Friday, July 10, 2009

The Shine Has Gone Off

I've concluded that the shine has gone off of airing my private thoughts and experiences publicly, so I'm going to give up private blogging (again). This time, I don't expect that I'll be making a return trip.

Thanks to all of the people who read and took the time to be supportive and kind to me. I appreciate it.

I will be keeping up my other two non-personal blogs, will still be writing for Tokyo Journal magazine, and will perhaps return to Blogcritics more regularly as a means of airing my deeper notions and developed ideas. If you'd like to hear my thoughts on such topics, you can still find my thoughts on limited topics in these places. From now though, my private life and notions won't be out there for regular public consumption.

The other two blogs are:

1000 Things About Japan

Japanese Snack Reviews

And other ways you can access my writing:

My Blogcritics page

Tokyo Journal (at Amazon, though you can also buy it from Kinokuniya in Japan)

Tokyo Journal's web site

My first blog:

My So-Called Japanese Life

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Lunchbox That's Not a Bento

At one point last month, Kelly made a post about bento (Japanese lunch boxes) and asked, "do you bento?" I believe that real bento making is an art form and that it takes a certain character type and appreciation for that art to really make the time and effort put into it worthwhile. I think many Japanese people find it gratifying because they find presentation to be just as important as the quality of the food.

When I commented on Kelly's post, I said that I make a boxed lunch, but not a bento. Even if I were inclined to take the time to make a real bento, it wouldn't be the sort of thing my husband would want to eat. He won't eat cold rice, potatoes, etc. and there's no microwave oven at his workplace. Also, he doesn't like his food to touch, so artfully cramming a lot of different food into the same box is simply not going to work for him. Finally, he doesn't like a lot of fruit and vegetables so there would pretty much be a limited palette to work with in regards to what was used to embellish the box.

In our case, the preparation of a lunch box is relatively utilitarian, but it's a bit beyond the standard brown bag or lunch in a pail in terms of effort. I make my husband's lunch 4 days a week both to save money and because it's better nutritionally than eating out. He eats out once a week for some variety (usually at Subway). The preparation starts with making my own high protein bread. I have to make this about twice every three weeks and keep it in supply in the freezer. The loaves are actually on the small side, so even though he is the only one who eats it (and it is only used for lunch), it doesn't last terribly long.

I also make espresso shots once or twice a week to prepare cold lattes to take in his cold thermos, and also make hot coffee for his hot thermos. If that weren't enough on the caffeine front, I also send along a Diet Coke wrapped in an ice pack and about once a week prepare two liters of Brita filtered water for him to drink at the office. His office used to have a filter on the tap, but they recently removed it so now he needs his own water (and we don't want to create waste by having him buy 2 liters every week).

The box itself looks something like this. Everything is in a separate container so that the food doesn't touch and contaminate the other food with various odors, wetness, or flavors. From the left on the top is a sliced apple (turning brown, though I know a bit of lemon would stop that, he doesn't care), fig newtons, and a rare inclusion of a white chocolate peanut butter cup on top of a container of pretzels. Usually, he takes baked tortilla chips, but this week he's having pretzels for a change of pace. On the bottom is a container of carrots wrapped in a wet paper towel to keep them from drying out and a baloney and cheese sandwich on the low carb high protein bread.

This particular box looks more put together than usual because the fruit actually fits in it. Often, he takes a banana, strawberries, grapes, or a bigger portion of apple that won't fit into the box and has to be taken separately. Often, my husband doesn't eat all of the starchy or sweet components that are packed here, but because he works 2 long days that start at 11:00 am and end at 10:00 pm (and 3 more "normal-length" days), and swims before work, he wants to have extra food on hand in case he gets hungry during the long day. Usually, I get this box back with 2-3 of the cookies still in it, about 1/3 to 1/2 of the pretzels or chips, and sometimes a portion of the sandwich as well.

He's not a big eater, and doesn't eat all of the carbs in particular. He'll almost certainly only eat half of that peanut butter cup, for instance, if he even eats it today at all. Sometimes he just takes it to work and leaves it there until he really wants it.

I've been making these sorts of lunches for him for quite some time now, and now that we're looking at leaving, I'm thinking that I probably won't be doing this sort of thing after we go back to America. It's not so much because I won't want to, but because our circumstances will certainly be different. For instance, I expect to work full-time if I can find a job, and he expects to be a student somewhere. Because of this, I'm immortalizing this process that I'll have undertaken for 6 years for my future reference.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

No Energy to Be Angry

When I learned that the move to put a tighter leash on legal foreigners in a lame attempt to catch illegal foreigners had passed both of Japan's houses (lower house at the end of June, upper house yesterday), I was mad and frustrated. With the police's illegal drug testing and searching of foreigners for weapons going on, forcing us to carry cards with computer tracking chips seems like a drop in the bucket of violating our rights to peaceably go about our business. The Japanese authorities have no respect for foreign residents. They tolerate us. They're happy to take our tax money and apply it to the needs of the Japanese people. They'll use us as labor if they have no other choice or can't find locals to accept low wages, but they have no respect for our well-being or our rights as fellow human beings.

