Monday, March 10, 2008

Goodbye

Due to various complications in my life, I have decided that it would probably be best for me to stop blogging.

I want to thank all of the really kind and wonderful people who have taken the time to read and comment. I've developed quite an affection for some of you and seeing your names show up next to some comments always brightens my day. I'll still be reading the blogs of the nice folks who I met here so you'll still hear from me where you are doing your writing.

Thank you and all of my best to you.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Timing

Lately, I've noticed that my strongest impulse to make blog posts seems to come within 15 or fewer minutes of a lesson starting with one of my students. In fact, as I write this, I have a lesson 10 minutes away. This seems like a pretty absurd thing to have happen as it guarantees I won't be able to finish before the student shows up, so I've wondered what this is all about.

I'm a relatively nervous and compulsive person when it comes to preparation for a task and I tend to want to have all my ducks in a row (so to speak, no actual ducks are used in my lessons though it'd be a lot cooler if they were) long before the lessons are due to start. I'm guessing the timing of my posts being started is connected with the fact that I get the preparation out of the way and find that there is still a bit of time left. The mind starts tiptoeing through the tulips of my thought fragments and trips over one that hasn't been discussed yet and I sit at the keyboard and start working.

In my experience, creativity cannot occur unless one has periods of idleness. In fact, I've noticed that a lot of my blog pieces and my Carl pieces tend to gestate while I'm standing in the shower waiting for the conditioner to penetrate my hair. The fact that I can measure my idle moments in minutes rather than in hours (or half hours even) is slightly disturbing and something I believe I should attempt to rectify sooner rather than later.

The irony is that, as a "housewife" who works freelance and part-time, it'd seem that I should have a lot of free time, but it doesn't work that way. Being female and being in the house all day is an invitation to spending more time cleaning. Also, I suffer from something I'd term "Japanese housewife syndrome". This is when your household tasks take a lot more time because of the limits of living in a culture which makes labor saving of all sorts much more difficult because there's not enough demand for it in a culture where women are expected to use their "free" time for housework.

Additionally, there's something about being in a space a lot of the time (in addition to working in it) which makes me even more compulsive about keeping it clean and tidy than I otherwise might be...and I'm already pretty compulsive. So, time is being vacuumed up in large chunks by all the myriad of "little" things I need to get done and all the piecework I do leaving only the finest dusty fragments in the corner for me to spend on creative pursuits.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Rumble

Recently, I've been doing a lot of essay correction work for one of my students. This is relatively unusual as most lessons are spent actually speaking with one another rather than my staring down at a paper scribbling corrections in silence. During these corrections, it's so quiet that I can hear the clock tick.

As of late, my student's stomach has been loudly rumbling during these periods of quiet correction. While she's very embarrassed, I reassure her that it's not a problem at all and it happens to everyone. She feels obliged to tell me it's because she eats lunch just before coming over and I continue to tell her that it neither troubles nor offends me. In fact, I've become adept at ignoring all sorts of bodily noises after years in Japan including the sort which are accompanied by less than rosy odors. The human body doesn't obey the will of its owner, and this is more often so as you get older.

In an effort to hopefully make my student feel more at ease, I told her a story of an incident at my former job about 12 years ago. In addition to making textbooks, my former company made CDs of various types of content to accompany the books. For one of the books devoted to improving TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication) scores, my company decided it'd save some money by making a male coworker and I do the voice acting in the recording studio.

On the surface, voice acting may not seem like much of a chore, but it's actually quite difficult. Voice actors in Japan ask for anything between 10,000-25,000 yen an hour ($97-$242) (or at least they did at that time, rates may have changed by now). In fact, I believe the woman they hired for the Japanese voice acting chores may have been on the upper end of that range. Since my coworker and I were both North American (and therefore had the "right" accent for such work in the opinions of the Japanese), had reasonably nice voices, and, most importantly of all, were only being paid 2,000 yen ($19) an hour, we were pressed into service.

The sessions were held in a ramshackle studio in the armpit areas of Shinjuku. We sweat because using the air conditioning in the small, tightly-sealed space caused too much noise and would be picked up by the mics. What's worse, certain heavy traffic nearby would shake the room and the vibrations could be heard. It was hardly the ideal set-up for recording, but I'm guessing it had the same benefit that my coworker and I did. That is, it was cheap.

We would have to record for hours on end and we were not up to the task. Neither of us had any experience and there are certain "tricks of the trade" we weren't aware of like making sure you don't blow air out of your lips too strongly when you pronounce a "f" or a "p" sound as it'll make a strange noise on the recording. It also seemed that we never had enough "acting" skill and were both constantly told we sounded too "flat" and had to infuse our speaking about things like exchanging business cards or buying a pair of pants with more life and energy. They also expected us to time the pauses between dialogs and sentences by counting in our heads rather than offering us a watch, clock or timer, and I was always starting too fast or slow and being chastised for not waiting long enough. It was hard enough to focus on the script and not flubbing up or losing my place, not puffing out too much air on my "f's" and "p's" without having to silently count between each sentence.

After sitting in that small room for hours on end with the oxygen running out and the heat building up and being constantly criticized, it was rather difficult to build up much of an energetic vibe. Some sessions lasted 3-4 hours and we were pretty wrecked by the end of the first one. If all the various inadequacies of the soundproofing of the studio weren't enough to frustrate our progress, my coworker started to have serious empty stomach rumblings. They were so loud that the mics were clearly picking them up and we had to keep stopping and doing things over. Eventually, someone ran out and bought a bunch of bananas at a "Mom and Pop" fruit shop near the studio and he crammed a few down to try and quiet his disruptive digestive system.

After these experiences, I never wanted to set foot in a recording studio again and believe voice actors who are good at what they do deserve every yen of their high fees. Getting back to my student though, I told her this story mainly to let her know that it happens to everyone, and that it's clearly out of one's control. Even when you desperately need to stop it like in the situation we were in, there's nothing you can do.

The Dead Helping the Living

My friend Joseph over at "Tame Goes Wild" has been studying Japanese at university for the past several years. It's a staggering amount of work becoming fluent in Japanese and I really respect how hard he both tries to accomplish his goals and become a better person. He often uses his Japanese speech and presentation opportunities to discuss important social issues. He's a gentle, kind soul and I hope you'll all make his Daily Mumble a regular read. He'll inspire you to try to be a better person, too. Sometimes when things in life make me feel down and discouraged, reading about his efforts lift my spirits.

In today's post, Joseph mentioned some interesting facts about organ donation in Japan and I made a huge comment containing some information I was eventually going to get around to posting, but hadn't gotten there yet. Google sent up error messages each time I tried to send the comment (with an attractive hexadecimal code to send along so they'd know what went wrong). I figured I'd try and salvage the (potentially) lost comment and just make the post I was going to make anyway.

A very long time ago, there was a legal drama called "L.A. Law" by David E. Kelly. This is the same man who currently makes the television drama/comedy "Boston Legal" and previously made the (abysmal in my opinion) "Ally McBeal" and (brilliant, again in my opinion) "The Practice". One of the things Kelly does in a lot of his legal shows is use real life cases as fodder for the dramatic situations on his shows. One of the memorable cases on L.A. Law was about a friend of one of the attorney's on the show who needed an organ donation or she would die. She was on a waiting list, but a 50 something Japanese man was being given the next available donation because he had paid a lavish sum of money for the privilege. The attorney argued about the ethics (or lack thereof) of allowing financial capability to determine who gets organs rather than need and how this created a situation where the rich and privileged received disproportionately better care. The way this worked, by the way, was that the donor was bribed to offer their organs to the highest bidder. She lost the case and ended up paying a bribe to another donor in order to keep her friend alive despite her own disapproval of this practice and that of her colleagues.

The reason this little drama was written into the show is that this is exactly what happens when many Japanese people need organ donations. As Joseph's statistics show, a staggeringly low number of Japanese people are willing to donate organs despite the fact that a very high percentage claim to approve of them. It is clear that they approve of them as recipients, not as donors themselves and to this day it's common for Japanese people who need organs to go abroad and pay big money to get them.

If you think I'm wagging a finger or criticizing the Japanese, you'd be wrong. While the imbalance is obvious (they're receiving and not giving), there are cultural reasons for their reluctance to donate organs and, despite cases where people can pay for the organs they get abroad, I'm sure that there are far more cases where people die in need of organs. In the end, they only harm themselves, and it's not really about fault but about belief systems which they have grown up with and a medical system which gives power to the families rather than respecting the wishes of the deceased.

My husband and I have discussed the topic of organ donation many, many times with students as there's a lesson on it in one of the textbooks both of us use (Impact Issues) about the topic. There's a cultural reason for the Japanese not donating organs (likely based in Buddhism according to my students). They do not believe the body should be cut into after death and feel the removal of any parts inhibits their ability to reach heaven. As it was explained to me, they have to cross a river after death and not being intact makes it hard to do so. In fact, I recall a gruesome murder case awhile back where a little girl was murdered and her hands were cut off by the killer and the comment the mother made to the paper was something like 'how can my little girl get to heaven without her hands?'

