Sunday, September 28, 2008

The $25 Challenge

In the U.S. right now, some people are attempting to eat for a week on $25. This challenge is meant to simulate the lifestyle of a person living on food stamps who has to feed a family on $3 per person, per day. I learned about this challenge via the web site The Kitchn and read some of the blog entries by people accepting the challenge. If you read the linked posts, you'll note that many Kitchn readers smugly assert they can do it nutritiously with no problem and that they have already done this because of their judicious shopping at "farmer's markets" and great cooking skills. I'm sure one could do it for one week with luck and shopping coincidentally with harvest seasons and good sales resulting from said harvests, but I don't think it'd be so easy to manage year-round.

If you're not American and don't know what food stamps are, they are the means by which the U.S. government helps people on public assistance ("welfare", "the dole") while ensuring that they spend the meager amounts of money they're given on food rather than on ale, whores, and crack. I add that last bit sarcastically. Food stamps can only be used to buy food while cash can buy anything, so food stamps are a way of controlling behavior. Note that they can't buy other necessities. If you're on welfare and need toilet paper, over-the-counter medication, or new underpants, you can't use food stamps.

I grew up around people who lived on food stamps and my family spent one exceptionally painful Reagan-era year on them. That year was due to my father getting kicked off of his disability payments as his situation was "reassessed" by the fine Republicans who thought he was faking partial left side paralysis, left eye near blindness, crippling headaches, and a blood clot that could kill him at any moment.

Using food stamps is a humiliating experience. Clerks at the markets treat you differently than people who pay in cash. One of the CH's and my friends used to work as a cashier at a supermarket and she made scathing remarks about people who used food stamps to buy soda or junk food. She felt that, if she were assisting in footing their food bill, she had a right to judge how and what they ate. Never mind that she had lived with her parents all her life and never worked any job but low-paying dead end ones. If she weren't getting free rent and subsidized food, she'd find her perspective on life rather different. I daresay she'd need some public assistance herself if she were to live on her own.

My grandmother worked for many years of her life at a tree nursery. After she could no longer work there, she lived on public assistance because she wasn't strong enough, skilled enough or able-bodied enough to do more work. She lived in a trailer with no running water and used food stamps. The amount of cash people receive on welfare is paltry and she was "lucky" to own a plot of land and not have to pay rent. You can't live on welfare and afford real rent. You have to live in special low income housing or have your rent subsidized. You can imagine the wonderful quality of home you're likely to get as a part of that deal.

To get by, my grandmother worked "under the table" for a well-to-do woman who lived on a large plot of land and couldn't care for her own property. Sometimes my grandmother would pay one of her 8 grandchildren (my sister and I plus 6 cousins who were lying, thieving, drug-using hellions) to pick up sticks or rake leaves for her on this woman's huge property. The woman paid her in cash so the welfare people didn't know about the money. We'd also sometimes go with her to pick strawberries for 25 cents a quart. It was hot, hard work for pocket change. These were the only ways she could get by, though I didn't realize her hardship at the time.

Getting back to the challenge though, I found myself wondering what an equivalent amount of money would be for dealing with such a challenge in Tokyo. I have wondered in the past about the lowest amount of money you could spend and eat healthily in Japan. When you're forking over at least $1 per bit of fresh fruit in many cases, and sometimes more, it'd be awful difficult to keep numbers down. For Tokyo, I think 500 yen a day would be a doable, but difficult challenge. That would be about $35 a week, though I don't think that would be too hard if it was "per person". Covering one person alone would be much harder than doing 1000 yen a day for two people or scaling upwards for more.

It's a little harder for me to get a good handle though on what a reasonable low amount is for someone in Tokyo for two reasons. First of all, my husband and I buy in bulk and are drawing food from our stores of items bought from Costco or the FBC. We have determined that we probably are "spending" between 5000-6000 yen a week because of food we're using from the freezer or pantry. I spend another 4,000-8,000 per week on fresh food purchases from around the neighborhood depending on prices and eating habits. That means I'm spending about 12,000 a week in general for two people. The other reason I can't easily conclude anything about food prices in Tokyo is that our diet is pretty Westernized. Neither of us is much of a seafood fan and I'm not about to make tofu or beans for one. My husband is decidedly a meat-eating person.

If anyone who reads this post is eating a more Japanese-style diet and has some input on the type of numbers it requires, I'd appreciate hearing their thoughts. Sometimes I think a Japanese diet would be cheaper, but I'm not entirely sure. Rice is certainly a good buy (and I do make dishes with rice on occasion), but other things less so. I'd especially like input on whether or not 500 yen a day is an equivalent challenge to the U.S. $3 per day challenge or if it's too much or too little.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Kicking and Screaming

That title has a double meaning. Today, it's 88 degrees F. (31 C.) and so humid that you can sweat standing still in one of the multitude of stores with inadequate air conditioning. Summer is going out kicking and screaming and I'm just about ready to scream from putting up with it. I'd kick someone as well if I thought it'd clear the steam from the air and dial down the heat. The high temperature today, by the way, was 91 degrees F. :-p

My weather widget claims that the coming week starting tomorrow is going to be milder, but I've come to realize that that widget is a stylish-looking, slickly designed liar. Yesterday, it claimed today's high would be 84 (which would be bad enough with this humidity), but now it's 88. In fact, everyday it gives high temperatures that are lower than reality. You'd think it'd learn to fudge the numbers instead of giving me false hope.

The worst thing about living in Tokyo (barring a really bad earthquake which fortunately has not happened during my stay) is the summer. It starts popping up like an unwanted guest around late April and then starts becoming a regular visitor in May. By June, it's the smelly deadbeat who is sleeping on your sofa day-in and day-out who you're barely putting up with. By the end of September, you're ready to throttle that deadbeat to get it the hell out of your house. Summer has completely overstayed its welcome.

Cornerstones of Saving — Part 3

(This first paragraph is mainly going to be for the females out there, but it may apply to some progressive and/or cross-dressing males as well.)

Remember your home economics classes where you were taught how to make a pie crust or sew a skirt? Well, maybe that was my class back in the day. I'm hoping that lessons are a little more practical these days. "Home economics" should include learning how to economically run your home, not only how to cook and sew. Both of these are useful things to know, mind you, and I believe everyone should know them, but I do believe understanding how to deal with daily living less expensively should be part of the lessons.

My days often include teaching myself lessons in home economics. For example, I can buy a bottle of pre-made cold tea to serve students in lessons (or myself when I want ice tea) for about 250-300 yen or I can make my own iced tea for 30-70 yen (depending on the type of tea). Making the cold tea myself requires adding water to a pan, boiling it, putting teabags in a jug, adding the water, allowing it to steep and cool, and removing the bags. In terms of my time and attention to the task, we're talking no more than 5 minutes of effort, though it is peppered across across a span of time in tiny fragments. In other words, if I buy that jug of tea, I'm essentially telling myself that it is worth paying a little more than 2400 yen an hour for someone else to make my tea for me (5 minutes is 1/12 of an hour so 12 x the difference between my tea and the cost of the bottle which would be about 200 yen).

Now, if you're one of those sorts who writes blog bits for $10 a post and can whip out one every ten minutes and calculate your time as being worth $60 an hour, then my advice isn't for you. Though, honestly, this whole "my time is worth $X per hour" when considering the value of pursuing a particular endeavor is a pretty big load anyway. It presumes that all effort is equal and that all time is potentially similarly productive or that there is sufficient demand for you work to keep you busy such that you can't spare 5 minutes to make your own tea without sacrificing a moment of precious earnings potential. Also, seriously, I'd rather work less and spend less than work more and earn more. The mental and physical toll of pushing myself to work for more cash is far less than making a pot of tea, but that's really just me.

If you start to do home economics in accord with your lifestyle, you can see where you're making choices to pay someone else to do the work for you and make an informed choice about whether the effort is worth it to you or not. I'm not advocating that people stop buying the things they want or enjoying their lives, but rather that they apply serious thought to their consumption and the real costs of it.

A lot of people find the sort of "nickel and dime" thinking I'm talking about petty and feel that it won't save you an appreciable amount of money. Whether this is true or not really depends on how much you feel you have to save to make it worth your while. When I was living in the U.S., there was a woman who worked at the same halfway house as I who my 22 year-old self used to scoff at because she'd do things like cut up old calendars to use for notepaper. I felt that she was saving the place a few cents and it was meaningless. Similarly, I used to get annoyed with my parents for insisting I turn off the lights all the time when I left the room. I thought they were being cheap and petty. Now, I'm cutting up my old calendars and turning off all the lights.

