Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Re-Entry Shock (not a pornographic term)

When I first came to Japan it was like a dream for quite a while, to the extent that I became a bit uneasy that my life was going to feel like Inland Empire for an entire year, which, while the film is quite lengthy--a year is a long time to more or less not have your head attached to your body. But the unfamiliarity-induced depersonalization wore off gradually until I realized I woke up crabbily to my alarm each morning and dragged myself down the familiar route to the train station just like any American working stiff (albeit an American working stiff with a regard for the environment that prevents car ownership.)

What I'm saying in an extremely overwritten (or maximalist, for DFW fans) way is that even though I still can't say much more in Japanese than "Cold, eh?" I got used to Japan. Which also means used to bowing for pretty much everything, ranging from "thanks for selling me that gum" to "I'm deeply sorry for killing your child." (I haven't killed a child.) Used to (actually, quite fond of) the massive black crows that fly overhead in the morning, cawing, "HEY! I'M A BIG FUCKING BIRD!" Used to politeness to the extent that true feelings are rather pleasantly unreadable... as far as I can tell, everyone thinks I'm just great! And so on.

So the first thing that happened upon my brief return to America, literally, in LAX, was that someone was really rude to me--an airport worker, who just could not deal with my confusion about which line to wait in at customs. And then, in the airport waiting room, I looked around at the overweight, tired, mostly-recent-immigrant crowd waiting for flights to come in from Mexico and the Philippines, and I thought: "This is a country that does not take care of most of its people." That's not new information, and though the Japanese do look uniformly more healthy and purposeful than Americans, they also have one of the highest suicide rates in the world, so, but I was able to see things through more Japanified eyes than before, and the scene was quite jarring. Also, filthy--this also is a country where people don't care much about clean public spaces, either.

Basically, things run less smoothly, something I unthinkingly tolerated before, like for instance when the 7 train would just stop between stations and sit there for like 15 minutes, which was a bit nervewracking since its an elevated train bobbing in the wind over Queens Boulevard, etc etc. It makes sense that that's what happens in a country with a much more individualistic, every-man-for-himself, murder and devour the person on the ladder rung above you and don't feel guilty about it because you must be your own first priority in this cutthroat society, live the dream ethos. Whereas Japan is all about the group harmony--for example, when people go on vacation they statistically spend far more money on omiyage for their office mates than they do on souvenirs for themselves. And that's just one instance among, like, infinite ones. I'm not even saying Japan's way is better--like I said, pretty high suicide rate, because what do you think happens if you don't fit in with the group and don't at least have recourse to a culture that actually admires and venerates outsiders, outlaws, rebels without causes, etc.? It's just noticeably different, that's all.

Also, the food in America is embarrassingly huge. Exhibit A:

My stomach, for the extent of the trip, kept screaming "WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO ME???"

Not to say it wasn't a nice time. Well, it was a weird time, because, L.A., and I yearned a bit for New York and its precarious and inefficient subway system.

Upon returing to Fukuoka (route: LAX to Narita, airport bus from Narita to Haneda, Haneda to Fukuoka, subway from Fukuoka airport to Hakata, train from Hakata to Futsukaichi station, cab from Futsukaichi station to home sweet squalid home) I was aware in a strange way that everything had been continuing to happen as usual in my small Japanese town all along, and that despite the hellish travel the world is actually pretty small. It seems obvious but I think one of the benefits of travel is how it reminds you in an immediate and hard-to-define but very sharp way that life goes on.

Monday, December 7, 2009


So, it's been a while and I have about a month's worth of anecdotes to share, which I may do in separate blog segments because I am lazy. First up, we must contend with...

THE COLD. Fukuoka is not actually that cold, relatively speaking--so far temperatures have been hovering around the low 50's most of the time, 40's in the morning and at night. Problem is, Japanese housing does not have central heating or insulation. The reasoning behind this, from what I've read, is that homes are designed with the blazing Japanese summers of death in mind, to let air and breezes in, since one can always just bundle up in winter. But anyway what happens is, it's the same temperature indoors as it is out. 50 degrees may not sound so bad, but come talk to me once you realize YOU CAN NEVER GET WARM.

There are inventions that deal with this: one is the kotatsu, which is in fact delightful. It's a table with a heating unit underneath and a space to put a heavy blanket that traps the heat. So people kind of burrow under it and get nice and toasty. There's also clothing you can buy at Uniqlo called Heat Tech (pronounced "heat-o tech") that supposedly is made of magical fibers that keep you warm. There are also kerosene heaters, which I've decided not to go for since I'd probably burn down the building if I used one.

Luckily, my air con unit also functions as a heater, and keeps my living and bedroom warm enough. Unluckily, if I get up in the night to pee, there's a thirty degree drop once I leave the bedroom, and the toilet seat is without fail freezing to the point that I'm afraid my butt cheeks will stick to it, like Jim Carrey's tongue to the pole in Dumb and Dumber. Waking up and noticing a need to urinate leads to an inner battle of wills, as I try to ignore the urge and go back to sleep, knowing that if I don't, it will be some time upon returning to my futon before I warm up again enough to drift back off.

Another issue is that Japan is so annoyingly environment-conscious (or perhaps stingy with electric bills) that the prefectural Board of Education would not let Fukuoka public schools turn on their space heaters until December 1st. Because we know it's cold by the date, not the temperature. And, my vice-principal insisted on leaving the windows in the staff room open because the Japanese are morbidly afraid of influenza (more on that some other time, maybe) and think that, I guess, uncirculating air will lead to mass infection and the school shutting down, and, horror of horrors, A DROP IN PRODUCTIVITY. So before I left for a trip to L.A. (more on that later, maybe) working hours were sort of like being a nomad living in a yurt on the snow-covered Mongolian steppe, or something. No amount of heat-o tech could save me.

But now it's December 7th, so we know it's cold, and the heat is on.