Saturday, May 30, 2009

Ode To Oscar

Oh, I love trash! But in Japan it's not dirty or dingy or dusty, nor is it ragged nor rotten or rusty--yes, I love trash! If Sesame Street's famed Grouch was promoting the old adage that "one man's trash is another man's treasure," I can personalize it to read, "one Tanaka san's trash is my treasure." My first stereo in Japan, a boom box loaded with an AM/FM radio and duel tape cassettes, got me from 1994 to 1997, when I finally upgraded to a store-bought 7 CD changer before moving to Urawa. That lonely stereo sat on the designated trash pile in Koshigaya next to my first apartment, and for 3 years, the find from the "treasure pile" was music to my, and thanks to paper thin walls, my neighbors' ears. That was my first experience of picking up trash and it would not be my last, and I can't promise even pushing 15 years here, that I am finished yet.

I've lived in 6 different accommodations since moving to Japan, and I've yet to meet a basement, an attic or a storage room. When I visit my parents in Ohio, I could probably also visit my first record player, complete with my old collection of 33s and 45s, my bike when the training wheels were just removed, and even book reports from the 5th grade, in a box with my name on it in their basement. As Americans, it's what we do. We get things, we use them, we no longer use them, we keep them, we store them. It's a simple process. Granted, there are garage sales, where we buy, use, keep and store other people's memories, but that requires a key component missing from the process in Japan: A garage.

It is said that the Japanese like new things. They like small things. They like new, small things. That is true, and once they get a new small thing, the less new, less small thing goes out to the trash pile. That's where those that are hungry for electronics crawling the neighborhoods come in. There are more sophisticated ways to dig for trash, and I have classed up my act over the years, but I am proud of that first fundamental find. After my stint in Urawa, I married (my husband is not to be confused with things I find in the trash), and we moved to work at a college in Kawasaki in '98. In our new zip code, we found a way to apply for trash. Progressing from picking to applying seemed to me like a formal transformation from Miss to Mrs. It entailed going to a city-run upscale dump that had items from the once monthly over-sized trash collection day on display in a showroom tagged with numbers. On a slip of recycled paper, you filled in your name and contact information, along with the number of the item you desired, and dropped it in a box slot for lottery. We were looking for a desk, and ended up also being wooed by a natural wood entertainment center (I had more than a silly 7-CD changer to shelve by then), as well a dining set (table and 4 antique chairs).

There was a run on the desks, but we hit the lottery on the entertainment center and dining set. There was no charge, although the city encouraged "donations." We donated, and accepted the volunteer city truck delivery to get the loot to our place. This service is all in the name of saving the earth, and I was doing my part. The doorbell rang, and 2 energetic, elderly men of slight build were at the entrance with our big, heavy furniture. They removed their shoes on entry, balancing the over-sized load with grace, and brought the items inside one at a time. The entertainment center could be transported in 2 pieces, which was the only way it could make it through the narrow entrance into the even narrower living room. They made 4 trips, each time without saying a word other than excusing themselves upon every entry into our quarters. More impressively, they slipped shoes on, shoes off, shoes on, shoes off, each time, without looking down or losing balance once. At the end of what looked like a different type of reality show, they bowed to make their exit. I asked if they would accept a cash donation, and they gracefully declined. Is this one of those Japanese things where you have to ask 3 times to get to a yes? No, after 3 times, they were still declining. I went to the fridge (university property, not personally purchased nor born again trash) and came back with 2 cans of Kirin beer. They gracefully accepted the lager donations and went on their way.

Sweetened by the victory of being first time lottery winners, and inspired by watching the male duo half our size and 3 times our age balance furniture above their heads like a circus act, we relished in our finds. I wished that furniture could talk, not out of some kind of loneliness or language practice, but I'm sure it had stories to tell of the homes it shared and the disposal routes it traversed until it reached us. It's not easy to dispose of trash here. Yet, on a winter break back to Columbus, I can drive through the streets and see Christmas trees out for the trash at the curb, along with stacks of empty toy boxes and wrapping paper proving there is a Santa Claus, and he came that week. However, if I wanted to dispose of a dead evergreen in Japan, it would require consulting a 28 page detailed guide on what measurements to cut it down to, how many branches per bundle, and what material the strings to tie the bundles must be, and if it goes in a bag, it's a designated, labeled bag. The bi-weekly trash pick-up requires being in physical shape, as well as having at least 1 higher degree to interpret and stick to the rules. Indeed, disposing is a challenge, and in a land without garbage disposals, missing the prompt 8 AM pick up, or having your trash rejected based on its contents (big rubbish brother is watching), can create such a big smelly mess that you are forced to question if there really is a Santa Claus. However, when trash works in your favor in the form of "gently used furniture," or outdated stereos, it makes you a believer all over again.

I was gradually working my way up the class levels of garbage picking. I went from direct from the pile, to direct from the lottery site, to an actual "recycle shop," where people pawn off no longer useful items to them for re-sale. The items carried vary, and one road side stand provided me with my first microwave and washing machine. The only challenge about the microwave was strapping it with a bungee cord to the basket of my bike to transport it home. The ride through heavy traffic with a weighty object made me realize that actually bungee jumping would have been the safer move. The washing machine was never used, yet rejected by the original owner because it was dented when brought into his, I imagine Willy Wonka extreme narrow, apartment. For the equivalent of $50, the owner sold me the washer, put a hand written "back in 10 minutes" sign up, drove it to my place, and installed it. He made sure it worked before he left. If the sign said, "be back in an hour," I may have bargained for him to help me hang a load or two, but I didn't want to look a gift Mitsubishi in the mouth.

I started in economy, got bumped up to business, and now was ready to cash in frequent files for a seat in first class trash digging. There is a franchise worth mentioning, if at least just for the giggle it invokes every time I say it, called Hard Off. Hard Off has standards on what they accept when people dump stuff "Off" on them, and it starts with electronics and hardware, which is where I hope they're getting the name. Unused, still in the box or wrapped items dominate the shelves. Think of it as Re-gift Heaven. Gift set towels, dishware or toasting glasses that are standard favors for wedding guests, make their way to be sold as shiny, new trash. They also have a Junk Off branch for used clothing, kids toys, furniture, and anything else you could find in a posh, gated neighborhood's trash site. Rounding out the family, there is Book Off, which is self-explanatory. I found myself on the giving end of these places. It started with justifying if I ever bought anything there, but soon was trumped by the simple need of getting "Hard Junk" Off of my floor and out of the house. I've created my own, non-city regulated "one in, one out" policy on the amount of items I can handle in limited quarters. Fondly, I replay the I Love Trash song in my mind every time I drive by a trash pile loaded with goodies for the picking, or enter the automated doors to an "Off" store, and the soloist singing in my mind is always an Oscar but never a Grouch.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009


There is an army of roughly a ga-bazillion kanji characters in Japanese armed for battle. In writing, if you are able to make them out, they form a friendly tangible troupe helping you to make semi-perfect sense of the meaning of a context. However, in spoken conversation, you can be brought down by the homophone traps that fill the trenches. I sometimes wish I was living in a cartoon that had the conversation bubbles above the speaker, but alas, oral communication in the real-world lacks such subtitles. I am homophone-obic. It's the principle (or is it the principal?) of the abundance of cases that can bind you in Japan. Fortunately, some are generally easy to distinguish from context, like hashi, bridge, and hashi, chopsticks. Unfortunately, there are more than to, too, or two opportunities to confuse homophones in Japanese, and leave it to me to take a should be easily perceivable homophone, confuse the context, stopping the conversation in its tracks.

