one year ago, i had just quit my job, sold everything i owned and was in the process of moving out of my apartment. after over a year of planning, i was about to move across the globe to another country. just as i was saying my goodbyes, a big wave hit japan killing thousands and causing a nuclear catastrophe. on every news program were images of death, destruction and people scrambling to escape the tiny island nation where i was headed. it seemed the gods and mother nature had conspired to send me a sign that said, “you must be out of your [expletive deleted] mind!”
the thought of being homeless and jobless was scary. the mere notion of returning to my former job (which probably wouldn’t take me back anyway) was horrifying. it was…a conundrum. so i did what any reasonable person would do when faced with perhaps the most important decision of their life. i went out the next day and got tattooed with my dad, then said “smell ya later!” the decision wasn’t without trepidation, but i felt that i had come too far to be turned away by a little radiation. besides, growing a tail and a third arm was a pleasant alternative to my last job.
with the anniversary of the tsunami, there’s a myriad of TV programs showing both the immediate aftermath and the current state of the region affected by the great wave. it makes me think of how i was feeling this time last year. last night i was at a dinner party with japanese friends and we realized it was the actual anniversary of the tsunami. i mentioned that i almost didn’t come because of what happened. my friend reached out his hand to shake mine and with a sincere look said, “thank you for coming.”
while i’m always homesick, i’m enjoying my life here and having lots of fun. quite honestly, my life is much simpler than it was a year ago. i miss my family and friends but i don’t miss a lot of the worries and stresses that i left behind. as i write this, i am preparing to move out of my apartment and leave the town i live in. i don’t yet have a job lined up and or a destination for my new home. there is a distinct possibility that i’ll be unemployed and homeless come april. am i worried about it? not really! i’ve got a 3-year visa and a japanese driver’s license. of course i won’t have a car come april but…minor details. i’ll figure something out. and besides, the cherry blossoms are starting to bloom! life ain’t bad. it might be time to get another tattoo…
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reflecting upon my stay abroad in italy, i recall that ITALIAN BEERS don’t tend to be typically too tasty. that fact was offset by the variety of delicious european beers that were readily available. the proximity of italy to its european neighbors kept the prices, not only reasonable, but downright cheap.
i distinctly remember an autumn italian afternoon, years ago, which found me and a couple of my compatriots fumbling on foot through a new route back to our apartment. in passing, we noticed a local watering hole that advertised Heineken bottles at the equivalent of 75¢ each. jackpot! you don’t pass that up. we went in and gave it a try and quickly professed this to be our new local hangout. as it turns out, we soon realized that it was a TRANNY BAR. but hey…75¢ beers!
japan isn’t proximate to anything. be that as it may, one of the things i quickly came to appreciate in japan is that the beer is decent. the same brands of japanese beer that are readily available in the US are the most popular brands here as well….ASAHI, KIRIN and my personal favorite, SAPPORO. so at least the domestic brew should command a modest price, right? wrong.
a six pack of beer in japan costs $15 or more. there is absolutely no discount for buying in bulk either. a case costs roughly $60. and i’m not talking about the fancy stuff. japan taxes beer at such a ridiculous rate that you can buy an entire bottle of liquor for almost the same price as a six pack. evidently the tax is on anything with a certain percentage of malt. and as luck would have it, the amount needed to make beer falls in that tax bracket.
to counter this “taxation without consideration,” the japanese have come up with an answer…fake beer. not JOKE BOOZE which they’ve got plenty of, but actual fake beer. they call it HAPPOSHU. it’s got alcohol. they put beer flavoring in it and it come in beer cans, but it’s not beer. this becomes apparent the next day when you feel the hangover which ironically is painfully real. it’s hard to believe the germans ever made a DEAL with these people.
fear not friends! i may not have much in the way of virtues at this point in my life but i have managed hold on to a shred of dignity, a pinch of integrity and an ounce or two of pride. i wouldn’t be caught dead drinking that swill. i leave that to my BRITISH FRIENDS.
