Cultural Encounters of the Queer Kind

Now that I’m settling in and have only just begun training for my new job, I’ve had a couple of days to explore Koriyama city and enjoy discovering the little idiosyncrasies of Japanese culture. Indeed, I’ve already been tested on a few tenets after an unexpected meeting at “The Mall” (think cheap JC Penny’s or Wal-Mart, which, incidentally, I believe owns this department store) near my apartment.

It was my second or third day in the city, and a fellow teacher asked if I’d like to do some exploring and shopping around Koriyama. It was getting late, so we decided to make our final stop the sports department to look for some hiking shoes and a Frisbee. While discussing dinner plans, an older man with wispy white hair accosted us at the top of the escalator.

Where we're going, we don't need escalators.

Where we’re going, we don’t need escalators.

He asked where we were from and whether we had time for a “five-minute lesson”. A five-minute lesson turned into free dinner and conversation in a booth-lined restaurant cozied up on the top floor of the mall. We attended politely his questions, all the while my stomach rumbling: the night monster, as my friends back in Pennsylvania refer to my revolting gluttonous habit of late-night eating, threatened to come out.

Buster Bluth I'm a monster

After insisting I order a fried dish – something on which I will not, and cannot, relent because of that fun thing I have called Celiac’s Disease – he then schooled me on the proper order of eating each dish on my tray, beginning with the sticky rice, then the salty miso soup (oops – a big no-no), and so on. The effect of jet lag on my appetite, it suddenly seemed, was wearing off, and my patience wearing down. All in all, however, our spontaneous meeting/English lesson with the retiree, long as it lasted, was pleasant and a quirky introduction to the friendly city.

I’ve noted some other cultural differences during my time at the school and while in the motions of everyday living:

Sidewalk Rules

Easy; there are none. Or at least there doesn’t seem to be. As is with vehicular traffic, pedestrians have the right-away, but try assuring yourself that when a bicycle is veering at you at top speed in the middle of the pavement.

Conversation lapses

Easier still; there shouldn’t be any. I realize this could be just the case when entertaining an American client, say, but it seems there should always be a constant stream of talking here or, at the very least, much smiling.

Appearance

Part of the teachers’ meeting last week at our school included a policy reminder on appropriate attire for the workplace. Colored socks or brightly colored or distracting ties and dress shirts are forbidden, and clean shaven faces (daily), good posture, and suit jacket are required. I remarked aloud, to some laughs, thankfully, that my entire outfit that day was an example of basically what not to wear.

Right down to my rainbow piano socks.

Right down to my rainbow piano socks.

Receiving/Giving money

Always with two hands. Given how clumsy I am to begin with, it makes for some interesting, and most likely amusing, juggling every time I go to the 7-11 near my apartment. Money here is treated respectfully, which can be seen in how the word itself in Japanese, o-kane, is given the honorable “o” prefix, as is o-cha (green tea) and o-sake (alcohol).

Etiquette

Although to a foreigner it might be difficult to keep all the rules of etiquette in mind, it’s one of my favorite things about Japanese customs: the bowing, the respective expressions “itadakimsu” and “gochisousama” before and after a meal, the taking off of shoes at restaurants, the pouring of sake for another while they, in turn, fill your sake cup, and the oodles of other expression to present one’s self as humble and respectful. A fantasy, sure, but I believe Americans could benefit greatly implementing these kind of things into everyday habits.

Dining

Concerning the aforementioned example, I’m uncertain whether there is really a specific order in which to eat things, but there are two far more important customs to keep in mind when dining: always pour another’s sake and allow them to pour yours, and never pass food between chopsticks, as it alludes to a certain ritual following the cremation of a loved one. Again, although I don’t always hear the expressions used, it’s still great fun to exclaim “Itadakimasu!” (“I humbly receive this meal”) and “Gochisousama!” (“Thank you for the meal; it’s been a feast”) at meals and a hearty “Kanpai!” with glass clinking.

I look forward to learning more customs as well as struggling with the ones that contradict my American upbringing. Shitsureishimasu!

