Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Baggage and Other Surprising Things We Brought into Marriage

The record collection
Before we got married, I read up on the topic of marriage a lot. Articles, books, blogs, etc. And there was often mentioned the topic of baggage. The idea is that people come into marriages already weighed down with the personal problems
they've accumulated over time, and the interaction of two peoples' baggage can obviously have a big effect on the marriage. I'm not sure exactly why this topic comes up a lot in connection with marriage when it should come up in dating as well. I think your partner's baggage shouldn't be a surprise to you by time you're getting married.

The non-physical baggage wasn't a surprise to me when we got married. My could-be-better money-managing skills, his slightly hairy relations with his parents...we'd bumped into those already numerous times while dating. As I noted in this post on our first year of marriage, nothing really changed about our basic relationship. What surprised me was the things my husband came with!

Here comes an interesting fact: I never saw nor entered my husband's bedroom before we got married. If it sounds like some extreme version of the purity movement, it wasn't really. Simply because of his living situation (in a men's dorm hard to get to by public transportation) I never set foot in it. It was also probably a bit by Yuya's design. I heard the rumors. And not the "he's a neat freak" kind of rumors, but the opposite. I know some of you reading this are wanting to yell at me, "How could you marry someone without seeing their living conditions first??" I don't know. It just happened that way. Maybe it was stupid of us, but so far, a year and a half in, Clutter Armageddon has yet to break loose. I won't take credit for it because I don't want to be that naggy wife who takes charge of "fixing" her husband. I think he's trying his best by himself. Anyway.

When we prepared to move in together, I "came with" very little. The result of moving across the ocean and then again within the country, and living in house-share situations was that I had two suitcases of clothes, a few books, a hot-water kettle, a mug or two, and one little floor rug. That was it! So I was glad when Yuya brought to our house a bit more. Bookcases. Hangers. Seasonally appropriate bedding.

He also brought some things that pleasantly surprised me:

1. A full-length mirror
I'd gone several years without one, and was happy to say goodbye to making strange poses in a tiny bathroom mirror or sneaking glances at myself in shiny store windows.

2. Delicates bags
You know, those gauzy little zippered bags for washing delicate clothes. I suppose he had some nice silk shirts or something to wash? He doesn't use them now, but I do!

3. A blow-dryer
I rarely blow-dry my hair. It makes the fluffy even more fluffy! But spiky Japanese hair gets blow-dried.

4. Hoodies galore
Yuya came with more hoodies (parkers in Japanese-English) than 6 American college students put together, I feel like! Apparently when his parents lived in America for a few years, they regularly sent him hoodies, of all colors and thicknesses. He regularly wears about 4 out of the 24.

5. High-end clothes
Tucked away in the closet under layers of diaphanous plastic were a few interesting pieces of clothing. Not cheap clothing. In Japan, where parents often support children through college, many college students get part-time jobs and spend the extra on looking good. Especially if they spent their primary education in uniforms, college is their chance to find their own style. Some dye their hair: Yuya had long brown Beatles hair I've only seen in pictures. He also wore nice clothes, but "They're from my non-Christian days" and they don't get worn so often anymore.

5. Records and a record-player
The week we moved in to our new house, I was completely out of it with influenza. When I woke up out of my stupor, he and his mom had arranged and put together our little room and there was nary a cardboard box in sight. Our living room space however was taken up with a large cabinet-like structure. The last two shelves of the bookcase were filled with records. "What's all this?" "It's a record player and records." "Does it work?" "No. Well yes, I just don't have speakers for it." "It takes up an awful lot of room considering we're not even going to use it." The next week he had two speakers hooked up to it and we enjoyed a glass of good stuff and some jams. It was the first time I'd heard vinyl and now I'm hooked. The quality is so different from digital and it doesn't tire the ears. Now it's something we enjoy together from time to time, and when guests come over. Yay for finding new hobbies to enjoy together!

How about you? Did your spouse bring anything that surprised you?

