11 09 2008

I don’t think I’ll ever get used to earthquakes. I suppose by living in a place like this your entire life, you’d get used to them, but even so I don’t understand how the entire world as you know it shaking around can feel normal. Everyone here is so jaded; I’m pretty sure I’m the only one running away from telephone poles and hiding under tables.  One of my coworkers slept through a 4.7.  I couldn’t sleep for the rest of the night!

Today’s earthquake was a 4.something in my region, but it definitely felt like the worst one we’ve had (worse than the 5.something a couple months ago). Thankfully I’m fine, and nothing is broken in my house (well, a case with tacks in it shattered, which was a pain in the ass to clean up). You can’t help but wonder though: if the epicenter had been 100km north or west, or heck, even 50km, this would be an entirely different post. I could be sitting in a pile of rubble. Or under a tsunami.

The worst part, though, is the roller coaster/wave-pool effect. For the entire day, I kept thinking there was another earthquake, or the wind would cause my windows to make a noise like they do during the quake, and I would have to check things like pull cords for lights or keychains on a rack to see if they were moving to tell if it was really an earthquake. This happened maybe ten or fifteen times. And of course, once or twice there actually was an aftershock.

You learn in intro psych that the most addictive reinforcement strategy is a random positive one.  i.e. you receive something (confirmation of an earthquake) for an action (looking at a keychain) on a random schedule. That’s how people get addicted to gambling. Am I going to get addicted to checking my house to see if it’s moving?  Yikes.  Talk about neurosis.

at least there's plenty of information


total blackout

13 07 2008

I wasn’t scared of the dark until I felt like I was in the middle of an episode of the X-files. A blackout here means the entire city is without electricity.

I often go for drives in the mountains just to get away from the light of this town, but oddly now that the light is gone I find it a little terrifying.  And despite having power now, it’s somehow harder to hear the frogs in the rice paddies—the train station has some loud-ass generator (though what it’s powering is beyond me since everything is still dark) next to my window.  Besides the lightning the only light in town now is the eerie glow of the very-rare emergency light and the three drivers on the road.

In an admittedly melodramatic way, this feels totally post-apocalyptic.  I went driving around and it’s like one of those ghost towns from a movie.  There are absolutely no people (which is actually no different than usual) and you can only see what your headlights cast a beam on.  It’s a very weird shift of perception.  Even weirder is that tonight is what this town could be like for real in 15 or 20 years at the rate the population is decreasing.

I’m not really scared of the dark, but there’s this weird sense of human inferiority in this situation.  The fact that we have constant light is a sort of triumph of humanity, right?  Where’s there’s light, there’s life.  The irony is that when all of the lights are off, it’s scarier being the one holding the light because it reveals everything that can’t be seen.

Where are big, brave Mulder and Scully when you need them?

when deer attack

23 05 2008

I’ve reached a point of stagnation with my cultural adaptation.  I think it’s mostly a language thing, but I basically spent the last four hours in a car on the way to eat with the other junior high school teachers, sitting quietly and zoning out to different things that we drove past.  Maybe it’s just one of those nights where nothing makes sense, but I didn’t understand any of what was said except a few sentences here and there.

In the past Japanese people I was at parties with would make a special effort to ensure that I felt included, and while I still get the occasional question about life in America (which I usually don’t understand and thus can’t answer), it’s more likely that they just assume that my Japanese has somehow gone from piecemeal to fluency overnight, are taken aback when I don’t understand something, and then give up.

Someone pointed out that it’s actually a skill in itself, speaking to foreign people in your own language too.  I try not to change my English too much in the classroom, but in day-to-day conversations, I certainly do.  I’m also almost positive that the Japanese people that I understand the easiest, speak to me differently than they do to their friends.

Anyway, this recent feeling of exclusion topped with the other events of the night—ditching taiko to go with the junior high teachers, being in a car that hits a deer on the way to restaurant and the two-hour aftermath thereof, finally getting to the restaurant and being stared at by people at another table—hasn’t left me in the best of moods.

I’m sure this’ll pass, just like every other funk I get into.  It’s just a pain in the ass that as the capstone of an otherwise great week, I once again feel like the black sheep.  Well, I am, but that’s beside the point.

Did other people who have spent time abroad in equally homogenous cultures (do they exist?) find themselves feeling this way?  Like tired of always being the odd one out?  Or have any other points of view on the matter?  Do share.

blogging about tv.

14 04 2008

In case you ever wondered what watching Japanese TV was like, let me take you through the last bit of channel surfing I just did.

I started watching something innocuous—a game show where they have a giant screen in front of the contestants projecting their “opponents:” a giant shackled wooly mammoth, a panda armed with nunchucks, and a T-Rex that shoots sword-wielding fireballs.  And the questions?  Well, things like, reading really difficult kanji and translating REALLY easy English words.  I think ALTs all over the country let out collective sighs when the conestant couldn’t translate the word 銀行 (ginkou, “bank”), but instead just said “I think so too” over and over.  At least I won’t feel so bad about not making English professors out of these kids.

Then I caught a few minutes of a show where famous male actors went on dates with unknowing regulars and acted like total assholes until the women broke up with them in a fantastic shower of spilled drinks, thrown purses and slaps.