While Japanese people are not religious, they can be superstitious and also become more spiritually minded as they get older (as do most people). They may not exactly believe in their faiths, but they figure it's better to be safe than sorry, especially about the afterlife. They're not the only ones who feel this way. Some people who are raised as Christians and abandon their faith will still baptize their children "just in case". The fears and ideas you are indoctrinated in can be very strong and it's something all cultures share, not just the Japanese.

The other problem is that organ donation doesn't only come down to what the person who died wanted. If an individual signs up for organ donation and his family decides they don't want him to donate his organs, they can cancel his request, so even open-minded, "fearless" people who go against the grain of their cultural beliefs can be trumped out of making donations after death by a family who is uncomfortable with the idea of organ donation. Given cultural notions about cutting up the body after death, I have to imagine that most families would opt not to allow for donations.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

The Temporary Shuffle

When I first started working full-time at my former company (a Japanese office job that involved textbook making as well as teaching via correspondence), I was informed through indirect channels that the president had a policy with the foreign employees which was essentially "three years and you're out." At the time, I thought this was a plan built around the idea that they'd have to pay us more if we stayed around too long or a frivolous desire for fresh blood. To this day, I can't be sure that that wasn't the case, but something I learned about working in Japan awhile back has made me reconsider my original thinking.

The lion's share of Japanese employees can be roughly divided into two categories. First, there are salaried employees who have all the benefits that one would expect. They get twice yearly bonuses, salary raises each year, the possibility to be promoted, health insurance payments are subsidized by the company, and there is the possibility of a company pension and a housing allowance. Salaried workers are also hard to fire and have better job security. On the down side, they often live the classic life of the overworked in Japan and work overtime, particularly if they are male. These days, overtime is often paid though most employees generally don't claim all the hours they work and are in fact told not to claim more than a certain amount of overtime hours no matter how much they work.

The other class of workers are "temporary" workers. In the U.S., a temp. usually means a person who is relatively short-term and whose work at a particular location is measured in months. In Japan, it essentially means a contract employee who works according to the terms of a one-year contract which may or may not be renewed at the end of the year. The hope tends to be that the employee will renew though rather than they won't be renewed. Of course, at times, the contract employees don't make it past a probationary period, but the same sometimes happens with salaried workers who don't work out.

In contrast to salaried workers, contract (or "temporary") workers don't get a company pension, their insurance isn't augmented in many cases, and usually don't get bonuses or tend to get smaller or less frequent ones. I've never known one to get subsidized housing or company housing. Generally speaking, a lot of contract employees are female and single or married and working to augment the family income until they decide to have children. That's not to say there are no male contract workers, but just the vast majority are female. The benefits of being a contract employee are that every hour must be paid so there's no unpaid overtime and the hourly wages tend to be a bit higher than salaried workers when you don't factor in bonus payments. Also, the responsibilities of such employees are often spelled out in their contracts so work can't be heaped on them in some cases.

Something I learned within the last year or so about contract employees, of which I was one at my former company, is that there is a law in Japan which says that such employees can only serve three years at their current position and then, by law, must be offered a chance to be a salaried worker. Of course, the companies can simply not renew the contracts of such workers after the third year, but generally, they would prefer to keep experienced workers. You can see why I started to question my conclusions about the "three years and you're out" rule for foreign employees at my former company. It's possible they were trying to adhere to the law in this regard.

I can only speculate as to the motivation behind such a law. If I had to guess, I'd think it has to do with making sure people who are good and well-suited to a job have security and are rewarded for their efforts to apply themselves to a job. While I'm generally cynical about the laws made to protect employees, I can't see how this one necessarily benefits employers since they view contract employees as being cheaper to employ than salaried workers. In fact, one of my students recently told me that she was concerned because her type of work was almost entirely populated by this class of worker and she was afraid that, as a rare salaried employee working as support staff, she'd be forced to take a different job or accept a change in her status which would carry a lower wage and none of the benefits she currently enjoys.

More recently, I've learned that companies are finding loopholes in this law. They are circumventing the nature of it by shuffling contract employees to different sections. Apparently, the law only says that you must be offered a salaried position only if you're staying on for a fourth year in the same position. If this sounds like a bit of a sneaky way of avoiding hiring people on in better positions, I regret to say that it gets even worse. Some companies are not satisfied to shuffle such workers to avoid offering them better jobs in accord with the law. They weasel out of compliance by leaving the employees in the same position doing the same job, but rename the section so it appears as though they have been transferred.

Apparently, there has been a court case recently which directly relates to the attempts on the part of some companies to get around the law and Canon has been on the hot seat for having done this. It's relatively rare though that an employee stands up for his or her rights though so I doubt that any sort of precedent will be set even if Canon should lose. Also, the truth is that a lot of contract workers prefer to stay where they are and refuse salaried positions when they are offered. This is probably because the biggest benefit of being such a worker as compared to a salaried worker is that you can walk away with far less guilt and with no sense of "betrayal" of company loyalty as such loyalty is not expected from them.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Better Late Than Never (RSS)

The Google Reader RSS interface

As late as 1974, my paternal grandfather still had a black and white television. He told me that he thought color was bad for your eyes and he didn’t think anyone needed a color T.V. I remember thinking that he was stuck in his ways and old-fashioned. I felt he was just reluctant to move with the times, even when technology was much improved. I’m not sure that he every had a color T.V., but I didn’t visit my grandparents to watch television anyway. He was a kind and wonderful man who I loved and still miss to this day.

Fast forward to the present where I have inherited my grandfather’s attitude except that my stubbornness applies to cell phones. I have a land line which my husband and I forked over about $500 for the privilege of owning when we first came to Japan and it serves us quite sufficiently. While there are times when it seems it wouldn’t be bad to have a cell phone, it seems like a pointless luxury and an invitation to have our privacy invaded more frequently. Frankly, I don’t want to be accessible all the time.

One of the dubious benefits of age appears to be that you make the transition to wanting the best of what is currently available to being satisfied with what merely works at a level which meets you most basic needs. I’m not sure when this tends to occur for most people, but it hit me around 35 or so. I guess that the loss of desire to acquire new items for the sake of new functionality which you technically do not need but rather simply want is one of the reasons why the target demographic for most advertisers is so young.

Around the same time that I lost nearly all of my materialistic impulses, I also seem to have stopped enjoying upgrading my computer for the sake of having the newest thing with the shiniest operating system. I also stopped enjoying tweaking the interface and buying new software. If what I have installed is working, I’m content to leave well enough alone now. I used to actually look forward to backing up all my data, wiping out the hard drive and installing a nice, fresh, new system and apps any time I experienced some instability. Now, I approach the thought with dread over the time it’d take and having to dig out all my installation discs.

Because of this reluctance, I’ve avoided switching from using bookmarks for web sites to using RSS. For those who are even further behind than I (all 2 or 3 of you), I’ll mention that RSS is a way of tracking when sites update so that you don’t have to load a web page every day just in case they updated. An RSS reader will notify you when sites update and you can either read them in whole or part inside the reader or go to the site yourself.

In my case, I went with Google Reader because I’m too lazy to look anywhere else and my sister told me that’s what she used. It’s pretty easy to set up, but quite time consuming initially. Once you've subscribed to all the sites you want to track, you're set and it's going to end up saving you time. It's mainly useful for someone who reads sites which are sporadically updated rather than someone who reads big ticket sites that are updated faithfully every day. In other words, it's custom made for someone who follows a lot of personal blogs like me.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Vegetarianism and Eggplants

That looks like a lot more cheese than it really was.

When you live in a rural area, seasonal food means food that is in season in your area or in areas not too far from you. Living in a metropolitan area, where you have far greater access to food from all over the world, means that you see food that is in season someplace else on the globe. If I see a ton of cheap avocados, it means they're in season in Mexico or Puerto Rico, not Japan.

I'm not sure where most of the eggplants in Tokyo are coming from, but recent shopping trips would seem to indicate that they're in season somewhere. They're cheaper than usual and plentiful. To be honest, I'm not a serious eggplant fan, though I do enjoy them on occasion and in moderation. The only vegetarian lasagna I ever made (for a friend who didn't eat meat) was made with eggplant and it turned out extremely well.

This particular friend worked several "busy seasons" as a temp. at my former office and was one of the few people aside from myself who brought her own lunch. She likely had little choice because vegetarian options are painfully limited in Japan. Even when you ask and are told there's no meat in something, there is often some sort of meat in it. It seems that the question is often interpreted by the Japanese to mean, "are there big hunks of meat in it". They'll tell you there's no meat in the dish if it's something which has minced meat in small quantities or meat broth. The notion of being a vegetarian is relatively alien in Japan. I do several lessons where I talk about food with students and the idea of giving up meat sounds incredibly odd to them. Invariably, they see the option as being one based in health benefits rather than ecological ones or philosophical beliefs.

