The English Menu, or Why I Am A Horrible Human Being…

theenglishmenu

“Hello. Welcome. Table for two.” A hand shows the number two visually.

“はい、二人です。”

We are seated. We reach for menus and peruse while the waiter waits, watches us silently for a few moments. We’ve started speaking only to each other, unaware that he is still there, and are taking our time pointing out options to each other. This is mistaken as ineptitude.

“English menu?” he helpfully materializes an English version of the laminate copy. Any other time, I would be grateful. But this is the fifth time at the same restaurant with the same waiter and it’s been a long, long day. I glance across the table where stormy eyes concur with unsaid words. I turn suddenly to the waiter.

“ああ、大丈夫。読める。” I make an attempt at informal Japanese to show I actually can speak informally as well. Dark eyes blink back, slightly confused but the English menu spirited away from sight. Believing, I have established all information we needed to continue with dinner, we peruse at our leisure. We speak of silly things and serious things, we laugh at inside jokes, pointing out delicious options.

Five minutes pass in this way, until the waiter returns with a pitcher of water in one hand and…

…the English menu in another.

My mind screams in horror long before I’ve caught up with it. The pitcher of water is set down and the English menu dropped on the table where it cannot be ignored. To my very core, I am frozen, a mixture of emotions.

Shock. Laughter. Confusion. Fury. Despair. I want to cry. I want to laugh. Mostly I want to have dinner for once in my life, with the full comprehension that I know what I’m doing with a Japanese menu in my hand. Powder and sparks and consuming kisses, iambic pentameter, the sound of the atom bomb tests, Beethoven’s explosive fifth symphony… I think in sound, I think primarily in music. It’s all going through my head at the speed of light and anger wins before the rest of the emotions can catch up.

That all takes a millisecond to process. A fraction of a breath. I bend over across the table laughing into the hard wood surface, my arms encircling my head because I’m afraid of what I may do if he’s still around when I look up. I wait until I’m absolutely sure he is no longer near us. I surface for air.

“That’s it. I’m going to order in keigo.”

“What. No.”

We “argue”, my dinner partner and I, bantering about how we shall order in absolutely perfect Japanese keigo (or not order in such a way until we leave for our road trip and know for a fact that our passive aggressive actions will never negatively impact us).

“No, you’re right that’s just too rude. But still. I really want to order in keigo.” Internally, I tell myself that I might just wear my Waseda sweat shirt next time I go in. A sweat shirt made for autumn weather worn in the middle of summer is sure to illicit some response. Any response to the fact that I may not speak like a native but I can very well order at a restaurant.

Once we are quite sure that we know what we will order, we push the magic button that calls our waiter over and I speed speak through my order to show I’m not going to stumble through the conversation, I even give an explanation for why I can’t eat rice (allergy) and if it would alright to substitute it for naan. It’s not perfect, because I did slip up that last bit of grammar but I made myself more than intelligible.

Sadly, this isn’t the first time. It’s a performance piece we repeat ad nauseum, at every restaurant, and it eventually takes its toll on your self-confidence as a JSL (Japanese as a Second Language) speaker. Deep down inside you may know you’ve done it right, you’ve grammar-ed and words-ed your way through the linguistic minefield of what may be the exact opposite of how your native tongue works, and yet you will be rejected by looks alone.

He walks away even more confused than before. A different waiter comes to deliver the food. I’m unsure whether it’s worked or not, but we’re getting curry one last time before Kimmy leaves so, the fruits of our labor will be made known to us then. I feel like a horrible human being, relishing in the satisfaction of having pulled passive aggression on anyone. There are not buts to that sentence. I let it stand as is.

Curried Kidney Beans and Potatoes

It’s been a while since I updated the recipe section. After three weeks of convalescing (basically the whole winter break), I found myself confronting a dilemma that all the single people across the world must one day face: an empty refrigerator and no one to send on an errand to the super. Subsisting off of batches of chicken soup, I’d depleted the pantry of everything but a bag full of kidney beans, some left over potatoes, and an intense spice rack. Not going to lie, the idea for curried kidney beans came from the Great Oracle of the Googles when it spat out recipes for Rajma when I typed in key words for ‘kidney beans’, ‘spices’, and ‘recipes’.