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Sumo Surfing

Something I rarely mention in conversation to anyone is my deep fondness for bmx. I could spend hours on YouTube watching those sleeve tattoos and green dye jobs twist and flip in the air, holding my breath as one challenger’s fancy mid-air move turns into a grisly face palm into the hard concrete.

One stifling summer day in Budapest, I ventured down to the banks of the Danube to find an extreme biking tournament taking place, spectators lined up for a half-a-mile stretch on the Pest-side quay. I was impressed by the bikers and the daring moves they showcased, knowing full well I’d never have the control, balance, or skill to pull off such stunts.

Now, however, I believe I’ve found a sport in which I have a good chance: sumo wrestling. Following my arrival in Koriyama, and a delicious dinner with some of the school staff and seven wine glasses later, I came back to my new apartment to find that I had been generously provided a television. Although it had only six channels, I found plenty of interesting shows to watch (as I speak, the news channel is using a fun graphic to demonstrate what would happen should several earthquakes strike along the southern coast of Japan – more on my first earthquake experience here later), from incomprehensible, retina-blasting anime to Days-of-Our-Lives—style daytime dramas. And, of course, professional sumo wrestling.

If you’ve never watched sumo, I suggest you do, but not before reading a little bit about it first. The sport isn’t just two fat guys wearing tents around their junk, slapping their bulging stomachs and using their hilarious oompah-loompah arms to push their rhino-charging opponent from the ring.

Lucille

A bout – ended by one of the wrestlers being pushed out of the ring or knocked down – usually lasts only seconds, but it’s the lead-up that can last minutes and effectively builds the anticipation; many older men can be seen in the spectator crowd, whispering to their neighbors and nodding solemnly, most likely placing their bets on their favorite rikishi, or wrestler.

Rituals that take place before the actual action include a purifying Shinto-inspired salt toss (sometimes more than one), the clap of the hands to show each contestant has no weapons, and the custom of chikara-mizu, in which higher-division wrestlers sip from a ladle of power water. And then, finally, the tachi-ai, or initial charge, the release of tension as the two challengers clash together in a flash of flubby skin and low grunts.

Perhaps the most interesting part of sumo is when there is a non-Japanese competitor. There seems to be relatively few foreign-born sumo participants, which might be due to the restrictions in place by the Japan Sumo Association or simply for the fact that the sport is so uniquely Japanese. It could also be the heart attack—inducing lifestyle and the fact that, as a 400-lb Japanese civilian, you’re bound to stick out like a sore thumb just walking down the street. I believe I saw one yesterday from freecom’s downtown second-story window – an adorable, slightly tattooed, massively self-conscious teddy bear waddling down the sidewalk.

Imma tie you to my car roof and take you home.

Imma tie you to my car roof and take you home.

I would love to score a seat at a match in Tokyo, but ticket prices are exorbitant. Until then, I’ll settle with the tv broadcasts and start eating at Denny’s every day.

Yup. Denny’s. Here. By my apartment.

Beautiful.

Residency Accomplished, Reservations Assuaged

The first week here in Koriyama and at my new school has been fraught with dubiousness and trepidation. Today, however, victory was at hand for at least one nagging front-burner issue: I am now officially a one-year resident of Japan!

Behold, the revolting metamorphosis of Lee

Behold, the revolting metamorphosis of Lee

An admin at freecom – we’ll call her the wonderful ‘N’ – whisked us to the immigration office following my first teacher’s meeting and guided us through the paperwork. The agent, a short officious-looking man with rosy cheeks and black hair that parted like a loose open book on his head, warned us it might be an hour until our documents could be processed and our residence cards printed. A fellow teacher and I went to get lunch, returning some minutes later to find everything had been taken care of. The uniformed man beamed at us, and many thanks were spoken by both parties.

We returned to the office, and I prepared for my very first lessons with the company. I was moderately pleased with how they went, and my supervising colleague gladly provided feedback and criticism.

As for the dubiousness I carry, a learned habit, it is something I will have to overcome once and for all if I want to stay on here in Japan; shown or hidden, these feelings of reservations or suspicions, I’m realizing, would not fit in with the general atmosphere here.

