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.

Whole Wheat Pancakes (that are actually good)

I'm guessing one of the hallmarks of a good pornographer is that they can hide all the flaws and grossness of the activities they are portraying and make it look like happy fun time with beautiful people. Well, maybe not actually "beautiful" so much as thin, copiously implanted, and shaven.

A good food pornographer similarly takes a subject which can look like slop and make it look appetizing. What is more, they can take utter failures and make them look like successes. One of my major pet peeves (which I've mentioned before) is that a lot of the recipes I find on the Internet look fabulous or are steeped in superlatives, but when I try the recipe, I get something inedible or lame.

Invariably, a lot of the best looking pictures with bad recipes have a bunch of comments under them saying, "it looks fabulous! I can't wait to try it!" They never have comments from people who have actually tried it. This irked me as the comments are relatively useless to those of us wanting to actually try the food rather than just treat it like a statue to admire, but I have finally figured out why there are no comments from people who make the featured item. I have posted comments on some of these failures and said in a polite way that the recipe didn't work out for me. Sometimes I've even asked for advice about where I may have gone wrong. Unsurprisingly, these comments are never posted. This goes a long way toward supporting my suspicion that people who post their glorious food porn pictures know that the recipes suck, but they post them anyway and hide the consequences.

I've made whole wheat pancakes on many occasions, but the results have been somewhat disappointing. Mainly, they're denser than I'd like, too flat, or too eggy. On the whole, they simply weren't fluffy enough to satisfy compared to the glory of cakes made with white flour. The truth is that whole wheat can't hold up to the decadence of white flour cakes. It never will because it has a different taste and texture due to the extra protein in them. The best you can hope for is something which is as good as it can be, but not so different from beautiful white pancakes as to disappoint.

I was poking around for a recipe for whole wheat pancakes and you'd be surprised how many included white flour. How can it be whole wheat if there's white flour in it? It sort of takes away the "whole" part. At any rate, I found an abysmal recipe which was just 4 ingredients - whole wheat flour, baking soda, brown sugar and milk. I was going to try it anyway because I though a radically different approach might work better. The next morning I had second thoughts and decided to heavily modify the recipe to include things I think should be in any pancake recipe. The results were surprisingly good.

Whole Wheat Pancakes:

Dry ingredients:
1 cup (regular) whole wheat flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. baking powder
1 semi-heaping tbsp. brown sugar
1/4 tsp. salt

Wet ingredients:
3/4 cup milk with 1/2 tbsp. distilled vinegar added (or buttermilk)
1 medium egg
1 tbsp. Canola oil
1/2 tsp. vanilla

Sift the flour, baking soda, and baking powder into a bowl. Scoop most of it up and sift a second time. Add the sugar and salt and mix up the rest of the dry ingredients. In a separate bowl, mix the wet ingredients until well-blended. Add the wet into the dry and stir until all of the dry ingredients are moistened. Don't overmix it or smooth out lumps. Mainly, you're just looking to make sure there's nothing dry in your pancakes.

Heat a skillet or griddle at medium-high heat. The pan should be good and hot, but not smoking hot. Add just enough Canola oil to coat the pan and let it heat for about a minute. There shouldn't be any pools of oil. You just want to add enough to make sure they don't stick.

Add the batter by the tablespoon. I used about two tablespoons per cake and they were not huge, but not small. It's very important to follow this next part when cooking if you want to have good, fluffy pancakes. You need to watch them carefully and flip them when the edges look dry and/or the very first bubble starts to form on the top. If you have the heat set properly, they will brown quickly as well. Only flip them once or you will have tough pancakes. You can test for doneness once they're flipped by pressing gently on the center of one of the cakes. It should feel firm, but be springy.

If you wait too long to flip them, they won't rise enough. You should also be able to tell if they're ready by the fact that they don't break apart when you attempt to flip them (and by the edges looking dry near the bottom). Essentially, the bottom should be cooked and the top still quite wet. If you look at the stack of cakes at the top of the post, you can see that they are uneven because they were flipped when top was still very moist and it splayed out a bit (bottom is smaller than the top). This is what you want.

These are very hearty tasting and undeniably "wheaty" in taste, but they have the right texture and look and feel like an real, fluffy pancake. They're actually better with things like jam and honey than the average white flour pancake, but good with syrup as well. When you add the syrup, the pancakes will be more "crumbly" than usual pancakes because those made with whole wheat flour isn't as gluey as those made with white, but they don't disintegrate.

My feeling is that the baking soda made a huge difference with the whole wheat flour because it acts much more rapidly than baking powder. I think it gave these extra lift, but it also means you can't make too many at once or save the batter for the next day if you won't want to use it all. My recipe made 7 medium-sized pancakes. I ate two and put the rest in the refrigerator for the next few days. I recommend cooking them all up at once rather than saving the batter because I think they'll lose all of their capacity to rise by the next day.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Of Teachers and Idiosyncracies

For the last two and a half years, I've been tutoring a student who is studying criminal justice at a college on one of the American military bases. This is one of the reasons that I have insight into both the American and Japanese justice systems and wrote the "This is not America" posts. I'm not speaking from anecdotal experiences. I'm speaking as someone who has taken courses side-by-side with my student as she's mainly taken distance courses and my job has been to read her texts and provide a lecture for her to base her papers on. I'm just as much a student as she is, but I have the added benefit of her research into the Japanese justice system (in Japanese) as a part of my learning process. It's how I learned things like there are no rights provided in line with habeas corpus in Japan (or that they are ignored).

At any rate, one of the things about helping someone get through college is that you are taken back to the time when you were going through the process yourself. All of the issues that I experienced with some of my teachers back then are in play for my student as well, and I find myself frustrated on her behalf.

One of the biggest problems that students complain about is the amount of work that teachers give them. Each teacher tends to expect not only attendance at lectures and reading the textbook, but regular personal research into related topics and articles. Some teachers assign work as if their class were the only one the students are taking, or at least as if their class is the most important and therefore worthy of a disproportionate amount of the students' study time.

My student is currently studying with one of these types of teachers. She has a gigantic text chock full of more information than anyone could possibly retain on the first pass, but he also expects her to research for articles and information on discussion topics. This is on top of writing essays every week for homework. It appears to be a daunting task for even the students who speak English as a native language as my student has forwarded messages from the teacher where he complains that they are just writing their opinions too much and not doing enough volitional work to augment their essays content. Never mind that at least some of the questions that the teacher is telling them to answer are opinion-based questions...