Since environmental concerns and energy consumption have been something I'm paying attention to more and more, I've found out that these small actions result in meaningful savings. Over the last year, I've discovered that taking showers by intermittently turning the water on and off has reduced my gas bill by about $15-20 a month in the warmer months. Having an air conditioner with low power settings and having two air conditioners (one in the bedroom and living room) and cooling only one room at a time has reduced summer air conditioning expenses by about $50-70 in the hottest and muggiest months.

Over the course of a year, I've discovered that just turning off the lights and television when I'm not using them and showering more efficiently has saved us more than $300 a year in living expenses and we sacrifice nothing in terms of quality of life. All it "costs" is developing new behavioral patterns. That's essentially the cost of a new iPod Touch or iPhone. And it is a real savings. I know what I used to pay and what I pay now. I've saved the bills and done the comparisons. It's not theoretical.

I never crunched the numbers specifically on what other habits we've employed to reduce expenses have allowed us to do because it can get pretty complicated. However, I do scrutinize the cost of home-cooked meals compared to eating out on a regular basis and consider the cost per portion based on the type of ingredients. I mainly do this to dissuade myself from going for convenience over effort as often as possible. For instance, I know making my own chicken pulao costs less than 150 yen per serving whereas going to an Indian restaurant will set me back at least 1000 yen (very likely more) per person. The serving sizes will be bigger, but they will also offer more food than I require and result in waste or overeating. Making chicken pulao also frees me up for the next two evenings as we'll eat leftovers for two additional days.

I know cooking is out of the question for some people as is carefully shopping for cheap food or buying in bulk (which also saves money). I'm not saying what people should or should not do, but rather saying that, if you want to save, you have to start considering the price of convenience. It's very likely more expensive than you realize.

(This is the last one, I promise. ;-) )

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Cornerstones of Saving — Part 2

One of our fellow bloggers who also tends to talk quite a bit about Japan recently married a Japanese woman and came to Japan to live after completing university. He was concerned about debts from his education and getting them paid off as quickly as possible. I told him that my husband and I had managed to save nearly as much as his entire educational debt in the two years since I quit my former job so I was sure he could get those debts dealt with pretty quickly if he was careful with how he spent his money. (All the money we save, incidentally, has all gone into savings for when we're old and grey and can no longer work.)

You might assume that we make a lot of money. The truth is that we do not and our rent is pretty high (110,000 yen). The money we saved during those two years represented about 35% of our income. We don't make a small amount of money, mind you, but my CH isn't in a high-paying job and I only worked 5-10 hours a week from home during the two years in which we saved that amount of money. The way we save a fair bit is by not spending what we get. This isn't as hard as it may sound, but it does take awhile to reach a mindset where living well below your means doesn't feel like a burden or sacrifice. For us, it evolved naturally so we've never found ourselves pining for things. I consider us very fortunate in that regard.

I've come to understand that there are 3 cornerstones to reducing your spending:

1. Cook for yourself from real (whole) food ingredients (never pre-mixed, pre-bagged, or pre-made).

2. Don't buy new clothes or shoes unless you need them (never buy because they are attractive to you or you think you'll look good in them).

3. Never shop to entertain yourself or to mitigate unrest in your life.

If you follow these, your spending will be dramatically reduced. Most people waste their money on incidental items they rarely need or use, convenience, and the momentary "high" of obtaining something novel. If you scrutinize the pleasure your spending habits bring you, you'll likely see very few of the items bring long-term pleasure or fulfill recurring needs. Most of the pleasure you get is from looking at the items, considering buying them, making the purchase, and carrying the bag home. Once the item is in your possession, there is definitely a letdown for many purchases.

Most people can't get past the idea of "deserving" the reward of buying something they want so they justify wasteful spending as a way of making working worthwhile. They feel empowered by the freedom of obtaining what they want when they want it and choose the immediate small sense of freedom over the long term freedom that comes from financial stability and security. I won't say that, if you hate your job and have to placate yourself by buying junk, it's probably time to consider a different job which doesn't make you as miserable but may pay less because I know that's unrealistic for many people. However, it is worth considering.

I'm not judging anyone for their spending habits, mind you. We all make stupid decisions for short-term benefits because life is hard sometimes and some little tidbit can make us happy for awhile. However, if saving money is important to you, you have to change your entire mindset about shopping and the acquisition of possessions.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Cornerstones of Saving — Part 1

One of the reasons many people believe foreign folks come to Japan is to make big bucks. The general impression among Japanese folks is that we make a lot more money than they do. That's a half truth. If you're an underpaid Japanese office lady with a crappy job or a university student toiling at a convenience store or McDonald's for minimum wage, then that assertion is correct. If you do nearly any other full-time job which requires a university degree (and all us teaching types have to have degrees because we can't get a work visa without one), then it's probably not correct.

Most Japanese people calculate your wages based on what they pay to be taught by you, not on what you are paid. They assume you get a much bigger slice of the pie than you do. My referral agency charges students 4,900 yen an hour, but I get paid 2,800 yen an hour. I'm not complaining about the pay, mind you, but you can see how a student might think that I'm getting a great deal more than I am.

It isn't really how much you make but how you live which dictates how well you live here. One of my students is a nurse who makes less money than the average starting level foreign teacher salary of 250,000 yen. However, she also lives in a dorm provided by the hospital which only costs 22,000 yen a month and gets free meals at the hospital cafeteria. To put that in perspective, a super cheap accommodation in Tokyo for a teacher would be 50,000 yen a month for a shared place (gaijin house or shared apartment). If you want your own small place, you're likely paying 70,000 yen a month or more. In terms of food expenses saved, most people can't eat for much less than 30,000 yen a month unless they live on ramen. That means that the "perks" of my student's job as a nurse add to her salary to the tune of at least 70,000 yen each month.

My underpaid student who is a nurse told me that she spends 50,000 yen a month on clothes and she spends that much every month. She gives her old clothes away to friends and coworkers, but she has a constant revolving door on her wardrobe closet. She also goes to concerts and bars with friends at least once a week. Despite having a low income, she's certainly not hurting for discretionary funds.

After you live here for awhile, you understand that Japanese society is different from Western society in that jobs tend to take the average life circumstances of a person into account when deciding how much to pay. Most women who work as nurses are single and child-less because married women with children can't put in the sorts of hours required or be on call. Most office ladies are either married and working for spare cash or are still living with their parents so they aren't paying rent or shouldering the burden of supporting a family. Men who marry get raises compared to single men and men whose wives give birth to new people also often get raises.

Since life circumstances dictate how Japanese folks tend to be paid, but not how foreigners in usual foreigner jobs (teaching, translating, entertaining) get paid, it's hard to compare salaries. We are paid what the market will bear based on supply and demand. They are paid what their culture feels is appropriate based on their life circumstances in many cases (though certainly not all). Companies assume that you won't apply for a job which doesn't suit your needs and everyone "knows" that certain jobs are at a low pay level for students or housewives looking to support discretionary spending and no one expects adults who need to support a family to do them.

This is all my roundabout and tangent-heavy way of saying that how you live is more important than what you make in many cases when it comes to money. In Japan, the wages tend to reflect how they expect someone doing that job to be living. That's not to say there aren't people who simply do not have enough money to live comfortably, even in Japan where unemployment stats are low and it is currently a market (on the Japanese side, not the foreigner side at present) which favors job seekers over job providers.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Refried Beany Goodness

I've often pondered whether or not I could become a vegetarian if I really tried and I'm pretty sure I could if my husband could as well. One thing about being in charge of the vittles for two is that you really don't have the time, energy, or motivation to cook two separate meals (and the CH working 48 hours a week and my working 10-15 hours most weeks means I very much do not expect him to cook for himself). I do the two separate meals thing on occasion when he has a steak. I hate steak and can never understand the appeal of a big, bloody slab of it.

For me, the path to vegetarianism is blocked mainly by the prospect of double labor and losing the possibility of eating chicken. I really like chicken. In fact, I daresay that in the ultimate test of whether you're a hypocrite about meat eating, dealing with chickens would be a test I could pass. To me, that test is whether you would be able to do the dirty work yourself to eat the meat you enjoy or if you're only able to consume it as long as someone else snuffs the animal, cleans it up and offers it to you in convenient packaging. I'm probably less squeamish about dealing with birds because my family had chickens at one point and Henny Penny and her rooster boyfriends occasionally went on the chopping block so I saw their demise on occasion. Of course, I also saw deer butchered during hunting season and had the misfortune of eating squirrel and rabbit when times were hard. Poor folks have to do what they have to do to get by.

