Travel Journal of my Time in Japan

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December 23, 2002 - HAPPY HOLIDAYS TO ALL!!!

Difficult Times
My grandma passed away last week. :-( I thought I would be ready for it. She'd been sick for many years and I said "good-bye" to her before I left for Japan. But it was still really hard, much harder than I thought it would be. But as it turned out, the REALLY difficult time only lasted the one day after she actually died. Luckily, I was distracted by work for the most part. And I'm much better now. You'll all be happy to know that Ikuko, my Head Teacher, gave me a good long hug when I told her. As I suspected, I got weepy when I told her - hence the hug. I didn't tell anyone else, but Ikuko told the other Japanese teachers for me, which is good because I didn't want to talk about it - I don't know why. I saw another one of the Japanese teachers, Kazumi, at the wine tasting party the next night. She gave me a hug too, that's how I knew Ikuko had told her too. And a day or so later, Sayuri asked if I was okay. :-) I am lucky to have gotten such a great school. A sudden increase in contact from y'all helped so much too. Thanks.

I'm a VERY Lucky Person
Thank you to all of you who have sent holiday cards and boxes. There's so much more than I ever expected! Mom/Steph, Pop/Carolyn, the Wood family... thanks for the boxes. They are under my little itty bitty tree (only 6 inches tall). Actually, it's probably more appropriate to say the tree is on top of the boxes. Anyway, it's difficult to wait until Christmas - but I will try! And so many of you have sent holiday cards. I have them hanging on the wall around my stocking. Thank you Louise, Olive, Suzuki, Rebekkah, Sigurd, Constanze/Wolfram, Marina, Julian for the cards, and thanks Darren for the e-greeting holiday card. Makes me realize how lucky I am to have so many wonderful people in my world - no matter how far apart we are. Thank you to Jim/Kris and Mary Ellen for the phone calls. It was great to hear familiar voices. Every now and again I look around my living room and see the boxes and the cards hanging on the wall, and I just have to smile and say, out loud, that I am a very lucky person. It fills my heart with so much joy that there's little room for homesickness. :-) But I still miss everyone SOOOOOO much.

Suzuki's December Wine Tasting Party
Of course this was fun. But I couldn't keep up with all the glasses of wine that were poured. :-o Do you remember Hiroyuki? The guy who took me out for sushi my first week in Nagaoka? There was a shrimp head in the soup? I'm sure you remember now. If not, I wrote all about it in the September 20th entry. And he also wrote in the December 11th entry how he wore the santa hat at the school holiday party. Anyway, Hiroyuki was at this party too and he was my translator all evening. That can be very tiring, and he had even worked all day (he's a doctor) - yet he did not complain. He was very gracious as usual. Everyone at the party played rock-paper-scissors for prizes. It was very confusing for me because the game was led by Suzuki, in Japanese. But Hiroyuki helped me as much as he could, to understand. I think there was additional confusion apart from language, even for everyone else at the table. So Hiroyuki had to figure out what was going on in Japanese and then try to tell me in English AS IT WAS happening. One thing that was confusing is, in Japan, first they do a sort of test run where EVERYONE is supposed to do rock, to get the timing, and then the second time is the real thing. I didn't know that. :-) And also they put out their rock, paper or scissor on "2", not on "3" like in America. But despite all this, I won two prizes. In hindsight, it might have been bad form to take two prizes. After one prize I wonder if I should have stopped. Thinking back on it, I think Hiroyuki was trying to tell me that I shouldn't play after one prize. But then there was a prize for ladies only, and Suzuki motioned for me to put my hand up to play, so I thought I was suppose to play again. I didn't want Suzuki to think I wasn't interested in his game. It was difficult to know what was right to do. But I hope it wasn't a big deal. I was the only foreigner there this time. And THIS time they went around the table and everyone introduced themselves. I went last because I was sitting next to Suzuki. When you come in everyone picks a number on a slip of paper and then you sit at the seat with that number on its wine list. So my heart was pounding the whole time the introductions went around the table in Japanese. I'm SO shy sometimes, it drives me nuts. So my self-introduction was very awkward. I basically said my name, that I was #2 on the list of people there (out of about 20), I thanked them for letting me be a part of it, and said I enjoyed Nagaoka. I kept it simple because I didn't want to ramble on and on when I know they couldn't really understand very easily. Suzuki's English is the best in the group, and Hiroyuki is next best, but they already know a lot about me. After my introduction, Suzuki got up (he was next) and said something in response to something someone else said (maybe a question). All I could catch of what Suzuki said was Chicago, so maybe the person asked where I was from. I asked Hiroyuki what else Suzuki said, but he said he couldn't remember. I hope I didn't offend Suzuki, or anyone else. Oh, the woes of being a foreigner in a strange land. But I think everyone there knew I WANTED to do the right thing... I hope they knew that anyway. Afterwards there was second party - of course. :-) I ate ice cream. Oh hey, I spoke my first true sentence in Japanese! I said "Kore wa oeshi des" - "this is delicious". (not sure it's spelled correctly there.) I was very excited because Hiroyuki said it was perfect. Long way to go though.