It was an innocent lunch break from the office, at a local a sushi shop, with the section chief, two other staffers and myself, making up our party of 4. The topic was a recent report from the United Nations Development Program which ranked Japan close to 50th on its Gender Empowerment Measure (The UK and the US ranked much higher, while the top rankings went to Scandinavian countries). The casual chatter glossed over the factors involved in the survey, such as economic empowerment, participation in decision making, and political participation. It was lunch, and I allowed myself to mentally pop in and out of the conversation between bites of salmon roe and washing down my wasabi with ice water, chiming in occasionally on how other industrially advanced countries fared.

The conversation shifts to focus on the role of Japanese women in the workforce as well as their roles in the home. Their domestic load takes center stage, and the chief commented on how almost all of the child rearing and household chores fall on the woman of the house. He then declares the root of the problem surrounds the issue of "sentaku." Guilty of letting my mind wander as far as Denmark and Finland on this lunch break, if in fact they do have it so good in Scandinavia, I'm put on the spot. He turns to me, "Don't you think that's the problem? Sentaku ga nai? As an American female, what do you think?" I freshly digested the "household chores" and the no "sentaku" bits from the conversation and opted not to backpedal and fess up that I wasn't paying full attention in that moment. Instead, I stalled with a swig of green tea, and with a half guilty smile, I stated that the time and energy consuming problem in that case less about the washing, but more due to the lack of dryers. Sentaku, choices vs. sentaku, laundry. Obviously he meant the former and I was solving the country's gender inequality issues with something you could pick up at Sears at any mega mall in the States.

At the time, they nodded as if I said something deep and meaningful. Later that day I realized that there was no continuation of my point for a reason. After all, where do you go with that? "Oh, but there's hope to ease the life of women in Japan with all the fabric softeners on the market!" I now realize, especially as a teacher, that not admitting that I wasn't paying full attention was more ignorant than letting the homophone get the best of me. I didn't come clean (pun intended) about having figured out my sentaku gaffe. Perhaps subconsciously I feared that if I explained how I was dying of embarrassment it would be misunderstood that I was dying my laundry. Nonetheless, they were still trusting me enough to assign me to the in-house gender education for city employees the following week. The equality seminar went well, but the details don't have the same permanent stain on my memory that the lunch combating the sentaku does. It's been 11 years, and thus I guess I should think more about my sentaku, meaning choice. I can choose to put it behind me, I can choose to judge myself less and start trying to trust my abilities the way others do more. That, or I can choose to escape to one of those reportedly top ranked Scandinavian countries. Well, I think I'll start facing my homophone-obic fears and teach myself confidence. There's hope: I can win this war. But just in case, I do need to secure back-up: are there as many homophones in spoken Icelandic?

Friday, May 22, 2009

Olympic Swimming Eels

Angela Pace is a household name in Columbus, Ohio. She came to dinner every evening in the form of a top rated news anchor. She and her CBS crew were covering the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, and the hometown connection brought us together. Well, it was slightly more than a hometown coincidence connection in those pre-Google search days. My sister had a baby during the winter holidays in '97, and my Mom jumped on a plane to Florida to hone her Grandma role. She happened to buckle in next to Angela Pace. The leg was probably just over an hour, but it was enough flight time to cover, "I have a daughter in Japan," and "I'm going to Japan in February." Cards were exchanged, and the meet up was born, along with my nephew.

Urawa, Saitama, wasn't exactly in the Games' neighborhood, but it was just a bullet train ride way to Nagano. Angela was looking for me to be her inside scoop story, a little hometown fluff of an human interest angle to give Columbus viewers a break from countless preliminary rounds of curling. She touched base when she did her first rounds of filming on location in Nagano. This gave me enough time to plan our day out of filming together, which was enough time for my staff to flex their hosts with the most muscles and bring my amateur plan of a visit to an Olympic level. She suggested lunch and then a walk through town a la day in the life of an Ohioan in Japan. Sushi bar was one brainstorm brought to the table: a rotating sushi bar, but not just a conveyor belt of raw fish lapping you at your meal, rather, a running stream of water that carried the mini rafts of bit sized sushi samples lined up in twos.

Before I went too far executing this plan, I casually asked Angela if she had "any allergies or food aversions," and before I get out, "that I should know about," she barked back, "NOTHING RAW!" I like a journalist that can speak her mind. Sushi idea scrapped, the section chief decides that grilled eel is a local delicacy, caught in the river that runs through the city. The phone call went up to the mayor's office and the finest grilled eel restaurant overlooking the river was set in stone in our synchronized day planners.

Once the eel is grilled, sauced up and served over rice, it looks like it could pass for steak, or, at least in the far fetched way people describe any exotic dish they try as, "it tastes like chicken." Angela and her camera man came with their Olympic good sport badges on, game for an adventure. She hadn't sampled a true Japaneses slice of life, or slice of fish for that matter, since she arrived in Japan the previous week. She had just done some spots tourist destinations in Nagano and reported on the famous hot spring, Jigokudani, known for the snow monkeys that come down from the mountains to dip in the outdoor hot spring baths shoulder to shoulder with the hotel guests. It is a fantastic place, despite the translation of "Hell's Valley." Really, it's not as creepy as it sounds, since, after all, the monkeys are clean. Having stayed at the inn a few the year before, I asked about her experience. She didn't really get to experience the full Japanese experience since Martha Stewart and her crew were monopolizing the site during her air time. She summed up her visit like a true investigative reporter, "Martha Stewart is a just a bitch." Perhaps with that discovery she uncovered some meaning behind the name, Hell's Valley. Nevertheless, I thought I wanted to fill the void of what did not pan out as a cultural visit, or even an etiquette visit on Martha's end, in Nagano.

The restaurant staff was ready for us, and the kimono clad crew of hosts and servers greeted us at the door. They took our shoes, provided slippers, and escorted us into the restaurant to tour the museum type halls of various pictures of eel catches throughout the decades, spanning the history of the restaurant. It's really hard to fake, "oohs and aahs" when it comes to reacting to fish you have never seen before, but the guests' real verbal reactions were around the corner in the kitchen.

The head chef and owner invited us into the kitchen, which was lined with rows of barrels containing rapidly swimming, squirming, and splashing eels. This is exactly why Americans generally prefer not to know what they're eating before they try it. The chef proudly asked Angela to choose her fish. With the camera rolling, she cautiously advanced to the barrel and let out the shriek heard round the world. The snake-like eels were circling, and she was not about to pull one out with her bare hands. Inside, I was wishing we could make Martha Stewart do that part. I'd love to know the Miss Manners way to grab a live eel from its simulated habitat and toss it on the fire pit.

The chef and owner cued in that she was not going to fish for her own lunch, so they pulled out the designated catch of the day for each of us. The shrieking escalated for each of us as he systematically karate chopped the heads off of each one with the butcher knife he wore in his samurai style belt harness. We left the kitchen crew to do their thing and the kimono clad duo lead us to our private room in the restaurant to start us on a recognizable first course of salad. The main dish made its entrance, with the head chef . I don't think it was because he still was armed with the samurai eel swords, but she took a bite, lit up and in a I'm even surprised myself honesty, she declared, "it's delicious." The relief and joy in the room was electric and the staff beamed with the same twinkle that we'd witness on the podiums over the next 2 weeks throughout the Games. That same sparkle took a personal shine when I heard from friends and family back home that they saw clips of the feature on the news. Even if it got second billing to the luge, it was a treat to be a part of Angela's taste of the Olympic spirit, sauteed under her first (and probably last?) grilled eel.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Girl Scout Fortune Cookies

I think it's my third grade picture at Fishinger Elementary School where I'm wearing my Bluebird uniform. A year or two later, Bluebirds graduated to Camp Fire Girls and with that I learned to pick better outfits for ace-comb picture day. There wasn't a direct rivalry between Camp Fire Girls and the more known green clad Girl Scouts, but I did wonder what went on in those meetings.

