Friday, August 29, 2008

My Japanese shrink

Actually she is my Japanese teacher who comes to the Kaisha every week to listen to my problems/teach me Japanese. Our lessons often feel akin to a therapy session minus the comfy sofa. The woman takes meticulous notes! Not notes on what we covered or what we will work on the following week, but on ME. It was really disconcerting but now I find it endearing. I'll be telling her something I did on the weekend and she'll confirm with me that yes, it was with 2 friends, and then she scribbles it down in her notebook. Today in a convoluted way of explaining a grammar point to me we ended up talking about my grandfathers, neither of whom are still around. She wrote down the ages I was when each of them passed!! Sensei probably has a better account of my life than I do in my own memory by this point but I still don't know why. She occasionally refers back to notes, refreshing her memory of what flavour ice cream I ate one weekend in May or the train I used on a recent weekend outing.

The more I think about this, the more I am convinced she is taking this notes on my life so that when I fail level 1 of the Test in December, she can look back through her notes and figure out why-graphing the amount of time I spent working, playing and studying, the food and drink I consumed and the amount of times I fought with the beau. I don't even want to pass the Test for myself now, but for Sensei's sake. She keeps stressing that I'm not learning enough kanji to pass and no matter how many times I tell her to chillax, I'm going to give her an ulcer if I don't pass. Fuck.

Sensei is such a sweet woman, she must be in her early 60s, and I guess I provide her with some therapy too as I mm hmm along when she tells me how she had a fight with her husband and was so stressed about it she made herself sick the next day. Whenever she tells me about one of their fights she violently taps her index fingers together to signify the argument. Sensei will tell me about how she has asked her husband to only drink 5 days a week and then asks me what it's like at la casa de Geisha. Oh, I assure her, I'm trying to get the beau to drink less too. Validated, Sensei smiles and nods appreciatively.

Our sessions together aren't always so harmonious. Sometimes she totally riles me. Like the few occasions she gets me to do kanji practice questions for the Test in front of her. I'm sure she just wants to see how I'm getting on (I'm not) but paranoid me thinks she does it to remind me of how far off the mark I am. So I look at a never-before-encountered kanji compound and tell her that I have no idea how to read it. Sensei smiles indulgently and says, Just try. So I do and then she giggles!! Or straight up laughs. Has she not been to Sensei school where they teach you not to laugh at your students when they can't read something?! At the end of those sessions I walk out of the room thinking, Bitch is going to get herself fired like that.

I can't wait until we are done with the Test so that we can really get down to helping each other through our problems.

In other news, we all received an email today scolding the secretaries for taking too damn long to return to their seats after lunch. Guess they are going to have to start cutting that make-up reapplication routine right out. More about the email later.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

We are geisha no more

Did anyone catch the Last Word article in the current issue of Metropolis? I read through it saying yes! no! yes! to an array of things I both agreed and then disagreed with. Yes! Many Japanese women have jumped on the Sex & the City train and want to act out their own version of the show. Example: friend of mine started watching the show religiously and then wanted us to start "power-lunching" among other things she had picked up from the fabulous four. No! to the characterization of working women in Japan who are all apparently "struggling to forge a modern and progressive identity in a culture that often has a traditional and dismissive view of them". Where can I find these working women I'd like to know? I know plenty of women who work, that is, until they get married and there's no longer a need. That's not quite fair of me, as I don't disrespect women who stay at home nor do I think all Japanese women are like that. But the author of above article seems to imply there is a real push by women here to move forward and cause change. I just don't buy it. I would however, like to meet some high-powered Japanese ladies although I sense from fleeting encounters with a few that it's not like a day in the life of Carrie Bradshaw.

Another line that elicited a No!: "the women of Japan, who are still burdened with the pressure of having to act like meek and fragile dolls, willing to bow politely (and give up seats graciously) to men who will one day 'honor' them with marriage". Do I even need to say it? Why did he have to go and pull out the meek and fragile doll line? Better yet, why didn't he just commit to the stereotype in full by saying "China doll" or "oriental doll"? I've mentioned the ladies first thing before and let me just add that from conversations with some of the women I know, it seems more and more are expecting that here. They expect men to give up their seats and open the door for them, but they also expect to be taken care of financially in the future while they tend to the children. I don't want to get into a "women I know" versus "women the author knows" thing here. Knowing some Japanese friends who do or do not do something, does not automatically make us cultural experts, qualified to share our wisdom with Metropolis readers. Although Metropolis seems to think it does.

One more No! was the author's toe-dipping in the domestic violence waters, which he quickly cleared up by saying that the woman who was getting beaten sure hadn't learned much from Charlotte. Couldn't he have used a more light-hearted example? If he's going to talk about domestic violence here I would much rather him dedicate an article to it, instead of using it as a simplistic example of how Japanese women really aren't learning anything from the Sex & the City girls.

Lastly another Yes! to the fact that yes, many of the fans here are emulating the superficial aspects of the show and not what it "stands for". For me though, aside from seeing women here emulate the show's messages of girl power rah rah rah, I'd like to see them equipped with the critical thinking skills to watch the show (they can enjoy it too) and be able to distinguish what is fantasy and reality, what is worth taking away and what is not.

Let me quickly describe one personal ad in this week's issue: This woman wants to forge a group of SATC-like ladies. She wants to go out for dinner and to movies after work and on the weekends, dress up and go hang at international spots. Once she gets close to these new fab friends of hers, she wants to go travelling internationally with them!

