Monday, 16 December 2013

Showbiz!

Stay in Japan long enough, and eventually you will be asked to appear on TV. It's practically a given. You might be approached at a festival, to be seen basking in the local culture, or perhaps cornered in the street and solicited for a reaction on some current event of which you have no knowledge; there are many paths to glory. There's just something newsworthy about a foreign face, regardless of how irrelevant the person may be to the actual topic at hand. Some have even managed to parley a handful of bit parts into moderately successful careers. I, unfortunately, did not.

(So far!)

But I did get the opportunity to dance like a twat. The director of the International Office sent out a mass e-mail letting us know that they'd been contacted by a television company in Oosaka, and did anybody want to appear on TV? An initial meeting was set for whoever wanted to go, and a couple of weeks later we met with two AD's in the dormitory lobby. Each was in his mid-20's, but were otherwise polar opposites; one was well-dressed, straight-laced, and clean-cut, while his partner, who seemed to be the more dominant of the two, arrived wearing a leather jacket, with several days' growth on his face, and spoke in a nonstop stream of inappropriate comments. They could have been in a buddy comedy. You could make a TV show about these guys making TV shows.

They each sat down in the tatami room and we went in for pre-interviews one-on-one, except for Anarchy in the UK and his little gang, who went in together. They refused my offer to interpret with an air of deep indignation, perhaps momentarily forgetting that none of them spoke Japanese. Whatever. Do whatever you want. 

As my own interview progressed, a theme quickly became apparent. These guys were clearly not looking for swooning and adulation. They didn't want to hear about what a wonderful country we'd stumbled upon and how orgasmic our everyday lives were. They asked questions like: What problems have you faced here? What negative stereotypes have you faced from Japanese people? What do you find the weirdest or most troubling about Japan? That, and a disturbing number of uncomfortably detailed questions about my previous relationships with Japanese girls. When I translated for a grateful Australzealand (who actually does speak Japanese somewhat passably), as soon as the guy found out she has a Japanese fiancee, he took that ball and raaaaan with it. All in all, I wasn't surprised.

If you are unfamiliar with the country, you might reasonably assume that we as foreigners were consulted in order to purvey a unique viewpoint, to share an outside perspective and thus cast our surroundings in a new light for those who had grown up with them. In this case you would be mistaken. If you're from Hate Japan, you will no doubt contend that its inhabitants have long since secretly acknowledged its backwardness and inferiority, and are desperately hoping to have their shortcomings revealed by a knowledgeable and benevolently dictatorial Westerner. In this case you need to open your eyes, and perhaps also never speak ever again. On the other hand, if you imagine that foreigners in the media are used primarily for comedy purposes and absurdity value, you are hitting a little closer to the truth.

With all this in mind, let us add one more wrinkle: They were trying to make a show. Smiles and happy days are all well and good but they don't make for good TV. They needed a little tension. Something to resolve, or at least reflect on. I didn't like it, but I understood, so I gave them some of my misgivings – I think most of it hinged on my being constantly “othered” by the Japanese, even those who know me. One quote that the inappropriate guy quite liked, and asked me to use for the recording, was a very energetic, wild-eyed, “I'm not weird because I'm foreign, I'm weird because I'm me!” (「変なのは外人じゃなくて俺や!」).  We got word soon after that we had been selected as one of four participating schools. Another couple of weeks later, the segments were decided upon.

*Australzealand would visit her fiancee's parents up in Aomori or wherever the hell it was, somewhere up north anyway.
*Anarchy in the UK had confessed he couldn't slurp noodles, so the Korean guy and the Spanish guy would teach him.
*Taiwan and the French girl would cosplay.
*Everyone would also do a talking segment.

Take a hard look at this list and tell me you can't figure out what's going on here. In one, we've got a Japanese guy marrying an older foreign woman. In another, we've got silly foreigners who can't comprehend our Japanese ways. And in the other, we've got hot young foreign girls dressing up. Good TV? You bet!

