Monday, April 27, 2015

12 Japanese Customs I Want to Adopt

One of the things I enjoy about living in Japan is seeing how people here do life. Seeing lifestyles that are new to me I feel gives me more creativity and a broader view about our own lives, and allows us to examine "why" we do this or that in our respective countries.

In our marriage, we have two very different cultural backgrounds going on, with all their traditions and different definitions of "common sense" when it comes to daily life. We can decide which customs we'd like to follow--or not--in our family.

There is a lot in Japanese culture I don't necessarily want to be a part of. I can understand why they make sense from a Japanese point of view, and why the American in me dislikes them, but there are also many parts of Japanese culture I LOVE and will be happy to perpetuate in my family. Here are some of them:

1. No shoes on in the house
This is not necessarily a uniquely Japanese thing, because growing up my American family had the same rule! With 8 kids traipsing in and out of doors all day in muddy Washington state, it just made sense to keep shoes out of the house. I had no problem adjusting to this custom here.

2. Drinking lots of tea
I have never been a soft-drinks kinda gal and I don't miss them at all in Japan. No Coke, no Mountain Dew, no problem! We drink iced barley tea all summer and hot green tea all the rest of the year. No added sugar or anything...though I prefer a glass of water when I'm really thirsty, my husband can slake his thirst with tea alone. My little students as well are always bringing bottles of tea to class. I can't imagine little American 4-year-olds being content with unsweetened green tea, but I love it! I think the health benefits are great.

3. Dressing nicely in public
This is also a source of insecurity for me, because I'm not so good at fashion yet. But I'm trying, because I hate feeling like the frumpiest in the room! Makeup, heels, skirts, floral prints, feminine jewelry, are all very common here. It's kind of like stepping back in time to the 1950s in America, when men and women cared more about how they looked, and many women especially wanted to look as feminine as possible. Here's a post about that. It's not always practical and you can get too materialistic if you're not careful, but I enjoy it--and the smiles on my husband's face when I look good!

4. Being on time
So, "on time" in Japan means showing up 10 minutes early. The trains run like clockwork here so there's not many excuses you can make for being late. Japanese are very strict about time, and can't respect anyone who is chronically late--however this only applies to the starting of working time, meetings, and events. The Japanese are not as strict about finishing on time really, hence meetings that can drag on forever. But I think being on time is professional and conveys respect. There are too many times I fall short but time management is a good habit I want to improve.

5. Air-drying clothes
For some reason few Japanese people own dryers, and almost everyone dries their clothes on a line or rack outside. It doesn't always make neighborhoods look attractive, and you're at the mercy of the weather, but the clothes smell so good after drying outside and they stay looking nice a lot longer too. My 3-year-old jeans are still crisp and my sweaters don't pill. Also, smaller electric bill and better for the environment, yay!

6. Thankfulness for food 
I noticed this working in a kids' English school. For all-day events, they bring little bento lunch boxes their moms make. Even though their moms aren't present, they eat ALL the food in the lunch box without complaining. There's usually a lot of veggies too like broccoli, edamame, seaweed, cucumbers and mini tomatoes. I've never seen a Japanese kid complain about or refuse to eat food set in front of them. And they're taught to not leave anything! I recently heard this is drilled into them at school and is not necessarily the parents' policy. Oh well, if the kids do make a fuss about food at home, at least they all know it's verboten to utter complaints in a school setting. Anyway, I want to take a cue from Japanese culture here and teach my kids the same.

7. Baths instead of showers
Why take a shower when you can relax in a deep bath?

8. Eating in season
There is this funny phrase the Japanese tourist industry uses: "Japan has four seaons." This post about seasons goes into more detail. Japanese love their seasons, though in the cities it's reduced to fake cherry blossoms decorating the supermarket to remind folks it's spring, still it's fun to enjoy seasonal produce: strawberries, daikon, sweet potatoes, and mackerel in fall/winter; melons and tomatoes in the summer, etc. I think it's a healthy habit to be aware of what is in season and try to buy locally.