Getting back to vegetarianism, I do tend to eat vegetarian meals for lunch when I have the ingredients and the time to prepare them. Since the CH is usually chowing down on sandwiches of ham or the radioactive pink "fancy salami" (really, baloney) I can buy at a local markets, I'm free to leave a lesser impact on the environment and to leave some poor animal spend another day among the living. Often, I grill up a cheese sandwich because that's quicker than a more elaborate dish. It's also always a winner with a side of tomatoes and some nutritionally suspect Japanese powdered corn soup.

The makings of tasty, beany goodness.

If I'm really ambitious and have chick peas around, a far better deal is Chana Masala (on Mallika's excellent Quick Indian Cooking site), but garbanzo beans can only be purchased at shops that carry certain imports and I keep forgetting to have the CH check for them at Costco (where he can get a whole case). What I have remembered to have him pick up a case of, however, is refried beans and there's a really fast and easy way to make them into a nice lunch that takes them from having a canned taste and smelling like dog food to being fresh and tasty.

A long while ago, I had a get-together with a few co-workers and I served up some Tex-Mex including beans prepared in this style. One of my co-workers said he always hated refried beans before he tried them done up this way. The main point of this is to get some fresh vegetables in there to undercut the overly beany nature. This isn't so much a "recipe" as just a form of preparation. You need a food processor, hand mixer (everyone should have a hand mixer!) or blender of some sort, or be willing to mash and mix stuff with your own powerful arms.
  • 1 can refried beans
  • 1 tomato
  • 1/4 white onion
  • 1/2-2 tbsp. of taco seasoning (to taste)
  • salsa (to taste)
  • shredded cheese (optional)
  • chopped green onions (optional)
Core the tomato and cut into 4 or so wedges. Slice 1/4 of the white onion and cut the slices into quarters. Place in a blender or food processor and add 1-2 tbsp. of taco seasoning (I use 1.5). Process in pulses until it's half liquid and half pulpy bits. Spoon in the refried beans and process again until everything is reasonably mixed in. Put a portion in a microwave safe one-serving size bowl, top with salsa, and sprinkle with cheese. Microwave until hot then garnish with chopped green onions. Serve with tortilla chips, a flour tortilla, over rice, or eat as is like a thick soup.

I especially enjoy this over Tex-Mex style fried rice with jalepeno sauce instead of salsa (like Tabasco only green and distilled from a different pepper), though it is incredibly filling with rice, and decidedly more effort because you've also got to make rice. For lunch, I usually just have it with Guiltless Gourmet tortilla chips which we tend to have around for the CH's lunch boxes.

Those in Japan can get refried beans in Japanese stores that stock other Mexican food items, but they're a lot cheaper at Costco or through the Foreign Buyer's Club. You can also pick up a big canister of organic taco seasoning at Costco (which will last you ages, but cost less than a handful of the packet stuff at a Japanese store). You can top it with Japanese mixed (real) cheese, but it's better with a nice cheddar.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Rosetta World

Lately, I've been seeing a lot of commercials on Japanese cable television for "Rosetta World" software. If you don't know about Rosetta, better known as "Rosetta Stone" in America, it's software which teaches you languages through "dynamic immersion." That is, they attempt to teach you through pairing words and phrases with pictures rather than translation. The idea is to simulate the way we learn our native language rather than laboriously learn to translate our native language into a new one.

Seeing commercials for language learning software or programs is certainly not a new experience. I've seen one for something called a "chatty parrot" for awhile which is a type of recorder which you listen to and record yourself back into in order to learn English. The commercial for that particular product was singularly unimpressive as the woman they used to display her prowess spoke in grammatically incorrect ways and often in heavily accented English. This is what happens when you don't bring in a native speaker to evaluate the actor's ability and rely on the perceptions of Japanese people who can't tell when someone speaks well or not.

The reason that the Rosetta World commercials caught my attention was that the ads are new to me and their timing is coincidental with an experience I have had lately with the Amazon Vine program. For those who don't know, the Amazon Vine sends some people free items in exchange for reviews. I'm one of those lucky people who has the opportunity to take part in the program. Recently, I was even more grateful because the Vine was offering up a plethora of Rosetta Stone software including Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, German, Italian and French. Since the software costs somewhere on the order of $500 to buy, anyone who wants to learn a language and can get it for free is in for an unparalleled treat.

At the time that the software was offered, I was shocked because of it being such a high value item. Now, I rather wonder if the Rosetta company is pushing to increase brand awareness and create positive buzz about their product. The infusion of commercials along with the generous parceling out of their software to Vine members seems quite coincidental if they aren't working on increasing their name recognition.

I've been using the Rosetta software for language learning for nearly 2 months now and I really like the way in which it teaches you. In fact, I have found it considerably more effective than other types of study including face-to-face teaching. Part of this is the immersion, but part of it is also the repetition and structuring of the content. As a language teacher, I can really appreciate the effort they made to program in reinforcement and timed review of past lessons. In particular, I think it really helps you get into a language's basics if you're one of those sorts who feels uncomfortable flailing around in front of others trying to stutter out a few words.

While I wouldn't say it's a complete solution as I think the software can only take you so far, I'm happy to see that they're marketing in Japan as I have greater faith in their teaching method than I do in most other software techniques I've seen for English study. I also believe that most young people would be a lot better off using the software than learning from a Japanese English teacher as I used to teach such teachers at Nova and most of them were very poor at English and taught incorrect grammar and pronunciation. The errors they teach people at a young age become so ingrained in students that we can rarely get them "unstuck". If you've every taught a student who said, "I have ever been to (name of place)," you've experienced the fall-out from one of these teachers who taught their students that "ever" and "never" are opposites.

One of my students is actually taking the on-line version of the courses which you can do for a certain duration (3 months for 30,000 yen). I recommended it to her because I think the technique might help address some of her persistent problems with grammar and sentence structure. One good thing about such software is one is encouraged to say it again and again until one gets it right. If a face-to-face teacher does that, the student can become embarrassed or frustrated, but the software doesn't carry any sort of fear of judgment.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Merrily, Merrily, Merrily

There are three types of marital status situations in Japan for foreign females. Single, married to a Japanese person, and married to a foreign person. The first two make up the vast majority of foreign women in Japan, at least outside of the posh gaijin ghettos. Those lucky women, who tend to live a life similar to that in the U.S. with cars, foreign grocery shops and expense accounts, generally aren't here for a long time because they move back home when their husband's work here is done.

I am most definitely in the minority when it comes to being foreign, female, married to another foreigner, and having lived here for a long time. This sort of makes me wonder if no foreign woman in her right mind would live here for so long if she didn't have to, but that sort of indicates that I'm very much not in my right mind (which may already be obvious to some of you).

Japan can be a very hard place for foreign women because the culture is still male-centric. Even if your husband is a perfect specimen of equality, the world around you and very likely your Japanese in-laws will not be (if you've got a Japanese hubby). I have often said that I could never have married a Japanese man because there are so many issues. One of them is the mother-in-law issue can be much worse here than the bad in-law situations back home. The main reason for that is exemplified in something one of my (still single and in her 40's) student told me. We were talking about relationships and she said she never wanted to marry. When I asked her why, she said that her mother was "bullied" by her paternal grandmother and aunt and she saw the stress and difficulty that put on her mother. I asked her what they criticized her mother about and she said 'anything and everything.' She went on to say that she believed it was the "custom" in Japan for female in-laws to rag on the wife of their darling son or brother.

While I'm certain that this situation is not the case for everyone, I'm also sure that there are status issues at play and a different role for in-laws in Japanese culture. In my absolutely anecdotal and statistically invalid experience, about 30% of married Japanese women have no or few in-law issues and the rest find it to be one of the most onerous aspects of marriage. These in-law problems don't tend to extend to foreign men who marry Japanese women though since the culture doesn't have a "custom" of criticizing and interfering with husbands like it does with wives.

Wives have the unfortunate burden of having to prove themselves on multiple levels (in all cultures, but more so in Japan in my opinion). They have to cook, clean, give birth to and raise kids, and, if necessary, work part-time to contribute to the family income. Men essentially have to be healthy and work. Mainly, they have to work full-time and make enough money to support the family. Being a successful Japanese housewife and mother can be a pretty high bar to get your chin up to in the eyes of a mother-in-law and Japanese society. I'm guessing this is why marriage rates are dropping in Japan and women are marrying later. Now that many women can work and have careers in Japan, they're not so keen to toss it all aside for the burdens of marriage.

Several weeks ago, I was recommended a blog written by a foreign wife of a Japanese man through Google Reader. If you don't use this function, I recommend you do as it'll point you to blogs similar to ones to which you're already subscribed. If you subscribe to your own blog, you can get ones similar to your type of writing as well. It's an excellent way to find new content of the type which you already enjoy.

