Sunday, September 27, 2009


The other night, we were settling in to dinner at an izakaya in Hiroshima (which we visited when we had a few days off for Respect for the Aged Day and the Autumnal Equinox, which are, awesomely, national holidays) and I announced for not the first time how much I love Japan.

"I think I know why," Jonathan said. "I think you like feeling like an outsider."

I'm aware it's pretty tired and possibly narcissistic to talk about how I've just always known that I was Different. Like yeah, you are totally the ONLY PERSON IN THE WORLD who has experienced feeling out of sync with her surroundings. It's the same as the people at Sarah Lawrence who'd tell you, they just had that gut feeling ever since they were pooping their diapers in front of Fraggle Rock that they were meant to be writers. YOU DON'T SAY.

But anyway, yes, I've long been, at least in my head, a visiting alien who no one else seems to realize is an alien, and therefore really unfairly expects to function as efficiently and stoically as the natives. Probably this is partly self-mythologizing; if you ask me, middle school was two years of hellfire and torment, but Viv has told me she thought I seemed to her kind of socially successful.

Travel allows people who feel this way, I think, to have the surprisingly fulfilling experience of having their inner impressions of themselves, maybe for the first time ever, confirmed by the way they are perceived and treated by others: they are quite clearly running along a separate plane, minus the risk of being punished in some way by the dominant society for their failure to just suck it up and do what they're supposed to. It's really liberating but I wonder how much one really "grows." I'm not sure I buy the idea of using travel as a vehicle for self-expansion.

For instance, in Japan, I can (in fact, I really have no choice but to) indulge my frequent desire to be completely antisocial and standoffish. I don't have to interact with store clerks, waiters, the mail man more than through a few gestures and an arigatou gozaimasu. There's even a JET-coined phrase for the way foreigners can wantonly disregard rules: gaijin smash. As in, Oh, were we supposed to buy the train ticket back there? Well, I'll just gaijin smash my way through the turnstile! Looking so obviously different from everyone else (seriously, two children stopped what they were doing today to point and stare at my hair) means I'm not expected to know ANYTHING, and in fact, this cluelessness seems to qualify as fulfilling the JET Programme's goal of "grassroots internationalization." It's why they're reluctant to accept people who have spent a significant amount of time in Japan before: they want you to be as AMERICAN (or Australian, British, whatevs) AS POSSIBLE. And then when you do something culturally appropriate, like give omiyage after a trip, they're all like, "HOLY SHIT! YOU KNOW A JAPANESE THING!!!!!"

So, I'm not sure how much intrapersonal development is happening when I can basically just be as weird as I feel like being, since Differentness is already expected. It feels a bit like when you have a pint of Haagen Dazs or something that's calling to you despite the fact that you're kind of getting to be a fatass, and you tell yourself you can have a few bites and be satisfied, because you're an adult, you totally have self-control, and then you realize you're already halfway through the carton and then you're just like, Fuck it, I've gone this far, why not just KILL IT?

Anyway, here's a photo of us gaijin smashing our way across Miyajima island:

Monday, September 14, 2009


Yesterday I took Jonathan to a park in our town that I'd visited before, and we went for an impromptu hike.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Safety of Objects

For someone who supposedly fiercely objects to materialism of the Long Island variety (e.g., BMWs as sixteenth birthday presents {not to mention Sweet 16s and Bar/Bat Mitzvahs that rival society weddings in scale}, constant additions to the house because God forbid we don't have a sunroom, the plasma TV, the Victoria's Secret heart charm bracelet even though {or I guess because} everyone in the ENTIRE WORLD has one, etc. etc.) I seem to place a lot of stock in particular objects. Really, I find myself imbuing them with a near-mystical status.

For instance, everyone in Japan has something called an inkan (or a hanko, why there are two names for this I don't know) which is a personal seal, embossed with the kanji for your family name. This is used every day, for everything from official documents to signing in at work. Jonathan and I both got inkan with the katakana for our first names, but with his he got a nifty little inkan holder as well, whereas I got the small paper bag it came in and soon became ridiculously self-conscious of it, as though it were shouting to the world "HELLO I BELONG TO A CLUELESS GAIJIN WHO WILL PROBABLY USE ME WRONG-SIDE UP BECAUSE SHE DOESN'T EVEN KNOW WHAT KATAKANA ARE SUPPOSED TO LOOK LIKE." Hence my mission to find the most lovely inkan holder in all the land, because surely that will make me blend in! It's not like I'm the only person in a 100-mile radius with huge blond hair, right??

So, I found one, and it is quite pretty and all, but really. I still don't know how to speak Japanese. It's not like now I understand what the hell anything at the supermarket is. And yet I forge on in my Japanalia-collecting mission, because a part of me really believes that as soon as I have all the stuff people have here, particularly the stuff they don't even think of as being unique cultural touchstones that comprise the quotidian rules that are completely baffling to a foreigner, I will cease to be a foreigner.

Which is extra silly because most of the time I don't even mind being a foreigner. It's actually pretty fun. I was reading the Jet Journal, a publication seemingly designed to convince current program participants that there is something seriously wrong with them if they are not THRILLED with the world intercultural exchange 100% of the time, and in one of the entries a teacher was complaining about all the special treatment. I KNOW. He just wanted to be regarded as another member of the staff.

This might indicate something really gross about me, but I uh... don't at all mind special treatment. I was treated unspecially often enough in the past, oh, 25 years to really relish the fact that students start grinning wildly when I enter a classroom (even if it's just because jeez, my boobs are WAY bigger than what they're used to.) I like that at the party for teachers after sports festival, I could totally hang and smoke cigarettes with the P.E. teachers even though it's ordinarly considered unladylike, because I'm a foreigner and we Do Things Differently. I like that a random old man stopped me yesterday and asked where I'm from, and then told me in Japanese "New York" kind of sounds like the term for "taking a bath." I definitely like that other teachers take me out to lunch and give me treats and stuff, because very few things make me happier than free food. I'm sure the novelty will wear off soon, so for now, bring on the red carpet, Nihonjin.

This completely non-sensical post was brought to you by Suntory Coffee.