Tuesday, April 26, 2011
Leaving So Soon?
On my layover in Shanghai, on top of the reminder of what it feels like to be under a communist regime, i.e. censored internet, I encountered this sign which I guess makes sense in Chinese but the English reminds me of the Twilight Zone's To Serve Man episode. Run children! Run back to your parents!
I arrived in Japan the most prepared I'd ever been when arriving in a new country. This preparation was mainly due to fear. My Japanese is pretty terrible and I didn't trust myself to understand directions in the unlikely event that I managed to be understood when asking them. So as researched on the internets, I bought my ticket for Shinjuku Station and walked the four blocks, which I had memorized on Google Maps earlier, to Sakura House. Sakura House is a company that specializes in renting out rooms to desperate, clueless foreigners like me for one month at a time. I went in and got my keys and marveled at the staffers who not only adjusted their accents from British to English when they saw my passport, but also were speaking French, Korean, and Arabic. I picked up my new keys and headed out for a 30 minute train ride to Kunitachi. I've reenacted my train journey in the video below. Please to enjoy!
Strangers on a Train
On the train it is absolutely quiet and no one makes eye contact with anyone, not even their friends and family. I felt oddly normal despite being the only visible minority. Many people wear surgical masks. When I asked if this was for their own protection against disease and pollution or to protect others from their own sickness, my friends in Japan decided that either explanation was totally possible. I was disappointed that no one stared at me, not evenly discreetly! Books are covered with cloth so you can't tell what people are reading. Telephones are never talked on and if you want to text then you need to sit in a special area of the train. There are even women only cars for those who are afraid of being harassed.
Speaking of being assaulted on trains, if you want to see a good movie about train culture and general Japanese shyness try to find 電車男 Train Man. It's about a nerdy dude who saves an attractive woman from being harassed by a drunkard on a train. They begin dating in typical rom-com fashion. Despite it's predictability, it's really interesting. Watching it, I realized that this movie has been made countless times from a woman's perspective. The woman with major self esteem issues consults her friends about her insecurities and gets tips on how to make herself more attractive (surprisingly whether you are a man or a woman the way to become attractive is to switch to contacts, get a fashionable haircut and wear clothes that show off your smokin' hot bod that you happen to have and haven't achieved with the help of a strict diet or a personal trainer). So the twist here is that it's the man who is insecure and his friends are all in a chatroom instead of at the woman's high power job as an editor of a magazine. In the second picture he has gone through his transformation. Not pictured is his new fashion choice to not wear pants with a waist above his collar bone.
Home is Where You Hang Your Surgical Mask
I walked through the quaint suburb of Kunitachi, passing gardens with brick walls and surnames printed in Kanji and Roman letters. It was excellent practice for my Kanji reading skills, but I got some nervous smiles from my new neighbors as I paused in front of their houses slowly and quietly reciting their family names. Eventually I made it up the hill to my apartment and I fell in love with my new home. It cost the same as my Taipei apartment but also featured a kitchen, complete with pots, a wok, kettle, microwave, toaster oven, fridge, and giant, scary butcher knives. The only downside was that I felt like I was too big for the airplane sized bathroom. My legs were too long to close the door while I, umm. . . what's a classy euphemism for dropping a deuce? Also for maximum Japanese efficiency the faucet on the sink had a valve that when activated diverted the water to the shower. Interesting. Why didn't we think of that in America? Many things in Japan feel like they've been redesigned by aliens, aliens who are way smarter than us.
A Call from Cowford
On my second day in Japan, I met up with Rui who played hulusi in the Chinese ensemble at Carleton when she was an exchange student during our junior year. She's originally from Yunnan China but moved to Japan in middle school. She just graduated from Waseda University in Tokyo and was planning on working in Shanghai doing translation work in the coming months. But in the meantime we went ukulele shopping. I had to use all of my self restraint to not purchase a xaphone or a xaphoon because I swore to myself that mandocello would be my last new instrument. See the video below if you somehow don't know what a xaphoon is or if you enjoy laughing at ridiculous European men in fishing hats. Finally you should just youtube xaphoon if you want to see very unique people expressing themselves.
Later Rui and I found a cafe with a never ending (nonalcoholic) beverage bar with lots of neon green drinks. We enjoyed our beverages as we caught up on each other's lives.
Rui was showing me other highlights of Tokyo when I got an URGENT! email from Oxford. They wanted to interview me on Skype at 11PM Japanese time. So I abandoned Rui and rushed back to my apartment. I sprinted home and arrived just in time for my interview, wheezing and sweating profusely. I tried to come off charming but the open mouth gasping made me seem absurdly creepy and maladjusted. I told them some basics about me and I hope I got my name right but who can say. They asked me about what my research plans would be in the UK and I mumbled off some convoluted description of plans to study Taiwanese and Mainland Chinese musicians in London. I tried desperately not to roll my eyes at my own stupidity as I mumbled through this totally unprepared thesis plan. The only saving grace was that one of the two interviewers was from Wisconsin and knew what a cheesehead was. Thank God, someone who speaks American.
Udon, You Didn't!
I still had a week before I was to begin working with the international school in Yokohama. There I was going to volunteer with the music program which teaches Japanese music in English. My plan was to share some information on Chinese music and learn as much as possible about Japanese traditions. So I took the chance to meet Rui frequently and make plans to visit Jen, my former Japanese tutor and linguistics classmate. She was living in Kyoto working for the Japanese government because her Japanese is so awesome!
