Archive for April, 2011|Monthly archive page

Come what may.

In Goals, School on April 18, 2011 at 12:12 pm

I love living in Japan, but visas do expire, you know. I’ll still plan to be here for quite a while longer if things don’t deteriorate, but I have to start thinking about applying to graduate school.

So tonight I’m reading the admissions sites to some programs. Let’s take a look:

“This past year we received almost 600 applications. In recent years, anywhere from 2% to 6% of the applicants have been admitted into the program.”

“The department typically receives around 700 applications per year for about 18 places in our sequential program.”

“We are able to make about 8-9 offers with funding from an applicant pool of 350+.”

Granted, these quotes are all from amazing programs, but this type of language seems to be pretty standard. I’m going into a field where my employment chances are very, very dire. And, that’s if I survive the admissions process, get into a good program, and make it through.

It’s all a little disheartening. Part of the reason that I didn’t apply straight out of undergrad is because I wanted some time to make an honest assessment of myself. But, this is what I want to do with my life. Sometimes you just have to do your best, say a prayer, and see where you end up. Wish me luck.

Misguided attempts at cultural awareness.

In Japan, People on April 16, 2011 at 12:23 pm

I tried out the koto yesterday just to see what it was like. My boss arranged it for me on a lark. I barely mentioned, “Koto sounds fun,” and next thing you know she’s pulling out her address book and making calls. Two weeks later, she’s going along to show me the place and to make introductions and to serve as translator. (Talk about employee benefits.) Neither of us knew what we were in for.

Before I explain all the craziness, I should pause for an educational note for those who aren’t aware of what a koto is. I wasn’t really either until just before I made the offhand comment to my boss. It’s a giant stringed instrument played with bone finger picks. Kind of like a zither. Or maybe it is a zither, since I don’t know the actual definition. I have absolutely no musical training, which is probably starting to show. Wikipedia, bless them, will kindly provide us with a picture:

Pretty, eh?

Anyhow, we went to my new koto sensei’s house. The woman talks fast, really fast, and does not pause for air or us. The first thing out of her mouth was “Are you allergic to cats?” This was before we even hit her front stoop. There is a preserved beehive on a table inside her front door. She does not own cats.

This simple fact became a mystery I spent the entire two hours trying to unravel.

Needless to say, I couldn’t concentrate at all. I kept missing the notes. I couldn’t remember the names of the numbers in Japanese. (My language skills are terrible, but they aren’t that bad.) The leather bands on the picks were too tight. They kept popping of my fingers. My version of “Sakura, Sakura” sounded deranged. My boss, who had planned on leaving early, waited it all out, either looking slightly amused or looking slightly pained.

In all my fluster I only caught fragments of the conversations happening between my boss and my teacher. One was about whether learning koto would make me more marriageable. (Apparently, no.) Another was about whether I would be able to find sensei’s house next week. Most of this centered on the fear that I wouldn’t be able to read the public transport time tables. (I’ve been here nearly two years. Illiteracy hasn’t stopped me yet.) Finally, there was the negotiation over where to find me a practice koto for at home. My boss was given the task of calling every single music teacher in the city. This is not hyperbole. Every one of their names was listed in full. Repeatedly. My boss had to take notes. The aim is to track down a errant koto that sensei had lent to someone, at some point, maybe. Three thoughts: It’d be hilarious to listen in on those those phone calls. Where will I put a six-foot-long koto? My poor boss.

Driving home, when we finally figured out the mystery of the cats, we laughed the entire way.

Beijing story.

In Travel on April 13, 2011 at 12:24 pm

I’ve finally got my pictures together, so sorry this post is a little delayed. I went to Beijing just over a week after the earthquake. I wasn’t a radiation refugee or anything like that. It was a vacation scheduled well in advance. (Thank goodness, because airline tickets shot up like a rocket after March 11.)

I travelled to China alone, and was there under a week. So, I can’t say I went anywhere that was terribly off the beaten path, but it was a nice break regardless. Here’s some pictures.

Guarding the Forbidden City.

There were tourists everywhere in the Forbidden City. Getting a picture without some random Chinese man’s head or arm in the shot necessitated a lot of patience and some odd camera angles. I only wish I were better at photography so all that work left me with something better to show than a random gilt thing-a-ma-jig.

There were giant brass pots everywhere. I suppose I should have taken a guided tour so I’d know why.

This is the section of the Great Wall known as Mutianyu. It’s rebuilt. There is a ski lift and souvenir hawkers selling overpriced Snickers while dressed as Red Army soldiers. So, I don’t think it scores any points for authenticity. But, it was really quiet the day I went and really pretty.

I walked all over the city. Beijing was surprisingly easy to navigate. One the way to the Drum and Bell Towers I ran into a store with some pretty odd decor. The giant-ukulele-carrying Christmas bunnies pretty much set the tone of the place.

This was shot in Tiananmen Square. Those people made up one segment of the line to see Mao’s Tomb. One thing I learned is China is really good at lines. Needless to say, I did not have the time to pay my respects to the Chairman.

I actually went to the Temple of Heaven twice. The first time was late in the evening for my nightly walk. The temple is in a giant park and there were people flying kites, doing tai chi, jogging and lounging around everywhere.  The second time was during the day with a woman I met at the hotel.

