Monday, 1 September 2014

Underpowered

I spent the last few weeks before my university exchange hanging out with the new Japanese students who were arriving fresh that semester and doing not a whole hell of a lot else. Anybody who's done a study abroad or, for that matter, taught in a foreign country can probably identify with this lazy middle ground, the period in which you've completed all your preparations but you obviously can't start on the Next Thing until you arrive in your new venue. It's a little discombobulating because your day-to-day feels a little lackadaisical, yet technically you're doing exactly what you're supposed to. So while everybody around me was gearing up for classes, I was left a little adrift, which was fine, actually, because it let me catch up on my backlog of books and video games, and also gave me plenty of time to help this new group get acclimated.

More time than usual, in fact, as until this last year helping out the new group has been my customary task for the first few weeks of each semester. With all this white space on my schedule I was even able to get to know some of them a little deeper. Looking back, I think my first post ever may have left the impression that all the Japanese people I knew at the time were dicks, which was not the case at all. It was a pretty typical group, in that they were mostly people I'll never talk to again, some were pretty all right, and then there was one that I formed a genuine friendship with. She was a gyaru from Chiba, very stereotypically girly in matters such as fashion and colour-cons, and, you know, a little rough but unfortunately without the overt sexuality of an Oosaka gyaru. And yes I had a crush on her, of course I did, this is me we're talking about. Actually it's probably a good thing I left soon after, cause I'd have wanted to date her and if that had failed it would have been all awkward and stuff.

I did keep in contact with her while I was in Japan and she was in Canada, though, including one really awesome drunk-dial with her and a friend of hers, who was visiting, so she had to pretend that she was her cousin, so that the guy she was cheating on her boyfriend with wouldn't hit on her. President, who was rather smitten herself, got to be really good friends with her in the time I was gone. She even went to see her when she visited Toukyou (but didn't come to see me...pfft.) President's path to Japanese living began with some Japanese friends in high school, who introduced her to J-pop and Matsumoto Jun, and she's visited a few times, first on a field school and then on her own. To be honest I find that pretty courageous and savvy, given her limited grasp of the language, but she stayed at a hotel in Ikebukuro and everything, it sounds like it was awesome. She and this girl, I'll call her Lock-Up, went to the club where she was working at the time, and to Lock-Up, aaaaaaaand to the onsen. Yeah, she totally saw her naked. And President is bi so she was even able to appreciate it. So super jelly. And now Lock-Up is back in town.

This provided a bit of a brain-teaser for me until I was able to talk to her in person, and she clarified everything that's going on with her. Basically she's going to be taking the TESL program at my university, one a one-year working holiday visa, spending the extraneous six months working...somewhere. She hasn't really solidified her plans yet. Personally I would think that would be kind of an important thing to get sorted out before you travel across the Pacific Ocean, but then, here I am stuck in my home country and writing oddly personal blog entries only vaguely related to Japan, so what do I know. The interesting part of that is, she'll be taking classes with President, all day, every day. President applied to JET last cycle and got alternate, but no farther, so now she's going to get a formal certification to buff up her resumee (and skillset). So I sense good times in the offing.

Unfortunately for Lock-Up, she was compelled to, for a second time, attend much of the university's international orientation, a week-long event primarily informational in purpose but with quite a lot of lighter fun stuff as well. They teach them the finer points of certain immigration laws, school policies, very basic stuff as well as cultural things. Examples:

Canadians are very time-conscious. Being ten minutes late to an arranged meeting can be considered very impolite.
If a Canadian tells you they'll “see you later,” this doesn't actually mean they plan to see you later.
If a Canadian is passing by and asks you how it's going, and then carries on without waiting to hear the answer, it's not because they were being insincere. (It's because the question is meaningless and you're not really expected to reply.)
Pickup etiquette can vary between cultures. In Canada, if a girl at a bar tells you no, that means the conversation is over, not “try harder.”

And I fucking love it all. There's a video in there on safety (e.g. how not to get your pocket picked), which I don't think I've ever viewed from start to finish, but which I've seen so many bits and pieces of that if you put them all together I have probably seen in its entirety several times. That's how many times I've volunteered for this thing. Unfortunately, since I've been back from Japan, I haven't quite had the time...and if I'm being entirely honest with myself, my motivation hasn't been there like it used to be. During my exchange I started to think about building my future in Japan, which naturally necessitated meditation on what my professional career might be, and from that point on I was pretty much ready to sell my soul. Yeah, if 14-year-old Rude Boy could see me now he'd wonder what the fuck happened and how I ended up catching Lame, row row fight the power, but nowadays the coolest thing I can think of is working in an office. All this looking forward has forced me to simultaneously look inward, so I can't be all things to all Japanese people anymore. Not quite like I used to at least. It's all right. It's a natural progression, and...well, for me personally it never really paid much dividends anyway. It was worth it, in the end, to provide a useful service (translation and all manner of other assistance) to the people who deserved, but I just got used and burned too many times. Maybe I got a little tired of it.


