasible that I can make up those 15 points by December.

We shall meet again, JLPT.