Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Not half the story - the New Year in Japan

Happy New Year, and welcome to a post that isn't ABOUT New Year's!

Look, I wanted to write about Oshougatsu (お正月) in Japan - the New Year's Day - but there's just too much to say. It's a major, MAJOR holiday here, steeped in rituals old and new that begin weeks in advance and don't end until half a month later. You eat special food for good luck, you clean your house from top to bottom, you visit a shrine after watching the clock tick up to midnight and then spend the first day of the year drinking sake and exchanging your old charms and talismans for new ones. And, you watch music specials while you wait for the new year. There's also the year end lottery, and the crucial custom of writing New Year's postcards to absolutely everyone you know, and those who time it right can expect them to be delivered on January 1 in one fell swoop. It's intense.

Me? I ate soba for dinner, then a friend came over, and we sniped, opined, watched TV, read manga, and drank tea until we were both nearly asleep. Then, another friend stopped by. 2008 went out, 2009 came in, and I politely ushered them out as quickly as possible, because I'm not a night person. The second friend went out for hatsumoude (初詣), the year's first visit to a shrine. The first either joined her or went to bed. Either way, I was out cold by then.

Well, look at that, I wrote about it after all. I guess my non-New Year's post will have to wait for a true non-New Year's Day.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

On sneezing

If you ever spend an extended period overseas, you're going to get sick at some point.

Realistically, you'll probably get sick even if you aren't overseas, but most of the time, you'll get off with the same old sniffles, or the same old sore throat - things that you're used to. Stuff your body's been through before, and if it's in the mood, it'll raze it right out, and if it's feeling a bit sluggish and really would rather just take the day off, well, you know where the cans of Campell's are. (Or, in my case, the world's greatest Chinese wonton noodle soup. Seriously, my grandparents have been known to drive an hour to our house and pick it up on the way when my brothers or I report a runny nose, just for an excuse to eat the stuff with us.) Whereas, if you go to Japan, or Europe, or even Canada - heck, even if you jump STATE - it's a whole new battleground.

No, wait, let's tweak the metaphor: the battleground, that being you and your immune system, is the same. But, well, suddenly the gleaming badges of the neighboring army riding in on white horses, the soldiers who shoulder their rifles square upon equally square shoulders and know better than to shoot before the agreed upon day, hour, minute in the agreed upon spot; suddenly, they're gone, and you've got the barbarians. And the barbarians are eating your dinner and taking your women and bashing you with rocks whenever and wherever they please, and your immune system is all hot and bothered and just doesn't know WHAT to make of all of this hoo-hah. All of this means that until the language is learned, the culture acclimated, and a truce arranged so that the proper battle lines can be drawn, you're stuck with steel wool shoved in your sinus cavity and down your throat and possibly in your eyes and brain. Oh, and don't expect your immune system to make peace with the locals any more quickly than you can.

Fun fact: there's a Japanese saying that, "A fool never catches a cold." Assuming that the reverse is true, and given that I'm currently on my third cold within a three month period, Einstein's got nothing on me!

So, let's review: Getting sick is a universal constant. CHILDREN getting frequent colds is a universal constant. Adults who frequently WORK with children, like English teachers, catching said colds with equal frequency is a universal constant. You know what isn't a universal constant? Nyquil. Airborne. Tylenol Cold and Sinus. My beloved Benedryl.

Oh, and the simple phrase, "God Bless You."

The need to hunt for alternative cold medications is a pain, but it's not unmanageable - I can speak and read Japanese more than well enough to get by, and I'm generally too lazy to take medication anyways. However, the lack of a reaction to sneezing still seems off. Proper manners are paramount to the Japanese education, with dozens of ways to express gratitude and apology, or to greet and part. There's something to say when you enter a room, or when someone else enters a room; when another leaves home, or when you leave home, and both are different from when you leave work; changes based on region, age, and hierarchy, as well as how well you know the other person. Many a foreigner has lived to tell the tale of being ganged up on by Japanese store clerks screaming, "Irasshaimase" (いらっしゃいませ) in domino pattern - once one starts, everyone else is sure to follow. It's only proper.

Yet, sneeze, and it's like nothing happened. Your sneeze is invisible. No "God bless you," or "gezundheit"; no "salúd," no "labriyut." Silence. Silence that's only occasionally shattered by another sneeze. (Or, in the case of some guy on the train last week, five more sneezes. And that was just before I changed trains. And not. One. Word.) It's bizarre, so bizarre. I've had to explain to adult students that, when I or any foreign associate sneezes, it is improper not to say something, let alone to keep chattering away as though nothing happened. Another time, I was sitting next to a Japanese man on the train, and he sneezed. Without thinking, I murmured, "God bless you." He smiled nervously, and it ended there. Maybe he went on to talk to his co-workers about this exciting, international experience, or maybe he could care less and forgot.

