Thursday, January 8, 2009

Snow Country

In my post where I extolled the aspects of the New Year holiday around here I was sure to mention that there were some not so fun things too, and you must know by now that I am never one to pass up a good bitch session. So please excuse me and here it is.

I got on the shink (shikansen people) heading north with a certain amount of trepidation that was soon smoothed over by the Asahi Super-dry tallboy that I promptly cracked open and let slide down. I really shouldn't complain (but you know I will) about visiting the beau's family because they are better to me than I could ask for, especially in light of the whole you know, not being Japanese thing. When the beau first swept me up north he wasn't really sure how to break the Foreign News to his parents beforehand so he simply didn't. I luckily discovered this before getting on the train, which was nice because I avoided showing up at his parents' door and having them think I was either an American from the nearby base selling girl scout cookies or a Russian hostess who got lost on her way from Hokkaido to Tokyo. Things went a lot smoother than that, as his mother went practically comatose over the phone when he broke the news that not only would a lady friend be accompanying him home, but a barbarian gaijin at that! It seems it was one of those situations where the words were coming out of his mouth and she just wasn't able to understand what he was saying. There was a silence of disbelief (shock, and dismay) but when the beau assuaged her fears by telling her I was just a Whitie from Canada trying to make it on the mean streets of Tokyo, she felt much better. In case you don't get my drift, she was relieved that I wasn't Korean, Thai or of any other non-Yamato Asian Persuasions.

Aside from that fantastic start, ever since I first met the beau's parents they have been nothing but kind to me. Part of it could be that after 3 boys they have always wanted a daughter and in that way it was just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. I don't think it hurts however, to also be smart, pretty, decorous when the situation calls for it and a kimono-dressing master to boot. After that first visit north we made the life-altering step of staying at the house from then on, rather than at a hotel. Big. SNAFU.

Everyone knows Japanese houses are small and lack privacy but I failed to consider this when we made the change and it has haunted me ever since. I mean really, after staying at their house once, how could we ever justify staying at a hotel after that? Believe me, I have considered a litany of excuses but judging from the fact that we haven't since stayed at a hotel, I'd say they all failed. The sleeping situation is not bad, we have the whole upstairs to ourselves but given it is a hot box in summer and Siberian in winter AND that I can't say, "OK, alone time!" to everyone gathered downstairs and head up there to chill, we may as well be sleeping right next to everyone else. Then there is the bathroom that is right off the living room. The only bathroom. That you can't really spend an hour in showering, setting hair and primping while people line up outside the door for a piss. I tried to take it upstairs, and just when I thought I might be able to dry and style my hair using a handheld mirror smaller than my actual face, my hairdryer didn't like the plug which resulted in some singed hair. Sound like a holiday in Tahiti yet?

Then there is the language barrier. But Geisha, don't you speak Japanese at home with the beau? We sure do but it does nothing to prepare me for the Aomori-ben (Aomori dialect) they speak up there and frankly, I'd have a better chance of understanding Swahili. The beau's parents don't use it much but get his uncle over (which is often) and I just tune out. Except of course, during the millions of times when his mother asks me, You don't understand that, do ya? Do ya? No I don't, I feel like replying, We've been over this many times before. And yet it never fails to amuse them that my white ass can't understand their regional dialect. So instead I just blush and say No, I can't, Japanese is very hard. Which it is without throwing some crazy fucking village speak into the mix!!! I don't expect everyone to speak non-regional Japanese just for me and in fact I recall crying in the bathroom last year when the beau's aunt kept insisting we discuss something other than what was being discussed at dinner so that I could understand, despite me understanding it. I can't win. I either feel like I'm hearing Korean or when I do understand I'm told I don't. And yes, for the record, I realize most of what happens is in accommodation to me, but I would rather be left to fend for myself.

Did I also mention that there is literally nothing to do up there? At least pleasant strolls can be had in the summer but it is truly the ass hole of Japan as far as I'm concerned and it has gotten to the point where I beg the beau to take me out on the town, to a ghetto club full of Base Americans, so that I can get drunk and shake my ass and forget about the fact that I am stranded on what should be classified as an island.