9. Coming of Age Day
The age of majority in Japan is 20, and every year in January the young people who turned 20 the previous year get dressed up, do a photo shoot (think senior pictures) and attend a ceremony in their city. Most guys wear suits now but the girls get to wear gorgeous furisode (long-sleeved) kimono and get their hair done, the whole nine yards...and THEN go to the bar and enjoy legal drinking for the first time. I love kimono and dress-up so I would have loved it as a 20-year-old...I think it's a great custom and at least at the beginning of the day a little more classy than America's 21st birthday shenanigans, because you spend the day with family and have a formal ceremony.

10. Kotatsu
A kotatsu is a low table with a heating element under it. A special blanket is sandwiched between the heater and the table top, and voila!You have a magical table/blanket tent of heavenly warmth to live in for the next 3 chilly winter months. Since most homes in this area of Japan don't have central heating and are built without insulation so the place doesn't mold up in the muggy summers, a kotatsu is a life-saver. I'm sitting in mine as I type this. If we move to America we will have to bring our kotatsu with us!

11. Sleeping on futon
Traditionally, Japanese sleep on a thick pad (futon) laid on the tatami mat floor. As an exchange student and when living by myself in Japan, I had always had a bed, and it wasn't until we got married and decided on an apartment with tatami flooring that I started the futon lifestyle. At first sleeping on the floor felt like camping but now I love it, and springy mattresses make me feel sea-sick! I relax and sleep better when on the floor, and I've heard it's better for one's back and spine.

Size comparison: chopsticks for eating vs. for cooking

12. Using chopsticks
Of course the Japanese use forks and spoons for things like Western pasta dishes, cakes, and some stir-fry dishes when the sauce makes the rice too slick to eat with chopsticks. For almost everything else, chopsticks are used. I love using chopsticks for dishes like salad. It's so much easier to pick up things and eat politely: no more stabbing squirmy veggies or crushing croutons with a big unwieldy fork.  It's also easier to eat soup with chopsticks. You alternate between picking out solids with the chopsticks and lifting the bowl to your mouth to sip the broth. No more awkward dribbly spoon problems. I also like cooking with chopsticks; I use big long ones and they do the job of a stirring spoon, a spatula, a whisk, and a spoon or fork when picking out a bit to taste, all in one utensil. I think I get less burns on my hand because the cooking chopsticks are longer than most western cooking utensils.

I will probably add more to this list the longer we live here, but even if we move back to the U.S., I wanted to continue living with these customs!

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

How I Realized I'm a White Girl

I didn’t realize I was white until I moved to Japan. What I mean is, I never thought of myself as a “white person” nor was I used to people identifying me as a member of a racial category, associated with all white people the world over...though I never wear NorthFace or drink Starbucks!

In all seriousness, for the first time in my life I became part of a racial minority. Now a caveat: in America "minority" usually means an under-privileged group. In Japan, even though whites are in a minority, we're far from under-privileged (issues of immigrant status and citizenship aside) compared to immigrants of other colors. I became aware of what it means to be a white girl, at least according to what I pick up from Japanese around me (in another country/culture it will probably mean something different): it means being independent, assertive, beautiful, free, wealthy, well-educated, selfish; it means taking for granted one’s ultimate success in life and membership in the ‘movers and shakers of the world’; it means membership in the group that wins all the wars and enslaves other races; it means thinking my own culture and society is much better or more advanced than any society people of color could make; it means being uninhibitedly sexual and yet at the same time, not really female; it means being unable to see beyond my own (pointy white beautiful) nose.

Like, eww, right? Who wants to be that person? But so many people I meet make those kind of assumptions about me just based on the color of my skin. And what luxury it is to experience discrimination that is “positive” as in, “Nice, you're white! Here you can join this event even though you don't have the right ticket because you're a white foreigner and we love those!” (something that actually happened to me) Perhaps I’ll write a separate post about that in more detail, how white foreigners (especially females) are treated in Japan: stared at with admiration and given passes to do as they please, things the Japanese are less likely to do for, say, Asian foreigners. Now every white ex-pat here will have experiences with negative discrimination as well. We've all tried to rent apartments and had a landlord say "no foreigners". But it seems ex-pats of other races encounter positive discrimination less often than whites do.