The other point that I recognize as being akin to my college experiences is that some teachers don't actually teach. I considered myself fortunate that the vast majority of my teachers at university lectured on the content they wanted you to learn. A few of them, however, mainly told stories or anecdotes and did not actually teach so much as fill the time in a way which was easy and entertaining for them. My feeling is that teachers are supposed to aid the digestion of the material they want you to learn. They're supposed to take some of the hairier elements of the topic and make things much clearer than a book could. Teachers who just have chat sessions or tell stories tend to expect the students to regurgitate the book on tests and in papers while not actually helping you succeed at either of these tasks with their lectures. I will note that I only got a "B" in one of my psychology classes after choosing my major (the rest were all A's) and it was in a class with a teacher who did this sort of story telling and time-wasting class while testing us on the textbook material.

Another point I recognize through my student's work is that every teacher has different idiosyncrasies about how written work is done. Some of them take off points for sentences that are too long. Some of them take off points for paragraphs with too few sentences in them. Others have strict style guidelines which differ from those of other professors. Some of the really lazy ones insist that the students type out or copy and paste every question they are answering as part of a test or essay so that the teacher does not have to reference the questions while reading the answers. Others get miffed if you waste their time and word counts on putting the questions in your work.

The bottom line with the idiosyncratic choices for each teacher is that I have to help my student work out what they want each time and help her tailor her work to fit in with what a particular teacher's wishes are. Usually, it takes a few assignments and analysis of comments and corrections to work out what they want to get it right. This illustrates how subjective the academic evaluation process is as each teacher applies a different standard.

Finally, the one constant is that teachers grade you higher if you concur with their viewpoints on topics which require an opinion or conclusion. The teacher of my student's current class is a former police officer who identifies more strongly with victims. If my student expresses less punitive views of the perpetrator of a crime (such as mental illness factoring into punishment and charges), he's less likely to see what she writes or says favorably.

This is one of the stickier idiosyncrasies because there's a choice to be made in terms of either pandering to the teacher's bias to get a better grade or to simply be honest. Some teachers are open-minded enough to grade objectively if an opinion is backed up with research or evidence. Some are not. I haven't sussed this one out yet in that regard, but I'll know soon enough based on how she is graded on particular assignments.

One thing this has reminded me of is that we grow up seeing teachers as being authorities and being scholarly. In many cases, we see them as knowing much more than us and being in control in a manner which we are not. From a certain viewpoint, that is true. They are in control of the class and speak with confidence and authority. Of course, this is easier to do when you've presented the same material over and over and over again. The idiosyncrasies I've noted illustrate, however, that (at least some) teachers are just as human as anyone else and as likely as your boss at your office to apply arbitrary standards or unrealistic expectations as anyone else.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

A Brief Note About Straw Man Arguments

Just a quick note for any readers who come over from Japan Soc and decide to quibble with me. I will ignore any straw men that are put up. I realize this means I will have to ignore most of what anyone says, since 99% of the arguments I encounter are based on straw men.

If you don't know what a straw man is, here you go.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

This is Not America Pt. 2

(part 1 is here)

How do other foreigners feel about the changes to the way in which Japan will handle it's foreign residents? Well, many of the vocal minority appear to be just peachy keen with it. Some think it's a spiffy idea because they believe it'll help keep those awful illegal immigrants under control. You know those hordes of illegals, don't you? They're the smoke and mirrors politicians whip out to distract you from the real problems your culture is having like a tanking economy, rampant unemployment, a lack of social stability from the growing income gap, and the huge national debt.

At any rate, I don't have any qualms necessarily with the foreigners who support more punitive measures against foreigners if they have a sound rationale. Most of them don't, but that's really beside the point. What I'm really interested in is what causes people to support measures that are meant to make life more difficult for people like themselves. What motivates a foreigner to say, "yes, I'd like to see a measure passed where I'd have to fork over a monumental amount of money ($2,000 USD/200,000 yen) for being absent-minded enough to walk out of my house without my foreign resident's card and provoke the police into asking for my I.D. by willfully (and inappropriately) being non-Japanese looking."

This sort of question interests me because anyone who advocates making their own life harder has some interesting psychological issues at play. I know some people will take issue with this, but, frankly, they're being willfully stupid. If you don't believe me, go out and ask your family, neighbors and friends if they'd like to see their lawmakers institute a policy whereby failing to carry a certain kind of I.D. will result in a $2,000 fine.

And, incidentally, make sure you don't say anything about foreigners. We are talking about people advocating people like themselves being fined, not people unlike themselves. I can tell you that not one Japanese person I've discussed this with thinks that it is fair or a good idea to force foreign folks to pay such a fine (or to carry cards with computer chips in them for remote tracking or scanning, for that matter). It's mainly a certain population of foreigners who are fine with this. It's not the Japanese themselves. In fact, at least a handful of Japanese people I've talked to about this have concerns about the slippery slope. That is, they figure once it applies to us, it'll eventually apply to them.

Getting back to the main point, I have some speculation why I think some foreigners think that the proposed changes are fine and dandy like sour candy. My guess is that one or several of these may apply in motivating their "support" of future punitive and potentially highly invasive and insecure measures:
  1. They want to ingratiate themselves to the Japanese by agreeing with anything they do rather than be seen as "troublemakers".
  2. They are racist at heart and support racist measures in Japan because they'd like to support similar measures in their own culture.
  3. They are frozen in Kohlberg's conventional stage of moral development and believe that lawful people will not be unfairly treated or punished. They see themselves as lawful and therefore immune to any sort of negative consequences to changes in the law.
  4. They are so hopelessly self-centered and their worldview so limited that they believe bad things don't happen to foreigners in Japan because they've never had such experiences. That is, they don't even believe random harassment occurs because they have never been victims of it.
  5. They hate other foreigners being in "their Japan" and would like to see others driven out. They figure making it more uncomfortable or unpleasant to stay here will weed out some of the riff-raff. These people are overlapping with those who find anyone who teaches English in Japan to be a blight on the country.
There are more reasons, I'm sure. However, the bottom line is that the situation for foreigners is dramatically different in Japan than other countries. One of the big reasons for this is that in other countries those in the same boat unite and help one another get better treatment and rights. In Japan, they attack each other and undermine each other's efforts to improve the conditions for foreigners. I'm guessing this is a pretty unique situation and it says a lot about the kind of people who decide to live here, and none of what it says is very good.

