Writing Exercise 01: The Character

“People should feel more as they become older, not less.”

– Page One Adventures

character

Introvert. Too talkative. Emotionally repressive. Intellectual. Stupid. Passive aggressive. Inability to express emotions verbally. Socially awkward. Eloquent. Anxious in social situations. Perfectionist. Head in the clouds. Works too hard. Depressive. Creative. Cliche. Imaginative. Communist. Feminist. Republican. Pro-life. Pro-gays. Anti-life. Anti-gays. Mexican. American. Middle Eastern. Indian. Racially ambiguous. Catholic. Did not want to do her first Communion. Musically inclined. Auditory learner. Partially deaf. Needs glasses. Immature. Insightful. Needs to work harder. Easily bored. Should have been aborted. When I became pregnant with you, I didn’t need to be on my medication anymore. Argumentative. First child syndrome. Older sister. Messy. Authoritative. Hippie. Responsible.

I think of you as a child because you’re always saying you’re too cold. You argue like a child. You argue like a textbook. Stop arguing back. You were like my lawyer when your mom and sister jumped on me over the smallest of things. Good daughter. Political black sheep. Too emotional. Honor student. Average. Below average. Above average. Condescending. Down to Earth. We all thought you would be the one who’d go places and do amazing things. Geek. Nerd. Needs to settle down. Get a real job. Do what you love. Unrealistic. Likes to win. Team player. Over-achiever. Frigid. Blames others. Under-achiever. Assumes all the blame. Devil’s advocate. Too physical. Overly optimist. Too pessimistic for her age. Too direct. Doesn’t get to the point. Adventurous. Recluse. Don’t pick her for the basketball team. Tall. Uncoordinated. Agile. Ugly. Pretty. Big nose. Too thin. Too fat. Unhealthy. Athletic. Overly analytical, to the point of detriment.

Too liberal. Serious. Needs to learn to laugh. Too conservative. Laughs too much. Cry baby. Unsophisticated. Intolerant. Aloof. Best friend. The worst. Impatient. Always so patient with clients. Leaps before she thinks. Thinks she knows everything. Pick her for the group project. Ask her to lower her grade on the chem exam so we can all be graded on the curve. Sit next to her on the day of the test. Ask her for the answer. Freak. Theoretical. Why are you studying something like Politics if you can out-perform the majors in the Geology department who have been studying this for years? Not detail oriented. Why are you studying Politics if you don’t even know what you want to do in the field? No self confidence. Overly subsumed by the details. Does all the extra credit. Does enough to get by in class. Humanities.

Needs improvement. A+. B. C. D. F. In danger of failing. Four eyes. Academic excellence. Witty. Boring. Caring. Thoughtful. Over dramatic. Shares pencils. Reads a lot too much. Mean. Rude. Selfish. I hate you. Kind. Shy. Giving. Always there for others. I love you. Verbalizes complaints too much. Doesn’t say enough. Speaks her mind. Asset to the department. Asks management too many questions. Doesn’t like being told what to do. Goody two shoes always does what she’s told. She’s just always so cheerful. Why are you always so depressing? Failure. Successful. First baccalaureate degree holder in family. I’m glad I met you. What are you doing with your life?

This began as a writing experiment. What kind of character would I be if I had to write myself truthfully in a bildungsroman? Would I even want to be friends with myself? These are the echoes of characteristics/phrases that have been used to describe me or my life situation (as spoken to me by people I have met during my 23 years of life). I used family and friends. Teachers, professors, psychologists. From elementary school, junior high, high school. From college. Of course, from now as well. What we see as a positive trait and what we see as a negative trait will vary. Which is which?

So what is a character? What is a person? Are they simply a list of attributes, personal and physical, like the one above? Are they a spectrum  that slides around on a three-dimensional graph? Is there a point of no return? It’s been an interesting journey, going through those memories of all those years and all those fights and laughs alike but I’m no closer to answering the set of questions that I originally posed myself. In fact, I’ve started to ask more questions than ever before. About myself and about others. About my relationship with myself and my relationship with others. How I perceive and am perceived in return.

