Monthly Archives: December 2010

Butterburgers, gas station burritos, and 33 pounds of dog food

The most peculiar thing is that I now feel like an outsider who is inside, or perhaps someone who was always here but isn’t any longer. In Japan I am acutely foreign, both invisible (like Internet advertisements to a seasoned browser) and visible (bright, flashing Internet advertisements), depending on the interpreter. This duality has become part of my consciousness in Japan, making me always aware that to everyone I am at least someone or no one. In America it is different, because I am neither someone nor no one but Everyone. There is no duality that comes from being different, to be ignored or stared at but at least one or the other–there is just existence, part of All People.

Yet, still in command of the I’m In Japan mentality, I find myself mostly oblivious to their presence around me, conditioned as I am to mainly ignore what I recognize as the same (most people). The problem is that I am also conditioned to recognize what is different, which for the last year and a half has been “foreign people,” and by foreign of course I ironically mean “not Japanese.” To suddenly become aware of all the conversations those around me are having is like someone flipped on the switch that opens Pandora’s Box, forcefed me the apple of the tree of sin’s origins: can these people really be comfortable with knowing that everyone around them is hearing what they’re saying to each other? Then, two realizations: 1. I just asked that out loud to my sister, completely forgetting that suddenly everyone around me can understand me too, and 2. to someone for whom the regularity of constant bombardment of exterior conversation is not remarkable, it is unlikely to be even slightly of note that someone around them is speaking to someone else.

I’m lonely but not alone, I’m everyone and nobody: nothing on my face says I’ve been an outsider for this long, or that I’m still just temporary. I get a thrill out of speaking in a cool, casual way to gas station attendants and the guy who gets the game out of the rack at Target, catch myself speaking way more politely to anyone than I ever would have thought to before, and find myself for what is likely the first time in my life genuinely unconcerned about what anyone thinks about the things I say, do, or how I look. Peculiarly enough it’s only since I have lived in a place where I am forced to acknowledge that I am the Other that I am capable of believing I’m nothing. Is the suppression of self-consciousness what self-confidence really is?

In other news: huge burritos, frozen pizza, steak, cottage cheese, Thai Kitchen, Jimmy John’s, American football, and other such delights, hung from low branches like ornaments, and I am the cat.

I woke up at 2:30 this morning.

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That class of problems with which men will never have to cope

Tomorrow I leave, which means that the last couple months have pushed by faster than I had hoped. That’s not to say that I’m not looking forward to being flung through the air three separate times (and once for twelve hours) on my way back to the states, only that I will miss being able to leisurely enjoy my holiday season here at my place.

To be sure, nothing could be more leisurely than the comfortable familiarity which awaits me back in rural Iowa: no work to do and no trains to take and none of my usual household chores to keep done will ensure I have plenty of time by myself and with my family to wander around, confused, feeling like an outsider in the place I belong, with no strangers at all the wiser that I’ve pretty much been in a coma for the last sixteen months. The upshot is that all the commercials will be new, and I will be able to spy on people having conversations.

The Internet has not left me with any confidence about the weather conditions I’m about to experience; the other day as though watching some sort of confusing new addition to the football broadcast I saw a video of snow dumping down through the Metrodome’s dome, and then checked the Iowa road condition map and saw a lot of road shaded the colors that meant “completely covered” and “travel not advised.” Also, though I’ve pretty much obliterated any meaning that “temperatures” ever once had by virtue of trying and failing to internalize the Celcius system, I have come to understand that it is Much Colder in Iowa than it is here, not that I would know by what degree or to what extent.

The sandwich I am eating right now, brand name “Delicious Sandwich Fresh and Juicy Sandwich,” bears a useful phrase on its package: “It is a sandwich made with love by the use of the bread selected carefully. Please take it.” Take it I did. The crusts have been cut off.

I guess the prevailing mental broadcast is just that I’m getting tired of the build-up to this goddamned journey. I’ve been Nomaday bitching about it for what, three weeks now? This is not normal. I know it’s going to be an exhausting pain in the ass and I’m gonna have to drag my bags downtown at 5:30 in the morning and go through all this madness. I’m just ready to get it over with (but not yet, not yet oh god!). In preparation I am buying an extra-size battery for my PSP and hoping to whatever it is that governs my mental faculties that I am able to concentrate on the ones and zeros popping out of enemy heads instead of the fact that I am on an airplane. It sure would be nice if I could get over flying to the extent that my life is not sectioned mentally into countdown portions entitled “Time Since Brandon Has Been On An Airplane” and “Days Until Brandon Absolutely Must Fly Again.”

