Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Things That Make You Go Hmmmm.... and other such nonsense.

I would like to take a moment here to address something I've begun to notice that I am finding to be extremely troubling. Bear with me here guys, as this may end up sort of rant-like in nature.

Since I've been back in the U.S. I've been looking at quite a few websites that are dedicated to news and editorials about Japan. These include Kotaku's "Culture Smash" feature and far more traditional online newspapers such as "Japan Probe", "The Japan Times", "News on Japan", etc. and so forth. While I enjoy these for the most part (except for Kotaku, as I'm more and more convinced that Brian Ashcraft is a dreadfully lazy writer with a misguided superiority complex), there is something about all of them that is starting to infuriate me. The simplest, and perhaps pithiest way I have of saying it is that writing about Japan is a massive sausage fest.

That's right friends, the foreigners who are writing about Japan for major publications are overwhelmingly male. Which is not to say that it's all men writing about Japan, as there are a few women who write for these publications; however, they are disturbingly outnumbered by their male counterparts.

This is something that doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me, as surely I am not the only person who realizes that hearing the point of view of one gender (or one nationality, one age, once economic class, etc.) does not begin to encompass the entirety of that subject. This is especially true for a country like Japan, which is still beholden to extremely rigid gender roles and stereotypes. And as someone who has lived in Japan, I am personally appalled by the fact that the female experience of being there is vastly underrepresented. Especially considering how different my experiences there were in comparison to my male friends, friends who had even worked in the very same schools with the very same teachers that I worked at. Just like your foreignness in Japan defines you like a scarlet letter, so too does your gender. And when you're a foreign woman in Japan, it can, at times, feel like you're a goddamn unicorn: a heretofore never seen before entity, worthy of stares, whispers and gross stereotypes.

As such, having a highly visible female perspective is extremely necessary in the pursuit of understanding Japan and the Japanese. I would even argue that without it, you will never be able to comprehend Japan. That is how important it is. That's how different the experience is for men and women there. And by not directly addressing it, a great disservice is done to the Japanese, the expats that live/lived there and those that study Japan.

Now, the next question that needs to be asked to continue this dialogue is: "Why are there not more women writing about Japan?". That is a far more complicated question, and I'll admit that I don't have a definitive answer. I do have some theories though. And yes, I will be thrilled to share those with you, thanks for asking.

Here's the thing, I'm not going to beat around the bush about this, as I feel the subject deserves brutal honesty, and too often, I feel as though anyone writing about Japan is far too tempted to write only nice things about Japan and their experience there. As should be apparent, nothing can be good 100% of the time, and this is especially true of the expat experience. So here it is: Japan is fucking hard on women. Extremely. Brutally. Much, much more so then it is on men. In fact, there are times where Japan seems like a free-for-all for men, wherein they get to run free across the countryside, getting treated like Brad Pitt, invited to all the best parties, with their pick of women. And for women, well, it can feel like the worst party you've ever been to, the kind where the men sexually harass you once they get drunk, the pretty girls tell you how fat you are and all of the cute guys won't pay any attention to you because you have opinions. Now mind you, this is an oversimplification of the matter, but trust me, you have those kinds of days there, where you feel like shit that's been tracked inside on the bottom of an errant shoe.

There are moments in Japan, where you are confronted by a startlingly level of sexism, where you are expected to be something you might not be, purely based upon your gender. When you're foreign, this is compounded by negative expectations that might be held due to your nationality. For example, if you're a woman from America, you may be thought to be an overly opinionated, loud, forceful she-devil who eats men alive for breakfast. At the same time, and weirdly so, because you're a woman, men might believe that you have an inferior level of intelligence, despite that whole believing you to be overly opinionated thing. Allow me to relate to you a personal experience for illustrative purposes.

My first year in Japan I worked at one Jr. High and two Elementary Schools. Before a worked there, they had a male ALT. When that ALT gave me the rundown about the Jr. High, he told me that there were three female English teachers and one male English teacher, but that I would never teach with the male teacher, because he seemed to be afraid of having ALTs in his class.