Tadashi's Year-End Party
This past Saturday night I went to my first year-end party at a local restaurant. Tadashi was the host. In the photo to the right Tadashi is on the left, then Tetsuya. You may remember Tadashi and Tetsuya came to my apartment (with Yoshiko) for spaghetti dinner this fall - see the October 23rd entry. Then next is Sumihito, me, and then Mayumi - they are all my students. I remember Sumihito's name by thinking of the sound "sumo", like a sumo wrestler and then add the sounds 'hit-o'. When I say his name in class I strike a sumo wrestling pose and he is always surprised. I think he thinks it's funny when skinny me in my business suit pretending to be a sumo wrestler. At least, I hope he thinks it's funny. To remember Mayumi's name, I associate her face with the pleasant month of May and that gets me started.

Everyone forgot to bring a Japanese-English dictionary to the party. :-o However, we did just fine without one. We ate a dish (I think Tadashi called it Shuba Shuba) where everyone gets a plate of thinly sliced raw beef, and there is a pot of boiling water in the middle of the table. The server brings some different vegetables that go in the water. Then you wait for it to simmer a bit. Then when it's time, everyone takes pieces of their beef with chopsticks and dips them into the boiling pot to cook. It only takes a few seconds for the thin slices to cook. And then you dip the cooked beef into a sauce - I kinda liked the soy sauce myself - and eat them right away. :-)

There were also noodles and Tadashi said I could slurp (slurping is okay here, and even encouraged). But you know what? I couldn't do it! I put the noodles in my mouth, ready to try to slurp, but I just couldn't do it! Everyday I'm learning just how strong a force our culture is! As children, Americans are strongly discouraged from slurping, and in restaurants slurping generates unwanted attention. And yet, here I was in a place where someone WANTED to hear me slurp, because it supposed to make the food taste better. And this was someone I like very much, who has been very kind - and I just couldn't do it, at least not full out. All I could muster was a wee little noise, which they all enjoyed very much, cheered and smiled. It was just like the miso soup with the shrimp head. All I could muster for Hiroyuki was a sip. It's just amazing to me - I'm such a coward when it comes to food. Oh, I guess another reason I was afraid to slurp was that I would get the soup (the noodles were in a soup) all over my face and clothes - and the soup was VERY hot. Slurping is a skill really.

The photo to the left is of Tadashi pouring more wine for me. It is polite to pour for others, almost never for yourself. It has been difficult for me to get used to people pouring for me alllllll the time. Among other things it can lead to me getting drunk much faster that usual. I'm already tipsy in this photo - see how flush my cheeks are? - and the broth is still cooking, we haven't even started eating yet! Because I am teacher and a foreigner, many people want to pour for me. I'm learning to leave some wine in my glass, and not feel bad if I leave the table with a full glass there. I guess it's okay if I do that, but it's hard because I don't want them to think I didn't like it. It's also polite to hold your glass with two hands. I think maybe such a position makes the 'thank you' bow more graceful. I like that custom very much.

After the restaurant we went to a small karaoke bar - only four tables. A well-dress woman came and made drinks for us, she even poured my coke - I just couldn't drink anymore! She chatted with us, and even spoke a little English for me. Tadashi sang "Last Christmas" by Wham!, in English! Singing in English is VERY difficult, but he did very well. I helped him by saying some of the words in his ear to help his pronunciation. He got a score of 65 out of 100 from the karaoke machine. He laughed at that, we had fun. :-)

Holiday Party at Nameless (the local bar where foreigner's tend to hang out)
Today (Monday) was a holiday here in Japan, so it didn't matter that the Nameless holiday party was last night (Sunday night). Nameless is the name of a local bar where many for the foreigners go. The name of the bar is Nameless. :-) Actually I have every Monday off (and I work on Saturdays) so I don't reap any benefit from that holiday... just like every other Monday holiday here in Japan, and there are quite a few. It wouldn't be so bad, except the folks that have Mon-Fri schedule DO reap the benefits. It's inequitable, but the company doesn't see any reason to do anything about it. Frustrating, but what are you going to do?

Anyway, the party was lots of fun. There are some folks who are regulars at Nameless. The photo to the left was taken a few months ago at Nameless. It was a good-bye party for one of my Japanese co-workers. Many of these folks were also at the Nameless holiday party, and I also met a few new people - Japanese and foreigners.

I wore my santa hat and gave out candy from my stocking (both were here in the apartment when I got here - not the candy though, I bought that fresh last week, of course.) People looked at me a little funny, especially on the bike ride to Nameless. But people seemed to enjoy taking candy from the stocking. Although whenever I offered the hat to someone, they never wore it for very long. But I got a few photos of people wearing it. To the left is Takahiko and me, and to the right is Wataru and me.

