Archive for the 'Thoughts' Category

Maybe

Sunday, December 11th, 2011 by Steph

If you were here,
we’d stare slack-jawed at the sky
as bats the size of small cats sublimated from tall trees at sunset.

We’d eat passionfruit by the spoonful
until our mouths puckered in protest.
We’d weave in and out of traffic like ninjas,
immune-oblivious to automotive laws.

We’d smile and then grimace
as garlic and fermented fish paste floated through the air
and then punched us in the face.

We’d take refuge from thunderstorms more ferocious than you could imagine
and listen to the fat raindrops play across a city of tin roofs.

We’d tease small children
and they’d tease us back.

Maybe you’re entertaining a temperamental redhead.
Maybe you’re winching and hoisting,
or doing battle with sparrows on your porch.
Maybe you’re respecting boundaries while searching for loopholes,
or putting the finishing touches on your fantasy football team.

But if you were here, you’d inhale your first breath of Cambodian air
perfumed and smoky,
as the intense red dirt worked its way into your skin,
then sank into your bones.

We’d watch cats chase geckos chase moths chase their own trails
placing bets on the victor over a 50 cent beer
and I’d tell you stories
that you wouldn’t believe…

I swear the flood waters rose this high
and the fire was just there across the riverbank
and that’s where they caught the crocodile.

We’d share an exasperated glance,
water shut off again after dinner.
Water shut off again before breakfast.
Water shut off again during your shower.

We’d be engulfed by proceedings both somber and joyful
then fight our way to sleep through dogfights
to be shaken from our beds at 6am by Khmer pop music
or chanting monks
or the horn repair shop just across the street.

We’d stuff ourselves silly on porridge and baby duck eggs
noodles and durian,
eggplant and pork.

Maybe you’re caressing clay.
Maybe you’re getting laid or getting high.
Maybe you’re 二日酔い.
Maybe you’re selling mattresses,
or assembling your shrine to Amanda Palmer.
Maybe you’re comfortable and inertia is a bitch.
Maybe you’re trying to figure out what to do with all the kale in your fridge,
or waiting for your Next Big Idea while corralling kiddos.

Which is really a shame
because we’d conspire like thieves,
and laugh like fools,
and live like there was no tomorrow
if you were here.български икони

Things I’ve learned in Cambodia

Monday, July 18th, 2011 by Steph

A little list of Lessons Learned in honor of my 6-month anniversary here, one per week, just for fun:

  1. Everything is negotiable.
  2. Always look over your shoulder when changing direction, even if the traffic laws are on your side.
  3. There’s an art to cutting the perfect pineapple.
  4. To set up a cricket trap you need only some clear sheeting and a shallow pool of water.
  5. Duck embryos are best with lime juice and pepper.
  6. There’s a dark seedy underbelly to karaoke.
  7. If there’s less than 4 people on your moto, you are not using it to the fullest capacity.
  8. Why there are so many batman.tuk tuks (just because).
  9. The wats start rockin’ out at 4:30 in the morning.
  10. Sometimes it’s better to have your freedom than to have a full stomach.
  11. You can totally jump off that high tree branch into the river. Empirical evidence suggests that you get extra points for doing it w/o clothes.
  12. Sedans only rise to their true glory when filled with 8 persons (4 in front, 4 in back)
  13. 11am to 1pm is best spent sacked out in a hammock.
  14. The louder the music, the better the celebration.
  15. Nothing livens up a morning meeting like a fresh jackfruit. Or durian.
  16. There are better countries to be a dog.
  17. There are worse countries to be a dog.
  18. If the internet, power, or water goes out, it’s totally Vietnam’s fault.
  19. The New Year is an excellent opportunity to smash.powder onto people’s faces. And do lots of other.silly.stuff.
  20. Adults are crazy.
  21. Baby crocs don’t bite.
  22. Moms are the same across the world.
  23. $2 buys a lot of bananas.
  24. Monks can be flirty.
  25. There’s no where I’d rather than be in the dry season than floating on the Mekong. Preferably, without a boat.
  26. Never underestimate the utility of a good porch.