Besides which, my work schedule interferes with like, everything else now, since I'm now working full time as a shift supervisor at a large chain of coffee shops that you have heard of (no, not that one), so despite Lock-Up's pleas, I wasn't able to come join her and alleviate her boredom. But President and I were able to meet up with her at one of the two decent Japanese restaurants in President's part of town. It was rather humorous in a Dostoevskyesque way, an intersection of three recent university graduates each desperately trying to get something rolling so that their lives can start. But it was great to see her, and she reported that a huge number of new Japanese students have arrived at my alma mater this semester. Things are getting exciting again.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Kanabata

Tanabata has become a bit of a tradition for our Club. It started out as a fun thing to do in summer when half our membership had vanished into the ether for a few months; the first time we tried it, we got rained out, had to do it in the university student centre, and used me as the tree. But our planning skills have improved since then, and over the years we've managed to grow it to a respectable size. And since we have a limited financial capacity, we usually do it as a potluck.

This heralded some concerns for us this year, because we had invited a bunch of recent arrivals from Japan and having a potluck with Japanese people can be a little iffy. Basically they tend to bring either far too little, or something completely ridiculous. Sometimes both. I think a single bag of 5-cent candies, as the shared contribution of six people, was probably the topper here, but you're also likely to get single bags of chips or rare, inscrutable treats that elicit furtive gestures and mutterings amongst observers. Maybe it's that Japanese people tend to think of food and drink as the host's responsibility (if so, they probably figure that we Canadians are all incorrigible cheapskates trying to slough off the cost onto the guests), though I mostly suspect that they are just unacquainted with the concept and could be trained up with a little practise.

(If you are now wondering what exactly an appropriate potluck contribution would be, a nice fruit or veggie tray is usually a good choice. A couple 2Ls of pop or some dessert-type stuff is ok, but damn near everybody is going to bring pop or dessert-type stuff, so watch out for that. If applicable, something from your home country will usually go over pretty well. And if there's going to be alcohol involved, a flat of 24 beer is always welcome. It doesn't even have to be good beer.)

Anyway, we needn't have worried. This group arrived bearing mainly a bunch of Taiwanese snacks, which not only ranged from edible to tasty, but were present in appropriate volume, as well. What was better, everybody here was cool. You know, I hate to say it, but as much as ryuugakusei are generally good folk – it takes a certain sort of person to want to learn a foreign language and live within a foreign culture – some of them are just really shitty people. Cause that's just life, you take any large group of people, some of them are going to be shitty, you know? You can try to hang out with just the ryuugakusei you actually like, but you'll always have to deal with the hangers-on from time to time, the ones who only want to use you for your English or think that they are entitled to make you their personal assistant, or that they are somehow above you, just by virtue of being a foreigner amongstforeigners.

You can also organize ryuugakusei into three broad categories: Those who make no effort to engage the host culture or even actively avoid it; those who spend time with their countrymen but still make a substantial effort to engage the host culture; and those who go for full integration, sometimes to the level of eschewing their native language altogether. I've always thought that a Japanese person refusing to speak Japanese in a room full of exclusively Japanese speakers was, you know, kind of really fucking stupid, but who really gives a shit, I guess. I tend to avoid those who fall on either extreme of the spectrum anyway, the former because they're boring, the latter because they're annoying. People who visit another country and then try to pretend they're somewhere else are usually this way because they're reserved and quiet so they're rarely very much fun to hang out with. And anybody going for full integration tends to be so overflowing with cultural sanctimoniousness that they're completely intolerable. As in many things, a balance is best, really.

We lucked out, and these guys were all of the cool, balanced variety. We had a few good icebreakers, too, that is, people who aren't afraid to just go ahead and strike up conversations with strangers, an essential element of any event involving Japanese people.

Additionally, two of them were shakaijin, “society people,” i.e. gainfully employed, although working at A&W rather than a suit-and-tie company, but shakaijin nonetheless. Both have aspirations of Canadian citizenship (the standards for which, if you didn't know, can be a little...stringent), and we discussed the various laws therein in some detail; after becoming a citizen, one of the girls intended to enter a Canadian university for a four-year degree. All of this was immensely interesting to me as not only am I on the cusp of becoming a shakaijin myself, but of course have also been slowly working on a plan to do what they're currently doing but in reverse.

I also learned that many Japanese think that root beer tastes like medicine. So we'll know not to get any of that next time, I guess. Some blonde girl said she'd heard of that from her Korean friends as well. She brought up Korea a couple of times and wrote her name on her cup in Korean, but she left before I could ask what her deal was.

The main event at Tanabata, of course, is writing out wishes and hanging them on a bamboo tree. Despite stereotypes, bamboo trees aren't exactly something you can just go pick up at Wal-Mart in Canada, so we usually use a grate or railing instead (you are welcome to steal this trick for your own Tanabata party). I wrote down “That I may get back to Japan quickly.”

“I knew that was going to be your first wish,” President grinned.

Then I wished that my job search should go well, which admittedly is kind of the same thing, since the one is predicated on the other.

