April 01, 2013

"It's Never Too Late"

"It's never too late." I think this is something most of us hear a lot, especially as we get older. I've certainly been hearing it since I turned 27, usually in a slightly pitying tone. As in: "I'm 27 years old." "Oh, honey. It's never too late!"

So that's reassuring.

Joking aside, I tend to agree with the sentiment. My grandparents came to the US as adults and remade their lives there; my father and mother both drastically changed careers in their 20s and then waited until it really was almost too late before having their first and only child. I've shuffled around the "what I want to be when I grow up" spectrum a few times even as an adult, and now I'm about to go to grad school. I definitely believe it's never too late.

But that's not really what I want to talk about today. Today, I want to add something to the phrase: "It's never too late... for things to get really stupid."

So, okay, it's today. I've been in Japan for nearly three years now. I speak pretty fine Japanese except for my keigo (formal Japanese) being weak -- but pay attention, because that gets relevant in a minute. I know my way around the place. I gave directions to a tourist this morning. I've been at my school through three yearly staff changes and I pretty much know the drill on that, too, so when I showed up to a sea of new faces today I wasn't especially nonplussed. I introduced myself to three of my new coworkers, tried to help one with her email, chatted bilingually for a bit. I know how this works. I'm cool like that.

I know I have to give a self-introduction at the staff meeting later, but why should that intimidate me? I've done my self-introduction roughly a million times now. Except then we actually get to the staff meeting*, and everyone introduces themselves...

And for whatever reason, I could not tell you why now -- my current medicine gives me the brain fog, everyone was speaking keigo, I suddenly transplanted personalities with myself from a decade ago** -- I completely freeze up. It's never too late... to look like an idiot! I eventually manage to stammer something out that's the rough equivalent of: "Uh, hi, my name is Vera, I'm Vera, hello, you can call me Vera, um..." and so on. I don't think I repeated myself less than three times on any given sentence.

Then I think I swallowed a bug on the way home.

On the bright side, I thought, it's not too late for my day to improve. My cat both agrees and disagrees: in her opinion, it's never too late to destroy all of my possessions. I write this in the middle of having a serious dispute with her about how much that's improving my life.

How was your day, folks?

*Where I am, in extremely typical ALT fashion, to do the self-intro and then quickly leave because why should an English assistant be at the English meeting? But I digress.
**Two of these are true.

March 28, 2013

A Year +++? She lives!

Well, readers and Future JETs, A Year(?) in Japan has turned into, quite definitively and without question marks, three years in Japan, and against all odds I am actually still here. I'm sorry it's been so long! Come and give me a hug.

Since my last entry, a lot has happened. I wrecked my back, got better again, lived through a fire and a small bout of resulting homelessness, got better again, made and lost some friends, inherited a cat, lost 50 pounds, and came out of the closet to the small handful of people I hadn't already come out to. In retrospect, I really should have written some of this down before now. While it was happening, my friends exhorted me time and again to return to blogging -- especially during the homeless chapter. "Homeless in Japan?" they cried. "You'll be a hipster icon!"

I mean, that's the dream, right?

Unfortunately, and this is a really bad habit of mine if I ever want to do anything legitimate with writing, I have a really hard time writing about Real Things when they're Really Happening. I have a terribly bad habit of being glib. My father says I should write about my mother; my best friend says I should write about the pitfalls of my job (and I'm afraid in my case they have been many, although as the JET Program constantly tells us, Every Situation is Different). In my situation, I look at reality and rebel. Then I watch like fifty hours of Battlestar Galactica in a row and make stupid jokes to my friends about trying to pass the scars on my body and my heart both off as the products of a bar fight.

But things have settled down a little bit, and while I'm sure writing that down is only asking for trouble, I feel it is time to return to the fold.

So what else has happened? Well, my time in Japan is officially winding to a close. In July, I'll be coming back to the States to pursue my Master's degree -- not in translation like I thought but in Special Education, and the explanation for that will definitely be the subject of an upcoming entry. In my free time, I'm studying ASL and working on some new writing projects and when things actually warm up (this winter has lasted F O R E V E R, you guys), I'm determined to finally learn how to ride a bike. No, I really can't. Yes, I know how weird that is. Shh.

