Sunday, March 29, 2009

Life in Japan #3: The Blundering Gaijin

The first thing I did after moving into my apartment was ruin a perfectly good roll of toilet paper. After using the bathroom for the first time, I rested a new roll on top of the tank beneath a conspicuous-looking faucet that turned on automatically when I flushed, soaking the roll beyond any comfortable use.

My toilet, which the Japanese usually keep separate from their bathing facilities for sanitary reasons. The faucet on top is actually a convenient way to quickly rinse your hands after answering nature’s call without having to run over to the adjacent bathroom.

Japan is filled with things like this that don’t function the way I’m accustomed, and thus turn even the most routine tasks into elaborate adventures. Is that slot on the subway ticket machine for inserting coins or for dumping out change? I had to push a button to open the door to the restaurant, but will it close again automatically? Where does the fabric softener go in my washing machine? Is this really flour I’m buying? And how the hell do I work this fucking rice cooker?

The rice cooker has only has three buttons, but it took nearly a week of delayed meals before I figured out how to use it properly. “It’s easy,” no fewer than three separate individuals told me while glorifying the advent of this labor-saving device. “All you do is press the button and wait a few minutes!”

The problem was that no one told me which of the three buttons to press. On my first attempt I mashed all of them at rotating intervals until it seemed like something began to happen inside, though after an hour I began to suspect that I had made a mistake. Or was it supposed to take this long? (No one had mentioned a specific cooking time.) My second and third attempts consisted of me trying different buttons, waiting a few minutes, then worrying that I’d pressed the wrong one and trying another. I got the rice to cook once but immediately forgot which button I’d pressed, and the next night I had to repeat the entire guessing process. After this I was a lot more careful about writing down the procedures for everything from the ATM to the water heater.

My apartment’s kitchenette. Note the damp roll of toilet paper next to the coffee mug.

Every day I face new challenges fueled by my cultural ineptitude and my inability to speak the language—challenges that are merely routine for the millions of Japanese who live here. Since nothing makes me feel more awkward than having my failures out in full view of a judgmental world, it’s no wonder I feel like the blundering gaijin who can’t do anything right.

Other shameful adventures experienced by yours truly include:

- In which Ian accidentally opens the package containing Katie’s old futon that he finds outside his new apartment, then has to converse with the Japanese delivery man who comes to take it away.
- In which Ian variably wakes up in cold or hot sweats because he’s accidentally pressed the Auto Timer button on his AC unit.
- In which Ian goes to wildly elaborate lengths to avoid being the only one in the teacher’s room in case the phone rings and he has to answer it in poorly pronounced Japanese
- In which Ian attempts to purchase a ten year-old Soul Flower Union CD at a J-POP record store.
- In which Ian goes out to eat with his foreign co-worker; and after forty-five minutes of not getting his fried rice, isn’t sure whether the waiter forgot the order or the food just isn’t coming.

These things happen so often that I don’t even notice them anymore, and I’ve gotten used to making elaborate preparations for tasks as simple as mailing a letter or ordering the aforementioned Soul Flower Union CD from Amazon. But for all my complaints, figuring out how to function here on even the simplest of terms gives me a wonderful sense of satisfaction that was far more difficult to come by at home.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A Saint Patrick's Day Celebration

Inside the teacher's room at Kriasho Kofu at the end of the workday.

Eileen: You're Irish, right?
Me: Yeah, mostly.
Eileen: Happy Saint Patrick's Day!
Me: Is that today? I thought it was the fourteenth. I've been busy trying to learn my Japanese holidays.
Eileen: No, it's the seventeenth. They're having a big celebration at The Vault if you're interested.
Me: Nah, not on a worknight. Besides, I'm not that Irish.
Eileen: But you're wearing green today.
Me (glancing down and realizing that I am indeed wearing a green tie): Oh, so I am. I didn't even realize.
Eileen: Maybe it was subconscious.
Me (shrugs): Maybe.

So, in the spirit of this spring holiday season, I'd like to wish you all a Happy Vernal Equinox Day! I'll enjoy a paid day off far more than a night packed into a bar filled with overpriced Guinness and people in sideways Irish caps.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Consumer Culture

I found my copy of Andrew Hurley’s Diners, Bowling Alleys, and Trailer Parks at the town dump last October and almost listed it for sale on Amazon for five dollars before deciding that it might be worth keeping. Last week when I finally got around to reading it, I did not regret my decision.