It may be a product of a long history of comparison and conflict and a lost war with the West, but there is a weird “inferiority complex” some Japanese have towards white foreigners. It makes me feel like they're not really seeing and accepting me for a human being, a person. Because obviously, I am a person, and that makes me no better than and no more special than you are. Yes your country lost a big war with my country but that was two generations ago (that adds another, non-racial element to this discrimination if you’re an American citizen) and neither of us took part in it. Yes Japan still kowtows to American influence in so many ways but neither of us are politicians with agendas here. I don't deserve any kind of special treatment from you. White skin gets terrible acne. In God's eyes, we are all one and we are all equals. He sure won’t play favorites on Judgement Day.
But still, I’m not an individual so much as I’m a member of the group “white American”. And certainly it would seem, in the way the world is ordered, that some of the most powerful forces in the world and in history are manned by this group. Some might laugh at me if I say I never noticed that, at least not in a personal, emotional way (up until now it had only been a kind of academic concept) until I went to a non-white racially homogeneous country, in addition, a country that lost a war to my country that has a white majority.

In America, I get the feeling white people never talk about being white, unless we’re at the beach and bemoaning the fact we can’t tan. Most white people in America hate being accused of racism, we hate having to face the fact that our ancestors were the ones who systematically enslaved and demonized another race; we don't want to fall into either "white guilt" or a "white man's burden" so we're bound and gagged on the subject. It’s actually socially taboo to “check our privilege” and acknowledge that YES, around the world the reality is being white means being associated with power, success, and beauty more than other races are. No matter the topic, if you're denied words and dialogue about it because it's "taboo" , I think that puts a big block in the way of any kind of change or improvement. So I decided to write my thoughts on this blog, though I have no idea if they're kosher or politically correct or even logical. But this is what I see.

Perhaps one reason white Americans get frustrated at the word “privilege” is because we can’t see it. We can't experience it as opposed to non-privilege, we can't feel it personally and emotionally the way POC feel things. We've never known anything different in order to name it. Just the way you academically know you have an accent (for me, Pacific Northwest American English) but you never feel it until you travel far enough and get a little shocked when someone suddenly says, “that’s a funny accent, where are you from?”, so our own whiteness is unnoticeable to us until we spend time in a place with a POC majority. And how many white folks get the chance to do that? So when a person of color talks about racism, and a white person talks racism, I think they're very rarely talking about the same thing, unfortunately. It might as well be a different language, because our experiences of reality are so different.

To conclude, well, there really isn’t a conclusion. I don’t know how this experience will change me or influence how I live here in Japan or in America. I hope it will make me more humble and aware of what whiteness means and what POC deal with. I can’t say, “ok I’m not going to be privileged anymore” and take off my whiteness like an old jacket, so people will always interact with me based on assumptions attached to my skin color, and I can’t control what they think or do. But I can control what I think and do. I don’t how to fix racism or discrimination or stereotypes, I don't know I fit into either the problem or the solution really, but I guess being able to notice and think about these kinds of things more than I was able to before, is a good thing. Articles I've read from people of color say the best thing whites can do is listen. Just like a new language, we can hear a whole lot, but we can't truly listen until we know the meaning of the words being used, the real meaning the speaker holds in their heart. My experience in Japan I hope will bring me a little closer to being able to listen.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Why I don't like the word 頑張る "ganbaru"

The English letters "orz" are used as an emoticon representing a crouching, defeated person
Many students ask for a translation of the ubiquitous phrase, 頑張って!"ganbatte!" and I usually offer "do your best!" "good luck!" but we don't say that in English as often as the Japanese say "ganbatte!" to each other, nor is there a sense of leaving things to fate that "good luck" has. Colloquially, it's been translated as "Fight!" and high-school students use it to cheer each other on.

