Archive for the ‘Culture Shock!’ Category

23 July

I’ve been carrying anxiety around with me in my belly for the last couple weeks.  Unrestful sleep.  Too hot. The noise of storms at night.  It settles like a hard knot, dissolves, coagulates again.  No longer do I feel untethered, drowning in responsibilities and lists, but rather robotic, on cruise control.  The emotions well up, overflow, are gone.  Are replaced with over-structure and resolve.  My anxiety has not been all for naught.  But mostly it’s surreal: watching myself go through the motions.  All these complicated motions to tie up loose ends and move myself across the seas.  Well, I’m not there yet.

24 July

I’m bad with finality.  Ending relationships, all sorts, is hard.  Especially difficult when there’s little chance of ever seeing these people again.  America is always there.  My friends in America are always there.  But will I ever be in Kazamaura, Aomori-ken again?  Likely not.  Japan- yes, Kazama – no.  And here live people who I lived alongside for a year.  Who touched and changed my life, somehow.  Am I a changed woman?  I don’t know.

— —

I’m beginning to think that I need this sense of displacement, in a way.  My desires for deep settling and roots conflict mightily with my wanderlust.  I believed that one year outside of my own country was enough.  It’s not good enough to visit places.  I want to learn and live them thoroughly, deeply, widely.

Am I Una or Ahab?

26 July

There is ease and comfort in the traveling.  What will it feel like when I’m there, for good?  Real? Weighty?  Will there be substance?  In transit, I am weightless.  Suspended between the realities of my life.  The responsibilities, plans, next steps.  There is a delightful sense of uncontrollability on the move.  In limbo, I am exempt from the figuring.  But landed, arrived – it’s all fair game.  Here comes America.  Or rather, here I have come, America.

— —

I didn’t expect leaving to be so sad.  It blindsided me.  Handing in my gaijin card was like closing a door on my life.  Or a chapter.  America so far is harsh, loud noisy, fat.  First thoughts.


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While I’m sure much of the fun-loving world is the same, my ability to focus, sit still, pay attention to the people speaking Japanese around me, and study Japanese and/or Economics plummets with each degree the temperature rises and the cloud that makes way for Sunny D sunshine.  This itch to be outside, in conjunction with my looming deadline of departure (July 26th y’all!), and all the things to prepare for it, results in this fierce sense of being untethered, spinning on an axis of minutes and hours I can’t quite halt.

And so: It’s come to my attention that I spend so much time outside of the US idealizing it.  Remembering and missing, of course, my friends and family, the impressive grandeur of our National Park system (unrivaled to any country I’ve visited), the vast genetic variations of the American face, lazy Fridays riding my bike to and from the Oak Street farmer’s market, a good sandwich.  But now that my touchdown on US soil is mere months away, I’m starting to panic a bit.  There’s so much about America I dislike; that frustrates me.  And I’m returning to a place that may be the epitome of cringe-worthy America: car-culture and traffic, suburban sprawl, blatant racism, consumerism, an obstinately divided government, fake boobs and plastic surgery, misuse and abuse of the precious little natural resources we have left.

I’m not saying I don’t want to come home.  Because I do.  I’m ready.  Ready for next steps.  Ready to hold my squirmy Samson in my arms.  Ready to share a bottle of wine – or three – with friends I haven’t seen in years.  Ready to sit in classes again and fill my mind with new ‘stuff.’  Ready to put all my books on one bookcase.  (This sums up my notion of home.) But I am resigning myself to the fact that just because I’m ready to leave Japan now, doesn’t mean I’ve gotten “it” out of my system.  That maybe mine own wanderlust is an affliction, a disease that defines the journey as the goal.  But here I go again, getting ahead of myself, and why worry about returning State-side when there’s always so much stuff to busy myself with now. So on that note, I’m going to study some Japanese grammar and teach yoga poses to eight-year olds, because I know how excited you must be getting for a play-by-play of a typical day in the life of THE Kazamaura ALT.  It’s all sorts of crazy up in here.

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The trip itself was fascinating.  I learned more about Chinese culture and history than I had ever known before, and it sparked a lot of questions about what it means to be a successful nation, how that success can be attained, what a country can and can not do for its people, and the differences between China and the other Asian countries I’m familiar with (notably Japan), and between China and the West.  Where Japan is quiet, subdued, and mannerly, China is boisterous, loud, and gregarious.  Japan’s version of rural is nothing compared to the poverty and poor infrastructure that still exists in parts of the Chinese countryside. If I think I get gawked at here (Japan) for my slightly Asian-slightly not features, it was nothing compared to the looks I – and even more so, my blue-eyed friend – received throughout our trip.  Though in many instances, they believed me to be Chinese and yammered away at me accordingly.