Hurley traces these three American institutions from their origins as working-class benchmarks tied to inner-city immigration to their explosions into the new middle-class consumer market after World War II; where they epitomized America’s newfound obsessions with family values, excessive spending, and a mass migration to suburbia. American diners at the turn of the century, for instance, mostly operated in factory districts and were places where working men could get away from their wives over a cheap meal and a cup of coffee. By the 1950’s, diners were rapidly opening in the new suburbia where they catered to busy homemakers who craved a break from their meal preparation duties. The bowling alley and the trailer park experienced similar makeovers before they too were left behind in a changing consumer market. What I enjoyed most about this book was Hurley’s examples of just how many traditional American values were shaped by companies out to capture the massive amounts of money flowing through the middle-class in the ‘50s. Own your own home, buy your wife a new washing machine, join a bowling league: be an American.

The book is fairly easy reading (while never crossing into dense social science dissertation territory), and the subject matter is close enough to home that most readers should have no trouble getting through it. The pace drags at times when Hurley succumbs to the researcher’s temptation to insert every last oddball, offbeat, or even remotely interesting tidbit of information into his book (a vice I noticed because I fall victim to it quite often), but the overarching theme makes it worth getting through these sections.

I highly recommend this book if you can find a copy in your library, or decide to purchase one on Amazon for five dollars.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Life in Japan #2: Kofu

My parents bought me a new camera for Christmas, and though I always preferred to describe a scene with words, I’ve been snapping photos like mad since I’ve been here (except when I forget my camera, which happens often). I feel less inclined to take photographs in America because from any point of view in a given city there are a hundred—no, a thousand—things that we’ve seen before and make no firm impression on our consciousness: a concrete sidewalk, a gray brick wall, a passerby’s jacket, a gas station’s faded pumps, and so on. But here in Japan everything is different and draws my attention at every turn, for my senses have not yet adjusted to the onslaught of unfamiliar stimulation here.

Downtown Kofu’s main drag, which I refer to in my head (and occasionally when talking to others) as Main Street, even though it has a real name I do not know. The storefronts on the left house several restaurants, while Lawson’s is one of many convenience store chains here. Also note the NOVA sign on the upper right building.

The train station, figurehead of downtown, which also houses ECLAN department store. (To draw in the confused traveler market, the signs for all of the major department stores here are written in the Roman alphabet.) Check out the tiny Japanese cars on the street here. Because of its historical ties with mining and jewelry-making, Kofu is known as the Crystal City, though the diamond seen in the center is probably just an advertisement for a jewelry store.

Lord Shingen Takeda, whose statue watches over the park next to the station. Shingen was a 16th century warlord who ruled over Kofu and the surrounding Yamanashi area, and though he seems a relatively obscure figurehead in Japanese history, he is something of a local hero on the level of Franklin Pierce for the people of New Hampshire.

Main Street again, seen from one of the pedestrian bridge crossings that seem to exist primarily for tourists to climb and take pictures from. The clocktower building used to house a prominent watchmaker that has since gone out of business, Miki tells me, though it now it merely stands apart as one of several older Western-style buildings mixed in with the cityscape.

Another view from the pedestrian bridge, this time looking south. The city is surrounded by mountains on all sides. And yes, they drive on the other side of the road here to further confuse me.

A familiar face at last.

This is the path I walk to and from work every day. On the right is Maizuru Castle Park, an old battlement that’s been restored with new bathrooms resembling historical shrines, one of which has a homeless person living inside. The park is really cool, and I’ll post more pictures later.

This is the Tokyo Gas company’s storage tank across from the park. The brightly-colored logo on the side is actually a mountain and a bird, though sadly a work crew came and painted the tank a solid brown color earlier this week. I live in the blue apartment building on the right.

One of Kofu’s back alleys. Possibly an entertainment district that’s deserted during the day.

Even the bricks are different here!

I’ll post a larger album on Facebook later this week if anyone’s interested. The massive storage capacities of today’s digital cameras makes it far too easy to bury those few worthwhile shots amidst a thousand other pictures of the same scene from different angles; and though this online photo posting thing is still new to me I’ll try to keep it relatively succinct.