A rare site in Tokyo, a vegan restaurant. It's not so rare as it once was, but it's still pretty rare.

Getting back to this former co-worker though, it was often the case that I'd ask this particular friend what she'd brought for lunch and one day she said "aubergine stew". Since my second language was not French (it was Spanish) and Americans rarely say "aubergine", I asked what that was to which my (Australian) boss replied that it was what snooty people called "eggplant." He was just kidding, of course. She wasn't the least bit snooty, and fortunately was a good sport.

All those bags full of eggplants in the shops and some serious boredom with my usual lunchtime options inspired me to pick up a bag of small ones and try to put them to use. The result is something which is pretty simple and I mainly mention it in my blog to inspire others to consider enjoying the same thing, not because it's an uncommon combination.

This recipe has the virtue of being very cheap and fast. I had an hour before a lesson and watched the clock while I made it. The "hard part" takes about 6 minutes with a further 5 minutes or so in the toaster oven.

Open-face Eggplant Sandwich:
  • 1 small eggplant
  • 1 tbsp. all-purpose flour
  • salt, pepper, garlic powder to taste (I used 1/2 tsp. salt, 1/4 tsp. pepper, and 1/2 tsp. garlic powder)
  • olive oil as needed for frying
  • 1/2 tomato (sliced)
  • cheese as desired (Japanese natural "mixed" cheese is fine)
  • French bread (or any other type of crusty bread)
Slice the eggplant into about 8-10 discs of about 1/2 inch (or a bit less). Place the flour, salt, pepper, and garlic into a small bag (or a shallow bowl) and mix. Place the eggplant slices in the bag and shake to coat. They should be a bit moist and the flour will stick, but if they are dry, you may need to give them a rinse and shake off the excess water to get the flour mixture to adhere to them. Heat a small skillet over medium flame and add about a tablespoon or so of olive oil. Fry the eggplant slices in the oil until they are browned on one side then turn them over and brown the other side. You may need to add more olive oil to the pan when you turn over the eggplant as it will absorb the oil.

While the eggplant is cooking, cut off a 5 inch section of French bread and slice it in half length-wise. Trim the top and bottom if necessary to make them sit flatter on the toaster oven tray. If the bread is tilted, the cheese will run off as it melts.
Place the bread slices on the tray and put 4 or 5 cooked slices of eggplant on each piece. Top with slices of tomato. Season the tomato with salt then sprinkle the tops with cheese. It's tidier if you heap the cheese in the center so that it doesn't melt off the edges when you toast it. Toast (or broil) the sandwich until the cheese melts.

Note that it's very important to salt the tomato before adding the cheese or it'll taste rather bland and it doesn't work quite so well if you salt the cheese when the sandwich is done. Also, the topping for this sandwich is very soft so it's extremely important to use some good bread with heft and firmness.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

(Quite) A Few Words for the Haymakers

For several years, I was part of an on-line (Usenet) community for a particular on-line multiplayer game. I started off as an outsider in an established community of players and gradually became better known. I went from being a little fish in a little pond to being a big fish in a little pond. On the surface, the attention and “status” (irrelevant and meaningless as it may have been) were rewarding. My posts and ideas got plenty of replies, people wanted to give me things in games and play in games with me. I also made a very treasured friend who I regularly keep in touch with to this day (about 7 years after we met in this group).

The flip-side to all of this attention and “celebrity” status was that for every 10 people who were happy to talk to you and liked you, there was a person who decided he or she had a problem with you. In the case of this particular Usenet community, there was a woman who felt that, as the high-ranking female of a group mainly comprised of males, my rising “status” was a threat to her position as queen bee. There was also a man who grew quietly and increasingly offended because I never responded to his particular posts and took to responding to me in a passive aggressive manner at every turn in retaliation for the slight he imagined was at work. The truth was that there were a lot of people I never replied to since the group was very active and not every topic thread interested me or was something about which I felt compelled to comment. And there were some other folks who loved nothing more than to take what I said and pretend I said something else or implied something I did not so that they’d have an excuse to attack me and my position.

The last group of people were the most maddening because they were so persistent in their efforts to argue with distortions of my posts rather than what was actually said. Such folks were expert at taking things out of context and setting up straw men so they could conveniently knock them down. They could argue for weeks if you gave them the attention they wanted. As time went by, I found myself having to killfile (that is, set my reader software so I didn’t even see these people’s posts) more and more to avoid these people. The problem with being a big fish in a little pond was that it made you a juicier target for aspiring little fish.

The problem for me at the time was that I needed this group as a social outlet. I was working in almost complete isolation much of the time in a job which was very repetitive for long stretches of time. I was also at a point where all of my friends had already left Japan and my lack of time and small number of coworkers made it virtually impossible to expand my social network. I was likely addicted to the group and found it very hard to walk away despite the increasing amount of frustration I felt over the drama and personal and unprovoked attacks.

The thing that finally set me free was that I had lost interest in the game and I had an intense aversion to hanging around the group when I had nothing to say about the topic the group was formed around. I had witnessed a lot of people who hung around making pointless (and often witless and boring) contributions because they couldn’t leave and vowed not to become one of them. I walked away and I did it without making any big proclamations about my departure as I didn’t want to invite people to beg me to stay (as it was something I’d seen others do and detested as well). I actually felt withdrawal for awhile, but I got over it and, as time went by, I felt better about not being in a social dynamic full of people with issues that they were acting out on by projecting their fantasies, illusions, aggressions and imagination on me (and other prominent group members).

Why am I writing about this here? If it hasn’t become obvious already, it’s because I’ve discovered that the problems I experienced in the Usenet community are little different from those in blog communities. It seems pandemic in all tendrils of the beast that is the internet that there will be people who can’t help but be competitive, argumentative, or delight in nothing more than arguing with distortions of what you say rather than what you actually say. Apparently, I was at the center of some brouhaha that I missed entirely because I hadn’t been reading various blogs lately (and I never do trackbacks). At the heart of this was a controversy over the Charisma Man post and a lot of people either never read what I said or had a complete inability to read what I said. Somehow, a complex post was distilled down into some distorted conclusions. One big conclusion some people seemed to make was that the post was omindirectional and pasted the "Charisma Man" label on any male who was dating or interested in Japanese women when it certainly was not (and it was made clear in more ways than one in the post but, hey, why read what I said when you can get upset about something I didn't say). Apparently, some felt my writing was an indication that Western women were bitter that Western men in Japan didn’t want them. The irony is, of course, that the whole concept of a “Charisma Man” (which I didn’t invent and predates my post by decades) is that these are men Western women find unappealing. They wouldn’t want them if they offered themselves. It also apparently got simplified into my saying that men who wanted to practice Japanese or date Japanese girls were tagged as “Charisma Men”.

I’m forced to wonder if I’m starting to see a repeat of my past from my Usenet days and it’s not something I’m keen to put up with. If there are bloggers out there who read my blog and have nothing better to do than invent some sort of adversarial drama to draw attention to themselves or to drum up content when they have nothing of their own to say, then I’m not sure that I want to be the focus of their distortion and projections. Perhaps all these folks who have nothing to post about and feel the need to piggyback on my content and make hay by pretending I’m saying something I’m not should reconsider whether they have anything unique and meaningful to offer as bloggers.

Make the World a Better Place (and you a better person)

Before any of my readers are mislead into thinking this is going to be a list of well-worn "dos" and "don'ts", let me say that that's not the way my mind works. I don't think people need hear more about giving money to the poor, meals to the elderly, or to pick up trash. There are more than enough public service announcements and non-profit agencies encouraging such acts. My suggestions are about improving you and by association, making the world a better one that you will be happier living in.

1. Mind you own business.

When you see that fat guy chowing down on a piece of cake, remember that what he eats has nothing to do with you. When you see that woman wearing lot of makeup and tight dresses, remember that her fashion sense has nothing to do with you. Either as part of "human nature", self-centeredness, or as part of our socialization, we make a myriad of little judgments of strangers everyday. With a glance, we size them up, judge their choices, and reach conclusions. When challenged about how it's our business, we invent an elaborate chain of connections that smugly allow us to conclude that their behavior harms us because it harms society as a whole as a way of justifying our stance.

When we do this, we trivialize people and distill them into mere results of their choices rather than see them as people who, like us and those we love, have multi-faceted characters, feelings, and needs. In doing so, we are attempting to elevate ourselves and diminish them. We're also appointing ourselves the authority on what is right, best, or acceptable. The actions of others don't lead back to you unless they are acting upon you. You wouldn't want someone doing this to you, so try hard not to do it to them. When you catch yourself doing this, try to stop yourself in mid-judge and break this pattern.

2. Don't act out of selfishness (or anger at the selfishness of others).

Most of the acts of discourtesy that one experiences in public spaces are the result of one person acting selfishly in a competitive situation and then the other retaliating. From pushing for a seat on the subway to stealing a parking space to rushing to get in front of someone who is about to get in line before you, these acts are putting your needs before the needs of someone else. It's taking away from them because you've decided you're more entitled. Sometimes, that entitlement is justified by fatigue, frustration, or the idea that 'everyone does it'. If you don't do it, then that's one less 'everyone' who does it.