Even irrational fears must have a basis, I suppose, and I figure the only real good reason to be afraid of something such that it cripples you is that you are afraid the thing will kill you or you’re afraid of your death because of it. I suppose this is likely it, and not even so much because I am personally afraid of dying but because I am afraid of the terror that would accompany the knowledge of inevitable death. I wish I was more like Vasquez in Aliens who knows they’re coming for her and is just like “word” and toasts herself like a real Bro. And airplanes aren’t even extraterrestrial predatory creatures hellbent on human destruction!

I think I read once somewhere that it is the most common fear, that of flying, and mostly cause we never hear a news story about how all the airplanes landed successfully. I think part of the draw for me personally to these incidents is also the incredible series of events that must occur for things to go wrong. Something like the last Concorde crash, where because of some issue on the first plane a piece of metal fell off it and the plane after ran over it and it happened to puncture the tire at full rotation speed and the tire blew up and flew up and damaged this and this and this because of this and so on–these cause and effect stories are too interesting for me to ignore, and yet I am drawn to the tragedy of the human element: how did they react in these moments of duress, as transcribed from the flight recorder? In most cases, my morbid finding is yet oddly reassuring: not much of a reaction whatsoever, because it just happened too fast. And so my inundation in stories about when flights went wrong instead of when they went right lopsides my viewpoint.

This is the flawed, terrible thought process of someone unhealthily fixated on what the experience of a remote possibility would be like! I guess I imagine the thrill of potential excitement that comes when you buy a lottery ticket, and I swing it in reverse. It is ultimately my logic that fails me when I am faced with the odds: even if something is a ten million to one shot, I find myself thinking that any single instance of occurence is still just as possible as an incident of failure (assuming a 50/50 chance instead of a 1/10,000,000 chance, because I will either complete or not complete the flight, binarily, and here is the flaw). What is the mental acceptance I need to internalize? What is the proverb I must chant? Does fixation on repairing this fear necessarily assure it will become so prominent to me that I am unable to forget about it? I will playfully suggest to myself that the only cure is getting on the plane totally exhausted and getting drunk in the air, with full knowledge that I will be incapable of relaxing enough to sleep even when drunk. I shouldn’t even focus on “one in ten million,” I should just say 0% chance, cause that is more accurate when you do out the numbers.

Ugh!

Did you know that in Japan a lot of spaghetti is sold in packages of five or six, where the number refers to the number of servings, and that each serving has a little plastic sticker around it so you just grab one “bundle” out of the package and poof there is your serving of spaghetti? True story. Also spaghetti sauce is not often sold in jars but pouches which you boil in water and then open. They are about a dollar and serve (though I am being slightly generous) two adult humans. What a funny world.

The other day I realized it had stopped being weird to me that when I buy carrots I buy two huge individually wrapped carrots, or when I buy potatoes I get seven potatoes the size of chicken eggs in a little bag. The feeling of holding a twenty pound bag of potatoes again–this is another reason I will enjoy going to America, just as all those before me, who (pretty much) made it there just fine.

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Various premium

Today’s the neon Times Square to the every-day corner bar: with about four times the screen real estate I am finding myself left feeling a little naked. Today instead of my diminutive Eee PC I’ve got my main laptop, the big ol’ Studio 15, with me here at night school, and it’s almost a little shocking to be typing a Nomaday on a full-sized keyboard instead of that cramped little wonder. The screen on this one is so vibrant and bright in this new setting that I actually had to dim it a bit to feel more comfortable.

I didn’t just lug this thing all the way out here for kicks though. Spurned on by an only semi-planned viewing last evening of A Charlie Brown Christmas, I took it upon myself to acquire said Motion-Picture in the highest of defs, and plan on showing it to my kids tonight as our final lesson until January 12th. All I want is what I have coming to me! All I want is my fair share! (This movie, upon further review, probably had more of a hand than I had consciously realized in shaping my own linguistic tendencies at a tender age.) Though the ending happens to be a little heavy-handedly Christian in its message, at least the damned thing deals with a Christian holiday. Christmas may very well be about Christ! I’m just not seeing it. Truly of all the Charlie Browns in the world, I’m the Charlie Browniest.

