Friday, November 27, 2009

Cohabitation in Japan Study #1

As I was sitting on the toilet the other night I happened to look in the wastebasket as I was throwing in an empty TP roll and noticed a crumpled piece of toilet paper with camel-coloured smudges on it. No, this isn't going to be gross so keep reading (you don't think I am that potty-minded do you?!).

I immediately had to know what offending and at first unrecognizable matter had wound up on a tissue in my wastebasket, so I pulled it out and started to examine the surface, including the ever trusty sniff test.


I don't and never have used liquid foundation or any kind of foundation that could end up in such quantity on a tissue.

I am the only female in the house.

The beau doesn't borrow my lingerie or make-up as far as I know.

You know where this is leading right? To an all-time 11 p.m. freak the fuck out. I even sniffed the TP again to see if I could discern any kind of scent (make-up smell). Not owning any foundation or having any recollection of wiping anything similar on a tissue in the past, oh, year, the only conclusion I could reach was there had been another lady up in my house.

When the beau got home around 4, I was in the dead of sleep but as soon as I felt a kiss hello I was immediately all, How did a foundation-covered piece of toilet paper wind up in our bathroom?! I don't use foundation so unless you want to cop to using some, there has been another woman in the apartment wiping globs of foundation off her face! Why?! I watched and waited for his response, even half-asleep I was looking for the direction his eyes travelled as he answered, having watched enough cop shows to memorize sound interrogation techniques when I see them.

His response was predictable and me, having been sleeping up until this point, promptly went back to sleep, figuring another round of questions would have to wait until the next evening, in that tiny window of time that I come in the door from work and greet him dressing for work.

The next morning I got up feeling about as awake as I do most mornings, until I remembered the insidious tissue. Despite believing my suspicions to be baseless and batshit crazy, I couldn't get over the fact that I couldn't remember throwing said tissue out myself. And I have an excellent memory, honed from years of replaying actions and conversations in my interactions with others with obsessive detail, trying to figure out whether the other person actually likes me or is just being n i c e. Now I did have a vague vaaaague recollection of grabbing some TP to wipe something off, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't pinpoint the memory or at least the day it would have occurred. So then I began a train of thought along the lines of this must be my not-to-be-trusted mind knowing there was another woman here but trying to come up with any excuse not to believe it. Yes, this is actually the way I think so you can imagine the circles I can go in, round and round we go, until I distract myself enough to shut my inner self up. I am tired just writing that.

So I did what every Law & Order loving human would do, I set up a mini-lab on my bathroom counter, overhead lights burning bright. I haven't watched years of Law & Order for nothing (including Special Victims Unit, pronounced svuuu to those in the know), and you can bet I put it to good use. I realized I had one product in the cabinet that resembled foundation - some kind of liquid pore sealer that I never used except. That's right! To try and cover up a pimple on my chin this last weekend because yes, I am breaking out like a fucking teenager from all the stress I have been under this past month. Either that or it's from the entire container of Betty Crocker's vanilla rainbow chip frosting that I consumed over the past week in an attempt to smother my stress to death in sugary velvetiness.

But I didn't squirt enough into my hand to unthinkingly wipe it on a tissue did I? Surely I would have just washed them...tricky, veeery tricky.

I squeezed some hole filler out of its tube and tried to realistically wipe it off with a piece of toilet paper, with the thoughtless ease of someone not conducting CSI experiments in her bathroom. It looked similar but after some comparative sniffing and touch examinations I wasn't convinced beyond a reasonable doubt. I then looked at the time and realized if I didn't punch out of the lab and leave I would be late for real work. I stuffed the beakers and test tubes into my side of the cabinet and took off.

My mind was riddled for the entire day with the thoughts of a crazy person. I couldn't remember creating that fucking tissue and yet felt bad questioning the beau about something I didn't really believe, or even have reason to suspect. And with the niggle of a memory of having possibly wiped off hole filler in the last few days but still no cigar, shining the lamp in the beau's eyes would be pointless, because I wouldn't believe whatever came out of his mouth. And yet..

when I got home I knew I had about 3 minutes to trick him into confessing to something before he shot out the door so I went right to the point. Who the hell was here and why was she wiping foundation off her face?! I hope you decide to confess to having used some of my hole filler if you are going to tell me you've done nothing! And on and on. Poor sweet man.