When someone does one of these things to you, try not to be hostile as it serves no purpose other than to prove that you cannot control your emotions and are taking the low road in a power struggle you feel you have just lost. You're not going to "teach someone a lesson" and have them stop doing it in the future. People who do these things know what they're doing (just as you do when you do it) and it makes them feel smaller inside and they put up an angry defensive posture. Even in a victory of scoring that last parking space in front of the shop, that person feels defensive knowing that their pettiness may invite a confrontation. Remember that not acting on your frustration is a bigger battle won over your temper and worse impulses, than winning some petty one-off competition for a social benefit.

3. Don't consume or talk about entertainment that feeds off the misery of others.

Everyone complains about celebrity gossip and reality T.V. Both of these types of "entertainment" are offered by the bottom feeders of media who hope to draw in an audience of bored people filling their lives with empty information about the lives of famous folks. This type of content takes little creativity to produce, contains no deep, high, or subtle messages or stories, and panders to a need to judge others in order to feel better about someone else. Some of them are the equivalent of bread and circuses. Anything you consume which has a voyeuristic element reflects an emptiness in your life which you're trying to fill with the more exciting or titillating lives of others.

If you want these things to go away, avoid consuming them at all costs and don't complain about them. When you complain about them, you are giving them free publicity and driving interest up for such content. In fact, complaining about the excessive coverage of the celebrity of the moment tends to drive folks to that coverage to see what you're on about.

Similarly, don't get your jollies from reading about the stupidity, misfortune or carelessness of others. Enjoying mean-spirited humor like the Darwin Awards or making fun of others for actions you think are "stupid" reflects your insecurity and anger. You should be feeding your needs to improve your self-esteem in ways which are lasting and positive rather than doing so at the expense of others.

4. Stop justifying your bigotry.

No one believes he or she is a bigot because bigots are "bad" people. People believe their belief that all Americans are rude or all Christians are intolerant fanatics are justified by the behavior they read about. If you read a story by way of Digg about how a little boy was denied access to a Christmas party because he didn't believe in Jesus and smugly shake your head as you reinforce your certainty that Christians are hypocrites, you've entered the bigot club. The very essence of prejudice is using anecdotal or isolated experiences to justify a negative set belief and not allowing other anecdotes or a vast array of contrary information to dissuade you, or worse yet, to form an opinion based on anecdotes without looking deeper into the situation. Thousands of Christians may be doing missionary or charity work and express tolerance, but their behavior is off the radar for those who are determined to justify their prejudices.

What's more, it's not OK to hate a group of people just because they aren't oppressed. Hate is hate and it's bad for you and it's bad for your relationship with the world. It also infects all your interactions with people and warps your digestion of information. You're encouraging yourself to become a person with a highly-distorted world-view just to prop up your bigotry. You won't even know it, but you'll end up being one of those people no one wants to interact with and who makes others uncomfortable. The world could use fewer of these sorts of folks, don't you think? Why not start with not becoming one yourself.

5. Use honesty wisely and kindly.

There are always going to be times when we can't be honest because it could be detrimental to our jobs or our relationships. Honesty isn't a license to be a jerk or to abandon the white lies that smooth over social encounters and being honest all the time doesn't make you "strong" or prove your ego is durable enough to withstand the disapproval of others in the face of your blunt honesty. Honesty which serves your desires and in no way helps the object of your candor makes you insensitive and rude. If you go to dinner and the hostess's cooking isn't to your liking, you don't tell her you didn't like it. Unless you have a close relationship with her where such candor is acceptable, you offer a white lie to spare her feelings. This sort of lie does no damage to you and it protects her from damage. That is not to say you should pretend you loved the food either, but rather that you be gracious for the social opportunity and the effort.

On the other hand, sometimes people lie even when they seriously don't want to do something or like something. They are asked to do tasks they don't want to do, but pretend it's not a problem for them to do it. They fill themselves with anxiety or get mad at having even been asked to do such things and often ultimately build resentment toward the person who put them in that position. Be honest when it means something to you even if it's difficult for you to do so. If you don't, you misshape the relationships around you and mislead others in terms of their expectations of you.

6. Know when to care and when it's best not to.

It's interesting how many people make a big deal out of their latte not having enough foam or too much foam. They get worked up and charge up to the counter to complain. There's this tiny little insignificant thing which they use an excuse to spread negativity to another person. Sometimes they'll even go so far as to get people in trouble with their bosses because some small thing doesn't suit them. This is the life in nations where ordinary citizens live the life of kings and queens in past centuries. Whims must be anticipated and the smallest of expectations must be met, or there is hell to pay.

Getting worked up about such minutiae is not only harmful to the object of your ire as it starts to build up a hostile resentment toward the customer that will be transferred to other customers and sets off a chain reaction of negativity, but is also bad for the angry party. Every time you invest thought and energy into being angry about tiny little things that don't go your way, you reinforce a pathway in your mind to being angry about such small things. It's one thing to get upset by people treating you poorly or very shoddy work when you pay for a service of goods, but it's quite another to get worked up over small things which are accidents or simply not a reflection of the way you personally believe things should be.

Ask yourself what sort of world we'd live in if everyone followed my advice above. While not everyone will, it has to start with someone and, if not you, then who? If you want to live in a world with people who behave in a more civilized fashion, the changes need to start with you.

If anyone thinks I'm elevating myself as being high-minded and above everyone in giving out this advice, please keep in mind that there's not one point on this list that I don't struggle with myself. I'm not perfect, and I know I never will be, but I do believe we can all live in a better world if we try to fight our worst thoughts and impulses. That's really all we can ask of ourselves.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Time to File 2008


It's time for U.S. residents residing in Japan to file their income tax forms. If you've filed before, you should have already been mailed a packet with forms. If you haven't gotten those forms, you can find them on-line or contact the U.S. Embassy. Remember, even if you don't have to pay, you have to file. If you don't, it can complicate your tax situation when you return to the United States.

I strongly recommend you keep a copy of each year's completed forms around so you can use them to guide you next year. The forms rarely change or change very little and you can pretty much follow what you did last year to speed up the process of filing greatly.

A few key points to keep in mind this year:
  • You must use the average exchange rate when converting your yen earnings to dollars rather than a current daily rate. The average as of January 2008 was 107.82 yen to the dollar according to the U.S. Federal Reserve.
  • The amount of money you can earn and still be exempt from paying U.S. taxes was raised to $85,700 (as compared to $82,400 last year).
  • It's a good idea to send the I.R.S. copies of your Japanese tax statements rather than the original forms with a Japanese stamp. The I.R.S. does not require the originals and you may need them for filing your income taxes in Japan and for immigration. Japanese authorities often will not accept photocopies of these forms.
  • Don't forget to include any taxable interest on savings accounts you may have back in the United States. If you aren't sent the forms, see if you can access them via on-line banking or have someone at home send them to you.
  • You must file separate 2555-EZ Foreign Earned Income Exclusion forms for each member of your household who worked in 2007 who earned less than $85,700.
  • Though the U.S. deadline for filing this year is April 17, the deadline for those residing abroad is automatically extended to June 15, so you have a bit longer to file.
I posted more exhaustively on this last year if you'd like more information. And again, I issue the disclaimer that I'm not a tax expert and only offering a layman's viewpoint. You should check the facts with the I.R.S.

The Dating Game

You can get your own octopus dumpling cell phone strap from Strap-ya (image pinched from their web site here).


Despite the fact that only 2 of my current crop of 11 students are married, very few of them date. Some of them are a bit mature for dating, but several are certainly young enough and sufficiently attractive to consider playing the field. All of the single women say they want to marry and have children some day except one, so it's not like they're disinterested in finding a future mate.

Dating in Japan is rather difficult if people can't find someone they like in their offices since men typically work long hours and socializing outside your immediate circle is difficult. It's one of the reasons various forms of "arranged" meetings still go on. One of the most common is called a "go kon" where 5 men and 5 women meet and socialize in what can be considered a "group date" of sorts. Usually, there is at least one member of each group who know a member of the group of the opposite sex and they arrange to bring everyone together. Some of my students have gone on these meetings at bars or restaurants, but none have been successful in finding someone they liked. My husband has had a few students who have met their mates via these 10-person "dates", so they can be helpful in expanding your horizons when it comes to finding a mate.

Given how rarely my students date, I don't tend to hear much about that side of Japanese life, but one of my students told me today about an experience she had on a one-to-one date. The situation was somewhat complicated by the fact that she wasn't aware that this was actually going to be a true "date" until she started interacting with the fellow. She thought this was an old high school friend (who now happened to attend the same university as her) meeting up for a chat. I would say this is the sort of wackiness that ensues in a culture where ambiguity is a common part of communication, but I'm not so sure this doesn't happen in other cultures as well.

