Tuesday, May 31, 2011

They let you do that?!

It's the small, silly things that make my day. Like someone talking to me at work, or finishing up my business within one "push" of the Sound Princess.

This morning on my bike, I was stopped at an intersection when a bus of school kids turned the corner right in front of me. As the bus approached I could see the children were all pressed up against the windows, chattering and hoping for a glimpse of something interesting on the way to a fieldtrip. I wondered whether they would bother to wave to me - lone figure on the corner - like children would likely do in other countries, and I scanned their excited faces. Just as the bus turned, two boys started waving at me and, receiving a wave and smile in return, began to wave their hands furiously until the bus was out of sight. I wonder if they were from Saitama or some other far-flung prefecture. They probably thought, They let foreigners ride bikes in Tokyo now?! I smiled the rest of the way to my destination and didn't swear at a salaryman or office lady once! Anyone else smiling over happenings of mundanity?

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Konnichiwa bitches redux

I wanted to insert a clip of the scene where they sing happy birthday in Ikiru but alas I could not find one. You'll just have to rent it.

I'm a few days late but yours truly with the green eyes has been assaulting your thoughts now for three years. Three years! I used to look at bloggers with archives going back three years and think, WOW! what beacons of the blogging community! I'm afraid I am no such beacon.

I do want to take this opportunity (god, don't I sound self-important), however, to thank you for reading and sticking with me, whether it has been for a year, months, or even the past week. To be honest, after my most recent extended absence, I felt like I was returning to a bit of a ghost town and explained it away by telling myself that most of you had either been raptured or were fervent animal lovers fleeing the scene of a violent crime. I can't sing for comments but know that I appreciate them all and usually go back and read them over several times like a big fat dork. I know you don't have to comment but you do. Through your comments, I feel like I've gotten to know little snippets about your lives and even commenters who don't link to blogs but comment often, I feel like I know them and will wonder whether they have stopped reading if I don't see anything from them in a while. Lurkers, I got love for you, too.

As I mentioned in my recent post on Loco's blog, never in a million years did I expect people to read this let alone comment and email and encourage! I don't say that with false modesty either: I had never had a blog, didn't comment on others, and basically had no idea what the fuck I was doing. In fact, I think my heart was actually doing what they call "pounding" when I clicked "publish" on my first post (which is terrifyingly embarrassing but I leave it up so you can read it and yell super awk! in your head). It has turned out more speshal than I could have ever hoped for. Tissue please.

So have a piece of cake, or a green eyed cocktail, tell me what I can do better or what you'd like to hear about, and be glad I am going to end this here before I delve into more uncomfortable touchy-feely territory. It's all hating on salarymen and Sound Princesses from here on out!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Please don't do it anymore

I guess the good times had to come to an end, but I expected more from Tokyo Metro - a wedding, blow out fight, or even double suicide by Creepy and his on-again-off-again wife. Instead, I was greeted with this when I made the mistake of taking a train back in April:

It freaked me out, too. I immediately checked Tokyo Metro's site and it confirmed my worst fears: our favourite creepster is no more and we can now look forward to at least a year of animals being anthropomorphized. Dear readers, I'm sorry, but I'm just not an animal person. This doesn't mean I kick puppies, but I don't have pictures of animals on my computer and I find it a strain to get overly excited about cute animals (although sometimes they get the better of me). I did recently buy a top with a sweet zebra print...does that count?

Maybe it's not a permanent flaw. After all, as a teenager I told my mother that I wasn't a feminist and look at my feministy 'tude now. I wouldn't hold my breath though...

This is kind of an endearing picture, if only because the dog looks so ridiculous flying through the air at us like a furry missile. Nonetheless, I will probably discontinue my dwindling commentary on the Metro's monthly manner posters, unless I find other ones that are a bit more stimulating. So there you have it - I am GEG, evil eyer of salarymen and not quite lover of animals.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Getting Loco

I am over at Loco in Yokohama's blog today where he has kindly asked me to participate in his Back to Life Blog Party. You can check out the post here and don't forget to also check out the other ladies and gentleman who have also, um, joined the party.

If you haven't visited Loco's blog before, be sure to go back through his archives and have a look at some of his gems. There aren't a lot of guy bloggers in Japan getting into the honest nitty gritty of living here and Loco brings a fresh perspective through his passionate writing.