This is Not America

Occasionally, I'll watch one of the plethora of crime dramas from America that populate a great deal of Japanese cable television. Such shows are so popular that one of the Fox networks here is called "Fox Crime". Despite having a dumping ground for all crime-based programming on that particular channel, I still see plenty of other such shows on the plain old "Fox" channel and "Fox Life". If I had access to "Fox Movies", I'm guessing I'd see a lot more American crime drama there as well.

At any rate, when I watch one of these shows (usually with half an eye and half a mind), I occasionally see the hoary old routine where the police approach an immigrant and try to question him or her about a crime and try to intimidate said foreigner into cooperation by asking about his or her green card. For those who don't know, a "green card" is slang for one's permanent residence card or permission to remain in the country.

For the record, and for those who are not American or have been away for so long that they don't recall their own culture except through the lens of a T.V. camera, this sort of crap doesn't happen very often. This is not America. It's the fictional America which popular entertainment uses as a short-hand for reality because reality is so much more boring than pushy cops and weaselly immigrants who need to be coerced into cooperating in an investigation.

Lately, this topic has been on my mind as I've been following some of the drivel, er, comments attached to my friend Joseph Tame's video interview with foreign rights activist, Arudou Debito. Debito has his own site which he uses to raise awareness of news and issues related to life for foreigners in Japan. It's a place where people who need a platform from which to discuss their experiences can find an audience of supportive parties. Debito's aim is to act as if Japan were a place which should be held accountable for its actions toward foreigners and where the standards of ethics, equality, and morality which tend to be held in most developed countries should apply. He's a funny sort of fellow like that.

Debito's notions that principles that are good for everyone else ought to apply to Japan are not shared by the vocal minority of foreign folks in Japan. That is, there are a lot men from developed countries who think that what Japan does is just fine and justified. The part of this on-line cocktail party debate which concerns my introductory comments about America come in when these parties pretend America is "as bad" or "worse" than Japan when it comes to how foreigners are treated and the expectations of them when it comes to presenting identification.

For the sake of addressing my main point, which is a contrast and comparison between how America and Japan treat their respective foreign residents, I'm going to set aside the logical argument that one country's unethical or poor treatment of it's foreign residents is not in the least bit germane to a discussion of another country's. That's my way of saying that one country's poor behavior isn't a justification of another's. If you used that logic, we could justify anything including ethnic cleansing and religious persecution. If I live in Japan, my concern is how Japan treats its foreigners. The way America treats its foreigners is not the concern of Japanese expats. It's the concern of American expats, but let's set that reasonable argument aside, shall we?

One of the oft-cited reasons for justifying the upcoming changes to their dealings with foreigners is that America requires its foreign residents to carry identification and present it upon request as well. This is absolutely true. However, there is a marked difference in how the authorities in each country use their power to check identification and how they treat those who fail to present it. Japanese authorities abuse that power. American authorities generally use it only as necessary.

In Japan, the police will stop you and request that you offer your gaijin card merely because you look foreign. They can do this simply because they feel like harassing you, are bored, or want to flex a few power muscles. This is racial profiling and random harassment at its finest and it's easy for the Japanese to do because they figure most people who don't look Japanese aren't Japanese.

In America, the police don't go around randomly asking for I.D. for "foreign looking" people. They couldn't even if they wanted to because no one knows what a "foreigner" looks like in a country full of mixed cultural and ethnic histories. Beyond that, America has a long history of habeas corpus which anyone acting in a capacity related to criminal justice must act in accord with and is educated in. Don't know what habeas corpus is? In a nutshell, it's protection from being unlawfully detained by an official or unofficial person or persons. For the record, Japan does not have habeas corpus in its laws (or if it does, it's totally ignored). That means they can detain you for any reason any time. Their system does not operate from this judicial compass.

American police also have to act based on probable cause, not based on whims as the Japanese police do. The shorthand and oversimplified version of this that means the police have to establish that they have a reason to bother you before they can bother you. There are consequences for any authority that decides to randomly harass anyone for any reason. The Japanese police can essentially question you for no reason, drag you into the police station and interrogate you for no reason, and charge you for a crime without evidence. They can also hold you for up to 21 days without charging you for anything if they feel like it.

I'm not saying that the authorities never ask for the identification of foreign residents in America. I'm sure they do. However, they don't ask unless they have a reason to ask like you are a criminal suspect (for which they must have some evidence that you are connected to a crime, not simply that you look like a foreigner) or you are at a checkpoint for sobriety testing (at which every person is checked, not just those who look a certain way). What is more, any foreign resident in America who is mistreated already has a base of power from which to operate if he or she wants to lodge a protest. Even illegal immigrants have powerful support networks in the United States. I know this because I used to work at a community center which was for the Hispanic people in a particular area of California. I shared an office with one of their advocates. In Japan, we have no such support or power base if we are randomly mistreated.

So, yes, foreigners in America have to carry their foreign registration cards all the time, but the chances that they will be asked for them merely for walking around while looking foreign are exceptionally low. Could it happen? Sure. Does it happen on rare occasions. I'm sure it does. Does it happen often? No.

How can I reasonably conclude the latter? Well, besides the fact that the ethnic composition of the American population would make the same sort of random harassment you receive in Japan damn near impossible and that the laws in America are set up to protect everyone from such racial discrimination, I did some research. If you check forums for those holding green cards in America, what you don't find are discussions of being singled out and asked for I.D. pointlessly. You find talk about people who committed crimes and are worried they might be deported. You find information about paying taxes and citizenship hearings. You don't see anyone saying they were stopped and asked for I.D. for no reason at all.

The situation which Debito addresses in Joseph's interview with him isn't even about the current situation where police are asking for I.D. for no reason or subjecting foreigners disproportionately to bicycle theft checks. It's about the fact that the singling out of foreigners for carrying I.D. with computer tracking chips and punitive measures should they fail to carry their alien registration cards at all times is going to get harsher. If the new laws are passed, any foreigner who happens to walk out and forget his wallet can be fined 200,000 yen (that's $2,000 U.S. dollars) for not having his card. In America, if you don't have your card, you can bring it the next day or so. There's no fine or arrest. In Japan, you currently get hauled to the police station for questioning and are detained until a third party can deliver the card. That's the situation now. In the future, you can be held like a criminal and have to pay an exorbitant amount of money if you forget to take your card everywhere you go. So, forgetting your wallet or misplacing your card could be a terribly expensive and emotionally stressful mistake.

