Thursday, October 29, 2009


Last night our Japanese class went out together for 和食 (AKA washoku, tradish Japanese food.) One of the teachers taught us etiquette, which was kind of hard to keep in my brain considering there are like 500 rules for chopstick use alone. I could get into it, because it's pretty interesting, but instead let's just move on to what everyone really wants to see: the food porn...

This was our starter. Look how beautiful the presentation is! The food was very seasonal, from the garnishes (maple leaves!) to the produce and fish. With something like this, you are supposed to eat consistently in one direction, whether it's right to left or left to right. Also, if something is too big for one bite, turn the bite mark side of the food toward you when you put it back, because apparently looking at someone else's bite is gross.

This came next. I'd describe it as kind of a Japanese ceviche, i.e. raw fish with some citric element. With bowls this size, you should pick them up in one hand and eat out of it with chopsticks in the other hand. If the bowl is large you must leave it on the table.

Shrimp, eggplant, and something else delicious but not identified to me with a really awesome miso paste at the bottom.

I'm skipping the soup we got after this because while it was delicious, it was not very photogenic.

Some kind of creamy deliciousness with pork in it. The ginger stick was a garnish, which I discovered when I briefly attempted and failed to eat it. (Not very biteable.)

I am also skipping a meat course and a rice and miso course because again, very good, but they didn't make for interesting photos.

Dessert: persimmon (called かき, kaki here) and a sweet potato cake. Like I said, very seasonal.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


Viv emailed me some questions about life in Nihon  to answer on this blog, and since I love talking about myself, I dutifully (though perhaps occasionally, obnoxiously) responded:

Q: Okay, let's jump into everyone's favorite topic: food. What are the best and grossest things you have eaten in Japan so far?
A: The ramen here is out of control awesome... I also really like yakitori. On the weekends the supermarket near me has a nice bento selection and also pretty good sushi and sashimi, so one of my great pleasures so far is buying bento and eating it while watching some illegally downloaded episodes of Mad Men. I also like going to izakayas, which are pubs that have little Japanese tapas--everything from fried chicken to raw horsemeat (seriously). As for gross, there are occasional mystery objects in my school lunch with soft or gummy textures that don't really do it for me. I have yet to try the notorious natto, made from fermented soybeans, which apparently tastes rotten.

Q: Besides Catticus, who or what do you miss most about the U.S.?
A: I miss bagels. I would murder a small Japanese child for an everything bagel with cream cheese and lox right now. Oh yeah, and my family and friends.

Q: Do you constantly feel like a character in a Murakami novel? If so, which one do you most resemble?
A: I should hope not, because all Murakami character seem to me to have some form of low-grade autism and/or find themselves in horrific situations, like watching a man get skinned alive. But I guess I most resemble the talking cat from Kafka on the Shore.

Q: How is the dollar doing over there? Are the Japanese as obsessed about the Recession as we are?
A: The dollar is almost historically weak against the yen, which makes it nice for me when I transfer money home. I can't really tell how concerned people here are about the economy because I don't understand anything they say on the news, and everyone I talk to is a co-worker, thus employed. They do seem to think Americans have it worse right now.

Q: Do you have cable TV over there?
A: Nope, just five basic channels I get for free. I often leave the TV on in the hopes I'll absorb Japanese knowhow through osmosis, but it's not working. I do have a favorite children's show--Zenmai Zamurai, about a boy who spreads peace and averts crises by throwing dango into people's mouths.

Q: Why won't Jonathan join Facebook?
A: It's a time suck, and his time is better spent watching NBA highlights.

Q: If you had to categorize your overall experience in Japan as "working" or "vacation," which would it be?
A: Well, I definitely go to work every day, but the pace is so easy for me I feel a little guilty to even call it work. I think what ends up being draining is the constant feeling of being vaguely on edge, because I attract attention wherever I go, and never know when a seemingly small task is going to become a huge hassle because of the language barrier. So in that sense, I don't feel like I'm on holiday. On the other hand, I have way more free time and money than I'm used to having.