I was among those who made the final cut and would do the talking segment, at least, and on the day of shooting I came home after school to find the lobby now ensconced by solid temporary barriers, presumably for acoustic and lighting reasons. A crew of at least thirty PD's, AD's, set directors, costume designers, those people who stand around with clipboards looking busy while not appearing to do any actual work, and sound technicians buzzed around making final preparations. The rough AD from before caught sight of me and sent me to wait upstairs, where the Korean guy was already hanging out.

Correctly predicting that we would probably not start until at least ten or fifteen minutes after we were scheduled to, I suggested that we talk about something, anything, to warm up. He was remarkably indifferent to the whole process, but I wanted to make sure I got my Japanese up to speed, so that if I couldn't be eloquent I at least wouldn't go on television sounding shittier than I actually was. Eventually more of us floated in, and finally, they started calling us downstairs to have at it. I was first up.

AD: Ok, when I give you this signal, I want you to walk down the hallway, go in from the side, and you'll see...something there. So go up and you can start. Just answer the questions, and try to talk about the stuff we went over before. Wanting to be accepted by the Japanese, those things.
Rude Boy: I'm guessing the interviewer is going to lead me through it pretty well, anyway.
AD: That's right.
Rude Boy: Sounds good.
AD: You don't seem nervous.
Rude Boy: I've been on TV before in Canada.

After another five minutes or so, everything went deathly quiet. The AD gave me the signal, and, trying to pretend I was not surrounded by a massive crowd, I walked into the lobby, expecting to find somebody seated at one of the tables, and...was disappointed, as I seemed to have walked into an empty room. Then I noticed a big rokujizou set up against the far wall, so, trying not to appear overly confused, started to approagahhh there's a guy in there.

Oh geez, now he's talking to me.

He's awfully loud.

As I later learned, this old man was a fairly famous comedian from Oosaka, but as that's not a scene I am particularly given to follow I was not familiar with him. My friends oohed at his name, though. Anyway, harshly aware of the fact that I was holding on a conversation with an anthropomorphic rock, I gave one of the more embarrassing performances of my life, which is to say, I danced to AKB. While singing. Well, what could I do? We were discussing karaoke as a good way to break cultural barriers, he asked what I could sing, and I happened to know the dance. And I did it for a broadcast audience of 23 million.

I was also in my socks, and so slipped and fell after like five seconds. The clean-cut AD laughed audibly.

In actual fact, this entire venture was scripted, a result of me and the AD discussing different gimmicks I could bust out. The conversation didn't go exactly as planned, but I tried to weave my most important talking points in. There was a slight problem in that he used the funny voice popular with that brand of Oosaka comics, making it hard for me to understand him, and his ears were covered by his helmet, making it hard for him to understand me. We managed to work all my major points in, though. Of course there was no way to know, in the moment, whether it was going to be funny or not. There is the problem of not being able to see how it will look once edited, but there was also the fact that everybody else in the room was doing their best to remain absolutely silent, so I had no feedback. The rough AD assured with me a laugh that it had been funny, though. I certainly hoped so. I do have my pride and dignity but I'd far, far rather be ridiculous than boring.

Everybody gathered in that same lobby when the time came to watch the broadcast, but I was a little too embarrassed, so I did something else. Which turned out to be just as well, because the planned forty-minute full episode had been cannibalized into a series of ten-minute segments. The first was the main one, however. And yet nearly all of it had been cut. “But I got on,” Anarchy in the UK assured us without irony, as though we would be genuinely relieved by this news, “so that's the important part.”

So can you guess which part ended up being the focus of the programme? Come on, guess.

It was Taiwan and the French girl's cosplay thing. Of course it was. They dressed them in junior high school uniforms. You can't not use that. Over the course of the next few weeks they re-aired those parts along with chopped-up versions of the others.