Oh, I found out why the Japanese think I'm a strong drinker. I met Nicky, a British woman. She said the Japanese are very weak drinkers, generally speaking. So, by comparison, I seem strong. That explains a lot, doesn't it? I've also read that some Japanese completely lack an enzyme to break down liquor. So if they drink any significant amounts, their face turns red. If they drink more they WILL become VERY ill because their body doesn't know what to do with the liquor.

The photo to the left is towards the end of the party when everyone was so tired. The guy with the hat is Hamish, an Australia who ALWAYS makes me laugh. He's doing his kangaroo dance that he does for the kids he teaches. Takahiko is giving the peace sign, and that's Nicky on the far right.

Holiday Plans for "goo-don"
Conor and I have decided to hang out a bit on Christmas Eve. All we'll probably do is open our gift boxes from home together, rather than alone. Maybe eat dinner together - oh, Conor showed me a little restaurant that's on the way home for us. They serve something called... well, it's pronounced something like "goo-don". I try to pronounce it and the Japanese giggle at me. When they correct me I don't hear the difference from what I'm pronouncing, I truly don't. It's funny. Anyway, it's beef and onions over rice. Very delicious and satisfying. Food that feels like it's sticking to your ribs. :-) Maybe we'll go there on Christmas Eve on our way home. And then maybe we'll open our boxes and watch a holiday movie. A simple evening, after all, we'll have to work the next day. But Conor and I always manage to have a few laughs whenever we hang out, so it should be fun.

The night of the Suzuki's wine tasting party, Chieko (Suzuki's wife) invited me for Christmas night with their family. (Conor will be with his girlfriend. Christmas is a couples' holiday here.) So I will go to Suzuki's house after work, only for a little while because I work until 9 pm, so I won't get there until 9:30 pm and then I'll have to work the next day. Isn't that sweet of them to invite me knowing it would be so late? Especially since they don't celebrate Christmas. Their daughter, Akiko, will be back from college for the new year break. I met her a few months back when Suzuki took me our for Korean food with his family. She's very sweet - not surprising since she is Suzuki and Chieko's daughter. :-) This promises to be a rather nice holiday after all!

The Secret of Christmas
My friend Manny, gave me a CD last year. He made it himself and put all sorts of American holiday music on it. There are older and newer songs - from Frank Sinatra to NSync . It's been a holiday saver for me - thanks Manny! :-) One of the songs is sung by Bing Crosby, I love the words, so I wanted to share them here because I think it's sooooo true.

The Secret of Christmas

"It's not the glow you feel when snow appears.
It's not the Christmas card you've sent for years,
not the joyful sound when sleigh bells ring,
or the merry songs children sing.

That little gift you send on Christmas day
will not bring back the friend you've turned away.

So may I suggest the secret of Christmas
is not the things you do at Christmas time,
but the Christmas things you do all year through."

Also, two of my students, Etsushi and Hidokazu - there's a photo of them on the September 26th entry - practiced very hard so they could sing "We Wish you a Merry Christmas" to me (in English) after class. They are fun students to have in class.

The challenge of being yourself in another culture
As a sort of unofficial ambassador here in Japan, I've felt a strong desire to always represent my country in a positive light. Up to now, I've been holding back my Chicago humor which tends to be a bit sarcastic. When I'm in Chicago, folks know I'm trying to be funny and they give it right back. But here, Japanese take things very literally and I'm worried I'll hurt or offend them because they don't know the nuances of the English language. I also wonder if sarcasm is even a part of the Japanese culture at all because I don't hear it very much - so any explanation of my true meaning might be impossible. I've also hidden other parts of myself such as my silly side, my tendency to give hugs, and more. Part of it is because as a teacher in Japan I'm suddenly higher in the hierarchy than I've ever been in the US and I feel pressure to live up to that and maintain a professional image at all times. Also, Japanese are generally not very comfortable with hugs - they bow instead so I'm unsure of myself with each greeting and goodbye. In general, I've been worried about making cultural mistakes that could hurt, offend or make someone uncomfortable and embarrassed. It's so easy to make cultural mistakes here, because I'm in such a foreign culture. I've described quite a few instances in this entry alone!

But recently I realized that I've been hiding too much of myself, and I haven't been feeling good inside as a result. I'm thinking more of a balance is called for. I still want to respect Japanese ways, but I am not Japanese and I can't be Japanese no matter how hard I try. I'm thinking I need to make a conscious effort to actively find ways to allow more of my true self to show. I'm thinking I need to take more cultural risks. Cultural misunderstanding are inevitable no matter what I do, and I need to have faith that Japanese folks will know that I have good intentions and will continue to be patient with me. Perhaps I need to have more faith in the power of a sincere smile. :-)

Dewa sono uchi ni
"See you in a little while"

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on to December 27, 2002