It's almost two years since my last entry and it's amazing, when I look back over it, how much has changed and how much has stayed the same. I'll tell you this, friends: there's no doubt that I'm older now. But so are you, aren't you? I hope you don't mind if I fill in the gaps while we keep moving forward. It will be fun! Like flashbacks.

More navel-gazing next time. For now, a picture to round things out:

My cat, Nezumi, which means "Mouse." I can't take credit for the name, but boy do my kids love it.

Goodbye, but not for long (again)!

April 23, 2011


Last night, at an enkai*, I got the question: "When you came to Japan, how did your image of Japanese people change?" This is a fairly common question, and one I should have a set answer to, but I haven't managed to come up with one yet that doesn't make me sound like I got to Japan yesterday.**

On this occasion, I tried to wave it off, but the dude was insistent, so I came up with this: "Before I came here, I didn't realize how blunt Japanese people are sometimes," and went on to talk about how surprisingly open my dance teacher can be about criticizing me in class.

Today, what I think I really should have said -- what I think I really meant -- is that Japan is a country that really strips you of your squeamishness (and surprisingly, in a lot of ways, prudishness).

Why today? Because I passed a foreigner-in-Japan milestone that I'd actually expected to pass some time ago: a sushi chef scooped up a fish, killed it, skinned it and filleted it right in front of me, and didn't even seem to notice my flinching and cringing, or that I decided I was finished eating immediately afterwards. Meanwhile, there was a Japanese guy hanging around there with three kids, and none of them even batted an eye at the whole thing.

Japanese people tend to be inured to this sort of thing. They don't have our traditional American squeamishness about eating things with faces, about eating raw meat, about killing things in front of small children. And like I said, although Japan has a famous reputation for being repressed, in some ways they're a lot less prudish than Americans are. We don't do public nude bathing or have pornography in store windows (I mean, okay, we do, but not with actual nipples or anything). We don't, as far as I know, comment on the teats of strangers. EDIT: In the original version of this post, I forgot one of my most eye-opening examples -- in America, we definitely do not let teenage boys change clothes in front of their female teachers.

And this does extend, to a certain degree, to the kind of tough-skinned bluntness I was talking about last night. I used my dance teacher as an example, but really, she's a pussycat. Had I been bolder (or ruder) I could have much more easily spoken of the multitudes of older women who have commented on my body -- I'm pretty sure it is only in this country that I would be told, "It would be better if your breasts were smaller." Or the people who comment on my eating habits, or whatever. The point is, Japanese people say what's on their mind a lot more than you might think they do.

Despite the whining in my last entry, I'm really not criticizing this. Rather, I realized today that the longer I'm here, the more I, too, am becoming more inured to it. Sure, I wasn't exactly hungry after the whole "Killing Nemo" thing today, and I get pissed off when some baachan (grandma) calls me fat to my face. But there are also a lot of things I take in stride now that I didn't before. I can look a dead shrimp in the eye and still eat its tail, the very idea of which used to make me sick to my stomach. I can tell my coworkers that I want to eat raw horse with them and mean it.

And as for the boob thing, when I heard that, all I could do was shrug, smile, and nod. Of all the things that are wrong with me and how I fit in in this country, I think my breast size is a pretty low priority, but, sure. It would be better if my breasts were smaller. Why not?

*A big drinking (+dinner) party with your coworkers, thrown for any number of reasons including welcoming new coworkers, saying goodbye to those who are leaving, or it being spring.

**I mean, really, I don't know what to say without seeming either stupid or rude. On one end of the spectrum you have, "Oh, I didn't realize you sometimes eat with forks, because I am an idiot," and on the other end you have, "I didn't know you were all freaking nuts, so there's that."

***Addendum: So far, my newer, thicker shell has not led to me being any less unable to kill bugs or pests, including the crazed sex pigeons on my balcony. Wish me luck as we head into summer, AKA Horrible Disgusting Bug and Spider Season.