We walked to the door together, going back and forth, him realizing my impending nutdown and me my weak and unfounded argument (I had a quick peak at the two samples that had dried since morning and what do you know, similar in look, feel and smell). He started laughing as he got in the elevator, which of course got him a why are you laughing! Because you know the jig is up?! The interrogation then ended abruptly with blown kisses and love yous and I was left to ponder how peaceful my life would be without stress, frosting and breakouts.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The nod

Do you know the nod? I know the nod.

I don't know if you can experience the nod unless you are a visible minority somewhere, for it seems to be a requirement that you are in an environment where your fellow nodee and you share the same minority looks, thus making it OK to give the nod in the first place. I think I initially read about the nod a long while back on GaijinSmash, penned by a fantastic and entertaining writer. It made me laugh because one of those inevitable conversations you end up having with other foreigners here is what to do when you see another foreigner. I realize this does make us kind of paranoid and narcissistic but that's the effect Japan can have on some of us.

I once had an older white man come up to me on the street in residential Nakano and ask if I thought there was anything strange about his appearance because people had been staring and pointing the whole day. Without a hint of anything I told him, No, you look completely normal to me. This man had cut his hair off with what I can only imagine were blunt scissors, save for a chunky patch of hair off centre from his crown. It also crossed my mind that this could be me years from now.

The conversation usually follows the same course, with people taking up different camps and talking shit about those in the other camp. Everyone wants to believe they are not one of "those" foreigners, the ones who think they arrived with Commodore Perry and thus can lay sole claim to the island chain. But doesn't this conversation make us just as bad, for we are obviously trying to show that we are "better foreigners," whatever the hell that means. Back to the conversation. Basically you start with one participant's experience earlier in the week, where they found themselves on a quiet residential road with no one else in sight, except for the figure of another foreigner coming down the road towards them. When they are far enough away to inconspicuously scope the other out, they do so, but when they get closer they begin to panic over whether they should make eye contact and nod, look straight ahead as if struck with a sudden case of tunnel vision or look at their feet as they share a square of sidewalk.

According to gaijin legend, if you pretend to ignore the fact that you and the other gaijin are alone together in this cruel Japanese world, you are one of Commodore Perry's original crew members. You supposedly like some kind of Japanese art or culture and have made it your mission to become Japanese and shun those around you with similar physical features who dare to breathe the same island air.

If you make eye contact or god forbid, say hello or NOD, you're showing yourself to be too friendly, practically like a tourist (or an English teacher) (no offence). How did we make it to this point people? I am at the stage where if I make eye contact with someone in public and we smile, I get a high that lasts for DAYS!

Don't even get me started on coming across another foreigner when said foreigner is part of a couple with one of the natives. People feel this unbelievable urge to check each other out, perhaps smugly thinking that the single foreigner can't get a date (the fact that they are simply alone that day not crossing their mind) or scoffing that one member of the couple isn't good looking enough to be with the other. Why has this kind of competition permeated the foreign community here? Does a similar phenomenon occur in other expat communities? There are of course, shining examples of successful gaijin, who rise above it all, and may we all be like that some day.

This brings me back to the nod (or does it?). My most recent story occurred a few weeks ago in my neighbourhood. Returning home from the conbini late one night I crossed paths with a foreign guy. Thinking he had to be a resident of the area to be walking around at that hour, my internal debate began. Should I look ahead and pretend not to have seen the huge purple elephant, or make eye contact but with a completely blank face so as not to give too much away? Should I smile and risk him thinking of me as a lonely white girl who can't get any and thus has to resort to giving men the eye on the street at night?! I compromised as I often do, which generally leads me to look at the other foreigner until I get fairly close, and then slowly avert my eyes with just the hint of a smile on my lips while nodding my head in a downward direction, to show I come in peace, I accept their existence on the island but I am not looking to get lucky. Who's paranoid and narcissistic now?!

