Memoirs of an Expat in Japan

Updated 2009-08-18 06:55

Hello from Japan,

I forget how long it's been since I have written...but I should tell you that I'm doing well. Small bouts of loneliness come and go, I'm still in the process of making friends to spend time with on the free days I'm not out traveling or involved with coworkers. We are in our second week of summer school, with just one more to go. My coteacher is Miho, a perky 33 year old soon-to-be mommy that I adore despite her high pitched voice and irrational fear of bugs. But we work well together in that sense, she humbles me with her screaming and I kill the six legged villains that invade our classroom.

Our kiddos are well-behaved, and if not, it is easy to redirect unwanted behavior. You get in their face once, and the behavior usually doesn't happen again. The boys are helpful, the girls are beautiful. Their level of English is pretty low, so sometimes I feel inadequate after reading a story or explaining directions and then seeing a field of blank stares. In the end though, we get along okay and they seem to be having fun. Everyday it's hugs or tickles and trying to jump up to my shoulders..their way of saying "i like you".

Still waiting for the culture shock thing to hit, but I have a deep sense that it's never going to come. I think someone just blessed me at an early age to go with the flow of things and that's how it has been from day one since my arrival in Japan. Now, that doesn't mean all is going perfect. I am learning that I have to pay careful attention to what I'm doing and that it is only in my apartment or sitting on the train that I can let my mind wander. Well, except on occasion...

So imagine if you will...our second floor balcony. Rustic looking, complete with a lawn chair fit for a college kid's front yard, with now flourishing plants, and a ceiling that has two long metal bars used for hanging laundry. Down below is parking for other residents. On this particular occasion, I used our railing for hanging futons and my sheets, and it is completely covered. I decided to use the suspended metal bars to hang my flat sheet. These bars are secured to the ceiling with two round plastic clamps, and I thought it would be OK to use these clamps to hold my sheets in place, as it was a windy day. I reached to undo the clamp, which I didn't have a secure grip on, and the spring inside was a big stronger than I imagined and it sprung from my hand, over the balcony to the depths below...and I heard a sickening "clunk" as it landed on someone's parked car. I was already swearing in my mind when immediatly I heard a distinct, "Eeehh??" from down below. I looked over the railing in a panic and saw a Japanese man walking to the front of his vehicle to examine the hood of his lovely, shiny, exoctic SUV. I had only seconds to think of what to do, and at this point he hadn't seen me yet. (He was wearing a hat with a large brim...lucky day!) I thought about using the little Japanese I know and saying "gomen nasai!!!" and possibly looking like an idiot..(they are rather intimidating) but instead made the spontaneous decision to duck down and hide behind the sheets and futons that were hanging over our railing, thus concealing me from view of the confused Japanese man. I heard some mumbling, shuffled steps, and the roar of an engine as the car drove away in a matter of seconds afterwards. I will now take special care when I hang my laundry.

In other news, I began learning Japanese via Rosetta Stone and a workbook of Hiragana, the characters used for writing native words. I have memorized 8/46 characters so far and still get confused with a couple that have the same shape. I've practiced writing with them and wrote some words. Today , I painted on black paper with salt water (kid craft) and painted the first word I learned to write in when the water evaporates there will be see salt crystals in the shape of "ai" which means love. There are 46 characters for katakana, the writing system for foreign words, and there are hundreds of Kanji, or Chinese characters. These are the very elaborate, intricate, characters that you are more familiar with and they are hard to distinguish from one another. I will learn what I can, but you really need to know all three systems to get anywhere. I will try not to let this discourage me. I do give praise to the Japanese for learning such a writing system and remain baffled with the native English speakers who do so poorly at writing/spelling their own language.