Next there was a show where women stopped other random women on the street and told them what was wrong with their outfits.  No makeovers, no free shopping sprees—just what was wrong.

Then there was this other game show where the contestants were on a treadmill, and every question another contestant answered, the non-answerers’ treadmills’ speed would increase.  Well, until they couldn’t take it and fell on their face.

Now the members of SMAP (J-Pop phenom) have cooked for young ice skating superstar Mao Asada, and in return have been put on a machine that spins at the same speed she spins during her triples.  There’s a lot of screaming, but no vomit yet.  I’m watching and waiting.  Oh wait.  Now they’re hiding in fear trying to play against Japan’s Olympic table tennis superstar, Ai Fukuhara.  They’ve also managed to offend her coach by nicknaming him nikuman (“meat dumpling”).

But the winner for the night?  An hour-long program (well, I couldn’t honestly watch for more than a few seconds between other channels) about EAR CLEANING.  Proper tools.  Proper technique.  Frequency.  Depth.  Unassisted or assisted by your wife.  For an hour.  WTF?

I usually live these days not thinking about where I am, but night like this remind me that I am totally in Japan.  Totally.

homesickness manifest through coffee

16 03 2008

With the snow melting and little likelihood of me driving 4 hours to go snowboarding on a slushy hill, I was left with a completely plan-free weekend. What ever to do?!


Not shopping the way girls do–I’m a quickly-look-around-a-store kind of guy. So, I came home with a few shirts, a kitchen scale and a siphon. Very exciting stuff.

More exciting was the presence of a Starbucks. I don’t particularly love their coffee, but like McDonalds, no matter where you are in the world, you know exactly what your banira ratte is going to taste like. Even if it sounds a little…funny.

But this vanilla latte was special. I had one sip, felt the warmth spreading down my chest, and then all of a sudden was overwhelmed with thoughts of the local Starbucks at Penn. It was the weirdest thing. I was walking past shirts that said “If want love experience/fried chicken time,” but I was seeing Van Pelt and College Hall.

In a somewhat emotional week with graduations left and right, teachers getting ready to do the school-to-school shuffle, and facing the stark reality of Japan’s declining birthrate as each entering class gets smaller, I guess the only thing powerful enough to make me feel homesick was the sweet, sweet nectar of a Starbucks grande vanilla latte.

N.B. The school-to-school shuffle is not an official term, but every April, seemingly at random, teachers and other public officials get transferred to new locations. Some teachers request this, so they can, for example, be closer to their families. It’s not uncommon for a wife (sometimes with kids) to live in a small town ,while the father works and lives (in that order) in a city 3 hours away. Basically, there’s a lot of shuffling that takes place, and it’s another excuse for two giant drunkofest parties.

Also, I realize there’s a two month void of posts.  I’m working on it.  Slowly.  They were dull, dark wintry months, and right now I’m busy getting excited about spring.

a visitor

26 12 2007

There’s something about riding on a train that reminds me of a zoo. You only get these quick little glimpses of life between the backs of buildings. Kids playing soccer in a park; people walking their dogs; shop owners peddling their wares. And in the train are a bunch of people who are entirely unaware of the world outside themselves. Virtually everyone is talking, or writing, or playing on their cell phone. I read an article about the internet/connectivity obsession of the youth in Japan (and honestly, America too) and how the more engaged people are with their connected life, the more isolated they are from the world. Even now, I’m sitting on a train writing, but I’m essentially connected—I’m sharing my thoughts with you, aren’t I? I don’t feel particularly isolated, but since all this writing is so introspective, I suppose, de facto, I am.

I forgot about how different life is in a city compared to the inaka. I had the same sudden realization (and subsequently forgot it) when I arrived in Tokyo to head home for my sister’s wedding. All of a sudden instead of 6,000 people in my entire town, there are that many people in one city block. The weirdest thing about it though is that the people here are just as lonely as those of us that are hours from a large city. How does that make sense? Why can people feel alone when they’re in a crowded room? (I admittedly stole that from someone’s away message, which means it’s probably from a song.)

My thoughts immediately jump to Lost in Translation again: the idea that people are generally unable to convey all their feelings and thoughts. How do you translate yourself in a way that other people understand? How can other people translate themselves so that you understand?

I think that’s enough introspection for now. My head hurts.

Find out what else hurts…AND pictures!


14 11 2007

It smells like propane heaters everywhere, which must mean winter (or propane) is in the air. There are snow-capped mountains in my backyard. Having never actually been so close to them real life, I spent a good chunk of my Saturday wandering towards them; only stopping when I was lost.

On to more observations of life: of all the places you could be a visiting team, Japan would most definitely be the worst. Well, except if you were a team of Jews in Iran or something like that. The homogeneity of Japan is even reflected in sports. In the World Volleyball Championship arenas, it’s been ridiculous. The cheering is literally incessant. And it’s not a raucous hullabaloo. It’s organized. Nippon! (clap! clap!) Nippon! (clap! clap!) They’ll never jeer the opponent, but the contrast between the cheering after Japan scores and the absolute silence when the opponent does is jarring. Tonight, it’s Japan vs. America. There will be lots of silence. The end.

Read on, there are pictures!