Getting back to the point though, this woman is living my worst image of what life would be like with a Japanese husband. Please don't get me wrong. I don't think that there aren't women who have problems with foreign husbands, but just that your options are different in a relationship with a Japanese person because of cultural issues and different expectations. If you're married to a foreign fellow and he's a jerk, you have a support network that believes he is also a jerk because they have the same values as you when it comes to marital roles. When you're married to a Japanese man, you get less support when he is slack about doing his part with housework or kids because you are perceived as a failure as a wife. He is not likely to be perceived as a failure as a husband if he works full-time and is seen as making a decent living.

This morning, I read a piece by this woman and she was attempting to put together one of those elaborate bento chock full of fully-cooked little tidbits elegantly arranged in a bento box which Japanese wives are supposed to do without difficulty or complaint. All she asked was that her husband lend a hand with their kids in the morning while she tried to whip up his requested lunch box (which he was taking along on community event, he wasn't working). He shirked the responsibility he agreed to by running off to the toilet five times and generally finding ways not to take care of the kids for a short time.

Now, this stood in exceptionally sharp contrast to my morning where I slept in 20 minutes later than my CH and woke up with a backache. This isn't unusual for me these days as I tend to have back pain every morning but it wears off in about 15-30 minutes and I usually wake up before the CH so it passes and I take care of business before he heads off to work. Keep in mind that the CH works full-time from Wednesday to Sunday so he's got a full day of work and a commute ahead of him whereas I've got just 4 hours of private lessons in the apartment. Because I have a backache, he prepares his own coffee, gets his own lunch together, and serves me my coffee in the 15 minutes he's got before he has to rush out the door.

I can't help but compare the other woman's harried morning to my morning occurring in the same time frame. Hers ends with a big fight and a cathartic blog post. Mine ends with me eating a chestnut pastry that the CH picked up especially for me last night on his way home from work along with the coffee he served me (including microwaving milk for the coffee to just the right temperature). I can't help but think that I'm living a life which is a dream and she's living my nightmare.

Saturday, September 20, 2008


When my mother was in her mid to late 20's, she had beautiful, straight, white teeth. Before she turned 30, she had no teeth at all and was wearing dentures. She lost her teeth to what was called "Pyorrhea" at that time and is now more generally referred to as "periodontal disease."

Since her teeth were perfect, this came as quite a shock to her and it was very painful having all of her teeth removed and her jawbone scraped of disease all at once. She relayed a story on multiple occasions about how she kept her face frozen with ice packs after the procedure because she saw a woman who had had a similar unfortunate experience whose face was nearly unrecognizable because of the swelling.

You'd think that someone who had endured what she had would have reared her children to take very good care of their teeth since she knew the suffering one might endure if disease struck. As a matter of fact, the opposite was the case. As normal kids who dislike spending time pursuing any sort of hygiene routine, we resisted brushing our teeth and she quickly gave up and didn't enforce any sort of oral hygiene behavior. This resulted in two gaping holes in my lower jaw where the second molar from the back was ripped out on both sides because of cavities when I was about age 10 and 12. My family was too poor to go the rebuilding route, so they just told the dentist to take them out and damn the consequences to my oral health.

When I became a teenager, I worked out a few things on my own about taking care of my teeth and became pretty fastidious about brushing. To this day, I can't tolerate the idea of going to bed without clean teeth and generally have not had any issues since getting them cleaned up and having all the cavities drilled and filled in Japan early on during my stay. It's a sad statement on the health care situation in the U.S. that I worked two jobs simultaneously just after college (one full, one part-time) and had no dental care plan (nor did I have one from the job I held in California). I had to go to another country to find a system that would take care of my problems in an affordable manner.

Fortunately, after that initial sequence of drilling and filling, all has been well for many years. Two years ago, I went to the dentist for a check-up and cleaning and he looked at my teeth for all of 10 seconds and said they were still fine. The same system of socialized medicine in Japan that took care of my teeth also encourages doctors to offer thumbnail consultations for those on the national plan, unfortunately. However, it's certainly better than the nothing I had in the States.

About a year ago, I started waking up with a bad taste in my mouth. For a lot of people, I'm guessing this is probably not unusual if all the "morning breath" allusions are to be believed. For the record, I've never had that problem. It seems that I've reached the age where being careful with brushing isn't enough and I had to break down and start with the flossing. Yes, I know you're supposed to floss regularly all your life, but I didn't have any issues so I was slack. Also, my gums are sensitive and it gave me terrible headaches from referred pain to do it so I gave up. I'm going to forestall any reminders about how sensitive gums are the result of not flossing and you have to do it for awhile to get past that by saying I'm already aware of that. That being said, I haven't had any gum disease.

This particular change has been yet another reminder of the fact that there are all sorts of lapses in judgment about your health that you can get away with when you're younger that you can't allow as you get older. I can't tell you how many times I've recognized that a body in its 40's isn't going to recover as quickly or effortlessly from bad habits as one in its 20's. I don't mind a lot of things about getting older, but the fact that your body no longer (seemingly) effortlessly and transparently looks after itself when you don't apply meticulous care is one I definitely mind.

Friday, September 19, 2008

R.I.P. eMachine

The computer I mentioned was acting strangely in a previous post, has gone to computer heaven. Now that it's there, I'm sure it's sound card will play nothing but harp music and it'll rest on a cloud which is never too hot or too cold for optimal performance. It'll also never get dusty inside, which is a lot more than I can say for its earthly lifespan where carpets of dust lay inside of it's metal innards.

Since that computer was primarily a means to watch computer content on television, I didn't think or care much about replacing it, but my CH has said that he really would like to have a computer attached to the television for this purpose. In particular, he'd like to be able to watch streaming content like the Colbert Report or the Daily Show on the bigger screen regularly. This is not particularly convenient or mechanically possible from any of the 5 machines currently crammed into our tiny living room because only two have S-video outputs and both of those are workhorses that can't be surrendered to T.V. duty.

After discussing this, we decided that the next oldest machine, my current Mac Mini, is the best candidate for a move to semi-retirement. It's now 2 1/2 years old and has never been all that fast. I looked into Apple's current line-up and my desktop options are very limited (as they have been for ages due to Apple's limited line-up). I considered each of the following:

1. A Mac Pro tower

This would be ideal, but it's also too expensive. In Japan, the price is around $3,000 and it's more than I actually need (though I'm hungry for a better graphics processor than I get on a low end Macs). I just can't justify such an extravagant outlay of cash for more machine than I require.

2. An iMac

This looks good except for the fact that I don't need a display and it's $600 more than a Mini. It does have better video and other specs, but it's hard to justify it both because the monitor portion is not necessary and I really prefer not to clutter my (already too small) desk with another display. The funny thing about momentum is that it's rather hard to get off the merry-go-round once you're on it. I have a nice display and I have two computers that use it. Getting one that doesn't need it and has its own causes issues.

3. Another Mac Mini

Reluctantly, I believe this is the route I have to take. The video processor specs disappoint me greatly, though swapping to an Intel dual core processor should give me a great speed boost. I may also toss in some more RAM, but I haven't decided for certain yet. At the very least, I'm sure Photoshop and Rosetta Stone will run better.

Before deciding to take the plunge though, I checked out when the Minis were last updated by Apple. There's a very helpful buyer's guide at MacRumors which gives you dates of updates as well as recommendations about buying now or waiting. If you're in the market for a new Mac, this is your one-stop shop for considering whether to wait or buy now and possibly regret it in the near future because Apple released a new one right after you made your purchase. The Mini was last updated a little over a year ago and is overdue for a refresh. I'm hoping that Apple tries to roll something out in October or November (for Christmas) so we can pick up a new one when they come out. For now, we've decided to wait and see what Apple offers rather than take the plunge right away. In the mean time, we'll have to watch on the small screen rather than the big one when it comes to video.

This has been a surprisingly big year for us on computer purchases. I bought a new PC (maybe that's why my old eMachine was sad that I got a new one for a whopping $300), the CH got a new MacBook, and, with any luck, there will be a new Mac desktop by the end of the year. I'm a little unhappy about buying all this new stuff, but gratified that our lifestyle is such that we can do so without impacting our budget much or without having to go into debt.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Old Pictures

Minnehaha Campfire girls (photo by Sammy Fischer and taken from the Eccles-Lesher Memorial Library collection - link to the full collection appears below)

Have you ever stumbled across a stash or record of old photos and thought that it looked like those people lived in another world? Awhile ago, I set up a gallery for a collection of glass slides for a CD-ROM for the library at which my sister works. The collection is a fascinating set of photos taken by a man named Sammy Fischer who took the pictures around 1919 (this is one of the years written on one of the pictures).

