Feeling very lucky and grateful to all those who have fought for my right to kick back and enjoy time away from work.
Feeling very lucky and grateful to all those who have fought for my right to kick back and enjoy time away from work.
Like Douglas Adams’ deadlines, recently the milestones keep making great whooshing noises as they go by. This is both my ninth month in Japan and my 200th post on ten minutes hate and, although it has been a mad rush of a week after the previous serene holiday temple wanderings, that seems to offer enough of a reason to stop and survey the scenery.
So already pondering my navel, this excellent post on the seven stages of gaijinhood* perfectly chimed with the mood. It also includes a handy chart, to map your progress on the descent to something even your closest friends will take pleasure in shunning. It was intriguing to wonder where I might fall.
On the one hand, I am happy to be a ‘wide-eyed wonderer’, still ticking off the firsts: first trip on a shinkansen, first visit to Kyoto, even (slightly shamefacedly) the first faltering steps towards learning some Japanese. Yet at the same time, perhaps not so wide-eyed.
Often I struggle to answer the question of why I came to Japan when people ask, because the reason seems quite mundane. I was tired of London and looking for something new, afraid of slipping into the dread routine and worried I would never make it out. People told me I was crazy to give up a secure job and although I know they were rooting for me, I don’t think even my best friends thought it would really happen until we were celebrating at my leaving do.
In spite of that, and even though just before I left the UK I was writing that Haruki Murakami was about 68% responsible for the whole adventure, maybe not having a clear obsession, with manga or martial arts or anything else, helped. Hopefully, my lack of a clear reason for choosing Japan meant that I managed to side-step some of the notions that set people up for rapid disillusionment soon after the plane lands. The real, if slightly dull, reason I came here was that I wanted to see it for myself.
But if the ‘wide-eyed wonderer’ stage is the most self-aware of them all then it is important not to get too self-congratulatory. It is essential to keep a handle on how gauche you are, still wet behind the ears, so required to bow (like a rice stalk in the wind, according to one guidebook I brought with me) to the superior knowledge of others. While running counter to the spirit of adventure that got you onto the plane, on arrival, it is both safer and easier to walk in the footsteps of those who have trod the path before.
As a writer in Japan, it is inevitable that writing about Japan would rear its sometimes-ugly head. Our Man in Abiko skewers some of the more terrible afflictions of the genre in this post:
Do not use pictures of Japanese people behaving normally, such as shopping at CostCo, walking around IKEA or eating a hamburger, as this will imply to potential readers that you don’t know the real Japan.
The Westerner’s fear of the neonsign also offers some words of caution:
Every blog about Japan – and there are too many to count – reveals a dossier of prejudices that the author either held already or nurtured during that vital first year in the country. It’s no surprise that blogs are appended so innocuously – ‘a blog about my life in Japan’, ‘thoughts on Japanese society’, ‘visual culture in Japan’ – since this is all the author believes himself to be doing.
Maybe because this site existed before I arrived, it was easier to resist the urge to document every new thing I stumbled across in those early ‘barely able to get on the right train’ days. My posts from that time are notable either because they don’t contain much Japan, or because they don’t contain many words, although that last does include not one, but two strange flavoured Kit-Kats. I could die of shame.
I started ten minutes hate to vent spleen at the utter uselessness of the UK’s politicians and at first it was difficult to resist the lure of or foresee an end to that topic. That was until the time difference and distance began intruding, when it didn’t seem like I could offer any new perspectives on the cuts and the protests against them. My last post on the subject, written on 10 March, was largely unloved and unread.
I wasn’t sure what else to do, but I knew I wanted to avoid writing another ‘weird Japan’ blog. As an English teacher I couldn’t feel comfortable mocking attempts to use the language, especially not with six words of Japanese to my name. The seedier aspects of life might have boosted the hit count, but apparently there are others out there making a much better fist of that, so more power to their elbows.