I was about 27 years old when I finally got a glimpse of how that other half lived. Urawa City had a sister city relationship with Richmond, Virginia. The Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia was coming to town on an official visit, and the city hall was in full stereotypical agenda building and schedule revising mode. I came into play with the task of organizing a plan for his wife and daughter.

Mrs. Governor expressed that her daughter was a Girl Scout and would like to have some kind of exchange activity with the local chapter. That was a simple request. I daydream periodically about having easy access to Thin Mints again, so I could get into this job. However, that spoke-too-soon simple request soon blew into full on Japanese to the hilt event planning and gold star hosting.

It started with an innocent phone call, which weeded out into a phone chain. I called the closest chapter, and that leader contacted her people, other chapters are getting a ring, and so on and on and on and on. On impact, I was flung from what I thought would be a few innocent rounds of Kumbaya, perhaps in two languages, to extending an open invitation to every troop in the entire Kanto Plain, a region which encompasses Greater Tokyo and its 6 surrounding prefectures. We were now slated to have a ceremonial event seaside in Yokohama, Kanagawa, at the site of some form of meaningful statue that represented the foundation of Girl Scouts in Japan.

I was thinking that Mrs. Governor was probably only acting as a concerned mother who was simply trying to justify pulling her daughter out of school to make the trip to Japan with her husband, and, well Girls Scouts could pass as a semi-educational event. I updated the office on how my fantasy meeting of a few girls playing hopscotch and having an ice cream cone turned into a formal meeting including hundreds of guests. The staff bit on the news and couldn't be outdone by a Troop Leader and, thus, they upped their game.

The 54.5 kilometer trip, which by train is 1 hour and 20 minutes, quickly launched into reserving a white stretch limousine. I have never seen a limo in Japan and I know why. The roads are narrow, traffic is a stand still bear on a clear day, and don't get me started on parking. To me, this would be like being on a road trip in the Midwest and on a rare occasion you'd see a house being transported on the freeway, however, I wouldn't be wondering who in the world transports a house on the road, rather, I'd be its passenger. In the end, a house might have been a better deal considering there could be even the slightest chance of a Wizard of Oz type twister that could have airlifted us and dropped us in Girlscoutland. Unfortunately, ruby slippers were not going to save me from this day.

Yokohama Chinatown is the largest Chinatown in Japan, and one of the biggest in the world. Japanese love superlatives, so this was something to showcase. My staff thought it would be a great add-on to the tour if we lunched in authentic Chinatown before the ceremony. Authentic meant that the roads were narrow, directionless, lined with uneven cobblestone and motorist unfriendly, like China, hence the name. I figure I'd jump off that Great Wall when I came to it and just went with it. Besides, whatever I ran into I had back up: Girl Scouts are by law prepared, and I'd be surrounded by every registered Girl in the region.

Mrs. and Daughter Governor and I boarded the limo, while my staff trailed in an ironically enviable, practical and humble city owned compact vehicle. It only took one minute into the trip to realize that I would find absolutely no similarities in this experience to my childhood memories of loading the station wagon with my backpack and sleeping bag as my parents drove me from Columbus to Lancaster for Camp Fire Girls camp. The journey was usually smooth, which meant at most maybe we'd have to wait for the lane to clear to pass a tractor or two en route. The back seat of this limo was probably the size of the cabin I shared with 16 girls. I think I was glad to have tinted windows, since in Honda bumper to Limo bumper traffic, which clocked 3 hours, people had plenty of time to approach and try to get a glimpse of the mystery passengers on their "three hour tour."

The approach into Chinatown proved impossible. The Limo couldn't even get a view of the ornamental red entrance get into the town. We parked, and the driver fetched 3 pedicabs to cycle us to the restaurant. It turns out they clocked better mileage than our 3 hour haul through Tokyo. The lunch served was far more complicated than my hot dog, s'mores and bug juice camping days. Instead, we had multiple courses of Cantonese, Peking, Shanghai, and Szechwan cuisines to fuel up for the ceremony. At the port, a neatly pressed crowd in uniform was filing in around the statue, so we proceeded to make our grand entrance, which in an limo, was an auto piolet effort. The head leader read a welcome address, which was followed by speeches, speeches and speeches from various chapter representatives. Daughter Governor was a good sport, and just taking in the masses.

An entire restaurant bordering the seaside statue venue was rented out for all participating Scouts and leaders, in full wedding reception style glitz. This was a high end coffee shop where we were to have afternoon tea and cake. Also on the menu was more speeches, speeches and speeches, as well as gifts, gifts and gifts for a cermemonial exchange. This was a high end coffee shop where we were to have afternoon tea and cake. The entire place was decorated with the finest linens and silver settings. The cakes were so ornate that you didn't know if you should shellac it for the scrapbook or politely gum through it. My mouth was watering for a traditional Trefoil Shortbread Girl Scout cookie. Instead, I watch this group of elementary school girls struggle to work there way through the cutlery. The girls had their choice of tea or coffee, and I wished I smuggled in a packet of Koolaid to dunk in poor little Daughter Governor's ice water.

The commute back through Tokyo met up with rush hour traffic, so this day did turn out to feel like I was shipped off to camp after all. I was a Camp Fire Girl at heart, but this one rock star day of being a Girl Scout party crasher was worth the adventure, and even though a train ride would have been life saving efficient, I was happy to go along for the quincentenary ride. Surviving the formality of the speeches, and the scene at the high tea should earn each one of those little girls their lifetime etiquette badge. That's my take of the day. I'd love to catch up with Daughter Governor one day, and hear about how that show and tell project played out when she returned to elementary school in Virginia. That would be one "what I did on vacation" report worth reading which no Girl Scout Fortune cookie could have predicted.

Shaded by a Genie

The more I was learning about the language, the more I was learning that I had so far to go. Two steps forward, one fall back. Even though I'm tripping over my feet advancing, it is an advancement, and I'll take it. My 3 year contract with the Koshigaya Board of Education was coming to a ceremonial closing clap at the same time the capital city of the prefecture, Urawa, was initiating a new post in the International Relations Section at the City Hall. The job would require Japanese ability: spoken, written, thinking, eating and drinking.

I liked the idea of being the first to take the position. With no predecessor to follow, I had no daunting geta to fill, which helped my confidence in the lame sense that I wasn't failing before entering on a "by comparison" technicality. I interviewed, was offered the job, and accepted. The apartment I was in at the time was owned by Koshigaya City, so I had to vacate that humble two-half (yes, two-half, not two and a half) room abode and move to a new, albeit 30 year old rental, in Urawa City (which is now Saitama City, but that doesn't have anything to do with my mark on the place).

Three years is still novice in Japan, but nonetheless I maintained my home-grown Midwestern privacy barriers. After all, by this point, I've already been assisted on how to shower, bathe and flush toilets. Now I had the privilege of having the office big wigs at my new job personally move me from apartment A to apartment B, on their day off. Moving day was July 31, starting day was August 1. We agreed to a 9 AM start time on the 31st. The bell rang promptly at 9 AM on the 30th. For a split second, I questioned if I was thinking in Eastern Standard Time, but that would have meant they'd be a day later, not earlier. They came, unannounced, to help me box up my once private, personal, and unmentionable belongings.

