Wednesday, 24 January 2007

Cultural Oddities

I talk a lot on this blog about my life in Japan as if it were just ordinary life. Which it is. To me. But of course, not everyone has lived in, or even been to Asia. I should probably talk about some of the oddities or just plain ‘different’ things that I encounter in my life here, simply because someone else may find it interesting.

The first has to do with how well people are capable of growing used to things, given enough time. You know, I get a shock every morning when I go to clean my teeth and see my face in the bathroom mirror. Why? Because I can clearly see the difference between the irises and pupils of my eyes. Everyone I see on almost any given day is Japanese, and has dark brown eyes. I am the only person I see in a day who does not have brown eyes. My own eyes freak my sleep-addled brain out. How weird is that?

The other year, before I knew much Japanese, some people were having a conversation about something or other in the staff room at the Jr. High. I wasn’t really listening, because I could not understand what they were saying. All of a sudden the English teacher held out a box of coloured pencils and asked me to pull out the pencil which I thought of as ‘skin colour.’ I pulled out the peachy, flesh coloured pencil, of course. Some people said ‘yappari’ (I thought so), and some others went ‘heeeeeh’ (a noise made to express surprise). The people who said heeeeeh had been expecting me to pick either the white colour pencil or the pink one. Mostly the white one, I think. Because, you know, all foreigners overseas are paper white (despite the fact that the ones who come to Japan aren’t).

People still complement me on my amazing chopstick-wielding skills. Or are surprised to find that I like umeboshi. And noodles. And rice. And that I don’t eat hamburgers, or even bread, every day.

My diet has changed since I have been in Japan. This past half year or so, my diet has been more Japanese than Western, and I don’t just mean the school lunches. I eat lots of stews and soups for dinner, made from mostly vegetables, a lot of which I never really ate before, bulked out with things like tofu and processed fish sticks, or with dim sums or Chinese dumplings as a side dish. Vegetables I eat a lot of now: carrots, leeks, potatoes, spinach, onions (that’s normal enough), but also Chinese cabbage, Japanese parsley, various forms of seaweed, weird skinny mushrooms and other assorted fungi, and lots of root vegetables we don’t really have in NZ such as ‘nagaimo’ (a super slippery sword-length vegetable) and burdock root (which I eat as often as carrots, and maybe more often than potatoes). The only meal for me in a normal day which is not at least half Japanese is breakfast; I am still eating cereal.

When there is no snow there is no winter, and at the moment there is no snow. I can’t quite believe that I already think this way, considering that before I moved to Northern Japan, I had never lived in a place where winter snows could be depended upon. We were lucky to get more than one day of snow a year in Crawley, and from the age of eleven onwards, I only ever saw snow from a great distance, i.e. on distant mountains.

Most people make me feel welcome here in Japan, but every now and then I’ll be walking down the street and someone coming towards me will cross to the other side so they don’t have to get close to me, despite the fact that there is only a footpath on one side of the road.

You will not believe some of the things I have been served at work parties. I once got served a part of an eel’s head in sauce. There was this eye as big as mine right in the middle of it looking up at me. Raw fish guts make an occasional appearance. There was also this time when I found a little bowl of white lumpy stuff that looked like curdled cream on my tray. I asked what it was. The maths teacher told me what it was, but I didn’t understand the word. So he said in Japanese, “You know how we can eat fish eggs?”
“Yes,” said I.
“That comes from a lady fish.”
“Yes . . .”
“Well, this comes from a man fish.”
Yay, fish sperm on my plate.

It is not safe to order chicken kebabs in Japan, unless you are very knowledgeable on the specific terms for different parts of avian anatomy. You are just as likely to get chicken skin on a stick, chicken feet on a stick, chicken hearts on a stick, chicken cartilage (sans meat) on a stick or chicken necks on a stick as you are chicken muscle meat on a stick.

In Japan, fish is not meat. It is totally acceptable to serve fish to a known vegetarian.

Even my male Jr. High students have little cute things hanging from the zippers of their pencil cases. They would get beaten up in NZ. Oh, and speaking of strange Jr, High boy behaviour, boys here like to sit on each others’ knees and play with each others’ hair. I’ve often wondered about this, and I think the reason is that most Japanese people seem to believe that there are no gay Japanese people, that it’s a foreign phenomenon. Therefore they don’t have to worry about being labelled a ‘fag’ or whatever. I suppose that boys may act more free in expressing affection, i.e. more like girls, in any society that is free from homophobia. Or maybe it is just that most of the young popular male actors on TV here are so damned effeminate.