Mind you, I'm separating the government and legal authorities from the population at large. I don't think the Japanese population on the whole knows or cares about what happens to the foreigners amongst them. Some radicals might want us out. Some radicals on the other side might very much want us here, but the vast majority are indifferent and aren't going to use the power of their votes or their voices (which are the only ones that matter - every foreigner in Japan could protest and the government would not care) to help us.

Frankly, I'm sick of thinking about it and worrying about what is to come. I'm tired of feeling paranoid every time I step out the front door and wondering if this will be the day I manage to check the mail or step out to put the trash in front of the building, or go shopping, and some cop decides I need to be checked for I.D. or asks me to pee in a damn cup for no other reason than I have red hair and blue eyes. I'm fed up with it being an issue and with the Uncle Tom white boys and their apologist mentality. I'm sick of thinking about civil rights and civil liberties and living in a country where racism is condoned not only by the 98% that makes up the native population, but at least some portion of the 2% that is having its liberties and rights violated because they're too damn stupid to understand the implications of what is going on.

Frankly, I just want to accomplish what I need to and get the hell out of here. I know America is a mess right now, but at least it's a mess where I won't be treated like a criminal for no reason or surrounded by people in the same boat as me who have their heads so far up the ass of the Japanese that they can't see the clear light of day. I'm too sick of it to be mad about it. I just want to stay off the radar for the next 2 years and 10 months and slip away before it gets any worse.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

New Blog

Just a quick note to say that I've created and will be working on a new blog. This one is designed to help me track my feelings about leaving Japan. That is, both in terms of what I think I will and won't miss when I leave.

If you're interested, it is here. It's also linked to on the right under "The Flower's Features."

Monday, June 29, 2009

Peach Oatmeal Bread

In what may be a vain attempt to eat better by incorporating more whole grains, I've been poking about for more recipes to try and came across a promising looking peach oatmeal bread recipe on a site called "Slow Like Honey". The recipe apparently originally came from the King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking recipe collection, so I had more confidence that it might not be a dud (as so many of my experiences with Internet recipes have been).

It turns out that those King Arthur people know how to use whole grains. In fact, after trying this recipe, I'm inclined to actually buy their recipe book. My only concern is that it might use ingredients that I can't get in Japan, but I'll almost certainly still get it anyway given the rave reviews of it on Amazon and the fact that this turned out really well for me.

I did change just a few things (Splenda, canned white peaches rather than fresh ones or yellow cling peaches) and made a small mistake. I should have baked it just a bit longer as you can see by the picture above were the center is a little dark. The center is slightly still "doughy". I think a full hour (rather than my stopping it around 53 minutes) as the original recipe stated would have done the trick.

My loaf looks more "rustic" than the one pictured on Slow Like Honey because she pureed her peaches and I just chopped mine up into small pieces of about half about the size you'd find in fruit cocktail. I also didn't use fresh peaches as they're too good to waste on baking and too expensive in Tokyo.

Peach Oatmeal Bread
(adapted from King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking)

Dry Ingredients:
2 cups whole wheat flour
¾ cup unbleached bread flour
½ cup granulated Splenda (or you can use white sugar)
½ cup packed light or brown sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 cup old fashioned rolled oats

1 can white peaches, drained and diced into small pieces

Wet ingredients:
2 large eggs
1 cup milk
¼ cup vegetable oil
¼ teaspoon almond extract

Mix all of the dry ingredients together then toss the diced peaches in the dry mix. Whisk the eggs a bit then add the other liquid ingredients and blend thoroughly. Add the wet to the dry and mix until just moistened. Pour into a greased loaf pan and bake at 350 degrees F (180 degrees C) for an hour or until a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean.

My husband, who generally does not care for whole grain foods, actually liked this but was unhappy with the texture inconsistency with the peaches. Next time, I'm going to puree the peaches to get a smoother texture. We ate ours with butter this first time out, but I think it'd be just as good plain despite not being incredibly sweet.

A Big Bully

In a previous post, I mentioned an issue with one of my students who is going to college on a military base. At the end, I said that I would work out what this teacher wanted and was going to be like with a little time. Well, I have, and it's not good.

There area few ways I can figure out what the teacher is like and wants. One is through their comments, syllabus, and what the student tells me. The other is by listening to recordings of the class. Obviously, the latter is the best way to know what is going on, but I can't listen to all of each class she takes. That being said, I can scan through what is going on at key points.