How do we maintain a semblance of authenticity in a world that is constantly expecting more and more, that rejects who we are, and in some cases tries to fix us. Or depending on how you view it, tries to help us become better versions of ourselves? At what point do we draw the line between societal expectations and being “who we are”? At what point are we responsible for others, if at all? When as an adult you no longer exude the brimming excitement and curiosity of a child, does that mean you’ve successfully matured? Or are you dead inside? And if at twenty three you’re still too excited to embark on an adventure in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of a prefecture with nothing but nature and rice fields, are you a childish adult who needs to grow up? Or are you simply trying to keep yourself alive inside? It’s so easy for media, for books, for specialists, for everyone to say “Be yourself” without truly exploring the full ramifications of such advice. Being yourself is just as likely to get you passed up for a promotion as it is to make you the hero of the next Pixar or Disney film. But more importantly…

…At what point, is it enough simply to be?

Hallway Inspiration 02: Live Long and Rainbow On!

Japanese hallways are the best. I feel that if I look hard enough, I could make this into a legit once a week article.

In the meantime, I bring to you the latest hallway inspiration, which I endearingly titled “Clean Water: Live Long and Rainbow On”. Japanese schools come in two neutral color schemes: beige or white. Or both. But this may just be the inaka experience (one of my schools is about to celebrate its 150th anniversary so it follows in the general tradition of We Are Rebuilding The School And This Is The Way The Walls Have Always Been Painted). For the most part, though, it doesn’t really matter what color the walls are because teachers like to plaster them with motivational posters like the one above or with announcements for upcoming museum exhibits, concerts, and other interesting educational events going around the prefecture. And then there’s this one… oh the spectra.

The colors are flawless, that is true, but the centerpiece obaachan is even more brilliantly rendered. Her pose suggests the grace of having aged marvelously well (arthritis, gout, and diabetes are clearly for the non-water drinkers of the world; sorry, Hemmingway) while still bringing forth that inner strength, that inner force of character which only the elderly can posses after two world wars and several market crashes. Above the fanfare, above the modernity, it is the final message that shines clearest and nearest to all of our hearts: drink clean water and you too can live a long, rainbow sparkly life. Otsukare~ 😉

 

Life In Japan When You Can’t Eat The Rice

So I’ve been living in Japan for almost a year and if there is one thing that I absolutely have not eaten in the past eight months it’s…

ricefail

Yep. Rice. The main product of the Land of the Rising Sun and the literal word for meal in the Japanese phrase for ‘Have you eaten, yet?’ is, to put it mildly, my mortal enemy. To make matters even more complicated, the frequency and subsequent severity of the symptoms only started four years ago. It has since become crippling in a country where rice is eaten on the regular, three times a day, every day.

This post is for the rice allergic/intolerant people of the world, we (seemingly) few who must live out our days scourging the aisles of the Lawson’s for bread that does not contain rice flour and who must inform all well-meaning hosts that we cannot in fact attend the dinner in our honor if rice is on our plate (everyone else should be fine).

“But you’re, like, (insert mixed ancestry here). Every time I go over to my Mexican friends’ houses they always seem to have Mexican rice for dinner.” -Friend A

Mexican culture has sadly been reduced to Taco Bell and whatever happens to be on the home menu depending on when guests come over (rice is cheap and filling… and deadly to my internal organs, sadly). Also, just because something happens to be ethnic food or commonly eaten in a given culture, doesn’t mean that people born and raised in said culture can’t be allergic to that food. Rice, admittedly, has a very low allergen report rate compared to peanuts and other well-documented food allergies.

“Here, just try a little bit. This onigiri was made using only the best of premium Japanese rice, the kind that only rich people can afford and that poor folk dream about; organically grown and straight from my wife’s family’s farm from the one prefecture in this entire country where it is said the rice is the most delicious. Oh and they only use fresh mountain river water to flood the fields. You can’t be allergic to this.” -Coworker B

I can and I am. Okay so maybe I took some creative liberty with the wording about the mountain river water (although according to my super, whom I asked, it was true about the rich people can only afford thing and that there is a designated prefecture that can claim to have the best rice. Congrats to Niigata).

But in all in all I only try to highlight a handful of experiences that I’ve had. But trust me it’s not going to get any easier explaining time and again that yes, your lunch sans rice is more than filling enough, and that, no, you’re really quite very much sure at this point that premium rice from Niigata will cause you the same reactions as rice from Hokkaido.

What does rice allergy/intolerance look like? Everyone, of course, is different. For example, I know of people who can eat rice just fine but as soon as summer rolls around they must resort to wearing masks for fear of rice pollen entering their nostrils and thus bringing about a very near death sentence. Or maybe eating the rice and inhaling the rice pollen are just fine but harvest season is a veritable inferno because you’re allergic to the rice stalks that are burned throughout October and November.