While I am on a roll here, I also want to urge you to buy Quakebook if you haven't already done so (if you have, how about sending some copies as presents?). Regrettably, I was literally unplugged from the internets when the esteemed Our Man started putting this project together so I wasn't able to (try to) participate, but this is such an incredible project I have to urge you to support it.

Japan Standard Time

People sometimes talk about island time and select cultures even have self-deprecating jokes about their inability to keep time. While Japan doesn't have the chillaxed attitude of other countries when it comes to time-keeping - trains are reliable to the minute and people routinely show up before the appointed time - there is a mysterious lack of regard for the timing of certain activities. Namely activities that disrupt my precious sleep. I hope you will forgive me for skipping over those charming white-gloved (literally) politicians who drive around with loud speakers blaring around election time, because while I despise them and their queenly waves, they don't drive around at 2 o'clock in the morning. Construction work, however, is not so courteous.

A short while ago we received a notice that there was going to be some construction work on the water pipes under our street lasting a week between the hours of 8 and 11 p.m. I understand that evening hours were chosen to minimize imposition on residents but isn't 11 at night a tad late to be doing construction work in a semi-residential area? The answer is yes, yes it is. I really wasn't too bothered about the whole thing other than having to remember to shower outside these hours, but if I was a good child-bearing whitie (in the eyes of the beau's mother and family), you can rest assured there would have been some severe raining down of the fiery rage if I had small children that could be woken up. But I'm not and I don't so let's press on.

Although our apartment faces the street, on the first night of construction when I pulled back the curtain, I was shocked to find myself blinded by lights turned up to eleven, almost reminiscent of a filming location. I could have tricked myself into believing it was daytime outside it was so bright. And the noise. Those unforgiving jack hammers sounded as if they were going to come through the window; being on a high enough floor was the only thing to convince me they wouldn't. The construction was so up in my building's face that Mavis was practically held hostage and extricating her from our bike garage involved a rearrangement of part of the construction site. And yet, this I can abide.

All of this pales in comparison to the sheer hell I experienced several weeknights later when even god doesn't know why, the construction did not stop at what I thought was the appointed time. I was hoping to crawl into bed by around midnight but the jackhammering was still going on at five past. I pulled back the curtains. Blinded. They can't be much longer I thought, they must be putting the finishing touches on those pipes. I read for a while as the clock crept towards 1 and those electric tools were still going strong. I began to second guess my clock, thinking that perhaps it was ticking forward at warp speed, contriving to make me believe it was later than it actually was.

I am pretty exhausted by 1 and knowing I have to be up early the next morning doesn't improve my mood. I figure I am so tired I should be able to fall asleep despite the light and noise fiesta extravaganza going on directly below my window. I'm in bed now and it sounds like things are quieting down. I'm starting to drift off when some sadistic motherfucker decides he missed a spot with the jackhammer. I am starting to freak out now. It's between 2 and 3 o'clock in the morning and I have a raging construction site on the other side of a sheet of glass. How is this happening? Why are no other residents complaining? I understand the hesitation to complain of some Japanese people, but surely loud construction work (jackhammers people!) is enough to push someone's buttons. It was sure pushing mine. And yet I did nothing. There I was kicking up a mess with my sheets and so tired I was wide awake, plotting the demise of the construction workers below (yes, I realize it's not their fault).

I texted the beau because he was the only person I knew who would be awake at that hour and frankly, I needed some reassurance that I was awake and not nightmaring this hellish situation. He assured me it was real. I resisted the urge to tell him to hurry home so he could not only witness the situation with his own eyes but tear into the construction workers for me. It got to the point where I had four hours until I had to be up (3 a.m. now) and I was so fucked off and in disbelief that I had heavy duty machinery clanging in my ears that I started talking to myself. Yelling really. There was also some muttering and furious shaking of the head. I spewed about what kind of fucking derelict place is this where construction can happen at 3 in the morning and why the fuck are there no neighbors complaining about it and how in hell did I end up living somewhere that the law allows your ears to be assaulted at all hours AND on weekends and no one does anything about it. Damn you Tokyo!!!