My variation isn’t true to Rajma per se… for one, it has potatoes. For seconds… I am allergic to rice so instead I’m toasting some bread and pretending that’s naan but Rajma sounds amazing and I look forward to making a true batch one day. Note: The amounts listed for spices are approximate. My coriander bottle practically emptied a quarter of its contents when the lid fell off… it should however be 1 teaspoon. So no worries if you fudge the numbers!

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CURRIED KIDNEY BEANS AND POTATOES

INGREDIENTS:
Olive oil
1 onion, chopped
3-4 cloves garlic, chopped
1.5 tsp ground ginger
1 can cut tomatoes
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground tumeric
2 tsp garam masala
Ground chili pepper to taste
2.5 cups red kidney beans
2 potatoes, cubed

INSTRUCTIONS:
0. Set kidney beans aside the night before in a bowl of water. Kidney beans must soak overnight before they will be ready to cook next day. Minimum 7-8 hour soak, can soak for longer but not less time. You can also boil them in advance so that when they are added in the final step, it cuts simmering time in half.
1. Coat deep sauce pan in olive oil. Heat onions and garlic on low heat until translucent.
2. Add potatoe cubes and fry on high heat for about three minutes. Add ground ginger as you stir potatoes, onions, and garlic.
3. Stir in kidney beans plus the can of cut tomatoes as well as any water/sauce that comes in the can. Add cumin, coriander, tumeric, garam masala. Lower heat and cover sauce pan, stirring and taste testing occasionally. Allow the mixture to cook for 45 minutes to an hour.

😀

So it was my first official week back to work. I didn’t realize just how much I missed my kids until I was up at the front again, teaching. Some days I’m so afraid that I’m doing it all wrong – I have legit freak out moments with thoughts ranging the spectrum of: “Oh my God, oh my God, they’re confused, right? I should have explained it differently! Now they’re going to fail the test… I’m the reason they’re failing English, right?” to “What if I’ve traumatized them?! What if they never want to meet another foreigner ever again?!”

This is probably a small scale version of what it’s like to be a parent.

Today one of my first graders was playing by himself on the stairwell. He’s a funny kid who’s startlingly un-Japanese. He speaks his mind. If he has questions he asks directly. He wants hugs and love and attention… he rarely sees his mother (who is remarried) and his father is quite strict and does not have much physical contact with his son. Today he was quieter than usual, ignoring me until I sit down on the stairs with him, when he asks:

“Where is your mother?” He wants to know what it’s like for foreigners to have a home life.

“In America,” I reply, munching on the last of my apple and unable to satisfy his curiosity about my home life. Lunch was late and I still had food to finish before going down to the teacher’s offices. I’m pretty sure my kids think I’m living with my parents still and that my mom’s got dinner cooking on the stove by the time I get back. The fact that I make my own bento surprises them every time.

My little first grader is unfazed by my answer. “What about your father?”

“Also in America. With my mom.”

“Grandma? Grandpa?” he asks.

“Not in Japan either.”

“Why?”

“Because I moved to Japan to teach English… so I’m living alone now.”

“Why?” he persists.

A little confused, I ask for clarification: “Why did I move to Japan or why am I living alone?”

“Both.”

“My parents couldn’t move with me and I’m teaching English to find out what I want to do with the rest of my life.”

At which point our conversation is cut short by the vice principle, who is going around collecting photos for the year book. He likes the picture we make and has us pose on top of the stairs together. The camera is a shiny toy, it distracts the little one. He’s forgotten our conversation and now follows the vice principle as he makes his rounds through the classrooms. By then, I’d whittled the apple down to the core. I could eat it, like I normally do, but I’m not in the mood anymore. I chuck it into the nearest bin, remembering that I’ve got to do the grocery shopping tonight or starve.

I once read online that most twenty-somethings thought that becoming an adult meant no longer having a bed time… The reality: it just meant having to be in charge of one’s own bed time. How very true. It also means getting to decide where one will be working for the next year. In my case, I’ve just finished signing my contract for 2015-2016. Year two as an English teacher in Japan commences. And I couldn’t be any happier, or any more frightened, if I tried 😀

Una Sera di Tokyo and The Aomori Blues

Okay, so I’ve kept my audience of one hanging in the air (hello, mum) in regards to arrival in Japan. Yes, I am finally here. In my new apartment, the only place with decent free WiFi. Common misconception about Japan: there is no free WiFi anywhere. Why else are internet cafes so huge, eh?