That said, I cannot imagine that my kids will be shocked, offended, put upon, or even aware of any sort of message that exists in the film which happens to be conveyed by dialogue, well-meaning but only-kinda-knowledgeable high schoolers that they are. This one will need to survive on charisma (and Snoopy) alone. The show is 25 minutes and my classes tonight are a shortened 35, so I’ll only need to blow a few intro and extro minutes with a bit of simple exposition (Charles Schulz invented these characters, they play this on TV every winter, it is 45 years old, yes Vince Guaraldi is the Man). Then we’ll be all set.

As luck would have it, it hasn’t been just any ordinary day that I chose to heft this weighty machine around. No, instead of going straight to work at the prescribed time, today I accomplished some most famous errands: the contest prize that I promised a lucky N-Sider reader has been verily, and tardily, sent off, with a few little toys and treats included as a bold repentance for my sins. In addition, after a somewhat linguistically baffling trip to the immigration office, I am now the proud bearer of a Japanese multiple re-entry permit, which allows me to enter (and re-enter) the country as many times as I do so wish until the day my visa bites the three-year big one. Of course to enter the country I must first leave the country, which I will most certainly be doing approximately a week from now. Hopefully in the future I’ll leave it again for at least India and Thailand, the only two places nearby that I really give enough of a shit to want to pay to visit. And at about sixty bucks for this permit I had better get my money’s worth! A final task this morning was to pay some slightly overdue bills, which I did at FamilyMart while buying a Monster Hunter Portable 3 branded bottle of soda and a piece of spicy breaded chicken in a paper envelope. (I chose the FamilyMart over Lawson specifically because I prefer FamilyMart’s spicy breaded.)

Kobe south of the station is decked out like a carnival and lit-up like Gary Busey thanks to the annual arrival of Luminarie, a massive exhibition/celebration in remembrance of the Great Hanshin Earthquake fifteen years ago. This thing consists of a variety of enormous white arches totally covered in thousands and thousands of little twinkly lights, set up over a street and ending in the community park. This has resulted in absolute throngs of people swarming the area for about a week now. I strolled through during the day today for not the first time, which provides an eerie duality: totally vacant but for the tarps of the street vendor’s tents. I haven’t been to see it at night this year, but if it’s anything like last year, and of course it is, the other side of the coin is feeling like a crayon in one of those 64-packs of Crayolas, and you’re in a case with other 64-packs, and the case is on a pallet with other cases, and the pallet is on a boat with a fucking million people slamming into you and stopping to take goddamned pictures all the time. If you are wondering, obviously I will go see it again this year, because I hate myself and I routinely do dumb crap.

Now ended, like many other things this time of year, is my Japanese class, which has shockingly improved my abilities to comprehend what others are saying while not entirely improving my ability to speak at anywhere near something approaching a conversational level above that of a broom talking to a wall. The only solution of course is to Speak More with People, but it’s hard to consciously take the mental hit and reduce yourself to broom level. As a compensation I have begun and will continue to study kanji and vocabulary, easily my weakest points. If I can read it and understand it I can interpret it and “translate” it, which is essentially endgame when it comes to my ultimate desires regarding the Japanese language. Now that I’ve turned in my acceptance form for a third year on my contract, I’m guaranteed to at least have some more chances to utterly embarrass myself in this foreign land that happens to be my home. I will never criticize anyone who is trying to learn a language again (as long as they are trying). Unless that language is Klingon.

CURIOUS THINGS
– Mitsuya Cider “THE PREMIUM,” which apparently cost me about forty yen more than a standard Mitsuya Cider, and which comes in a glass bottle with a metal lid and gold label, and which bears a label proclaiming its 99.9% naturalness percentage, and which says in cursive script White crystal sugar is used for various premium sweets, which is a phrase that not only tells me nothing but instills in me little to no confidence that white crystal sugar is actually used in this drink because they are too busy using it in various premium sweets
– Modern complex board games, namely one Arkham Horror, to which I was semi-introduced by a friend, being yet another potential hobby that promises to be expensive, time-consuming, space-consuming, and virtually impossible to seriously engage in so long as I live on this island four thousand miles from America
– Last weekend’s Chinese course meal and all-you-can-drink birthday party, which absolutely loaded me with draft beer, eggdrop soup, spicy rice noodles, chicken salad with peanut sauce, deep-fried orange chicken, Mabodoufu, hot Chinese wine, and Krispy Kreme donuts for dessert
– The ensuing karaoke fiesta, which started with six and ended up with nearly twelve people in a room the size of a hotel bathroom with a TV at the front, two microphones, two tambourines, unlimited whisky highballs, and the theme song to Married with Children
– This bitchin’ beef stew that I made last night with huge chunks of carrots and potatoes and beef and which I instinctively prepared a huge pot of rice for while thinking that “you can’t have stew without rice” and which I ate with rice anyway and which was bitchin’ like I said
– My cat, who while I slept last night, came to rest on my pillow, wrapped himself around my head, and meticulously groomed with his tongue the entirety of my visible hair, which is after my recent cut now short enough that it felt like my head was being brushed with a dish sponge, and who I tried to stop once but lacked the persistence to follow through with, and who I eventually just let go because fuck it it’s your mouth, cat (I will not be returning the favor)
CURIOUS THINGS