And lest you think the police don't give random checks, let me say that I've been randomly checked as has my husband, and we are very non-threatening-looking people who rarely go out at night (let alone late at night), don't drink alcohol or drive. We're very boring middle-aged people. My brother-in-law also told us early on in our stay in Japan that he had a coworker who stepped out in front of his apartment in his bathrobe to grab his mail and he was asked to present his card. After a great deal of persuading, the cop let him go step back into his place to retrieve his card. Needless to say, I don't take one step outside without my card. Every time I take out the trash in the morning, I have to take my wallet for fear that I could be at risk for being hauled off for detention and questioning. Having to make sure I never forget to take my wallet even for a brief trip to the trash pile about 20 paces from my door and directly in front of my building is a reminder to me each time I put a toe out my front door that I could be treated as a potential criminal.

(Part 2 to come)

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Joy of Immigration: Round 2

Today my husband and I went off to Shinagawa to complete part two of the immigration odyssey. I mentioned before that part one involves making the application. Part two involves actually getting the visa in your passport. I must say that I got my postcard notifying me that the application had been processed much faster than expected. I applied Monday morning and got the card Friday afternoon.

Since we had good luck with shortening the wait by going relatively early in the morning, we followed the same pattern this time. This was despite the fact that we had to stand on the trains almost all of the time and my back and hips were not happy campers. The most efficient way to get there was via the Rinkai line (from Shinjuku) as it bypasses a lot of stations and gets you to Tennozu Isle pretty quickly.

The second half of the process involves pursuing a line to counter "A". There's a long red line running down the carpet and a bunch of those roped off areas that snake around like they have at Disney for people waiting to get on rides. That means that you get to wait a bit before you get up to the counter and offer up your postcard, gaijin card, and passport.

You also have to buy a 4,000 yen (about $40) revenue stamp to pay for the whole thing. If anyone indicates that immigration processes are paid for by taxes, they are wrong. It costs $40 per visa application and $30 per single re-entry permit. The face time you get with an immigration official is about 2 minutes combining both the application and pick-up time. I don't know how long people spend on the processing, but I can't imagine it's too terribly long. Sure, they have to pull your files and check your forms for mistakes, but given the number of people making applications, there's no way it's more than 15 minutes per person for anything besides a permanent residence application.

At any rate, I got in the line and it took about 15 minutes to snake my way up to the counter where I surrendered my identification and applied the revenue stamp to a piece of paper that said what I was doing (extending my current visa status) and required a signature. After that, instead of waiting in line, I was allowed to sit and wait.

The waiting areas at Tokyo Regional Immigration in Shinagawa are hot and stuffy. We've been told by students that they believe public buildings don't have great air conditioning because walking into an uncomfortable government office reassures people that their tax dollars aren't being squandered keeping public servants and the unfortunate souls at their mercy comfortable. Personally, I'd be very happy if some of the money I pay to the Japanese government in taxes were used to keep immigration cool and dry rather than to finance cheap classes to teach grannies and grampies how to dial a cell phone and push a mouse on their computers.

The "system" for picking up the visa is a bit different from that for applying. When you apply, you get a number and your number is called and you go to the counter. It's a lot like visiting a busy New York bakery. When you pick up the visa, they don't call your number exactly. They call a number and anyone who is currently holding a number lower than the one called can rush to the counter and stand in another line to get the visa. My number was 185 so I was able to go up when 187 was called, for instance.

Unfortunately, there are always some people who think that they don't have to follow the system or find it too taxing to comprehend. When 187 flashed up and I was happily first to the counter, someone with a number around 218 jumped in front of me and started trying to submit paperwork which was not supposed to be handled at that counter. He kept asking the woman working there for something and she told him to go elsewhere, but he wouldn't give it up. Eventually, she convinced him to go away and then apologized quite sincerely to me for what had happened. It's not like it was her fault that he was either clueless about the process and/or okay with usurping the time and attention due to people who had already spent their time waiting.

I imagine the bane of the existence of a lot of immigration officials are people who think they can skip to the head of the line or wheedle their way into some area that they don't belong in. It wastes their time and just prolongs the process of dealing with applications in an orderly fashion such that I'm sure they fall behind more and more as the day goes on. That being said, they start out behind (by an hour or a bit more) and I think they never catch up, but every person who thinks they can horn in where they don't belong is only adding minutes to the rest of our waits.

At any rate, once this fellow hit the road, she showed me my visa and returned my passport with its shiny new renewal. I thanked her. We smiled at each other, and the CH and I hit the road. The entire business took about 45 minutes, not counting the ludicrously long commute to the office conveniently located in the middle of nowhere. Unfortunately, we forgot the camera so I can't offer you any scenic shots of absolutely gigantic lots stacked with enormous Chinese shipping containers or multitudes of big trucks surrounding our cab and filling the air with the delicate scent of diesel exhaust.

Since things went so swimmingly, we decided to stop off at an English language second-hand book store in Ebisu. We had about $35 worth of credit due to expire tomorrow and we bought 3 psychology books with it. We chose those so my husband can familiarize himself with some more concepts before taking classes back home. The man at the shop remarked, jokingly, but I think also meaningfully, that we spent little more than our credit allowed. I think they don't really like it when people only spend their credit as it's not very profitable for them. However, we need to liquidate our books, not get more of them, and this is the start of our effort to minimize our collection.

While we perused the books, we were treated to some pretentious conversation about how foreigners living in Japan lose their ability to have conversations and that the highly intelligent customer who was buying books couldn't have a good chat with his troglodytic friend who had lost his conversation skills after teaching English for awhile. Apparently, we English teachers spend so much time asking our students simplistic and simple-minded questions that we forget how to form any but the most primitive of sentences. I imagine after all of my years here, I'm going to be reduced to nothing more than grunts when I attempt to communicate with my fellow Americans upon returning to my native soil. The magnanimous foreign fellow did grant that, after spending some time with someone of his immense intellect that his friend regained some of his perspicacity, so I'm relying on my American friends and acquaintances to help me regain my capacity for sophisticated discourse.