Did I ever appear? I have no idea. But none of my friends mentioned seeing me, so perhaps not.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Things I missed

I imagine I've made it pretty clear that not only would I rather be in Japan right now, I'd rather have never left. In fact I hardly ever shut up about it, on this blog or anywhere else. But there's nothing to be gained from idle negativity, so as long as I'm here, I might as well avail myself of the Canadian experience. Here are a few things I missed while I was in Japan and am now enjoying again, in no particular order. Well, they are in a particular order. They're in the order I thought of them. It's just that the order is meaningless.

Jugs

Living abroad ain't what it used to be. Nowadays Facebook and Skype effortlessly keep us connected with the people we love. Before my time, it was a more trying affair. Ten years ago, there was the less dynamic but still reliable method of e-mail, although you had to be sitting at an actual computer in order to use it. Prior to that it was all expensive long-distance phone calls, snail mail, and desperate hopes. Go back far enough and moving to another country was a months-long journey that you might not even survive, and undertaking it meant you'd never see your friends and family ever again.

Really, I'm grateful that I was able to chat with Jugs on an almost daily basis through the Miracle of the Internet, but now I get to see her face-to-face at least weekly. I've met great people in Japan, both Japanese and non-Japanese, and I hope that never ends, but Jugs and I, and my other Canadian friends, have a long history, and we know each other back to front, and that's hard to beat. She's interested in Japan, too, so I hope to one day show her a bit of it.

Tim Horton's

Have you ever tried Tim Horton's hot chocolate? According to my page statistics, if you're reading this blog you're most likely American, so probably not, in which case you're missing out. Actually I hear there's Tim Horton'ses in like Vermont now or something, so maybe some enterprising businessperson will open a franchise in Oosaka. They also make good sandwiches. Speaking of which...

Subway

Japanese Subway is good, but it just doesn't measure up to what they've got over here, where the bread is softer and has more options, the pricing model isn't idiotic, and they have bottomless fountain drinks. And the subs are just tastier.

Real cheese

Oh my God, have you tried to buy cheese in Japan? Again, statistically, you haven't. Well it's not fun. Because there isn't any. At least none that's good. You might be able to find something at an organic grocer or a co-op but that's always a pain and what you can find still isn't that great. I guess I shouldn't be surprised though, cheese doesn't exactly figure heavily into Japanese cuisine, and me complaining about it is like a Japanese person complaining about the difficulty of finding decent seaweed in Canada. Though come to think of it, that is a very legitimate complaint. Ah, but now we're getting into a totally different post.

Christmas

This one startled me. I mean there were things I anticipated missing (Jugs), and things I didn't (cheese), but I outright hate the Christmas season and the way it's shoved down our throats for two months straight. I'm just grateful that Halloween is a thing because it forms a hard barrier against the increasingly early starting gun, but even that is starting to crumble. In the future, the entire year will be Christmas season, and that will be a glorious time because it will have finally lost all meaning and we can all stop caring about it. It's such a saccharine, stupid holiday anyway. Not the birth of Christ, that part's cool and all. But all this stupidity about “the true meaning of Christmas” and “come on, it's Christmas” and all of that can go straight to hell. Guh.

As I mentioned around this time last year, though, I kind of ended up forlorn at the complete lack of Christmas cheer in Kyouto. Setting aside that it's a completely different holiday in Japan (couples rather than families), there was just nothing. A few lights and stuff, yeah, but no music, no real sense of anticipation, no atmosphere whatsoever. Yet oddly, though I was happy to be free of it, I was sad for its absence. That whole block ended up feeling so empty, even though it was quite as exciting as any other month in Japan, just because I was used to expecting something extra. Also, for some weird reason I have a strange fondness for bad Christmas movies, so lately I've been getting my fill of those on TV.

All of that said, with December now underway I have little doubt that my seething rage will soon reassert itself.

Snow

Of course this is integral for a good Christmas atmosphere, but snow is also great just on its own terms. You can roll around in the snow and make snow angels, or roll snow around in other snow and make snowmen, or go around smashing other people's snowmen, or construct complex snow forts from which to wage snowball fights and then get pissed off when you start losing and start facewashing everybody and dumping snow down their backs and so on. Those are rites of passage for every young Canadian. Good luck doing any of that south of Hokkaidou, though. A couple centimetres may accumulate overnight, but the ensuing sun will melt it all within hours.