The date in her estimation, was a serious close encounter with a dork. She told me that he was "not a gentleman". I didn't tell her that the implications of this in Western culture could range from his not holding the door open for her as they entered the restaurant to his attempting to surreptitiously probe the contents of her bra, but rather I asked her what that meant in Japan. She told me that it was traditional on dates for men to pay for the meal (or at least offer to do so), but he said they should go Dutch. Not only did he say each should pay his and her own way, but also he out-drank her by a fair margin and made her foot 50% of the bill. Those who live in Japan know that booze is where the lion's share of the cash is spent in a meal and you can seriously influence a tab's total with copious imbibing.

Beyond his profligate drinking partially on her dime and ungallant assertion that they split the bill for a meal he invited her to partake of with him, she said he assumed a presumptive posture by using a very informal form of Japanese for "you" (omae) when speaking with her which she believed should not be used given their level of intimacy at that time. She told me she felt using it indicated he already considered her his "girl".

He did make one gesture which could have been romantic, but, at least in her estimation, he botched it as well. A little gift was proffered as part of the date, a cell phone strap. When I asked her if she liked it, she screwed up her face like she'd just smelled something bad and said, "no!" The strap apparently had a plastic bit of takoyaki (octopus "dumpling") as the ornament on it. She told me that this gift demonstrated to her that he had no idea what women liked and that she passed the distasteful object on to her mother.

Despite the not uncommon unclear communication between Japanese folks, this fellow overtly "confessed" to her that he desired her as a romantic partner and asked that she not go to America to attend university for a year as planned. Considering he had all of one date under his belt, this was more than a little presumptuous. My student didn't respond to his declaration of "like" for her, but later decided to e-mail him and say just one thing, "I'm sorry." She told me this was all it took to let him know that she was rejecting him and, despite the ambiguity of the message in English, he'd get the message loud and clear in Japanese.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

So, I'm the Noisy Neighbor?

On a daily basis, I hear my upstairs neighbors going about the business of their daily life. I hear them dropping things, slamming doors, and seemingly tapping on the floor for no particular reason. On a few occasions, I've heard what sounds like someone tripping and falling like a dead weight onto the floor. Strangely though, I never hear any tenant's television, radio or telephone, so clearly only percussive sounds carry through the floor.

Part of living in a less than perfectly sound-proofed apartment is that these things are going to happen. I don't get mad at my neighbors or try to get them to quiet down. I also don't run off and complain to the landlord about it, though I have had to complain about former neighbors who threw dirty water onto their balcony and let it drip down onto my clean laundry that was hanging out to dry. Please note that I live in a 6-unit building (3 on top, 3 on the bottom) and I've only ever had Japanese neighbors. I know they're Japanese because it's the custom for new tenants to introduce themselves to nearby tenants in the same building upon moving in.

At any rate, I put up with daily thumping and banging and I don't moan or whine about it. About a month ago, between 9:00-9:30 pm, I was preparing dinner. On this particular occasion, I was making a chicken dish which required me to pound chicken breasts flat with a mallet. It probably takes about a minute to get each one to the desired thinness. Shortly after I started beating on the third breast, my neighbors started aggressively beating on the floor to let me know how bothersome I was being to them with my noise-making.

The implement of my evil noise-making, a rubber mallet, was actually a gag gift from a former co-worker who told me I could use it to beat some of my coworkers when I was frustrated. Little did he know I had more legal (thought certainly not more pragmatic) applications for his gift.

Not having much of a choice, I continued with dinner preparations and was treated to another round of listening to my annoyed neighbors beating on the floor. While I understand that it was probably no fun for them to endure 4 (separate) minutes of me pounding on something, keep in mind they weren't sitting in my living room (and it wasn't late at night). They are above me so there's a floor and some distance between us. Also, this was the pot calling the kettle black. I don't know what is up with their tapping, but it happens at least once a week for prolonged periods of time. It's like they're hanging hundreds of tiny picture frames on their walls one at a time.

This incident reminded me of something I've mentioned to my husband on more than one occasion while listening to my neighbors do routine things which cause us to hear lots of banging and thumping. I'm glad we're on the first floor. If my using that mallet bunched their tighty-whities, I can only imagine what walking around, dropping stuff accidentally and closing sliding doors would do to them.

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The chicken dish that I made is probably one of which many folks have a version, but I'm going to give my recipe for it nonetheless. It's very good fresh because the bacon gets a bit crispy, but is also good as leftovers. Note that my husband and I make it with American bacon which is saltier and smokier than Japanese bacon. My husband picks up about a four or so 1-lb. packages of Farmer John brand American bacon when he goes to Costco and they last us about 3-4 months. It can probably be made with Japanese bacon, but the taste will be a bit different.

This dish is one of the few things I can make with chicken breast meat which my husband likes. Not only can you never go wrong with anything which is wrapped in bacon, but beating on it to flatten it out makes the chicken nice and tender. I will not be held responsible though if your neighbors complain when you make it. ;-)

Bacon-wrapped Chicken Breasts:
  • 4 skinless, boneless chicken breast halves
  • 1/2 pound/227 grams bacon (about 8 pieces) cut in half
  • ~4 oz./113 grams mild cheese (I used Gouda or Mozzarella) cut into small chunks (about 1/2 inch or 1.27 cm)
  • 8 tbsp. all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp. garlic powder
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 tsp. pepper

The breast on the upper right was the first one. Notice how nice and smooth it looks. They are placed in counter-clockwise order and you can see that my work got shoddier as I progressed. The last one is a mangled lump.

Grease a baking dish and set aside. Sandwich a chicken breast between two pieces of plastic wrap and pound with a mallet until about 1/4 inch/.6 cm thick. Try not to beat it until it tears. Leave it a little thicker rather than thinner if necessary. Mix the flour and spices together in a large, shallow bowl. Rinse one chicken piece at a time and thoroughly shake off the excess water. Dredge a damp breast on both sides in the flour shaking off the excess. Place a piece of cheese in the center and fold the short side in first then the long side. Try to enclose the cheese entirely in the breast. This should form a ball that is closed on the bottom. If it doesn't hold together, secure the ends with toothpicks though be very careful to remove them before eating. Place each completed breast in the baking dish.


Place the half strips of bacon over the tops of the chicken to cover. Covering it will keep the breasts moist through the baking process. Cover the dish with plastic wrap and refrigerate for one hour (or more). Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees F./175 degrees C. Bake the chicken (uncovered) for 50-60 minutes or until juices run clear and chicken is cooked through. This makes 6-8 servings depending on your appetite.


For my husband and I, half of one of these along with about 4 oz. (125 gr.) of rice and a vegetable makes a very nice meal, so it's not quite as evil as it may seem from a fat point of view. Half of one is about 2.5 oz. (70 g.) of chicken, 1 slice of bacon and .5 oz. (14 g.) of cheese. Most of the fat will cook out of the bacon and pool at the bottom of the baking dish so I recommend removing the breasts immediately rather than waiting until they get cold.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Cross-Cultural Attention Needs

My previous post was a caveat for the answer I'm about to give to this question that I was asked in the comments section of a former post:

"NINPO said...

Hello Shari,

I enjoyed reading your blog. I am a Japanese male living in Japan who had some experiences overseas. I'd like to state that its the social dating expectation that guys react to. When I was in Canada I would usually say the jokes that girls wanted to hear and be gentle and all that. Its because the dating scene expects that from guys.

When Im in Japan, I do not have to worry about pampering girls etc (although, Japanese girls love being pampered) and can relax more. I am not sure if that's because I am Japanese. I find that if I am with a western girl I always would have to give her attention and satisfy her and it kinda tires me. I have an Italian friend who married a Japanese and he says that Italian girls always asks for attention and its too much.

Why are guys in the west expected as a norm to pamper their woman and give her attention all the time? or am I being too general? What do you think. Would love to hear your opinion."

I loved this question because it got me thinking all evening and I want to thank Ninpo both for taking the time to read my blog and writing this comment. It offered a perspective on women I would never have considered and brought up an issue I'd never read about before.

I believe that the differences in the attention women in America (I can't speak for other Western countries) and Japan are the effects of several different broad factors.

1. The type of woman you are pursuing.

There are high maintenance and low maintenance people. One of my husband's former girlfriends in the U.S. didn't require that much attention or interaction. In fact, she sometimes felt overwhelmed by his demands on her attention. They were simply rather mismatched on their attention needs. It wasn't that there was anything wrong with either of them, but just that they were different.

I also believe that the age and attractiveness of the woman being pursued is an issue. Younger women require more attention than older ones. Women who consider themselves very attractive in their culture will feel as though they are due more attention because, frankly, they often get more of it as men compete for their favor. From a cultural viewpoint, I wonder if Japanese aesthetics may play a part in this. That is, I think Japanese people aren't quite as shallow when it comes to imperfections as Western folks and the bar isn't set so high on being considered "acceptably attractive" (good enough to marry or date) in Japan compared to the West where the consumerist culture is constantly encouraging everyone to scrutinize their appearance and find every last little detail lacking so they'll buy products to improve themselves.