икониПравославни икониикони на светцииконописikoni

Rant from a six-hour drive

Tuesday, December 29th, 2009 by Chris

Today we drove from Los Angeles to Davis, California, a six-hour drive along mostly open highway. This gave me a lot of time to think while the car zoomed along on cruise control — and many opportunities to curse the dumb design of cruise control interfaces on just about every car out there.

Cruise Control

Who designed the “standard” cruise control interface? It’s a horrible overcomplicated mishmash of awkward abbreviations and mysteriously organized functions. I can’t decide if it was put together by an over-precise engineering team or a feature-obsessed middle manager.

Consider:

  • Why is the on/off switch separate from the others?1 Setting the speed requires two button presses when it should only take one.
  • What on earth is the practical difference between “off” and “cancel”?2
  • Do we really need two extra buttons to make the car go faster or slower? Cars, after all, are already graced with eminently effective and much-used speed controls. Having “accel” and “coast” buttons is like adding a joystick down on the floor so that you can steer using the feet that are left sadly idle by the operation of the cruise control.

Imagine what the cruise control UI would look like as implemented by Apple. It would be like the iPhone without the fancy screen: one button labeled ON. You hit the button, the car keeps going the current speed. Hit it again and it turns off. I can’t believe nobody has done this yet.

Cancel rant. Rant off.


1As a computer guy, I can kind of see the logic in having a separate on/off control. After all, the system is managed by a computer that needs to know whether it should be listening for commands at any given moment. Maybe, back in the dark ages of computers when cruise control was first implemented, the system may have had significant startup time, requiring a few seconds of warning to get everything in order for the “set” command. But that’s certainly not necessary today — the whole car is essentially managed by computers nowadays.

2I understand the technical difference, but it’s a stupid thing to bother the user with.

Back in the USSA

Friday, July 31st, 2009 by Steph

If you’re going to move from the Middle of Nowhere, Japan back to your home country of America, there’s probably no better place than Los Angeles to fully embrace all that culture shock has to offer. Amidst the hubbub of the big city, reeling under the influence of jet lag, I had difficulty creating a coherent thought. Numb and overstimulated, I could only think: big. loud. bright. backwards.

Have I been changed in any permanent, meaningful way by my 3 years abroad? Probably, but whatever. It’s the little things I’m confronted with on a day-to-day basis that fascinate me now. Firstly, you’ll have to forgive me: I am slightly disoriented because the air doesn’t smell like fish. I am embarrassed by the degree to which I am in awe of raspberries. Portion sizes seemed to have quintupled overnight (look, a salad twice as big as your head! Good luck, friend!) Also? Flushing a public toilet by hand seems unspeakably vulgar, now that I’ve become accustomed to flushing squatters by foot.

We’re only here in the US for 3 days before we leave the country again, so I feel little need to acclimate to my homeland. Instead, I spend my time obsessing over every odd little detail. Everyone gets a menu when eating in restaurants, revolutionary! Soap and paper towels in public restrooms, brilliant! I can explain nuances clearly and competently to my doctor, fantastic!

But a more sinister side of America has started to manifest. Isn’t it unsanitary to wear one’s shoes into the bathroom? Why are you prescribing me medicine I can totally do without for $400 that I clearly can’t afford? Why, in a country fighting an epic battle with obesity, does it cost $15 to go to the gym for the day? And when I arrived in LA, I witnessed a street so clogged with traffic that a fire engine literally could not get through to its destination. How is that a workable plan? Why has this city not yet burnt down to the ground in a puff of smoke? And why does the main topic of conversation seem to be about all the stuff people have bought and how they can buy more?

It’s a novelty to be able to buy nearly anything I need with a credit card, but living in a country with tips means I can’t get rid of the spare change which increasingly weighs down my wallet. The frenzied rush of the LA freeway system, which functions on a totally different level from the equally crazy landscape of Japanese driving, also takes some getting used to.

The California public schools, I am surprised to note, are gorgeous! No prison block educational facilities here to insult the eye. Small community parks are green and luscious instead of bare patches of dirt. The backwardness of this confuses me though: it is a desert here in LA. Shouldn’t we have the parks made of dirt, and Japan have the lush green grassy expanses for kids to play on…?