School photo, age 12

School photo, age 12

The people are respectful, polite, and careful to observe the long-in-place social customs, but they are at the same time open, friendly, and – as evidenced by the unchained bicycles and home garages left open and unattended throughout the city – very trusting.

I close, then, with a paraphrased (and slightly tweaked) mantra to myself:

Pretend to smile enough, and you may just end up smiling for real.

Now, back to figuring out my Japanese washing machine…

The Lost Saga

I’m not so idealistic as I once was. I’ve experienced disappointment and heartbreak and have learned things about myself to which I sometimes wish I’d had been oblivious. There are days I wake up as a joke, laughably regretting not hunkering down somewhere to become the next potential cancer-curing scientist or leading human rights advocate. In social situations, I come up with clever retorts to “Why are you teaching in Japan?” and “Where are you going with this?”

The original plan was to obtain an environmental sciences degree, specified or not, and combine it with my journalism degree, reporting especially on “green” technology, lifestyle, and such. The original original plan was to become a studio audio mixer and composer particularly for movie soundtrack scores, before that a director of a human rights nonprofit organization, then a pilot, a linguist, a biologist, an actor, a chemist, an emcee for a circus, an ambassador to Germany, Carmen Sandiego…

NO. ANYTHING BUT THE MATH CARMEN SANDIEGO.

NO. ANYTHING BUT THE MATH CARMEN SANDIEGO.

I change every day. Maybe it’s indicative of my generation, maybe I have a volatile form of ADHD, or maybe that’s just how my brain is wired, and I’ve had 26 years to cope with the fact and still have yet to rein it in. One thing I do know is my shortcomings and, therefore, my limits. I’m not a remarkably intelligent person. That was difficult to say some years ago, but at this point, it would be foolish to pretend otherwise.

The one thing I am able to do and with some success, it seems, is teaching English. Aside from actually having to know the mechanics of my native language with the added benefit of having learned other languages and their structures, a teacher has to look good in many hats: entertainer, authoritative figure, therapist, improv actor.

IMPROV

There are times when the dunce hat must also be put on, and other times when you feel the line between flexible teacher and prostitute being crossed.

I don’t know how long I’ll stay on the teaching track. Tomorrow, I’ll want to be a cupcake factory line worker. It’s a frustrating, sometimes debilitating, characteristic of mine, but I’m hoping my experiences abroad and in this line of work will lead to something even better and perhaps something I could see myself doing long term; in the meantime, I’ll enjoy the ride while it lasts and finally cross Japan off my bucket list.

My Koriyama Castle

While my new flat in Japan is a single-room accommodation and not really a castle, it’s probably the largest room I’ve had in years. It’s a few minutes’ walk to the downtown area and main train station, with the largest of the mountains in the opposite direction. Besides the numerous 24-7 Family Mart convenience stores, there’s a surprising number of 7-11s, dotting the city grid much as Wal-Mart dots the entirety of Pennsylvania.

Entrance through small kitchen with sliding door into main room

Entrance through small kitchen with sliding door into main room

2014-01-12 17.12.09

I took something of each of you with me – can you spot yours?

Steaming Tea

Drinking Megan’s delicious tea on an overcast morning

Umi Bouzo

Before bed, I drew this yokai (Japanese spirit), Umibōzu, which hangs on my wall with all the maps of the places I’ve been to

More pictures to come soon!

Humble Beginnings

There doesn’t need to be a reason, but I’d like to create a myth concerning why the Japanese are so kind: mountains.

I arrived at Narita airport on January 10th after a mercifully uneventful 13-hour flight from O’Hara into a blur of Japanese workers and travelers flitting from terminal to terminal. I boarded trains I only hoped led to my destination, at which I hoped my contacts at the English school would truly be to drive me to my apartment and then to dinner as they had promised in a series of e-mails a few days before.