Additionally, every Tanabata I send up some kind of a prayer for my sister. Last year she'd recently gotten married, so I wrote out a wish for her happy married life (or in Japanese, that her household would be bountiful). Now she's expecting a child, so I wished for him or her to be born healthy and happy. This seemed right to me. I tried to think of what would make her happiest in the world, and I am sure her most feverish hope right now is for the health of her unborn child. Indeed, I saw on Facebook later that her own Tanabata wish was for exactly that.

Japanese guy: Please invite me to hang out again.
Rude Boy: Absolutely, you should find me on Facebook.
Japanese: Yeah, I just added your wife, so we can find each other.
Rude Boy: Oh, great.

Then he walked off somewhere before I realised what he'd said.

In hindsight I can sort of understand why they might have some confusion. President rooms in a full-on house, and if they thought it was ours, we probably seem pretty domestic. Plus, I'm 24 this year. I certainly remember how distant and established 24 seemed back when I was 19. Shit, back when I was 17 and my sister was 22, I was in awe of her. She seemed so mature and put-together. It was only when I turned 22 myself that I actually realised, Christ no, she didn't know what the fuck she was doing, nobody does. When you're a little kid, your parents present themselves as omniscient and practised, and it's usually a couple of decades before you figure out that they were making it up as they went along too. I got off-topic there, but I'm going to assume you all understood my point.


It was a fun, chill kind of a night (President's roommate: “This is a drinking party? You can have Asians over for drinks anytime.”) Mostly, I was just glad to be hanging out with Japanese people again – it's been faaaaaar too long since I've done that. I miss it. And it was good, too, to be back in the thick of things. I've always been more comfortable leading than following, and I'm certainly more comfortable on the field than in the sidelines or, fuck's sake, the audience. For at least that night, I felt like President and I really were President and Vice President again; all thoughts of guiding Club rather than commanding it, and being careful not to change the system through observing it, all that shit had fled my mind. Ah, I don't know – maybe this summer will be our victory lap?

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Canada Day

The Interview

President and I tried to go to bed at a not completely moronic time, but then we stayed up late talking because couldn't sleep and now sort of ready to die. But we're pretty stoked, too. It promises to be an interesting day.

A Japanese girl we've known for a few years gets on the bus and sits down. We wave.

“She's really grown up since she got here,” I note, by which I mean that she no longer dresses like a small child. It's a bit more than that, though. People get older, and ryuugakuing really accelerates the process. Or maybe just augments it?

We're headed for the Hilton downtown, where a delegation from our sister city in Japan will be staying for the week. They've just gotten in last night but we're hustling them out of bed bright and early for a CBC interview. President and I relax in the lobby and watch an older, lanyard-wearing Asian woman make her way from the elevators to the breakfast hall. So we're at the right place then. Shortly thereafter the CBC guy arrives and then so does the mayor, along with the man in charge of Water and Sewage and also some third individual who hangs around the periphery and whose function I never do divine. They spend a few minutes socializing as hotel staff set up an interview area for us.

The interviewer attempts some English conversation with the water guy, and with a little effort and a lot of smiling they are able to communicate some basic pleasantries. I let them struggle. In situations like this, I generally try not to jump in with the interpretation unless it seems necessary, or if somebody specifically asks. Partly this is because people like to practise, but more importantly I don't want to mess up any flow they've developed; even if they end up fully depending on me immediately after, those first few minutes can provide a crucial icebreaker. The mayor is a pleasant enough man, somewhat lacking in the flair of his predecessor, but a good guy and very mayoral.

“Who's going to do to the interpretation?” he says suddenly, looking to the others.
“I'll be interpreting,” I assure him.
“Oh, great,” he smiles, and hurries off to his place.

At no point does anyone present suggest that my speaking Japanese is anything other than the most natural thing in the world. It's weird.

The interview goes pretty well, I think. It's a fairly fluffy piece and I asked to see the questions in advance, so I was able to look up a couple of words beforehand. Though I'd thought I might fixate on the microphone and start to get tied up in the minutiae of my own speech, within seconds I forget all about that and am able to mainly focus on interpreting the mayor's sentiments as accurately as possible. Because it's in the moment, and I want him to come off well, I err on the side of a “feeling” translation rather than a “word-for-word.”

I only have one serious slip-up: one of the mayor's responses is complex, makes heavy use of technical vocabulary, and goes on so long that by the time he finishes I've forgotten what he said at the beginning, and by the time I remember and make my way through that, I've forgotten what he said at the end. Fortunately after some consultation with him and a few (painfully long and quiet) moments to collect my thoughts, I'm able to avoid mangling it too badly.

The rest is pretty smooth. The questions have mainly to do with the sister city agreement, his thoughts on its significance, and so on. The most interesting went something like this:

Question: How would you feel about shifting the sister city agreement to a more business-oriented arrangement?
Answer: Business is indeed very important to our city, and to Japan, and if the possibility is there we should definitely pursue it. However, it would be a mistake to focus on only business at the expense of other opportunities, such as cultural and educational exchange, which are themselves very valuable and would be a shame to lose.