in japan i don’t have a couch to relax on. i’ve got a fridge that i could pick up and carry around. and if it had the space, i couldn’t afford more than a couple beers at a time. they’re an expensive treat. what’s more is that i live in a place where you have to drive to do just about anything. truth be told, back in the states i’ve had a drink or two before taking a short drive. who hasn’t? here, the penalties for driving with even the slightest amount of alcohol in your system are extremely severe. it’s not even remotely an option, so if i decide to have a beer at home after a long day i have to be sure i’m not going anywhere or doing anything that requires me to drive.
my apartment in new york had a full-sized fridge. at any given moment, i had four or five different kinds of beer in there. this included a case of YUENGLING PREMIUM cans (delicious) which i would stock up on at $13 a case during trips back to pennsylvania. it was there if i entertained guest. it was there if i wanted to have a drink before going out and it was there if i just wanted to sit back and have a beer with my feet up on the couch.
this is one of those things that makes me miss home so much. it’s not just about the beer. it’s about the whole ritual…the amenity…the comfort it provided. it’s something i took for granted. it’s something so simple that it’s impossible to know you take it for granted. it’s almost impossible not to take it for granted. it may sound crazy but it’s something that i enjoyed so much and miss so terribly that it’s enough to make me want to come back home.
but i won’t.
i’m certain however that i’ll appreciate it that much more when i do.
school lunch (kyuushoku) is very different from schools in the US. the students eat in their classroom in predetermined groups of 4-6 called han. a group of students puts on aprons and masks and goes down to get the dishes and all the food which they bring back to the classroom in deep silver pales and serve from ladles. everyone gets the same amount. since the schools don’t know how well the students eat at home (and japanese cuisine isn’t always very healthy), they load them up with vegetables and carbs at school. school lunch is easily the biggest meal anywhere in japan. it’s also delicious…and sometimes disgusting.
once everyone is ready, a designated student gives the okay to begin and there is a set amount of time to eat the meal. students eat in silence and they MUST finish everything off their plates…especially the things they don’t like. to date, the only things that i have seen to be acceptable not to finish have been fish bones and the little stem at the end of a cherry. for these types of things, the teacher moves from han to han to let the students discard them in one of the pales. other than that, everything things must go. “suki-kirai nashi” (i have no dislikes) is the moto of the students. the junior high school where i teach has been shuffling me from han to han each day for lunch. today a boy in my han must have poured off some of his soup in his friend’s bowl on the sly before we started. i was sitting at a small desk facing him and i didn’t even notice. a moment after the meal started, the teacher came over from across the room and busted him. she switched the bowls back so that the boy would have to eat more than his original share AND she made him wait a few minutes before he could start eating…which makes it hard to finish your meal in time. teachers here don’t play!
like i said, the meals are delicious BUT there has always been at least one thing that is terrible. since i have to set an example and these kids don’t even seem to flinch at some of the foul shit that is put in front of them, i try to eat the worst thing first so i can wash it away with the rest of the food. the only catch is, dessert has to be eaten last no matter what. so there i was yesterday having what would have been the most delicious meal i’ve had yet in japan had it not been for the dessert staring me in the face…literally. the dessert yesterday consisted of sesame seeds, peanuts and little dried fish that looked like minnows that had been left to dry out in the sun. not just a couple fish but many fish. like 40 of these foul little corpses complete with bones and eyeballs wide open and dead with the look of terror that i felt as i chewed my way closer to them with every bite. even worse were the kids around me holding the plates up their faces as they scooped every last sesame seed and fish scale into their mouths. i could actually taste the fear.
in short, i did it. i got threw it the only way i knew how…i ate all the fish first as fast as i could leaving the peanuts and sesame seeds as a chaser. it wasn’t easy but i persevered. i’d like to think i’m stronger as a result. i know my breath was. i still had one lifeline to go. my milk. dairy is for the most part non-existent in the japanese diet, but the kids get milk as their lunch drink and it’s really high in fat content. it’s thick and it tastes like half and half. in fact i think it is. i kinda like it actually. the milk this day was especially glorious as it helped wash away my dead fish delicacy. i wanted to pour it all over my face and dance in triumph. but instead i remained stoic.
the other thing about school lunch here is that the students and teachers alike all brush their teeth after the meal. they don’t go into the bathroom but instead, everyone has a little toothbrush, toothpaste and cup and they all brush together in the room while milling about. i’m obliged to do the same. i kinda like that too. it’s good for getting the taste of sesame minnow peanuts and rotten milk out of your mouth.