First of all, the teacher is a bully, but a crafty one. He's the sort who you could easily imagine beating his wife in his private time. In the classes and in written correspondence, he criticizes, berates, and pushes the students on the one hand and then offers to have lunch with them, take them on tours of the base, and is nice to them on the other. The "carrot" and the "stick" approach really smacks of the man who gives his wife a black eye and then brings her flowers the next day.

Second, he will brook no explanation or argument which can be (mis)construed in any way to be what he imagines to be a challenge to his authority. If you say anything, he'll go off on an attack. For instance, he said some things which made it sound like my student had been drawing her ideas and information from external sources rather than offering up her aggregate knowledge based on being 45 years old and having taken a lot of other classes and insisted that she reference her ideas. When she explained that the source of her ideas was not from somewhere else per se, but from a body of accumulated knowledge, he got pissed off and wrote back a highly defensive letter saying that even he (and he must be the authority, after all) references 90% of what he writes.

She went out of her way to say that she'd be happy to find references after the fact and do what he wanted, but he seemed to completely ignore that part. Rather than see what she said as an explanation that she was not plagiarizing or lifting ideas without giving proper credit, he read it as a challenge to his authority to dictate how papers were to be written. This is the behavior of a bully who is insecure with any opinion other than his own.

My student was quite upset by his reaction, of course, and is going to write an apology. One thing about the vast majority of Japanese people, particularly women, is that you don't have to bully them to get them to study or cooperate. This guy doesn't seem to know the difference between teaching children (which he did in the past) and adults who are studying of their own volition and don't need to be pushed hard to do the work.

What is more, this teacher's way of explaining himself is not very clear and his requirements for weekly papers is absurd. Every week, the students must write two essays, but he expects them to reference them like term papers, even when part of the content they're answering questions for contains opinion questions. It's ridiculous for someone to expect you to provide references for their opinions. You get the feeling this guy is more in love with the letter of the law rather than the spirit when it comes to education. He's more interested in students following form than showing they have learned and digested the material.

Finally, he follows in the footsteps of a long line of teachers my student has encountered at this particular school on the base who does not actually know how to lecture. He spent the class I listened to relating old war stories of when he worked as a cop, criticizing other students, bragging about himself, and offering up his opinions on anecdotal cases. A structured, informative academic lecture was nowhere in the room. While I would definitely say that discussion of prominent anecdotal cases can be very effective in teaching material, this is not what he was doing. This is mostly finding a way to bullshit one's way through the time.

I told my student that, if she is ever hassled by the school in any way, I am going to fight for her like nobody's business because she has forked over a lot of money to go to that college and has never had a proper face-to-face lesson or teacher. The teachers, when they are qualified, are only so on paper. None of them seems to know how to conduct a real lesson or prepare and present material. They just hang out and chatter about opinions one way or another and make the students learn from the book.

At any rate, I'm actually responsible for my student getting in Dutch with the bully teacher because I advised her to explain things to him and helped her write the letter. This was a mistake on my part because I should have seen the carrot and stick thing as a bullying tactic, but I was viewing it rather personally instead. That is, I thought he was being nice to try and get her on as a private student (that is, steal her from me) since he says he teaches Japanese people privately. The truth is that this was an egotistical way of looking at it. It had nothing to do with what I might lose and everything to do with this guy's personality.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Now, It's Real

One of my former students recently returned from a year in America as a university exchange student. She told me that, now that she is back in Japan, she wishes she could go back to the U.S. because it was like it was "not real". I understand all too well what she is talking about.

When my husband and I first came to Japan, part of the appeal was that it wasn't "real". Everything you encounter carries an air of novelty and mystery. Even things like the Coke cans, which when we got here were small and short to the way in which your change is handed over to you in a special way when you make a purchase is a curiosity.

The "mystery" aspect is in all of the things you can't understand or have never seen before. You never know when you buy something which looks like a carton of peanut butter (because it has a peanut on the front and is next to the jam and Nutella) is going to be what you think it is or if you're in for an unpleasant surprise.

Even something as mundane as traveling from place to place is pretty interesting when you see the train zipping past houses whose design is different from the ones you saw back home. When you see the huge apartments full of "rabbit hutch" apartments, rice paddies, and temples and temple gates, it all seems incredibly unreal. It's as if you've been transported to some ethereal land where the rules you grew up with don't seem to apply.

In fact, one of the things which makes the experience of living in a foreign country less real is that you lack an awareness of the rules. Back home, you're fully aware of all of the crap your parents have been putting up with all their lives like taxes, insurance, and home maintenance responsibilities. When I got here, I had no idea about the need to file an income tax return, pay city taxes, or health insurance and nobody at my work told me about it. I was completely unencumbered by these things. All of the reality of adult life is suddenly left behind as you go about your business in ignorance enjoying the exotic nature of your surroundings.