I thought that was interesting because basically all sister city relationships, everywhere, are derided by citizens as a bunch of free vacations for mayor and council. So while the true benefits are self-evident to those of us lucky enough to be in the thick of these functions, they are intangible, and thus justifiably dubious to anyone not directly involved. This is why the financial issue comes up from time to time, often accompanied by the suggestion that the soft stuff should be abandoned in favour of a strictly economic arrangement. Obviously I myself am a huge proponent of the intercultural aspects of sister city relationships, which changed my life, but I also see the unused potential for such “business opportunities.”

A Lazy Afternoon

After the interview President and I walk over to park, which is already saturated with festival atmosphere. Later, we notice various persons of interest begin forming up in the reserved section of the audience. I see the youngest member of council, a Green, enthusiastically mingling. “Ohio,” he says to the delegates. He says this a few times.

“That's about the limit of my Japanese,” he confides to me.
“Oh, it's a start. Actually,” I remind him, “they'll be pretty stoked no matter what you say. They pretty much just appreciate the effort.”
He laughs and agrees, and heads off for more schmoozing.

The two of us spend most of the rest of the day taking things in. It's scathingly hot but at least the atmosphere hasn't liquefied, like it does in Kyouto. We walk amongst the crowds, and run into Jugs. We take in interminable speeches, and also a performance by our local taiko group. We eat some Indian food. We point out hot girls to each other, because President is bi and an awesome gf. Oh, and also President is my gf now, that's a thing.

We see a guy with a German flag draped about his shoulders.
“But Belgium played today,” President frowns.
“Maybe he actually is German,” I suggest. “Anyway, what do you suppose would happen if a guy showed up at the 4th of July in America wearing a German flag?”

For a moment, I feel like I've hit upon the heart of Canada Day, and, indeed, Canada itself.

Fireworks and Frustration

There is only one thing that spoils my mood, and it really does. In previous years, since I was 15, I've volunteered to help with the sister city delegation and spent a week or more trundling around with them, interpreting and just generally making myself useful. And I love doing this. I love Japanese people, I love helping out, and this event is a bit of a personal tradition of mine. But suffice it to say, a miscommunication meant they ended up going with other interpreters, presumably because they didn't realise how much better of a job I'd do. So I ended up feeling like I'd been cheated out of something very dear to me through someone else's incompetence.

But maybe all isn't lost. We have just one chance. I happen to know that they'll take dinner (where I should have been interpreting) at a certain room in the park stadium, and that afterward they'll be milling around for a while waiting for the fireworks. It would be inappropriate to crash the dinner, but surely no one will mind if we show up and socialize afterward? We won't be costing the city money, and the Canadians there will all be city hall types, so I'll know most of them anyway. It won't be the whole week, but at least I'll get one shiny hurrah.

Alas, we're quickly foiled, as there's no way into the building. I get steadily more melancholy over the next half hour. I try not to let it show but I can't hide anything from President. We settle for watching from below the balcony, on the off-chance that somebody will look down, recognize us, and invite us up. I know it's a dumb plan but it's the best I can think of. We hear people talking and laughing above us, the occasional snatch of Japanese. I can't stand it because I should be up there.

“Would it be easier if we moved away?” she asks, brow knitted.
“No,” I say miserably. “It's like trying to get laid. If you at least ask, there's a chance somebody'll say yes, even if it's very small. So if we at least hang around here there's a chance somebody might come take pity on us. Even though I know that's not actually going to happen.”

The fireworks start. I try to enjoy them. It's hard to do when all I can think of is how much better of a view I usually get. We start to move, to get a better angle around a tree.

“Hey guys, do you wanna come upstairs?”

It's the youngest member of council, standing right behind us, holding the door open. Well, I'll be fucked. The three of us rush upstairs so as not to miss anything. No way. I'm seriously actually getting my due.

“And it's open bar,” he laughs.

The fireworks go on an appropriate fireworks-y length of time, during which we touch base with various dudes and dudettes, such as the lady who failed to get us up there. We spot a young Japanese guy we'd noticed earlier in the day, and President goes to talk to him. Later she confirms that he's a new student at our university, here as an interpreter rather than as a member of the delegation, which makes sense. I'd thought at least a couple of new students would be here, and meeting them was one of my main goals for the night, so, success! I point him out to another councillor and tell her that he looked so lonely and bored, we'd been thinking of absconding him to the nearest bar.

“I really think you should,” she grins conspiratorially.

Heading Home

My spirits buoyed, we go to catch the bus back to President's, where we run into the Japanese girl from the morning bus ride. This girl is young and adorably useless. She's the kind of girl you're afraid to leave to her own devices for more than a couple of minutes, lest she get lost between the front door and the sidewalk, or accidentally lock herself inside her apartment. She knows it, too. It's hilarious.

Today her existential crisis is actually semi-legitimate. She came straight to Canada after graduating Japanese high school and is now on the cusp of getting a certificate, which she's pretty sure is going to be borderline worthless in the Japanese job market in the absence of an actual degree. So she's debating whether to spend another year here, which will incur extra cost on her parents, or to return home and just take a stab at it. I try to give her advice but she rejects it and then chases herself in mental circles for a good five minutes or so. So I tell her to do the opposite thing, and then she repeats the process in reverse. She knows she's not being reasonable or making any sense, but I get the feeling I'm helping her work through it just by standing there and listening, so I don't feel like I'm wasting my time.