The world shown in those pictures seems to little resemble the one we live in today. There are horse races on the fair grounds and old cars. There's a "water plant" which is little more than a rickety-looking water tower. Buildings all look inelegant and utilitarian. All of them are a bit shoddy-looking, but this was the norm of the day. There are people dressed in football, band, military, and scout uniforms that betray the times. I also noticed that few people are smiling in many of the group pictures and I wonder what that says about the zeitgeist they lived in. If you have some time, you might want to browse the pictures. They're both fascinating and haunting.

I have a lot of these sorts of old family photos but, unfortunately, many of them are damaged or of poor quality.

Time passes for us all and we change as does the world around us. Recently, I was looking through a collection of my own family photos and I was profoundly struck by how our family pictures now appear to have been taken from another age. The picture above is my sister on a pony (my mother crouches behind the pony because she doesn't want her picture taken). The picture also shows the fact that there was a gas pump at the corner of our front lawn at that time. There was never a gas station there, but at some point in time, one could have a gas pump on their property, it seems.

It's sort of freaky to look back on these pictures and know that someone else will view them as being from "another age". I'm old enough to have grown up in a time which was markedly different from the world we now live in. You can see it in the way our house was built, the way our toys looked, and the fact that poor kids had ponies. This sort of freaks me out. I wish I could say I can be philosophical about it, but I really can't. It's not so much that I feel old (though I always do and have since my late teens), but more that the pace of change in the world gives me a sense of it hurtling forward purposelessly at breakneck speed and I'm really ready for it to slow down now (pretty please?).

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Losing Business Through Bad Assumptions

When I'm offered a new student, I always ask the referral agency the same questions.
  1. What is the student's level?
  2. What particular type of lesson does the student want?
  3. What are the student's goals?
The answers I always get are something along the lines of:
  1. 'I think her level is ~, but I'm not sure. You'll find out soon enough.'
  2. 'I don't know, you'll have to ask her/him in the lesson.'
  3. 'I don't know, you'll have to ask her/him in the lesson.'
This is somewhat frustrating for me because not knowing these things makes it impossible to prepare to do what the student wants. In two recent cases, I did whatever "generic preparation" I could and didn't have any problems, but certainly didn't do as good a job as I'm capable of.

The bottom line is that the referral agency simply does not bother to ask these questions of the students who are considering signing up with them. While these questions are quite reasonable and the students would definitely not mind them, the agency doesn't bother. The reason they don't bother is that they buy into the commonly held notion that all Japanese people study English casually and are looking to have a casual "chat" with a foreign person who is being paid to be as nice as possible to them. This underlying mentality is one of the reasons teachers are viewed as unskilled and interchangeable and having an easy job where they just socialize for an hour for pay.

The truth is that there may indeed be many people who are looking for a chat. Another truth though is that not everyone is looking for that, particularly not in hard economic times where people are far less likely to invest their money in frivolous endeavors and much more likely to further themselves professionally. At present, I have 12 regular students and only 2 of them fall into the category of chatting to alleviate their boredom or for entertainment. All of the others have very specific goals in mind and actively want to advance their skills in specific areas.

In a previous post, I mentioned that I was asked to give a trial lesson to a 13-year-old girl and given very little information. The lesson ended up being one in which she needed instruction for a short-term goal (passing a test to enter a special school for those who have lived abroad for a long time and are now living in Japan). In particular, she needed to know a lot of vocabulary for the test and had a book she was studying from that needed to be used. Had the agency asked, I would have known this and could have considered my options before the lesson. As it was, I had to fly by the seat of my pants and it went okay, but I think it was very tiring for the girl and she complained that one of my requests (asking her to make sentences about her life using the words she was studying to help her remember the words since using new words aids greatly in recalling them) was too hard. With more time to plan, I could have varied the activities more and she may have enjoyed it more.

Today, I learned that she won't be taking my lessons. Color me totally unsurprised. The given excuse was my apartment is too far away, but I don't believe that. I'm not angry about losing the job as it was probably good for 10 lessons tops anyway given the fact that the test would be taken in November and she'd learn English at the school if she passed and not need it if she failed. I'm annoyed, however, that the referral agency doesn't ask a few basic questions to aid in my doing a professional job simply because they can't wrap their heads around the idea that anyone who teaches can be a professional.

Monday, September 15, 2008

A Better Me

Sometimes I sit in lessons and think about nothing but the clock. I struggle not to dart my eyes over at it every 3 minutes to see how much time has passed and I hate it for showing that the last "10 minutes" was actually only 5. After a few stolen glimpses, I start to wonder if the student's know when I'm looking (I think they do) and I feel bad about the fact that I may be sending them the message that they're boring or I don't enjoy the time with them.

The truth is that sometimes they are boring and sometimes I don't enjoy the time with them, but it has nothing to do with the students. It has everything to do with what happens to be going on inside of me. There are times when I just don't feel like teaching or talking. There are also occasions when I don't feel especially well, am tired, or have to pee and just want the lesson over with so I can go lie down, veg out, or empty my increasingly weak and shrinking bladder. And frankly, controlling a conversation by asking all the questions, keeping it rolling, and focusing mainly on what the student wants is something I don't always look forward to. On the occasions when I'm not in the mood, I sit around hoping that the students will be appreciably late or suddenly have to cancel the lesson (because then I get paid for doing nothing).

When I feel like this, I have to push very hard to be what I call "the better me." That's the me that has to keep repeating that the person I'd like to be wouldn't want the students to lose their money without getting anything back for it because of an unfortunate situation which causes them to have to cancel. That's the me which issues reminders that I'm being paid to do everything I'm struggling to do and that all adults have to do their job whether they enjoy it or not because the whole point behind "work" is that it's something you'd generally prefer not to do with your free time. After all, if people loved such things, they probably wouldn't need to be bribed to do them with a salary. The real imperfect, flawed me feels guilty for watching the clock and wishing the hour would just end when I'm being paid to sit there, teach, and talk to nice people while others are doing back-breaking labor or repetitive work for half my wages or less.

One thing I realized a long time ago is that the road between the personality I want to have and the one I really have isn't as long a one as I might think. If I work consistently at taking the necessary baby steps to get from who I am to who I want to be, the change will happen slowly but surely. It's all about mental impulse control. The hardest part is getting started and working yourself into a pattern where you don't allow the impulses to have free reign over your emotions or personality. For instance, when you want to become a more patient person, silently fuming at the old lady who takes 5 minutes to pay for her purchases by only opening her purse after the transaction is complete and then digging around for change for an eternity isn't going to contribute to making you more patient.

It's the little experiences which are where you start laying the foundation for becoming a better you. If you keep at it, one of these days, you'll find that you aren't fighting the impulses as often or as hard, and one day in the distant future, the impulses won't be there at all.

Sunday, September 14, 2008


Recently, I was perusing a web site which I hadn't visited in quite some time. This particular site is a shopping site which has some really nifty and attractive home items including the salt and pepper shakers pictured above called "Hug". They were designed by a New York design collective called Mint. They are clean-looking and cute without being too fussy. They are also a bit on the expensive side ($31 USD) for salt and pepper shakers.

When I ran across this particular item, I remembered that I had seen what I believed to be the exact same shakers in the local 100 yen shop. I had considered buying them before, but being very thoughtful about waste, I had passed on them many times. While 200 yen is nothing to spend, I don't want to buy things I might toss out later because they weren't as attractive as when I was first drawn to them.

Seeing them on the web site made me decide to give in and just buy them. I can't resist a good hug. (And I've found that they remind you to hug your spouse more often by providing a visual cue of what a nice thing such embraces are.) I figured it was also possible that the on-line store just had a massively inflated price because they're a designer boutique. When I brought them home and was able to compare the shakers pictured on the site to the ones I bought, I knew they were knock-offs. If you compare, the designer ones are a little longer and fit together better in their embrace. Mine are still cute, and I think that from a distance, no one can tell the difference. However, the "faces" line up differently such that theirs has more of a whimsical "face over the shoulder" look whereas mine looks like he's surprised because the "mouth" can be seen.

If you asked me if I feel good about paying so little for something that is 95% as good as something much more expensive, then I'd have to say "no". I feel bad about the fact that there are people out there who make very nice designer objects and then find that cheap knock-offs deprive them of revenues from those items. I always guess that the market that buys the knock-off isn't likely to fork over $30 for salt and pepper shakers anyway (I know I wouldn't), but that's probably just a justification.