I’m of the ‘pollen and burning stalks are fine but I can’t eat it’ variety. If you, like me, experience stomach pains, loss of digestive capabilities, and/or throw up the contents of your stomach with each bowl of rice… then congratulations, you may have rice allergy/intolerance! Now on to the stuff that will help save your life and/or cope with not being able to eat 90% of what is produced in Japan.

THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT LIVING IN JAPAN WITH A RICE ALLERGY

1. Rice flour can be in anything. They put it in bread and other things that you wouldn’t traditionally think of as having rice. You’ll have to learn the kanji for rice and its onyomi and kunyomi derivatives just to be on the safe side: kome, ine, meshi, gohan, and mama (this last one is in Nanbu-ben).

2. Senbei is rice. It’s puffed rice that doesn’t look like rice but it’s still rice. And it shows up at drinking parties 100% of the time. Dango is rice. Mochi is also rice. Manju is rice.

3. Rice is rice. You may not need reminding but your coworkers will try to helpfully point out that maybe if only you cooked oats with your rice that your stomach will start to digest it properly or that maybe you just need to eat the higher grade stuff. Nope.

4. School lunch will always have rice. If you can get by on eating kyushoku with just the side dishes then you’re golden. I formally withdrew from the school lunch system eight months ago and it has made life easier but there are other options.

5. Restaurants price food rigidly. You will not be paying less or getting more of something else to compensate for the fact that you’ll be orderimg the tempura without the rice. Makes for interesting meal combinations, though.

6. There is no whole wheat bread. If your body can’t handle white bread either then you’re running on slim options. Bread making is quite the industry in Japan and a slew of electronic companies have impressive lines of bread making machines on the market. If you can find a reliable purveyor of whole wheat flour (expensive, but not unbudgetable) then that will create more variety in your diet.

7. Learn your symptoms, if you don’t know them already. Some allergies manifest later in life or suddenly worsen.

8. You’ll have to get used to smiling and pointing out in a soft and unobtrusive voice that you’re really, really sorry but you can’t eat what’s on your plate because you may possibly die and/or suffer physical pain.

9. Make sure your allergy is known early on. I was in denial at first. Lessons were learned the hard way.

10. Make everyone else feel comfortable eating rice and remind coworkers that you don’t really need omiyage or that you’re more than happy to hear their travel stories in lieu of a gift. More on omiyage later, but for now let’s just call them souvenirs. One colleague surprised the office with funny and interesting postcards from Niigata because apparently Niigata = Rice Eaters Only and he didn’t want me to feel left out. I’m forever grateful to him and for his thoughtfulness (cries tears of gratitude)

11. Compile a list of doctors and hospitals, their phone numbers, and have all this information stored on your phone for easy access. Keep in mind that inaka clinic hours are different than city hours and English speakers are RARE here. The hospital in my town can only afford to keep its clinic running in the morning and does not admit anyone in the afternoon unless it’s quite clear that said person is dying on them. And even then…

12. Make sure you have emergency contacts and their information on hand. Basics but worth mentioning especially if it’s your first time experiencing a late onset allergy/intolerance as an adult.

You may even find yourself loving rice but being unable to eat it. I love dango. And mochi. And senbei. I think they taste amazing and what wouldn’t I give to be able to eat them like everyone else. Best thing is not to be in denial, get the tests, make the changes, and just look back fondly on your days with rice as enka worthy bittersweet memories.

Wagashi with Hashiba Jiro

IMG_1975-0 和菓子 (wagashi) is the Japanese style of confectionary. The main ingredients used in the creation of wagashi are soy, red azuki beans, white azuki beans, sugar, sakura, and natural gelatin. For the most part, wagashi is flour free (unless you make dorayaki, pancakes with red bean filling). Wagashi are often made according to season and served with hot green tea to counterbalance their bright, sweet overtones of azuki and sugar. The best part, in my opinion, is that wagashi can be either molded by hand or placed into special pine molds which makes the activity feel more like play and less like work 😀

Hashiba Jirou, confectioner of Japanese sweets at Marumiya, spent two hours showing Japanese and foreign residents how to make a variety of bean paste based wagashi (luckily for me, no rice). The seminar reminded me of an edible version of ceramics – for anyone who knows the pain of keeping clay at just the right level of moisture (too dry and it cracks, too wet and it loses sculpting functionality) the bean paste acted in much the same manner. Our plates were plasticwrapped to prevent our colorful bean pastes from over drying and a bowl for finger/hand dipping provided all the extra moisture we would need as the molding commenced. Bean paste is decidedly softer, making it easier to retain moisture better than clay, but these traits also come with a less positive flip side: it’s easier to over moisturizer and thereby reduce it to runny, sticky mess if not careful. Also, the colors bleed into each other with more difficulty but can spread over each other more easily. Or in other words: blending for artistry = difficult, but like Playdough once the colors stick to each other they’re hard to separate, this is largely due to the moisture. Or so I suspect.