April 12, 2011

Stage 2 and Alanis Irony

So at my Orientation, and I suspect at Orientation most years, they introduced the idea of culture shock "stages" to us, which are roughly:

Stage One: Everything is super awesome shiny happy oh my God, you guys, this is JAPAN!
Stage Two: Everything is different and it sucks and I hate it and I want to go home right now!
Stage Three: As with any country, there are some good things and some bad things and I am learning to deal with the balance!

Not every single person goes through all of these, but it's far from uncommon. For me, I've been studying Japan for literally almost half my life, and I've been here four times, so I was solidly in Stage Three when I got here and assuming things would pretty much stay that way. Little did I know it was possible to backslide!

It's not about the earthquake, although I'm sure that hasn't exactly hindered my desire to be at home with my loved ones again. Some of it is about being here, and some of it is about *not* being in my own country, and some of it is just about being really kind of tired. I'm writing this entry partly just because I occasionally need a space to word vomit, and partly because recently, I've been starting to realize that some of these things are things that we do not really talk about in JET, or that we kind of just joke around about, and I want to say that it is okay to have serious feelings about them.

So here's a lot of bitching and moaning -- if you want to avoid it, skip down a bit.


If not, here is my Stage 2, alternatively titled, "YOU KNOW WHAT SUCKS?"

1) It's not really that being non-Japanese in Japan sucks (for me). It's being non-Japanese and a woman and overweight that sucks. Being overweight sucks in America, too, but at least I can buy, like, pants and shoes there. And seriously, I'm sorry, being a woman in America >>>>>>>>> being a woman here. The amount of institutionalized, totally accepted, pervasive sexism I've encountered in the last few months has been really getting to me. I sighed when I first got here and realized that our office still has a glorified tea lady, that girls sit behind boys at assemblies, that the boy clubs are generally more important than the girl clubs, etc. That bugged, but did not chafe.

No, what really chafes is the fact that at the last four Japanese parties I've been to I have been: hit on, touched inappropriately, touched really inappropriately, hit on with great intent, and on one single and memorable occasion told I literally wasn't allowed to leave the party and that one teacher who likes me planned on following me home. Not even home to my apartment. Home to New York. I'm sadly not joking about that, and neither was he. Every time anything like this happens, the men and women around me laugh it off, like, "Oh, that silly old Mr. ______." At best, they stay uncomfortably silent. It's gross and I hate it a lot. As you can expect, I'm making an effort from now on to avoid future parties, which is a shame because the food at those things is goooooooood. But like, hello, I should not have to skip the party to avoid having a dude find creative ways to 'discreetly' touch my boob.

2) You know what else sucks? Chronic illness. I haven't talked about it really at all on this blog, and except for a few other ALTs and one single person at work, I try to avoid the topic in real life, but the fact is, I have quite a few chronic health issues (this is why I'm always missing stuff, guys. Sorry!). The worst of these is something that is basically identical to Meniere's Disease, except that it's not actually Meniere's and therefore is not treatable like Meniere's is. Fun! Also, it means I can't eat chocolate. And sometimes it randomly gets worse for no reason.

Obviously, I knew this would be a problem when I got here, and I've been doing my best to keep up with it and manage my situation since I arrived. That said, trying to handle chronic illnesses, especially one that no one really seems to understand, is difficult enough in my native language. Trying to deal with it in Japanese is exhausting. And people here -- both my Japanese coworkers and most of my fellow ALTs -- don't really understand the concept of being sick all the time without, say, a cane in my hand. My actions are sometimes limited in ways that are very difficult to explain or be understood. I guess it doesn't help that I avoid explaining it if I can, but again, it's really just exhausting to try sometimes.

3) Japanese life is an endlessly frustrating jungle of hidden meanings and passive-aggression. Most of this involves work and I'm not going to talk about it here, but basically, if you google the words "honne" and "tatamae," you will discover the single thing I am the most bad at out of everything else on the planet.