Basically, she just wants to escape the situation and get married. Yup, that would be the life. In fact, she's 21 now and a bunch of her friends are married already. Her own mother waited until 23, but if you think about it, you have to know somebody for around two years before you marry them, right, so to keep to that schedule she has to meet somebody, like, tomorrow! Has she been looking? No...no, she hasn't... So what kind of a guy would be good? Rich. Oh, and also tall.

She worries, too, that people always think she's younger than she is. When she was in junior high school people thought she was in elementary school, etc. I point out that maybe when she's 50, people will think she's 30. Ooh, she likes that! But she still doesn't get why.

“Maybe because you seem so pure,” I say honestly.
“Heh! You have no idea, do you?” she smirks.
“Oh? So you've been up to a lot of impure things?”

“No,” she says sadly.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Japanese traffic

Previous experiences with Japan had girded me against nearly all the vagaries of culture shock, but there was one part of the country that just didn't wash: The driving was just plain messed up. I haven't had the pleasure yet, but I've gleaned a fair amount just by observing my surroundings, such as the razor-thin alleys and switchbacks that pass for residential streets in the country. Reed Richards would be hard-pressed to squeeze through the average Japanese neighbourhood. Roads near my university were so poorly maintained that cars rolled up and down like a ship on stormy seas, creating the impression that everyone was constantly flashing their lights at you, a prospect that seems not entirely unrealistic to a foreigner in Japan.

Vehicles are not allowed to turn left on a red in Japan, which to me seemed totally bizarre until I realised the reason for it. Fact is, stop lines are generally set back several hundred kilometres from their associated intersection, requiring all Japanese motorists to carry a telescope in the glove compartment in order to discern when the light changes. This would make any attempts to creep up to and slip around the corner potentially disastrous. The eccentric positioning of these stop lines is, in turn, a necessity borne out of the narrow streets, as any lateral traffic that turns towards you needs to be able to swing into your lane without punching you in the face, otherwise buses, fire engines, and monster trucks would find most every route impassable.

But that's just the conditions; the real issue is the participants. Driving in Japan is less a means of transportation and more a contest to see who can break the largest number of traffic laws at a time. When I first arrived and began observing the traffic, the entire ecosystem seemed chaotic and dangerous. Japanese drivers constantly made risky manoeuvres that would have caused Canadian passengers to scream in fear and anger. They pulled out to block an entire lane so that they could turn in. If somebody ahead of them was waiting to make a right turn, they freely swerved around them, continuing on like it was no thing.

While often in Canada the centre line may as well be a physically impassable barrier, here it does little more than demarcate the midpoint between either side of the road. You park wherever you can, be it in a marked parking space, a random nook or cranny, the middle of a busy thoroughfare, a stranger's living room, on roofs, in alleys, every way but upside down, really. People whip around at a startling pace, dodging grannies and inconveniently placed hydro poles, giving the reflexes and brake-pads of every other driver a good solid workout, and it's all just considered normal.

Pedestrians aren't much better, possessing a relationship with self-preservation that is antagonist at best. They are fond of wandering around on the road when there's a perfectly good sidewalk across the street, swaying back and forth, stumbling around blind corners, and generally presenting as large a profile as possible when ambulating in groups, for the benefit of any casual human-hunters should they happen to make a go of it on their way to the store. I ended up becoming eminently comfortable with cars hurtling past my body at breakneck speeds, casually forgiving scandalous incursions into my personal space bubble that would earn them a stream of expletives and public humiliation in Canada.

At about the seven-month mark, however, it finally dawned on me that while the Japanese style was certainly much less cautious, it wasn't necessarily worse. I never actually encountered an accident, after all, despite weekly witnessing situations that in Canada would have caused ruination or, at best, an interminable delay as the confused drivers tried to work out how to extricate their vehicles from the tangle they'd tied. Japanese drivers, meanwhile, balletically weave between each other at high speed, never in doubt, never in danger. It was frankly beautiful to see in action. It was as if tight Japanese traffic conditions had forced the drivers to hone a better sense of timing and spatial understanding, a deeper intuition regarding the intentions of the vehicles around them, or, if not that, then at least they as Japanese drivers had a better sense than I had of how another Japanese driver was liable to react at any given moment.


In other words, all these differences that had initially seemed incredible turned out to have their own logic, which became perfectly clear once I'd discovered it – much like many things I came to grips with in Japan. It was an interesting revelation. Culture really is pervasive. When we imagine foreign countries, we think of the food, the music, the language, but the driving culture doesn't generally occur to us until we're forced to confront it. And, as in all those other cases, unfamiliar doesn't automatically mean worse.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Reparation

Now to provide a little context for my last post. Every spring, a university from Toukyou sends a cadre of Psychology students to my Canadian university. The students commune with Canadian Psychology majors, receive an intensive English course, and explore the world outside Japan. (Sometimes we also get groups of future CAs coming to practise English for their internationally oriented jobs, but this seems to be more sporadic, although, as you might imagine, also more fun.) Back when President and I were the Japanese Club leaders, we also tried to show them our hospitality, holding parties for them, sharing meals with them, and, as if I even have to say it, taking them out drinking.