They removed their shoes in the entrance way, put on working gloves and started bringing boxes and rolls of tape into my place. Kaneko san took the bedroom, and Matsuda san the living room. No words were exchanged. They went straight to work with no break. Before I could roll the offer for a cold drink off my tongue, I noticed Mastusda san sealing the box labeled dishware. I made a dash to my toiletries before it was too late so I could at least put my deodorant in a Ziploc by myself. Yeah, that guarded my pride.

Unannounced visitors are not always unwelcome, but this was the kind of thing in Japan that went against the all the independent thinking values I was brought up on. Some decisions I want to exercise input. As it is, the weather forecast on TV tells you whether or not you should do laundry that day based on how long it will take a white tee shirt to dry on the line, and they always tell you if it's a short sleeve day as opposed to a long sleeve day, and whether or not you'll need a large umbrella or if a fold up one will do for the day. Just give me the forecast, and based on that information, let me decide what I'll wash, wear and carry that day! But this was another thing I just had to roll with, and appreciate in the end. They used their own cleaning products to wipe down the empty place when they were done since they already boxed mine off, took the trash with them, and zoomed off into the night with a reminder on my 9 AM date for tomorrow. For some reason, I trusted them that it really was tomorrow, which this time turned out to be an instinct in my favor. Moving day was more predictable: load, unload, sip ice coffee (brought over on a tray from the landowner), leave with a see you in the office for your first day tomorrow. I plopped down on the futon and dreamt that I really didn't start work the next day, rather Kaneko san and Matsuda san showed up at 9 AM to un-box. Not so. I only had to lose my privacy on the way out, not in. I may have cursed myself with that wish for independence: I was on my own.

I was on my own linguistically too. Until now, I had been surrounded by Japanese teachers of English in the schools, or English speaking supervisors at the board of education. Even though when I reached a certain level I spoke Japanese with them, I could still be lazy and slip over a word I didn't know and toss it out in English. However, I was the only English speaker in my section at the Urawa City Hall. That was the point of the job: They didn't have one, so they hired one. I found myself stretching my already taller than everyone range when reaching for words. I'd dance around what I was getting at with descriptive Japanese: I need one of those taller-than-a-beverage-glass containers that has a lid-cuppie thing on top and it keeps the hot drinks hot and the cool drinks cool. "Ah! Mahoubin!," I got in response. Well, Thermos is much shorter and to the point, but at that point, not in my word bank. Incidentally, mahoubin directly translates into magic bottle, which I accepted since I was ready for a Genie to come out and look over me.

On the first day of work, the section chief escorted me to every floor of the building to introduce me. I had three years of this downward bobble head bow with a nice to meet you, please be good to me routine, so this part was not nerve-racking.
I settled into my desk, which had a newspaper article on top that I was to translate from Japanese to English regarding a newly designed cargo train track to be constructed at the Urawa train station. Under that (you're wondering how I could put that down to check the rest of my inbox) there were lists of potential host family contacts in the city for foreign exchange students, as well as an event schedule highlighting international events the Mayor was to attend where I was expected to be his interpreter. Just when I was hoping he was not slotted for a round of speeches on this cargo load, I get a non intrusive interruption from a colleague. She handed me a parasol and informed me that I might need it that day, so she brought an extra. I politely thanked her in a non routine way since I was wondering if I could have possibly heard that right. There was a roof on the building and nobody around me showed visible signs of a sunbrella on hand. The only time I had ever seen one in person or held a real live parasol before that moment was as an extra in high school for the musical Hello Dolly. Luckily my imagination did't go as far to fear that I was supposed to sing and dance later.

The section was having lunch out that day, so I brought my parasol with the same ominous feeling that Goldie Hawn must have had when Chevy Chase told her to "bring an umbrella" when she was being set up in Foul Play. We loaded city vehicles, and stopped at understated noodle shop, the kind of place that you assume is known for amazing taste because the aesthetics are a broken Miffy wall clock and a gas company sponsored calendar on the wall still displaying June. There were no menus, which didn't matter since Kaneko san took the liberty of ordering the same bowl of ramen noodles with pork and seaweed topping in soy broth for each in our party of 7. Apparently that was the signature dish of this particular spot, which meant that we had no choice in the same way you feel pressured into hanging laundry on a sunny day: the weather forecast ordered us to.

We reloaded the car and pulled into the city baseball stadium, where we were hosting a visiting team of little league baseball players from a sister city relationship Urawa had with a city in Mexico. They were playing a local team as a cultural exchange. My Spanish is worse than my Japanese, but I was to head out on the field and greet the visitors. I entered the field under a blazing sun. Up went the parasol, which was a most welcome prop since the handicap of having my right arm occupied got me out of having to throw the opening pitch. The teams went into extra innings, and when Urawa finally pulled off a win, they called another at bat for Mexico so they could win too.

There were no losers. What an excellent way to end the first day at a new job, and kick off another adventure. The time it took to play out the extra innings and the forced comeback given to Mexico would have resulted in the sunburn of a lifetime on a tropical summer day. However, I felt like a winner too, equipped with my save the day parasol. I was happy to have had that protection, whether I asked for it or not, happy to have had a meal that someone else selected, and inside I was relieved to know that I took the good advice of the weatherman that day and thus was going home to dry clean clothes on the line. I now attribute my good fortunes and countless excellent experiences from that job to the work of my Genie colleagues in the office, always on hand, in my very own magic bottle.

The Land of the Rising Volume

I am no Grinch, but I can relate to his sentiments when he curses Whoville, "the noise, noise, noise, noise!" Although people here, not unlike the Whos, smile and sing songs, this is no Whoville, and I will never adjust to the noise noise, noise, noise in Japan.

"In a few minutes we will be landing at Tokyo's Narita International Airport. The local time is 3:45 PM, August 1." Now that is an internationally familiar sound bite. The blaring sounds that would follow me everyday since that initial 1994 landing would become an adjustment in progress, and I haven't adjusted, let alone progressed. In sharp contrast to Americans, Japanese are generally reserved, and on the quiet side. I imagine a history of living in small quarters makes one innately respectful of guarding some level of privacy in public spaces. People tend to use library voices if they converse at all on trains or buses, and I have no personal experiences in line at the bank or the post office, or supermarket when the person behind you comments on the "big game last night." The small talk side of life here is muted in comparison to the States, yet, this politely reserved population is living among the world's largest, loudest choir. Everything, every were seems to blast out its unique theme song, jingle, or pre-recorded announcement.

From childhood, I can recall the ice cream truck, and standard emergency sirens and even the hokey 4th of July wake-up call to come to the parade in my hometown. Yet here, I can go through and entire day having conversations with everything I come in touch with except humans. The sound invasion starts before breakfast: If I leave the refrigerator door ajar for more than it takes to pour a glass of juice, I'm politely reminded to "gently shut the door, please." The slow cooker announces, "the rice is ready," and the bath chimes in to let me know that it's filled to the ideal water level and the temperature is just right. The gas heater has a different tune when it's running low on fuel from when it could use a cleaning, and it always keeps me posted on its needs.

At 8 AM the gates are open for the megaphone armored trucks that roam the neighborhood. If you can remember the different jingles, you can save yourself the trip from trying to dash out to catch the traveling bakery when instead you find yourself in line for a fresh catch mackerel or hand pressed tofu. The sweet potato truck could be the Grammy of truck sales in Japan: it has verses, and tells the story of the journey the potato took from root to open pit fire, which is humming and crackling in the back of the truck. Pot stickers, ramen noodles, all in harmony through the streets in case I need a bite in between gently shutting the fridge and scrubbing the gas heater filter.