Q: What's the deal with those used underwear vending machines? Has anyone explained this phenom to you? Is this an aspect of Japanese culture that just gets highly exaggerated in Western media or is this brand of "interest" explicitly common?
A: I'm guessing it's super exaggerated because I haven't seen anything of the kind. The Japanese are definitely obsesssed with cuteness, and no one's cuter than schoolgirls, but I can't imagine a sexual attraction there because they are SO immature. The teenagers here, generally speaking, seem a lot younger and even less physically developed than the teenagers in America. Blame it on the hormones in our food or our Puritanical/oversexed culture, I guess, but the schoolchildren here are more like... children.

Q. Given the opportunity, would you live in Japan 4-EVA?
A: Definitely not. I love it so far, but I also know that I could NEVER be considered an insider, no matter how long I lived here or how fluently I spoke the language, and I think that would get super lonely after a while. On the one hand I enjoy my outsiderness, but on the other I'm sure I'd get sick of relating to people at a more superficial level than I could do with even just a select few at home.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

I finally get my act together and update

I realize I haven't written yet about the school for the blind where I teach once a week, so I thought I'd take you through my day there, which is a strange combination of busy, boring, and super interesting...

I take the bus for about 15 minutes to get there and then walk a ways off the main road--the Fukuoka Blind School is actually two schools, a high school and a combination elementary and junior high school. The schools are surrounded by small farms and mountains. Sometimes during breaks from classes I just stare out the windows, because it's really gorgeous there.

My first class is just one student, a first year JHS. My supervisor, who is also blind, and the student seem to spend most of the class arm wrestling! The student is stubborn and will just refuse to say things in English until the supervisor like, physically bests him. It's the kind of thing that wouldn't go down in American schools, of course, and probably also in regular Japanese schools, but I think because of the students' blindness, a lot of physicality is OK. I often find myself doing a lot of tactile things with them, too, to help them understand new words or phrases. And actually, the role of teachers in Japan is a lot more like that of parents. Students spend more time at school than they do at home, and the personal and educational spheres are not separated. If students are seen acting out in their communities, there are repercussions at school. My role ends up being a bit more like a friend, since I'm an assistant teacher and not responsible for any discipline, and students know that when I'm in class they'll be doing less studying and more fun, interactive activities. Hence, the warm reception whenever I'm there.

My second class is two students who are not only blind, but also have mental retardation. It blows my mind that despite this, they are learning English. They're also the most enthusiastic students and are pretty much beside themselves with excitement whenever I talk to them. Nothing delights one of the students more than telling me, when class is over, "SEE YOU AT LUNCH TIME!!" Haha. He loves that he can communicate a bit in English.

The next class has two first-year JHS's. The girl, I swear to God, pops out her glass eye during class to freak me out. Seriously. I look over and hey, there is an empty eye socket! Awesome! I try not to react since that's clearly what she wants, and it probably also wouldn't be helpful to make her feel like a freak, but damn. The boredom comes in because these students, since they're new to English, have a VERY limited vocabulary and need my supervisor to explain a lot in Japanese, so I just end up kind of zoning out when that happens. Unless of course I'm confronted by a removed glass eye.

After that is a class for two students who supposedly have "social problems." They don't exhibit this, really, except they both are extremely quiet and shy, but also very sweet. I should mention that the students who are completely blind use Braille typewriters, on which they type both Japanese and English Braille, which is super impressive to me. Some students have limited vision--I suppose they are "legally blind"--and use large print textbooks. I help them with their writing since my supervisor is totally blind. He also has an absolutely gorgeous seeing eye dog, a black Lab named, of all things, Taft (after the U.S. president) who makes me miss Smokey!

At lunch time I eat with the other teachers and students. My supervisor is the only one who speaks good English so he ends up translating for me and the other teachers so we can talk a bit.