And then there’s that weird SoCal phenomenon: the perfect 72-degree day with cloudless skies that stretch blue and flawless to the horizon. The first day of this weather was glorious, but after 3 days I began to get twitchy; it seemed unnatural after coming from Japan where I felt I’d been living under a little grey raincloud for 3 years. It only adds insult to injury to Noshiro, which was still probably drying out from the flood less than a week before (the second flood to hit that tiny town in two years).

Where, may I ask, are the cats on leashes? The onsens to soothe the aches and pains from lugging 80kg of luggage by hand across the Pacific? Where are the grannies bent over nearly in half with their pushcarts, elbowing people in the ribs as they plow through a crowd or brazenly stopping traffic as they meander out into the road? Where are the ubiquitous vending machines (they seem to have been replaced with an ample sprinkling of trash cans, a fair trade in my mind). And then of course, there is the soul-crushing smog, which brings us to the Californian existential question: Is it possible to fully enjoy perfect weather if you can’t see the horizon?

And not to belabor the point, but where’s my cashmoney, America? My bank seems to have vaporized sometime in the last year when I wasn’t looking. Washington Mutual, where are you? I thought you were going to meet me with flowers at the airport? I can only hope that the remnants of my life savings are floating around in the aether somewhere waiting for me to reclaim them when I return home this winter, ready to exchange cash for goods and services for my loved ones this holiday season.

A few more words on:

CELL PHONES
When I arrived in Japan, I grudgingly got the cheapest cell phone and payment plan possible. I’d never had a cell phone before, but I quickly grew to love it (you most of all, emoji!). Sadly, J-phones aren’t really designed to outlast the attention span of the average consumer (which is like 3 days), and at the end of my 3-year tenure, my phone was rebelling. The battery refused to remain charged. It also developed a rather suspicious-looking bulge which was getting bigger by the day, leaving me to nervously wonder when it was going to burst in a shower of battery acid.

Now that I’ve canceled my phone service abroad and gone through this exact process again in the states and I have to say, my new American cell phone… it sucks beans. Like an old friend I just can’t say goodbye to, my old J-phone is tucked away safely in storage. In the ruckus of repatriation however, I forgot to remove and dispose of the suspect battery. The worrisome bulge is probably still growing in my absence like some kind of space alien baby.

FOOD
In Japan, there were some hoops to jump through regarding food, for sure. Everyone deals with the scarcity of non-processed cheese, for one. And zucchini can only be procured during an obscenely short interval at the end of summer (pumpkin and daikon are, of course, available at any time). Some foreign foods, like Thai and Mexican are pretty much non-existent. So when I stepped into a Trader Joe’s a few days ago, I nearly wept with joy at the diversity I saw on the shelves. However, trolling the supermarket aisles later I was overwhelmed by the mind-numbing variety: do we really need Flamin’ Hot Cheetos con Limon and Cheddar Jalapeno Cheetos? Would America be any less complete if we did away with the whole aisle in the grocery store dedicated to Oreos and perhaps replaced it with only a pack or two? The variety of edible products really seems to have proliferated to an absurd degree in our absence.

WORDS
When I first moved to Japan, I found the new language overwhelming. My brain overloaded as it tried to sift through all the text seen and sentences heard and come out with something sensical. And it would grind to a screeching halt every time. After 3 years in northern Tohoku, I’ve learned to filter efficiently: focus on the pertinent, and ignore the rest. But upon arriving in LA, I find that I’m experiencing the same phenomenon all over again, only in reverse. I’m compelled to read everything, listen to everything just because I can. Advertisements for real estate. Strangers’ conversations. Sensationalist TV shows on FOX. And this effortless and immediate ability to comprehend everything is, frankly, wearing me out.

ALCOHOL
I felt the old puritanical attitudes toward alcohol come flooding back as I sat in my favorite brewery, void of ID. Imagine my embarrassment when at 32, I had to ask my dad to order beer for me. I then covertly sipped said beer from a straw because I know how fierce California establishments are about monitoring underage drinking. I’d grown complacent after all those izakaya visits and forgotten to bring either my passport or my drivers’ license. At 32, why can I not just order beer in this country? You’d think the grey hairs on my head would be proof enough (although now that I think about it, some of my 12-year-old students in Japan sport more grey than I).