Monday, November 9, 2015

8 Little Things I Love About Kyoto

A walk through old Kyoto in kimono

This is not actually a post about Kyoto City’s long history as Japan’s ancient capital, dotted with many temples, shrines, geisha, and architecture. We enjoy those things sometimes, and there are innumerable guide books detailing them, but there are more factors that make Kyoto a lovely city to call home that don't often make it into the guidebooks. Here are some not so well-known things about Kyoto that make it a pretty comfortable place for gaijin me to live in:

1. Streets that have names and run on a neat grid of North-South and East-West
If you look at a map of most Japanese cities, the streets will remind you of a plate of spaghetti. City blocks are all shapes and sizes! But Kyoto is a reassuring grid pattern. When it was founded, Kyoto the imperial city was modeled after Chinese cities, which were built along principles of what we would call feng-shui or the good luck/bad luck involved in compass directions. The city is divided in rectangular blocks and nearly all streets have names. Many have not changed location for a thousand years! Everyone knows the names of the larger ones, and the North-South subway line stops and many bus stops are named after intersections, so it’s very easy to find your way around. It’s easy and quick to travel North-South or East-West; the downside is, if you want to travel diagonally (say, from the north part of Sakyo Ward to Arashiyama) there is no public transportation that cuts through the city that way, which makes the trip a little long and complicated.
On large and small scale, most streets are straight!

2. Few natural disasters to worry about 
The ancient emperors chose wisely in their search for the ideal capital city. Especially since the 3/11 Tohoku disaster in Northeastern Japan, people ask me if I experience many earthquakes, but the year I studied abroad in Kyoto, I never felt a single one. Perhaps a little ominously, I've been feeling tiny ones about once a month or so in the past year. But historically, Kyoto has been quite safe from natural disasters. A ring of mountains act as a buffer from the high winds of typhoons, and Kyoto is so far inland, a tsunami is not a possibility, unless the whole country sinks. In the mountains there is the danger of flooding rivers and landslides, but not so much in the city itself. The only destruction this city has suffered is from fires started by humans. Most temples and buildings have been repaired and rebuilt many times (the famous Golden Temple Kinkakuji was most recently burned down in 1950 by a Buddhist monk of all people). Byodoin Temple in Uji is one famous temple that has been preserved burned-out as it is.

3. A populace that's used to foreigners
In Kyoto, I can walk around town without being stared at or approached by strangers. Little schoolchildren do not yell “Haro!” (hello) at me as some other expats complain. This is huge. When I lived in a small town outside of Kobe, there were vulnerable days where I would just hole up in my room rather than go out, because the staring was so relentless. Each glance, each comment from a passerby, each child’s pointed finger felt like a needle in my skin reminding me I didn't belong there. When I stay with my in-laws in their small town in Shizuoka, I feel the same. But Kyoto people are so used to tourists, a pointy nose and blonde hair aren't anything to write home about. I can breathe and relax more in Kyoto. A different story if I visit a tourist attraction during major busy seasons (cherry blossom season in spring and maple-leaf season in the fall) and then the out-of-town Japanese tourists comment, in my hearing "So many foreigners in Kyoto! Is this Japan??"

4. The city is pretty clean
Perhaps because many tourists visit, and it IS after all the ancient miyako (capital), there is a lot of effort put in to maintaining a city free from litter and bad smells. It is much pleasanter to walk around downtown for this reasons than say, Tokyo or Osaka. This cleanliness extends to the many rivers and streams that flow through the city, which are quite clean considering the amount of urban landscape they meander through. A few streams are clean enough that fireflies can be seen around them on June nights—and fireflies, apparently, need water free from garbage and chemical contaminates. Many little streets around town also have a distinct smell of incense about them, especially in the part of the city where I live with many artisans selling goods for Buddhist temples and services.

5. The abundance of cafés
I don’t think I need a long explanation for why this is a good thing. But in Kyoto, the coffee is GOOD. There are a few famous chains like Ogawa and Inoda here, and many many privately-owned little cafes that roast and grind their own beans. I learned to drink and love black coffee in Kyoto. A lot of cafes are renovated old machiya houses with a great Kyoto-esque atmosphere. As far as food goes, traditional kaiseki (course) meals are something visitors should try once...I did...and honestly haven't felt the need to eat it again. Kyoto is far from the ocean so it's not the best place for sushi or seafood. But the cafe food, and western-style food, is very good! It's often a unique fusion style of Western dishes with Japanese, Indian, or Korean touches. Here's a post on some of my favorite cafes.