In addition, I think China might benefit from a program like the JET Program, with which I am affiliated.  There is a foreign person in almost every city, town, and village in Japan.  Japanese children are exposed to foreigners as young as preschool these days, and while there is still this huge sense of “outsider” vs. “insider” mentality in Japan, it is nowhere near as jarring as it might be if the past generation of Japanese kids wasn’t exposed to foreigners until their later years.

I was also surprised to learn that China just entered its Industrial Revolution less than one hundred years ago, compared to Japan.  In many ways, it is still playing catch-up (quickly, at that), but is stuck behind some major obstacles.  The water is undrinkable. The notion of waste (i.e. trash everywhere) is shocking to an outsider.  The backcountry enthusiast’s green motto “Pack it in, pack it out” seems to hold little social sway in China, where I was astonished to see so much debris along the country’s number one claim to fame, the Great Wall.

In my earlier post, I mentioned our guide with whom we did not get along.  However, meeting him really inspired a lot of thoughts, feelings, frustrations, and furthered my already instilled sense of privilege at being born a woman in America.  Here was a young man, born in 1984 in rural China to farmers, who worked his way through the seemingly grueling Chinese education system to become fluent in English and with a good job as a tour guide in one of China’s biggest cities. Bravo. Somewhere along the line, he began to question his country’s policies and even the rhetoric fed to him throughout the years about the Evil West.  He mentioned to us reading Orwell’s Animal Farm post-university and how it opened his eyes.  This is a book that almost every American reads in either Middle or High School and which many of us take for utter granted.  However, our guide often swung widely between stereotyping the West, particularly America, in a favorable light and an unfavorable light, taking his vast textbook knowledge and trying to apply it to a country he had not once yet stepped foot in.  Though he mentioned his enthusiasm at making many American friends, the only investment he seemed to have in us was for just that sake, and none else – that we were Americans.  There was no effort at getting to know what we, as Americans, were really like.  As to why, we can only guess that we two represented the unfortunate half of our species: women.  This case was further illustrated in such comments that his family was lucky to have had two sons (sidenote: the further out of Beijing you get, the more lenient the one-child-only policy is) and in his general behavior towards us.

China’s form of communism is also very different to the form I witnessed in Cuba (shhh) only a year ago.  Where in Cuba, it seems that everyone was in the same impoverished boat living off government staples and earning the same meager wages, China is obviously very capitalistic.  From what I could gather, China’s communism was based on: one single party consistently holding all the power; blocked websites such as Facebook, You Tube, and personal blogs; control of the press; such programs as farmers contributing money per household capita or a portion of the year’s harvest – which is really just as similar to our tax system; the fact that no one can own land; and it’s justice system, where rather than suspects being reviewed by a jury of their peers, they are judged by officials elected by (and therefore representative of?) the public.  How can two countries (China and Cuba) both be politically communist yet be so vastly different?  How is China able to reconcile its politics with a developed capitalist and focus on education, while Cuba flounders in the Caribbean?

In the end, I admit that that my view of China is widely incomplete and hugely elementary.  Spending a week in one city and on the Great Wall by no means a China expert make.  And, perhaps some of my opinions seem harsh.  We also met some charming, friendly, welcoming and open-minded Chinese people, particularly getting to share the generous hospitality of family friends who showed us the “local’s” Beijing, and meeting a college girl traveling solo with excellent bohemian fashion style who accompanied us on some sightseeing we did our last day in the city.   What I can state for fact though: that China is an onion of a country – layers upon layers of history and culture, and getting to travel there even for the briefest of times highlighted that which I value in travel (and life).  Exposure to new sights, sounds, foods, people, and ways of thinking.  So yes, my week was certainly Golden.

**This was definitely a mammoth of a no-photo post.  Thanks for getting through all the words.  Any thoughts and comments are always appreciated. KS.**

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After a week’s break, ikebana picked back up again last night, with nearly everyone bringing something tasty to share with the group.  I had purchased some random snacks from China, and enjoyed watching my ladies get a big kick out of translating the Chinese characters into something readable in Japanese.  Comments I especially liked were: Foreign candy is a little scary, no? and It’s not as scary if we try it together and This tastes like China!

Also, it was really interesting to get to do some ‘cultural observing.’  It had come to pass that one of the ladies’ schedule’s had changed so that meeting on Wednesday nights was no longer convenient timing for her.  After a private talk with our Sensei, they returned to our hang-out table where the Sensei spoke on behalf of (we’ll call her) Ikelady-san.  The conversation more or less went like this:

“Ikelady-san’s schedule has changed and now Wednesday night’s are difficult for her.  She does not want to quit ikebana, nor does her husband want her to quit, but she must now work Wednesday nights at their family temple.  While Ikelady-san has not and cannot ask to have the day changed, I am doing it for her.”