I'm not sure when it happened, and I'm sure it happened very slowly, but Japan became completely real for me. The novelty wore off of how cute the cans of Coke were. I started to understand what was in all the mystery packages I encountered. Watching the girl at the department store wrap my purchase like a gift was less of a cute idiosyncrasy of the merchants in Japan and more of an irksome waste of material. Cute little Japanese ditties that I heard again and again in shops or on T.V. became as annoying as the cute little English ditties in stores and T.V. back home. And, of course, all of those expenses and responsibilities which I was blissfully ignorant of became crystal clear to me and I started to understand what people were saying rather than experience it as background noise which meant nothing to me.

After awhile, the the way in which living in a foreign country feels unreal because you are disconnected from everything fades and it's all very real. I notice this very acutely when I read blogs written by people who haven't been here as long as me. They're delighted by all sorts of stuff which is now so mundane as to hold little appeal for me. Summer festivals are now the rage, but I've seen more than my share of them. Now, they're like the carnivals I grew up visiting as a kid. They don't change, and you can only ride the tilt-a-whirl so many times before it starts to feel boring or eat snow cones and think they're a special treat. In Japan, the kakigori (shaved ice with syrup) is no longer appealing. The opulent tanabata festival in my neighborhood is just incredibly annoying because it blocks access to shops and the train station.

The fact that Japan is now "real" is probably part of why the shine has gone off of it for me. That doesn't mean that my perspective isn't a valid one, but it does make it irritating to other foreigners who have no idea how it feels to be here long enough for the novelty to wear off. It's part of what motivates them to assert that Japan is "wasted" on me or that I should leave. To a lot of people, I don't belong here anymore, but that's only because they can't begin to imagine what it's like to live in the "real" Japan.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Long Time, No See

This evening my husband and I were walking along the huge, snaking shopping street about 6 minutes from our apartment. One thing I'm going to miss after we leave Japan is the proximity and variety of shops that we have at hand. This street is one of several reasons we have lived in the same neighborhood for our entire stay. It's not only that it is convenient, but also that we save so much money on food at the cheap markets located on it.

At any rate, as we were walking down the street, a Japanese woman pushing her bicycle shouted out my name. I looked over at her and I had no idea who she was. Fortunately for me, she said her name and then I remembered her. She was a student who I taught privately for about 3 years about with the last lesson ending about 10 years ago. We stopped having lessons together when she moved to a city in another part of Japan then moved to Germany due to her husband being transferred.

I'm not sure if I remember correctly, but it is possible that this student was the first private student I ever taught in Japan. I liked her a lot and even went to see the sumo with her at one point. It's nothing short of amazing to run into her after all of these years. It's not only that she's back in my area, but also that she was on that street at the same time as us in the same location along the street. For the record, walking the entire length of that street if you don't stop and check out any of the shops would likely take 10 minutes at a decent pace.

We chatted briefly and I gave her my e-mail address and phone number. My hope is that she'll contact me and we can at least catch up with one another. If she wants to start to study again with me, that'd be all the better, but I mainly would like to see what she's been up to. She was pretty shocked, incidentally, that I was still in the same place. Such is the life in Japan that no one expects you to remain in the same place for long. I think she was also surprised that we were still in Japan.

At any rate, this experience is one that I have occasionally mulled over in the back of my mind. I have taught and met a great many Japanese people in my time here. Some of them came to my home over a hundred times, but I'm not sure that I would easily recognize the ones who I haven't seen in the past three years. And, no, I'm not trying to say anything here about all Japanese people looking alike. :-p

The main problem is that I have seen so many of them and it all becomes a bit of a blur after awhile. I recognize their names, of course, but not their faces. It doesn't help that I endeavor not to make eye contact with anyone when I'm out and about because it is taken as an invitation for strangers to walk over and start talking to me while I'm just trying to go about my business and head back home.

This time, I was lucky that she told me her name. I don't know if my face was as blank as my mind and she saved me from myself or if she just figured out that it had been so long and I might not recall her. I still wonder if the day is going to come when a former student or coworker comes along and greets me and I'm just left looking like the middle-aged woman with the Swiss cheese memory that I am.

A small aside about people "recognizing" me on the street. I once had an experience where I was coming out of the subway and a tall, foreign man with very little hair and what sounded like a German accent said "hello" to me in a familiar way and then asked, "you don't remember me, do you?" I said that I did not and he started talking about having worked out with me at some gym that we supposedly went to together. Since I've never joined a gym of any sort in Japan, he'd clearly mistaken me for someone else. So, sometimes people walk up to me and think they know me when they don't. That's pretty surreal given how few foreigners are around who look like me.