In the end, I don't think it's the consumer who is ethically responsible for buying a knock-off, particularly when they do so and are unaware. I think that the person who imitates the design is ultimately responsible. If someone took my posts and slightly rewrote them to create content for a blog they were making money on, I couldn't blame the readers for reading it. I'd have to blame the thieves for stealing it.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Pancakes for Breakfast

My sweet and adorable CH works really hard. For 4 of the 5 days he works, he has to get up early, get some coffee in him and have a quick bite before heading off to work or for a pre-work swim. The only morning when he has anything resembling a real morning with time to wake up and eat at a reasonable pace is Friday. Since he's relegated to such a slapdash start to the day most of the time, I like to try and do something a bit better than ask him if he's like a slice of banana or pumpkin bread from the freezer on Friday mornings.

The ideal special breakfast is pancakes, but the summer is so hot that it's almost impossible to tolerate making them in the morning, especially since I always wake up feeling hot (all year round) anyway. Since the weather is mellowing out, I've been trying to get in more mornings with this nice breakfast treat. Unfortunately, I believe I have fibromyalgia and I wake up feeling like I was run over by a truck the night before so it's hard to motivate myself to get it all together.

The way I've worked around my morning limits is to set up as much of my own homemade "pancake mix" as possible the night before. Doing this and presetting the coffee machine makes it far easier to do a labor-intensive breakfast. While there are pre-made pancake mixes sold in smallish boxes in Japan, they are over-priced for their volume and not especially good. Homemade pancakes can be made for a pittance and are excellent. You can also make your own syrup to avoid the incredibly expensive syrup, though that only works if you're not a dedicated consumer of maple syrup.

The recipe I use is a modification of one from "The Joy of Baking". It's altered mainly to reflect a desire for fluffier, thicker pancakes as well as to streamline the preparation process. The original recipe is here and I'll type my modification in this post. These are the type of pancakes that are built for pleasure, not for nutrition. I have another variety that I make with oats which is a little better for you. The recipe for those is back on my old blog.

To make it easier in the morning, I mix all of the dry ingredients in a plastic bowl with a lid the night before. This avoids all the tedious measuring and half of the mixing. I also set up the oil, a whisk, measuring cup and spoon and a bowl for the wet ingredients to be mixed in. I've also been known to put the pan on the burner to remove that tiny step as well. When morning comes, I only have to reach for the eggs and milk to get the show on the road. It's worth noting that all of the dry ingredients could be made in bulk and set aside for just making pancakes any time. If you did this, you'd probably need about 1.25 cups of "mix" to make a batch of pancakes in the future.

Dry ingredients:
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 2 tbsp. white sugar

Wet ingredients:

  • 1 medium or large egg
  • 3/4 cup milk (use up to 1 cup if you like thinner pancakes)
  • 2 tbsp. Canola oil
  • dash of vanilla (optional - it depends on your syrup or topping)
Add all of the dry ingredients to a container with a lid and either shake or stir up the night before. In the morning, whisk all of the wet ingredients together and add to the dry. Stir until incorporated, but not overly smooth. There shouldn't be any big lumps, but you shouldn't overmix it just to smooth it out or you'll end up with tough pancakes (because overmixing works up the gluten in the flour). Just mix enough to make sure that no little white spots of unmoistened dry ingredients don't end up in your pancakes.

Pre-heat your skillet over medium-high heat. When it's good and hot, either melt some butter or margarine in it or coat it lightly with Canola oil. It's important not to oil the pan up too much or your pancakes will deep fry around the edges. Drop a tablespoon and a half of batter per cake to make medium-size ones. Fry until the edges are dry and bubbles start to form on the top then flip and finish cooking. This recipe makes 8-10 medium pancakes.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Rocking the Plank

I've read that good writers should never write about dreams because they are of no interest to anyone else. This bit of "advice" for being a good writer subscribes to the notion that you have to write for your audience rather than for yourself. As much as I appreciate that other people take the time to read my blog (and I really am grateful), I think that I have to write for myself first and foremost. Part of what paralyzes other people when they try to write is that they concern themselves too much with the audience and what they are interested in. This can be self-defeating as you start to question how interesting everything you have to say is. It also makes you surrender to the idea that everything you say has to be of paramount interest to your readers. Someone once said, "they can't all be gems," and that's really alright. So, I'm going to write about my dreams when the impulse strikes me and hope my readers will forgive my yawn-inducing posts.

I believe dreams are important for several reasons. Some people believe they're just what your mind does while you sleep to keep you from being bored. While that is possible, very few things our bodies do are random and pointless (except possibly having an appendix) so the chances are that dreaming has some value beyond keeping us occupied while we sleep. I believe dreams serve multiple purposes including the oft-cited psychological theory that we're working out things in our unconscious. I also believe they are a muddled connection to our "higher" selves (or what I have called "the connected self" previously).

Sometimes I know my dreams are a reflection of difficulties in my life, but sometimes I'm sure there is a message in one of them for me. This is rare, but when it's there, it is pretty obvious to me. A few days ago, like many people, I was fretting about the LHC experiments. This was mainly because I don't trust scientists to draw the line at the right place because they, like many other human beings, are driven by ambition and a thirst for getting into the history books. What scientist wouldn't want to be as well known as Stephen Hawking or even Robert Oppenheimer? It's better to go down in history as a master of destruction for the sake of science than to have your work lost in a sea of nondescript scientists. Having scientists police other scientists is like asking a 10-year-old to police another 10-year-old. They're going to approve of each others actions even when they are risky.

All that being said, I do believe my fears, like everyone else's, are irrational. I think history will see the hoopla surrounding the use of the Large Hadron Collider as yet another example of the ignorance of the masses attempting to interfere in progress and trying to hold it back much as was the case with fears that the world was flat and you could sail off the edge of it. This is a little more sophisticated than such old fears, but the principle is the same. We fear the unknown consequences of our actions, even when they are reasonably foreseeable based on available evidence.

A few nights ago, I had a dream, which I believe was one of those muddled communications with my connected self and relates to these fears. In the dream, several other people and I were trying to walk on some planks perched on top of pillars that were not secured. The pillars were high enough that one could get hurt if one fell off, but not so high that injury was certain (about the height of the first story of a house). If one person walked along it and struggled for balance, the plank wobbled a bit, but held in place. As the next person reached the plank and added his attempts to find balance, the plank started to rock more. By the time the 4th or 5th person got there, it rocked violent. In the end, it came crashing down from the combined force of each person's struggle to find balance and the excessive rocking they applied to the plank in their attempts to find it.

How does this relate to the situation at hand? I believe we collectively affect our world with our fears, desires, and wishes on a level we cannot yet detect. Our fears can move reality one undetectable particle at a time. One person's fear has no discernible effect because it is too small to have an impact. The fears of millions of people combined though can start to distort the otherwise unimpeded course of reality. Just as one person's unsteady movement in a mentally unbalanced state can "rock the plank" but not cause it to fall, many people's fearful rocking can cause it to plummet.

Our fears about the LHC can assist in bringing about the disaster we wish to avoid. In a game of odds (which is what I've heard is the case with anything really bad happening), we can effectively skew them against us. By focusing on the worst, we can contribute to bringing it about. I believe my dream was telling me not to add the weight of my fear to this collective influence and remind me of something I already feel is true about the individual and the nature of mass events.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

(Not) Taking Things For Granted

Imagine that you could only have ice cream once every three months. If you don't like ice cream, consider having some treat that you enjoy a lot in the place of ice cream. If you could have it only once in awhile, it'd be very special when you did have it and you'd really appreciate it.

One of my students is studying sociology and she had to write an assignment answering one of a number of questions. The question I recommend she consider was how social status affects your life. As we discussed the topic to help her flesh out an answer for her essay, she mentioned that her mother and husband, who are both physicians, often take gifts and acts of kindness for granted because they receive them so easily and often. I told her that this was an excellent example for her to use in her essay since doctors have high prestige in most cultures and this showed how their status both changed the way they interacted with others and others interacted with them.

While English teachers have far lower status than doctors, they do have rather personal relationships with their students and, Japanese people being the generous sorts that they are when it comes to gifts, they often give us nice things. One thing I can definitely say is that neither my CH nor I ever take the gifts we receive for granted no matter how often we receive them. Mind you, we don't get them nearly as often as doctors, but it is a steady trickle of generosity.

So many goodies, such weak willpower. The student who gave these cleverly put the Ho Ho's and Ding Dongs ("Ding Dong, man, Ding Dong, yo" - if you know where that comes from, here's a geek star for your forehead) in the Lipton green tea box to protect their delicious junk food integrity.