But, yeah! Two years to the day since last I left my beloved Waseda days behind and I still felt genuinely at home despite some minor culture readjustments. Had a great dinner at Tari-ya (a legit Bangladesh curry restaurant located next to Waseda University) on the 28th to mark that two years to the day anniversary. Tari-ya was also my breakfast/last meal before leaving Japan two years ago so it seemed that on a literal and metaphorical note it was the best meal choice to make. After three days of orientation, teaching seminars, training, and meeting some pretty cool people, we got put on planes (or trains depending on our destination) and flown to the ‘Blue Forest’ of Japan. The kanji for Aomori denote ‘blue’ and ‘forest’ but the actual meaning of the word from the indigenous Ainu is thought to mean something more like a ‘protruding hill’. The sounds for the word happened to fit closer to the Japanese ‘AO’ and ‘MORI’ better, hence the adoption of the kanji for ‘blue forest’.

As a whole, the prefecture is known for ranking as one of the poorest, least populated, and on average its citizens also have the least amount of post secondary education. But, it is one damn beautiful prefecture. Rice fields for miles, picturesque farms, and forests that look like they came straight out of a Miyazaki film: between the concrete jungle and convenience of Tokyo or the wild daishizen (great nature) of Tohoku, so far I’m enjoying Tohoku. However, there is one drawback: if you don’t have a car, you’re not going anywhere. I wouldn’t go so far as calling it the Kansas of Japan but it’s getting there.

One very important thing to remember about Japan is that there are two kinds of cars: Yellow Plate and White Plate, or otherwise known as Kei-Car and Regular. The Yellow Plate (Kei-Car) is known for it’s unrivaled fuel efficiency and cheap tax rate, however it comes with significant disadvantages as well. Less powerful than a regular White Plate car and more expensive in upfront costs, Kei-Car will still get you around town. The Kei comes from the Japanese pronunciation of the letter K from the word ‘karui’ which means ‘light weight’.

Mass transport system between districts in Aomori is few, far between, and quite expensive. Gonohemachi actually has no trains and only a few bus lines ergo I need a car. The nearest mall is 30 minutes away. The nearest big city is an hour’s drive. To meet other JETs in the area, my only other option would be to spend a fortune on bus tickets as they run a bit higher in price than Tokyo. My predecessors each bought their own cars (second hand, of course) but they guarantee that I would be delusional to think I could enjoy the Aomori experience without one. They’ve all been so helpful giving me the necessities to move in comfortably. So many JETs are leaving this year so they’re dumping their alcohol, left over foods and goods on my JETs. In turn, after making some choice selections, my colleagues are dumping the majority of it on me, which explains why my house looks like a grocer’s and a UNIQLO all rolled into one. So far, I love my colleague Mina, a Cali-esque native of Michigan who has been teaching for the past two years and I’ll be sad to see her go once her contract for the third year is up in summer 2015.

The person from whom I inherited this gem of an apartment, Michael, was the longest JET that Gonohemachi has known, coming in at a 5 year residency and teaching stint at the local elementary and junior high schools. The adventures so far in Aomori have been limited to the city’s bank (where I now have my new swanky account), meeting the mayor (and drinking apple juice with him), visiting Misawa Air Base, having dinner with the man who can make things happen in the city, frequenting a nice bar owned by Yacchan and his Philippine wife, and in general just getting towed around by car so I can acquaint myself with the surroundings.

Currently, I’m scheduled to teach the first English lesson at the community center for adults. It’s extra work that earns me extra vacation days (which I will gladly take over money – my salary is pretty good to begin with and I need time to travel more so than money). Wow. I can’t believe I just wrote that. Normally I’m used to having all the time in the world and not enough cash. But anyway I digress. The work at the elementary and junior high school is what I am paid but I’m more than happy to get to know people, especially the adults (most of whom I assume will be the parents of the kids), and have conversations with them.

And that’s a wrap for now. In the next post I’ll talk more about Japanese summer traditions and cultural events like matsuri (festivals), for which this region is famous. Mexicans understand what I mean when I say: each region has it’s festival and the party doesn’t end!

Over and out 😀