I've now come to my last and possibly final point. It's laughable to think about the petty competition between some hetero foreigners here, the one that makes me wonder if I am friendly to a foreign man he will immediately think of me as jealous and desperate. There are some jealous and desperate men and women in the gaijin community, but I would tend to think that for the most part, the men are content to date Japanese women, and the women are content to date Japanese men, and then of course there are the supposedly rarer double-foreign couples, but no one ever hears about them (for that would ruin the stereotype). It's a shame some foreigners here have fallen into the trap of mocking the opposite sex for, what is it? The men being first class losers who can't find women outside of Asia to date them, and the women for being unkempt uglies who are forced to date Japanese men (who are of course, not real men) because the foreign guys won't have them. There I said it.

What I'd really like to know however, is how much of this competition and bickering is real. We've all heard of something from someone, or read gaijin forums online, but how much of this is an experienced reality for gaijin in Japan? We've all fallen prey to nasty thoughts about others at one time or another, but whether we let that affect our experience in the long term is more interesting. Aside from my occasional paranoia I am pretty comfortable with myself these days. Individual and coupled foreigners will always check each other out with their side vision, but I think (hope) a lot of that is simply recognizing someone akin to yourself, in a country where you stick out like a sore thumb. How can you not look?

Most recently, my "what I love about J-girls" post was picked up by someone on JapanSoc, and the accompanying blurb said: "They are annoying to foreign girls cause they are sexy and thin but even the jealous white girls like some points." I know the writer didn't mean any harm but it does embody one aspect of the "gaijin competition" above. Reading that, I had to sit back and ask myself, do I come off as a jealous white girl?! Do other foreign women come off as jealous from their remarks about our Japanese sisters? Probably. I of course feel the irresistible need to respond to this (and possible put my foot in my mouth at the same time). I have had some body-image issues in Japan, but these were issues I brought with me in my carry-on luggage, not something I picked up once arriving here. Aspects of some Japanese women frustrate me, not because I find them sexy and thin, but because I have a hard time relating to them as my fellow women. Some of this actually stems from the fact that we seem to have a different idea of what constitutes "sexy" a lot of the time. I like myself (feminist hear me roar bla bla bla) most of the time, so I apologize if I come off as jealous of Japanese women, it's not jealousy, it's so much more complicated than that. I say let's turn down the tension and maybe consider implementing an annual "nod to a gaijin" day. The next time you share some concrete with another foreigner and are wondering how to react, rest assured they have spent time thinking about the same thing.

**When I speak of foreigners above, I am of course referring to those tending to hail from Europe, North America and the South Pacific. There are thousands of other foreigners in Japan, some of which are not visible minorities. But that is a whole other story.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

She proposed and I said...

"Let me check with my boyfriend first." Because really, things couldn't get much stranger around here right? Wrong.

I received a personal letter to my office last week, the first ever. It came in a plain white envelope, with the opening on one of the shorter sides, different from Western envelopes. My name was scrawled vertically down the front in Japanese handwriting and I didn't recognize the sender's name either. I actually allowed myself to have a mini-panic before opening the letter, imagining all sorts of demons that could come off the page at me: the beau actually has a secret wife and children living in the countryside and this letter is from the former, I have a stalker who is sending a death threat, or simply a big black spot in the middle of the page like in pirate times. Why? Oh I don't know, because crazy shit like this happens in Japan and I seem to be a magnet for it? Or simply the fact that I was receiving a clearly personal letter from someone I don't know. And we all know I don't know that many people in Japan so my mental Rolodex is fairly easy to flip though.

Imagine my surprise when I read through a full-page typed letter from a 63-year old woman inviting me to have an "omiai" meeting with her son! I'm still not entirely sure how she managed to find me at the office, I think maybe from a review I once wrote for the School, but the details she included about me made it clear there was no mix-up. I showed the beau and he scoffed at it, declaring her a rude old hag for being so presumptuous as to make such a request to someone who could be engaged or married. Doesn't she know this young lady is spoken for?!

I've roughly translated some juicy morsels from the letter for your reading pleasure below:

"Please forgive me for sending this letter to you out of the blue. From what I have heard of you, I am very impressed. [who wouldn't be] My daughter is married to a Canadian who graduated from *ivy league school* and I have come to know his mother very well through her visits to Japan and I now feel an affinity with Canadians. When I heard about you I immediately thought "if only a woman like this would be my son's wife..." [get in line honey] and it was like a god had just come down from heavens [singing in phony opera-angel voice] that these thoughts popped into my head.