I cannot find CDs in CD stores here. I am in Japan, but I order all my Japanese music online. I know what order the CDs should be listed in: a, i, u, e, o, ka, ki . . . , but even so I can never find anything. It is not just because everything is written in Kanji. I was looking for a CD by the Yoshida Kyodai, who are two brothers who play the shamisen in a ‘cool and hip’ way. I made sure I knew what kanji their name is written in before I went to the store, and what the pictures on the front of their CDs look like. I looked under the ‘a’ to ‘wa’ Popular category at every single CD in the ‘yo’ section, to no avail. So I went to check the Classical section. Again, no Yoshida brothers. At a long shot I checked under Jazz/Blues. Nothing. These guys are super popular in Japan. I cannot believe that a largish CD store would not be carrying their CDs. Looks like I will have to put in an order with amazon.co.jp again.

The setting sun really is red here in Japan, just like on the flag. I think it has something to do with Chinese pollution or sand from the Gobi Desert. I have tried to take pictures of the sun, but as I’m sure everyone is aware, you cannot take good pictures of the sun or the moon with point-and-click cameras. They shrink down to little blobs.

Japanese people think that the rules of cricket are far too difficult to learn. “They throw a ball at those sticks, right? But how do people get home runs? And what’s with the number with the decimal point in it?” I’ve tried explaining cricket to people, but before I’ve finished they say “But one game goes on for a week, right? Too long, too long,” and they stop listening and start smiling and nodding. As in “I’m never going to have time to sit down and watch five days, or even one day of the same game, so why bother learning the rules?”

My friend Atsuko thinks I’m a dirty foreigner. This statement may need a little historical backup. You see, Japan has an abundancy of water. Japanese people have never really had to worry about water shortages. Therefore, a rather interesting *coughwastefulcough* bathing culture has emerged here. Japanese people, each and every day, have both a shower and a bath. First they wash themselves completely under the shower. Then they get into a big steaming bath to soak and relax for a few minutes. No soap or flannels are allowed in the bath. No washing occurs. This is because in a family household all people will use the same bathwater, so everyone has to be absolutely clean before they get into the water, and leave the water clean for the next person. People who live alone still go through the whole ritual. That is a shower and a full steaming bathful (right up to the shoulders) worth of water to wash only one person each and every day. I think that is bloody wasteful, so unless I have a cold and really want a bath, I will only have a shower, just like before I came to Japan.
Now, this is where Atsuko’s opinion of me comes in. She thinks that because I only have a shower and not a bath every day that I am dirty. And that I can’t help it, because that’s just how gaijin are. I tried bringing up the point that, if a Japanese person has to clean themselves fully under a shower before getting in the bath then surely a shower alone is perfectly capable of getting a person clean. But she can’t see it. No bath, no clean, is the Japanese point of view.

In Japan, everything comes in oodles and oodles of packaging; such as on a tray, in plastic, inside a plastic wrapped cardboard box; or in a bottle that is wrapped in plastic; or on a tray in a bag, with each individual item (e.g. biscuit) individually wrapped in plastic. I’ve heard that all of this stuff can be recycled, but where? I think that some towns have a day for plastic collection, where all the plastic wrappings can be put out together, but my town doesn’t. I’ve also heard that a lot of the plastic wrappers can be put out with the PET bottles, but I had a peek at other peoples’ rubbish on PET bottle day, and all people were putting out was bottles. So I throw huge mountains of plastic away every week on the ‘burnable rubbish’ day because I don’t know what else to do with it. And I thought that Japan was supposed to be leading the world with its recycling capabilities.

Japanese people typically don’t have gardens. They buy a small plot of land and fill the whole thing up with a huge house. They can look right out their kitchen windows into the kitchen of the house behind theirs. No cooking in your pajamas in Japan.

Speaking of Japanese houses, people here don’t seem to believe in insulation. The specialists all apparently believe that insulation, although it would be nice to have in the cold Japanese winters, would keep houses hot in the hot Japanese summer. Which is a fallacy. Insulation helps to keep the heat out in summer, does it not? How the entire building industry in a country can fail to learn from the accepted wisdom of many other countries and also fail to do tests and learn for themselves such a basic fact, I do not know. As a result, the whole Japanese population suffers from hot summers and cold winters, even inside their own homes, and has to pay a fortune in heating and cooling because half the heat from their heaters escapes to the outside, as well as half the cooling power of their air conditioners. In summer, the cans in my kitchen cupboard are warm to the touch, all chocolate has to be kept in the fridge (which I don’t like doing because cold chocolate doesn’t taste as nice) and I can’t use my computer for very long or it will overheat. In winter I spend a small fortune running my heater enough to keep my breath invisible, but all the while the snow (when there is some) melts along the wall that my heater is set against.

A lot of people here, when they meet me for the first time assume that I am American. They ask stupid questions like “Do people eat sushi in America?” and I’ll say “I don’t know, I’ve never been there,” even though I know quite well that there are plenty of sushi restaurants in America, and I have in fact been to Hawaii, which is (politically) a part of America.