Last New Year's at la casa de beau we spent far too long up there and the beau would often find me hiding upstairs under the covers trying to read a book if only I could get my head to stop shaking from the cold. It was also the first visit I learned that the family played mah jong with more glee than a bunch of Jewish retirees. Because it was the New Year the incomprehensible Uncle and Aunt were over at the house several nights getting blitzed on sake and of course, playing mah jong. Now mah jong is a pretty retro-hip game and I truly wouldn't mind learning to play, if only for the satisfying clicking sound the tiles make. Learning how to play through a heated family game is a whole other story. The beau's mother, god love her, got it into her head that I just have to learn and so for a while I looked over the beau's shoulder and pretended to be "learning". After one game she declared me fit to play with someone helping me from the sidelines and I firmly declined. There was no fucking way I knew how to play and I wasn't going to let her bully me into it. In a situation like that, the more I am pushed the more uncomfortable I get, which makes me resist even more. She eventually gave up squawking about how I would never learn if I didn't try and needless to say the next time I heard the beginnings of a game being set up I fled to my cold cell like a fugitive and waited for the beau to come and tell me, Baby it's all over now.

SO, in summary, while there are some fun times and good food to be had up north, most of my recent experiences have been clouded by situations in which I cannot relax, go to my room, understand half the conversation, take a shower without walking in front of people or generally be myself. On visits I am cordial and sweet, I drink lots of beer and try my very best to speak politely. But on the whole I feel like I am stuck in front of the TV most of the time with my Japanese family and I have absolutely nothing to say nor can I carry on a conversation with the normal ease I am used to. In short, I become the Mute Geisha.

These were just a smattering of the thoughts that I tried to wash away with a little help from my friend Asahi-san, as I sat on that speeding train north. This year's visit went by fairly uneventfully, which has much to do with a 2-night onsen stay that I tacked on to the end, both to lessen the nights spent at the beau's house and to give me something to look forward to. The only real news fit to print is that the beau's brother brought one of his young girls home to meet the family! I love his brother and we get along really well but as I've mentioned before, everyone thinks he has a loli-con due to his penchant for younger women who are small and childlike. I'm going to make a huge generalization and say that for the most part, meeting the parents is a big deal in Japan-I was the first lady friend of the beau's to be taken north-and yet his brother has brought home a string of girls in the past, each one younger than the first.

The beau and I hadn't met this particular girl but the beau told me beforehand that she was 20. This is going to be good, I thought. I really don't care much about age gaps in others but I do not know why a 20-year-old would want to date someone 10 years older (I certainly didn't) nor can I understand what the brother sees in someone so young. So we met her and she is nice enough, it was definitely a learning experience for me to see how a Japanese girl might behave on her first trip to the boyfriend's house. One tip: when you are about to light a cigarette you should say tabako o shitsurei shimasu or please excuse me for (being rude and) smoking. I don't recall how it came up, but during the family dinner on the 31st we all discovered that the girlfriend is in fact 19, making her an actual child in the eyes of the law. I just about choked with laughter when I heard, as she had just finally been persuaded to have a glass of beer. After that coming out the beau's parents made it clear she wasn't really welcome to smoke or drink under their roof until she is at least an adult. Aw.

I wonder what her parents think about their 19-year-old staying at her older boyfriend's house for the holidays. I really do.