Time for a shower, and the shower beep beep beeps when it warms up to the fixed temperature setting. It is unnerving to hear any kind of a alarm in this vulnerable position, but I can be relieved that it wasn't the fish monger alerting me to the fresh catch while I'm attempting to mentally escape the public sound off while rinsing off.

Everyday is some round of trash or recycle collection, each pick up with its own theme. It would make for quite a symphony if the paper, bottle, can pick up came at once, but instead we get featured solos. For the "big trash," a flatbed truck comes through at 3 miles an hour blaring out its pre-recorded offer to collect old bikes stereos, TVs and any miscellaneous electronic equipment for no charge. I am often tempted to pay them to just bring the volume down a notch. Trucks are programmed with a simplified chorus of "It's a Small World After All," when they go into reverse to warn you they could be backing up in your direction. Indeed, it's a Loud World After All. If an election is around the corner, you can experience the full treatment of an open bed truck circling the neighborhood with "campaign" girls donning uniforms have microphones pitching their candidate. This is an 8 AM to 8 PM job, and if I had voting rights, I would not vote for any candidate that I can hear haunting in my sleep like an overplayed 80s song.

Any normally mundane errand can be spiced up thanks to a little nostalgia. Store background soundtracks provide a skip down memory lane on a daily basis. I really feel empowered when I pop into a 7-11 to pick up a Coke to Sinatra's "My Way." It also puts a pep in my step when stop to fill up the tank and the gas station is serenading me with the Carpenter's "On Top of the World." These are old standbys. Yet, supermarkets at closing time are in a league of their own. Five minutes prior to closing, in lieu of an, "in just a few minutes, the store will be closing, please take your final purchases to the register at this time," announcement that I sounded off in my cashier days, Auld Lang Syne streams in over the loud speakers. The first few times, I admit, I looked around for someone to kiss, or at least for a tuxedo clad employee to hand me a plastic flute glass of champagne, but I slowly adjusted the fact that this is the way we bring produce shopping to a close in Japan.

We had a 6:00 dinner call growing up. It was as low brow as my mother coming to the front door and calling out to us kids to come home. However, Japan hits the high notes with its classic public service call, unique from city to city across the nation, which sounds off at 4:30 PM in winter and or 5:30 PM in the summer. Speakers throughout town ignite a song signaling the children to swiftly exit the parks and playgrounds, and a verbal safety message follows reminding them to carefully make their way home. In my early years in Japan, a harmless practical joke among colleagues helped me appreciate this musical noise making custom on a new scale. Elden was a marching band director from Hawaii, on a fixed term teaching contract in Koshigaya. He had his clarinet in Japan, and like any gifted musician he could play by ear, mimicking tunes on demand or perhaps in this case, on command.

It was the perfect weather that late fall day for kids to play outside, and thus we gathered in his 4th floor apartment after school. We tested the maximum weight of the veranda overlooking a neighborhood park and filed out onto the balcony like the ol' elephants in a Volkswagen bug gag. At exactly 4:25 PM, 5 minutes prior to the city sponsored pre- recorded version, Elden played a live arrangement of the "time to go" song. We stood and watched in anticipation, and the targets took the bait. The kids stopped, looked up and around, and dutifully scrammed off on their bikes to safely head home for the day. We quickly took refuge inside and were overcome with a giddy feeling of satisfaction on our experiment accomplished.

The beeps, alarms, megaphones, noise makers, and songs, songs, songs do take a toll on my noise pollution comfort level. However, regarding my attitude toward all the racket, like the Grinch, my heart grew three sizes that day.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Horseshoe Table Discussion

Gradually, I was trudging through the rice patties and making grounds on the language. Small steps, like Noh theater actor pace, but nonetheless I felt progress. By day I was teaching English at a junior high school and by night was commuting via 4 train and subway changes to central Tokyo for Japanese lessons. Sparing myself and my colleagues the complete boredom of my mundane conversational level, I tried to put into practice at least some of the material from those lessons with the faculty and staff during lunch and class breaks.

This broke some barriers, not to mention nearly breaking my back with the heavy load commute and breaking the bank with the lesson fees, but the effort was paying off. While maintaining my personal cultural sanity as much as possible, I tried to consume as much Japanese as I could. I turned to TV. Oh, I still savored and prioritized getting TV tapes from the States, but I started tuning into a long running popular family friendly drama called, Kinpachi Sensei, 3 Nen B Gumi.

The target audience was probably upper elementary through junior high school aged kids, and the setting was a junior high school, starring a teacher with a strong influence on the lives of his 9th grade homeroom class, class. The program was known and loved in Japan in the same way that Little House on the Prairie found its fan base in America. I was relating to that school house teacher on the prairie- I'm way out in the middle of nowhere from home, on my own, and back in time! Nevertheless, the teacher, Mr. Kimpachi, on the show reached me even more than his students.

It was easy for me to follow since the setting mirrored my workplace, and the students were the same age. It helped me form connections not only through their young use of the language versus the language patterns of the teachers at school and on the show, but the process also helped me form empathy with them. As a French teacher in Ohio, I wasn't learning a language from page one at the same time the way my students were. This time I was, but it was more like page negative one below zero degrees Celsius. I would tape the show. (I sprung for a new tape: I never taped over American TV tapes from care packages!) I wasn't obsessing with plot twists here, rather, I was trying to catch native speed delivery. I'd watch and rewatch an episode a second, a third time, and start repeating after the actors. Granted, there are countless guide books, tapes and educational programs for this practice, but I found that the material really has to relate to your needs, and it was survival beyond survival for me at this point.

The administrators at the board of education embraced my efforts in the language, and they started to take advantage of it the way I took G rated advantage of Kinpachi Sensei. They started shipping me out to mingle under their name at various city-sponsored related events. This could be anything as retro as being post master for the day, which required wearing a sash and shaking hands with customers at the post office, to an artsy task like visiting a local gallery to comment on the pictures, to as silly as posing a question as a judge for the Miss Koshigaya contest. These were simple PR side missions, but I enjoyed the eclectic experience and tried to keep my sense of humor through it all. To a point. That point was the invitation (assignment, really) to be the guest at a "round table discussion" at the local Rotary Club chapter.

My supervisor at the board of education told me that he'd accompany me, we would have lunch with the group, and then discuss life in Japan as an American. I was told that it was a Round Table Discussion. I didn't think it was a stretch when I pictured a round table, with eight to a dozen people sitting, eating and chatting. As soon as we entered the venue, I was tipped off by the volume of men's shoes in the entrance way where you change from your soiled street wear to indoor slippers. We entered the room to a welcome applause. I looked up and around. I was stunned, and I couldn't hide my "I won the Oscar!" shocked expression. The venue was enormous. In the nightmare running through my mind the auditorium was as daunting as the OSU stadium, nicknamed the "Horseshoe." The club members sat in rows and rows of long tables streamed together (the length of a football field) and lunch was served. It was a nice serving of chirashi zushi, which is raw fish over vinegared rice, and served with a taste of plum wine for the toast.

I nodded my way through lunch with idle chit chat, mainly with pointed questions for my supervisor: where is the round table? What happened to the casual chat about Japanese and American life? This is an auditorium! After lunch, I was introduced by the Grand Poo-bah and escorted to the podium, and reminded that I had 45 minutes. There was a beautiful vase of fresh flowers and a pitcher of water. I smiled and thanked the gentleman who introduced me. He already introduced me - that's half of my solid bank of material! I looked at the water and wished it was the plum wine, but really, there was no escape. I've had to pull things off "off the cuff" in the past, but this was a new league for me. It was in another language, and one that I was only building confidence in.