RELATIVE SIZE
For the first time in my life, I felt average-sized in Japan, as I’m only slightly below average in height and slightly above average in other bodily dimensions there. In America, I feel categorically small again. I’m not sure how to feel about this. I can easily find clothes that fit me again (yay!) but I am no longer the bustiest girl in the room by default (boo). I’m no longer comparing myself to the stick-thin girls I was surrounded by in Japan (yay!) but I have zero visibility now when in a crowd (boo).

You may be tempted at this point to ask: Where next? All of this culture-comparing is nice and all, but where are you going to live, girl? To which my response is: Run away! Yes, I’m avoiding such weighty questions by going on the gap year adventure that I was too serious and focused to take when I was actually 22. We’ll be gone for 4-5 months (I promised the fam I’d be home this Christmas) while we visit our friends living far and wide. Hopefully, whatever comes next in life will sort itself out in the meantime.

Wish us luck, stay in touch, and see you on the other side!

While I’m slightly below average in height and slightly above average in other bodily dimensions in Japan, in America I feel categorically small again.

Things I will miss about Japan

Saturday, July 11th, 2009 by Chris

As we prepare to leave Japan in two weeks, I’ve finally gotten around to something that’s been in the back of my mind for most of the three years we’ve lived here: writing down the things I love and hate about the place. Last week I griped about the things I find most annoying. Now it’s time for the bubbly conclusion.

So here’s the stuff I’ll miss when I go.

(more…)

Things I won’t miss about Japan

Monday, July 6th, 2009 by Chris

It’s now less than three weeks before we leave Noshiro, our home of the last three years. In that time we have come to feel at home in Japanese culture. Like any culture, Japan’s is a combination of splendid and infuriating traits, and I’ve been tossing this idea around in the back of my head for almost our whole time here. So now that we’re approaching the end of this adventure, I wanted to commit to writing my take on the better and worse parts of living in Japan.

In the spirit of leaving the best for last, I’m going to start with the negative stuff. Some of this may come across as a snarky self-superior bitchfest; if so, that’s certainly not my intent! Indeed, my aim is to attain an Obama-like state, wherein I float serenely above mere human opinion and see all sides of an issue. Only funnier.

And so, these are the things I won’t miss about Japan, in no particular order.

(more…)

Onēsan at Last

Tuesday, March 10th, 2009 by Steph

The honorific おねえさん (older sister) was first bestowed on me by the kids in my taiko group simply as a consequence of my age: I’m considerably older than they are, but not quite as old as their parents. My first two years here in Noshiro, I taught practically all of them, and Onēsan seemed like a convenient enough title when we were going about our business in taiko rehearsal.

This year, however, I was relocated to a bunch of new schools, and I now no longer teach any of my taiko kids. This has had some unexpectedly delightful side effects, as I’m now free to act more like a sister and less like an authority figure.

Last weekend we all attended a 2-day taiko workshop. At the evening’s enkai,  I finally felt the taiko kids fully embrace the title of おねえさん and all of the responsibilities that it entails. All you older siblings out there know the drill, but I’ll break down my role for the rest of you.

Being おねえさん means:

  • issuing orders and having them carried out. In this case it meant getting an unusually bossy 10-year old to go and fetch a rag to clean up my drink, which she spilled while exhibiting excessive exuberance. The miracle is that she complied immediately and without complaint.
  • allowing fingers to be dipped in beer foam. Foam swiping is all good fun (who doesn’t like a finger or two in their drink?), but the problem was that this then escalated to whining and pleading for beer. When I looked to their usually no-nonsense mother for help, we found her curled up in a corner next to a friend giving us a hopeful and encouraging “thumbs up” sign.
  • making sure that one of the kids keeps my glass full of beer at all times during the enkai. I left this somber and sacred duty to the 14-year old to my left.
  • wiping up spilled alcohol with the children’s socks that litter the floor. This is an excellent alternative which is readily at hand, in case those rags are just too far away.

and, of course, just generally inciting them to silliness.