Things spiraled quickly out of control. And yet I did nothing. Instead I crouched on the corner of my bed like a mad woman, wiping the sweat from my lip and panting as I glared out the window at the improbable scene below. Around 3:30 the noise stopped and the lights were flipped out, the only evidence of the crime was newly packed asphalt.

I wanted to go outside so badly, I did, but having to put on a bra and some vaguely sensible clothes topped my desire to unleash the rage. Plus, it's not as if they would have immediately shut down the site at the sight of my crazy ass. I'm justifying not going down really, because I regret that I didn't, effective or not. At least if I had gone down I could have confirmed that what I was seeing was not what I now think may have been a figment of my imagination.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Postcard from the Kaisha: nuclear apocalypse edition

I found myself staring at the form requesting days off retroactively - what to put in the blank under "reason for leave request"? Cramp-inducing fear? Possibility of nuclear destruction?

In addition to these concerns, my secretary has been using her beauty mister per usual. I can't help wondering whether she is using bottled water for it and feeling indignant at the waste, or using tap water, thus making me feel resentful that she is pumping out her own little radioactive cloud over the partition.

She also has the earthquake alarm on her phone set to scare-the-shit-out-of-me loud, and I have been treated to its screams every now and then when an aftershock has rolled in during the work day. On a related note, I have mine set to 5 (Japanese scale) and over - I do not need to know about anything lower than that.

On the day we found out the nuclear reactor broke, people looked at each other with wide eyes as they reached for their coats and tried to quickly tidy things up before taking off. One Professional had the gall to try and get some of us to do work after receiving the notice. He preempted his request with an acknowledgement that we were all to leave the office shortly, but could we not possibly get this one thing done first? I politely brushed off the request. I believed I would be coming back to the office eventually and so resisted the urge to tell him where to stick it.

Throughout that afternoon and evening, a stream of automated "disaster safety" emails came in, not saying much at all except to await further instructions. At long last, a longer explanation came through: the Kaisha had not received any special information prompting the call to leave the office but as a result of careful consideration of several factors (among them the nuke situation and the messed up public transportation), it had been deemed best to empty the office for the rest of the day. Barring any negative developments, we would receive word to come to the office as usual the following morning at 6am. For the next few days until my scheduled trip, I received an email in the morning telling me to come in, to which I replied that I simply could not. In case you are wondering, I had already booked and had approved a week off for my trip, but for those extra days I was at home with the curtains drawn and my hair getting knotty, I had to use some of my precious paid holidays (an umbrella term for days to be used for both vacation and sickness - there is no differentiation). The Kaisha has also taken a hard line when it comes to asking for unpaid vacation in the event I run out of days. Fear of nuclear meltdown is not a plausible appeal to this rule.

I understand where this stems from (blind stoicism), and I don't really blame the Kaisha. On the other hand, expecting the few foreign nationals you employ who do not speak Japanese to be able to soldier on with little information to go on (those disaster safety emails only started being translated into almost passable English about ten emails in) is an unforgiving stance. If similar shit had gone down overseas, you can bet the Japanese living there would be on the first plane out. Again though, this is not really about whether you should stay or not, but the level of tolerance surrounding what a person decides to do in order to feel safe. There was no precedence here and no contingency plan for how to carry on with business after something like this happens. I'm lucky I had planned and announced my trip for the sole reason that to the Kaisha it didn't look as if I was running away.

In the Kaisha bathroom it is also business as usual. I got Sound Princessed several times, which is when you are peeing for all to hear and someone in a neighboring stall turns on the old SP to silence you. I was pretty fucked off. Here we are in a crisis and these women are still concerned about another woman hearing them pee. Not to mention the power that could be saved if we all forwent the SP. One of these days I am going to unplug all the toilets. I can't wait.

I am used to the relative dimness around the Kaisha now. With the exception of signs telling us to buy our own bottled water and tea, it all looks quite normal. Until, of course, a big after shock comes, prompting a piercing overhead speaker to announce several moments prior that a fair amount of shaking is expected so please ready yourselves. Then during the shaking, the speaker keeps telling you to remain inside the building. Eventually the swaying stops and the speaker tells you to await information on any fires and then that the elevators have been stopped. I can appreciate the knowledge of an earthquake before it happens, but that alarm has got to go before I end up doing more damage than letting out a drop of pee.