6. A liberal atmosphere
Kyoto with its Buddhism and ancient arts may seem very rigid, but in my experience it is actually—in certain ways—one of the most open-minded cities in Japan. Since it is no longer the seat of politics, Kyoto has been free for a few hundred years to be the capital city of artists, poets, and philosophers—not all the most staunchly conservative types! It is also the home of one of the most prestigious universities in Japan, Kyoto University, famous for turning out thinkers a little different from the majority. One of my favorite memories is visiting Yoshida Dormitory, a community of students with their own system of government (sometimes to the dismay of Kyoto police) who charge members 500 yen (about $5) a month for rent to live in extremely dilapidated ancient buildings. There was a rare air of student idealism and gentle rebellion there that was in stark contrast to the relentless materialism of mainstream society.
The liberalism in Kyoto means that during election season, the radical right wing's black vans spewing vitriol from megaphones are a rare sight indeed. (The far right in Japan, by the way, wants to reestablish the modern version of "revere the emperor, expel the barbarian"--not friendly to Christians or foreigners of the wrong race). It also means there are many churches here to choose from. There is no need to make a day-trip of going to church like many people have to do in this country where fewer than 1% are Christian.

7. Maps--and English--everywhere
Sometimes I'm annoyed at this because I can get by without ever reading Japanese, which means I get lazy and I don't! But it is reassuring especially when navigating buses and trains. As an exchange student I really appreciated the abundance of maps posted around the city...at that time I had no internet access on my phone, so whenever I went somewhere I printed out a ton of Google maps! But I found maps posted at intersections and near historical places so I rarely got lost. Many areas of Kyoto are engineered with tourists in mind, and it's very helpful.

8. Bicycles
I have always loved riding bikes. Time was when my siblings and I used to get on our bikes and not come home until the streetlights came on. As an exchange student, I got to relive the feeling many times in Kyoto! I bought a used commuter bike (they come equipped with a basket, a light that uses electricity generated from friction with the front wheel, a bell, and a hobble-style lock for about $60) the day after I arrived in Kyoto and it was my main transportation to and from class, rain or shine--so much cheaper than the subway or bus! Kyoto city is flat with few hills and the sidewalks are usually wide enough to accommodate bikes (no one rides on the road) making it ideal for long days touring around by bicycle. I remember I took a walk with some friends and it felt weird to go slowly on my own two feet after always going out on my bike. The only problem is, there are few (free) places to park your bike without fear of it getting impounded. In general you can park it in little side-streets and sneak off (shh don't tell anyone I told you to do that, and don't leave your bike somewhere overnight).

Every time I visit another city in Japan, I'm always glad to come back to Kyoto. I'm thankful we can live here during our time in Japan.

Monday, November 2, 2015

The Good, the Beautiful, and the Ugly: Parity Across Countries

Or, why I'm with a man who doesn't look like no movie star.

It's surprising to some people here, when we're introduced and it comes out that we're a married couple. Cue the Japanese exclamation of surprise: heeeeh?!?! When we were first dating, it was the same. One good friend thought it was all a big joke for several weeks! 

I realize there are three assumptions at work: 1) of parity, that is a dating couple will have similar levels of attractiveness 2) that I was gorgeous 3) that my guy was not gorgeous.

Of course, these assumptions are not true all the time and in all places. But the idea of parity I think has some truth in it in the way it's an out-working of our self image and self-esteem. Perhaps people who throughout their lives have received little looks-based attention are less likely to require looks in a partner? We are realists: all through our awkward ugly teenage and young adult years of never being called beautiful except by family members we were given the cold comfort that "it's what's on the inside that counts." After a while, one realizes it's true. Not just in a platitudinal way or to make oneself feel better, but true.

Some might disagree with me, but (now please don't comment "but you're so pretty!!1!" I am gorgeous, beautiful, I know. I'm not fishing for those kind of comments): I was not one of the "pretty people" so I don't exactly know how it is for someone who has grown up being photogenic, admired, and beautiful. Just anecdotally, they seem to take longer to find good partners. Maybe because they didn't get the "it's the inside that counts" education so often, so they wait out for someone who shares the way their looks influence their social life. Or maybe since they are like a candle glowing they have a lot of bothersome moths to sort through. But anyway, parity I think has to do with how you see yourself rather than how beautiful you are objectively (if there can even be an objective scale for beauty). 