We made a koi, a pine molded fan, cherries, a rose that stumped us all on the same scale as rocket science, and kabuto (samurai hat). My favorite was, hands down, the koi because KOI. It had an adorably puckered fishy mouth, a chocolate centerpiece eye, and sweet red bean paste filling.  Being taught by a master in the field was a unique experience and absolutely better than my usual method of ‘buy the ingredients, say a little prayer, and hope for the best’. And like all new things, it opened a temporary window into a world of possibility. I would like to make my own version of wagashi in my own kitchen someday 😀 but it may not take place of my cookie making. There is something about working with flour that I love, in the way that the dough feels and the uncertainty of anything turning out right until the very end.

ALSO! I got to keep a magic fan that Hashiba-sensei hand made!!! Open out the fan on one side and it looks like any other ordinary fan. Now reverse the opening movement and the individual components of the fan lock out of place to make it look like the cloth covering it’s frame have come apart completely! Pictures to come later…

Hallway Inspiration?

“It’s when you find yourself thinking that you’re doing well that the end is near.”  

I’m trying to figure out if this means something along the lines of “It’s once you’ve reached your peak and you’re at your best the decline is near” or a little bit more of what my kendo instructor likes to call encouragement: “If you think you’re at your best and you get too cocky, you’ll lose”. 

Thoughts? Comments? Translation advice?

Rice Farming 101

 

I love science classes in Japan. They’re so much more fun in small schools, where the kids get a special yellow folder-esque backpack that they use to collect their data and samples. And because we’re out in the middle of nowhere you can be sure that the school owns a rice patch (or two) as well as a bit of extra land for vegetables and flowers.

About two weeks ago the kids planted the ricelings. By now my schools know I’m allergic to rice… But there seems to be some confusion on how the allergy side of things works.

“I just heard from Natsuhori-sensei! When do we plant the rice?” I asked excitedly. It’s been my dream, nay my sole reason for living (in the countryside), to plant rice.

“Oh.”

I await eagerly for my orders to ditch the indoor shoes and to go wade knee-deep into a field of water-logged mud.

“Well… It’s just that… The kids have already finished planting. They’re coming back soon.”

Shock. Dismay. Heartbreak. WHY?! Was I not loved? Was I too foreign to help plant rice? Did they not think I could survive a near drowning in a rice paddy?

“You’re allergic to rice so we didn’t want you to get a bad reaction. The kids were sad but they understand.”

O.O”?!

After a brief explanation that I needed to ingest the rice before feeling any of the ill effects they decided to schedule the follow up field work day on Wednesday (or as it is known at that particular school, the only day we know in English. Also known as, the day the ALT comes to the village).

The awaited day arrived and I counted down the periods to science with all the anticipation that my four-year old self counted down the days to Christmas.

A kind farmer who lived in the neighborhood brought all the necessary supplies to care for the field. After giving us a brief lesson in the ways of rice and growing the perfect batch, we set down to business.

We threw soy beans so that they could rot at the bottom of the murky waters. Then we threw left over a rice flour and mulch looking mixture to cover the top of the water with “a curtain”. This, I was assured, would prevent other plants like grass from sprouting. We were in effect feeding the rice plants and weeding out the competition in one fell swoop.

In two months  we’ll be releasing some koi and carps into the paddies. They’ll eat up whatever weeds and grass did manage to grow but leave the rice alone. Some farmers use ducks instead of fish, but I’m rather partial to the fish method because FISH.

And that was how I learned for the first time that fish get to swim in the rice. Mind blown.

Climbing Mt. Dread

Osorezan. The gate to hell on earth if the local legends are to be believed.  This eerie landscape is a geological minefield of sulfur deposites atop an active caldera. Just kneel down to the ground to feel the heat first hand.                              

Among the JET community is a popular legend that if you climb Osorezan, you leave your soul behind and must climb a second time to pick it up. If you drop an item and pick it up, you’ve also picked up a demon. And my personal favorite, if you trip while climbing or descending a particular red bridge that’s supposed to mean some supernatural force is clinging on to you, thereby affecting your balance.