I have never felt so put on the spot, so unprepared. The formality and generosity of the crowd, the meal, the flowers - I quickly dropped my mini protest about feeling cheated by not knowing about the scale of the event and turned my reflection on feeling like I was cheating this group. I wasn't a exactly a laughingstock, really, but have high expectations of myself. The details of the "discussion" are a blur, I may have even started my speech with, "any questions?" Fortunately, I had a supportive audience and we all survived.

It was time for me to get out of the minor round table set of ideas and raise my bar of preparation and Japanese ability to the pro bowl. I vowed I'd keep plugging so I could rally in the Horseshoe with or without the boost of cheerleaders. It only took about half a year until I could look at a bowl of chirashi zushi as anything but humble pie again, but I face it with vigor now, with or without the plum wine chaser.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Joy of Sea Mail

The slow boat brought card board boxes from Ohio so welcome that it was worth clawing through my dad's 6 layers of duct tape to get to the goodies. It didn't matter what was inside, the thrill and anticipation began the moment my eyes landed on the package slip in my mailbox. It was a collection of valuable random. My mom would toss in outdated bank statements, third class brochures that came to the house in my name, and clippings of the society page in our hometown paper if they featured the third cousin twice removed of a friend of a friend's hairdresser. I'd read every word of each enclosure, including the multiple notices from Discover card for being pre-approved, and even the "you may already be a winner" come-ons. Yup, I was already a winner all right: I had bubble wrap all over my floor and I was combing through treasures sent from home.

I felt like a kid again, getting little surprises like I did in my brown bag lunch in elementary school. I was reaping the benefits of the Sam's Club Boom from my parents, by then empty nesters yet nonetheless getting items in bulk: mini boxes of sugar cereal, flavored coffee creamers, tea bags, peanut butter on cheese cracker packets, dental floss, band aids, deodorant -- whatever they didn't need a year supply of, I got 2 valuable month's worth of bliss. The piece de resistance would be a VHS tape. They would just run a tape on record when they went to sleep and I would have TV from home. This helped make me truly happy, and certainly helped me make friends fast. The way the handful of foreign teachers in the apartment complex passed around tapes is the way I picture prisoners using cigarettes as currency. In an emotional way, we were in similar situations.

Japan could make the most state of the art television sets, and certainly their goofy game shows are known world-wide, but after a long day of work, compounded by relearning how to ride a bike, flush a toilet and use eating utensils in the new land, familiar TV was music to the ears. I really could have been a spokesperson for Must See TV. That Thursday night line up kept us going. With the VHS tapes we would Pay it Forward. That is, the good deed and sharing rotated around the building, and others got their families doing the same thing. We'd watch everything, including weather updates 2 months old in a city 3000 miles from where we lived. It would be a waste of the comfort background noise of English in the vernacular to fast forward through commercials. I started to sing along with the car dealership jingles of Austin, Texas, and felt like I could really call the Father and Son team of paralegals in St. Louis if I was ever in a bind. In retrospect, I don't know why I didn't think of calling them to take action in times of trouble like when Seinfeld went off the air, or when the US discontinued surface mail discounts.

Now with the prevalence of the Internet, it's much easier to click "send" and get creature comforts from home sent to my door. However, I still like to think about the 2-3 month journey those boxes took to get to me. I felt it was a time-capsule of sorts, and for future generations of ex-pats, I might just bury the next box of Fruit Loops I get my hands on.

Language Lessons from an Elevator

Japanese are studious. English is compulsory. I let these two bits of my pre-departure knowledge of Japan fog the real need for tackling the language. I recall trying to fumble "konichiwa" to myself on the plane, which was on a word list in the on board flight magazine. The screech it set off in my mind was enough for me to close that idea while we were still on the tarmac. I proceeded to spend August '94 believing that everywhere I went, everyone was playing a joke on me. They don't know what they are saying. They are doing this to make the typical ethnocentric American think they are really communicating. It sounded that nonsensical and impossible to me.

My job was to teach English and attend to international related duties at the city board of education. The board of education office was on the 4th floor of a building that housed I have no idea what else. My world was about surviving the adventure of the day. It was a public facility. I took the elevator to the fourth floor. My Japanese knowledge was founded on this 17 second ride. "Doa ga shimarimasu, go chui kudasai," the high pitched operator tone recording would shriek when the doors closed. I could repeat that in perfect harmony (well, perfect monotone as the language sounds). Unfortunately this ego trip did little to help me navigate a ramen shop menu, or complete a transition at the post office. In fact, I don't recall a time in 14 plus years that, "Please be careful, the doors are shutting" have helped me an any Japanese conversation. Thanks to the elevator repeat after me lesson, I added to my bank of 6 well pronounced words by standing on the train platform: I could also do a pretty mean, "In just a minute, a train will be approaching platform 1, so please be careful." Again, I wasn't exactly on board the bullet train to mastering the language with this stock of mimicry, but it did speak to me, in the sense that, I do have the gift of imitating, and it was these recordings brought me to the starting gates of formal Japanese lessons.

My background of having studied, worked and lived in France, and then having taught French in Ohio, resulted in overly high expectations of myself in language. It took me a full month get a head above in the language, and no longer just stand a head above of the natives on the elevators and trains.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Bad Hair Decade

Granted I've been in Japan much longer than a decade, but I figure that the occasional reconstruction cuts I've had on my State-side trips to correct the damage over the years brings me to about 10 years of atrocious locks.

My first few visits felt luxurious and I enjoyed the feeling of being pampered. This was before the Spa treatment boom swept the States. It is standard practice in Japan to put a cotton cloth over your face to protect your make up while they wash your hair. That is so soothing because not only does it just feel good, it puts you in a relaxed state that does more than relieve the anxiety that your foundation might run. They massage your temples, dry out your ears (as odd feeling as it sound, but again, a welcome sensations since it's a "new" experience), and escort you to the chair.

This is where I went from Kathryn to Audrey in an instant. Audrey Hepburn lives on in Japan as a vision of good hair and dynamite clothes. Posters of her decorate hair salons, high end boutiques, English language schools and video stores. I wasn't getting her hairstyle, but I was getting the attention that I imagine she had in "hair and make-up" in her acting days.

The stylist would introduce herself, and 4 to 5 assistants were attending to the stylists with varying scissors on demand. Others just stood stadium seating style around me to watch. Each one had a turn at feeling my hair. I imagine that they are trained on Asian hair, which is, to my untrained cosmetic eye, is thick and straight. I have extremely fine, naturally curly hair.

It should have been a warning bell to me that my washed hair was treated like getting turns from Jack Hanna to pet the cobra, but it just made me think that they were attentive and thus, experienced with "foreign hair." The clipping began, which feels the same anywhere really, and I didn't necessarily watch since I was paying more attention to watching the reaction of my audience in the mirrors. I didn't chat either, and that wasn't due to the fact that, well, I couldn't, as much as it was the stylist gave the room a final putt at a PGA tournament silent, serious feel.

My apron is changed since there are some trimmings on it, and my hair is rewashed since they have soiled it with the show and tell. The second round of temple massage made the trips back and forth to the chair worth it.

"Perma? Perma?" I'm asked. "No. It's natural." (Too complicate to explain in Japanese but it also has a natural, more like inevitable, part on the right side and a calic flows it all over to the left.) I get some sighs in response that seem to question that fact, and they proceed to part my hair down the middle and blow my hair dry straight. I do not look like me, let alone nowhere close to Audrey. They end the do with two hair clips on either side of my perfect center part. I look like one of the poor bad joke kids from Revenge of the Nerds or something. They thank me for "my tiring effort," which is a set phrase in Japanese but it really did apply to what began a pattern of 1970 junior high school looks for over ten years.