I’ve taken again, as I often do in cycles, to playing some games on my PSP lately instead of reading or listening to music during my commute and down time. The most recent one is a game called Half-Minute Hero, which initially consists of an RPG where you have to save the world from the Dark Lord. The trick is that as soon as the game starts he casts a spell which will end the entire world in thirty seconds, so you need to level up, buy equipment, and get to the castle and kill him before thirty seconds are up. More games should be like this, because my attention span is pretty bad alrea

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As stimulating as black coffee and just as hard to sleep after

I went to Ikea last Saturday and though we intended to get a lazy morning breakfast in their restaurant section we were indeed too late to break fast. So for some reason instead of getting the meatball plate I chose the daily special, curry rice with a pork katsu. It was in retrospect a bizarre and uninspired decision, because who goes to Ikea’s restaurant for breakfast, and who goes there and in the absence of breakfast chooses the meal equivalent of “spaghetti with sauce?” The only things more common on the dinner table than curry rice in Japan are either seaweed or stuff with their eyes still in them, perhaps covered in some sort of vinegar (the curry rice was, expectedly, of a middling to low quality).

Speaking of frightful things, today I actually expressed some excitement to a coworker about making mochi again on January 12th at my night school. Last year’s mochi-making day was the coldest evening I have ever experienced in this country, the weight of which was tempered only by the deliciousness of hot chicken soup with beaten, gooey rice wads in it. You may recall this particular event being mentioned to me last year by way of my now dearly-departed principal, who cryptically warned me about it with just a single line: “Cover your jacket with something when the beatings happen because the splatter.” (This phrase has since become a sort of personal life mantra, applicable in nearly all situations.) I anxiously await the return of Big Hammer, and all the stretchy rice-based delights that will come with it.

As an aside, I think those guys who were turning Japanese could not possibly have had the brash outspokenness necessary to record an electronic pop song declaring it so if they actually were turning Japanese. (I really think so)

I’m already starting to feel separation anxiety a bit, still two weeks out from when I’ll be boarding a series of public transit devices to fly away from the place I’ve called home for the last sixteen months. I’ll only be gone for three weeks, generously, but look what I’ll miss: Christmas cake, Kentucky Fried Chicken, drinking myself stupid, nabe party? Receiving bad-luck fortune at Ikuta Shrine, NHK’s year-end celebrity-filled singing competition, silly grab bags full of random goods, Paul McCartney’s Christmas crime against humanity being piped through all PA systems in every store in the country nonstop for days.

Of course making a list of all the stuff that I already miss and will get to enjoy will take much longer. I am kind of excited about the following things, excluding family, the obvious but not-entertaining bullet-point: Buying a carton of milk which is a full gallon and wondering how anyone could ever fit that inside of a refrigerator. Enormous, affordable pizza with thick buttery crust and lots of cheese and absolutely no mayonnaise. Strolling through a Target store and being all like “whoa” at the Blu-rays priced under sixty dollars. Shootin’ guns! Television, signs, and conversations in my native language, football and people who know that football isn’t soccer, Taco John’s, Subway, Arby’s, Chik-fil-a, Thai Kitchen, Cocost, Hickory Park, steaks from a grill that have names other than “cut steak”, cheap beer, cheap fruit, cheap everything. Finally, seeing some men my age dressed worse than I am, and also snow. I trust I will get to revel in the carefree and brazen excesses of most of, if not all of, these things.

But what about the weird stuff? Will it be difficult to get used to the fact that I can’t get very good food at a convenience store, or that trains can’t zip me around wherever I need to go, or that I can’t just walk somewhere with five hundred dollars worth of cash in my pocket and feel safe about it? Will I god forbid have to drive a car (on the right side of the road)? Will I cope with eating every meal with a fork? Yeah probably.