If you go back to my original example, imagine you can have something you love only about once a year or less. With that level of frequency, you are really going to enjoy that treat when you get it. Recently, one of my CH's students gave him the lavish assortment of goodies you see pictured above. I'm sure to people back home this is just a random assortment of goodies they can get any time (well, maybe not the See's candy which is a super incredible box of decadence and joy), but, to us, it's a rare parcel of fun from the U.S. that someone kindly procured for us. Suffice it to say, we do not take it for granted and are always very appreciative when students do such things for us.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


The weekend before last, the agency that refers students to me called and asked if I'd accept a 13-year old girl as a student. The girl had lived in the U.S. for awhile and (they're guessing) has relatively advanced English ability. The agency hadn't had any direct communication with the girl herself. They negotiated through her mother so they couldn't tell me much about her. They speculated that she was probably studying so that she could maintain the level of fluency she acquired while living in the U.S.

After about a week, the agency said that they'd confirmed a trial lesson with the girl and gave me her mother's name, e-mail address and phone number. They didn't, however, tell me the girl's first name so I asked them what it was. It's at this point that things get a bit strange. They told me that the mother wouldn't tell them the girl's name because she was too "cautious".

The trial lesson is scheduled for this afternoon and I'm not sure what to expect when the girl is supposed to show up at my front door. I have a suspicion that the mother will show up with her and may even ask to sit in with the lesson. If I were teaching in a classroom where the mother could unobtrusively observe from the back of a large room, I wouldn't care about this, but that isn't the case. I teach in a 9' x 9' room which is closed off from other rooms to air condition it more efficiently. There is no "unobtrusive" way for anyone to observe.

Of course, I could be wrong about the mother horning in. I have quite the tendency to panic and extrapolate the worst in any given situation. I'm one of those people who thinks I'm going to prick a finger, get an infection, be given drugs that damage my other limbs and end up a quadruple amputee. It's a tendency I've been endeavoring to reign in for years now with some success. In odd or very uncertain situations, however, I tend to gravitate back to this type of self-defeating tendency.

I know these situations are supposed to be growth experiences and I try to see them in that light, but sometimes it's difficult. In 98% of situations where I play out the worst outcome in my imagination, things turn out to be just fine. In one particular case in my past though, it was as bad as the worst I imagined and I think that still haunts me. That was a situation which I talked about in my former blog where I feared refusing to work on my day off might get me fired, and it very nearly did.

Ultimately, this tendency is part of a defense mechanism which I'm sure I developed as a child growing up in a family with a lot of emotional instability from a depressed and neurotic mother and an alcoholic father. If you can predict the worst possible outcome at the beginning of a situation, you can defend or protect yourself. Though such behavior served me well as a kid in a family with problems, it no longer serves me in most cases and tends to cloud my judgment. It's like an old battered shield that I still raise in times of uncertainty even though I no longer live in the heat of a battle.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

About Japanese Food Review Posts

I just wanted to let everyone know that I've decided to farm all of the food reviews over to the other blog (Japanese Snack Reviews). There are several reasons for this. The primary one is that I've found I want to make such posts with a greater frequency than I'd like for this blog. I want this blog to be mainly focused on my musings and daily life and not to turn it into something else.

The secondary reason is that I'd like to try and build it into a niche blog with advertising to see if it goes anywhere. The posts I do for food reviews are time-consuming and challenging (though enjoyable) to write, so I'd like to see if I can get something back from it (though frankly, I doubt I will). If you're interested in those posts, please subscribe to the other blog. Thank you. :-)

Chinese Whispers

If you're not familiar with what "Chinese Whispers" is, it's the game where you say something and whisper it to another person who in turn whispers it to another and so on. By the time the phrase reaches the last person, it's distorted and incorrect. The less ethnically insensitive name for this game is supposed to be "Telephone", but I've never heard it referred to as such. My apologies in advance for using a name which may be offensive, but I didn't want to name this post "Telephone" because it'd be very misleading.

This game came to mind recently because I foolishly swung by one of the better-known and more widely-participated in foreigner forums. I had forgotten the forum was around until someone recently recommended that Joseph at Tame Goes Wild visit it as a resource for information about some aspects of life here. I have also been shackled to the computer on and off today doing telephone tests and ran out of things to read so I ambled over to see what was shaking. I won't give the name of this forum, but it begins with "G" and ends with "t" and has a word for a cooking implement as part of its name. You'll recognize it if you've heard of it before. If you don't, you really don't need to know what it is and I'll tell you why in the remainder of this post.

First of all, the forums are full of people who have nothing better to do with their time than to post about their contempt and derision for various other people. You name it, they hate someone for it. Most of all, unsurprisingly, they hate other foreigners and those who teach in particular. Presumably, the teacher haters live in Japan and aren't teaching so one must wonder what sort of profession is allowing them to waste their valuable time making angry posts about other people. I'm guessing such non-teaching jobs are not very fulfilling or they'd be a bit nicer people and have less time on their hands.

The primary reason for not bothering with such forums isn't the angry people. The big reason is that they are chock full of misinformation. I would assume that people aren't simply making up all of the "wisdom" they are imparting about all things related to life in Japan. I believe that all of the incorrect "help" can only be the unfortunate consequence of the equivalent of "Chinese Whispers". Someone read or heard something then told someone else who told someone else and so on until it reached the end of the line and no longer bore any resemblance to the reality.

I knew that the forums had this unfortunate tendency before (which is why I stopped reading them... that and all the ugly attitudes), but my memory was refreshed when I did a search on the name of my husband's current place of employment out of curiosity. I found about 5 posts about his employer and all of them were largely or completely wrong. I don't bother to correct such people because I've decided not to do that anymore, but also because there is no way for an astute reader to tell whose ship is sailing straight in a sea of misinformation. There would really be no point. I just want to caution anyone who visits forums for foreigners living in Japan to take anything they read with a giant vat of salt.

Monday, September 8, 2008

I only make it look easy

Over the past month, I've been teaching a woman who will soon head off to a European country for an extended period of time to work in the head office of her company. To prepare for this time, she is taking a series of 5 intensive lessons with me. We spend two hours on Sundays practicing possible real life conversations.

When I say "real life conversations", I don't mean small talk or actually having a chat, I mean short exchanges at the drug store, train station, office, etc. If you've ever taught from the plethora of textbooks on the market for learners of English as a second language, you know that these are the least popular lessons in the books. In fact, when I used to work at Nova conversation school 18 years ago, teachers would repeat the same lessons 6 times over with students before teaching the lessons centering around pragmatic exchanges at the market, a hotel, etc. While the content was useful, it was often a teaching cul-de-sac for the teachers and repetitive and uninteresting for the students. Even doing the dialog once where you're essentially saying, "Hello, I've got a headache. Could you recommend some medicine?" and getting a response and thanking the other person isn't all that interesting. Doing it enough so the student gets it down and can say it correctly is a slog through deep mud.

My particular student is advanced in level, but imperfect in her speech patterns. That is, she's too high level to need a textbook to tell her what to say in a particular context, but her grammar is sloppy enough that she needs to practice. That means we really couldn't use a book. The lessons have been just me using all the power of my brain to continuously come up with new scenarios to practice until she grew weary of that one and wants to move on to another. Imagine if you will how many one to two minute exchanges I have to take part in to fill up 120 minutes of time. Add into that that she wasn't even interested in any preamble to the lesson with chat. She just wants to dive in.

I'm sure from the student's viewpoint that I seem to be effortlessly tossing out scenarios and taking part in practice, but I only make it look easy. I was really exhausted by this as it's been a lot of improvisation. I had a fairly long list of real life situations and she had 4 that she had come up with, but I still was almost out of steam by the end. There just aren't that many things you need to do and she rejected some of the scenarios I had written down (like going to the bank).

People think teaching is easy because all you do is follow a book or just make small talk. It's not in the least like that. Books offer frameworks which you have to expand upon. Smalltalk only gets you so far, and it takes you a shorter distance the better you know someone. Students have goals and you have to be able to make a plan to meet them. It's not throwing things at a wall and hoping they stick or flying by the seat of your pants. You have to be able to think on your feet and make sure you're smoothly traveling down the right roads. You also have to make it look like you had the route perfectly mapped out all along or the students lose confidence in you or don't respect you. If you stumble, pause too long or lose your focus, the students know you don't know what you're doing at that moment.

Anyone who thinks that teaching is easy should have to sit through the same sort of grueling 2-hour sessions of short, pragmatic conversations I've been going through. Their opinion would change less than halfway through the lesson. I guarantee it.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Scon Japanese Barbecue Flavor

I'm not a fan of Japanese salted snack foods because many of them are bland (consommé) or come in flavors I don't care for (like seaweed). As I mentioned in a previous review, barbecue salted snacks are not what you'd expect because "barbecue" in the U.S. usually means some sort of super spicy tomato or ketchup-flavored potato chip. In Japan, it tends to mean the snack is meant to resemble barbecued meat.

The ugly granny mascot for Karamucho chips. She may scare you off, but they do make pretty good chili snacks. Image pinched from the Karamucho web site.