Maybe in the end, your subject finds you. As with so many other areas of life, the Tohoku earthquake must have altered the gradual progressions noted in the chart. Perhaps it has made me jump a few steps to ‘ill-informed activism’ as, horrified by the UK media’s take on the situation, I determined to tell the ‘real’ story. That this has proved popular shows that people are keen to hear from other perspectives. My posts since 11 March have often strayed far from what I would consider ‘newsworthy’, seeming to endlessly concern the tea I have been drinking and accompanying cakes. Maybe there is a ‘keep calm and carry on’ nature to such posts that make them comforting to read.
I am aware of Japan slipping down the list of stories, at the worst possible point for those affected, when they need assistance and attention more than ever. All I can do is, in a small way, keep the stories of survivors, their needs and the relief efforts directed at them, in the thoughts of people around the world who may be able to help. To keep plugging Quakebook and other fundraising efforts and to report on efforts being made in other countries, so that Japan doesn’t feel alone, as one of my students said it did in March.
I hope that will keep ten minutes hate going for another 200 posts, although on the way there will be times when I am just as unsure of the right direction. In Gakuranman’s post he notes that:
self-doubt and questioning is at least a step in the direction of humility.
I would argue that a little – not too much – self-doubt is an essential part of a writer’s arsenal. You want that small voice whispering in your ear ‘it’s not good enough’, to spur you on to better things. When strolling around new cities, as well as when writing, getting lost is usually the best way to find your way to something unexpected but ultimately more rewarding.
* A gaijin is a foreigner in Japan, lovers of wordplay will note that this was recently amended to ‘flyjin’ in response to the numbers of foreigners who made arrangements to move elsewhere when faced with earthquakes and nuclear meltdown.
There’s no one here.
Thank you for stopping by, unfortunately updates on ten minutes hate will be few and far between for the next couple of weeks as Julia heads off to see some more of the world. In the meantime, please amuse yourselves in the archives (headed ‘Records Department’ in the right-hand menu) or with the great writers and friends of this blog that you will find in the list called ‘the Brotherhood’.
Wishing a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all!
I really had meant to do more writing this week, still I suppose packing should really take precedence, given that ONE WEEK from today I will be beginning a journey that will see me pitch up in Tokyo for a 12-month stay.
That said, it seems a shame to let this time, which I described to a pal last night as being ‘like a whole month of Christmas Eves when you were seven’, slide by without acknowledgement. It hasn’t all been mundane ‘will that fit in my suitcase’, ‘how will I ever remember the katakana’ and ‘what if I arrive but my suitcase doesn’t?’-type considerations.
In amongst all that, and alongside the to-do list from hell, are the more esoteric notions that I am sure must cross the minds of everyone when they leave somewhere, about gaining a different perspective on everything that is familiar to me, including home, country and politics, striking out on my own and seeing a bit more of the world.
People have asked if I am nervous and I suppose I should be, even if only slightly. Except that with all the planning that has gone into the move and all the waiting around for the final departure date, all I can honestly say I feel is excitement. Carpe diem and all of that.
ten minutes hate wishes you all extremely enjoyable and fulfilling weekends!
A guest post today from writer and master of all trades, Eb Ward, currently located ‘somewhere in the southern hemisphere’
I stepped off the dusty high street in Quintero and onto the bus to Valparaiso. I tried to pay, but the driver waved me away to an empty pair of seats just in front of the back row. I laid my heavy backpack down beside me and felt a little guilty that I was taking up two spaces. I sat for a while, waiting to see if I was going to get a free ride all the way to the city. Five minutes later the driver stopped the bus in the middle of the road and refused to drive until I came up to speak with him. He must have been expecting me to get up there and pay like every other passenger until he realised his faith in either the intelligence or honesty of gringos was misplaced. I paid my 1,000 pesos and walked back down the aisle. As I returned to my seat someone behind spoke to me in English.
‘Are you okay? Need any help?’ a man asked in a thick Chilean accent.
[No, no problem,] I replied in Spanish, in the thick accent of wherever it is I’m from.