I've been here for almost 11 months, but like my immune system, there are some things that I just haven't figured out yet.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The less distant past

When I ask my adult students how long they have been studying English, the response always comes by way of a guilty little apology, and always sounds considerably longer than it should. At this point, I've developed my own standard response:

Teacher: Does that include junior high school and high school?
Student: Yes...
Teacher: Aha. Nope. That doesn't count.

There are exceptions to every rule, but in my experience, nothing from school actually STICKS, and I'm talking right up to undergraduate college. The point of this period isn't to teach you any more than the absolute basics; the most important thing you'll get out of high school is not who wrote "Common Sense," or how to calculate the rate of inertia in a moving object, or whether to put the comma inside or outside of the quotation marks, but rather, HOW TO LEARN. You learn how to retrieve this information when you need it, and how to filter out the garbage, and decide what's worth remembering. Unfortunately, no one actually TOLD me this until long after grade school had ended, when even college had me in its death throes. Somehow, I imagine I'd be a lot less prone to self-criticism if I'd realized that cramming for Bio 101 wasn't an insult to Mendel. I'm sure he kept notes, too. And, maybe he even doodled in the margins.

In Japan, everyone starts studying English when they hit junior high school - it's a required class, and since the curriculum is generally decided on a national level, kids don't even get a choice between other languages. As anyone who has ever been twelve can tell you (I extend this message to everyone 11 and under, of course), narrowing down a tween's or teen's choices to one is hardly the best way to foster an appreciation for said choice. Even worse, said classes are executed in the dullest manner possible, through grammar drills and reading aloud and multiple choice tests, all taught by teachers with nebulous English ability themselves. In many schools, after complaints from parents, said teachers aren't even allowed to SPEAK English. That's right - since they speak with an accent, all of the actual "teaching" is performed by ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers) or, even worse, by recordings. Good intentions all the way, but it doesn't exactly make the class seem pertinent to life, especially when that life is at a stage where it revolves around a cell phone and a Nintendo DS.

I don't approve of adults beating themselves up for sleeping through more than a few childhood drill sessions. If you want to love a language, or a culture, or anything, the love has to be personal, and you've got to act on it personally, even if it doesn't make much sense at the time.

It is with great pride that I announce: I learned Japanese to save money on comic books.

Given how much money (and time, and potential) I've WASTED over the years on said comics, along with tapes, DVDs, and other tchotchkies, that statement should make O. Henry himself blush, but bear with me. The source of my Japanophilia was a certain friend from a certain summer spent at a certain day camp, which I attended because my parents toast their children's misery nightly with Tang. It was there that I discovered, at the tender age of 14, that Sailor Moon isn't REALLY a cartoon, and is thus totally OK to watch. After staunchly promising myself not to become obsessed, this time, I proceeded to join the crusade against dubbing and buy the comics.

At the time, English-translated manga was still a novelty. The selection was limited to a single shelf at the biggest bookstores, and horrifically overpriced - I still recall that the first volume of Ranma 1/2 grazed at $20. On the other hand, some of the comic book shops would occasionally stock a volume or two of the Japanese originals, and well! Well! Less than $7, on average, and the selection! When it took five or six months for a single volume of issues to merit a graphic novel release, the idea that the future sat in some little island on the other side of the world made me drool. So began the collection, aided by various online shops, eBay, and - eventually - day trips to the Japanese bookstores of New York. (I lived a two hour train ride away. Yes, I'm not helping my case here, but that was impossible from the start.) And, in the midst of this, I bought a few dictionaries, spent a few hours staring at the foreign writing system, and suddenly realized that I could read Japanese.

By the time I hit college, it was a given that I would be studying Japanese for really-reals, and would eventually make my Japan Debut. Of course, I probably should have planned it better... but, then, that's less distant than the less distant past.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Keeping it short - last night's dinner.


My dinner last night: pasta topped with sauteed hijiki, onions, garlic, and enoki mushrooms. I got the idea from a cookbook I bought recently, "vege dining: 野菜のごはん" ("vege dining: vegetable meals"). It's actually based on a popular Japanese blog (and yes, the site is in Japanese - and yes, there are lots of pretty pictures, so if you're really that bored, feel free to click regardless), and boasts meat-free, quick to make, low-calorie meal ideas, which are generally the three things I look for in my dinner, so the real question is, why haven't I bought the sequel yet?