That's what the word is meant to be, an encouragement. Try hard, make an effort, do your best. Notice I didn't include any of the other phrases we use to cheer people on in English: you can do it, you got this, go for it, because that kind of confident assurance is missing from 頑張る。

頑張る can be a little dry I think. The effort is all on you, there is no nuance that the person saying it is about to offer help. It became a slogan after the big 2011 Tohoku Earthquake, Ganbarou Japan and Ganbarou Tohoku. I remember reading some (foreign) criticism of the slogan because it was so non-specific. What exactly should we/northeastern Japan work hard at? At penny-pinching so we can give donations of money? At our jobs to boost the economy? At our smiles to change the depressed atmosphere? But the people affected lost their jobs, and in some cases houses and families too. How can they 頑張る?Especially when limited to Ganbaru Tohoku, it sounds like, "Hey we're fine and dandy over here in Tokyo/Osaka/Kyushu but YOU Tohoku, do your best! We'll cheer you on but we don't really want to get involved in the aftermath, haha!"

The non-specific meaning of it can be nice. If you're getting an earful from your boss of all the things you're not doing well, you can just bow and say 頑張ります、頑張ります、without having to name/commit to specific things to improve.
From the boss though, it's the go-to word of encouragement (passive-aggressive criticism?) to young new workers. It's nicer than a dressing-down and it's nicer than saying "you suck" but it still means your current efforts are not enough. Try harder. I think that's why I don't like it. Emotionally, it's a little barb in your soul more often than a healing balm. That sense of 足りない、not enough. You need to try and do more more more.

I often find myself using it only in negative situations. I rarely say it to my husband leaving for work (maybe only when he knows he'll have to turn down another invitation to an after-hours drinking party that day). For example, I show up at work sick. "Leah, are you ok? Can you teach your classes today?" "Yeah I'll be fine. 頑張ります。"

Instead of 頑張って、I want to say, 頑張りすぎないで ganbari-suginaide, "don't try too hard" "don't push yourself" It's what I say to friends starting a new job. 頑張りすぎないで has a sense of knowing your own limits and making boundaries--as workers Americans love that, it's kind of foreign to Japanese though.

However, to the person who ganbarus a lot, there is the lovely reward of one of my absolute favorite words in Japanese: お疲れ様、otsukaresama, "you worked hard today" "thanks for your hard work" It's a typical greeting in Japanese business but sometimes, it means a lot. It's so satisfying. It means you saw and appreciated my efforts. It makes me want to say, "Thank you. Thank you for acknowledging my struggle. I needed that." At the end of a crazy day, the Japanese staff and I all exchange glances, sighs, and little chuckles, and the "Otsukare!" is like the music of angels.

It's true you can't get a rainbow without rain, and you can't really get the full sweetness of otsukaresama without the ganbaru. I just like to say and hear one more than the other--I'm only human! 

Thursday, April 2, 2015

"Japan has four seasons"

It was in a little guidebook from a Japanese publisher that I first saw that sentence. It wouldn't be the last time I'd see it, but I remember thinking when I first read it, "So?" --don't all countries a certain distance from the equator enjoy the typical four seasons? It also sounded a little arrogant, and I half-expected the book to go on to say, "Japan has a sun and moon" --and all countries simply borrow the light!

The truth is, I would say Japan has more than just four seasons, because of the month of tsuyu, monsoon rains, in June. Historically more than 30 seasons were recognized in the Japanese calendar, and they regulated everything from agriculture to religious festivals to what color/pattern kimono you could wear.

Even today, Japanese people love their seasons, which are quite regular, predictable, and generally show up on time every year. The Japanese make a bigger deal about each season's characteristics than most Americans do, so I can understand why the above sentence makes it into nearly every travel brochure. For city-bound Japanese, the change of seasons is most noticeable in the decor of supermarkets and department stores and the foods available therein. In the countryside there are more festivals and agricultural events that mark the change of seasons.  As an exchange student, I remember being glad I chose the year-abroad option as opposed to a semester abroad, so I could enjoy a year of Japanese seasons. Now coming up on my 4th year in Japan, I've experienced each season a couple times, and there are lovely things to enjoy about each one. Here are a few:

Spring: March-May

  I will start with spring since it is spring now! Spring is flower season. The most famous are the plum blossoms which bloom earliest at the beginning of March. They bring to mind ancient Chinese poetry and influence in Japanese culture. Then comes the queen of Japanese flowers, the sakura or cherry blossoms in the beginning of April. In Kyoto in particular, cherry trees have been planted everywhere, so the city blossoms with the light pink sprays. It always seems to coincide with cherry blossoms that the sky also changes from pale wintery hues to the deep blue that heralds summer. The sun's light is stronger and makes the cherry trees seem to glow with their own brilliant light.
At the end of April, wisteria (藤)is in bloom. I've discovered a few parks here and there that grow it on big trellises for viewing pleasure at this time of the month, I think I like them better than sakura if possible.
At the beginning of May, there is a 4-day string of national holidays "Golden Week" so everyone tries to go out and travel! You have to book tickets/hotels well in advance if you travel during this season. In rural Japan (not so much in Kansai?) there is the traditional kite-flying festival Children's Day, where families with male children hang out huge carp-shaped kites. May is my favorite month in Japan. No bugs yet, not too hot, not chilly, and late spring green is everywhere. I especially like going to see green momiji (maple) leaves in May.

Summer: June-August

Summer is HOT in Japan! At the beginning of June, three notable things happen. Fireflies can be spotted in wet areas with clean water (try around Lake Biwa, or any of the little waterways of northern Kyoto city that channel Biwa's water) until about the second week of June, hydrangeas bloom, and the wet month 梅雨、tsuyu, starts. Tsuyu means hot+rain and it gets very humid. You might also start seeing cockroaches in your house around this time of year (yuck!)
After tsuyu ends (it will say on the news the official end of the season as calculated by meterologists) the temperature jumps and real summer starts. Cicadas appear in hordes and make every tree vibrate with their cacophony. In summer there are two great festivals to enjoy in Kyoto, Gion Festival (extremely crowded but good for festival food and people-watching) and Tanabata (held a bit later than most of Japan's tanabata holiday, celebrated with beautiful illuminations "light ups" along Kamogawa and Horikawa rivers). In summer the best thing to do is stay hydrated and go out only in the evenings, again making these nighttime festivals a lot of fun! 

Fall: September-November

The highlight of fall in Japan is food and momiji (maple leaves), whose popularity is only slightly surpassed by the cherry blossom. Many kinds of fish like Yuya's favorite 秋刀魚 (saury?) and veggies like mushrooms come into season, making fall a good time for visiting the nicer kinds of restaurants that have seasonal menus.
October boasts blessed relief from the hot summer with cool nights and mornings, but with bright days making it a great month for finally leaving the house (and AC) and venturing out to sight-see.
The momiji at the end of November are the last bit of natural color you can see until the plum blossoms next spring, and I find them very romantic. The best places to see them get extremely crowded but hit me up for some secret lovely spots^^

Winter: December-February

Winter in Japan is COLD not because temperatures are so extremely low (actually it's about the same as my hometown in the Seattle area) but because Japanese houses are made without much insulation or central heating. The cold air is unstoppable and portable heaters can only heat one room at a time, so you have to freeze to take a shower or bundle up to use your kitchen. I get so grumpy and tired of winter in Japan, the days and mountains are grey, pale, and colorless and I can never get warm. Winter is a time for hunkering down in kotatsu (a low table with a heating element underneath and a thick quilt down the sides), onsen (natural mineral baths), and eating nabe--hot-pot soups. Those who like winter sports will find easy access to the mountains and popular ski spots, but it's something I've yet to try.

The most important Japanese holiday on the calendar, New Year's, is very fun if you have access to a Japanese family: think 3 days or so of eating snacks and lazing around, watching end-of-the-year TV specials, and counting down to midnight with a...4-hour televised singing contest? Yes and then getting up very early to either see the first sunrise of the year or visit a shrine, 初詣、for good luck in the next year. Many Japanese families send New Year's greeting postcards or have their kids try making mochi (pounded rice). If you don't have family to spend it with, New Year's in Japan can be even lonelier than Christmas, since your Japanese friends will scatter to spend the holiday with their families and many shops and services are closed. You might get stuck in a bar watching the Times Square ball drop with other lonely foreigners.

So there are the major events/seasonal activities one can enjoy throughout a year in Japan, at least from my limited experience. Winter is probably my least favorite, followed by summer. Spring and fall are heavenly! I'm looking forward to some springtime adventures, as health and work schedule allows!