I realize, writing this, that wandering around big cities may make for interesting trips but maybe not for super enlightening posts. I suppose I should have researched the provenance and ceremonial use of the random gilt thing-a-ma-jig. Or mentioned how this is the year of the rabbit, so the store decor serves as an example of how China is at a cultural crossroads. Or some such. I really just wanted to post some tacky tourist photos. Sorry. I didn’t have time for the Summer Palace. If I ever go back to finish seeing the sights, I promise I’ll do better by you all then.

Home at work.

In Japan, People on April 11, 2011 at 9:19 am

I walked into work today to see one of my bosses (the third in command) sitting at his desk shaving with his electric razor. Japanese offices are communal, with the desks facing each other, so it’s not like he was in the privacy of his own space or had a door to close.

Here’s the clincher, I’ve been there just over a week and the first thing through my mind was nowhere near “What the . . .” It was more along the lines of  “Wouldn’t it be better if he had a mirror and some water?”

I should clarify. This is a new place of employ for me, but I’ve had this job for a while. We rotate regularly. Needless to say, I think I’m getting used to this kind of thing. I see people brushing teeth at their desks after lunch, clipping nails, changing ties, gargling. This is all perfectly normal behavior. Slightly more out of the ordinary examples include a couple times when a coworker brought his guitar and sang Beatles songs while the rest of us were working. Or, in her free time, at her desk, the woman who would segment and peel oranges to make marmalade and candied rind. The entire room smelled like a Florida grove. I wasn’t complaining.

I’m pretty sure a few American managers who would balk at all this. I have absolutely no understanding of business. And, I’m not culturally  aware enough to offer more than a fleeting glimpse of things here. Certainly nothing definitive. But, in it’s own strange way, it makes sense to me. These people are there all day. Truly. My Protestant work ethic has nothing on them. I have coworkers who bike home after 10, 11, 12 hour days. Then they work a good part of the weekend. So, the barriers break down and they treat the place as their home.

I think the physicality of the space encourages them too. There are no cubicles or room dividers. In a way, things aren’t as regimented. And, the idea of what’s mine and what’s yours is far more nebulous. If someone needs a room key that’s in an absent coworker’s desk, they open the drawer and get it. It isn’t even an issue. No matter how many times I transfer to a new office, my desk is always near the coffee pot. I cannot tell you how many mugs get forgotten on my desk while I’m gone. It’s like a ceramic wasteland every Monday morning.

This isn’t to say Japanese offices aren’t hierarchical. They are. Extremely so. The bosses are at the front, lined up in order and facing their subordinates. Desks are grouped together by common division, and similarly ranked by seniority. It’s very top down. There is always an order and everyone is aware of it, but this doesn’t necessarily make people feel out of place or cut off from their coworkers. So far, everyone seems to coexist quite well here, even with a fair idea of coworkers’ comparative salaries and grooming habits.

Oh, and if you want to know where I rank, I’m one pay grade up from the coffee pot.

People are trickling back.

In Japan, People on April 10, 2011 at 1:34 am

I’m already back at work after my vacation. Have been for a week. Others are just now coming back. We’ll see what they decide to do, if they’ve decided. I’m going to stay. I’m going make it work here in Japan. I think I am, maybe. Yes, I am.

Striking balance.

In Japan on April 9, 2011 at 6:08 am

It’s overcast and windy but up the sakura are in bloom. Today they are tenacious, clinging to their branches, showing up the wind through sheer number. All pale pink against the smoke sky. They are putting on their show in spite. They are waving banners about beauty and spring and cycles and balance. They won’t make it more than a week. It doesn’t matter.

Chickens on sticks.

In People on April 9, 2011 at 12:00 am

Yakitori last night with a person I don’t know how to take. She’s okay, I think. Sometimes I think about how it’s so easy for bad blood to spill over. We live in too close a circle here. It’s all impacted. It amplifies when we get brutal. And when we get scared. And when we forget what’s right. Sometimes the blood isn’t ours, but we feel the splash. Or, the blood is ours and, God, I just want to live it all as an outlier. I just want to collect my teeth, move to the edge of the ring and make it through.

Still, the yakitori was okay, and she was okay, and we are okay, I think.

Again, not again.

In Japan on April 7, 2011 at 9:36 pm

Woke up this morning to another earthquake and then a smaller one after that. They halted work at the power plant on account. The apartment shook pretty solidly for the first, and it’s during that time I realized there was an overloaded shelf of books directly across from me. Looks like I’ll be redecorating soon.

Shit, why am I here?

In Japan on April 7, 2011 at 8:31 am

I think your innagural post is supposed to be some variation on “Hello world, I’m here to take you on!” This isn’t that post. If anything the past month has shown me, in a battle of me v. the world, the world always, always administers the right hook.

I live in Japan right now. I was here for the earthquake and the tsunami and the nuclear whatever-it-is that was/is/ever will be happening. There was also a volcano and a snowstorm, but let’s not nitpick. I know this is old news for most. We’ve fallen out of the cycle and the world is on to bigger, better things. But, we are still here.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m lucky. Most people here are not. Most people here lost someone, or know someone who has, or worries that their kid is drinking irradiated milk. I’m childless. I don’t like milk. I am a foreigner, and it has benefits. I have little packets of home-government-issued KI stashed between the pages of my books. I have a current Chinese tourist visa and a lapsed first-aid qualification. I have a job and an apartment and plenty of vacation days. I’m not cash-strapped. My stock didn’t crash. I have the chance to go home if I want.

I don’t know what I want. That’s the rub.