Cut to a few months later. I have one badass female English teacher that I teach with regularly. She also happens to be my supervisor at that school, and we get along great. At this point in time, I had gone to class with the male teacher twice, and that was only to do my self-introduction lesson. But on this particular day, my supervisor comes to me and says "Ah, Nishioka-Sensei (all names have been changed) wants you to go to class with him today."

"Oh," I say, "that's strange, he's never wanted me to teach with him before."

And she replies with this doozy: "Yes, he never liked teaching with the ALT before you because he was a man. But now that you are a pretty girl, he says he wants you to come to class with him."

If you had any doubts about this being a negative experience, let me assure you, it was all bad. Once I went to class with Nishioka-Sensei, he proceeded to make me sit in front of the class, called attention to my appearance (including my figure) repeatedly, and when he did want me to do my job and give the correct pronunciation of a word, he would then proceed to make fun of me and my pronunciation.

Professionalism, amirite?

Is this an experience any of the male ALTs at that school had? No. This was the double whammy experience of being a foreign woman in Japan, where I was deemed to be stupid and nothing more than an object to be ogled by a grown man and a class full of hormonal students.

Now, I am not saying that the male ALTs do not have similar humiliating experiences while living and teaching in Japan (I can assure you that that South Park episode devoted to the Japanese thinking foreign men have huge cocks is not far off), what I am saying is that women have their own uniquely awkward and humiliating experiences as well that deserve to be represented. And from what I have noticed, those experiences and those distinctly female voices are not being fairly represented. And that is extremely troubling.

As such, I'm going to use this blog to do my part. In addition to covering culture shock, I'm also going to cover the experience of being a foreign woman in Japan. So stay tuned, won't you?

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Winter is Coming, and we shall call it Stage 2.

It’s getting colder now, the light fading sooner, the day evaporating before my very eyes into a darkness that is defined only by the puffs of breath expelled; the fingerprints of winter’s ever tightening grip on this world. What this surely means is that Stage 2 of reverse culture shock is setting in; just as it did around this time of year in Japan, when it was just good old fashioned and regular culture shock.

Winter is the hardest time, though I never realized it for the first 26 years of my life. Coming from Arizona, we were blessed with mild winters and the absence of daylight savings time. No snow, no deep winters of the soul where the cold and dark begin to feel so much like dying. Every day, whether during winter or summer, featured the same explosive sunsets, forever reminding everyone that the sun would always rule these parts and never leave you hanging or empty handed from winter induced misery.

This was not the case in Japan. Winter meant whole days where you would never see the sun. Only dense grey clouds, pregnant with the threat of rain and seasonal affective disorder would manifest in the sky above. You would wake to darkness, go to work and then arrive home again to find it creeping up to your doorstep. You could never outrun it, or the cold, which would get deep beneath your skin, into your very bone marrow and joints. It ran through your ventricles like blood, making your heart into a brittle organ highly susceptible to unrest and loneliness.

You never could get warm during the winters, unless you were content with locking yourself in your boiling hot shower room for at least an hour. With no central heating and no insulation, it was all up to 5 layers of clothing, a kerosene heater that smelled like an airplane hangar and the womblike embrace of a kotatsu to keep you from freezing to death in your apartment. It meant nights spent wrapped in a small mountain of comforters in a cold room with walls you would swear were no thicker than cardboard.

Going to school didn’t help much either as there was no heating in the classrooms or depending upon where you were in the staffroom, there was no guarantee that you would be able to find a reliable pocket of warmth at any point during your day. Nothing fully shows you just how Soviet the winters in Japan are quite like standing in front of a class of kids all wearing tiny shorts and skirts, all shaking and unhappy in a classroom that’s below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Oh, and then there was the fact that I rode a bike to and from school. Just brilliant.

What winter inevitably meant in Japan went beyond the physical discomfort, especially during my first year. It meant that I was finally getting used to the idea that I actually lived in Japan, in that apartment, in that sleepy town. It meant that the heady rush of arrival and the foreignness encountered everywhere was being subsumed by reality. No longer was I as flabbergasted by seeing red bean flavored soda, or by being asked at parties if I’d like to eat raw horse. Squat toilets and indoor shoes, getting stared at all the time by strangers, cars driving on the opposite side of the road, using chopsticks for every meal, all of this that was so exciting and new a few months prior was now becoming the norm. The routine. And with that comes disillusionment. Frustration. Irritation. Homesickness. It meant the swift and brutal onslaught of the second stage of culture shock.