I base my assertion about Japan on the fact that not everyone has to have perfect teeth (and I've been told that some people think crooked teeth are "cute") and the general aversion to plastic surgery in Japan. It has always seemed to me that the Japanese were more realistic about what people should look like and that Western standards are getting more and more out of hand to fuel various cosmetics industries.

Attractive women in the West may feel they deserve and can command more attention based on how many standard deviations they are above other women whereas women in Japan may not see themselves as so significantly different from other women on an attractiveness scale. That's not to say there aren't women who are clearly more attractive than others but just that the most beautiful Japanese women may see themselves as two cuts above average whereas the most beautiful Western woman may see herself as 5 ranks higher than average.

2. The communication styles of the country.

Ambiguity is something which is not only a part of Japanese communication, but actually sometimes admirable and desirable. One of the greatest frustrations for Western folks is the tendency among Japanese people not to say what they mean, but rather to be vague and figure we will reach the proper conclusion based on commonly known interpretations for particular types of vague language.

Generally speaking, I believe you can say also that this comfort with ambiguity breeds a tolerance for incomplete understanding and communication. Japanese people may be more comfortable not knowing exactly where they stand in a relationship because they are used to dealing with such "fuzzy" boundaries.

In regards to attention and American women, receiving attention is a constant stream of communication that you are cared about and important. Since Western folks like clear communication and firmly understood boundaries (without them, some people get anxious about the status of a relationship), constant attention, especially early on in a relationship or during the courtship phase, keeps it clear that you maintain a strong interest in the other person. If the attention starts to wane, the communication will be that you are losing interest. I will note that this is a situation that changes with greater security and experience in a relationship though it never goes away.

3. The status and power of women relative to men in the country on the whole.

While the lot of women in Japan has improved a lot, they still are not equal or even seen as as valuable to society as men. If your culture informs you that you have less value, you will sublimate your needs to the needs of the person who is seen as more valuable. You can see women constantly yielding to men on many levels in life in Japan and men asserting their right to come first. From serving tea and coffee to being relegated to support work in companies to women being expected to move aside while walking on a crowded street so the man can walk on through uninterrupted, women's needs often come second to men's. In that sort of culture, women don't even think about asserting their needs. In fact, I think that their primary mindset is not about themselves but about serving others. That is absolutely not a statement that women are subservient. However, I do believe that women are indoctrinated in all cultures (though more so in Japan) to think first of others and last of themselves.

Additionally, people without power, and the unequal situation for men and women in Japan means women have far less power than men, do not go around making demands. Women are still seriously economically disadvantaged if they do not marry and that means men have the power in relationships. The men give the support. The women need it. If you're in the position, you're hardly in a place where you can demand attention as you know your options are limited.

I think American women feel that they have the power to demand what they want because they can make their way economically on their own without serious disadvantage. If they don't get what they want, they'd just as soon be alone or move on to someone who will give them what they want. The more equitable situation (though still not equal) gives them the power to act on their needs and wishes.

4. The expectations and ideas of a relationships and marriage that are common in the culture.

Marriage in Japan is really quite different from that in the U.S. First and foremost, and I know people are going to take issue with me for this, but I can't go against a tide of discussions about this topic with Japanese people, Japanese people view marriage more pragmatically than Americans. They see it as a life partnership for creating a successful family. It is more akin to a "business" linking when you compare it to Western ideals.

That is not to say that there is no love or passion in Japanese marriages. I'm only saying that the primary consideration is the success of the partnership. Every time I discuss this topic with a Japanese person, the idea of a "love" relationship to them is "ideal" but is second to forming a partnership with someone who is capable of fulfilling their necessary role for a successful future family. That is, men have to be capable of being good breadwinners and women have to be capable of supporting the men as needed (by doing whatever suits their mutually-agreed upon goal). For Japanese people, by and large, the future is the focus, not the passion of the moment.

For American folks, the passion of the moment is the focus and the future will fall into place later. They feel that "love will find a way" and often discard notions of obstacles and pursue their feelings in even the most imprudent situations (such as falling in love with married people or people with fatal character flaws and problems). With this focus on passion comes the need for attention. If you aren't paying attention, you aren't passionate and the other person doesn't feel special or that you're really loving them.

Tangentially related to this, I believe that the nature of men's and women's roles in the culture also play a part. American society has very flexible roles. People tend to relate in individualistic and idiosyncratic ways whereas the roles in Japan are more traditional and easy to fit into. A good husband in Japan knows what he must do to be a success in that role as does a good wife in her role. The benefit of this situation is that each party can fulfill the others expectations by fulfilling society's commonly-held expectations. There's no need for husbands or boyfriends to deliver flowers and chocolates or go out for romantic dinners on a regular basis to be a "good husband" as both parties accept that his role is to work hard so his family can live well and be a kind person. In the U.S., each couple defines their relationship as they see fit and that often requires a lot more communication. The American situation is fraught with insecurity because of this lack of solid boundaries for what is "good" or "bad" in a relationship. That insecurity leads to the need for a lot more attention.

In Japan, the other main point I think is that the women's future focus is on their children rather than their husbands. Women here tend to get their emotional satisfaction as mothers more so than as wives. In the U.S., the relationship between the husband and wife is the one that primarily fulfills needs, not the one between parent and child. This is because the family in Japan is seen as an eternal unit with interconnecting responsibilities that will last throughout lifetimes, but in the U.S., kids are expected to become independent after 18 or college. American parents can't rely on an emotional bond with their kids that will sustain them, but they (hope to) rely on their spouses. Generally speaking, husbands and wives or life partners rely on each other more for their happiness in the U.S. and that means they need a lot more interaction and attention.

One final note I'd like to add is that, I don't think it's only women in the U.S. who need more attention. I think men in the U.S. need more attention as well, but men in general are more self-absorbed and tend to be content with non-verbal attention. Men essentially require a different form of attention so they don't recognize it as being any special need, but it is there as well. They recognize it in women mainly because it's not what they need so it strikes them as a hassle to provide. The perception that women require more attention than men is compounded by the fact that women tend to more readily and seamlessly offer men the forms of attention they need without complaint or prodding since they are socialized to be more other-directed. That being said, there is almost certainly a relationship between men's need for certain types of "attention" and complaints about women not wanting to have sex often enough and not "nurturing" them well enough (e.g., cooking, cleaning). The only difference is that men see what they need as being "natural" and what women need as being "unusual."

Anecdotal Lives

Sometimes I get very interesting questions from my commenters (and luckily I almost always get excellent comments as well). The questions which get me thinking rather deeply about something sometimes spawn their own post are among my favorites, but they also place me in a somewhat precarious position when answering.

Recently, I got a truly excellent question (which I'll address in a subsequent post) which I'm keen to answer, but I felt obliged to place a lot of caveats in front of the answer. In fact, I think so many "warnings" needed to be put in place that I figured it'd add about a quarter to the length of the answer, and my posts are already pretty long!

When I answer questions which have broad applications (and implications), I want the reader to keep in mind that I'm speaking in general and not about anyone specifically. While generalities are very useful in forming a theoretical framework and developing an overview of the world, they don't apply to any one person or situation. All of our lives are anecdotal, and I don't wish to lay claim to dispensing all encompassing wisdom.

And, honestly, I also don't want to come across as asserting that I'm "right". Like everyone else on the planet when considering an issue, I take all my experiences, ideas, and thoughts and collect them into a little pile, then sort them out into what seems to be the best answer available to me at the time. It's not the only answer. It's not the best answer among all the people you could possibly ask in the world. It's not even the same answer I'd give 10 years from now, but it's what makes sense to me right now at this moment.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Lights Out

My apartment is pretty small, dark and airless so I have to leave the lights on in nearly every room to keep them lit sufficiently to work in them. It's not that there are no windows, but rather that the surrounding buildings block out a lot of the light most of the time. The only time they don't block out the light is around 4:30-5:30 am when the sun shines brightly just behind my husband's and my sleeping heads. Anyone who doesn't believe in daylight savings time should have to put up with all that candle power shining on them at an ungodly hour. It'll change your mind.

Because my apartment is so dark, my habit up until a month ago had been to leave the lights on in both the living room in which I actually teach and the kitchen which is directly behind me. The students walk through the kitchen to get in and out (floor plan here to clarify) and I felt it might make them uncomfortable if they looked out onto the yawning dark behind me as we spoke. Well, it's not a big space so it's more of a tiny yawn, but you may see my point.

There was also a bit of a logistical problem in terms of smoothly welcoming the student in (with the light on, of course), pouring tea or coffee as the student is seated in the adjacent room, and then having to break eye contact and interrupt preliminary chatting with the student to walk over to the entrance and turn off the light before carrying the tea into the room. Also, when the lesson was over, I'd have to again break eye contact and go turn the light back on before the student entered the kitchen. In order to avoid the feeling of being in a dark apartment and this awkward set-up, I just left the light on all the time and figured this was a sacrifice I'd have to make for doing business in my apartment just like I have to be sure to use heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer to be sure students are comfortable.