Our books procured (and with a new sense of confidence that books would bring us into the light of intelligence once more), we headed out to Subway for double turkey and roast beef subs chock full of healthy, healthy veggies. We got them to go as we'd rather eat in the comfort of our home than the warm, narrow hallway the shop is set up in . My husband has become expert in asking the people there to load up my turkey sandwich with jalapeno and black olives. Apparently, these items are in short supply as they anoint my sandwich with exactly two of each even when asked to put "takusan" (many) on it. My hubby had to ask them twice for more in order to net me a total of 6 each.

When we reached our home neighborhood, my husband and I briefly split up because he wanted potato chips with his sandwich and I just wanted to get to my bike. He sprinted off and I trudged toward the bikes figuring that our respective speeds should have us meeting up at the bicycles. During the entire time that I was out and about with my husband, no one approached me, but during the brief duration that we were apart, some Japanese guy gave me a major gawking and when I gave him the hairy eyeball in return, he started talking to me about my legs. I ignored him, but the experience reinforced something which I have noticed about Japanese people bothering foreigners in Tokyo. That is that they don't bother you if you're with another Japanese person of any gender or with a foreign male. If you're alone, they feel free to intrude on you in a manner which is utterly inappropriate in their culture (Japanese people as a rule do not strike up a conversation with strangers, and it's even less common in Tokyo than other areas).

After getting home and inhaling the sub and a Diet Coke, I decided to complete the final phase of the process and just go to the local government office and register my new visa. I didn't want to do it, and my feet doubly did not want to, but the allure of an entire day off tomorrow without annoying bureaucracy of any sort squashed the protest that my feet were making. So, we biked off to another massively overheated government office and allowed them to duly note whatever it is that needed duly noting. I noted that my ku (ward) taxes were being used to buy a bunch of new chairs for the waiting areas. I actually liked the old seating more, but I didn't get a say on how my yen got spent.

As of now, we've each got one more tangle with bureaucracy and then we should be in the clear for the duration. Unfortunately, our alien registration cards expire this year so we each have to go get new ones within a month of our respective birthdays. Sigh. I'm going as early as possible so I can tick this one last thing off the list and, hopefully, never look back.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

No Lives Were Lost

I just got word via Twitter that the green tea Cokes arrived with no related fatalities. A picture of the unexploded bottles was put up by their recipient here. ;-)

Friday, June 12, 2009

Angry Rant is Angry

There are 212 posts on this blog (and 218 in my other snack reviews blog). I can say with confidence that there are no angry posts on the snack blog since food, unless it is being hucked at my face by an angry mob, doesn't really angry up my blood. On this blog, any time I complain with a bit of fire in the blood, I tag the post as "whining". There are three such posts tagged on this blog and even those three are more like a very low simmer on the blood boiling scale.

The "There's no rule, but..." post garnered a bit of attention, and one of the commenters labeled me as "angry" because of it. The truth is that I'm not an angry person, but I'm also not a robot that drifts through the day providing programmed responses to stimuli without any sort of emotional response. When dumb things happen, or when I've had an especially hard time of it and something unpredictable and frustrating happens, I get mad, and I may drift into hyperbole or fail to express myself in an optimal fashion. This doesn't make me an angry person. This makes me human.

The truth is that I used to be pretty angry because my life has generally been a hard one and I live with pain on a daily basis (which is an emotional burden you can't imagine until you've lived with it day-in and day-out), but I've labored long and hard to control my temper and to mellow with age. And, honestly, I've done very well as my husband can attest to. For me, letting loose and actually having a proper rant is a rare and brief period of letting myself go in the interest of blood pressure control and free expression. The absurdity of someone reading that one post and reaching the conclusion that I'm angry, hate Japan and should leave should be apparent to anyone. They can more reasonably decide if I'm an angry person after they've read all 211 other posts on this blog and the more than 500 posts on my former blog. Even then, the picture of my character wouldn't be a true one, but it'd be a lot closer than judging me on one post.

The truth is that most people don't blog about indifferent experiences unless they are doing a diary-style blog, something which is rarer these days because of other outlets like FaceBook and Twitter which afford people with a chance to note experiences in their daily lives as they occur. Most people blog about something they have some sort of emotional reaction to whether it be happiness, anger, or curiosity. Mostly, I blog about curious experiences because that's what I think about most of the time. I'm actually happier far, far more often than I'm angry (by a country mile), but I'm pretty sure no one wants to hear about how the angels sing, the sun shines beautifully, and life is a wondrous cloud of love every time my husband comes home from work and once again shines the light of his soul directly onto mine (this happens on a daily basis, folks, I'm utterly smitten as my long-suffering sister can attest to). Hey, but if there is a demand, I'll start posting about that.

I also have a lot of gratifying conversations with my Japanese students on an almost daily basis, but I can only share snippets with people on occasion due to time constraints and a concern for protecting the privacy of the students. Also, honestly, how interesting would it be if I posted, "had a nice chat with a lovely student today" five times a week every week. Let me just say it now and then everyone can assume that is the case unless I say otherwise.

So, for the record, angry rants are angry. That's kind of the point of them. They don't define me, but if you choose to believe they do, then perhaps you shouldn't be reading this blog because I'm not going to pull any punches in responding to any commenter who judges me based on such limited contact with me.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Follow-up to "There's No Rule"

One of the great things about bad experiences in life is that you an milk them pretty effectively for humor. When things go well, you find that the comedy cow (that's probably an actual god in some religion somewhere) isn't going to give up much, no matter how hard you squeeze those metaphorical udders.

You might take that first paragraph as an indication that my second round in the ring with Japan Post was rather less aggravating than the most recent one. This time they didn't even put up a fight. I'm happy to report that the second attempt at a different post office went the way that the first one should have gone had it not been staffed by people who apparently reside in a reality where exploding soda pop bottles are a normal and greatly feared part of their existence. That is to say that they took the box, put it on the scale, told us the price, allowed us to pay, and will be ferrying it to a magical land where people working for major bureaucratic agencies don't make up the rules as they go along (that's America). My husband and I are fortunate in that we live close to two post offices so it was possible to easily try the other one. Most people don't have that luxury and probably would just have to give up if they were faced with someone who lives in an imaginary world where life or death circumstances surround the shipping of PET bottles of carbonated beverages.