The next day Rui, who had also applied to Oxford for next year, and I commiserated over our low chances for entry over delicious hot bowls of udon noodles in tasty curry broths. We laughed at our realization that the Chinese translation of Oxford, 牛津， could just as easily be translated as Cowford. Since we were speaking spitefully of the dreaming spires this feminization of the place seemed very appropriate. Hyped up on MSG and malice we went to karaoke and practiced our singing skills. The best song Rui taught me was about a woman dutifully cleaning toilets to become like a beautiful goddess.
Rui also revealed that after only 2 days with her ukulele she could already play and sing a bunch of pieces. We agreed to meet and play the next day when I would drag my giant mandocello to a park. This never happened because. . .
Shinjuku, Rattle, and Roll
As I'm sure you read about endlessly in the news, there was a huge earthquake in Japan last month! I was in my apartment and it was absolutely terrifying. The ground shook as it normally does during the mini earthquakes that I'd felt in Taiwan, but I had never experienced the rolling feeling of going up and down hills in a roller coaster. It was obvious that this was really intense, and I wanted to head for the door but I honestly wasn't coordinated enough to stand up. The quake went on for 3 minutes which is a really really long time when you are convinced you're going to die the whole time. But after it was over and the only damage was that a mirror fell off my wall and cracked, I figured it couldn't have really been that bad. I wondered if this was sort of a weekly occurance. I couldn't go out to Shinjuku to a Chinese instrument store as I had previously planned because the trains weren't running. People were stranded all day until buses finally began shuttling everyone home. But around Kunitachi it was business as usual except for the aftershocks which occurred about every two hours.
As I meandered around the shopping district of Kunitachi Station, Rui called me and I found out about the tsunami. Right after the earthquake she and her parents had run to their emergency centers which was a large middle school gym. They tried to stay there but they were kicked out because the officials thought their house was safer. There was no danger of tsunami in Tokyo just fear that your house would collapse on you. However, Japan is probably the most prepared country in the world for natural disasters. The buildings are built to withstand earthquakes, even this the most powerful earthquake to hit Japan since we began recording earthquake strength, and the people are drilled on what to do in case of emergency starting in elementary school. Rui urged me to buy supplies for several days at 7/11 and figure out where my emergency zone was. I complied, but thought she must be overreacting. In the picture you can see honey and jelly but just empty shelves where the fresh bread would be. Milk was also sold out. What were we supposed to put on our Doraemon cereal?!
By that night, news of how devastating the tsunami had been began to spread. Men came to my apartment and deemed the building still structurally sound. But soon after, we received news that there would be scheduled blackouts since all of the nuclear reactors that supplied Tokyo with electric power were shut down. The first week these blackouts didn't come because people saved enough power to avoid them. Wow, I thought. I doubt that kind of conscientious conservation would have happened in America.
The picture here states, The batteries are sold out. Sorry for the inconvenience. The irony was not lost on me as this was a convenience store.
Then even worse news hit. There were nuclear power plants that were out of control and leaking radiation. Obviously any radiation is bad, but debates on whether people should go outside or not raged across the interwebs. 7/11s were already sold out of bread and dairy and egg products because they weren't getting daily shipments, but now anything with seaweed joined the list of bottled water, batteries and ramen as unobtainables. Why? Because seaweed contains high levels of iodine which is needed to prevent the uptake of the radioactive iodine isotopes you're possibly breathing in through your surgical mask at this very moment! I think it was reasonable to be afraid of the radiation if you were living in Tokyo, but I think it's really ridiculous that iodine tablets sold out in Chicago because people were worried about the radiation flying all around the world. Sunblock in the summer would probably be a better way to avoid radiation. But I admit I remain uneducated about radiation in general.
The picture here, according to Jen, says, Due to the earthquake, supplies of some products are low. We are responding as rapidly as possible. We apologize for the inconvenience. -Seven Eleven. Thanks for the translation Kurafuto-san!
Exodus at Narita
The situation looked bad. I spent most of my time reading the news online, looking for some clue as to whether it was safe or not to go outside. Should I not turn on the heater? Will that bring in radioactive isotopes? Should I shower after coming in from outside? I had no idea.
My parents told me to get the hell out of there. The Japanese power company was not being totally forthcoming. But I think a lot of Western media were exaggerating the dangers as they approached within 50 miles, sensed a change in the wind like Mary Poppins, and then fled to another location. Then my school contacted me and said they were tentative about me joining them now and also that many spring festivals were being canceled. Finally, the State Department put Japan on its no travel list so I joined the ranks of the Watson Fellows who fled Egypt as a refugee and bought my ticket out of Japan.
I still had things I wanted to do in Taiwan, a valid multi-entry visa, and a place to stay for free so, to the relief of my parents who didn't want me growing extra eyeballs, I booked a ticket out of Japan. I didn't get to say hello to Jen in Kyoto or goodbye to Rui, because her family suddenly returned to China to avoid growing their own mutant body parts, so I left my wonderful apartment halfway through my rented month without collecting the deposit and headed to the airport wondering whether or not my exposure to radiation had been sufficient to give me super powers.
Alas, my hopes of obtaining super powers were dashed (and not the faster than a speeding bullet kind of dashed, but the much less fun throw your dreams into a toilet kind) when I was tested at the Taipei airport for radiation and came out clean. I was happy to be back in a place I understood, both contextually and linguistically, but also disappointed. Much like the castaways from LOST I had mixed feelings about leaving the Island. I was sadistically looking forward to the confusions and embarrassments because they inevitably lead to learning something new. Also I came to the terrifying realization that my study of Japanese, the resulting lowering of my GPA and waking up 5 days a week at 7AM my whole senior year was basically all for nought. Oh well, Japan. I shall return!