One, actually two more No!s and then I will stop. 1) What is with the untactful cartoon accompanying this article? Couldn't they have done a little better than a rendition of the four SATC ladies with black hair? And 2) "We are geisha no more"?! Hasn't a law been passed prohibiting foreigners from using the term "geisha" in any article about Japan or in a descriptive capacity when talking about Japanese women? Does the author know what a geisha is or did he hear it in that old John Wayne movie where they talk about geisha gals?! Sure "we are geisha no more" sounds more catchy than "we are servile no more" but the vast majority of Japanese women are not geisha, nor have they ever been in the past. Get it right! Or at least come up with a new buzz word.

At the author's suggestion I am going to get into Mixi and see what the real-live Japanese women are actually saying about sex and expensive shoes. I will be sure to report back. If any one wants to invite me to Mixi I'd be much obliged and it will save me from having to ask my power-lunching friend, who incidentally enough, quit working as soon as she got married last year and power-lunches no more.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Extra cold my ass

We did manage to make it out for sushi last night and also had the pleasure of watching two different tourist parties try to converse with the chefs, and both sides basically make asses of themselves. The beau felt embarrassed for Japan, I felt embarrassed for North America. When first asked if they could speak any English there was a resounding no from the chefs, until the head chef ordered them to speak English, which resulted in them upping the level to "yes" and "OK". There was some back and forth about rice, I can only guess one of the customers wanted a bowl of rice..."rice"? "sushi rice"? "sushi rice!!" went the exchange. In response to one of the tourist's explanation that they weren't very dexterous when it came to the old chopsticks, they were served chawan mushi which can be eaten with a spoon and personally, makes me want to gag. I don't know what it is about the steamed egg custard with a surprise inside, but it's not the first thing I would serve to someone who can't use chopsticks (using my Sherlock Holmes intuition, I'd say such a person has probably not eaten a lot of "oriental food").

There really is no good way out of a situation like that and I don't mean to be scornful of either side-it's just amusing to watch. California rolls were also ordered, and despite not being offered, were generously made. This made me smile because I'm finishing up a fantastic book about the history/economy of sushi in which the california roll is discussed and really, how would someone not know that the ubiquitous roll served at their local Japanese restaurant in Smalltown is not in fact, from Japan. The beau's brother is a sushi chef whose knowledge of English goes no further than the English name for every fish he has ever cut. We have great discussions about food in Japan and overseas and when I first went to his restaurant he told me with a mischievous grin that whenever he gets tourists in front of him he makes a hell of a lot of salmon nigiri.

Instead of the Mandarin Bar as promised, we ended up at Rigoletto Kitchen in Ginza which has got to be one of the only places open late (or at all) on Sundays in that area. It looked a lot more upscale on the website but turned out to be not unlike La Boheme or similar chains that turn out "European" food and are classy enough that you don't feel like you're at a family restaurant but if you look closely (or not so closely come to think of it) at the food and other details realize it's nothing like the sleek website with dark and edgy photos and more of a family restaurant with mood lighting. Luckily we weren't there for the food but on a research expedition to check out Heineken's Extra Cold beer.

Lured in like the other Japanese masses by a spot on a food show, we wanted to try this beer that was cooled to below 0 (C) and supposed to freeze your throat upon contact. Given a prominent place on the bar, the pleasure-giving tap looked positively Arctic! Holding the glass in my hand didn't make me scream out in cold though, so I was suspicious as I took a sip. Smooth and icy cold but not the frozen experience I had been looking for. I was expecting a thin film of ice to form from my tongue down to my stomach and was bitterly disappointed when it didn't. Icy cold and tasty yes, but not the fireworks I had been expecting. Perhaps a comparison with an ice cold Asahi would have been prudent at the time but I won't be running around town to find a place that serves it in the future.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Black noodles + Japanese summer

While I try to keep things entertaining around here, there will inevitably be some food posts on occasion because, well, I love food. But don't worry, I can guarantee no pictures of sushi or food that is all wabi sabi and shit. SO. I had wanted to go to the Awa Odori festival in Koenji today, which is a huge dance shin dig that I went to a couple year ago. It's always held on the last weekend of August and definitely worth seeing, with a high level of carnie in the air. Since I used to live in Koenji in one of the most ghetto dorms on earth and then later in Nakano (really, who hasn't?), I always make a point of visiting old favourites when I'm on that side of town. Today we went to eat kuro goma tantanmen or black sesame tantanmen. Gives me shivers just thinking about it! Tantanmen is a type of noodle dish originally from China, similar to ramen, usually spicy, and with ground meat on top. Throw in the black sesame and you get almost black soup and the tastiest thing since Diet Coke.

Just North of Nakano station there is a restaurant called Minpai (明白) that a friend first introduced me to four or five years ago and I've been using it as the measuring yard for every bowl of tantanmen I've eaten since. Minpai is a clean-looking casual place that serves Chinese-style food like gyoza, noodles and ebi chilli. Their specialty is the black sesame tantanmen as well as a white sesame version, and crispy pan fried gyoza. I know my amateur keitai pic above looks really appetizing but you've got to trust me on this one, tantanmen are delish!

We decided to scrap the festival plans unfortunately because of the rain and came back to our part of town. On the way home from the station we went by the Mitsui Memorial Museum which has a Japanese summer themed exhibition on until mid-September. It had the potential to be interesting-summer in early modern Japan through pictures and other objects-but was a bit of a snore. There were some interesting ukiyo-e, a couple huge scrolls depicting the famous Sanno festival and some traditional smoking boxes and hairpins but the rest I could have done without. There is only so much ceramic ware a girl can see and I reached my limit circa 2004. The time period was right (I tend to gravitate toward specific aspects of the Heian and Edo periods) but not interesting enough to merit a second glance. This afternoon was kind of a bust and I'm so disappointed about the festival but I'm hoping my sushi date followed by drinks at the Mandarin Bar will make up for it!