This experience beautifully illustrated one of the particular unpleasant realities of life in Japan that you will know and come to be put out by if you live here long enough. That reality is that Japanese people lie. They lie a lot. They lie often. And, more often than not, they lie transparently expecting you to want to avoid confrontation as much as a Japanese person so you won't call them on it. Lies are woven into the fabric of the culture as being not only acceptable but desirable as part of the tatamae (public face) and honne (true face) culture.

The reason they lie is because they don't have the same attitude toward lying that the West does. This may be because they don't have Judeo-Christian principles underlying their culture and aren't afraid God will smite them because he's had to put too many hash marks in the "false witness" category of his book of sins. It may be because the desire for social harmony outweighs any notion of honesty. It's likely that most principles can be sacrificed on the alter of not causing anyone any trouble, and that would include telling the truth. At any rate, the "why" is less important than the point that it is a fact of life here.

The problem with this is that there is a lot of lying based not on social harmony, but self-interest. One of the reasons I can't help but scoff when people gush about how great service is in Japan is that I've been lied to so many times when receiving or attempting to receive service here. If you ask a question and someone doesn't know the answer or isn't interested in troubling themselves to find the answer, they just lie. They'll either make up something ridiculous or say "no" or the equivalent.

This type of lying while supposedly attempting to provide a service is what the fellow at the post office was engaging in. Rather than verify the real situation regarding the safety of sending bottles of carbonated beverages, he just made something up. With a Japanese customer, this likely would have worked since they'd almost certainly not argue about it and accept what he said whether they believed it or not. The Japanese know when they're being lied to, but they tend not to challenge those lies. We foreigners, on the other hand, don't take nearly so well to it. I guess that's part of why we're such a troublesome lot.

(A little postscript to the "anonymous" person who made a rude comment on the last post without any sort of evidence or argument to invalidate what I said - seriously, you were already warned you weren't going to get through and the least you can do is make a counterargument and link to a user name with your own web site so I also get the chance to go offer insults at your posts. If you don't have the balls to stand behind your comments enough to open yourself up to the same sort of scrutiny at the very least, then don't bother. You're not getting past moderation, you big loser.)

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

There's no rule, but... can't do it anyway.

I had the most frustrating experience a brief while ago at a Japanese post office. I'm trying to send a box with two 500 ml. PET bottles of green tea Coca-cola to Hawaii. I put the bottles in a Ziploc bag. I bubble-wrapped the hell out of them so they are immobilized, and I dutifully put the proper customs tag on it with details of the contents.

When we offered the box over to the people at the counter in the post office, they read the tag (which honestly listed that there was Coke in it) and then started sucking air between their teeth and clucking amongst themselves. Once they got through with that, they kept looking at a chart on the wall which listed all the things you can't send like, oh, poison, toxic chemicals, etc. There was nothing on their wall chart which said you can't send Coke.

After we tried to tell the two hens who were frowning and acting like we were trying to mail a ticking bomb that it was just a few bottles of soda, they called over a MAN to handle it. After all, if a Japanese man tells you something, the sway of his testosterone-fueled masculine authority will make the barbarians at your gate stop quibbling with you and go away.

The man, who was just your usual scrawny Japanese dude, but I guess Japanese women think anyone with a penis gets respect, insisted that there was this horrible risk of the bottles exploding in transit because of the air pressure changes on the plane if the box is sent by airmail. We told him that they were in a plastic bag. Even if they exploded, the bag would catch any leaked soda. He essentially said that we couldn't send them by air because of this risk.

At any rate, we asked the man if there was a rule about not sending carbonated beverages. He said that there was no rule, but they essentially didn't want to do it. That means that there isn't a word on any book anywhere about not sending these things and it is not listed as a restricted item, but because he's imagined some problem which there has been no case of to date, he won't allow us to mail our package.

Now, folks, I try hard to be balanced about cultural differences, but this experience is where I've freaking HAD IT with the Japanese "case by case" crap and the way in which they "take responsibility". The truth of the matter is that much of the way Japan works is with people making decisions based on what helps them avoid responsibility for anything. Generally, that means being ridiculously timid so that they can't be held accountable if the most obscure and moderately troublesome (not catastrophic, not devastating, not even annoying) possibility happens to take place.

That "man" wasn't concerned with doing his job according to what the job allows or requires. He was only concerned with some extreme possibility where the bottles rupture *and* leak through the bag *and* this is actually a problem for anyone *and* they look at the post mark and trace it back to their particular post office and someone then calls them on the carpet for sending a parcel which contained items which weren't restricted in the first place.

This sort of thinking is exactly why Japan changes at a slower pace than a glacier. It's the reason their economy has been on a 20-year decline with no end in sight. It's why they have greater debt per capita than the United States. It's why their inept and corrupt politicians keep getting re-elected. It's why they have a tendency to embellish and polish what other people have success with rather than invent their own unique ideas. No one wants to take a damn risk of messing up and then having to take responsibility.

On the bright side, the people working at my local post office are now at no risk of having to commit seppuku in the unlikely event that the bottles of soda I'm trying to send rupture en route *and* leak out of their Ziploc bag *and* it ends up being a problem for someone. On the not so bright side, I can't help out someone who has been really helpful to me and who I really want to help.

I'm going to change the customs tag so it says something vague and try another post office tomorrow. I know other people send this stuff abroad all the time. I'm not only talking about J-List and whatnot, but I've heard of people who just send their friends bottles of Pepsi Cucumber or Pepsi White or whatnot. There must be a few postal workers out there whose testicles are big enough to take on the great risk of sending a couple of bottles of pop. :-p

Oh yeah, anyone who has a problem with my little rant. I advise you to keep your comments to yourself because I'm in no mood for fingers being waggled at me by people who haven't had to put up with the ridiculous crap I've had to for the last 20 years. There's reasonable judgment, and then there is abject bullshit. This my friends, came directly from the ass of a male bovine.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Whole Wheat Oatmeal Bread (for ABM)

I've made a lot of whole wheat bread since I bought a bread machine about a decade ago. I haven't made much really good whole wheat bread though. Most of the time, it has come out relatively heavy and dense. I'd pour the ingredients into the machine and the brick of brown bread that came out was usually only about 25% bigger than the dough ball that had formed at the start of the process.