Other pieces of information gleaned from the taiko workshop include:

  • A time-tested method for finding an enkai’s after-party, which is this: Wander the halls of the hotel which houses all of you, listen for the loudest room, and burst in with a full bottle of JINRO to join the party. I know this because that’s how the TWO roving bands of drunken Japanese taiko players found my modest post-party. By the end of the night, my small two person room contained 9 drunken men (some of whom had to be extricated by force) and one set of bongo drums.
  • How to drum for two days straight with a broken rib, as demonstrated by one participant from Kamikoani. Taiko people are hard core.
  • The first hard evidence I’ve seen in Japan of the global meltdown: enrollment in the workshop was visibly down from last year.

And, lest you think that taiko workshops are all about drinking beer and mistreating children, here’s the new piece we learned in 8 hours:

Opinionated

Thursday, February 12th, 2009 by Steph

One of the fun things about being friends with a reporter is receiving that 3 a.m. phone call, and doubly so in Japan. It’s always exciting to hear “Help! I need a foreigner’s opinion, ASAP!” on the line and realize that you are about to single-handedly represent everyone in your entire country to a sleepy little Japanese town of 50,000 in the middle of nowhere.

I got this phone call a few weeks ago, just after Obama’s inauguration. Reporter Friend asked me for my opinions on Obama vs. Bush and the current political climate in the U.S. (a place I haven’t lived for 2+ years, may I remind you). While Reporter Friend has a commendable working knowledge of the English language, there is still an appreciable communication gap between my faulty Japanese and her decent 英語, especially when it comes to topics like anti-intellectualism, wire-tapping, and fear-mongering. When it comes down to it, anything with a hyphen is probably kind of off-limits.

Nevertheless, Reporter Friend made valiant efforts to break through the 言葉の壁 and was able to produce her article. I know this for a fact because one of my spastically-endearing 15 year-old students texted me the morning the article was published to tell me how famous and amazing I was for having opinions (?_?). This all made me a little self-conscious… who knows if anything vital was lost in translation. For all I know, the article says that I’m a hard-core supporter of Gitmo and that I hate babies.

The finished product is below, peruse if you like. If any of you Japanese-speaking superstars out there would like to translate, I’d love to know what I “said”.

Until then, I can neither confirm nor deny that I may or may not have opinions about stuff… and things.

The Obama Effect

Thursday, November 13th, 2008 by Steph

…wherein I make heroic efforts to avoid words like “historic”, “hope” and “change”.

It started with the bulletin board. I’ve worked here for over two years and haven’t put a damn thing up on that English corner bulletin board. I’m just not a cutesy cut-and-paste scrap-booking bulletin board type. But last month? I finally had something to say.

I usually don’t talk about America in the classroom. I figure the students get inundated with enough crap American culture, I’m not going to force more on them… but, inspired by receipt of my absentee ballot, last month I made an exception and posted some information about the upcoming election. Pictures of McCain and Obama went up, along with a rudimentary explanation of Democrat vs. Republican. High school students began to gather around the board, giggling and pointing, looking confused but interested. This could be good, I thought.

Then last week in the days leading up to the election, I had the good fortune of working with my favorite Japanese teacher of English. Let’s just call him Rockstar, for his stellar teaching talents. Rockstar and I started class like we always do, by asking the students how they’re doing, and they respond in kind. In lieu of my usual schtick however, I responded by physically jumping up and down. Why, you ask? On Wednesday morning, I told them, we’ll find out who the next American president is. Be excited.

We then asked our 13 and 14 year-old students (impartially, of course) who they would vote for, McCain or Obama. To my surprise, everyone had very passionate opinions, like, way more passionate than I would expect from an American teenager. As it turns out, 95% of my students are for Obama.