The incomprehensibles came over as usual but since the girlfriend was new most of the You don't understand, do yas were deflected on to her and I could carry on in my seen-but-not-heard silence in relative peace. The following morning the beau and I and his parents sat down, passed around a small cup of sake and bowed to each other saying akemashite omedetou gozaimasu, kotoshi mo yoroshiku onegaishimasu, which is basically Happy New Year. How do you translate the last part? Wiki says "I hope for your favour again in the coming year" and I think that's as good as it gets. For co-workers it's more of a mutual, let's work together well again this year. In my case with the beau's parents, I am asking for their continued love and support as their son's girlfriend. As we dug into our ozoni soup with mochi (yes!) I was relieved that the incomprehensibles didn't decide to drop in for new years greetings as last year was a bit awkward. For white old me at least. I had never spent the new year with a Japanese family before so when the imcomprehensibles came over and everyone got down on the floor and started kowtowing to each other while saying the above I started to panic. I knew I was in-group enough to be down on the floor with them greeting the incomprehensibles as a member of the beau's family, but I felt so foreign and out-group that I froze and didn't make it to the floor in time to catch the action.

Some other highlights include the four of us making tempura and soba on the 1st, frying up all the left-over sashimi from the night before in a golden batter, and having an actual conversation where I laughed and contributed and felt like a human again. After we moved over to the onsen I felt bad for pulling the beau away from his family and wished we had decided to go to an onsen closer to Tokyo or during the holiday this coming weekend. The rotenburo was gorgeous, especially at night with the stars, steam and lit up trees. There are always stories about rotenburo where you can see into the ladies' bath, well this was one of them! On certain emergency exits of the hotel (don't ask) and from our room window (if you crane your neck), you have an unobstructed view of the ladies' rotenburo! It was far enough away that you couldn't make out more than that the shapes were female but it was a funny surprise nonetheless.

Fast forward to now, first week back at work after the vacation and I am feeling pretty crap. While the actual onsen was lush, the hotel was old and timing-wise, it would have been better to save the exorbitant amount paid for a long weekend around these parts. After such a short family visit and some private family issues, the beau didn't even relax much and we returned to Tokyo feeling a bit spent. I am discouraged after spending almost a week in vain to relax, that I'm now back at work with a cold and feeling pissed off that in a fit of "we have to go somewhere" I insisted that we go to an onsen up north, instead of calmly waiting a few weeks to go. As many of you know the Cowgirl is gone and I am more than sad to announce so is Other Whitie. It is also going to snow tomorrow. But on the upside, no one at the Kaisha has called me Lonely Whitie yet!


jaredinnakano said...

wow. what a hilarious post. welcome back to the big city, GEG. i am sure you'll shake off the small-town family encounters quickly. and there is yet-another-strange-Japanese holiday coming up!

Anonymous said...

I like the reference to Kawabata in your entry title (if that's indeed what it is and I'm not just a big geek...

Lisa said...

Heheh! Thank you for this little window into Japanese life.

What strange holiday is coming up? Japanese Valentine's?!

Kevin said...

Another great post. Love the blog, really.
My in-laws are from the exact opposite end of the island. But, they too, speak in very heavy local language. 「チョル」instead of 「する」.
My tactic was to get drunk with them (these farmers start early, drink hard) and continually tell them to speak like they do on NHK - making a joke out of it while reinforcing the fact that I do speak the language and we could communicate. I also liberally added assistance from the mom-in-law "to speak normal Japanese". After a while the pressure was off. Now my uncle-in-law (if there is such a thing) will occasionally ring in the middle of the night to give me shit while he's out on a binge.
In a back-handed way, the beau's brother bringing home 19 year-olds makes you golden in the 'rents eyes.
Sounds like you made a good go of it all and came out of it for the better. Chin up, cold and all.

Green-Eyed Geisha said...

Anon: Thanks for the comment and good catch on the Kawabata reference, you are not a geek!

Lisa: Valentine's day is coming up but the next holiday is this weekend, Coming-of-Age day. Pray tell Jared, which holiday were you referring to?!

jaredinnakano said...

Yes, coming-of-age day. Along with "kids day" (formerly "boys day") and "sports and health day," it seems like an odd holiday. Anyway, I hope you enjoy the long weekend!

Green-Eyed Geisha said...

Kevin: Thanks for the encouragement and advice! I would definitely be down for some blitzed phone calls from the beau's family. As of late I've been seriously considering finding a guide online or in print to Aomori-ben and studying up. That way I can delight in the jaw-dropping reaction when I get local with them!