Let’s just say Osorezan ranks way up there on the creepy list for a reason. And it’s not just because of the local legends. Professional shamans still live on the mountain, oracles that wil give you a reading of your future… If you dare. However, they have a specific time in the autumn right before the mountain is closed down for winter when readings are given so it’s not a year round thing.

Road Trip Reactions

It’s a lovely, commitment-free city hall day in June. My notebooks are out, the coffee liberally poured, and The Google is running like a champ. It’s really quite a miracle – not completely lost on me – that the world of navigation has been simplified since the advent of the interwebs. As the Queen of Getting Lost in my family, I used to have to mapquest directions for something as close as the mall two cities over in a country where the streets have names (a.k.a Anywhere But Japan). Albeit street names are practically rendered obsolete and useless in Japan, mostly because of the Things Have Always Been Done This Way tradition of We Will Only Ever Take The Same Route Taken By Our Forefathers, Naming Streets Be Damned 😀 I love Japan. It’s a quirky, beautiful country full of gumption and character, which I wish everyone could see first hand.

By now word has gone round the office that I’m planning a suicidal road trip mission impossible: from Aomori Prefecture to Fukuoka then up to Tokyo to drop off a friend at the airport and back up to Aomori with just enough time to clock in at work by 8 am. It’s a standing tradition by now that whenever anyone comes to refill their coffee (machine of which is just behind my work station), said person stops to comment on the weather and chat me up about my recent inaka experiences. Quick, painless interactions that have now since come to mean this:

“So. You’re planning on going to Fukuoka?” Long pause. Coffee sip. “What are you: a college student or a shakaijin?”

Real knee slapper. Big grin from me and a joking, “Ohohohohoho.”

“But seriously, take it easy. Take a train! Or a camper van. Anything but a kei car.”

Kei cars are karui jidousha (lighter, fuel efficient versions of the white plate car and they are a pain to rev up past 80 kmph, though not impossible).

“Just… don’t.” Coworker shakes head, walks away.

“Ehhhh… why?” I ask after them.

“Traffic,” was the grim response. Apparently despite the fact that southern Japan is at 70-90% humid, no one seems to have qualms about travelling down there by car.

Another coworker comments, “I once went from Osaka to Tottori to Izumo to Hiroshima to Yamaguchi. I gave up at Yamaguchi. At that point Fukuoka seemed too far. Also, I wasn’t an adult like you, I was still an idiot college student. But I hear there’s a shrine that’s famous for housing a god of study. Is that why you’re going?”

I’m not ashamed to admit that I like studying. I love learning new things. I’m a shameless nerd. Some might consider this statement condescending. I assure you it’s not. I just didn’t have much else to do growing up in a household where going out or visiting friends was Out Of The Question. Basically it was classical music CDs (the only thing lying around the house apart from mariachi) and unhealthy amounts of Discovery, History, and Bill Nye. I’m starting to realize that most of my social anxiety came from not being allowed to socialize normally with other kids. Bleh.

“Trust me, you won’t make it to Fukuoka. You should quit now,” lovingly said, I assure you. They’re worried I’ll get myself into an accident, or worse yet into an early grave. Suzu-chan, I believe in you! For those of you who do not know, Suzu-chan is my kei car (who’s gotten me through the thick and thin of Akita and Sendai road trips but nothing quite like a 21 hour drive down to Kyushu).

One of the special ed teachers though understands exactly where I’m coming from. He owns a camper van and frequently goes off on weekend adventures. It’s just him, his camper van, and the great outdoors. As soon as he heard that a noob like me was planning a trip of doom he had one of his kids whip out a map of Japan and turned it into a geography lesson for the kid and an Introduction to the Road Trip of Doom 101 with a 3 unit Lab lesson for me. I will have to thank him profusely again next time I see him because it’s quite the advice!

All of this led me to asking The Googles if it was feasible to travel in a camper van and sifting through several forums I’ve come to one conclusion far too late in life: there area lot of idiots online. So many of the people commenting had either never gone on a road trip or had only done a day trip out of their town and were condemning the idea of even setting off for a cross country road trip because they’d had horrible experiences getting lost in the middle of a country where there are no street names and where they clearly didn’t speak the language. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve gotten lost plenty but at least I speak the language. I’ll have to see how much I love or hate Japan after this road trip but for the time being, despite the strange roadways and inconvenient ETC routes (Japan is mountainous, folks. We’re not in flatter-than-a-pancake Kansas anymore), I don’t think this road trip will kill it for me just yet. More word on that when I get back… >.>

And my favorite:

“Oh my God. Just train there. Trains are comfy, kei cars are like Death.”

Over and out.