If you learn one thing about "Japanese tastes", it's that there is a general tendency to prefer mild flavors over intense ones. Therefore, it's rare to find a new product which is exceptionally spicy when you see the words "barbecue" (or in this case "バーベーキュー"). This isn't universal, however, as there are some super spicy treats out there like habanero rings and Karamucho (カラムチーチョ) hot chili chips and potato sticks. Karamucho, by the way, has what I believe to be one of the ugliest cartoon mascots ever. "Chili" and "barbecue" are worlds apart usually in terms of overall punch in spiciness with the former saltily beating up your tongue and the latter passively lying down and surrendering.

The same company that makes the Karamucho-brand chips, Koikeya (コイケヤ), makes the Scon snacks I'm reviewing today so I had hopes that they'd be strong enough for my American palate. I've seen corn snacks named "Scon" (pronounced close to "scone" with a long "o" as many Americans pronounce it) for decades and never bought them because the I couldn't work out why they'd be called "Scon" instead of, well, "corn". What was that silly "s" for? Was this going to be related to British tea time fare? At any rate, a look at the ingredients list reveals the "s" stands for "sweet" as in "sweet corn", which is the first ingredient. That fact that sweet corn is the first ingredient is encouraging, the fact the the second one is animal fat is far less so. The seasonings are not all spelled out, but, unsurprisingly, meat flavoring is one of them as is soy sauce. Stevia (a natural low-calorie sweetener) is also on of them.

The corn twists in the bag are very similar to Cheetos in appearance, but they're a bit lighter and airier in texture. To me, this is a good thing as Cheetos are a bit too hard for my tastes. The first whiff doesn't betray much. These have the same light scent of a non-descript bouillon cube as many Japanese barbecue-flavored snacks. The first bite has a bit of a chemical edge to it which is hard to pin down. This disappears after the second bite which leaves you with an intense, savory flavor. These are very spicy without heat. The flavor is meaty, though it doesn't taste like meat. It's also quite salty, and after you eat them for awhile, the sense of how salty they seem starts to pile up on the tongue. I can see where a beer-drinking sort might find these a really good accompaniment to imbibing.

I really liked these and have actually bought and consumed three bags of them in the past month. This is quite a bad thing as an 80 gram bag (2.82 ounces) has 446 calories and it's easy to eat half a bag at one sitting. That's a lot of empty calories to put away. Also, honestly, even though I like these because they're strongly-flavored, by the third bag the novelty was wearing down a bit and I was thinking that I had burnt out on them and probably wouldn't be tempted anymore. The sense of salt and soy sauce felt stronger the longer I ate them. Nonetheless, I'd still heartily recommend giving them a try if you're in the mood for something salty and tired of the "blander" salted snacks on offer in Japanese stores.


As an aside, I've decided to mirror the food review posts on a separate site. I'm not sure why I'm doing this, but I think it'll help me keep tabs on how frequently I make these posts. I'd like to do them weekly as a means of encouraging myself to translate the packaging as well as sample new things. If you run across the blog, I just want it to be clear it's not a rip-off of this one, but intentional duplication. It's just started and needs to be tweaked, but it's starting up here.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Words on Shirts

One of my students showed up for a lesson with big numbers on the front and back of her shirt. The numbers were "69". Since I've seen plenty of shirts in Japan which contained words or content which have a different meaning in Western culture than they do in Japan, I didn't know if she knew what the implication was. In this case, she did and said that the same connotation was attached to the numbers in Japan as the U.S.

After discussing her shirt, she told me that she saw a shirt being worn by an American at a military base which had the Japanese characters (kanji) for "kichiku bei yei" (鬼畜米英). According to her, this means Americans and the British are like animals. Another student told me that he felt it meant they are "devils" (the first part of the word contains the Japanese characters for "oni" - 鬼 - which means "devil"). The first student indicated that seeing an American wearing the characters for a World War II epithet used by the Japanese made her wonder why he was wearing it. We both pondered whether or not the wearer knew what the characters meant, but leaned toward believing he probably did.

To frame this in a manner which may resonate a little better with those who aren't living in Japan or don't have any experience with it, I'd like to say that this situation is similar to seeing a Japanese person walking around with a shirt that says "gook" or "Jap" on it. My guess is that, if the American was aware of the meaning on the shirt, it was an attempt to co-opt the words much in the way African Americans have co-opted the "n" word which cannot be spoken aloud by any Caucasian nor written out in its entirety by one.

The other student who I discussed this with said that he didn't believe that Japanese people were particularly self-conscious about seeing epithets about foreigners being displayed so much as being reminded about World War II. This fits in with an experience the CH had when he wore a cap with the characters for "kamikaze" on it to work one day and the secretary at his school said he shouldn't wear it because of what it said. When I related this story to the student, he said he felt that it made people uncomfortable because it also harkened back to World War II, though he said that there was another meaning for "kamikaze" in Japanese history (where hostile ships were wrecked by a typhoon) so it depended on the interpretation the person placed on the characters.

It's been my experience that the Japanese are only too happy to talk about World War II as long as the focus of any discussion is on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It's only when they are reminded of Japan's aggression or alliance with Adolf Hitler that makes the situation become uncomfortable for them.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Making a Colbert Special

A B.L.T., heavy on the T. and L.

With food prices going up, people are constantly going on about not wasting food and how much food is usually wasted in developed country. I read that about 1/3 of all food in the U.K. ends up being thrown out for various reasons. I'm sure that the statistics are similarly high in the U.S.

Some wastage of food is hard to avoid. During transport, things are damaged, rot, or are infested. It's impossible to avoid wasting some food on the production end. A lot of food is also wasted by restaurants and markets because of the higher standards and early sell-by dates they have to deal with. It's only on the consumer level that waste can be more actively avoided as we only need to apply our own standards and care to make sure we use things up before they go off.

I try to make sure to never waste food because it's so expensive here. Sometimes I can't keep on top of things which ripen faster than expected, especially in the summer, but I do try. The worst situation though is when meat spoils because it's so high on the food chain that you know that you've just damaged the environment for no benefit whatsoever.

Generally speaking, meat never spoils in our home with one exception and that's bacon. The main problem is that we can't eat it fast enough once a one-pound package is defrosted and opened up. I'm not a huge bacon fan and my CH is not a big eater so we tend to get through half the pack on the weekend and then it becomes a struggle to incorporate the rest of it into meals during the weekdays to finish it up before it gets nasty.

The only way to make sure it doesn't go to waste is for me to try and eat some of it for lunch. Up until Stephen Colbert reminded us that a B.L.T. is his favorite sandwich, I hadn't even considered using bacon in this way. It's one of those things which may be common enough back home but you forget is an option when you've been away from the food culture for awhile. I'm guessing some people would say that's probably a good thing since this isn't exactly a richly nutritious lunch. That being said, I think people are sometimes a little too hysterical about bacon. Yes, it's bad for you, but a little now and then won't kill you.

So, if you're not the hysterical type and you've got a taste for a B.L.T., I've got a few sammich-making tips for you.

Point 1: Toast the bread and leave it to cool in the toaster oven.

If you toast the bread and put it on a plate, it'll get "toast sweat" on the underside and get soggy on the bottom. If you use it while it's still hot, your mayonnaise will melt into it.

Point 2: Shake the grease off the bacon, but don't blot it on paper towels.

This may be slightly controversial but I believe it is best to use the little bit of bacon fat left on the slice after a few good shakes to act as a "dressing" for the tomato and lettuce. The acidity of the tomato and the oil from the bacon combine very well.

Point 3: Salt the tomato slices.

Even though bacon is salty, the sandwich is going to taste bland if you don't salt the tomato. Tomato can hold up to a fair bit of salt so I salt the slices normally and don't factor the bacon's saltiness into the equation. I also advise using very thin tomato slices to keep the sandwich from getting unwieldy.

Point 4: Apply mayonnaise thinly to one slice of bread and place it in contact with the lettuce.

The general rule with delis and sandwich-making is that mayonnaise must come in contact with the meat. However, since the bacon is oily and the mayo is oily, it just makes a slippery sandwich. Of course, you can just eat it on dry toast, but what fun would that be? Also, the mayo forms a thin oil-based barrier between the moist lettuce (though you should try to dry it as well as possible after washing) and the bread won't get soggy.

Point 5: Don't overdo the bacon.

The bacon should be just enough for flavor. This isn't a bacon sandwich, it's lettuce and tomato enhanced with bacon. I use as many slices as needed to cover the bread with about 1/4 inch gaps between the slices. If the bacon slices are touching or overlapping, you've got more than you need and the bacon flavor will overwhelm the vegetables. A really nice balance is more like a bacon salad flavor than a bacon sandwich.