‘Oh, you speak Spanish? Very good! Very good. You speak Spanish, eh?’
‘Well, a bit.’
‘I like to practise my English,’ he said, with an air of finality. I looked at him, a small fifty-something man with deeply lined and tanned skin, a bulbous nose, quick dark eyes and uneven patches of curly black hair piled on his scalp like campfire smoke. He bowed his head towards me with an ambassadorial air. ‘Welcome to Chile.’
As he spoke a younger man in the seat in front of me craned his neck to look back at us. He had thick, rubbery lips that didn’t quite fit into each other and watery greenish eyes under a thatch of black hair under a pair of sunglasses.
[What are you talking to him about?] he asked in Spanish.
[I’m talking to him in English] my new friend said dismissively, turning to me again. ‘We’re just talking, aren’t we?’
I nodded. He was speaking very loudly, almost shouting, and I wondered if he’d been drinking. It was embarrassing. I turned to face forwards again. He didn’t take the hint.
‘I learned my English in Finland. I used to work there.’ He paused and I just waited. ‘I used to have four or five women every week! They’d never seen someone with dark skin and dark hair before. Amazing, man! Five a week!’ I raised my eyebrows at the respective sizes of this claim and the small, unprepossessing entity from which it emanated. I tried to turn away a second time, but it was clear that the sex life of the Finns was not all he wanted to tell me about. He gestured towards the young man in front of me, whose lips were collecting a thin film of drool. ‘This is my… What’s the word in English for your brother’s son?’
‘Yeah, nephew. He’s my nephew. We’re going to Concón to pick up our pay packets for the month.’
I smiled and nodded in what I hoped was a conclusive kind of a way. He plunged on, asking me where I was from, what I did and where I was going.
‘Valparaiso? Really?’ He whistled. ‘It’s very dangerous. Be careful of your things, man. Really, be careful. It’s not safe there.’
I nodded again. He told me three more times to be careful of my things to make sure I’d understood. I felt as though he was trying to expand his nephew collection to include me by sheer weight of advice. I agreed I would be careful of my things. He advised me to walk with my hands in my pockets at all times. I found myself wondering why every Chilean I met made Valparaiso sound like downtown Mogadishu. He was warming to his theme, when he stopped and looked at me closely.
‘Hey man, what you think of my English?’ ‘It’s pretty good,’ I said. And aside from a few dropped words and some wayward grammar, it was.
‘Pretty good? You think my English pretty good?’
‘Yeah. It’s not bad at all.’
‘FUCK!’ he bellowed. The guy sitting next to him hugged his young son closer to him and glared. My new best friend bounced in his seat, delightedly. ‘Pretty good!’ He looked at his nephew who was watching him vacantly and trying to follow our conversation without the benefit of being able to understand English. ‘You hear that? He said my English pretty good!’
[He said my English is pretty good.]
[Really? Whatever,] he said, shaking his head in disbelief.
[It’s pretty good,] I confirmed, though after the sudden explosion I was beginning to have doubts. The nephew looked at me in surprise, while his uncle looked a bit disgruntled that I was trying to muscle in on his role as translator.
‘Yeah, my English is pretty good. Pretty good…’ He repeated it a few more times and each time seemed to inflate a little more. He looked at me with a gleam in his eye, then at his nephew.
‘My English is pretty good. You hear that?’ He paused, ‘You punkass bitch?’
I swiveled my head around to stare at him. He grinned at me, then looked at his nephew again.
‘Yeah, motherfucker! You’re such a fucking bitch.’
His nephew frowned, leaned over and tried a retaliatory slap which missed by a mile. Delighted, his uncle spread his hands wide and brought them down level with his hips as though cradling the shaft of an imaginary penis which, if real, would have been much larger than his torso.
‘Yeah, that’s right, you’re a fucking bitch! You know what you can do? You can suck my dick, motherfucker!’