My stress levels at an ultimate high combined with having not eaten since the previous day, I bought a wrong ticket, boarded the wrong train, and even landed in customs purgatory immediately after stepping off the plane. The latter I knew would be a possibility; I arrived in Japan with no residence visa nor the otherwise required return or thru-way ticket for American citizens. My school had assured me the 90-day tourist visa could be changed at the consulate once I arrived in Koriyama. Given my experience with immigration, I prepared for an unsympathetic agent who would inevitably put me on the next plane back to the US or force me to buy a useless ticket to Korea as a promise I wouldn’t slip into Japan forever.

I was left in a bright halogen-lit rectangular office which seemed to serve as a detaining room and nursery. A family of seven excitedly pointed and laughed at me as I sat waiting for my sentence to be handed to me. Ten, fifteen, maybe twenty minutes ticked by, and a cheerful man bobbed in and sat down next to me, speaking rapid Japanese: Where did you come from? Ohh, hai, hai. You are a tourist? Ohh, hai! You have residence visa? Ahh, Koriyama. Hai. Okay, one moment, I must speak with…

I don’t know who he went to speak with, but he left as quickly as he had come, leaving me once again alone, a spectacle for the too-interested family now curiously looking at me as if though I had carried an explosive onto the plane. More waiting. Bustling in and plopping down next to me again, So, you will change your 90-day visa to 1 year, hai? In Koriyama, hai?

Hai.

Ahh, okay. Soudesu!

He handed me my passport, smiled, and half stood waiting for me to also stand.

That’s it?

Hai. Welcome to Japan.

Much bowing.

I was dazed. I didn’t know what this guy’s game was, but I found myself within seconds passing through the customs gates, every officer smiling and bowing to me as I passed, like I was Jesus Christ arriving in Jerusalem sans the palms.

The next obstacle I faced was buying a ticket for the bullet train, which, of course, I botched. No problem there; at least six people conspired independently to rectify the situation, and I found myself, again dazed, on a platform with trains pulling in and out so quickly it sent up my heart rate to dangerous levels. A train chimed insistently at me. Get on or miss your boarding time!

So I boarded. I didn’t even look at the number or city destination let alone the boarding time itself. I panicked and felt my face bloat with the threat of a sobby outburst. Yet, the train barreled on, ignorant of my need to freeze time and figure out my next move. A young vendor girl awkwardly pushed her cart past as the train jostled back and forth, and using stunted Japanese, I showed her my ticket and gave her the doleful eyes of a lost tourist, embarrassed and ashamed at my ignorance and carelessness. She scrutinized my ticket and said she’d be right back. Minutes later, she returned, explaining multiple times to change at the next station, even writing the train number, next departing time, and end-station city name; later, I realized she must have radioed to the controller to learn all of this information and recall it after serving an entire car full of peckish commuters.

At the next station, a train traffic controller in reflective yellow and green vest situated me at the exact dock I would board the train, smiling and waving as he boarded his train, as though we had been good friends. After arriving in Koriyama, my superiors did, in fact, pick me up and graciously nourished me with all kinds of raw fish and red wine with some of the other teachers, who all seemed just as friendly and accommodating.

It was when the school’s founder and manager was driving me to the Festa location in Koriyama that I first saw the mountains. I interrupted him abruptly mid-sentence with a loud gasp.

What’s wrong?

The mountains!

What…what about them?

They’re so big. They’re beautiful. I’ve never seen anything like them in my life.

I’m not one for sentiment. Especially in the presence of other people. It just doesn’t suit me. But I’ll be damned if I didn’t feel some kind of tremendous humbleness brought on by these bestial snow-capped beauties. And that, I postulated at one point during the night, is why you find such a humble – near humility – nature in the Japanese people. It wasn’t fear, but respect for these lurking goliaths just barely visible through the low, misty clouds that reminded me of my tenuous position among the elements and how dwarfed we are by not only the entirety of the universe but even such marvels here on earth. The mountains surround this city, like one vast being gathering up the ground below it in a loving parental embrace. I hope to embrace the mountains and all of Koriyama as I begin my new career here throughout this year and maybe beyond.

The mountains of Koriyama from "The Eye"

The mountains of Koriyama from “The Eye”