4) Going back to being non-Japanese: I'm really not going to talk about work here, but after nine months, I was sort of hoping I'd get to a place where I felt more integrated at my job. As it stands, I feel neither needed nor wanted, much less a real part of the team. I don't know if this is my fault or theirs, but it sucks.

5) Honestly, I'm just tired and crabby a lot of the time.



The Stage 2 stuff, I know some of it I will either learn to deal with or just get over, and some of it is just my own bad mood. Some of it will be helped by my upcoming trip home, which I am very excited for, and some of it will be made worse, but oh well.

But now for the reason I also titled this post "Alanis Irony:" My primary reason for joining JET was that I needed time to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. Future JET, They will tell you that this is a Bad Reason to do JET, but seriously like half the people I know are here for that reason or to save money for school, so ignore Them.

Anyway, while I've been here, I've really rediscovered my love for translating, and I've become pretty sure that I want to pursue it for the next while. Not forever, but it's definitely what I want to do next. So now that I've Figured It Out, of course, the first thing I want to do is go home and get started on that, especially in the middle of all this Stage 2-ing...

...Except that I can't translate until I'm fluent, which means I can't really leave until that works out for me, which is going to take at least another year. Plus, I mean, I recontracted and have committed to another year here. But ignoring that for a moment, here is some "Ironic" irony for me: I came here to figure out what I want to do, but now that I have, I can't actually do it, because I need to stay here until I can do it. I'm not sure that that's real irony (is it?), but it is sort of like finding a black fly in my Chardonnay.

Okay, my rambling is done now, really. I'll try to write something funny next time.

PS: Obviously, there are many people whose lives suck more than mine right now. If you have the means to help, there are many organizations doing good here in Japan, including Shelterbox and our very own AJET Cares.

March 28, 2011

A Late Entry

I'm sorry for my silence on the blogging front. The truth is, it's been two and a half weeks since the earthquake(/tsunami/ongoing nuclear disaster) and I haven't had a single damn idea what to write about it.

I'm pretty sure that everyone who reads this has already gotten some kind of contact from me, but just in case, to start: I'm totally, 100%, completely fine. Oita is one of the safest places in Japan when it comes to both quakes and tsunami -- we barely get the former, and we're shielded by Shikoku and Beppu Bay from the latter. We got some waves, but the highest was, I believe, about a meter. The only other thing we felt was the fear and exhaustion that, for several days, we shared with the entire country.

I really don't know what else to say about it. It's a terrible thing that happened in my adopted country. The bodies are still being found, the nuclear plants are still in crisis mode, and it's going to be a very long time before things in Tohoku are anywhere near normal again.

But, weirdly, things down here are pretty much as always. I had to cancel something I was really looking forward to, and I lost a lot of money in the process, but... seriously, if that's the worst problem I got from this whole thing, how freaking lucky am I?

Both the best and the worst thing has been, in some ways, the reaction from abroad. On the one hand, I've been seeing a lot of exploitation and fearmongering from the international and especially American news (again, Americans: I'm fine, and so are you). On the other hand, even all the way down here, I've received such an outpouring of emotional support from all over the world, including some very sweet and genuine things from people I barely--or in some cases, don't--even know.

So, to those of you who have wished me well: thank you.

To those of you who are taking advantage of things here to gain publicity or interest: screw you.

To those who are still struggling: 頑張ってください!

And to the Future JET I started writing for in the first place: Don't let this stop you from coming here. This country is still an amazing place, full of amazing people. It would be a shame for you to miss it.

And that's all I'm going to say about that.

January 25, 2011


So I've been here six months as of today!

I don't want to do the Big Introspection post, because I'm sure I'll have more to say in another six months and I don't want to be redundant unless I'm bitching about something funny.

So all I'll say is: I was a big mess before I came here, and I'm less of a mess now. Hopefully, I'll be even less of a mess in another six months!

Thanks, Japan! Looking forward to another Year(?) of you.

PS: Okay, I do want to talk about this, because it's awesome, even if all my Facebook friends are sick of reading about it. I've been reading Harry Potter in Japanese, which is really fun for a variety of reasons, but what's especially been fun recently is noticing how much faster I can read now than when I started.