Fifth period is two second year JHS boys with limited vision, who both seem to have massive crushes on me, haha. One is an incredibly talented pianist and plays "air piano" all class.

My last period is the most fun. I teach two elementary students with a young woman who is not blind. They are ridiculously adorable. A recent lesson was teaching them the names of body parts, playing Simon Says, and singing Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes. The boy student is so serious. If I ask him, "How are you today?" he stops and thinks really hard about it so he can answer honestly. So cute. The girl student apparently went blind as a result of brain cancer not long ago, but amazingly is a sweetheart and is always in really good spirits. It sounds cheesy and maybe condescending to talk about these kids as inspiring, but I am so fascinated by how well they navigate the challenging aspects of their lives that most people take for granted (e.g., something as simple as getting up and opening a window can, of course, be treacherous for them). They even play blind table tennis!

After classes, I have about forty-five minutes before it's time to go. I go to the staff room, where an English conversation class has somehow developed between me and some other teachers. They bring snacks and English-Japanese dictionaries, and I try to teach them new phrases. This week we were talking about Halloween and then different monsters, and I was explaining werewolves and how they only change during the full moon. One of the teachers says, "Some of the people here--always werewolf!!" Hahaha.

So, overall, being at the blind school is pretty damn awesome. It's something I never imagined doing and wouldn't ever have if not for JET.

And now, I leave you with a picture of me and some ninjas, taken last weekend when Jonathan and I took a day trip to Kumamoto Castle, one prefecture south of us.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

I don't know what my point is

Happy October! The weather is becoming a bit more reasonable, by which I mean wearing long sleeves would not be a completely batshit insane thing to do. We had a week of nonstop rain but today was about 75 and sunny. I have to say I'm a bit homesick for New York autumnal detritus, i.e. sweaters and thick fuzzy socks (I call them "woobies") and crunchy leaves and a new television season. Jeanette and I had a tradition of having a Fall Night where we'd eat Greenmarket pumpkin pie and carve a pumpkin and watch Nightmare Before Christmas, because we were pretty much gay old cat ladies when we lived together. Actually I was a lot like Jack from that movie when I first came to Japan, running around and singing, "What's this? What's this???" Sometimes I still react that way to the contents of my lunchtime bento, except I say "Kore wa nan desuka?" (これ は 名 ですか)

I've been taking Japanese language classes for a couple hours every week and it's made me remember how dorkily thrilled I get at being a student. Seriously, I'm an overachieving brownnoser who gets super excited whenever Yumi-sensei says, Ii desu ne (いいですね)(roughly, "It's good, isn't it!) at my hiragana . It's been satisfying to some previously-neglected area of my brain to learn a new alphabet, even though I still read and write it at the painstaking speed of a kindergartner. I think it's the same feeling of small, tangible accomplishment I get after I successfully cook something (it happens!), having an effort yield immediate visible results, which of course is the opposite of what happens when I complete a writing project and send it out into the ether to be judged. A form letter rejection received months later doesn't yield much of a sense of, Yes! I made something!

On the other hand, whenever it begins to dawn on me how distant the ability to communicate in Japanese some approximation of what I'm actually thinking at any given moment is (and it's hard enough in my native language), it can be tough to not wonder what the point of all this expended energy is when the most I can do at the end of it is say something like, "I take the train to school," or "It's very hot and humid today." Which also leads to the aforementioned pleasant ability to indulge in greater solitariness, or let's face it, just plain laziness, when it comes to talking to people.

I also can't even begin to explain the weirdness of communicating in slow, belabored English at school all day and then coming home and reading, like, Virginia Woolf or Don DeLillo, as I've done recently, or work on a story of my own that I know I'll never be able to share in any way with the people I spend the majority of my time with. The copious free time at work (it's midterm time for the students so I have no classes), the linguistic isolation, and the sense of tremendous distance from everything known may add up to writing that may never have come about otherwise. It's strange--I've known a couple struggling writers now who've abruptly come into success, as though they just flipped a switch, shortly after they left the States. We'll see...