How to explain this overwhelming majority? Some cynics theorize that Obama is popular in Japan because his name fits nicely into the Japanese syllabary. There’s also the small matter of Obama, Japan, a little fishing village which existed long before Obama the politician burst onto the scene a few years ago. However, Obama’s popularity with the kids is really no surprise… if you’re not avidly watching the campaign unfold, with the policy debates and the supposed scandals, all you have to go on is looks. I mean, who would you vote for, if you were 14? The young, hip guy with a smile or the old codger with a grimace?

My students verified this suspicion when we asked them to explain their reasoning. Most said they would vote for Obama because “He is cool!” or “He is black!” (which seems to lend one a certain mystique in Japanese pop-culture). One student though, blew everyone away when he simply replied: “Because Obama will see everyone as equals.”

Amazingly enough, one girl supported McCain to the bitter end, even after seeing all her classmates go for Obama. In a country that is all about not sticking out, at an age when you are dying to be just like everyone else, I was incredibly impressed that she stuck to her guns. Why does she support McCain? Because “Obama is too popular”. I didn’t delve any deeper, so we can’t be sure if she’s rocking the pity vote, or making blithe commentary on Obama’s messiah-like status. All in all, I was impressed with the students’ ability to express their personal opinion, especially when you consider that they’ve studied English for a year and a half, tops.

As Wednesday morning rolled around and electoral votes trickled in, I was on some kind of giddy caffeine-induced news high, drunk on information overload. Simultaneously chatting with friends, family, and my husband, we made the play-by-play back and forth as results began to pop up (Look, quick! Before it flips! Texas is blue! Go Dallas!) News began to trickle in about the rest of you as well: driving voters to the polls in Miami, last minute campaigning in Seattle, working long shifts at the polls in Ohio, stuck in chem lab in Texas, on the edge of your seat, waiting breathlessly in Harlem. As Obama’s electoral votes continued to inch towards 270, I raced off to teach for two hours. As usual, Rockstar and I brought up the election in class, that it was happening RIGHT NOW people, THIS IS NOT A DRILL! and if students wanted to know the results, they could come and ask me in person around 2pm to find out.

Little did I know that the entire school had been working on a research project about their hometown, culminating in an all-afternoon presentation. While this was a pretty awesome project, it may have stolen a little thunder from my election-fever. No matter… I went around from poster to poster, listening to students give speeches about the elementary schools they all came from, or what kind of fish swim in the river, or the best season to enjoy the local park, and it was incredibly sweet, actually. What a lovely way to celebrate and take pride in small town life (you know, the REAL Japan where the hard-working people with values live… ).

Then 2 o’clock rolled around. We were still rotating around the gym from presentation to presentation. But during those in-between moments, students inexorably gravitated towards me from across the room in groups of 3 or 4. In hushed conspiratorial voices, they would ask me「オバマかマケンか誰勝ったの?」After making them ask in English, and making a big “O” sign with my arms (also the sign for “Yes! Correct!” here in Japan), they would jump up and down, giving me high fives and celebratory terrorist fist jabs, then rush off to tell another cluster of students, who would approach me to start the process all over again.

But the most compelling moment was yet to come, when I returned to school on Thursday. Rockstar-sensei and I were on our way to class when he asked me to explain a little bit about Obama’s speech to the students. Unbeknownst to me, he had burned a copy of Obama’s acceptance speech to CD, and printed out hard copies for all of his students. I didn’t really have anything specific prepared. My impression was that he was planning on a 10 minute discussion, tops. To his credit, when I asked how much time I could use to discuss the speech, he replied “Take as much time as you want.” Anyone who has taught English in Japan while bound by protocol, anyone who has attempted to reach outside of the textbook, or tried to teach something which doesn’t fit neatly into the rigid government-determined English framework knows that setting aside agendas and schedules to learn from current events using real English is nothing short of miraculous.

We spent the entire hour going over the last 11 paragraphs of Obama’s acceptance speech, the part where the 106 year-old lady shows up to vote, and we stop for a moment to consider all she’s been through, to consider not only the hardships we’ve overcome in the last century, like war and inequality, but also all the progress society has made through technological breakthroughs.