Saturday, August 23, 2008

A Japanese gaijin in Vancouver

On our recent trip to Canada I obviously made sure to take the beau to some cool restaurants and bars, a round of golf and a day of fishing. We also had our fill of hotdogs from street carts, which the beau still thinks is the single best thing about Vancouver. However, in light of the fact that it may be his future home, I figured he should see all aspects of the fair city, including a tour by car of the downtown eastside and Skid Row. Sensationally called the worst neighbourhood in Canada, it is a place filled with drug addicts, homelessness, prostitution and run down single-room hotels. I've even heard there are slumlords to be found. Not on most Japanese tourists' agenda when visiting, I took him for a spin around there as an eye opener. Some comments from him include: these homeless people don't have several thousands in the bank like the ones in Tokyo, do they?

Thanks to the other residents of Vancouver, he also got to see/experience the following things of note:

-A plastic bag filled with an unknown heavy substance falling from the sky in Chinatown's Blood Alley
-My friend's 2m tall bf with his pit bull and huge 4X4 truck
-Several people, some of them just plain crazy, asking him for money
-A homeless man asking people for money so he could buy a beer (props for being up front about it)
-A man getting arrested (they handcuff the hands in front in Japan apparently)
-A skunk
-A coyote
-Gambling at a casino
-Super size garbage trucks
-Several drug deals in broad daylight
-More "sushi" restaurants than you can shake a stick at

Maybe not something everyone would write home to mom about but the beau was thrilled at the diversity of experiences the city had to offer. Some people come to Japan oohing and ahhing over the abundance of vending machines, geisha gals, and the strange tone of voice employed by train employees, and some Japanese get a thrill from real-live casinos, sketchy situations "like in the movies", and the sheer largeness of it all. I think a sleezy strip joint could be next on the agenda.

I also felt like a bit of a stranger to Vancity, with some cultural awkwardness and disbelief of my own. Off the top of my head, I felt like a total prude when I was shocked to see so many women running around with their midriffs showing. I guess I've gotten so accustomed to the ridiculous amount of leg in this country that I forgot you could show other body parts. Either way, it just isn't right-ladies learn how to dress! Oh and then there was the time I expressed displeasure at the retail ho who took the clothes I had just bought and stuffed them into a bag. Whatever happened to folding bitch?! Granted I don't enjoy the retail schtick in Japan, at least they take some care when you buy something, even if their attitude is just as fake as that across the Pacific.

All in all, I'd say it was a successful trip on the cultural front.

Friday, August 22, 2008

That's Miss Gaijin to you

I had to go to the immigration office today to renew my visa. A trip to the immigration office in Shinagawa is always a huge pain in the ass, if not interesting at the same time. There's no better place to be truly put in your place as a dirty foreigner at the hands of the Japanese government. I joked with the beau before I took off, what if they decide to deport me and it's bye bye next week?

First of all, they put the office in the furthest reaches of Shinagawa, surrounded by factories and warehouses. The bus ride out there from Shinagawa station is usually full of mostly non-white gaijin with a few Japanese passengers not accompanying anyone to the immigration office, who glance nervously around like we're going to gang up and take over the country. There's always some screaming half-breed children (I say this in the nicest way possible as I may end up with some of my own one day) and at least one young Southeast Asian or Eastern European woman with a sketchy looking Japanese guy older in age and not up to her level in the looks department (and often wearing rubber shoes). Boss? Pimp? Husband? You never know on the immigration bus. The Japanese government obviously doesn't count biracial children in their statistics because if they ever made a visit to the immigration office they would stop printing headlines like JAPANESE GOVERNMENT SCRATCHES ITS HEAD OVER THE DECLINING BIRTH RATE. There exists no decline among the international couples, just listen to the cacophony of shrieking immigrant children.

The office itself is filled with mixed couples, pimps and hos, large families, Asian exchange students, English teachers, a few suits, Japanese HR people accompanying their charges to the help desks. It's all very visual. Everyone looks at everyone else, trying to size them up, their job, nationality, purpose. There's a lot of shifty glances at passport covers to see what others are holding in the way of citizenship, or maybe that's just me. I've never had much of a problem doing my business at the office but that's not indicative of the experience for many. The immigration department's website is outdated and impossible to navigate and it seems loopholes and holy grail visas that are largely discussed on gaijin message boards are often at the whim of the immigration officer you talk to. The place is large, confusing and not particularly welcoming. On purpose? Conspiracy theory?

I can't complain much about being a gaijin, in fact I tend to feel white guilt at the immigration office which could just be me projecting bullshit (probably) but compared to a lot of the other "immigrants" I have it easy and can even move to an even better place than Japan, should I choose. But wait, I forgot-there is no better place than here! I was the only white girl at my language school here and apart from being ostracized, whenever we would discuss the gaijin experience in class or whether Japan is an "equal society" there would inevitably be comments from my Asian classmates that it was harder for non-white gaijin, particularly those from other Asian countries. I don't doubt it. When the beau first told his mom he was seeing one of Us it was like she couldn't hear him. Too shocked to illicit a surprised or even angry response, she acted like she didn't understand what he was saying. Fears were then allayed when he told her I was a nice Canadian girl from across the Pacific and not from a country across the Japan sea. Phew. His parents are great though, they sure love me. But apparently it could have been a problem if I was from one of those countries.