I’m pretty sure that my first winter in Japan was defined by me sitting under my kotatsu, watching “Twin Peaks” while chain smoking, all the while feeling like my head was on fire with the flames of a righteous and unstoppable rage. At least that’s the thing I most distinctly remember. My sheer, unbridled enthusiasm at being in Japan was quickly devoured by the onset of winter and the realization that a change of country did not equal a change in reality. I was learning that Japan and the U.S. were far more alike than anyone wanted to admit. And that, along with seemingly every little thing that happened every day, made me so very angry.

It is much the same now, here, in Texas. We’re moving into winter at a steady—if not wholly reliable—pace. Unlike when I left for Japan, I have found myself in the unique position of returning to a land I had lived in for the majority of my life, only to find it a place I don’t fully understand anymore. Japan was a place that initially seemed so enigmatic, the onset of culture shock and the lack of complete cultural understanding seemed to be a given. Though, I will admit, I didn’t think it would be as bad for me seeing as how I so very desperately wanted to be there. I was inevitably wrong. It hit me just as hard, if not harder, than I could have expected it to.

And now, it is hitting me just as hard here, on the flip side of the world. And that is another thing entirely. Once again, I was fooled into thinking that I was prepared; therefore, it wouldn’t be so bad. I was going to come back and marry the man I love, and move to a new place and everything would be grand. And now I have done those things, I am living that life, and I can’t ever quite get comfortable in it. And that, too, makes me so very angry.

So once again, I spend time indoors in an attempt to stay away from the cold. I have central heating, so that’s a plus. I’m down a kotatsu though, so there’s a definite minus. And once again, I feel consumed by a nearly unfathomable irritation at just about everything.

Maybe the thing here, that didn’t figure into the equation while in Japan is the size my world has become. Going to Japan expanded the world that I knew explosively and irrevocably. Every day was a challenge, even if it was filled with the minutiae of doing nothing more than going to work, coming home, shopping, and merely living. It all had a larger context. I was there, in a world bigger than the 26 years of my Arizona upbringing. No matter how bad a day was, the one following it was ripe with potential and possibility. Anything could happen merely by opening the door to the Japanese sunlight.

But here, my world has shrunk, to the dimensions of Austin, Texas, or even just to the dimensions of this 2 bedroom apartment. I still don’t have a job, or even friends here. I’ve got a husband and a cat. My journal. My thoughts. And the reduced scale this implies is all rather difficult to adjust to.

How does one go from living on the profound playing field of huge and life changing experience to just being in Texas, doing nothing? How does one scale back from a hectic day to day that was full of people, and shared memories, trials, hurt feelings, mended hearts, shining and glorious moments of raw existence where you couldn’t possibly want for anything more because you already had so, so much to cherish? To go from that to days filled with nothing beyond pacing, thinking, trying forever and ever to think of some way to recapture that happiness in such a small scale, is mind blowing and far more complicated then I could have imagined.

I always wonder, is it just me? Is it just me that has returned to something they didn’t quite fully anticipate? What’s it like for Geoff, my neighbor for 2 years and a Japan veteran with 5 years spent in the country? Is the Canada he finds himself in today at all comparable to the one he left all those years ago? Is it business as usual, or has he found himself in a homeland that is remarkably unrecognizable? What about my other friends who returned to parts of the world personally unknown to me? What about the lovely Jess in Australia? Or Erin? Is she running another marathon or booking a flight to another far flung location like she was wont to do? What about the people in other parts of the U.S.? Is this the place they remember? Do they feel sure of their footing in this country? Or are they just all hiding it better than me?