Case in point: When I read the first chapter, I could handle maybe a page and a half a day. Back in October, I read one chapter of 18 pages in six days (really four, I think, because there was a weekend there?) and I was super, super excited.

Today, I finished another chapter of 18 pages. Which I started this morning.

One of my big goals in coming here was to become fluent in Japanese, or at least significantly closer to. Not that I don't like the JET course, although I don't, but having this kind of actual, tangible sign of progress is what's really keeping me moving forward with studying. Eighteen pages in one day! I usually don't even manage that with English books, these days.

Okay, sorry -- I really needed to brag/be excited about that, and it is Highly Uncouth to brag in this country. (Remember I was talking about stereotypes awhile back? That's another that is 1000000000% true.)

Anyway. Happy Japanniversary to my fellow first-year JETs, and many more to those of us who want them!

January 20, 2011

Sound off!

Actually, let's keep talking about the cold.

Here's the thing: when you get into this program, or another ALT program, and you're packing to come to Japan, don't be like me. Don't say, "Oh, I'm going to a warm area, I don't need super-warm clothes. I can just layer these summer tops!"

Don't be like me back in the summer (i.e., an idiot). Don't be like me then, or you will be like me now, and you will hate yourself for it.

You see, things that are true:

1) Beppu is relatively warm (compared to, say, Nagano, yes, I know.)
2) Beppu is warmer than New York (I am asked about this 20 times a day.)

Things that are also true:

1) When people say "there is no insulation or heating in Japan," they mean there is no insulation or heating in Japan.

Or, as I put it to several of my coworkers: Yes, New York is colder. But in New York, we're not cold




I'm cold on the walk to school. I'm cold when I get to school. I'm cold sitting at my giant metal desk. I'm cold when they open the windows in the middle of winter, because they do that here. I'm cold when I walk home. I'm cold when I sit in my room, even next to my tiny space heater. I'm freezing when I go into the bathroom or hallway/kitchen area. I'm sometimes so cold in the middle of the night that I wake up of cold.

In fact, basically the only times I'm not cold are when I go to night school, which turns its giant kerosene heater to levels of crazy, or when I'm standing in the shower with all the hot water on.

As I said on my Facebook: I think I have a tendency to seem kind of disaffected sometimes -- it's a New York/Jewish/ex-goth/Ivy League thing -- but anyone who doubts my commitment to Sparkle Motion staying here should have seen me half an hour ago, when I went into the bathroom to take a shower and almost started crying it was so cold.

But I have to admit, a lot of this would have been mitigated if I hadn't been an idiot in the first place and just brought some warmer freaking clothes with me. Or believed my predecessor when she told me that the fan heater was totally sufficient for winter. Of course, she was from England, and I hear people are all insane there, too.*

*Disclaimer: I love English people and the insane.

I will say one thing that is also true about Japan, though. You hear all the time about how nice Japanese people are, and sometimes that's just not true at all, but sometimes it really is. To wit: today I was at the store, stockpiling on long underwear-like items with names like "Inner Heat," when a woman came over and shoved a piece of yellow paper into my hand. I blinked at her uncomprehendingly. She jabbed at it.

"This, use this one," she said, pointing. I realized it was a coupon flier, with several of the coupons X-ed out, but several more that were still usable and totally applied to my purchase. I saved a bunch of money! She ran off before I had a chance to thank you, so thank you, random woman!

I tried to pay it forward and give the flier to someone else, but no one else seemed to be seriously shopping, and the one woman I tried already had one, so I guess the universe wants me to be a greedy bastard for now.

Anyway, that was a tangent, and none of this was actually the point of this post. Oops. What I really wanted to do was put up a straw poll and/or recommendations list for myself and interested readers.

So! My fellow Oitans/temporary Nihonjin, what are you doing to beat the hea... wait, no. Dice the ice? Cheese the freeze?

Ooh! Kill the chill!

...Anyway, for dummies like myself, let us know your favorite methods for making it through the winter.