Despite sticking out like a sore thumb, I often forget I am a gaijin. Not to say that I think I am Japanese but I rarely think about the fact that I am in a visual minority anymore. Yes I still endure staring competitions with rude commuters or people passing me on the street but I walk around largely unconscious of the fact that I am different from almost everyone around me. It usually comes to me when I'm on the train. I'll be sitting there looking around and suddenly it occurs to me: I am in Japan and I am a foreigner in this country. It doesn't strike me as good or bad, but I'm often caught by surprise when I remember this. Before the beau I had no deep ties here. I'd spent way too many years on the language and had lived and studied here. I loved Tokyo and had Japanese friends. As I've mentioned before though, I have no close Japanese friends and even when I'm bored I usually prefer to be alone than hang out with my Japanese lady friends. Japan was always something I could take or leave but after meeting the beau and by extension of him, his family, I now have a stake in Japan.

It's a strange feeling and I remember getting really choked up at the airport when his parents saw us off after my first trip to meet them. I had been really stressed about going to meet them and from the first time I met his parents and his dad made me an ice pack wrapped in a soft towel (I was sweating again, surprise surprise), they were nothing but great to me. What could have been potentially straining on our relationship ended up being better than fine and at the airport his mom gave me her phone number and said to call anytime I needed anything, even if it was about the beau.

The reason I have made you endure this long and tedious post about my gaijinism, is that I recently read an article in the Japan Times by Debito Arudou, a naturalized Japanese citizen who for most gaijin in Japan, needs no introduction. He doesn't like the word gaijin, a lot of people don't like the word gaijin. I don't particularly like it but it depends on what is being said and by whom. Yes it means outsider but whether or not we abolish the word we will always be outsiders and for me, that's OK. In Japan race and nationality are so tied together it's going to take a lot more than a different word for foreigner to change that. What exactly does Arudou suggest they call us? Would it be better if they called us according to approximate colour? In Canada we call people foreigners, immigrants or use their skin colour or looks to approximate where they or their ancestors might have come from. Asian, Black, East Indian, European. Is that any better? Sure I'd prefer to be called the Canadian instead of the gaijin, because at least then I belong somewhere and am not just an "outsider" but how worked up can you get over the word gaijin? (He must speak in hyperbole when he compares it to the N word in the article.)

Gaijin is used in a derogative way by some, and I sometimes wince when I hear it used by Japanese people in an offhand way. On the other hand it does describe us and is convenient to use-try saying foreigner where you would say gaijin and see how long that lasts. Even as Japan's population of mixed families and children grows, it's a long way from even coming close to other countries with large immigrant populations or a high percent of visual minorities. Unfortunate for us perhaps, but I'm OK with being a gaijin.

Before I put you out of your misery and finish this, I just want to mention something that Arudou mentions in the article about Japanese people overseas still calling people gaijin when in fact, they are the gaijin. The beau did that a couple times last week when we were in Vancouver and then quickly changed his tune before I could give him shit about it. In a loving way of course.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Punish me

I am being punished. Several months ago I made the mistake of cracking a huge smile and saying hey to some guy in the elevator lobby of the Kaisha's building because his face was familiar and I thought he was a fellow Kaisha-in. After later seeing what floor he got off on (not one of our floors) I realized his face looked familiar because he is just another guy I see around the building. Shit no wonder he looked at me funny, he thought I was giving him the eye. So now I run into him more than ever and constantly have to ride empty elevators with him. Last time I ever say hello to someone I don't know is 100% with the Kaisha. Hey, maybe that's why some of the Professionals ignore me! Yes, despite the fact that I am one of two highly conspicuous foreign females in the office and I couldn't be walking around the office if I didn't work there, that will now be the official party line. They aren't socially inept A-holes, they just don't know I work there.

And by the way, here is the official count for arigatous I have received so far from Professionals for the Foreign Choc: 0

Someone throw me a crumb! Even the Geisha-friendly Professionals haven't given me anything to work with. I may have to move on to stage 1 of my tent-building scheme over my cubicle.

In other news, I keep waking up extremely disoriented-this is the weirdest case of jet lag to date. You'd think I had taken Halcion or something. Last night when the beau got home I thought we were back in Canada and jumped out of bed asking him how the hell he had managed to make it back home. Poor guy, he had no idea why his crazy-ass gf was jumping out of bed half-asleep slurring unintelligible questions. Is this what it's like for older people? Do they have to take a few minutes to get their bearings when they first wake up?!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

On exchanging yen for arm hair

The beau recently related a story to me told to him by one of his customers. I don't know why I am still surprised at what his customers will tell him, or how readily people in this country will admit to paying for sex, platonic companionship and everything in between.

This particular customer was recently in the States on business and as he had never been with a non-Japanese woman before, some of his young Japanese underlings at the stateside office hired in a woman. The details on what kind of sex-worker she actually was are unclear. As are the details of whether there was any sex taking place and whether it was the woman and this whole group of curious Japanese men or some other arrangement. Disappointing I know and I have already berated the beau for not pumping more details out of his loose-mouthed customer.

The main gist of the story was how the man was fascinated with this woman's body hair and its upkeep or lack thereof in some places. Apparently this guy was just riveted that the woman had arm hair. And that there was some grooming and possibly even a dye job happening south of the belly button. See, the beau explained to a non-plussed me, look at your arms: the hairs are blond so you can't see them but when you touch them, look! you have hair! The same with legs if you have light coloured hair. I basically came away from the story with the idea that these Japanese guys paid to have an anatomy lesson and some curious touching. I also began to wonder if I could get paid to surprise people with my curiously invisible arm hair.