People seem to think that New Zealand is a dry, hot, flat country like Australia. They don’t seem to believe me when I say that NZ is green and has a lot of rain. Not until I remind them of The Lord of the Rings, anyway. They also seem to think that koalas may be found in NZ. I will admit that this problem is not limited to Japan, but in fact affects most of the world.

Apparently I speak ‘The Queens English’ as all Brits, Kiwis and Aussies do. Of course all our English is exactly the same. North American English being so different to make all other Englishes look essentially the same merely by comparison has nothing to do with it. Actually, I hear that ‘Queen’s English’ phrase a lot. I wonder where they are all getting it from.

There are no trolleys in supermarkets here in Japan. None that I’ve seen, anyway. They have baskets and little wheeled frames to put the baskets on if you happen to be old or have trouble walking. But no trolleys. Why? Every household does grocery shopping every day, that’s why.

And speaking of trolleys, Atsuko told me that Americans just put anything in their shopping trolleys without even looking at what it is. Um, what am I supposed to make of that? I assume she got that idea from watching American movies, where the actor doing the shopping has to look at the actor of the character they are having a conversation with, as well as keep their face turned kind of towards the camera. I wonder if Atsuko thinks that ‘Americans’ don’t watch the road when they drive because people on TV are always looking at the person in the passenger seat.

And speaking of roads, many Japanese people seem to think they are the only left hand drivers in the world.

Oh, and roads don’t have names here in Japan, which makes it very difficult to find a place you have never been to before. Addresses look like this in Japan: Akita City (city level), Higashi Akita (district level), Omachi (section of a district encompassing, in my area at least, about 10 streets), 350-89-2A (a code that indicates which particular building within the area of 10 streets, and also room number if the building is an apartment building). These numbers are not written on peoples’ houses like street numbers in other countries, nor are they written on street signs. In big cities the number for that block may be written on the corners, but not out here in the country. Therefore the only people who addresses are actually helpful for are postal workers who have charts and diagrams on their office walls and in their vans telling them the code of each building in their area. Oh, a lot of people have the family surname written on the letterbox, but since half of all Japanese people are called ‘Satou’ or ‘Sasaki’ that doesn’t really help. If you tell a Japanese person how, back home, all streets have names and all buildings on the street are numbered linearly so you just have to walk down the street until you get to the right place, they go “Wow, that’s such a good idea! I mean, you could find someone’s house without them having to send you a map first!”

I guess about 95% of Japanese people can play a musical instrument, and I don’t just mean the kazoo.

Japanese people on the whole eat a lot of food and yet remain skinny. But a lot of young people these days practically starve themselves, and are on average about 0.5kg lighter than their noodle- and fried shrimp-loving brethren. I don’t know why they bother.

Any stream in Japan bigger than a trickle in a ditch has concrete banks.

Hot, canned, sweet milky coffee is very popular here. It is available in vending machines all over the country. I have to wonder what on earth they are putting in the coffee to stop the milk from going off as it sits for weeks on end in a perpetually heated can.

Vending machines can be found anywhere in this country. There are of course vending machines in the places you would expect to find them; outside stations and sports gyms etc. But you can also find vending machines placed randomly on residential streets, clustered at the side of the road in the middle of all these rice fields without a building in sight, overlooking a particularly nice beach, or even high up on the side of mountains! Most vending machines sell drinks. A select few sell snacks. There are also vending machines that sell tobacco or alcohol, and these vending machines are also placed in random areas, with no way to make sure that kids are not among the customers. Then there are the types of vending machines that just make you go ‘Huh?’ such as egg vending machines, which tend to be large and bulky, and inside their own little building. Or bouquet vending machines, just in case you wake up and suddenly realise it’s your anniversary and you haven’t bought a present yet. Apparently, before I came to Japan there was a vending machine behind Akita Station that sold used panties, but it’s gone now. 1,500 yen for nylon or polyester, or 2,500 yen for nice scent-retaining cotton. Yuck! That kind of thing is usually found in ‘omoshiroi’ shacks, these little tin huts found on inter-town roads that have the word ‘omoshiroi’ (interesting) painted on the side. They typically have one parking space hidden behind some bushes, and inside they are filled with vending machines selling everything from magazines to DVDs to the aforementioned underwear. I remember being told about ‘omoshiroi’ shacks half a dozen times when I was new here. It is a story foreigners living here just love to tell, one of those “OMG Japan is so weird!” stories.

Japanese people peel their grapes before they eat them, because apparently they are covered in pesticides. They also peel their apples, pears, and any other fruit that I would normally eat the skin of.

I had a lot of trouble last week trying to convince someone that I have no religion, that I am in fact an atheist with very slight agnostic tendencies. Actually, I don’t think I convinced her at all. She just kept saying “No, I think you’re a Christian.” When I said I was never baptised, she said “I think you’re lying.” But then this was the crazy woman who randomly sent me three bowls of ramen one weekend, and who keeps leaving books in my letterbox that I don’t want to read.
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