i’m looking forward to the day they serve whale…which, i kid you not, they most certainly will.
on my first day at the junior high school, my only responsibility was to be introduced at the school’s opening ceremony assembly, held in the gym. ceremony is the key word since there are a lot of times when it is customary to bow and say or do things. I had to watch others to make sure I didn’t blow it.
the schools aren’t heated or air-conditioned and in many places they’re open to the elements. The gym was freezing and there are no shoes allowed so everyone was in socks. students kneel on the floor sitting on their feet in neat rows with boys on one side and girls on the other. the boys uniform is made up of dark slacks and blazers while the girls wear skirts and some sort of blouse that looks like donald duck’s sailor uniform. it’s a lot like church where at different times during the assembly, the students are told to stand, kneel or sit back indian style. and just like in church, the kids fidget and squirm. some of the teachers move around and scold students for their posture and correct them.
the teachers were lined up in the back of the gym with me at the end of the line. after an opening speech by the principal the line of teachers was marched around the back of the students and into a row of chairs along the side and facing them. again the principal made a quick speech that i didn’t understand and each of us stood one at a time and bowed when we were introduced. then we stood again and walked to the stage. since i was the last one on stage i was able to watch how the other teachers bowed toward the middle of the stage and i followed suit. one at a time the principal called each teacher’s name and they came to the podium to introduce themselves. again, i watched and imitated, however, when i walked to the podium there were giggles and commotion among the students, due in part to the fact that i am new and interesting, but especially since the microphone only came to my belly button. i leaned down and said good morning in japanese…ohayo gozaimasu, and there was more laughter so i just stood straight up and gave my introduction without the use of a microphone at all. the students laughed and then they were called to bow. the other teachers seemed pleased so i don’t think i screwed it up. i’ll be teaching english to all three of the junior high grade levels, but i am designated as part of the second (8th) grade teaching group. this announcement brought cheers from the second grade and the students seemed excited.
most of my day was spent in the teachers’ room for lesson prep. just like the rest, this room isn’t heated. the other teachers were running around and very busy except for me. they seem to understand that i don’t have much to do yet. i did my best to smile and bow my head to teachers when they walked by. i get the impression they are very curious about me but most of them are afraid to engage me since they don’t speak english and i don’t speak japanese. some brave teachers introduced themselves (most of them english teachers) and one of the vice principals even came over to show me his “family” which was a picture of him holding his pet rabbit named peter. i returned the favor by showing him a picture of my family and also one of hennepin. i was also invited to join the other second grade teachers for lunch at which point several of them felt it was safe enough to ask me questions.
after school, students participate in club activities. some of the clubs at this school are baseball, volleyball, track, brass band, badminton, tennis, art, basketball and kendo. one of the english teachers toured me around the school grounds where i got to watch some of the clubs. It seems that just about all 340 students at this school know my name and they enthusiastically wave and say, “hello scotto-sensei!” i’m a local celebrity now. i hope i don’t let my public down when it’s time for me to teach.
i’ve been in my new home for a week now and i’ve intended to post something but it’s been hectic and i’m experiencing a phone/camera/computer problem. in short…i bought a new iphone so i could enjoy a comfort similar to home but my computer is old and doesn’t support it. so now i have to wait to upgrade my computer’s operating system before i can connect the phone and transfer pictures to my computer. so no new pictures until i get that squared.
anyway, i’m here in mitoyo “city” which isn’t quite a city but more of a suburb. it’s got the look and feel of where i grew up. there is agriculture and plenty of civilization so it doesn’t feel particularly remote but most places close down around 7 so it’s not exactly bustling. on a smaller sleepier scale i’ve got every modern convenience i had in the US but nothing is convenient at all since i don’t speak the language. it’s extremely hard for me to do just about anything that requires communication…especially eating. the supermarket is difficult to navigate since a lot of the food is vastly different. the meats are suspicious and hard to identify and even most of the vegetables are foreign to me. the packaged foods are completely unfamiliar and the labels on everything are indecipherable. nothing is impossible however and i’ve also been defaulting to some local establishments and eating the same things i’ve already had because i know how to get them. i’ll post more about the local delicacies another time.