I will admit to googling information about my office building, its age, and how up to date its earthquake architecture is. This is not stuff I want to know and it is not going to aid in any decision. I am here to stay. It is scary but what are the alternatives? Go somewhere and get hit by a car? No, I will stay. I think I am finally starting to think like a Tokyo resident, or at least a stellar Kaisha-ite.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Dark days

It was my five year anniversary with Japan the week of 3/11, and what a show she put on for the occasion. I wonder what all the Iwasherefirst-gaijin think of the mass exodus of "flyjin." I suspect they are tickled pink, feeling as if this disaster has really separated the worthy from the unworthy. Because of course the gaijin community here needs yet another line along which to divide itself. (And it goes without saying that you only deserve to be here as a foreigner if you can carry on per usual with your chin up while the country is embroiled in a large-scale disaster.)

I have been trying to reconcile my guilt for leaving my home in its hour of need to go ahead with rather timely travel plans booked months ago. Yes, home. Tokyo will not be my home forever and while I may not appear to be her most likely resident, I am one. I have a healthcare plan here, an employer, shitloads of taxes to pay, an apartment lease, a vehicle (albeit small, two-wheeled, and pink), bank accounts and credit cards, a very expensive kimono, a secretary who drives me crazy and of course, what for all intents and purposes is family. It was not exactly a viable option for me to just up and leave, although I certainly can't begrudge those who have. I did, however, have a ticket out for a few days, which I decided to use after much pillow biting, if only to restore a measure of my sanity that had seemed to evaporate all at once when I was sent home early from work one day with no assurance that it wasn't because they thought we were destined for a major nuclear disaster.

You never think it will happen to you, but you should. (Morbidly enough, this sentiment put me in mind of a self-defense class in high school where the instructors told us to assume we would be raped at some point.) The sheer number of people who have contacted my family, from mildly estranged relatives to the woman who runs the Italian grocer we always shop at, was so humbling it physically hurt, causing my throat to squeeze up and tears to quiver in place, threatening to spill over as I read another email from my mom telling me who had called that day. Would I have done the same? I always tell myself that I am so disconnected from everything and everyone when in fact, there are a lot of people looking out for me. I will try to be better, but I still can't promise much improvement from the shockingly rude inner dialogue that seems to flow of its own accord when I am here at home in Tokyo. I haven't verbally assaulted anyone recently, so maybe my temper has been tempered.

I count myself extremely lucky to have had very few brushes with real fear in my years until now. Vastly different from millions of others on this earth, if I were to pinpoint the times when I've feared for anything close to my life, it would have to be a couple adventurous family vacations in New Zealand involving a lake and later, a volcanic mountain (when I mention this to my family, they are surprised that I felt so "strongly" about the whole thing, so maybe memories change).

Sometime around midday some days into the tragedy, the Kaisha suddenly sent out an email ordering us all home within the next hour, citing vague reasons. When they finally got it together to send out an English translation, some poor soul had thought to translate this vagueness into "one of the reactors has broken." Well then. The secretaries started tittering and one particularly panic-stricken co-worker informed me that his wife had already spotted the radioactive cloud creeping over Chiba from one of the plant explosions. Well then.

Up until this point, it had been a bleak few days, with the news on during all waking hours, reports of friends leaving just beginning to filter in, and the overwhelming sense that I no longer had any interest in a trip I had so looked forward to only days before. The initial days of work after the earthquake went by, with my concentration at an all time low and one eye on news websites and a couple tweeters who seemed to have overwhelmingly good sense. I felt like if I went on my trip, I wouldn't be able to keep an eye on things at home, as if my watching it unfold would somehow make it better. As a co-worker and I walked to the station together that day, my until-then calm began to swell into a thick panic. He stopped to buy a face mask and insisted we take the closest underground passage, thus limiting our exposure outside. Was this really happening? Across the globe and 24 years ago when I was little, my parents staged demonstrations against nuclear energy and now here I was in Japan of all places on the edge of a nuclear crisis.