It's raining, so they walk me out to my bike with an umbrella. The head stylist has an umbrella over my hair, and her assistants are carrying an umbrella to protect hers. A classy touch. Less classy, I mounted my bike, push up my umbrella, and zoom back home. Thanks to what I always curse humidity does to naturally curly hair, today it worked for me. By the time I got home, my hair was no longer straight, but nature forced it back to a first time welcome, frizzy natural, American state.

Priceless Panties

Much is written on the safety in Japan. I've had my bike "stolen" from a train station lot, only to eventually get it back after, as the story from the police goes, it had traveled from station to station, being abandoned each time by it's owner for the day, and picked up by someone else. It was finally recovered in a neighboring prefecture and the serial number traced it back to me. When the police called me to identify the body, I found it with more air in the tires than I had it in, with an oiled chain and a new bell. The seat was lowered to meet the height needs of the culprits, but I won this one and thus was happy with that brush with the law.

On another occasion, I was on a train ride with friends after a day of sight seeing in Tokyo. My friend placed her video camera on the rack above the seats on the train. Still unfamiliar with the trains, the complicated names of each station on the line, and the daunting speed at which the conductor calls the stop, when we scurried to get off at our stop, we leaped on to the platform without the camera. Looking back, I wish the camera was still running to catch our general panic leaping off the train.

By the time we returned to the apartment complex, there was a message on her answering machine from the station master: her camera traveled to the end of the line, arriving safely at its final destination 80 km away. The bike, the camera, well traveled and full of their own stories.

Unfortunately there is a seedy side to these blossoms of hope in a mostly crime-free country. Shitagidorobo. This crime, and the criminal, get their own word in Japanese, literally, "underwear thief." In Japan, you hang your clothes out on a clothesline on the veranda to dry. On any given sunny day, from the country side to the massive condo complexes downtown, properties are lined with futons soaking up the sun.

One nice, innocent day, I popped my clothes out on the line and headed out for the day. I returned to a lopsided view of what was left on my veranda: Only my OSU sweatshirt. Someone stole my underwear! I didn't know where to begin. First, I was shocked, thinking it was a joke. I ask my neighbors in the complex. They were shocked at my inquiry and thought I was the one joking. Shock turns to anger, since one of the items stolen was part of a set that wasn't out that day and now I've got a bra without it's cute pairing. Then feeling mad turns to feeling offended: Hey, what's wrong with Ohio State? Who wouldn't want that sweatshirt? OK, now I've reached the phase that I have been violated and should do something about it, and besides, it's a safety issue if somebody is that close and that interested in me, or at least my unmentionables (which are getting public mention here).

Then came a new kind of shock, anger, and feeling offended.

I hopped right on my bike and darted to the closest to police station. I explain what happened. They pull out a cryptic map that looks as clear to me as something Indiana Jones would use. I am to pinpoint where I live, and cite the veranda in question. I see a green dot on this map and think maybe that represents a park and wonder if I live near a park. I am getting nowhere and with a map - an odd irony. I tell them my address since I have it memorized, so they guide my finger to it so that I can officially "point" to the scene of the crime.

Then came the forms.

Probably standard, I'm to write my address on the top line. However, they explain that the simplified phonic alphabets are unacceptable on official documents so I have to write it in kanji. Unfortunately, my month plus sejour in Japan didn't result in a university level of writing proper names. Another rule, to somehow protect me, is that it has to be written by me in my handwriting. I just want them to stop with the formalities, jump in a cruiser and look for a weirdo roaming around with made in the USA tagged undies. But the frustration grew. They wrote my address on a scrap piece of paper, and I was to copy it as best I could. It was time consuming, and they watched as I butchered every stroke of the way.

We got through the address, and more worst dream came true when I learned my guess was right on the big, blank space in the middle of the paper. "Now sketch the items stolen." And I thought they looked on with curiosity when I wrote my address like a preschooler. I made stick figure quality drawings of roughly 5 undergarments and handed the paper back to them looking down, avoiding eye contact. At this point I didn't want them to look at me and start wondering, "if these were stolen, what is she wearing now?"

Then came the strongest feeling of shock, anger and feeling offended.

I was to value each item. However, unlike an airline losing luggage, they weren't interested in how much it would cost to replace the item, but how much they were worth at the time of the theft? What do you value your own used underwear? A quarter for the material? My mind jumped to the value they would be in a vending machine in the red light district of Tokyo - probably $100 a pair? Maybe more after hours or adjacent to a "love hotel?"

Humiliated, I went through the motions and totaled the value at 125 yen, roughly $1.25. Inside I was screaming with frustration. Yet that noise was soon replaced by the 3 times a day cop on a motor bike that would circle around my veranda and that was the most welcome hum of noise pollution I could ask for. The actual cost loss: $1.25. The value of the surveillance: priceless. My undies have been intact ever since.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Educating Kathryn

Let the frequent flyer miles begin.

Perhaps you do forget how to ride a bike, I wonder as my pedaling gets increasingly labored on the way home. I just left a sake- and sushi-filled welcome party in honor of my new position as a teacher at What’s The Name of the School in Saitama?, outside of Tokyo. The honor didn’t include a ride home in a car, so I’m on the trusty bike, which isn’t proving so trusty.

The bike has been my main conveyance for the past two weeks as I acclimate to my new life in Japan. I haven’t used a bicycle to get from point A to point B for 20 years, and the idea was refreshing, as if I was heading out on the flash-back to preteenhood ride into town.

Until now. It’s dark and cold, and I’m only vaguely familiar with the way back to my new apartment. The bike definitely is slowing down. Suddenly, it jerks to a stop, and I fall to one side.

I wonder whether I’m experiencing culture shock until I realize there’s a reason I’m feeling so chilled. My tea-length skirt has unraveled into the bike chain. I’m left nearly bare from the waist down. Still on the ground, I see a pair of men’s shoes offering a faint reflection of would have been my own blushing cheeks, had I the advantage of daylight.

It’s the chairman of the board of education, on his way home from the same fete. My rescuer dismounts his own bike, flings his tie over his shoulder in deference to the dirty work ahead, and systematically removes my chain, retrieving my skirt inch by inch. I’m speechless to the side, now coming to grips with what my mother had in mind when she always insisted to us kids to wear clean underwear “just in case.” He turns the bike over and puts the chain back on, gives the pedal a couple test spins and sees that the bike is on-line and ready for me to ride. He humbly hands me my evening wear scrap, reassembles his tie, wipes his chain-greased hands off on his hankie and rides off into the night.

Unable to even mutter a casual thanks in his own language, I’m again struck by the task ahead of me.

I’d taken a sabbatical from my post as a high school French teacher in central Ohio a month earlier, heading to Japan for a new adventure in teaching. Denial on the necessity of learning the Japanese language carried me through the first few weeks. I was well taken-care of by supervisors and friendly, sympathetic Japanese hosts. I was led through basic logistics such as setting up a bank account, registering as a foreign resident at the city hall, starting up the electricity and water services in my apartment. Now a legal alien with a functioning apartment, and access to cash on demand, I am ready for the new chapter of my “teaching life.” The apartment is quite modern. Every appliance has a remote control with some kind of timing device. In Japanese. Assuming that numbers going up indicate the climb to high power, I crank my air-condition to the highest option: 30. I wasn’t feeling much relief from the heat wave as 30 was apparently indicating the degrees Celsius, which means nothing to me until you tell me that is 86 degrees Fahrenheit. Outside it was 40 degrees Celsius, 104 degrees Fahrenheit, a temperature that you should not casually guesstimate for a fever when you call in sick, but we’ll get to that chapter later.