What proceeded was silence while the other women mulled this over.  Then, suddenly, everyone seemed to have an opinion, and problems with other days of the week.  (Mind you, without coming out directly and saying that it was a problem nor that other weekdays were impossible.)  Ikelady-san sat there mindfully the whole time.  It concluded with the women saying “Can’t you go back to your husband to see if you can change your schedule?” and “Just ganbare (read: suck it up and deal with it) and come after your temple shifts on Wednesday nights.”  Essentially, it was 10 minutes of round-about annoyance at being put out ending with a simple “There there, now shut up, dear” while Ikelady-san resigned herself to her fate.  I stayed silent throughout and watched the circus.

Anyway, enough talk.  Last night was another shinputai arrangement, in which we were allowed to select our own shyu or focus.  Shyu: Ansurumu, what appears to be in the Calla lilly family, but I’m not certain; You: Taniwatara leaf; Ashirai: Queen Anne’s lace

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Three hours, one in-flight meal, and three-quarters of a movie after departing Tokyo, Ellie and I arrived in Beijing’s international airport on a balmy Friday afternoon.  It took awhile for it to set in, but it became pretty apparent that we weren’t in Kansas anymore.

Welcome to Beijing!

Beijing seems to be a city in transition.  Unlike Tokyo, Beijing is a sprawling, smoggy city, built perpetually out out out, rather than up up up.  The streets alternate between wide, multi-laned avenues humming with four- and two-wheeled traffic, and tiny cobbled alleys in the older hutong traditional neighborhoods.  These, too, are teeming with cars and bikes, often impeding pedestrian traffic.  There are Western influenced grand, stone parliament buildings and hotels that take up wide city blocks, McDonalds and KFCs rubbing shoulders with Rolex advertisements, and sharp-looking businessmen stepping into their Audis.  Walk a few blocks and you are dodging bicycles and sidewalk trash, being beckoned from nearby shops with choruses of “Pretty lady, you buy shoes? silk? necklace?”  A few more, and you are in one of Beijing’s stunning parks, watching retirees flow through their Tai Chi exercises, or young Beijingers holding hands and looking amorous (a site not often witnessed in reserved and modest Japan).  The delicious smells of the street-cart food stalls mingle frequently with the public toilet odors in many of the hutongs, assaulting the senses every couple feet.  Beijing may be in transition, but nothing about it is subtle.

A busy, commercial district

A quiet, residential hutong in a different part of the city

As for sites, we did all the required ones: Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, the Temple of Heaven, and a few other “lesser” temples and parks.  The largest public square in China (…maybe even the world?), Tiananmen Square was the seat from which Mao Zedong proclaimed the People’s Republic in 1949, and is also, apparently, the most heavily guarded and patrolled site in China.  We arrived at sunset, along with countless other Chinese who were enjoying their evening strolling around, flying kites in the wind, and snapping photos of Mao’s iconic portrait.  The Forbidden City, which lies directly north of Tiananmen Square took up an entire morning of ambling.  Although we tried to go on a Saturday, we discovered crowds so thick and hectic (due to the weekend being one of China’s national holidays), that we were forced to return later in the week.  When we did return, however, it was worth the slog through the other tourists.  The Forbidden City is huge, and fascinating.  Long ago the seat of power for the emperors and empresses of the Ming and Qing Dynasties, it houses temples, squares, public receiving halls, gardens, as well as rows upon rows of low-roofed, brightly-shingled buildings that housed the royalty, and all those employed under the crown.  For years it was off-limits to the inferior citizenry.

In the summer months, when the heat of the city became unbearable, however, the royalty would escape to the Summer Palace, on the shores of a mandmade lake in the northwest of the city.  While the architecture and the grounds of the Summer Palace were extraordinary (it includes a man-made island in the middle of the lake to which the Empress banished the Emperor, like some lavish order of sleeping on the couch), I found it difficult to appreciate it to its full extent.  It was as crowded as the L train on a rainy Monday morning.  As packed as an outdoor music festival during the headlining show.  As teeming as the crosswalks of Shibuya on a Saturday night.  It was a mess.

Mao, above the Gate of Heavenly Peace - one of the entrances into the Forbidden City

In the maze of the Forbidden City

Summer Palace - don't let the relative calm of this photo deceive you. This place was teeming.