And that's awesome. Unfortunately, that's also what got me into trouble a couple of years ago. I ended up getting way too drunk at an informal function at the campus pub, and, I am told, mouthed off a lot. I say “I am told” because I actually recall very little of what transpired. I do remember falling asleep in the bathroom and being set upright once more by a concerned citizen, then leaving suddenly for no apparent reason, to President's consternation. She ended up tracing the route back to my apartment, but missed me, because I'd stopped off at another bathroom and fallen asleep there too. After a while I woke up on my own and made my way to the next building in my path, where I fell asleep in a third bathroom. Luckily I did eventually make it all the way home, where I finally fell asleep for the night...in my own bathroom.

So I got an amusing anecdote out of it, but unfortunately, before all that happened I ended up getting in a scrap. For all the reasons I explained in that last post I feel I had call to get my hackles up, at least in regards to the one asshole who was provoking me. Unfortunately, that one asshole was their teacher, who comes every year. I'd obviously offended him at least as much as he'd offended me, hence the escalation of the confrontation. And since we never actually resolved our dispute, my anger never really dissipated, even when they'd all gone back to Japan. You can see how diplomatic relations might become strained.

Obviously, I completely mishandled the situation. Setting aside the fact that I should never, ever have gotten that drunk to begin with, I shouldn't have risen to him, either. What the hell did I think I was going to accomplish? Nothing I could say would have persuaded him to my point of view, because he had his mind made up and just wanted to unload at me. And when it's somebody of authority such as a teacher, even if you win, you lose. Especially if you win, you might argue. No, I should have just kept my head down, bitten back every response, and quietly accepted his completely unwarranted criticism of my entire lifestyle.

Instead, I put a palpable strain on the rest of that group's trip, and holy hell do I regret that. That experience specifically is why I never drink “on the job” anymore. So I absolutely take responsibility for that mistake (God knows I've pissed enough people off while drunk), and for some time feared that I'd caused irreparable damage to what had been a very profitable partnership between the other university and our Club. By putting my own aggravation ahead of the interests of the Japanese students, I'd betrayed the very people I was supposed to be serving.

Of course, I wasn't around last year, and since I'm no longer officially affiliated with Japanese Club I was able to put a little cognitive distance between me and my own past transgressions. So when a group came this year, I considered avoiding the whole thing, but ultimately decided, fuck it, if there's a problem, I'll just stare it down. When I arrived at the campus pub, it was already roaring with a crowd of J-students and a complement of white people. Gently squashing the realisation that I was blowing off class to go hang out at a bar, I quickly found President, pulled up a chair, and – within minutes – was offered the teacher's hand.

Not in marriage, mind you. I mean he reached around the guy beside him – I mean like tried to lean past him, not give him a reacharound – and he wanted to shake my hand, that's the point I'm making. No, it's actually not, of course it isn't. The point I'm making is that he greeted me with a goddamn smile. “It's good to see you,” he said, and he seemed to actually mean it. Well, fuck me. That's just great. Here I've been holding a quiet grudge against this guy for two goddamn years and he hasn't thought twice about me. Of course he hasn't. People think about you way less often than you think about them thinking about you. So I felt awfully silly.

Tell you what, though. President and I had a great time at that thing. Somehow the two current executives, neither of whom actually speak Japanese, had gotten all caught up in a group with the aforementioned teacher and one of the Psychology dudes from our university, so we broke for the far end of the table to chat up some of the other students. President just led us straight into the crowd and we sat down with some people and suddenly, socializing. It was just like the old days: President intrepidly charging into battle, me at her side as loyal lieutenant, in this case providing translation and social lubrication. Not that she needed much of either; she manages quite admirably to communicate with a mixture of English and Japanese, and she's one of the most social damn people I know (as am I, which is one of the reasons we get on so well).

Right after, we had to practise for our performance at the international culture festival the following week. I'm using the Royal We here because I was not, myself, performing, rather I offered feedback as a group of about ten practised in a dance studio at student residence. I'm pretty damn brutal about it, but it's all out of love. As a huge fan of rhythm games, I can tell instantly when any individual member is off time. Not that it's very hard when half of them are following different beats and others, none at all. But that's just a matter of practise. Anyway, this is part of the story because some of the J-Psychology Majors came to watch for a little while. When they'd seen a couple of runthroughs they retired to the penthouse, where their teacher was holding an afterparty, which he does every year, and which does not in any way scream of harassment lawsuits.