But anyway. It wasn't half bad, for a dish that looks like it has a five o'clock shadow. And with that mental image firmly entrenched, would anybody care for the recipe?

Friday, December 26, 2008

The mission statement

I've wanted to start a blog - on a variety of subjects - for at least a couple of years now, but never did. It wasn't so much that I lacked subject matter (just being alive seems all the qualification one needs to take the internet by storm), or even inspiration. No, what I needed was a spark - a reason - the fizzle and death of my final excuse NOT to blog. Granted, there were plenty of those, too; what if it lacks cohesion? What if no one reads it? What if I write three entries and then get bored and give up, huh? WHAT THEN?! - but ultimately, I needed to whittle that down to one, something concrete. I settled on the title.

I needed a good title, that was what! Something with punch! Something that represented me, my style, my quirks, and then, the world, the people in it, the quirks I would observe and process and spew out the outer husk and possibly most of the nutrients before presenting, steaming hot, to my starving fans! (In my mind, there are always fans. It's a logical piece of the equation; one part inspiration + legions of fans = internet popularity! I find it best to replace the two parts perspiration with an equal amount of fat-free low-sodium vegetable broth. It's healthier and more flavorful.) The title was the thing that held me back. Once that problem was solved, there was nothing to do but log on, tune in, and start typing.

So, a few weeks ago, some friends and I headed to the Nagoya Creator's Market, a large craft fair by the city's pier. At some point, as is inevitable when you've got ADD and too many colorful bits of fabric around you, I wandered from the group, and spent some time filtering between booths full of stuff that I clearly needed but could, in hard times such as these, grudgingly live without. (Though it would certainly lower my quality of life to go on without doughnuts made of felt and a book of some amateur Japanese blog poet's musings on how life is, too, wonderful and worth living, so take that, pessimism!) And that's when I saw the frog.


He was very floral, very froggy, very much on a lily pad. He was also very half-price. The three women who made him (they emphasized that each piece was a team effort) were also very, very charming, encouraging me to keep up my Japanese studies during one of my frequent (as of late) moments of stewing over just how difficult it is to find someone that will actually talk to me. And, most importantly, he was a frog.

What really drew me, however, was the calendar that he held, which includes three years worth of pages, and the tongue-in-cheek tag line that accompanied it: "Ishi no ue ni mo sannen karendaa" (石の上にも三年カレンダー), or "A three-year calendar on a rock." Never mind that the frog was actually seated on his very own lily pad (a lily pad! And he's a frog! Squeal!); the expression was familiar to me, and it struck me as one of the cuter puns in a tragically over-punned country. The meaning of the phrase, too, is one that I rather liked at the time, for no real reason except just because. At any rate, it brought the phrase to the forefront of my mind, and as the frog, who may or may not be dead according to a certain lovable neighbor, has taken residence in my living room, each look at him was a little reminder of his association with the metaphorical vigil.

The frog's name, by the way, is Jerimiah. My little brother came up with that one. Call him Jerry.

Anyway, a few days ago, and I can't even remember why, it occurred to me that "Three Years on a Rock" would make a nifty blog title. Based on an actual saying - check. Established significance to me - check. A little bit confusing, yet relevant to a broad range of subject matter - check. Score! And so, the blog was born.

As I proudly announced the birth of TYOAR to another neighbor/friend, however, her immediate response brought a certain problem to the forefront: "Of course, now you have to stay in Japan for three years to prove the saying right." Abuh? Oh dear. That very possibility had occurred to me, but I brushed it off as paranoia. Now, though? If other people are thinking that, then it must be addressed.

Three years of doing something is, well, a long time. It's very hard to hold myself accountable. (It took over a year just to think up a blog title, people!) On the other hand... I dunno. Staying in Japan for three years is rather unlikely at this point in time, due to various other plans, but... any ideas? Three years to endure... something? Personally, I'm up for letting karma take its course and decide for me... but that's just me.

So... there you have it. Three years of... something, starting once it's decided what that something shall be. Until then, well, structure is another post, now isn't it?