About a month ago, I decided that the environmental impact of running a light in my kitchen when no one was in there for between 40-50 hours a month was not worth the dubious benefits and I started to turn it off just after students sat down and on before they left. The situation is still a bit awkward for me, but the need to turn it on actually helps give me and excuse to get up at the end of the lesson time and head for the kitchen (to get the light) ASAP so the student can put her shoes on. This tends to have the highly desirable effect of getting them to pack up and hit the road a bit sooner and not steal quite as many extra minutes from me at the end of the lesson.

This month marked the first contiguous block of time where I could see the measure of my efforts in regards to the lights. Though my kitchen lights are fluorescent and I only use half of the strip (one tube instead of two), my electric bill went down by between 500-600 yen ($4.60-$5.50). This is a relatively insignificant amount of money saved, but it does show rather clearly that there was an appreciable amount of energy wasted in the use of just one fluorescent tube (albeit for quite a lot of total hours). Every time I forget to turn off a light after going to another room, I'll be keeping this little example in mind to motivate myself to go back out and turn it off.

Chocolate Sushi


Despite the fact that Valentine's Day was quite awhile back, my husband received the fun assortment of chocolates above from a student yesterday. He also got a box of truffles from the same student, and while they were lovely and sophisticated, they weren't quite as photogenic as the whimsical item pictured above.

The characters in white in the center of the label say "sushi". The banner with gold letters to the left says "special" and the real "joke" of this item are the black characters on the right which read as "cho-ko" though when written as kanji (Chinese characters), the words don't mean "chocolate" (choco), but (apparently) "sake cup". Somehow, I figure there must be another meaning I'm missing that applies to sushi. Usually, the word chocolate is not written in kanji, but rather in katakana which is the Japanese syllabary for (mostly) foreign words so it's sort of a joke. Ha. Ha. OK, we foreigners don't find the same amusement in Japanese wordplay as the Japanese might, but it's still cute.

Click this picture to see detail.

The contents are mainly blocks of chocolate wrapped in plastic with pictures of various seafood items on them, though the small packet filled with green balls is full of super sweet white chocolate bits coated with shiny green candy. These balls might be meant to resemble fish roe, I imagine, though I'm not sure (particularly since roe is reddish in color). They do look suspiciously like the stuff my father used to bait his hooks with from time to time when he went fishing. However, the packet itself has a picture of gnarled wasabi roots and says "wasabi choco" so perhaps this was the best they could do to emulate small amounts of wasabi. The candy also has an odd aftertaste which may actually be wasabi flavoring. The packaging is very well done right down to having the omnipresent fake plastic "grass" that you see in sushi assortments and a real wood container (that smells quite nice).

The chocolate with a picture of a shell on it has some funny English on it. On the front, around the shell, it says:

"Scallop stands a sail and runs all over the seas."

On the back, it says:

"There was a dog to which the sea is crossed. The ear was pinched with the husks of HOTATE." 

"Hotate" apparently means "sail upright" in one of its incarnations, though it can also mean "pilgrim". Without Chinese characters, it's impossible to know but all the talk of the sea makes the sailing definition likely, yet somehow, renders the sentence it is a part of no more logical.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Student Roster - February 2008

About a year or so ago, I wrote out my student roster for the sake of my own future recollection, knowing it was of little interest to anyone but me. However, this is my blog and I'll bore if I want to. ;-) I am posting this on a weekend day when most folks are outside enjoying their real lives (and I'm busy working) and less likely to read this blog, so I'm trying to exercise a little consideration here, but those of you who aren't interested in profiles of people you don't know and never will might want to find something good on T.V.

Looking back at my previous post, I'm surprised to see that I had 12 students at that time as I didn't think I had so many at that time. That being said, one was a "temporary" who was never meant to attend more than 3 lessons and one of the ones who appeared in that list showed up for one lesson then vanished not only from contact with me but the agency that sent her to me. Sometimes I wish I knew a little more about the types of agreements the agency makes with students as it's not uncommon to get a student or two who will seem to be "dabbling" and then go away after a one to six lessons lessons or after sampling several "demonstration" lessons with 2 or 3 different teachers. I have a feeling there may be some system whereby the demos or a limited number of lessons at the beginning may be cheaper than long-term lesson contracts. It could be they offer such lessons as "bait", but I can't be sure. The inner workings of the business and financial situation are often not explained to teachers.

At the moment, I have 11 students and 6 of them have been with me for over a year and appeared in my former post. Here is the current roster:

Wednesday:

(5:15 pm) 20-year-old university student who is studying French as her major. She works at a clothing retailer known for cheap casual clothing part-time and likes watching "Lost" and Disney sitcoms like "Hannah Montana". She's one of my 5 "survivors" from last year and one of my favorites. She tends to pick new vocabulary up quickly though she doesn't study much outside of the class because she's so busy at university. She's been studying and taking the TOEFL test and recently got accepted into an exchange student program. She'll be headed to Montana to attend university there for one school year starting from August and I'll be losing her at that point, unfortunately.

(7:45 pm) A woman in her early 30's who works at a bank doing accounting work. I seem to get a lot of female accounting workers for some reason. This student enjoys surfing and used to live by the sea, but recently bought her own condo in central Tokyo (with a hefty 30-year mortgage). She's unusual looking for a Japanese person because she's got very Western-looking eyes and you wouldn't necessarily conclude she was Asian by looking at her face. She's also had more of her share of being followed around by weirdos than my other students, though I don't know if these facts are related. She also goes to Costco more regularly than anyone I know and buys food which is always more than she can actually eat.

Thursday:

(4:00 pm) A 61-year old man who used to be a government bureaucrat then worked for an insurance company and is now retired. He has traveled all over the world and has a great interest in politics, social issues, and news. His vocabulary is advanced and he's very liberal and open-minded. He has lessons not only to improve his speaking for travel but also for the stimulation of discussing things with a foreign person. He has lamented to me on several occasions that he believes he cannot have such discussions with his friends because they think he's weird both for his viewpoints and for wanting to talk about them. His main goal is travel, particularly to world heritage sites, but his elderly mother is ill and he can't do what he'd like. I often sense he feels a bit trapped by his situation and once he asked me if I thought he was selfish for wanting his mother to get better mainly so he could pursue his dreams. I told him that I didn't think it was selfish at all to work hard your whole life then want to fulfill your dreams after retiring.

(7:00 pm) I haven't taught the student who will be in this time slot yet. I've only been told that she's a beginner and a nurse. In my experience with beginners, they don't tend to last as long as intermediate to advanced students. I think that the one-to-one lessons are a bit intense for them at their level and, when they don't experience rapid improvement, they tend to move on to give up. However, I remain optimistic!

Friday:

(6:00 pm) A 64-year old semi-retired man who is my second "survivor" from last year. This older gentleman is a dynamo for his age. He works part-time teaching people at community centers how to use computers and cell phones as well as proctors insurance exams for certification. He takes social dancing classes and has been on adult homestays in America. Though his level isn't particularly high, he's easy to teach because he plans for the lesson himself by choosing a grammar point or phrase he wants to practice and he's very self-motivating in carrying out the practice. I don't have to light a fire under his ass to get him to talk and that's rare. He's one of only two of my students who are married. He's also the student who holds the record for having taken the most lessons with me to date. Last Friday was his 100th lesson.

Saturday:

(10:45 am) A sales support staff person in her early 30's who works for a major computer hardware and services company. She looks about 8 years younger than her age and presents herself with a sense of energy and vitality that I envy. She really enjoys sports and golf in particular and is very dedicated to her job. I believe she studies English because her company is a foreign one, but also for travel. She has studied Italian cooking both in Japan and on a culinary tour of Italy.

(12:00 pm) An office worker at a major fashion designer's Japanese branch in her late 20's who is mainly studying English for doing business in Italy. In fact, as I write this post, she's in Italy now 3/4 of the way through a month-long business trip. Though this woman is a bit reserved, she's my kind of person on many levels. She's thoughtful, analytical, and candid. She's never frivolous or giggly, but is forthcoming and friendly in a way which isn't put on or overdone. She's also quite serious about improving her English and does work on her own in addition to coming to lessons.

(3:30 pm) A 24-year-old insurance company worker who would like to learn English for travel abroad. As I write this, she's in Hawaii for a vacation and she is another of my "survivors". She's a classic example of a well-rounded young woman in Japan. She takes flower arranging classes, works full-time, has an interest in live shows and performances of many types, travels, and reads a variety of books on politics, art, travel, and culture. When she first came to me, she had problems making sentences or having a basic conversation, but now can express herself much more freely, though not necessarily quickly. I've seen concrete improvement in her ability and that's a rare treat for a teacher in Japan since students tend to either bug out before you see improvement or they don't tend to take it seriously enough to get much better.