I used to think this was because of Japanese yeast or possibly because the bread machine didn't knead the dough well enough. Eventually, I just concluded that whole wheat bread was dense by nature and that I was never going to be able to make a loaf which was relatively light. This was pretty frustrating because I can buy whole wheat bread which has a pretty decent texture at Japanese markets, but it costs about $1.30 for 3 tiny slices. If food manufacturers can make whole wheat bread that is relatively light, why can't I?

After years of bread so dense I'm surprised it didn't form its own singularity, I finally stumbled upon what seems to make the difference, wheat gluten. If you add a couple of tablespoons of vital wheat gluten to the dough, it seems to puff up and make a much lighter whole wheat loaf. With a little help from a random recipe I ran across on the web and some experimentation on my part, I finally have a recipe for what I'd consider about the best bread machine recipe for whole wheat bread. For those in Japan, please note that you can get vital wheat gluten from the Foreign Buyer's Club.

Whole Wheat Oatmeal Bread (for ABM):
  • 1 1/4 cups water
  • 1/4 cup Canola oil
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 2 tbsp. vital wheat gluten
  • 3 1/4 cups (regular) whole wheat flour
  • 1/2 cup oatmeal (regular rolled oats - not quick)
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 2 tsp. yeast
Place the liquid ingredients in your bread machine, then the oatmeal, and then the remaining dry ones (add the yeast last, making sure it doesn't touch any wet ingredients). For best results, allow the flour to sit in the bread pan and absorb moisture for about an hour. Set the crust color to light and choose the whole wheat setting. Press start.

If you use honey, note that bread will be a little dark even with a light crust color setting. Also, when you toast it, it will tend to toast pretty rapidly because of the extra sugar, particularly if you use a high setting on a toaster oven. I think it would be possible, however, to make this with sugar instead of honey, but you might have to make some minor adjustment to the amount of wheat flour because the honey is liquid and sugar is not. Also, I'm not sure if the yeast will be quite as effective feeding off of sugar as compared to honey. Using more "nutritious" oils and sugars tends to give me a better rise.

The Joy of Immigration

This morning the CH and I made what will (hopefully) be my second to last venture to the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau for an extension on my visa. For those who don't know, you need a special stamp in your passport giving you permission to remain in the country and there are various types. The first year you're here, they usually allow you only a one-year stamp. After awhile, they'll grant you one that lasts three years. I think that they used to be much more reserved about the longer duration visas than they are these days.

When we first arrived in Japan, we had to go to an ancient building in Otemachi for visas and it was an all at once process which wasted the entire day. You went there, stood in line, offered documents, and then waited literally for 6-8 hours and at the end you got your visa stamp. Now, the process is broken in half and we go to the new office they built in Shinagawa.

The old office wasn't too far from central Tokyo, but it was clearly too small for the load and had no air conditioning. The newer one is two floors and large enough to deal with the increased load. It's also out in the middle of nowhere (literally). To get there, we have to take two subways, then a taxi or a bus from the station. The taxi ride takes one past areas piled deep and wide with shipping containers (we hope to take a camera next time to memorialize our last trip). It's the sort of area where there are neither shops nor residences, and no nature or beautiful sites. It is essentially a place where ugly things are kept including a garbage dump and bland grey buildings abound.

The trip there takes about an hour and requires a lot of standing and walking around. Believe it or not, I haven't been on a train for about 3 years since I quit my former office job. I had forgotten about the cacophony and overstimulating hassle of the trains in Tokyo. Passing through Shinjuku station provided a teeth-gritting reminder of why commuting is so awful. People are walking every which way and they don't look where they are going so that they don't have to take responsibility for moving out of anyone's way. Most of them meander about in a dream-like state. Some of them are in a hurry to overtake you and walk in front of you, but as soon as they get around you, they immediately slow down and block you.

The noise is also overbearing. Japan has to have more noise pollution than almost any other developed country. When you walk along the train platform, you hear the trains themselves, a constant flow of automated announcements, and buzzers, tunes, and beeps notifying people of things like the trains are coming, going, or their doors are closing. All of these things can't be helped, but the worst part of it is that over the unavoidable din there seems to be the near constant shouting into loudspeakers by platform and train personnel. Essentially, they are repeating what is already being said or cued through automated means and they do it several times and at high volume. The layers of unpleasant noise start getting to you after a very short time unless you've managed to turn into one of those meandering zombies.

People traveling in their own world aren't a problem in big, open spaces, but they are a problem in fairly crowded ones. That doesn't stop the Japanese from abdicating responsibility for showing courtesy toward others. When we were walking down a set of steps from the platform, a man in front of us, who surely knew he was in the middle of a throng that exited the train when he did, was making a slow descent while staring at his cell phone screen. Eventually, he just decided he'd stop about 2/3 of the way down and mess with his phone regardless of the fact that he'd jam up the rest of us.

At any rate, once at immigration, we found that the system had changed or was different in the morning. When my husband went in the afternoon, he took a number and waited. We had to go stand in a line, have my paperwork looked over quickly, and then were given a number. The office opens at 9:00 am and we arrived at 10:05. My number was 62 away from the one that was currently being served.

Things at this point were looking good. The man who already inspected my documents would have said something if everything weren't in order so I expected smooth sailing. I also knew that we likely weren't going to end up blowing the whole day there because chances were I'd be served in about an hour. They tend to deal with about one person per minute. While I waited, I read a book and my husband went off to another section to get re-entry permit for when he visits home later this year.

When my number approached, we stood up so we wouldn't take long to get to the counter and it ended up that the woman dealing with me was right in front of us when the number rolled around. I handed her the paperwork and she riffled through it then started asking for other things. I checked, double-checked, triple and sextuple-checked the requirements and the fellow who did the preliminary check didn't seem to think anything was missing. The first thing she asked for was my husband's tax form. I figured that wasn't a big deal, though it shouldn't have been necessary according to the requirements I'd read on-line, and handed it over which satisfied her.

Next she asked for something which neither my husband nor I recognized but he later remarked was essentially a "5-kanji" (Chinese character) version of a much simpler word that he would have recognized. At this point, I was a little freaked, but calmer than I would have expected given how nervous the whole process had been making me for the last week. I knew nothing else was on the list of requirements. When we didn't get it, she asked if we had a "company paper" and I thought she wanted one of those sheaths of papers that you submit when you get your first work visa that has all sorts of information about your company like the number of employees, president's name, number of branches, gross income of the whole shebang, etc. Note that this is not a typical requirement for renewing a straight on "work visa", let alone a spouse's "dependent visa" (which is generally a simpler affair).