Because while I know that it can’t just be me, here, in this small scale world, it seems like it is. Like there is something only wrong with me and my reaction to this return to “normal” life. But I know, and tell myself, that it is not just me. That this surely has to be reverse culture shock. Bona fide stage 2 shock. The worst stage of all. It’s that same beast of a feeling, in its mirror image. It must be the cold. The early encroaching dark. The winding down of all things. It’s been long enough since returning to the U.S. for the novelty to have worn off and for me to get back into the swing of things; and yet still soon enough after to have opened up a void between my realization of that fact and my readiness to accept it. I still can’t quite accept that things are different, here and now, and that it is something I will need to respond and adjust to.

I am reminded of when I came home to visit last year after being gone for a year and a half. About a month prior I just shut down. I didn’t care about anything beyond getting home for a glorious 3 week vacation full of familiar food and people, a language I understood, a country I knew and recognized as my own. In the midst of all of that oppressive cold and rage, there was a light. Hope. Something to look forward to.

And it worked on the flip side as well. After that 3 week vacation, as hard as it was to make that nearly 18 hour journey back, there was something there, something to return to. I remember sitting in the Osaka airport, thinking “Minna-san! Tadaima!”.

“Everyone! I’m home!”

I was returning to something. I would see all my friends and neighbors. We would have hours to talk and commiserate about what we did while we were apart. We would all come together again, after missing each other for what was, ostensibly, such a short period of time. These people that I was coming back to were all the adopted family I had and needed for the other 11 months of the year.

And that was something to look forward to, truly.

And in that moment, nothing else mattered.

Not all of the things about Japan that caused me so much consternation.

Not all of the staring by strangers.

Or the general xenophobia foreigners are constantly met with.

Not the stresses of working with the Japanese.

Not even the anger I felt at most Japanese institutions over how they destroyed the will of their people, mattered.

All that mattered was getting back to the people I loved dearly in that little island nation. They were, and continue to be, what made that time in Japan worth every second.

And that is part of the hardship now. The root of the struggle towards re-acclimation. Those of us that left Japan are the dispossessed. We have returned to the other side, the side that was waiting for us. So where do we all go now? If we can’t return to those brief and momentous lives, to the people we became so close to—closer even to then people we had known most of our lives—what do we all have to return to? Where do we find that signpost to hope in our vastly shrunken worlds? That is the true question and the true key to coming out the other side, readjusted to our home country and culture. It is what we must all answer to be happy with the choice we made.

Much of that has to do with how much we’re willing to let go. If we’re really ready to believe that that chapter of our lives is over, is a dilemma we must awaken to everyday. Because the truth of the matter is that that time, for all of us equally, can never be recreated. Our Japan—the Japan that we hold special in our hearts—is different for each of us. It is worth cherishing for so many varied reasons. Whether it was the people we held close as our own, or the kids we loved teaching, or the gentle streets and fields of our respective towns, or even just the way a summer night there felt on our skin, it is special for each of us on our own terms. And the fact of the matter is, we can never go back to that. All of those things existed in that unique time and place. Everything aligned in just the right way for all of us. Even if we hopped a plane today, went back to Japan, got a job teaching with a private school, it would never be the same. Not really. That would be a different Japan, not the one that was yours. Not the one that was so special. That time has passed for all of us and that Japan—our Japan—is only the product of our memories. It is not ours to ever return to. Accepting that, truly and definitely accepting all of that as being over is a hurdle we all have to jump and hope to clear with maybe nothing more than a skinned knee. But none of us, I’m sure, will be able to make that jump without sustaining injury.

Because to do that, to look at ourselves dead on in the mirror and say, “It’s over. It’s all done now. And really, I’m okay.”, will surely break all of our hearts. Possibly more then we break them every day just by living side by side with our memories and nostalgia. And who amongst us is ready to face that very particular pain just yet? Who is ready to leave stage 2 behind?

Monday, November 28, 2011

We Shall Call this "The First Try".

I understand now that there is so much about this experience and its aftershocks that I could never fully know or take into account. How could I ever have anticipated the consummate loneliness; the ache that permeates my mundane, everyday tasks? Wash my face—miss Japan. Clean the kitchen—miss Japan. Think about Japan—miss Japan. And on it goes. There is nearly nothing these days that doesn’t make me think about Japan and the life there that I left behind.