January 19, 2011

My notoreity spreads

Hey, so for those of you on LiveJournal/who would like to read via LiveJournal, a lovely friend has made a Livejournal feed of the blog. Alternately, apparently you can use something called Atom? I really should learn how blogging, like, works, one of these days. I barely even remember that I can read stuff on Google Reader.

As a totally unrelated update, it seems to be mostly official that the  Year(?) is in fact going to be more than one, so look out for a name change in the near future.

January 15, 2011

Snoooooow! Snoooooooow in Beppu!

...Just thought you should know.

That's the view from my window now. For contrast, let's see what it looked like back in my first post:

Ah, summer.

It's actually snowed a few times -- way more than I'd expected -- but this is by far the most we've had. Come on, universe! I thought this place was supposed to be warm!*

Some advice for that future JET who comes to Oita: after December 1st, a great way to bond with your coworkers is to huddle around the kerosene heater at school, stick your hands under your arms, and mutter: "Sabii na**" over and over again. Not only will you have the shared experience of being bone-chillingly freezing, but they'll get a kick out of your attempts to speak the lingo.

*Incidentally, it turns out that not only is Kyushu not warm AT ALL during the winter, but because of the dreaded Japanese lack of insulation, I have been woken up in the middle of the night four nights this week from being so cold. With all my blankets and the heater on.

**This is real Oita-ben/Oita dialect. "Samui" is Japanese for cold. In typical slang, it's normal to hear "samii" instead. In Oita-ben, it becomes "sabii." The more you know star! I love dialects, so I have been very interested in learning Oita-ben. The teachers are very helpful because they find it hilarious.

Anyway, have a few more pictures:

Fun! I'm going back to bed.

December 10, 2010

I'd Like That in a Giant American, Please

I realized on my way home today that I'm finally starting to get used to the sizes here. It's a stereotype, but it really is true that everything here is just plain smaller. Or maybe, living here, I should put it the other way: small is normal.

My apartment, which in its entirety is half the size of my bedroom back home or possibly the same as a rich person's closet, is called a "mansion."

I refuse to take a picture of the trash heap it is now, so let's refer back to this picture!

Yes, that still really is the whole thing. The only thing that's bigger now is the TV.

Not just the housing -- at 5'3", I'm used to being short, but here I'm at worst normal-sized. At one of my schools, I tower over my supervisor like a Yeti. The baachan (grandmas) who pass me in the street frequently come no higher than my waist. I feel like a mediocre Gulliver.

And it's everywhere: the cars are small, the food is small (although thank God for that, with how much fried gunk there is here), etc. My kids' voice boxes are small -- some of the girls sound like whistles when they talk. My kitchen is small enough that cooking a whole chicken is an impossible feat, or would be if I could find one.

At first, despite all my experience here, I was kind of startled by the size of everything. And I was horrified by the apartment with its tiny kitchen, tiny fridge, tiny bathroom, the couch so small it has no legs. I've been talking about moving for months. But now it's growing on me, like a fungus, or Stockholm syndrome.

Now, when I walk home, I think how huge the houses along the way are, even though they're certainly not any bigger than the houses back home. Smaller by far than the house I lived in before I came here. Admittedly, that one could comfortably house five people, but so do some of these.

At this rate, when I go home, I'm going to feel like an ant. My room at home will feel like two apartments worth of space. Normal houses will look like castles and palaces. My old co-ed fraternity house, which we called The Barn, will look like a full-on working farm. And the ex-boyfriend-I-regret-dumping's mansion* will look like...

...Well, not a mansion, obviously. Because that's where I live.

Of course, if I feel like a giant, I can't imagine how people who are actually normal-sized feel. Do you think there's height-ism in this country? I haven't really seen any yet, but I wouldn't be surprised if it's there, lurking under the radar, beneath the xenophobia and sort of general cultural blindness.*** It would certainly be a refreshing change of pace.

I might even join in, if only because I think it would be fun to say: "No, it's okay. Some of my best friends are tall."

*No, seriously.**
**No, seriously.
***Not that I'm saying we're any better, as a country.