I intuited that what she must have meant, despite my initial thought about it being a huge company description, was a copy of my husband's contract, which is certainly required. The main reason this wasn't the first conclusion I'd reached about what she wanted was that the contract was already in the small pile of papers I'd submitted (only 4 pages). We told her it was already there and she looked again and found it. She apologized and I mock wiped my brow and said "phew", so we all had a good laugh. It seems a lot less funny now, but I wanted to make a joke of it at the time to mitigate any embarrassment she might have felt at her error. I know that her job sucks and she certainly doesn't know that she is dealing with a foreigner who is incredibly paranoid and nearly psychotically nervous. Things happen. Papers get stuck together.

That's step one of the process finished now. After they accept your paperwork, they give you a postcard which you write your name and address on. When they are finished processing your application, they send you the postcard and you go back for stage two where you stand in a different, similarly long line and get the visa stamped into your passport. Usually, the postcard shows up in less than 10 days (my husband's came in a mere 5), though it depends on how busy they are. Once they accept your documents, you're generally home free though so the vast majority of my stomach-churning nerves have passed. Now, all I have to dread is the second trip back and all of the hassle involved with that.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Stage Four

By nature, both my husband and I are creatures of habit. If we're comfortable, then we stay where we are. It takes a pretty strong push to move us off in a different direction and this more than anything has kept us in Japan for 20 years.

Life in Japan has largely been "as usual" during most of our time here. Generally speaking, the level of comfort and familiarity has increased as the years have gone on. We can watch foreign television via cable or DVD rental. We can talk and even see family in real time through the internet and foreign food is easier and cheaper than it was when we first arrived. Setting up a comfy refuge from the sometimes oppressive Japanese environment has never been easier and the number of pop culture touchstones between the Japanese and Westerners have never been greater. I can talk for quite some time with students about shows like "Lost", "House", "Ugly Betty", and "Desperate Housewives."

However, the times, they have been changing. The Japanese government is starting to put policies into place so they can remotely track foreigners with computer chips that contain biometric data. This will make identity theft easy and makes it look like we are criminals who need to be watched. If you step outside your home without your card, you will be fined about $2,000 if a cop scans you and finds your card missing. He can do this from the comfort of his koban (police box). It adds a whole new level of possibility to the usual police harassment of foreigners in Japan.

In addition, the Japanese government is looking to forcibly add foreigners to the Japanese pension scheme. This would be ideal if it weren't for the fact that you have to live here for 25 years to collect your money back. The scheme is clearly an attempt to fill Japanese pension coffers with money from people who won't get it back. And, while this doesn't apply to me, Japan is currently attempting to bribe foreign residents to leave who were issued permanent residence based on having Japanese ancestry.

You can add to this the increasing numbers of violent crimes in Japan as the economic situation continues to worsen. News of finding dismembered bodies and people going on stabbing sprees is no longer shocking in Japan. I'm not saying other countries don't experience violent crime, but it's no longer a place where a lack of economic disparity keeps crime at bay. It's a place where the gap between the haves and the have nots continues to grow and crime is increasing as a result. If you consider that Japan has twice its GDP in debt and a problem with the birthrate falling and an aging population which they are unwilling to solve through immigration, you can see which way this train is rolling.

The writing is on the wall. Japan is becoming a more foreigner hostile place with social and economic problems. That doesn't mean it'll be terrible or that people can't still enjoy their lives here, but it's a sign of the times. For these reasons and more personal ones (which I will get to shortly), my husband and I are setting in motion a long-term, but concrete plan to leave Japan. When I say "concrete", I mean there is a departure date in mind. That date will be some time in April 2012. It will be shortly before my husband's current and final work visa expires.

The proposed foreigner-hostile changes in Japan have been the catalyst for finally pushing my husband and I to do what we would have done long ago if we weren't so comfortable where we are. We're also 44 and 46 years of age respectively and there are age-related issues at hand. The bottom line is that we have to go soon or never go at all. If we leave in 2012, we will have saved a bit more money and we will still have time to go to school for higher degrees in America and start new careers in a different field. If we linger much longer, that narrow window will have closed and we'll essentially be too old to start anew back home.

In addition to the other issues that are at hand, we have to consider that neither of us had worked long enough in America to qualify for retirement benefits in the U.S. If we go back soon, we will have put (and paid) in enough years to do so. If we remain, then we're resigning ourselves to the idea that we will have to retire only on savings from our earnings in Japan up until the point when we won't be able to work anymore due to age or infirmity. While we're good savers, I'm not sure I'd like to stake my entire future on that money.

The reason we're choosing 2012 is mainly because that is when the visa will expire and it's a good kick in the pants to know that it'll be a hassle to stay beyond that date. Beyond that though is that it's not easy to just pack up 20 years of your life and walk out the door so quickly or easily. While I have assiduously attempted not to hang on to too much junk, there's still a lot that needs to be dealt with. If we wanted to leave as soon as possible, it'd be hard going to get out successfully in six months given our possessions and connections to people who have the right to have some time to make up for our future absence. Also, honestly, this decision was made fast, but the full acceptance and arrangements for what is to come on the other end will take some time. I don't take well to change and I need some time to prepare myself mentally for walking away.

At the moment, the plan is for my husband to go to graduate school at his Alma Mater in California. I'm hoping to attend simultaneously with him, but I don't know if I qualify as a state resident so that plan will have to wait. I may just have to find some stop-gap work to defray the costs. For now, I've investigating the possibility on-line and looked into the finances in a rough way. It all looks good on paper, but my husband will look into it in person later this year when he goes home in the fall for a visit. Another part of having to make arrangements for our future plans will be taking the GRE (Graduate Record Exam) before going.

One way or another, I can't imagine us staying after 2012. The prospect of leaving is terrifying, but also exciting. It'll be the fourth stage of life for my husband and I. The first was our long distance relationship which spanned a little over a year. The second was our brief time living together in California and the third has been our life together in Japan.

Leaving a comfortable and stable life is very difficult, but moving on to a greater challenge is enticing. Unless something serious happens in the next three years (like a serious illness which requires a change in plan), we'll be blowing this Popsicle stand in a little under 3 years.