My son is single and works in NY as an investment banker [not for Bear Sterns I hope] (he just turned 40) [=47]. Recently he has gradually begun to think seriously about marriage [translation: you have begun to badger him about marriage]. As far as I know, his work keeps him very busy and as a result he doesn't have many opportunities to meet women [he either enjoys manga in his spare time or pays for sex...]. My son is a person of integrity and a modest man. His appearance isn't bad either [we'll let me be the judge of that].

Further, his way of thinking is Western and he is looking for the same in a partner. However, I am worried to the point that I believe if I don't show him there are women all around him, he may never marry [maybe he doesn't swing that way baby]. It may be extremely presumptuous of me to be sending this kind of request to someone who may be returning to her home country and might not even be considering marrying a Japanese person [yes and no], but if it would be alright, would you consider an arranged marriage meeting with my son? I'm sure you know that "omiai" is a meeting between two people with the assumption of eventual marriage, which is a custom that has come from a long time ago...[a long, looong time ago]

I've included my contact information below so if it wouldn't inconvenience you, by all means please contact me."

I couldn't make this shit up if I tried. So...anyone else been propositioned lately?!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Playing dress-up

This title will no doubt attract more unwanted traffic from people looking for "dress-up games where you take off their bra". Moving on though...

During a recent kitsuke lesson I learned how to dress a bride for iro naoshi (literally "changing colour"), which is when the bride will change her kimono or dress in the middle of the wedding here. Not literally in the middle however, that would be a bit too titillating even for Japan. Generally if they are changing to another kimono they will change into a furisode with the hem left long so that it drags along the floor. This is quite a popular look at the moment and many brides choose only to wear furisode and not the white ensemble with the hat that hides their "horns" from the groom (I'm not being sassy, this is true).

While my teacher was showing me how to dress my mannequin, she remarked that she would love to see me in this bridal outfit and I figured she meant in the future, if I get married. Towards the end of my lesson she mentioned it again and I obliged by saying "I'd really like to try wearing it sometime" in that tone women take here when they want something, which I can only liken to an adult version of a child saying "I have to do or or I'll just die" with a hint of desperation in the voice and too much enthusiasm. You know the one. Before I knew it, her and my other teacher were ordering me to undress down to my kimono delicates while they started unraveling my bridal masterpiece on the mannequin. I guess that means now, I thought.

I was then subjected to their mercy as they dressed me in under 10 minutes (trust me, that is fast) amid squeals from two other female students over how the red kimono was a real match for my lovely whiteness. Nothing makes me want to snort-laugh like people fussing over how freaking white I am, it just seems so wrong. Have you ever seen the cartoon character "Lovely White" or "Gentle White"? I came across her in China on stationery with captions that read "Let us be bosom friends to cherish forever. You cannot dream the wish to make." My friend and I cackled over this stuff and over her white porcelain face that was oddly void of a mouth. That is how I feel when Japanese people comment on my skin, like a little porcelain doll whose mouth has been frozen in a supplicating smile.

It's a great experience to be dressed by professional kimono dressers and feel the difference between dressing yourself and being dressed. Some people complain about kimono being restrictive and tight, but to me it feels supported and elegant, you can't help but have excellent posture. Once I was dressed the school room went into photo studio mode, with my teachers rushing to clear a space in front of the wall and to arrange my sleeves symmetrically ("Hold your hands like this to make them look as small as possible," I was told, which made me think of carnies). I was half-expecting professional studio lights to come swinging down from the ceiling or at least some confetti action. Frankly, I wouldn't have blinked if one of the students had come by to drape a satin sash across my chest bearing the words "Miss Lovely White 2009". I had to grip that fan extra hard to stop myself from practicing my Queen Wave in the mirror amid the gasps and sighs coming from aforementioned female students.

We had a grand old time taking some pictures that I was instructed to send to the beau's family and before I knew it I was stripping down again to end my lesson. The colour palette isn't one I would ever choose for myself (and the length is too short); I'm more about statement black with huge white cranes when it comes to Japanese bridal design, but I finally got a sense of how my mannequin must feel, especially when I desperately clutch at her hips to steady myself when I'm trying to stand up "hands-free."