A huge grin spread across his face as he ran through his repertoire at the top of his voice, like a small child going over the alphabet for his parents, accompanying the performance with enthusiastic pelvic-thrusting. The ambassador/uncle was now gone, and the man in his place spent a quarter of an hour inviting his motherfucking nephew to go down on him. My fellow passengers were shifting nervously in their seats, some of them murmuring to themselves and others staring fixedly at the floor or at their young children, hoping as I was that he would get off at one of the next stops. He did not. Instead he pulled out a plastic telephone calling card and handed it to me. For the first time, his nephew looked genuinely aghast.
[You’re just going to give that to him?]
[Don’t worry, it’s not charged up,] he replied. He turned to me, ‘Don’t worry, there’s no money on it.’ I must have looked confused, probably because I was.
‘The other side, man.’ I turned it over but all I could see was the red, white and blue of the Chilean flag.
‘It’s the flag of my country,’ he said solemnly. I waited to see why I should care. He laid his right arm across his chest, the balled fist over his heart. He raised his voice a little more, ‘It’s the most important thing in my life!’
I must have looked sceptical, probably because I was, although I still couldn’t smell any alcohol. He seemed disappointed but not discouraged, and his previous ambassadorial tone returned. ‘It is a present to you from my country. Please take it and keep it with you always.’ He smiled magnanimously as I placed it in my wallet. Satisfied, he leaned past me and grabbed a plastic carrier bag out of the hands of his nephew. I saw a green glass bottleneck sticking out of the top, and on it the familiar red, white and gold of Stella Artois.
‘This?’ He shrugged, brandishing the tall litre bottle and smiling slyly, ‘I’m sorry. This is a habit I picked up from the English.’
He took a long swig before his nephew tried to take it back.
[Wait your turn!] he snapped, holding it out of reach, then translating: ‘You gotta wait, motherfucker!’ He downed about a quarter-litre of Stella and then snatched the sunglasses of his nephew’s head. He looked at them for a moment, turning them in his hands, then tried to sell them to me.
He carried on trying to sell them to me for the next ten minutes, undeterred that I had a pair of my own hanging from the neck of my shirt. When he finally got off, shoving his nephew around as they disembarked, I saw row upon row of shoulders relax and I almost thought I could see the plate-glass of the windows buckle slightly, as if the bus itself were breathing a sigh of relief.
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There are days when I feel I should have the words “epic fail” branded onto my forehead because I have never been anywhere that wasn’t Europe or North America, never travelled anywhere where I didn’t speak the language or knew enough words to get by or wasn’t with people who were fluent. There are other days where I stare at maps of the world and wonder how I would get to there from here, what would it look like when I arrived and then want to shake myself for my complete lack of a sense of adventure. I’ve read the books, sure, seen the films and surfed the web. But as yet, never left the comfortable bubble of the first world, never trekked in a hostile environment where I’m not at the top of the food chain and never climbed a mountain that went above the clouds. What a terrible state of affairs.
So, then I read about this lady and how she is fearlessly heading off to sail around the world, where there are pirates and sharks and waves the size of a building, in a boat that to my inexpert eyes, seems a trifle, well, tiny. And all she wants me, and by extension, YOU, to do, is bung her a dollar (so less than the value of proper money, heh) and she’ll do all the scary exploration stuff, with the added bonus of sending regular updates on her adventures and even letting you sign the boat. This is the very definition of a win-win situation, I feel. It doesn’t get much better than this. We get to act like members of the Royal Geographic Society or one of Shackleton’s millionaire backers, someone else gets to battle with the elements.
All pledges need to be made by 31 August, so take a look at the website here and get pledging. Then sit back in your most comfortable armchair, perhaps light a soothing pipe, read your favourite book and glory in the knowledge that you don’t have to go anywhere more threatening than Shoreditch High Street on a Friday night. Perfect.
I found out about this great adventure via the lovely ladies at No Good for Me, your ultimate fashion mix-tape. Hopefully this post is grovelly enough to win me a whistle, as I plan to use it to alert my close acquaintances to the presence of suitable candidates for ridicule on this website.