President had managed to get us invited to lunch two days hence. As always, we seemed to have hitched ourselves to, or been hitched with, a small group of students, in this case five of them. I don't know why it so often seems to work out this way; I guess just because the people most motivated to make friends tend to find each other, and because it takes time and energy to get to know someone and you really can't do that with 20+ people in just two weeks. Of course, they've left now, and we'll never see them again. Every once in a while, though, we'll pop up on each other's Facebook feeds, until the day we all die. More to the point, we made their visit as much fun as we could. I hope that, this time, they walked away with a favourable impression of Canadians, and that maybe that's something they'll take with them.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Attitude

I originally wrote this way back when I was still toying with the idea of starting a blog, after a particularly frustrating incident left me needing to vent. That was over two years ago, so the writing is a little amateurish compared to my more recent stuff. Next post, I'll tell the story that inspired it.

*

When most Japanese people I meet find out that I'm interested in the language and the culture, they're delighted. They're flattered that I'm trying to participate and pleased that I'm trying to understand. They're forgiving when I make mistakes and wonderfully supportive of everything I'm trying to do. This has overwhelmingly been my experience, and I'm grateful to all the people who have helped me, been my friends, and invited me through the door.

Some aren't like this.

Some are of a very different opinion. Because I'm not Japanese I can never understand Japanese culture. Sometimes I screw things up when I talk, therefore I don't speak Japanese at all. My goals are messed up, or else they're a waste of time because I could never possibly achieve them as an outsider. I'm just a sad hanger-on, a skinny obsessive little weeaboo, and would I just knock it off and go wallow in my own ignorance with my little white friends who, like me, also speak only one language but fetishize Asian girls and sit alone in our rooms by ourselves all the time.

And it pisses me right off. When I encounter stuff like this elsewhere in my life, I can pretty much let it be. Because I've made a point of surrounding myself with people who like me, and will call me out if they think I'm wrong but mostly just make me feel good about myself. Anybody who tries to go against that, I don't need. But this is a little different. A handful of magic words can make my blood boil.  "You can't X." "You don't know what you're talking about." "Your Japanese doesn't make any sense." I can and I'm going to. I've been looking into the topic for YEARS of my life now and I've earned the right to put forth an informed opinion. It does make sense and you goddamn know it, it's just not perfect. It's the attitude, the condescension. It's the dismissiveness.

As soon as I can, I'm going to move back to Japan and then I'm going to live there for the rest of my life. I decided that a very long, long time ago. This is the primo goal I'm working towards at all times, to which all others are subordinate. So when someone tries to tell me that all the energy I'm putting towards this – the hours of study I put in each day, all the work I do, both as Japanese Club Vice President and on my own time, trying to make sure the Japanese students on campus are taken care of and feel comfortable and welcome, without agenda, simply because I love Japanese people – is basically worthless, I get angry, because they're making me feel like my identity is being invalidated. Not as some loser white guy trying to 'be Japanese,' but as a proud Canadian who has decided to make Japan his home.

What really gets me is the double standard they apply, a sort of Japanese exceptionalism wherein it's totally possible for them to grasp Canadian culture (and yes, there is such thing as Canadian culture, but we're not going to talk about that right now), but I can't do the reverse, and when I point this out they just wave it off as me just plain not understanding. Can you imagine if I went around telling foreigners in Canada that they'll never be able to learn English? People would think I was a complete asshole! That's not  really material, though. And I've done some things in the past that people had every right to get angry about, and from time to time I still do. But I think that's a separate issue, too, and when that stuff happens it's usually an honest mistake, or at least not because I'm trying to make waves.


I really believe that the good I do outweighs the bad, and that I take more flak than I deserve. The only thing I can think to do is refuse to give in. Try to show how I earnest I really am, that I mean business, and maybe, every once in a while, get somebody to rethink their view of me. I don't expect to change many minds, but I really shouldn't let the naysayers upset me, either. Keep studying Japanese, keep trying to learn about the country, and keep making Japanese friends. Then surround myself with the ones who get me.

Monday, 5 May 2014

The Warrior Who Never Shaves

There is a Culture Festival held at my university every year, serving as an opportunity for all the various peoples on campus – noted as one of the most international in the province – to share of themselves, teach, learn, and party. It's fucking awesome. Since I've been doing international-type things since I was a little kid, it's always struck a chord with me, and as a member and later Vice President of the Japanese Club, I've been an enthusiastic participant for years.

Just one difference this time: President and I are retired now, so we didn't have to do a goddamn thing. I saw a problem, I told either the current President or Vice President about it and then I let them deal with it. Or not. What do I care? I don't want to see Club's reputation suffer but I don't feel responsible for it anymore either. Not like I used to. Anyway, all this meant a lot less work for us and not that much less glory.

Or should have, except that New President is kind of useless and couldn't lead either of the dances that Club was supposed to be doing...so President, ever stalwart, stepped the fuck up and took over the whole operation. And then I got in on that, and pretty soon both of the current executives were kowtowing to the will of the Ancients. Which was fine; I certainly don't mind being afforded the respect I'm owed. But it is a little worrisome considering that President and I have been trying to let go of the reins and let the next generation come into its own. It was kind of good, though. As much as I love the festivities themselves, I enjoy the weeks leading up to them nearly as much. The preparation, I mean – the heady feeling that you're putting in a lot of work that's leading up to something truly impressive, and you feel so driven to do the best you possibly can because your Club's reputation is on the line and you're trying to share of yourselves and show what you're capable of.