Let's walking

For those ladies (and gents) out there hoping to lose weight by doing nothing, you're in luck! Wacoal has introduced tight bike shorts that apparently burn calories just by going about your daily business. Great! Really?! I don't know, but it seems a little nuts to me. Whatever happened to good old fashioned exercise?! I see the posters for these "Crosswalker" bike pants every morning on the train and I'm kind of expecting to see an ad for a saran-wrap body suit one of these days.

Monday, November 2, 2009

And a sprinkling of MSG

I'm just going to come out and say it: I've been unknowingly adding MSG to my food for the past few months, thinking it was salt. We are talking a sprinkle here there and every fucking where and it all came to a head last night when I was slaving over some meatballs and a hot stove, not my usual position on a Sunday night. The beau tasted the red sauce I had made and then wanted to know where the salt was. When I indicated that it was right in front of him and he continued to look around I said it again, getting a little impatient. That's when the ball dropped. This isn't salt, it's ajinomoto, he said and wanted to know how much I had used and where was the damn salt. That is the fucking salt and I've been using it as such for ages, trying to keep my tone from going shrill. Nope. Fuck me.

I also couldn't explain why I hadn't looked at the label when using it. Why would I look? The beau bought it when we were running out of salt, it looks exactly like the salt bottle, why would I read the label? The beau was shocked and incredulous that I hadn't at least discovered it's non-salt like quality after tasting some of the many dishes I had made with it but no, my whitie palate is obviously not delicate enough to distinguish the ajinomoto, or essence of taste, from plain old salt. Nope, I just thought, MMMmm MSG. So I did what I always do when facing this kind of situation, I told the beau he should get himself a Japanese girlfriend who won't have these kinds of issues. I consider my lesson learned but it didn't stop me from blubbering on the kitchen floor while the beau ran out for salt and beer.

Please put on your mask at home

How cute and subliminal is the most recent poster? Despite this being recycled material I do love the personal grooming manner posters, although perhaps they could run one with a man doing some, well, man-grooming. I hope one day these are either released for sale or I grow some balls and permanently borrow one because I wouldn't mind a few of these adorning my future walls. Do you think we can expect more repeat themes from now on? I really don't think they've exhausted the possibilities as my new pet train peeve is men's jackets. Why must they allow the hems of their suit jackets to drape over my lap? Or worse, leave them trailing on an empty seat so that when I sit down I have to sit on the offending portion, thus pinning them down and making me feel like I have an ass made out of lead when the salaryman in question has to do a little jerking movement to remove the suit from under me upon exiting the train. Le sigh.

After pondering the cuteness of this poster and the superman-like transformation from dowdy OL with freckles (or spots of dirt on her face from the night before in Roppongi) to a rather fashion-forward, if not severe, young lady about town. Although the message seems to be don't apply your make-up on the train, I can't help feeling that it's actually saying don't show that face outside the house until you are so made up you look like a different person. This poster reminded me of a somewhat nasty story I have heard repeated about the gaijin guy who takes a hot Japanese girl home one night only to find the next day that she has a freaky-in-a-bad-way face after removing the make-up and had misrepresented her assets using various forms of undergarment trickery. I realize I am only perpetuating this story by repeating it but I would be fascinated to know if it has actually happened to anyone. I don't wear a lot of make-up nor have I had any friends who wear so much they look completely different with a naked face so I may not be in the best position to judge, but it does seem like there is a lot more transforming going on with make-up here in Japan. Rather than "accentuating your best features" as we are told in the West, the mantra here seems to be "make yourself look different."

Take for example, this nose shaper to help you achieve a "higher" nose. I have seen this and a similar device that fits inside your mouth (god knows what for) at most drugstores. I suppose this and eyelid surgery, and Japanese women think they look Western, when what they should do is appreciate the features they already have. I've never seen a group of women more interested in appropriating the physical features of another ethnic group as here. It seems a shame that some Japanese women are preoccupied with the much-touted high nose and big eyes, when similar arguments could be made for the beauty in their small noses and almond-shaped eyes. If (and a very big if) I ever have some half-babies of my own in the distant future, I would hope they won't feel the need to look more European or Japanese. Can anyone offer some insight on their own or their children's self image here in Japan?

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