I spoke to Katie today. Katie in Hong Kong, owner of Sumi the ink stained cat. Katie has been one year gone from Yatsushiro, having left when I began my second year. She has a job with a Japanese fashion brand based in Hong Kong. She is settled and for all intents and purposes, successful. And yet for all that, she is still forever stuck in Yatsushiro, her heart always wandering the bike path by our apartments, forever yearning to have that simple life when we were all together, when we were all any of us could need.

During the waning days of my second year, when I thought that I wanted nothing more than to make it out of Japan with my sanity intact, Katie came to visit. She was wistful, caught up in remembrances of her life lived across the parking lot from my place. We talked about so many things like: her students and their penchant for speaking about masturbation to her; the time she dressed like tofu for the ALT Halloween party; the night we drunkenly rode our bikes home from karaoke and narrowly avoided falling into a rice paddy; and the time when we drew a magnificent picture of Godzilla for the poster that would greet the newbies at the airport.

I always felt that Katie loved Japan more then I was ever capable of. The things that I could never quite bear never seemed to bother her. She always liked the job more than I could. She was always happy, while I spent much more time focused on the unique failures of Japanese society and what it did to the people born to the country. I somehow felt that when I left, I would not feel the same sense of longing that she did. I felt like I would be lucky.

But now, after being back for a mere 2 months, I see that I was wrong. While I am glad to be back, glad to have seen friends I missed so dearly for 2 years; glad to hug my family and tell them to their faces how much I love them; glad to have moved to Texas and married my Guy, it doesn’t change the fact that at least once a day I think,

“I wish I had stayed just one more year. Just one more.”

There has not been a night—not a single damn night—in these 2 months when I haven’t closed my eyes to sleep and seen, so painfully clear, the meandering streets of Yatsushiro. Every night, I stroll past Shan Shan, the takoyaki place next to our apartments that was always overflowing with high school students who would openly gawk at our foreignness when given the chance and on down the street past the KFC with the life sized statue of the Colonel that sat right next to the headquarters of a religious cult/political party; on down to the Lawson’s that was owned by my kindly Japanese grandmother who would pack my bags with free lighters and who wrote me a letter expressing her happiness at having known me before I left. Farther still I see the Tsutaya and the adorable guy that would always smile so shyly at me when I rented my movies. I can see the special needs school I worked at, nestled at the foot of an island that had been reclaimed from the sea generations ago. I can see the sea wall and beyond, where the fishing boats would stick in the mud when the tide went out to places unknown.

And beyond all of that, I am haunted by the people I have left behind. My dear Javier—my platonic soul mate—as much a part of me as my own limbs, his smile always a bright point on the horizon of my memory. Ian and his curly hair, hips caught in a perpetual wiggle, his great big wonderful laugh still echoing in my ears. Chris, carefully reading Lord of the Rings and quoting NWA songs before speeding through the countryside, while we danced like fiends in his car. Gentle Joe with his beloved garden and fish tanks, flashing his bedroom eyes all over Korea while shouting PAH! so loudly he startled half the country. Sweet Kae and Ichi, with their knitting and shyness about using the F-word. Both of them encompassed everything that was good about the Japanese. Ichi, red faced with beer, slapping her cheeks and saying,

“I am so…..Yopparai!”

And Kae, standing on the platform of the train station, waving with all her might until the last train I took out of Yatsushiro was long gone. That moment, in and of itself, wrenches my heart apart and keeps me awake at night.

It was all of this and more that Katie and I talked about today. Both of us caught up in the heady longing of memory. Both of us understanding exactly the same thing, finally, about our lives in Japan. Katie summed it up so simply:

“How can something so amazing hurt so badly?”

It is at that moment that I am struck by an image of Katie from the last time I saw her before she left the JET Program. We had all had a final dinner together, me leaving with Kae in her car and Katie climbing on the back of her boyfriend’s motorcycle. We passed each other on a small country road and the last thing I saw was Katie, clinging tightly to her boyfriend, her tiny face windblown and streaked with tears so slick they reflected all the lights of passing cars. I now know all too well how she felt. And somehow I know that both of us, in some small and maybe forever shrinking way, will forever be on the back of that motorcycle, flying through the balmy Japanese night, our hearts trickling down our faces for everyone to see.