So are my husband and I at opposing ends of a beauty scale? Or have we achieved parity? 

In Japan at least, most people wouldn't put us together. You have to remember that in Japan, thin white girls are seen as automatically gorgeous. All you need is a "small" face and big eyes and a pointy nose. You don't even need good fashion or the perfect bubbly personality. It's funny to see the Western celebrities Japanese choose to pay attention to. As popular as they are in the U.S., Beyoncé rarely comes up in the media here and no one knows who Kim Kardashian is. Taylor Swift and Emma Watson, however, have a substantial following. A big butt, boobs, and an even bigger personality are actually not attractive here. They are just "fat" and "scary"--it makes me chuckle to remember those words from a student who saw a video of Kim! You would be correct in guessing that "bubbly" personalities aren't ideal here. Such people are called "high-tension" and are handled rather gingerly by others around them, because you know, they might explode or turn inside out at any given moment. So, oddly enough, having neither a bubbly nether end nor personality, I found myself fitting the mold as a pretty person in Japan. Mostly. This post goes more into how I fail at that. 

But it hasn't really sunk in, because growing up I was not a pretty person. I was the typical badly-dressed awkward homeschooler who had little interest in or knowledge of makeup and hair styling. Heck, I wore buttoned-all-the-way-up collared shirts and sweater vests in community college. In 2008. I finally discovered makeup in college and tried it maybe once or twice. I finally ditched the button-down shirts (now rediscovering them and loving how classy they can be) but I never seemed to have jeans that fit and I plucked my eyebrows into tadpoles. Mmhmm. I must say I don't think it was because I was homeschooled. My just-as-homeschooled younger siblings started paying attention to fashion sooner than I did and were better at it. I think I just didn't have the knack for it.
I could have made up for this--yes, even tadpole eyebrows--with the Great Personality. But by typical American standards I again seemed to fall short. I didn't need people, or conversation, and it showed. I had a few close friends, and I was content with them. I wasn't very interested in the others I came across day by day. In other words, I did a lot of sitting quietly by myself. In America, that's ok to do in your room but not in public. Such behavior is weird or sad and definitely not pretty, but I didn't really care. See this diagram of what I was doing with my Saturday nights in college vs. what a pretty girl's Saturday should look like: 

There were times I had no cellphone or laptop but one good friend always knew which computer lab to find me in on weekend nights when she wanted to invite me to events and be social (thanks dear you know who you are!) 

I never thought of myself as or was treated as a Pretty Person, until I came to Japan. And then it didn't really change me, because my identity as non-pretty had been established long beforehand. So there I am, in Japanese eyes looking as flawless as Taylor Swift and with a Japan-approved reserved personality, dating my now husband. Only everyone seemed to think that someone who looks on par with T ought to date someone with the same Hollywood looks. "Normal-faced Japanese guy" didn't fit the bill. So we became a "surprising" mismatched couple. But only to those with that kind of typical beauty standard. To me, my husband's face/bod is my favorite in the whole world. And that's all that really matters.

It is very funny to look at the #amwf (Asian Male, White Female)tag on instagram...Yuya chuckles and says most of the girls are gorgeous but the guys are just "average" by Japanese standards--nary an ikemen to be found. We white girls look for different things in our men than the Japanese girls do, I guess.

Does that mean I initially dated my husband because I had a low estimation of myself? I don't think so...just to me we seemed to be a good match and a good match now was better than a gorgeous match who knows when. And he was bold and made plans but didn't let his man-pride ruin things. Besides, I was a foreigner to both American and Japanese beauty standards and was just operating on my own.

So no, I do not find us mismatched at all and it's actually kind of hurtful when people act surprised that we're together. After all, it's what's on the inside that counts. When someone makes a comment that suggests our outsides don't match, all that does is shows that person's insides aren't very attractive. Best beauty advice: don't pluck and primp all over your face and forget your heart, the source of it all.