I got a haircut the other day at “BILLY” which is a hair salon I’ve been to twice now that allows racism to work in my favor: specifically, though a cut for any old Japanese person is about 4500 yen, a cut for a “foreigner” is only 3000. The place is run by a guy and his wife, who both speak English and worked (I believe) in London for a time. That thirty dollars gets me a pretty meticulous and careful cut, a shampoo and conditioning with minor scalp massage, a blowdry, and even a little dab of product all up in there, about forty-five minutes of attention. The place is named after their one-time pet dog, BILLY, who is taxidermied and watches over you as you are trimmed. On one side of the place is a weight bench covered with magazines; I like the guy’s commitment to simultaneously working out and staying informed about what Ms. Kardashian is up to.

I can’t quite figure out why it’s cheaper for me to get my haircut there unless they see it as kind of an occasional and random way to keep their English sharp by having a chance to practice with real foreign people–it’s the only thing I can think since the foreigner discount isn’t really posted anywhere in the store and they give it to you without your asking. Now, if I go to my Real Japanese Place, a kind of trendier but franchised salon called END, I can get the works for only about 2500 and they spend maybe an hour on me (you even get a hot towel on your face while they wash your hair, a more vigorous scalp/head massage, a free drink while you wait, and a piece of candy and grateful bow as you leave). The rub with that whole thing of course is that I have to speak Japanese, which gets pretty pathetic for both me and my stylist pretty quickly. Making an appointment can also be… troublesome. This time I just got my hair cut as short as possible to prolong the amount of time before I’d need to get a cut again. I’m happy with it, though after my first day back in the real world I received the following occasionally confusing comments:

– Is that from hazing or something (guy at Japanese class)
– Miss Misumi says a handsome guy is a handsome guy either way (teacher at school)
– You are same, same (a student pointing to his friend, head totally shaved)
– It’s like a David Beckham haircut (Jessy, akin to maybe someone saying “it’s like a Ronald Reagan haircut”)
– Your new hairstyle is very nice (a third-year kid, followed by the class erupting in unbridled, monkey-like shrieks and laughter)

At any rate I feel colder, though it is a fact that the weather itself is cooling off. And I think I actually caught a bit of a cold last afternoon, though I can’t attribute it specifically to the hair. Copious amounts of chewable vitamin C seem to have mostly helped me bounce back after only a day or so though (thanks for sending it Mom!).

Oh I almost forgot about the CURIOUS JAPANESE THINGS OF THE WEE k
– Ringer Hut, a restaurant where you can order champon, a kind of chewy noodle dish with thick soup, offering either standard size, 1.5x size, or double size, all of which are the same price (and I only ordered 1.5x because in a totally un-American moment I thought “I know it’s free to get more but I don’t know if I can eat all that”)
– Monster Hunter Portable 3, probably this year’s biggest non-Pokemon game, for the PSP, which comes out today and which many of my students (and several of my teachers) have been talking about for the last two months, and which I can’t play cause I am sure there is a Butt Load of Japanese, not that I’d have any goddamned time for it anyway
– Red Ginger soda from Suntory, which is totally bright pink in color, and adorned with a black and pink wrapper that looks like some sort of lascivious corset, and which I bought without really considering how girly it looked because I like ginger ale and I like red, and which tastes exactly like regular ginger ale, a fact I only discovered by shamefully drinking it at work like a total woman
– Went to the music store to find Square Enix’s Christmas album and got sidetracked looking at the Jazz, which is conveniently separated into “Jazz” and “J-Jazz” sections to totally confuse me when I can’t find any Japanese artists in the Jazz section
– Mos Burger’s Mos Burger, which is a burger with a slice of tomato and this special red sauce that is kinda like a big dollop of meat sauce with cream cheese in it and Jesus Christ would probably come back from the dead to eat one jeepers is it ever fucking delicious I want one now immediately I will buy one after work.
THAT’S QUITE ENOUGH isn’t it

On my train ride home from night school last week I had a beer and sat in the front seat of the Port Liner with the big front window, and there was one of those huge manga magazines that someone had left there. So a little tipsy I made the decision to pick it up and as I flipped through it looking at the bikini models in the front and the colored-paper comics in the back while the lights of the city shot past me I realized for a second that nobody who saw me reading the comics could possibly know I didn’t understand the things that were happening in them. They might have even thought I bought the book myself, who knows! I felt like a real cock of the walk, which was also part of the illusion. For ten minutes I could pretend to read manga while looking at the pictures like anyone else, and nobody was the worse off for it, like I got to operate myself from outside, a simulation, a battery of tests. I have come to realize that for an often-inhibited and occasionally inexplicably-depressed sociopath such as myself, this is why alcohol works: not to alter the world around you, but to alter you around the world.

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