Sunday:

(10:45 am) A marketing representative for a pharmaceutical company who is in her mid 20's, this student is the younger sister of the woman who works for the fashion designer. She's the person who has been trying to break into journalism, but so far has only managed to get work doing freelance transcribing. I've only taught her about a half dozen times and don't have a good handle on her yet. She's nice and a bit more outgoing than her sister, though not nearly as hard-working when it comes to independent study. She mainly wants to improve her English skills as a means of selling herself to a publication company.

(12:00 pm) A 41-year-old company worker who was new to me when I wrote about her last year (when she came at 3:00 pm). She continues to work in the accounting section of an architectural firm and still hates her job rather passionately. Ironically, she was recently promoted but was completely indifferent to her elevation in status. She's been talking about quitting for the entire year or so that I've been teaching her, but hasn't found the kind of job she feels is ideal. She doesn't want to job hop frequently so she isn't keen on leaving her current job for an interim job. Her goal for study, career advancement, remains the same. She likes to attend Japanese puppet shows (bunraku) and live performances of artists who might be considered "has beens" in the West because they were popular in the 80's or 70's.

Random days and times:

A 32-year-old freelance translator who makes subtitles for mostly English (sometimes other languages) movies for the Japanese audience. Though she has been officially "with me" as a student for about two years, I've actually only seen her about 25 times because of the sporadic nature of her work. She only schedules lessons when she has a project which she needs help with. Her goal isn't to build her overall level but to make sure she does the best work she can when she makes subtitles. She took a part-time job at an office (doing subtitling) for better financial security so she could move into her own place last year. I don't tend to spend much time doing free conversation with her because of the nature of her lessons, but I do know she enjoys beading and travels to resort areas in Japan several times a year.

A 44-year old former pharmacist who currently attends a U.S. college on a military base. She's the second of two of my students who is married. At present, I'm seeing her 2-3 times a week to help her complete a copious number of assignments for a distance course she's taking. Among my current crop of students, she's probably the person with the highest level ability and definitely spends the most time doing independent study. She's very dependent on me in getting her college work under control and tells me sometimes that she's afraid I'll leave Japan and she won't know how to cope.

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Comparing last year's list to this years, I'd say I've gotten a better crop of people through time. I have more people who are easier to engage in conversation and are earnest about improving. I'm also pleased to have retained about 50% of them as it's always a better experience if you know each other well. I'm a bit saddened that I'm going to lose the young woman who is headed for Montana in August. It's always a bit difficult losing students who you've taught for a long time and gotten to know pretty well.

One of the interesting things about their departures is that they almost always ask for my e-mail address and ask if I'd mind if they write me. I always give it to them, but I never hear from them again. I figure they're sincere in their desire to keep in touch, but since the vast majority of them leave me under circumstances where they are having a major life change, they find themselves too busy and preoccupied to take the time to compose messages to me. I'm not exactly broken-hearted about it, mind you. I'd be happy to hear from them if they wrote, but I don't mistake a friendly business-based relationship for a friendship.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Charisma Men

Image pinched from the Charisma Man home page where one can order a comic book of the strips. Click this version to see a more readable size, or, visit the web site.

Back when I first started working in Japan, there was a young Canadian man working at Nova who worked the same morning shifts as I. He was only 20 years old and had come to Japan when he was 19. Somehow, he managed to get a work visa despite only having some junior college under his belt. (For those who don't know, the minimum requirement for a work visa is (usually) a Bachelor's degree.)

On occasion, I interacted with him either when no lessons were scheduled or in the conversation lounge when we were scheduled in there together. Unsurprisingly, he was sometimes pretty immature. Somewhat surprisingly, he was prone to emotional outbursts on the job. The main things I noticed were that he was prone to chatting with young female students in Japanese whenever the least opportunity presented itself, even when he was supposed to be helping them practice English.

As time went by, he developed a crush on a British coworker who I was friends with. He interacted with her like a lovesick puppy until she agreed to go on a trip to Tokyo Disneyland with him a few young Japanese women. Upon returning from this foray, my friend told me that his behavior was extremely childish and overtly attention-seeking and boastful. She said she was both embarrassed to be with him and as a witness to this behavior in front of the Japanese women. She also said that she was told by the Japanese girls that his speaking was very much like that of a Japanese schoolgirl because he'd honed his skills on young girls.

This young man didn't tend to socialize much with the foreign coworkers between classes or at lunch time. He tended to spend most of his time chatting with secretaries or lunching with students. At that time, socializing with students was not prohibited, or, if it was, it wasn't enforced. Eventually, he seemed to develop a superior and contemptuous attitude toward the other foreigners and wanted little to do with them, particularly after my friend was forced to overtly reject his interest in her.

I didn't know it at the time, but I'd just had my first experience with a classic "charisma man" type of foreign male. This is the type of guy who lacks sufficient social skills and emotional maturity in his home culture that he would have a lot of difficulty cultivating a romantic relationship with a woman in his home country, but cross-cultural differences allow him to form relationships in Japan. His "foreignness" explains his awkwardness and lack of grace in a manner which allows Japanese women to forgive him. They can't tell the difference between someone who doesn't conform to their cultural expectations because he doesn't know how to and someone who is an oafish dork. Also, Japanese people value tolerance and "enduring" hardship silently as a part of their culture so the women feel that part of being in a relationship is accepting the rough patches in their mates to a far greater extent than foreign women do. Previously, I talked about how Japanese women also generally have different expectations of a mate and that's part of the situation as well.

Fast forward 12 years and the "charisma man" I worked with at Nova shows up as an employee at the company which bought out my former company. The interesting thing is that his arrogance, disdain for foreigners and tendency to suck up to the Japanese haven't changed. He says he actually hates foreign employees over a decade down the road. I avoided him as much as possible and am relieved that he didn't work in the same office as I, but rather in a branch office.

Among the men who fit the category lampooned in the cartoon above (and please don't misunderstand, I am not asserting that all men who pursue relationships with Japanese women fit this category...they don't, not by a long shot), I've noticed they tend to have certain things in common. Before undies get balled up in large, uncomfortable wads, keep in mind, sensitive male readers, that even if you fit every item on this list, I'm not saying you're one of these losers. After all, I don't know you so I can't possibly be talking about you. I can only talk about the men I've actually met.
  • Most of these men came to Japan at a relatively young age and had limited social experience back home. They tend to be here for the vast majority of their young adult socialization and maturation process.
  • Most of them met their wives or girlfriends in Japan, not in their home countries. I've noticed a serious difference between men who meet Japanese women in their home countries and marry them then come to Japan as compared to men who meet their wives here initially. The former tend to be a lot nicer group of guys.
  • All of them (in my experience) are good at speaking Japanese as it is a high priority to become proficient enough to chat up girls, but also they prefer socializing with Japanese people as they can easily impress them simply by being foreign. They also vigorously throw themselves into practicing as it gives them more interaction with women.
  • Few of them have ever had a Western girlfriend.
  • Most of them have extremely stereotypical and derogatory opinions about Western women. They tend to view them as lazy, pushy, controlling, demanding, and opinionated.
  • Most of them have stereotypical and shallow opinions of Japanese women and emphasize the physical assets of Japanese women in opposition to their stereotypical views of the physicality of Western women. That is, they talk about how naturally (and eternally) slim, beautiful, nurturing (as in willing to do all the cooking and cleaning without complaint), and feminine (quiet, demure) Japanese women are whereas Western women are all going to end up fat and ugly.
  • Most of them base their relationship from an emotional viewpoint on trivialities such as Japanese pop culture and light social activities like karaoke, pub crawling, travel, and sports. Few of them value deep or meaningful dialog with their significant other as an important part of a relationship.
  • Most are very arrogant and have difficulties when their ideas, opinions or knowledge are challenged. Personally, I believe that is because debate where ones assertions are disagreed with is not common in Japan and since most of these men came here at a young age, they have never developed the ability to handle disagreement well, particularly if women have been a large focus in their socialization here.
  • Most of them dislike other foreigners and tend to regard most of them with contempt. In some cases, part of this contempt involves constantly measuring other foreigners' language ability, work type and status and cultural knowledge against theirs and smugly concluding they are better.
Personally, when I run across one of these guys, I try to give them a wide berth. I know they don't have any use for me except as a stepping stone to boosting their egos when they size me up and find me lacking. I also consider that these guys from a social viewpoint have succeeded wildly in Japan and therefore aren't likely to develop the type of social skills that would make them function well in a setting which includes other foreigners, not that they'd want to anyway.

In many ways, there's nothing wrong with these guys as they are succeeding in a manner which harms no one and often makes the Japanese women they couple with (seemingly) happy enough. In fact, they have essentially traded in social failure in one country for social success in another. The only problem comes when you're a fellow foreigner and are forced to work or interact with one of these sorts and put up with the attitude. It's a real test of your better nature to be around one of them for any length of time and to not start returning the contempt they exude at you in kind.