I long ago learned the power in my arm hair. I have a Japanese friend who is a little younger and whenever we are together she latches on to my arm and strokes it. The first time she did this I thought her a little strange and the second time, that she was implying I have hairy arms. It was only when she showed me her arms and told me mine felt great, did I understand. Japanese women shave their arms!! I have some non-Japanese friends with really dark hair who remove hair in places you wouldn't expect, but Japanese women's hair can't be that coarse even if it isn't invisible. That said, it is a rare occasion that I see a Japanese woman without silky smooth hairless arms. So yes, add that to another thing on my list of things to be neurotic about only in Japan. I find myself holding on to the overhead train strap some days only to start wondering if my arms are too hairy and whether I should just shave them.

So hair upkeep is certainly different here and...elsewhere. Arms are shaved and pubic hair left alone. In fact, I only know of 2 or 3 places in Tokyo that even offer waxing services. Elsewhere pubic hair is either styled or eliminated and arm hair is generally allowed to flourish. Slightly off topic but has any one else seen their share of women wearing panty hose over a small patch of very long shin hair?! That is not a look I plan to emulate, shaved arms or not.

After the arm prostitute story I asked the beau if he had gloated and told the customer he got to touch a foreigner on a regular basis and had all the free invisible arm hair he could possibly ask for. My question was met with a slightly unsure yes. Maybe I should start charging.

Kindergarten tactics

As I mentioned before, I devised a genius plan before going to Canada to make my Kaisha comrades love me. I would penetrate their cold hearts with omiyage! No secretary and nary a Professional can resist cookies, let alone Foreign Cookies. Just holding one in their hot little hands will instantly make them feel International and Worldly I thought. I see now that when I concocted that little plan I was heady with a much overdue vacation home and definitely not thinking rationally.

When I arrived at the office on Monday with a light heart and a somewhat dimmer memory of previous horrors, I immediately stepped back into Kaisha reality. As I sat at my desk and glanced around nervously, all the painful memories came flooding back and it was like I had never been away. Who do I think I am, I thought. There's no way in hell I'm going to march into the offices of the Professionals and hand deliver them some chocolate (I switched to Coffee Crisps instead of maple cookies). I thought of several plans: A) take them round to the secretaries and get them to give their respective Professionals the chocolate, B) send an email to everyone asking them to take their own from a cheery mountain of bite-sized candy bars in the cafeteria, or C) take them to Professionals who have smiled at me before and make the secretaries do the rest. The problem with B is that some of the Professionals could miss the email and then would never know how nice I actually am. C wouldn't work as some Professionals share offices, everyone is very nosy and it could get too complicated dodging and avoiding some people while surreptitiously darting in and out of Geisha-friendly offices.

A was actually suggested to me by a secretary who OMG! talks to me on a regular basis. She said most of the secretaries write little notes to accompany the omiyage and have the other secretaries distribute them. Because, well, we are not adults and how uncomfortable would it be to personally deliver some chocolates to the people you work with?

It can be quite uncomfortable I discovered. With my Kaisha persona in the dumps I decided to hand deliver the chocolates to each secretary and ask them to pass some along to their Professionals. To prepare for my journey I made a list of each secretary's name and her corresponding Professional on a seating chart which I clutched in my sweaty hand while holding the bag of chocs in the other. Using my Kaisha voice (practically a whisper and almost inaudible by the end) I went up to each secretary's desk, gave them each the same line in Japanese: well thought out and in keeping with the set flow of how you would first ask if now is a good time, tell them you've come from Canada and if it is acceptable to them, please take some chocs.

Stress I tell you! For someone who isn't afraid of public speaking I sure did my non-Kaisha self an injustice yesterday as the bumbling Whitie barely able to get out a few lines about chocolate and Canada. The secretaries were all very nice and maybe pleasantly surprised. Hopefully I scored some brownie points and now when they see me or more likely hear me using my non-Kaisha voice on the phone, they will simply think of me as a sweet Kaisha comrade, to be embraced but not pitied, feared or envied. Fingers crossed they didn't get the vibe that I couldn't get to the next cubicle soon enough. I haven't heard a peep from any one else yet but maybe some of the Geisha-friendly Professionals will thank me later (if I'm lucky). If this poorly-devised plan didn't work, it's going to be a while before I can go anywhere far enough to warrant omiyage, especially after my been-starved-for-too-long! shopping spree in Canada.

The best part of the day was seeing my secretary's delighted face (first time) as she thanked me while clutching the stuffed moose I brought her. I asked her before I left whether she wanted something from Canada expecting her to say nothing, but she earned herself some respect by actually replying that she wanted a stuffed animal. The word beaver is just wrong and so are their teeth so I got her a big moose. That should keep me in the good books for a few months at least.

All in all, Operation Omiyage didn't quite live up to my hopes of grandeur but also, thankfully, not up to my recent dreams either, in which enraged Professionals threw the chocolate back at me.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Take me out to the boru game

Because I'm not ready to decompress and dissect my recent trip back to Oh Canada! I'm going to talk about the easiest thing that comes to mind right now: Japanese high school baseball. I'm not a sportswoman (the name itself gives me the shakes) by any means but I find myself watching the High School Baseball Championships on TV this afternoon with the beau. I have been known to say that baseball is 8 innings too long so I would normally whine and complain about such a situation and make us go out to avoid watching sports but I blame my malaise on a lethal combination of jet lag and a big CoCoichi curry lunch. Yes I was craving rice when I woke up for the fifth time this morning like a pregnant woman craves pickles. I ate a little rice Back Home but it wasn't enough. I'm feeling Japanese at last! All those tasty bagels for 10 days and I was ready for some rice! So now I am full and sleepy and this lapsed American has just been given her very first explanation of baseball rules by her Japanese boyfriend in Japanese. Gotta love globalization!