To their credit, the junior high school students were familiar with just about every historical event mentioned in the speech (although it kind of blew their minds that this lady was born in a time without planes or cars). They nodded with hesitant familiarity as we went over (in English!) World War II, the first man on the moon, and even the Berlin wall coming down. They could understand how decades and decades ago, people were prevented from voting because of race, gender, or lack of money. What they hadn’t heard of and could barely comprehend was the Civil Rights Movement.

Using basic English we explained to our students about segregated buses and stores. We identified the “preacher from Alabama” as Martin Luther King (flashes of recognition here when Rockstar mentioned his name in Japanese) and that even though this man believed in protesting non-violently, he was still killed for his beliefs. When we stressed that all of this had happened less than 70 years ago, that was the kicker. That’s what they couldn’t believe. And that’s when it hit home, how this woman mentioned in the speech had been born some 40 years after the end of slavery, and had experienced the Civil Rights Movement and then lived long enough to witness the election of first African-American president. You could see the light go on, as students recognized the continuity and proximity of all these events, as they understood the context that makes this election’s results so extraordinary.

I am not a sentimental person. As such, I refuse to disclose the number of times that tears have come to my eyes since the election was called last Wednesday; frankly, it would be embarrassing. But I will tell you that each time we began this lesson, my tear ducts would ambush me. First it was discussing the Civil Rights Movement. When I got that under control, I then lost it when we got to WWII, which Obama describes as the time when “bombs fell on our harbor and tyranny threatened the world”. Try translating that as an American standing in front of a class of Japanese school children. But the amazing thing was… we could all soberly acknowledge that this event happened, free of animosity on either side, knowing that even though our countries fought against each other in the past, we don’t have to be pigeon-holed by history. Tissue, please.

We wrapped up the lesson by discussing the “American Dream”, mentioned in the last paragraph of the speech. Until we began this conversation, I was unaware that many teachers and students alike in Japan have a very specific understanding of the American Dream. As it was explained to me, the Japanese interpretation has to do with the opportunity (possibly the right) to become rich and famous if you live in America. I explained my broader interpretation of the American Dream by making a list of some of the classifications that have divided our country in the past. Black and white. Rich and poor. Gender. Religion. And (in light of Prop. 8, thank you very much) gay and straight. And that no matter how you identify yourself, no matter what mix of all these things you are, you (should) have the same rights as anyone else. And (call me sentimental if you will) that if you work hard, you can achieve anything (even being rich and famous, if that’s your thing).

Now forget for a moment the larger-than-life oratory, the rhetoric, the poignant references to Lincoln and JFK and Martin Luther King. Forget the beautifully constructed arc of the speech, how Obama calls upon the citizenry for “service and responsibility,” the (dare I say it) historic drama of it all. Instead take in these words for a moment: “While the Democratic Party has won a great victory tonight, we do so with a measure of humility…” Humility. A word I’ve scarcely heard in the last 8 years, certainly not from anyone in the reigning administration, certainly not regarding current American policy.

While it remains to be seen if Obama will be an effective president, he is already having a profound effect in my small community here in Japan. Instead of asking in class “People who understand, raise your hands”, Rockstar-sensei now says “Yes We Can people…?” and arms shoot enthusiastically into the air. The English teachers aren’t the only ones who are jumping on the band-wagon. The Japanese teacher also took in a translation of Obama’s speech to study with his class this week.

As for the two of us? The night of Obama’s victory we went out to carouse, euphoric on an election high (just like the rest of y’all, apparently). I wanted to run like crazy through streets packed to the gills with humanity, but this being Tohoku, I had to settle for something a little more modest in scale. Eager to share our good cheer with someone, we headed to a familiar restaurant where we know the folks who run the joint. We shared the room with one other Japanese couple. The TV was on, rehashing election results, mostly just showing clips from Obama’s acceptance speech. As the Japanese translation scrolled by on the screen, we could hear the general consensus in the room: “Dude, I totally can’t understand him but he’s SO COOL!”

We knew, all of us, that despite the excitement, that despite all the hype, he’s not the ultimate solution to all things. He’s not our fairy godmother. Of course he’ll make mistakes. But for that moment, we allowed ourselves the luxury of basking happily and without reservation in the election afterglow, drinking beer, feeling that all was right with the world, even if it’s not. At the end of the night, making our way out the door, we congratulated the two lingering couples on Obama’s victory. In return, their cheers ushered us out into the night, all of us flushed with mutual good feeling (and, let’s be honest, alcohol).