A few events have passed....the Tanabata festival, a tour of the Toyota plant, and of course, the sumo tournament. Tanabata is a Japanese star festival that's derived from a Chinese star festival called "The night of the sevens". The story behind Tanabata is about two lovers, named Orihime and Higoboshi that can only meet once a year. Below is the story about these two, which was obtained from a trusty source..;) :

Orihime (ç¹å§«, Weaving Princess?), daughter of the Tentei (天å¸, Sky King, or the universe itself?), wove beautiful clothes by the bank of the Amanogawa (天ã®å·, Milky Way, lit. "heavenly river"?). Her father loved the cloth that she wove and so she worked very hard every day to weave it. However, Orihime was sad that because of her hard work she could never meet and fall in love with anyone. Concerned about his daughter, Tentei arranged for her to meet Hikoboshi (彦æ, Cow Herder Star?) (also referred to as Kengyuu (ç½ç?)) who lived and worked on the other side of the Amanogawa. When the two met, they fell instantly in love with each other and married shortly thereafter. However, once married, Orihime no longer would weave cloth for Tentei and Hikoboshi allowed his cows to stray all over Heaven. In anger, Tentei separated the two lovers across the Amanogawa and forbade them to meet. Orihime became despondent at the loss of her husband and asked her father to let them meet again. Tentei was moved by his daughter's tears and allowed the two to meet on the 7th day of the 7th month if Orihime worked hard and finished her weaving. The first time they tried to meet, however, they found that they could not cross the river because there was no bridge. Orihime cried so much that a flock of magpies came and promised to make a bridge with their wings so that she could cross the river. It is said that if it rains on Tanabata, the magpies cannot come and the two lovers must wait until another year to meet.
> In celebration of this event, it is traditional to decorate a Tanabata tree, or bamboo tree with lots of origami decorations. It is also tradition to make a wish and place it on the tree. We placed a bamboo tree in our classroom and the children made wishes...a couple wishes: "I want to meet Minnie Mouse"- Kaoru... "I want a mustache" - Aiden...both 3 years old.

Mary took me to a Tanabata party, held at the Nagoya International Center. There, they dressed us up in kimono and suddenly we were the stars of the party. Upon leaving the changing room we were instantly interviewed on camera, in Japanese. We got to practice speaking our answers, but I still fumbled through my words. The camera crew and reporter were all very polite though. =) We socialized with the many people there, and had our photos taken with Japanese girls in awe of foreigners in kimono, and made wishes on the Tanabata tree. Perhaps mine will come true.

The sumo tournament was quite the experience. Since most of you are familiar with the culture icon, I won't go into much detail but a few interesting points to make: Sumo wrestlers spend their lives in a highly regimented environment. For instance...a wrestler had been involved in a serious car accident and the Association followed up with banning all wrestlers from driving their cars. The wrestlers are immediately forced to grow their hair long to form the top know that you can see on their heads and must wear the traditional Japanese dress in public. Sumo wrestlers are organized into a hierarchy depending on your merit, and the lower ranks are often subject to hazing and must follow restrictions such as getting up the earliest at 5am and not being allowed to eat breakfast, assisting with cleaning, and preparing meals. They eat very large meals, often followed by a siesta to help them gain weight. Also, sumo wrestlers live to an average of 60-65 years old as a result of their lifestyle, more than 10 years shorter than the average Japanese male. The sport hasn't altered much in terms of ancient tradition, and you will see the wrestlers throw salt to purify the ring, rinse their mouths with power water, and stamp their feet to drive out evil spirits.

I went with my Japanese coworker/friend Kumiko. She is also coming with me to Hiroshima and Miyajima. She has been a gateway to understanding Japanese culture. For instance, I had asked her once about dating Japanese guys, and the response was a "no, don't do it". This seems to ring in time with the other responses from Japanese women I've spoken with on the subject. A lot of this stems from the Japanese being very traditional. I have heard on many occasions if I asked another coworker to do something with me "I need to ask my husband" or I've found that many women don't work outside of the home. It also more common that Japanese women date foreign men, but I yet to see or hear about the opposite. This could be because the Japanese family is very centered on the husband/husband's family, and often times the wives make a career of being what they are...a wife. This might help explain it: "When Japanese women marry non-Japanese men, the possibilities are more open-ended, both legally and socially, even when the couples remain in Japan. But foreign wives of Japanese men have to conform more or less to the Japanese family model. " Here's a link that summarized a popular TV show that focused on foreign wives in Japan.. "Okusama wa Gaikokujin" (the wife is a foreigner)

While I can compete with language barriers, teaching myself Japanese, and learning to cook with foreign foods....this I could not. =)

Wishing you well,


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