Impressive though these aforementioned sites were, the Temple of Heaven was my favorite.  In the southeastern quadrant of Beijing, the Temple of Heaven is exactly as the name suggests: a Temple for communicating with the Heavens.  The temples themselves are ornate and beautiful, but the draw, for me, was more in the grounds and the people using them.  Perhaps a boon of communism, but Beijing’s retirees seem to live a life of leisure and luxury.  Free admittance into anywhere in the city for those over sixty, the Temple of Heaven was the hot-spot for the mature crowd.  They gathered to play any number of games I’d never seen or heard of (variations of hacky-sack with a ‘birdy’ with rings and feathers; toss involving rings and landing them over your partners’ neck; Tai Chi groups or singles undulating among the trees) and solitary old men writing Chinese calligraphy with walking-stick sized paintbrushes and water along the sidewalks.  It seemed to me everything that a Chinese park should be.

The Temple of Heaven - in ancient Chinese times, circular shapes signified Heaven, while squares symbolized Earth

You can see the funny birdy in the bottom right corner. I brought one home with me, and plan to spread the craze to America soon.

Solitary lady flowing with her Chi

Other highlights of our trip included renting bikes for a day and cruising around the city.  Because Beijing is so flat and laid out in a straightforward grid pattern, navigating was pretty simple.  Dodging traffic and potholes, on the other hand, proved to be a bit more nerve wracking.  We were also able to check out the Confucius Temple and the Imperial College, lesser tourist attractions and therefore delightfully peaceful after a crazy day biking.  On the other end of the architectural spectrum, we made a point to visit the famous Bird’s Nest arena, built specifically for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.  The whole complex (Bird’s Nest, pool, waterfront, nearby hotels and accommodation) is truly staggering.  It is new, clean, bright, big, and streamlined.  A subway line – albeit four stops long – was built specifically for the Olympic games.  We chose to visit at night and were rewarded with a much cooler ambiance that what I would expect during a blazing hot day with no shade.  And lest you think what squares we are for doing all the typical tourist stuff, we also spent a great afternoon at the Midi Festival, Beijing’s kick-off summer music festival, showcasing mainly Chinese bands and DJs but also a few lesser-known names from Europe and the US.  It was fun getting to experience the Chinese youth and subculture, with everyone rocking out their best festival wear.

A view of the main building within the Imperial College, which sits adjacent to the Confucius Temple

Que Olympic song....now.

At the big stage of the Midi Festival, about to hear some (mediocre) band from Russia

And how can I talk about a trip to China with no mention of food, yet?  Well, I can’t.  Where to even begin?  Let me start, though, by saying that Ellie and I truly lucked out.  Rather than left to fend for discovering everything ourselves (which we did pretty damn well I must say), we were hooked up for a day by a friend of Poppa Seltz and got the local’s tour treatment by his nephew and his lovely wife, two cool kids our own age.  Not only did they show us around the Temple of Heaven, but also introduced us to a typical Beijing breakfast of pastry-type breads and some foul-smelling fermented soy bean soup, and to real, honest-to-god, delicious Szechuan cuisine.  I have never tasted better shrimp and peanuts, or cubed and fried chicken cooked with mounds of red chillis in my life.  Peking Duck, treated by Poppa Seltz’ friend Mr. Li, also lived up to every expectation I had.  Did you know that the crispy duck skin with it’s juicy, buttery layer of fat should be dipped in sugar first?  It changed my opinion of this fowl forever, and I was already a fan!  Street food, too, pulled through when we needed it.  Cold, spicy, sesame noodles on a hot day; mini, steamed pork buns for breakfast; a pineapple or a coconut full of coconut water for a quick pick-me-up; a beansprout and cabbage filled burrito.  And there were still so many things left to try!

Scorpions and seahorses on a stick: Next time!

Ellie waiting for some noodles from a street vendor

An authentic Szechuan feast with our new friends Si Si and Zhongyuan. (Si Si would know, she's from Szechuan province!)

I’ll leave you here on that tasty note.  Check back soon for Part II: our Great Wall trip, and for a more cohesive wrap-up on this last little excursion of mine.

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The Month of Brownies

Gift giving is an well-meaning, complicated, and rewarding obligation cultural practice here in Japan.  But just sometimes, it can get you into a spot of trouble.

A month or two ago, I brought a pan-full of Ghiradelli Brownie Mix brownies to share with my Ikebana class one night, which anyone who has tasted a Ghiradelli brownie knows, was a huge success.  It was/is particularly momentous for those individuals who are unaccustomed to the amazingness that is the quintessential American “brownie.”  When told how delicious they were, however, I made the mistake of playing off how easy they were to make, which, obviously, 2 eggs and a 1/2 cup of vegetable oil later, they were.  But, the more my ikebana ladies fawned, the more I knew I had dug myself into a deep hole.  A hole filled with butter and sugar and cocoa powder.  Weeks later, what had started as harmless requests for the recipe, soon turned into more forceful pleas for me to pick a date for them to come over to learn how to MAKE the brownies.  And thus commenced The Month of Brownies.

