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.


  1. Not to be creepy or anything, but reading your blog seriously makes my day! Thanks!

    ps. You can find cute hanko-holders at the 100 yen store.

    --Andrea B.

  2. Let me know as soon as the novelty wears off, because I will then assume that the novelty of making Lost in Translation references will also wear off. Until them, for a fun time, make it a Suntory time.

  3. Not creepy at all Andrea! I am glad to entertain. But--why are there two names for the seal?? I still don't understand.

    Jeanette- Lip my stocking.

  4. Hey, was Scarlett Johansson's character also in the JET Program? Har har, just kidding.

    (P.S. I just had to Google-spell check Scarlett's last name and the first search item is that she broke up with Pete Yorn. Who is Pete Yorn? I thought she was married to Ryan Reynolds anyway. I am so confused about Hollywood gossip.)

  5. Oh, it's actually a song they are doing together called "Break Up." .... I feel totally hosed.

    Sorry, next time I will post a more relevant comment.

  6. I very much enjoyed this post.

  7. Yeah! I love this writing style of yours.

    Special treatment is awesome and I still don't tire of it. But it is true that as you stay here longer and longer, there will be some moments where you want to just get something done efficiently, or blend in and be a regular person, and it can be frustrating when you realize that it is sometimes impossible because of languistic, cultural, or physical reasons.

    Like I think it goes back back to some kind of universal human need for a sense of group membership. I like not being held to the same standards as anyone else, but when I'm out of it, sometimes i just want to be part of the flock.

  8. Yes, sometimes I'm just not in the mood to stand out, but it's obviously not something that can be turned off. I have a feeling you can live in Japan for years and still never be considered part of society-at-large.