News

Sure, you can seek stuff out on the Internet and stay informed about what's going on wherever you came from. Thing is, I get all my news passively, by listening to the people around me. This is also generally how I find out about assignment due dates and impending exams so it is quite a useful skill. Still, having little to no idea what was going on over in Canada made me feel disconcertingly disconnected, despite the fact that I had no desire to even be connected.

Paper towels

Japanese public bathrooms often don't have anything to dry your hands with. Weird, eh?

Skateboarders

Ok, this is actually just one I remembered from my high school days, which of course is when skateboarders were an everyday sight because the hardcore kids skateboarded around during every moment, and then years later the best of them all got sponsorships and appeared in movies and made all their parents and teachers feel awfully stupid. Skate culture is very different in Japan; although you have a few who might try to emulate the Western style, those are mainly the people who are already on the fringes of polite society anyway. Instead it's a more “legitimate” kind of thing, with most of the action occurring in large indoor skate parks rather than the streets. This affects the image of skateboarding and skaters themselves, so there's not quite the same view of skaters as rebels. Consequently, there aren't so many rebels who are inspired to take up skateboarding, which then means that skateboarding doesn't take on the same rebellious overtones, and you see how this starts to loop. I don't know if that's a good thing or not (my inner child screams conformity but my inner corporate drone shrugs legitimacy), but it was always nice to just be walking down the sidewalk and spot some kid kickflipping over a cinder block.

Poutine

For the Canadian impaired, poutine is a Quebecois dish of French fries buried in a mountain of gravy and cheese curds. For some reason, it hasn't caught on in Japan yet.

Peanut butter cups

You can find almost any American candy bar in Japan, but not Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, my favourite. Why that should be, I have no idea. Maybe peanut butter is still a bit of a foreign concept to the Japanese? That wouldn't surprise me. It is a strange idea if you think about it.

Driving

I love driving. Loooooove driving. Top five favourite things to do, easy. I read about driving. I daydream in class about driving. I play video games that involve driving. I research techniques for driving. First time I got behind the wheel of a car I was like aw yeah this feels so riiiiight. I really don't know how I went without for a year. Fortunately next time I should not be under any constraints as to operating motor vehicles – which the university condescendingly claimed was for “safety” but which was obviously actually about their insurance – so I should be good to go as long as I pass the road test. Oh, I'll blog about it. Never fear.

Things being easy

This, then, is the one that ties everything else together. To be honest, I didn't even notice that this was something I missed until I was back in Canada, because everything I did having some extra layer of complication had just become my normal. Ordering at a restaurant? Better get a headstart on perusing the menu, and possibly ask what some stuff is. Filling out a simple document? We're gonna need somebody to look it over for mistakes and also maybe read it to us. Need to ask directions because we're lost? Well, are we sure we're lost? If we keep going this way just a couple more blocks do you think we might figure it out? Ok, well should we ask that guy over there? Let's ask that—ok, well, he obviously was in a rush, what about this grandmother? Oh God, what dialect is that? But it is Japanese, right? How can we end this conversation as quickly as possible? If we just thank her and walk away will she stop? How far do we have to go to keep her from realising we don't know what she said?


In Canada, everything is so damn simple. I can skim whole pages at a glance, out of the corner of my eye, from across the room. I already have a mental map detailing the location of every shop, landmark and shortcut I could ever need. In any given group I'm usually the strongest speaker of the lingua franca, not the weakest – unless, that is, I'm with my Japanese friends, in which case I'm still the most knowledgeable and am to be relied on for interpretation. But most significantly, things just make sense in a way that they don't quite do in Japan. They're set up according to a system of heuristics and algorithms I was raised on, to the point that I can navigate my day-to-day affairs mostly on reflex. An easy life isn't necessarily a good life or even a happy one, but for the moment, it's one in which I'm willing to indulge.