Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Self-Indulgent E-mail to Friends and Family - Pt. 1

Note: This is the first e-mail I sent to friends and family after moving here, late July, 2010. I probably disagree now with half the things I wrote. Or else I've completely forgotten them because they really don't matter at all.  Either way, the content of this e-mail qualifies as dated. But it mattered to me at some point. And you know, like, life is all about the journey, and stuff. 
Originally Sent: 8/19/10  8:42pm, Japan Standard Time. 
Original Recipients: Everyone I've ever wanted to like me. This is my go-to-move when trying to impress someone - especially girls. Step 1) Pen a 5,000 word, emotive personal history ASAP. Step 2) Check my inbox every 1-2 minutes. Step 3) Distract myself by watching home videos of the Glory Days - e.g. middle school musical theater performances/that one high school basketball game when I scored 26 points. 4)Send follow-up e-mail with desperate "joke" that suggests a bad case of hurt feelings on the part of the sender, but also includes a link to a Youtube video featuring babies/finger puppets doing something cute/involving a bowler hat. 5) Buy a new sweater-vest, as a comfort-purchase. 6) Drink heavily. 7) Send another e-mail, sans prose. This one only contains a link to a highlight reel of scenes from all three Chronicles of Narnia films. 8)Repeat. 

Here it is, my first correspondence from Japan. 
(Footnotes added after-the-fact.)

Hey y’all,

So I’m not planning on writing massive, rambling e-mails like I did during my year in Spain. I skimmed a couple of those the other day and was astonished that a) I wrote that much, b) I expected anyone to read half of it and c) I was such an annoying bastard. Sorry about that. I’m so over myself.

That said, here’s a quick update on what I’m doing in Japan. So you can read. About me.

My house is…so much better than your house. It’s halfway up the Central Japanese Alps and faces the Southern Alps and there’s a river valley in between the two mountain ranges, if that makes sense. The mountains are real mountains, not the kind you hike as a Memorial Day morning activity. Their summits are usually wrapped in clouds. My house is also a real house, as opposed to some shit Harlem apartment shared with Craigslist friends. It’s not big but it has a bedroom, living-room, shower-room, bathroom, large kitchen and laundry room. And a heated toilet seat. Apparently that’s vital in the winter.

The View From My Bedroom/Whattup, Ladies?
There are a lot of insects here. Big ass insects. Moths on the windows and ants materializing from the floorboards and black beetles everywhere. Also, I’ve been warned to watch out for some breed of wasp that’s bigger than a fat man’s thumb. Its sting not only sends you to the ICU, but implants some extraordinary venom that acts as a pheromone and attracts all the other fat, hairy wasps in the neighborhood – basically making your flesh the conduit for a raucous wasp orgy. I thought that was worth sharing.

The house is great, and cheap ($150 a month), but it’s an archetypal Japanese house. Meaning everything is on the floor. My entire living room is literally on the floor. I’m sitting on the floor right now. And my back and shoulders are all knots after just two weeks. Again, I’m hoping that once December rolls around, the heated toilet seat will even things out.

Here’s a list of some cultural differences I can point out/complain about. Everyone loves reading about cultural differences. Fish out of water stories are hilarious. Just. Hilarious.

1) Waste disposal here is no children’s chore. It’s a duty that requires vigilance and diligence. Instead of making simplistic generalizations like “trash vs. recycling” or “paper vs. plastic,” the Japanese divide their trash into: compost, burnable, hard plastic, soft plastic, plastic bottles, aluminum cans, glass, and metal. Each trash faction gets its own bag and own disposal day and location. As in, you have to discard each sub-group individually, in a specific place on a specific day. Batteries can be disposed of once per year (February 2nd in my town). It seems like a harmless mania at first, but it really changes everything. When I go shopping, I decide which products to purchase based on how easy it is to dispose of their accompanying packaging/receptacles. I don’t even enjoy receiving gifts anymore (“so a hard plastic interior plus a soft plastic exterior plus this red ribbon doesn’t even seem like a burnable…I don’t want it. Not worth it. Keep the chocolate.”). When people (Americans) leave Japan for good, they abandon their cars at train stations, instead of dealing with the expensive and exhausting disposal process. And when someone moves out of a house/apartment, they leave loads of accumulated crap. I have inherited enough used batteries to fill an American trash can.