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The distant past

My mom has told me a story - and this is something I vaguely remember - about a certain event from my fourth year of life. At the time, I was a fresh big sister to a brand new baby brother (Hi, Ben! For the love of Ford, go shave!), and a suffering baby sister in her own right (Hi, Mike! Have I mentioned lately that you're ugly?). I was also enrolled in preschool, spending her busy days (well, mornings) singing songs about being swallowed by boa constrictors and her afternoons watching "David the Gnome" and "Eureka's Castle," because TV used to be worth watching for ten hour stretches. And, with that routine firmly entrenched, it became my mission one day to walk to school.

For the record, my preschool - actually a synagogue - wasn't all that far from our house, perhaps a mile in total. And, surely, I noticed at some point that the car ride hardly seemed worth the time it took to strap my brother and I into our car seats, to get on our coats and wait for the car to heat up or cool down, to go back inside after waving my older brother off on his bus ride to the Big Kids' School only to go right back out again. Surely, the idea of covering the distance under my own ambulatory power appealed to the born control queen that was even then emerging. (This really was when it had become apparent that little Amanda wasn't planning to grow up like all the other children; already, my best friend was my remarkably docile teddy bear). At any rate, I had determined that I would walk to preschool, and nothing my mother could say - NOTHING - could convince me otherwise. So, it was with great excitement on my part that she finally relented, and one day, with my brother in his stroller, we found ourselves off on foot towards our destination.

Remember, now: I was four-years-old. Four. With the exception of bizarre super-babies who are born with actual muscle mass and bench-pressing by the age of six, young children just aren't designed for sustained cardiac exercise - that's why they hold off on phys-ed until you're at least old enough to sign a waiver. (I think we were about up to "G" in the alphabet at this time. I've got a "Y" in my name and everything.) Ten minutes in, the love affair with my own brilliance was wavering. Fifteen minutes in, I was begging my mom - carrying a backpack and pushing a carriage - to carry me. By the time the school emerged on the horizon, after who knows how many strenuous minutes, I was just about ready to collapse. We arrived late, and I ended up sleeping most of that class. (At least I rocked nap time!) So much for great ideas.

This is just my extremely roundabout way of saying that I have been stubborn my whole life, and regretting said stubbornness almost as long. Generally, when I get an idea in my head, it happens. On the other hand, I'm extremely cautious, and fairly sensitive to criticism - likely survival instincts instilled by the Creator when the alternative to sense became apparent. So how does someone who craves a world where everything is "right," after defining her own "rights" and "wrongs," get through life? At the moment, I compensate by simply doing things on my own terms - my way or the highway - and trying not to mourn every roadblock. It works surprisingly well.

And then I came to a country that has already put a great deal of its own thought into what's "right" and "wrong," and just like that, my policy was put to the test. Which brings us to the dawning of 2009, where Amanda sits in her third apartment within a year, after seeing off her third roommate within a year, searching for her fourth job. It was meant to be a year of chances. So far, so good...

The introduction

(Somewhere in the annals of my memory, I recall a nebulous source - some teacher or textbook - drilling the warning that one must never begin an essay, a report, or a story with a quote. To do so is seemingly the height of unoriginality, and forever entraps the writer as a hack.

Frankly, I agree with that wholeheartedly, and I consider this blog to be as linear as any high school history book; which is why I must tell that source, with great sadness: I can't think of anything better. Sorry.)

There's a saying in Japanese, "Ishi no ue nimo sannen" (石の上にも三年), which translates literally to, "Even if you spend three years on a rock..." The wording draws my memory to a number of similar-sounding phrases that pervade the English language: "You must have spent the last three years living under a rock," or "The grass is always greener on the other side." (Think back to the fable that spawned the latter. Yes, my brain frequently makes connections that require careful explanation.)

It's safe to say that these phrases spawned by a so-called "Western" language carry with them "Western" sensibilities - keep up with the times! Enjoy what you've got! It's all in your head, so stop suffering and start moving! It stands to reason that a phrase born in the Japanese language would, then, reflect Japanese sensibilities. And, quite honestly, the meaning of "Three years on a rock" does just that: in practice, it means that no matter how unpleasant a certain situation may be, if you continue to persevere through the hardship, you will ultimately be rewarded for your patience. Or, in other words, "That's the way it is and should be, so grin and bear it."

I'm an American girl, stubbornly independent even by American standards. Seriously - no matter how hard I try, no matter how much I want to, I can't do ANYTHING by the book. Which, well, sits with me just fine. So, what happened when Bethama, the reluctant nonconformist, decided to move to Japan, work for one of the major "Eikaiwa" private English schools, study Japanese, and, just maybe, fall in love with a cute Japanese dentist?

It's very doubtful that she's going to last three years, that's what.