my first night here last week was pretty rough. i woke up really early in Hiroshima after a night of glorious karaoke and 2 hours of sleep. a 3 hour bus ride got me across the the Great Seto Bridge to Sakaide. there i was met by my IC (independent contractor who’s job it is to help me get settled) named Baba-san…perhaps the finest human being on the planet. her english was spotty but she worked very hard to translate things and get me going. she took me to get my apartment, register with the city office, open a post office account (same as a bank in japan), get a cell phone, get me a futon for my apartment and get any things i might need to get me started. last stop was a supermarket near my home. i insisted that i just needed a quick ready-made meal and some OJ to get me through the night and i could come back in the morning.
once she left and i was in my place alone, tried to eat but this meal was terrible and it had been sitting in the supermarket all day. since i was exhausted, i figured the best thing to do was shower and get some sleep so i could get a fresh start in the morning. as luck would have it, my hot water wasn’t turned on. no biggie…i’ll call the IC in the morning and have it dealt with. then i went to turn on the heater (one of those wall units that doubles as an AC). this should have been nice and easy but the remote control has nothing but japanese on it and the display screen had all sorts of strange symbols on it….think the self-destruct arm band in Predator. all i could get it to do was blow cold air. that’s when i really felt isolated and lonely.
all my complaints seemed trivial after i spoke to my friend Lucy who’s on the southern coast of my island. she lives in Kochi, the 2nd most impoverished place in japan behind Okinawa. apparently her bathroom has a hole in the floor over which she has to squat and a tub that takes a half hour to fill before she has to turn on some kind of furnace that takes another half hour to heat the water before she can even bathe. that situation as well as news footage of what’s going on in the wake of the tsunami have really put my issues into perspective.
i’m going to be just fine. this is what i asked for. i knew i was going to be missing the things i take for granted on a daily basis…i just never really inventoried what those things were before now. i’m way out of my comfort zone but i’m going to come out of all of this stronger as a result. it’s just going to take a little time.
my friend veronica asked me if i’ve started to feel homesick yet. my departure is more than a month away and the answer is yes. i’m feeling homesick for the first time since i first went to college. i remember going to school and missing friends, family and all that was familiar. i dropped out of school after the first semester and very quickly realized that i missed school even more, so i made sure to get my ass back there as soon as possible.
when i studied abroad in Italy for the latter half of 2000, i never once felt homesick. certainly i missed family and friends but there was always the notion in the back of my head that it was temporary and i’d be back soon. there was also a safety net such that, if at any time it became too much for me, i could call my mommy and have her get me on the first flight back. luckily, that wasn’t necessary.
when i left DC after 5 years to move to New York i was ready for a change. i was leaving with someone and going to a place that was already home to several of my friends. it was immediately comfortable. and despite the fact that i had a very well established and dear-to-my heart social circle in DC, i’ve rarely had the need to return. i never really laid down any roots there.
now here i am. i love it here in New York and i don’t have a need to leave but i’m certainly not going to pass up this opportunity. i also assume that i’ll likely come back to New York if and when i return from my sojourn. but who knows what cards life will deal me between now and the theoretical “then.” regardless, i find myself in the same position as before: i’ve lived in this city for 4 1/2 years, i haven’t laid down any real roots. will New York and everything that goes with it become foreign to me soon after i leave? will i not feel the need to return?
this isn’t quite as temporary as my study abroad. the difference now is that this time i’m selling off and giving away my entire life. what’s more is that my safety net in Japan is going to be me. i’m not a student anymore and i’m dependent upon no one but myself…a fact that i’m particularly proud of, but is frightening nonetheless. more so than any other time in my life, i’m really going to find out what i’m made of.
while talking about her own experience in Italy, veronica mentioned that it was difficult to be without simple comforts like the ability to text back and forth quickly with friends. i hadn’t thought of that. i bet there’s a lot i haven’t thought of that is going to quickly become apparent as soon as i get there. with a 13 hour time difference and the fact that very few, if any, people there will speak english, i have to be prepared to feel very isolated until i learn to communicate effectively, and that doesn’t mean just being able to purchase a loaf of bread or ask for directions.
“twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. so throw off the bowlines. sail away from the harbor. catch the trade winds in your sails. explore. dream. discover.”—