Tangent: I’m realizing the waste disposal process is a microcosm of a Japanese cultural principle. Japanese people make you divide your trash into twelve categories for the same reason they view “flower arrangement” as a high art form. Japanese people love order, organization, procedure and presentation. Respecting the process is more important than reaching the conclusion. This is not a bad or good. It just is. But it does make things interesting. I still don’t have the internet at home because none of my bosses want to pressure the local service provider as they take five weeks to fill out some rudimentary paperwork. I’ve been in houses where I was given a specific pair of slippers for each room. As in, when I left a given room, I had to remove my slippers and put on hallway slippers. I wore those hallway slippers in the hallway, until I arrived at my destination room, at which point I put on slippers specific to that room. Also, they fuck with the rivers. While I look at where I live and think: “Two mountain ranges with a river running between them. Looks like nature has this on lock,” Japanese people think: “Two mountain ranges with a river running between them. We must coat the mountains facades with smooth cement and fill the rivers with perfectly spherical ersatz boulders.” Again. It’s not better or worse. It’s just different…

2) Japanese television is god-awful. There are some exceptions – they do play movies (Japanese, American and Chinese), the cooking shows are fun and I’m sure the news would be like any other news, if I could understand a damn word. But I can’t. And the rest is awful. Here’s a sample Japanese TV Guide:

7:30 – 8:00: Electroshock Weight-Loss Infomercial. Half an hour of chubby-Asian-stomach-close-ups as chubby-Asian-stomachs are electro-shocked into losing weight. As the before and after photos indicate, results may vary.

8:00 – 9:00: Japanese Cartoons. In this week’s episode a boy scales jagged mountains with his pet balloon. Later, epilepsy-inducing neon lights flash as the boy opens his mouth alarmingly wide.

9:00 – 10:00: Ichiro Hour. Watch every single thing Ichiro Suzuki, the only good player on a terrible Seattle Mariners team, did during the past 24 hours. Every batting practice ball he hit. Every pop-up he fielded. Every noodle he ate and every autograph he signed. After two days of Ichiro Hour, you will know Ichiro better than you know yourself.

10:00 – 12:00: World War II Documentary. Awwwwkwaaard.

12:00 – 13:00: Piano recital. Every day a different piano recital. For your viewing pleasure.

1:00 – 14:00: Shirtless Archery. Watch live, as adult males shed their shirts and compete for the Shirtless Archery Championship. Serious faces and not-so-serious chest-hair, this is the most nudity you’ll see on Japanese TV.

14:00 – 14:30: SlimFit Infomercial: Do you want to look better without the hassle of getting electro-shocked? SlimFit is for you! SlimFit is a full body suit that fits so tightly, it compresses your excess fat and forces it toward your buttocks. Not only do your legs, thighs and stomach look thinner, but your butt looks bigger! (Disclaimer: SlimFit is not responsible for getting you in/out of SlimFit. Do not attempt to have sex while wearing SlimFit).

14:30 – 17:00: High School Baseball. Watch small, weak boys play baseball on grassless baseball fields. They run, they pitch, and they hit. Like small, weak boys.

17:00 – 20:00: Various Variety Shows: The shows that made Japanese TV famous! Watch semi-celebrities talk and wear face-paint and play games and talk! Some favorite games include: word-association games, image-association games, sound-association games, and olfactory-association games! Some favorite face-paint illustrations include: mice and anything else rodent-related! Some favorite conversations include: conversations in Japanese! Other miscellaneous activities include: watching videos of animals doing animal things (like eat and sleep and look cute) and watching videos of people pouring mustard on themselves while simultaneously attempting to sing and dance! In case you’re ever confused as to what emotional reactions these videos should arouse, there’s always a picture-in-picture image of one of the semi-celebrities on set, as they also watch the video! This way, when you see a cute puppy and you don’t know what to feel, just refer to the celebrity! He knows! He’s a Japanese semi-celebrity!!!!!

20:00 – 21:00: Solid Jell-O Infomercial: Are you sitting on your couch, wearing a SlimFit and getting your stomach electro-shocked, but you still can’t stop eating? Solid Jell-O is just what the doctor ordered! This dietary supplement comes in twelve different flavors (colors), and promises to stop those embarrassing tummy grumblings. One serving of Solid contains only 200 calories and takes ten hours to digest. Solid’s mysterious ingredients not only resist the enzymes that digest most foods, but actually increase in size as time passes – leaving your stomach bloated for the rest of the day! One Solid cures a whole days worth of hunger! (Disclaimer: Solid is not edible).

21:00 – 23:00: Space Music. An array of Japanese soloists perform English-language, astronomy-themed songs. The singers perform from inside a cardboard spaceship stage and dress to impress (Princess Lea, Captain Kirk etc.). In the background, images of the galaxy scroll across a green screen. With a soundtrack that includes “Fly Me to the Moon” and “When I Wish upon a Star,” this is an insomniacs dream.