Aside from the rules I am also getting a cultural education and am now wide awake with new cultural awareness. The Championships happen over 10 days every August, and are followed by every media outlet possible. Every prefecture sends their best high school team to compete for the final title and emotions run high for both the players and those on the couch.

When the tube first went on today we caught the end of a game and I was initially confused with the scene before me: the players were on their knees frantically scooping dirt into bags with their bare hands, some of them crying, and a line of photographers were also on their knees getting sensational close-ups of the fiasco. When I asked the beau what this strange dirt-scooping ritual was, he explained that each player on the losing team takes dirt home as a memento. Sweet. But really a fairly sad sight to behold, a team of snif
fling high school boys taking home some dirt because that's all they get as the losers. How very Japanese.

The summer championship has sparked conversations over the last couple of years with people I would never peg as baseball fans. Back when I was prostituting myself as a private "conversation" teacher to feed myself through school, every August my "students" would excitedly tell me about how their prefecture's team was doing. City-dwellers in Japan, especially those in from other prefectures, all like to talk about their home prefecture and love it, love it, if you can also show your knowledge of their prefecture's
sports teams, food or animals. That said I would sometimes get lucky if I had unintentionally heard something about one of my student's prefectural team and would then have to fudge my way through a lesson heavy with ball talk. So when it turns into August in Japan, everyone and their uncle are following the high school baseball games at Koshien stadium near Osaka. The public here loves to exult in the winners and also cry for the losers; the summer championships are particularly significant for players in their last year of high school as it will be their last championship before they graduate and there are a lot of tears.

The winning teams have some happy snifflers but the losing teams just cry and cry. And cry. And scoop dirt. Not having ever felt such strong emotions connected to sports maybe I just don't understand but isn't loser crying also bad sportsmanship? These boys (young men?) have so much pressure put on them for these championships. Aside from the general crazy amount of pressure to ganbatte for the team and perform well, the whole country is watching and these summer championships are the be all and end all for the players. Japanese high school and university sports clubs are fairly cultish and strict to the extreme to start with and these baseball teams take it even further. Ridiculous amounts of training, high levels of expectation and then the actual games-televised, hotter than hell, and extremely loud with the non-stop cheering songs- it's no wonder the word gaman gets thrown around more than baseballs and these boys fall to their knees crying when they lose. Gaman is one of those lovely Japanese words that in English translation means to bear or endure and in Japanese means so much more. It gets thrown around much like ganbatte when you want to tell someone to endure their crappy situation because really, why try to make it better when you can just grit your teeth and take it like a good soldier?!

It's not fair of me to write it off as bad sportsmanship however, as the games are steeped in respect rituals. When each game finishes the teams line up, take off their hats, and bow to the other team. Then they run off either exultant or crying.

Another interesting aspect of the games are the militaristic cheering squads. Called oendan these groups practice, are synchronized and take their jobs just as seriously as the actual players. The freakiest part is the cheering captains whose movements often remind me of North Korean propaganda dance videos. When I finished my year at university here the squad captains came to our graduation ceremony and did their freaky dance on stage while we were encouraged to sing along to a taped school song sung by what sounded like the Japanese army circa 1944. Wait I thought, I don't recall being in a country under a military dictatorship. Have a gander at this video. Sadly, we didn't get the cheerleaders.

The TV announcers today were talking at one point about the hachimaki head wraps the cheering peeps were wearing and how they were generations old. I asked the beau about this, assuming the design or letters on them were old but he assured me the wraps themselves were old. Well they wash them right? naive and micro phobic me asks. Negative. And by the way, those cheering uniforms the squad captains are wearing have never been washed either. They are said to carry the dirt and sweat of all the enduring captains who have come before but that's about it. I hope they are wearing a layer underneath, poor things!

If you want a cultural experience yourself, watch the final game tomorrow afternoon, it should be the pinnacle of dirt-scooping to date. This blog was brought to you today by the kanji tsuchi and its meaning of dirt.

Geisha is back

ただいま I'm back on the island and have gone from feeling like a fish out of water in one country to a tanuki in water (?!) in another. I don't have the head space to go into it now as it's 6.30 in the morning and I am up despite having not been out doing anything more exciting than running to the conbini for some artificial food. I will just say this, how is it that I forgot how hard it is to go home? I'm looking back now on the longest holiday I've had in a year and I can't quite decide whether it was fun or not. I needed to go home but on one level I can't help thinking it would have been more relaxing and shallow to go to Hawaii and consume sun, alcohol, food and clothing. More later today on the joys of coordinating family, couple and individual schedules and expectations and failing miserably. Hope no one's eyelids are sweating too much in this disgusting Tokyo heat.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

How to express yourself through pictures

I don't have time for a full post but I just wanted to leave you with this. I often receive emails from male Professionals bearing emoticons such as these: ・・・_ ̄o and m(_ _)m. I initially thought the first one was a little man kowtowing with a case of the trots but later realized the three dots were just ellipses. The second one is a little person bowing down towards you. I think I have to say it again to believe it. I receive emails from male Professionals littered with emoticons like these indicating that they are indebted to me for work I've done for them or they are bowing to me because they urgently need me to finish something. Think of it what you may.

**I've just realized that the first person is missing straight lines for thighs and arms-even when I enter it, Blogger won't recognize the symbol.

