Sunday, 22 April 2012

Star-spangled Banter II - Sea, Caucus and Cow Carcass

I had a moment of triumph on my first night in America when I met two girls from New Jersey. I told them that I would be spending the remainder of the week in their state: “in a place called ‘Seacaucus’”, I said, separating the ‘sea’ from the ‘caucus’. “Oh, you mean ‘Seacaucus’” they said, putting weight on the ‘cauc’ but turning the sea into a ‘suh’. I did not mean that, actually, and was vindicated when Tak Tak - the gentleman so kind as to give me a place to sleep and a native of the town in contention - divided the sea and the caucus too. I felt, through this little victory, a stronger connection to the place.

You take a bus from a grotty little stop underneath Times Square (‘Port Authority’ bus station - though I don’t think it’s very near a port, and I would have thought that the people who administer the ports of New York probably work near the ports of New York), and it takes around twenty minutes to get to Seacaucus: it’s essentially countryside after the centre of Manhattan.

What’s striking, though, is that it is so close to Manhattan: it’s on a hill overlooking the NYC skyline (you can see the Empire State Building from almost any position), except you’re in a different state and there’s grass everywhere. This highlights the weird urban geography of the Big Apple: go that distance from the centre of London and you’ll be in, well, the centre of London. New York, however, extends east and doesn’t deign to dwell on the western shore of the Hudson. NY, NY only.

Despite its proximity to mania, Seacaucus feels very small town-y. You live in a wooden house that is painted a light colour. You have a lawn and you take your dog for a walk. They have a Starbucks, a pharmacy and a place to dunk one’s doughnuts, as it were. Apart from that, you have to get in a car and “hang out at the mall” as Americans do (NJ has no VAT on clothing so I managed to get some lovely, sturdy walking boots for less than thirty pounds!).

I stayed with Tak Tak, his Dad and his dog (Jackie-chan), the yelpiest little dog in the world (possibly). To no-one’s displeasure, Tak-Tak’s Dad took the presence of a guest as an excuse to gorge on red meat, so we went to a fantabulous Asian barbecue place called ‘Gyu-kaku’ (you can take the boy out of Japan) for some yaki-niku. I had left Seoul a handful of days earlier, so this was a welcome continuation of the meat binge I had started in Korea.

Japanese people often express naïve surprise that I “can” eat Japanese food. When they ask me how it is possible that I, as a westerner, “can” eat raw fish and grilled meat (of all the things in the world) I reply that I love Asian food because it is interactive (NB – this is an excellent way of wasting time in an English lesson: explain what ‘inter’ means, explain what ‘active’ means and get them to work out what interactive might mean (they’ll rarely have the balls to make a guess, though)). I love food that involves a bit of fannying about: put this sauce on here, sizzle this like that, put this in that, wrap it up and then ram it in your gob, &c. None of the boring, western, “here’s one plate with your – and only your – food; now shove it down your neck and get out” for me, thank you. This Gyu-kaku place has adopted, to some extent, the Asian way: the DIY way. It has been said that the USA is the land of tortious liability and so the experience of restaurant DIYBBQ is somewhat different on the other side of the Pacific, where the waiter does most of the setting up for you and instructs you on how long to cook the meat for (“please, [insert name – American waiters always seem to want to tell you their names], I’ve done this before, yeah?”, I want to say). In Korea, some gruff little old lady as good as slams the white hot coals on your lap and you had better be grateful, and eat the kimchee you have before asking for more. “You enjoy your meal now”. “Thanks, I will”.

In the few days I spent in Seacaucus, we did a surprising amount of driving and drank an unsurprising amount of coffee. I’m very grateful to all of the Nagayoshis (especially Jackie-chan) for their hospitality!
It was thence that we drove to DC! 

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Star-spangled Banter I – 大きいりんご

Keen to get out of Japan for a while and to see friends old and new, I decided to book a flight from Fukuoka to New York.

Full of excitement I flew from Fukuoka Airport to Narita in Tokyo, then into the rising sun towards the Americas. I flew with the superbly clean, efficient and friendly Japan Airlines and then the not-so-clean, not-so-efficient and not-so-friendly American Airlines.

The huge decline on the politeness index is the biggest and most immediately obvious contrast between Japan and the US. I remember coming to JFK two years for the finals of the Jessup competition (and more on them later). The arrivals hall was extremely incompetently administered and it took us over an hour to have our passports checked, the worst I’ve ever experienced. The same was true this time, but was compounded by extreme rudeness from the staff there. This is made all the worst by the fact that, as it’s airport security, you can hardly start arguing with people. One little woman in particular was extremely unpleasant: she had decided that you could not turn on your mobile phone in the arrival hall and enforced her rules with such outbursts as “You with the haircut! Turn that off!”, and by shouting in her very strong New York accent at groups of Japanese people who obviously could not understand what she was saying. When they did not immediately dance to her tune, she loudly bemoaned the fact that they “didn’t listen”, but then contradicted herself with the rhetorical question “why come to America if you don’t understand simple English?” If that’s your English love, call me Japanese.  

Despite the sourness of the staff and their incompetence, I eventually got through. A nostalgic trip on the subway took me to Shereen’s pad in Greenwich Village.