Parting ways at the station was horrible. Co-worker indicated that he would be moving his family out of the Kanto area and implored me to do the same. We shook hands and he held on too long in that this-is-goodbye-too-much-eye-contact way and I started to get choked up. What the fuck, I know. I was there. The dark edges of panic started to creep to my peripheral when I got home and saw the beau. Nevertheless, I thought, even though there is no immediate reason for us to leave Tokyo, let's just head south for a couple days to put some distance between us and the situation. I would much rather leave and feel like an over reactive idiot on the way home than stay and realize we should have left and now ohmygod we can't. I couldn't even get over the roadblock in my imagination where we would actually have to leave Tokyo - for that would mean everyone else would have to leave Tokyo - and how exactly do you propose we evacuate 13 million people? That's what I thought. It's so unthinkable it almost makes me giggle, except I wasn't laughing, I was fucking petrified.

After a little half-hearted begging on my part, I realized the beau was not to be convinced that we should leave Tokyo, and in case there was any question, by god, I'm going to work tonight. I considered working myself into a hysterical fit and throwing myself in his path on his way out the door, but inherently understood that that would be a futile endeavour as well. Besides, I had to save some of the ugly crying for later. Which I did. That afternoon I began a Skype marathon so that it felt like for the next 72 hours I was always on with someone. First order of business: break down in front of my parents and wail and snuffle about how the beau wouldn't budge. Never one to care whether I marry or not, my dad gave me permission to relate to the beau that going somewhere with me would be looked upon as a personal favour to him and would weigh heavily in the scales when it came time to give our official union his blessing. Nice sentiment but I knew the beau would see through it. Friends called asking for advice I was not qualified to give, and I knew not what to tell them. My brother who is busy getting through school and his own life even seemed worried, and made sure to keep more in touch than he had as of late.

I was told work would continue on as normal bar any further developments and I stopped going in. I couldn't. How could I possibly give my all to work when there was news to be closely watched and hands to be wrung. Evenings were spent alone keeping vigilent watch over the TV and trying to intersperse that with some mind-numbing shows from the States. There were none of those variety shows or close-ups of steaming food on TV, it was news 24 hours across the channels (as an aside, I would recommend turning off the TV before starting to have sexy times). I began to watch Twitter for the first time ever, finding a few people to act as my guiding lights. Personal hygiene went down the tubes and I tried to drum up an appetite (this was a personal first).

I appealed to the beau's mom, thinking she might hear my desire to leave Tokyo for a few days and command the beau into action. No such luck - she basically intoned that if there was a large-scale meltdown, we would all be fucked anyway. I know my parents were worried but they did a pretty good job of not telling me to come home, only that they would take care of us if we did need to leave. At one point my dad suggested I at least get stuff packed up and ready in the event we did need to leave but as I looked around the apartment, the possibility of trying to tie up our life here in 24 hours was was the cool kids call "ridic". I also realized that if we did really have to leave, I would be able to simply take off with a passport and the clothes on my back. All those possessions amassed over the last few years suddenly didn't seem very worth it at all.

The beau would come home in the middle of the night and I would still be up. Sometimes there would be crying and others very calm and practical conversations. He told me to go ahead with the trip because even if it did come to leaving, he would be able to get out faster on his own. We talked contingency plans and meeting in places like Hokkaido and Korea. I slowly came to understand that me leaving for Osaka for a few days would do nothing if it got really bad and furthermore, it was much cheaper to go on the planned trip. I finally decided 24 hours before we were scheduled to leave that I would in fact, leave. I was devastated to be departing without the beau but there was no moving him, not even further south. Rather than remain in Tokyo with fear giving me the trots daily and a never ending haggard appearance on Skype, it seemed best to get some distance, if only for a small piece of mind.

As soon as I set the ball in motion, I started to get all my affairs in order, as they say. Halted preparation for the trip aside, I set up an email and Skype account for the beau and wrote out a page-long information sheet with passwords, addresses, and numbers, and laid his passport on top. A small suitcase was placed nearby. On my last night here, I was up as usual when the beau got home and we sat around with some wine until it got light. I was seeing it get light a lot those days and even after only three hours sleep I would be upright ready to take in more bad news.

The beau kept reassuring me that by the time I got back from "vacation," the reactor situation would be under control. I made him promise to bolt at the smallest sign of something bigger. As the elevator opened I managed to hold it together as we said goodbye and only after the doors had closed on the brown door to our life together, did my face get hot and my eyes wet.