Like many people I know, up until a month ago, I had never made a batch of brownies from scratch.  I envisioned long recipes with fancy chocolate, thermometers, constant stirring and melting temperatures hovering just below burning.  But, not to be uncovered in my lie, I made it my goal to find the perfect, most delicious, home-made brownie recipe ever made, using the easiest of tactics.  (As a side note, I cook.  I don’t bake.  Baking generally requires a knowledge of math and ratios, which annoys me, and following recipes too exactly, which I shun on principle.)  However, four recipes and six pans of brownies later, I discovered a brownie so perfect, so moist and chocolaty dense on the inside, so crackly and crisp on the crust, so balanced between the sweetness in the sugar and the slight bitter earthiness of the cocoa that all other brownies pale in comparison.  I have found my signature brownie recipe.  And damn, it’s delicious.

And so it came to pass that this Saturday was Judgement Day.  My ikebana ladies arrived, or rather, descended upon me, hoisting far too much food (sweet, sticky rice with beans and chestnuts; hijiki seaweed salad; pork and sweet potato stew; whole marinated baby squid!) and proceeded to don their aprons and stand in my kitchen expectantly.  They took careful notes as I explained measurements (which I had calculated into metric grams for them) and the order of mixing.  They tasted and felt consistency and texture.  They asked me what the recipe would be without chocolate.  Well, it certainly wouldn’t be a Brownie, now, would it?

One of my goals for myself was to befriend the old(er) ladies in my town, and seeing them in my living room, I can say that I have been succesful in that endeavor.

In the end, I passed with flying colors, and am perhaps a better person knowing how to make Brownies from scratch.  So, to add to my list of mix CDs, homemade chili and cornbread, and girls who exercise for health (more on that in another post), I’m doing my job of internationalizing rural Japan one sweet, chocolate-filled day at a time.

The magic's in the metal pan

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Funori Tori

“Please come to school by 7:30 tomorrow.  And bring rain boots.  No, you don’t have rain boots? [Pause.] What did you do all winter? [Pause.] No, rain boots. They will get wet.  What size are your feet? Okay, we will arrange something. [Pause.]  Okay. See you tomorrow.  Goodbye.”

The phone rings again: “Oh yes, and bring gloves. Yes. Bring gloves, and dress like it’s winter.”

Everyone preparing to divide and conquer

Thus commenced my foray into the foraging of funori, a type of carageenan seaweed that is described as a “jelly seaweed” when googled.  It grows on rocks off the shore of northern Japan, and therefore is a specialty to this region.  As you can see from the photos, it varies in color from dark purplish brown to bright orange, and can be short and skinny or long and balloon-fat.  It’s particularly tasty added to a miso soup.

Lone little obaachan in the shallows

I arrived at school extra early on Thursday to get to the pickin’ site with the other teachers, and with enough time to set up a big fire barrel for the purposes of cooking our delicious ‘picnic’ lunch, and to wait for the students.  Every year, the elementary schools in my town have a funori tori (picking) day, where students and parents alike volunteer.  All the seaweed collected is cleaned and then either sold fresh or dried, with proceeds going to the school, typically raking in between $2-3,000.  Think bake sale, but not.

A close-up of some long, orange specimens

The day was cold.  In fact, it even snowed a bit.  (Hello? April?) But the weather here moves so quickly that we were able to enjoy a few moments of sunshine now and again as we tromped around the shallows, scraping the rocks bare with our gloved hands, and shoving fistfuls of funori into baskets or large sacks tied around our waists.

Look at this cool new friend I found!

Potato and pork stew on the beach for lunch

After a hearty and delicious, warm lunch, the kids and most of the parents were sent home, while the teachers and a select few of the funori tori veterans went on to the processing station at the port in my town.  There, we dumped in big cargo baskets of the funori into ice-cold water and washed it “clean” with rubber-gloved hands.  Post-soak and -strain, we picked through it manually looking for bits of other seaweed, trash, or errant snails.  In total, over the coarse of several hours, we harvest 350 kilograms of funori from the coasts of Kazamaura, destined for shops around the prefecture, and perhaps beyond.  If anyone fancies a taste, for a small fee, I have considered starting an exporting business to broaden the plump little reaches of funori fingers the world over!  And how delectable!

Washing/picking through the sea gifts

The end result

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