23:00 – 24:00: Local Television: Wondering what the waste disposal schedule is for your town? Interested in learning about your new Assistant English Teacher at the Junior High School? Do you want to see him trying to speak Japanese to the town mayor on two hours of sleep? Would you rather watch him get interviewed in Japanese? How about wearing a wool suit in 100 degree weather? Or repeat the only Japanese phrases he knows, over and over and over? Have you ever seen someone so tall sweating so much? It’s all here! On Local Television!

So that’s one day of Japanese TV. I swear to god I’m dying for an episode of Two and a Half Men. At this point, a washed-up Charlie Sheen would seem like John Belushi meets Eddie Murphy1. Have I mentioned I still don’t have the internet? (Obviously I will have by the time I send this, but right now, as I’m writing this, watching high school baseball highlights, I do not). Out of all this techni-colored weirdness, the weight-loss infomercials are by far the most perplexing. Japanese people are not fat. I have not seen one person here that would qualify as American-Fat. I guess the lesson is: if Michelle Obama were serious about fighting child obesity in the US, she would make Solid-Jell-O a school-lunch requirement.

3) I get dinner from Seven Eleven. And I don’t mean a Japanese convenience store, I mean Seven Eleven. There’s one about a five minute walk from my house. And it has delectable chicken kara-age (Japanese fried chicken). If any of y’all visit me (and you're all invited), we will get take-out from Seven Eleven. And snicker at the creepy old Japanese men reading sexy schoolgirl manga. There are always creepy old men reading manga at the Seven Eleven.

4) I’ve gotten naked with multiple men, multiple times. Japanese public baths (onsen) are a big deal here, and I’ve already gone three times. So yeah, lots of penis and pubis and taking new friendships to the Next Level on the first day. I only hope that, someday in the future, I can go to an onsen with my ten best guy friends. We deserve it, boys. Maybe we could even do a fantasy football draft in the Lavender bath.

That’s all for the cultural differences list. It looks like this has turned into another long-winded e-mail. Sorry. I’ll finish with some quick cool things I’ve done in the past week.

I went to my first karate class. My predecessor (Bryce, who lived in my house and had my job before me) took karate and his karate teacher is also the mechanic that hooked me up with a very cheap car. Anyway, I thought I owed it to both Bryce and Kinoshita Sensei to go to one class. Turns out I kind of liked it. I’m not sure I’ll dedicate myself to the martial arts for the duration, but I had fun and have gone to two classes so far. (Tangent: Karate fits in perfectly with the Japanese obsession with procedure argument. Karate is based on repeating certain maneuvers so many times, they're eventually committed to muscle memory. Then you combine them with other muscle-memorized maneuvers. But you never stray from the correct procedure of each specific move. Your breathing matters, your balance matters, your footwork matters, your flexibility matters, your outfit matters. Every aspect of the process is important. But you know what doesn’t seem that important? Winning the fight. It’s weird. From my Red, White and Blue POV the whole point of getting into a physical altercation is kicking the other guy’s ass and telling girls about it. Not here).

Celebrating Fireworks and Other Stuff Our Parents Invented
 Last Saturday was Ringon – the biggest festival in Shimoina-gun (my county in southern Nagano). Iida, the capital of Shimoina, hosts this annual party in the center of the city. People wear traditional Japanese garb and march in both directions of the packed streets, performing the Ringon dance – a choreographed dance which basically honors the mountains, river and fireworks2 that define the region. For two hours I marched with other English teachers, dancing and drinking, taking a few breaks for fried-noodle and meat-skewer consumption. Basically, it was my ideal party. Also, it was the first time in my life I obtained celebrity status. The Japanese really do love westerners. As in they want to take hundreds of photos with us and scream and squeal if we acknowledge them in any way. It’s strange. And addictive. If any of you is ever mired in a self-esteem Dark Ages, I recommend you come to Japan. Except for you Ross3. You’d be indistinguishable from the masses.

And I’m out. I don’t know if I’ll write another one of these. If I do, I’ll try to make it shorter.

Much love and write me if you feel like it. I'd read.


1. This was obviously written before Ashton Kutcher. Could that become a new method of measuring time? BAK: when sexism was still sort of funny, if Charlie Sheen did it. When little fat kids named "Angus" got paid $250,000 for each episode of really bad television they filmed. You know, back when TV/life was good, even when it wasn't.

2. It was either fireworks or apples. As in, the apples (the fruit) that are harvested from all the apple orchards in and around Iida. Either way, the locals seem pretty convinced this area is the origin of both things.

3. Inside joke. Don't worry about it. Unless, of course, you're my buddy Ross and you're still worried that your mother is a liar and your father is a Chinaman, because, really, there's no other explanation for your face.

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