Monday, August 4, 2008

No introductions necessary

I was under the impression that in an office, if you need something done by someone you don't know, it's standard procedure to introduce yourself. Apparently names are not necessary at the Kaisha. If I had 100 yen for every time someone comes to my desk to ask me to do something, totally out of the blue, and without introducing themselves, I could quit my gig as as the Kaisha Geisha (thanks tokyo cowgirl for the catchy title) and pursue other paths...such as becoming an actual geisha.

I remember the first time this happened to me at the Kaisha. I was an innocent newbie full of excitement and hope at her new Kaisha job. I mistakenly thought I would make friends and also that if someone I didn't know came to my desk (yes, came to my desk), they would introduce themselves. I was so perky and thrilled that someone had come by my desk it didn't occur to me until later that they hadn't introduced themselves, just given me something to do. The second time this happened I was more shocked. The third time I was pissed that they thought me unworthy of introduction. Fast-forward to now when I don't expect it and am actually shocked when someone at the Kaisha whom I don't know introduces themselves when they come to my desk. They won't even feed me a crumb by telling me where they sit or who their secretary is. I'm not asking for your blood type people!

One more story and I shall leave it at that: Professional comes to ask me something and I give him an answer. After he leaves I find the need to add something to what I initially told him and am left scavenging around for clues. I first try to recollect the direction he came from when approaching my desk and also whether I had ever seen him elsewhere. After a frantic scan of both English and Japanese seating charts I located the area I thought he might be and walked around poking my head into offices looking for him. Of course, everyone sits with their back to the door so I had to analyze everyone's short black hair in comparison with the fuzzy details of my 2 minute exchange. I wasn't exactly looking at the back of his head for clues on how to find him later on! When I finally found him (my back of head analytical skills are quite honed I might add) he asked how I had found him and kind of laughed. I felt like retorting that I could find him anywhere but that might have come off as stalkerish.

There is a fantastic movie called Fear and Trembling based on a book by Amélie Nothomb who joined a Japanese corporation with high hopes only to end up cleaning the bathrooms. When I first saw it I was impressed and horrified at the inner-workings of her Kaisha. I am not shocked now, but rather remember the scene where she is told by a cold hearted co-worker that they are not friends, with fondness.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Welcome to the Gym, may I take your coat?

After remembering the defibrillator at the Kaisha I thought I'd write a post about the other place in my life with a defibrillator: the Gym. The whole defibrillator flash-back came about because I once thought I might actually need to use it at the Gym, and let's face it, the people there are probably a bit more qualified to use one than my comrades at the Kaisha. If you've ever had the pleasure of reading David Sedaris you'll probably recognize the "Me Talk Pretty One Day" subtitle I stole from him. The only thing funnier than reading his essays is hearing him read them on CD which is what I have been doing some nights at the gym. I have since had to cease this activity as I recently started laughing so hard on the elliptical I 1) considered calling for the defibrillator and 2) freaked out the gym attendants who couldn't figure out why the sweaty whitie was staring at nothing and shaking with laughter. So now I stick to stuff like Dr. Dre's Chronic 2000 album which is very conducive to a work out, especially when I pretend I'm hard core and rap along in my head.

At the Gym you can rent just about everything. Socks, sneakers, shorts, bathrobes, towels, t-shirts, the works. I tried wearing their shorts but they were this horrible polyester fabric that made me look like a butch lesbian gym teacher. What I can't figure out is why there are foreign guys much bigger than me who can wear them and look fine, guess they don't have to contend with the bootay. Anyway, instead of going to the gym, I feel like I'm going to some lush spa when I enter the Gym. The reception people are soft-spoken concierges in beige suits who wish you well for your workout with an itterashaimase. It doesn't stop there however, as there are more attendants and trainers who walk around the Gym bowing to your sweaty ass and saying irrashaimase and otsukaresama desu when you finish your work out. I'm half surprised they don't come over with chilled designer water and personally wipe the sweat from my brow.

In terms of the actual equipment and facilities, it's pretty standard fare except for the disproportionate number of walking lanes in the pool. I mean come on, it's not a pool in a Florida retirement village, but for some reason the majority of the lanes are for walking. Last time I checked pools were primarily for swimming but I guess the stylish people of Tokyo prefer to walk through water. There is also a relaxation room lined with plush massage chairs. I've since learned how to use the different settings on them but my first time felt more like a torture chair and I actually yelled out in pain when these knobs came out of the chair to massage my shoulders and had me in a vice grip I couldn't get out of.

The staff can be a little too attentive at times. I've had no discrimination yet but I've heard several stories of foreigners being asked to not sweat so much, or to stop using equipment because they were over-perspiring. Don't these sweaters know this is a gym?! I guess it goes back to us being the hairy smelly barbarians but luckily the Gym is not so provincial. Although once I was dozing in a massage chair and one of the staff woke me up and make me get up so she could lay a towel over the leg part of the chair. All the chairs are covered in towels which I do understand but you think she could have waited, it wasn't my fault someone had taken off with the leg towel. I was showered and changed, that much was obvious, but still she had to remind me that I was a dirty dirt who shouldn't be sitting in a chair with no towels!

Enter the changing room. Pretty standard too until you look closer.

-There is a strange dichotomy when it comes to modesty here. There are some women that will not get changed unless they have a robe on and they have to struggle with the sleeves and the this and the that. Then there's the women who strut around with it all hanging out. I guess you would find that anywhere but tell me this, if you look at someone in profile, should you be able to see their pubic hair? Also, I am amazed at some Japanese women's nipples. Long! We are talking National Geographic style. What would the world do without variety?!