Although I wasn't slated to perform, I attended every practise, serving as DJ and then, more importantly, sort of micromanaging individuals. Chiefly, the issue was timing, which both President and I found bafflingly frustrating. She used to be in Cadets and taught music to the goddamn military, and while I don't have quite such impressive credentials, I am an avid player of rhythm games so I too have a pretty bulletproof understanding of how to keep a beat. Trying to work with people who did not was therefore pretty vexing for us, because trying to teach somebody to stay on beat is like trying to explain that the sky is blue. Fucking look at it. Blue. What the hell else can I do to help you understand? Why do you still think it's purple?

Overall, though, it was a fun experience, as it always is. There was a good mixture of both Canadian and Japanese students, with a group of six performing a relatively recent AKB song and an impressive 15 doing a rendition of Soran Bushi. The latter has gathered us surprising renown over the years, with our slot being gradually moved toward the back end of the program, where the audience size peaks. We wanted to live up to the prestige, so we tried to get it as close to perfect as possible, with President patiently putting the performers through their paces, and me shouting out corrections and accepting only the utmost quality, because people have a tendency to deliver what you expect of them. It's called the Pygmalion Effect, I learned that from Running Man.

Then, two days before the big event, an interesting thing happened, which is that President and I hooked up. And to be honest it was about fucking time, you could have cut the sexual tension with a goddamn knife. Both of us had been wanting it for weeks and weeks and weeks, but neither of us was willing to make a move for fear of hurting the friendship. Hilariously, everyone else in the universe predicted it and we chided them for being silly, but then, it's hard to get a good look at something if you're too close to it. Anyway, we did as much as we could and later it wasn't weird at all, it was awesome. Only thing was, I really wanted to bang her, so on Judgment Day, I was determined to obtain some condoms – not assuming anything, but also refusing to be unprepared.

Leaving my car at the arcade where they know me and let me park all day without giving me hell, I first checked Shopper's Drug Mart, but I couldn't fucking find what I needed. I don't know how that's even possible, and it certainly made me feel like a dumbass, but I was too self-conscious to just stroll up to somebody and go “Excuse me, where are the condoms?” So I decided to give Target a shot, and I saw the sign for the section called “Baby,” and I was like “No I'm looking for NOT Baby!” Luckily Jugs advised me they should be “with the women shit” but then when I got there, there were three pharmacists who do nothing but fucking stand behind a counter and judge you while you consider your purchases, so I couldn't even bring myself to look. So I went to cocksucking Safeway and...could not fucking find them there either. In a last-ditch effort, I visited my favourite gas station, and finally managed to get a three-pack. Oh, Husky...you've never let me down.

It was a condom quest as epic as it was asinine, made all the more difficult by the fact that I was wearing geta at the time, and so was limited to a speed of roughly 0 kilometres per hour. I mean I haven't moved that slowly in my entire life as I did while wearing geta, including when I was a baby. And to make the whole thing even goofier, I was dressed in a fucking jinbei and happi while I was going around trying to be inconspicuous and casual. In the end it felt too weird to go into a store and buy just three condoms, so I got a chocolate bar as well. Yeah, that'll throw 'em off.

With all that finally taken goddamn care of I made my way to the university and met up with President again. So far we'd taken in a Japanese tea ceremony and a photo-booth type thing with like various kimono and such for people to try, the latter of which has sort of become a staple of ours. But today was the best part: Performances. Sikhs did weapon demonstrations. Africans performed hip-hop. A Chinese guy did Shanghai-style street dancing. It was rad. And all of it was in an atmosphere of celebration and exultation, all the very best of all the countries smashed together into a delicious medley of colours and motion.

And President and I got to see all of it. It was...oddly disconcerting, actually. For the first time in our lives, rather than watching from the sidelines, we actually got to, like, sit down, in the goddamn stands, and like...enjoy the performances. Because the event's success or failure was not dependent on us in any way. No, things were going along just fine, without us, somehow. Bizarre. Without any obligations I actually kind of had trouble finding things to do, not because I was bored but because I was used to not a moment's rest, which was troubling because it was a five-hour programme.

I did, fortunately, get a taste of the old life, for just a scant few minutes. A bunch of countries and regions were, as always, given space to set up booths at which to showcase whatever the hell they wanted, be it pictures from the motherland, art, clothing, whatever. With President, New President, and New Vice President all doing Soran Bushi, I was the only person left who could competently man the booth during the twenty minutes or so they'd be absent. So, without any real preparation, I eased behind it, and...yup, turns out my skills haven't rusted. I can still speak eloquently, establish rapport with strangers, and promote like a motherfucker at the drop of a hat. I hadn't ever really doubted myself, but it was reassuring to know that I could still call upon those skills whenever I might require them.

“You must miss being Vice President,” commented New Vice President when he got back.
“There are days when I do,” I admitted. “Like today. But then there are also days when I really, really don't.”


To cap it all off, President and I went home and fucked. When we woke up we went for lunch, like it was no thing. And then bought condoms together, because evidently I can't be trusted to locate them for myself.