I’m not sure how election night unfolded for you, where you were, what you felt, when you heard. But that’s how it all went down here, in the boondocks of Japan.

We I like sex (Make up for adultery)

Wednesday, October 1st, 2008 by Steph

After two years of living in the same small community, it can sometimes feel like I’ve exhausted everything there is to do in Akita. The seasons may shift, the tides ebb and flow, I change my clothes every once in a while. But I still can’t shake this feeling of repetition, like I’m condemned to bike the same roads, wave to the same children, and teach the same classes over and over and over again. Which is why I’m always thrilled whenever I discover something that is genuinely new to me.

Take, for example, the main bridge in town, which crosses the Yoneshiro river. I bike over this guy all the time. I’ve watched sunsets and fireworks from this span. I drive over it on my way to onsens, to schools, to Aomori. But I’d never actually been under it before, until last week, when curiosity seized me, and I ducked under its low 4-foot clearance. Here, I found ample evidence that English is alive and well Noshiro, as well as graffiti, which has always been eerily absent in town, with the exception of this one scrawl by the river. Apparently high school students are incredibly motivated by the topic of sex (shocker!) and want nothing more than to tell you all about it in English. On the far side of the bridge, you can find a lovely “Welcome Motherfucker” salutation. This wasn’t the first thing I saw when I moved to Noshiro, but I kind of wish it had been.

Another recent eye-opener involves these discrete black, white and yellow signs that are posted throughout the countryside. They’re so discrete, in fact, that I didn’t really even notice them until a few months ago. Then I began to see them everywhere… the distinctive color scheme and the concise, clean design kept catching my eye. Last weekend, I went on a quest to photograph as many of these signs as I could find, and translate them when I had some free time. On a 20 km bike ride between Noshiro and the neighboring town of Futatsui, I found 11 specimens, often on old neglected buildings covered with corrugated metal, or next to these red and white “Orion*” signs which advertise the availability of “life loans”. What did it all mean?

Herein lies the beauty of the foreign language: when you first see signs in a language you don’t know, everything looks romantic and foreign and lovely. When I moved to Japan two years ago, I was thrilled to ride my bike down streets chock-full of atmospheric signs declaring: タバコ、お酒、おもしろ館. Now that I’ve become more proficient in Japanese, I know better: these signs are just hawking cigarettes, alcohol, and porn, just like everywhere else in the world. Comprehension is great, but sometimes, you lose a little innocence when you translate.

Such is the case with my mystery signs, because I found to my surprise when I translated them that they were advocating Christianity. Which is fine in and of itself, but some of the messages were a little pointed for my taste, including “Sin’s reward is death” and “Make up for adultery. Jesus Christ“. Before, these signs were just part of the scenery in the Japanese countryside, but now every time I see one, I feel like I’m being asked to consider my status as a sinner. It’s a little unnerving.

So, yes, there’s a slight loss of innocence there. But being able to understand these signs brings up a whole new intriguing set of questions. Christianity was banned in Japan until the Meiji era, and Christians (according to Wikipedia ;) ) make up about 1% of the population here today. Consider for a moment that the average frequency of these signs in my neighborhood is 1 every 2 kilometers. Where do they all come from? A little internet research reveals that these signs are not just in Akita, or even Tohoku, but that they can be found all over Japan.

As an outside observer with little emotional investment in the signs’ message itself, I’m fascinated by this phenomenon. Who put these signs here? Are the owners of all these buildings Christian? Or are they indicative of a vigorous canvassing campaign? Why do I see these signs mostly in the countryside, but not so much in big cities? Discuss potential scenarios amongst yourselves, and let me know what you come up with… in the meantime, I’ll be out cruising the country roads, looking for another sign from (or at least about) God.

*FYI, while this company’s name originally appeared to be “Orion” in a funky English font, upon closer inspection it is actually “マルフク” in a funky Japanese font. Go figure.