-There are signs telling women to cover it up and at least wear a towel at the beauty stations. This is the Gym's "manner-up" campaign according to the signs listing the ways you can make for a more polite, dignified Gym space. They make it sound like they're trying to clean up the bad part of town.

-Women are high maintenance. I've seen the inside of some of the lockers and women have their whole bathroom cabinet stored in there. We're talking hair curlers, big bottles of lotion, hairspray and a whole make-up kit. Now I understand if you're going out after the gym it would pay to look nice but at 11pm you are not going to tell me that every single woman in the changing room is going out somewhere. Despite that, they will wash their hair, dry and set it, and then put on a full face of make-up just to ride the train home. At least they're not putting make-up on on the train, thanks to the Metro's manner posters!

-Body shaping gear abounds. I've never seen women who need it so little wear so much body shaping underwear. I'm not sure what they are trying to hold in or shape but all those normal looking women you see on the street? They're all wearing body shaping camisoles or big black bike shorts that hold in their non-existent fat. I saw a woman a few weeks ago who was wearing a set of three pieces of body shaping gear that covered her from neck to ankle. This is not the season to wear stuff like that! I would faint!

The Gym is a great place but it's the little things that provide a constant reminder that you're not in Kansas any more. Do gyms in other countries have such levels of fastidiousness? I find it so strange that a country deemed so polite has institutions like the gym and the train, where people are constantly reminded of how to be courteous and not bother their fellow people. Is it because the gym is a newish concept here? For example, the only instructions I've seen at onsen are in foreign languages. Japanese people grow up knowing how to behave at onsen but do they need to be told how to behave at the gym? I ask you this, should people every where be reminded of stuff like this? Are the bad manners simply the sort of thing found in any country and Japan just happens to be combating them? Or do the bad manners come about from situations foreign in concept, which render Japanese people unable to refer to their regular social mores?

Friday, August 1, 2008

Please do it at the beach

Moments after writing:

"Tokyo Metro is a little behind in putting up a usable image of the August manner poster so until I find a better one here is my rendering of it. Please, save your praise for my keitai photography skills ,"

the blessed Metro updated their web page. There was also an added explanation to say that using "Let's do it at" as the common phrase on the posters, they will be developed monthly. Now that we know they are changing the catchphrase every month, this could get even more interesting than anticipated!

As I mentioned before I love the action shot this month, and just when you thought the Metro was getting all serious with the previous manner posters and their "women-only" carriages, they throw us a humor bone. Although instead of saying "please do not rush into the train" they should have said "please do not dive into the train" to be more in keeping with the nautical theme. I am curious however, as to why our diver seems to be saluting us as he is crushed by the doors. What a good Japanese soldier.
I wasn't going to say anything about creepy sweepy (other than I wish he had done some diving) but now that it's in my head I have to get it out. And I apologize in advance for the downward turn some of these posts have been taking recently and yes I do talk like this in Real Life....OK so doesn't creepy sweepy's positioning behind the diver strike anyone as an odd choice? That's all I'm going to say which is a lot better than what I was going to say. So there. Happy August!

Geisha caught, eating and sweating

汗 Just when I thought things couldn't get any worse, I get caught eating a carrot and sweating at my desk. I had just gotten to work and I just had to wear a grey top today with no camisole underneath. That's right, I schvitzed like a ho on the way to work and cursed myself the whole way because I knew by the time I arrived at the office I would have "sweated-through". I wasn't aware of how much damage I had done but going by how much my eyelids alone were sweating, I ever so casually swung my purse around so it was "kind of" covering any potential back sweat-through on my way to my desk, which felt more like walking through a mine field in which I had to dodge judgmental secretaries and Professionals and make sure no one got behind me.

Once situated I desperately wanted to go to the cafeteria for some juice or water but also wanted to wait for any sweat-through to dry-up so I munched on some baby carrots while I sorted through some work. Because I am turning into that girl in the movie who always gets caught at work at inappropriate times (mind you, these times would not be considered inappropriate in North America), one of the Professionals who is actually a super nice guy, sneaks up from behind wanting to explain some work I am about to do. I had a sneaking suspicion he was there when I heard him whisper "Geisha-san" but I had just popped a carrot in my mouth and was hoping it was my paranoid mind talking. "Geisha-san". A little louder this time and definitely not in my head. Shit. Sorry, I said, and frantically tried to decide whether to attempt swallowing the baby carrot whole, spit it out in my hand, or munch loudly on it while he talked. Luckily he decided to speak in Japanese which meant I could cover my mouth and keep most of my replies to Hai and Wakaremashita. Did I mention I LOVE Japanese at a moment like this? Unfortunately I decided to do absolutely nothing with the carrot but shove it to the side of my mouth when I grunted out my replies and I could feel it poking out my cheek. I even had time to let my mind wander and consider whether or not he would associate that with moving your fist in front of your mouth and sticking your tongue in your cheek to imitate a blow job. No? Probably just me.

After he left I scurried to the bathroom like a secret agent with my back pressed against the walls, really all I needed was to hold my hands up like a gun and whip them around every corner to complete the look. I experienced a feeling of absolute horror when I peered at my back in the mirror. We are not talking little rogue spots of sweat-through. We are talking full-out down the back, salaryman, someone threw a bucket of water at me from behind, sweat-through. Great. Whether or not the nice Professional associated my cheek carrot with blow jobs or not, he had witnessed my ultimate sweat-through to date this summer during his sneak up (I was obviously not sitting against the back of my chair in order to facilitate faster dry-up) as well as what probably looked like me stuffing my face (way to go Geisha, can't you wait until LUNCH?!).

Hey at least I've earned myself another cocktail at 57 tonight!