I didn’t realize that I was incapable of operating my hot water option for at least the first week. Again, an electric hot water control gauge in the bath/shower area called for Japanese reading ability to operate. In 104 degree-heat, I am happy with cold showers, three times a day. However, as a guest in a country heralding its bath culture, the fact that I was not using hot water came as a shock to the staff at work. I brought up the inquiry casually in the office (as I grew dissatisfied with the cleanliness of washing my one lonely dish in cold water) and, as a result, unwittingly subjected the other foreign staff to a thorough in-house lesson on the importance of cleanliness, bathing and self-grooming. My attempt at explaining that I was, in fact, cleaning myself was sidelined, and “Educating Kathryn” became the seemingly assigned project for more than a handful of Japanese speakers of English at the board of education. Major language barrier strike one.

Every language teacher and language learner can share a survival story based on the importance of gestures. Mine was more of a horror story. I found myself a mime but without the pristine white gloves (that the taxi drivers wear, incidentally) mimicking a pig, a duck or a chicken in the grocery meat section in order to ease my surprise regarding, “what’s for dinner?” Other items, tucked into the aisles were labeled in Japanese as well, and more of a challenge if there was no unsuspecting customer or employee in eye-shot to help me act out the rhetorical “what is this?” question. Even if the reading requirement was minimal, that is, of the one-symbol character families, if it was off the page of the basic starter list of kanji for foreigners--person, moon, mouth, tree--I was lost. Rarely were any of these items on my grocery list, so I knew I was in trouble (Note to marketers – diagram everything during the packaging process—you’ll make millions internationally).

The stress of suddenly facing illiteracy as an educated adult set in, and one quick remedy for an Ex-pat is obvious: comfort food. The American staple? Peanut butter. I pick up a tub and look forward to my peanut butter and jelly sandwich. That I can do: I don’t need to read the functions of a microwave and don’t even have to risk setting the apartment on fire by miss-programming the oven or range. A classic PB&J doesn’t even necessarily call for toasted bread. I slap it together ready to reward myself from the grocery store battlefield. “Disgusting,” I muster as I practically choke on my first bite. I’m probably the first person in the world to concoct a miso paste and jelly sandwich. I’m stuck this evening with the ingredients for miso soup and jam on bread. My mouth waters as I wonder what the Tokyo prisoners are eating tonight. Tomorrow is a new day, I convince myself, crawling into bed. I can rest assured that I can dream in English and wake with this nightmare meal behind me.

However, the next morning fails to jump start my new day theory as I started believing that Japanese coffee is the most bitter, undrinkable beverage in the world. Thus far it was a mystery to me, but perhaps that’s why “American coffee” is a menu item in coffee shops and restaurants in Japan. I was often asked, “What do you call ‘American coffee’ in America?” “Uh, coffee,” I’d answer, expressionless. Days later I realize that the bag of sugar I was using to sweeten my brew was, labeled in Japanese, “salt.” (I repeat: note to marketers – diagram everything during the packaging process—you’ll make millions internationally.) The written word beats me again--language barrier strike two.

Perhaps the accumulation of cold showers, faulty air-conditioning skills, topped off by the miso paste sandwich and salted coffee meal plan took its toll and thus I came down with my first “cold” (what seems to be the catch-all term used for any ailment here, from sniffles to broken arm) in Japan. The first cold in another country doesn’t warrant a diary entry or a memento in the scrap book, yet the first trip to the hospital does. Dreaming of rediscovering the blissful simulcast interpretation on the flight, I head to an “International Hospital” in central Tokyo with the assumption that I will find English speaking staff to help me. An educated adult female has a comfort zone on how much help to accept. This I was going to do alone. The train trip into town was an adventure, with announcements at every stop in hurried Japanese (my guess it was Japanese – it was a language that I couldn’t understand, and was still unconvinced existed. I daydreamed that it was all some guise to make the foreigners believe that they understood each other. I was waiting for the game-show host to appear and tell me that I was the brunt of a joke…)

I made it to the hospital and met a doctor. Oddly, no language was exchanged. He handed me a small, empty, paper cup labeled with a print out of my name and pointed out of his office. I suppose we didn’t need to discuss what I was to do in the cup. Incidentally, in 20 days, I didn’t meet two toilets that flushed alike. That didn’t seem significant until there were red and green buttons in the restroom. Green means go and Red means stop? Unfortunately, I was not driving the toilet. Green set off an alarm. A loud alarm. Nurses charged in to tend to who was having an emergency. Yes, I was having an emergency. I needed language lessons immediately: Is there an ICU for that? The diagnosis: major language barrier strike three. Flying in the opposite direction, did ground-breaking pitcher Nomo fare this poorly in his first month?

The above unembellished, unedited accounts represent down right blunders of the brain. What really sent me on a language school search was the blunder of the heart which came next, the bike teaser I opened with. Recovered from my apartment set-up virus, super market symptoms, and common cold due to a mild case of culture shock, I learn of a welcome party in my honor sponsored by the board of education. Ready to turn a new festive leaf, I humbly accept. My employer will host. It’s an opportunity to salvage my pride from five star gaffes thus far. In dutiful preparation (note that the new leaf has begun: the aforementioned concepts of humility, saving face and duty are revered in Japanese society. I’m fitting right in!), I take the obvious steps to impress. I bathe thoroughly thanks to my lesson on self sanitation, dress well, and set off for the venue on my city-issued bike.

This is not a mountain or touring bike. Modern Japanese view the bicycle as a practical mode of transportation, a concept that America weaned before my time. This bike resembled my first bike. It was purple (incidentally my favorite color. Incidentally, not my lucky charm), upright, one-speed, and had a front basket for groceries (or for briefcases for the business clientele. It was a new first--I wasn’t training for an athletic competition, and I didn’t have training wheels. Little did I know, training wheels might have been a good thing.

I arrive in time for the opening toast, speeches, introductions, and we are set free to mingle about at this what is something close to what I know as a “cocktail party with heavy hors d'oeuvres.” I’m surrounded by pseudo-Japanese speakers of English who tend to be fluent in the slow, drawn out; “Myyy naaame isssszzz” introduction, and then they insert their last and first name at bullet native Japanese language train speed. I stare down patiently at my mini soy sauce plate with broken in three places disposable chopsticks and thank the Great Buddah for the Japanese catch-all honorific title, “sensei,” which is used for pretty much any master of his field. I write-off the idea of learning any proper names, and focus my energies on not flipping a piece of shrimp tempura across the room to land on NameThatSensei’s plate. The appetizer menu is weightier on the octopus tentacles than the deviled eggs, but I gum my way through the evening, gastronomically and audio-visually. Flowers, photos, and the closing good-bye clap end the evening and we file out of the venue and go our separate ways. Survival Welcome Party 101. I pass with flying purple colors. Not so fast—literally—soon after my newly established success rate stalls.

Training wheels, athletic shorts, grocery shopping helpers, or trouble shooting toilet flushers – these were superficial accessories that were not going to dig me out of my culture gap hole. The desire to learn the language got three dimensional that instant when I stood speechless out of not knowing how to express my sincere gratitude the way I felt when the chief of the board of education unraveled my skirt and pride out of the bike chain that night. That grease stain was not going to come out until I made strides to communicate my “pleases and thank yous” the way I was raised. Educating Kathryn had only just begun.