Obviously, Shereen being Shereen, she has found herself in the coolest possible situation: she shares an entire HOUSE in the centre of Manhattan with some extremely cool housemates. With some of the most glamourous places in the world just a walk away, I arrived at an extremely elegant welcome party. They have a little yard and, thanks to the lovely weather, we were able to have an outdoor dinner party. The menus, one of which I have pinned to my wall now, were headed ‘Casa Hardin’ after the newly moved in housemate whose arrival we were celebrating. For the first time in half a year I tasted drinkable wine, vegetables, and lovely lovely sweet food. The company, too, was charming and they gave me some fun suggestions for the next day.

Shereen was off to Louisiana the next day and so left me with the keys to the pad. Up early, I enjoyed the Manhattan sunshine and amused myself around Chelsea (including the spectacular ‘High-Line’: a former raised train line, now restored and made into a garden / walk way / jogging track which gives some lovely views of that bo-bo part of town, the meat packing district, and the East River), Union Square and Broadway. I walked through Chinatown and Little Italy and down to the financial district which is also, more interestingly, the legal district.

I met Tak Tak in Port Authority which is the bus station under Times Square. We took the bus to his part of New Jersey, the charming sounding ‘Seacaucus’ where I stayed with his family for the next few days. 

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Great Peace

Any regular readers that I have will know that I recently visited the United States. I shall write about that trip later (am still in the process of coming up with some dreadful pun as a title), but here I’d like to discuss my feelings on returning to Japan.

The winter in Japan was dreadful. It was freezing, of course, but it was an awful cold because it never let up; I found it impossible ever to get warm. This is partly my fault because I hadn’t realised (for the six months that I’d been here) that there are vents above the windows which had been left open; in essence, I had the windows open all winter. I suspect sometimes that I may have a form of seasonal affective disorder because my mood followed the thermometer in those months. I found it very very easy to get very very annoyed at what I would have called at the time (don’t ask me about now) the immense Japanese bullshit I witnessed everywhere: dormitory staff who think that because of their age they own you and have a right to invade your life; immense bureaucracy and accordingly inefficiency; people who don’t say what they mean but insist on hinting at it; sweeping statements about Japan, the Japanese and how extremely different they are from everyone else on the planet.

As the mercury has risen, my mood has too. The gentle warmth in the air makes it a pleasure to be outside, away from the dormitory staff and feelings of claustrophobia. Sun on skin makes smile.

The Japanese, and I, love the sakura (cherry blossoms) that explode like pale pink fireworks on every street and on each hill. Having a little party under the falling petals (a ‘hana-mi’ or ‘flower viewing’) is a great tradition. Often companies will send their most junior employees to nab a good sub-sakura spot (I’ve even heard stories of people being ordered to camp there overnight). There are many sakura in New York's Central Park. My students giggle when I tell them that the only people I say picnic-ing under them were Japanese.

I felt a great sense of calm flood over me when I landed back in Japan from America. The latter is an energetic country where every day can be a struggle against yourself and your fellow citizen, where boasting is acceptable if not encouraged, where you go big or go home. The former is the opposite. Interactions between people who don’t know each other well are almost scripted in Japan, and it felt very reassuring when, at the airport in Tokyo, I knew almost exactly what people would say to me and how they would interact. I smiled when we flew over Mt Fuji in all his majesty and, after the cabin crew announced his presence on our left, the passengers gave a great “eeeeeeee, sugoiiiiiiiii” as you knew they would.

In Japanese, the kanji for the Pacific mean “great peace ocean” (the beautiful sounding ‘dai-hei-yô’); crossing that ocean, I can perhaps see why. 

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Bite-sized Japanter - N°27

BSJ N°27 - Hip hop dancing has joined martial arts and the unicycle as compulsory activities in Japan's schools. It was already, however, popular in the school where I teach. One of the cooler kids caught on to saying "I am hip-hop" to express why he wasn't coming to the after school class. This has now stuck as our way of dividing the kids along coolness lines.

Bite-sized Japanter - N°26

BSJ N°26 - I have reason to believe that middle aged Japanese women love Korean boys. Empirically, it’s a fact. One of my employers has her school plastered in photos of one (very feminine looking) Korean pop star. One of my students told me about how she and her mother in law watched consecutive episodes of a Korean soap for thirteen hours straight because they fancied one of the stars. 

Bite-sized Japanter - N°25

BSJ N°25 - when babies get to one year old, the family organises a ceremony to determine his or her future. Baby is placed on a giant rice cake in front of which are placed various items that symbolize professions he or she might take up: a pen, lots of money, sporting equipment &c. The thing baby picks is supposed to be indicative of his or her future. 

Bite-sized Japanter - N°24

BSJ N°24 - by law, cameras in Japan must have that annoying shutter noise enabled. This rule was brought in to combat the problem Japan has, or at least has had, with perverts taking photos up unsuspecting skirts and the like.

Bite-sized Japanter - N°23

BSJ N°23 - I'm told that when they’re born, Asian babies have big blue spots on their bums which in Japanese are called ‘mongolian spots’. They disappear by the time they get to one or two, but some people never lose them. Who knew?!