Tuesday, January 30, 2007

different shades of the same thing

you don't even know how many blog posts i've cleverly titled but don't have time to write about yet. there's much more to come. oh so much more.
here's a typical day for ローレン (that's me):
my mobile phone/camera/alarm clock extroardinaire (from now on referred to as The Device) goes off with sound, lights, and vibration at 6:30am. usually it's resting against the headboard, so i get the added heart attack of something clattering violently by my ear and shaking the entire bedframe. i allow myself one and only one push to the snooze button, then i drag my sorry carcass out of the most comfortable bed i've had the pleasure of sleeping in, ever. i think that to myself every single morning. my bedroom is 6 tatami mats big (9 x 13 feet) and pretty sparsely furnished (only a bed, a nightstand, and a small air filter that's about the size and shape of a flat computer screen).

i open the sliding room dividers (ふすま) and step into the bitter cold living room. ok, it isn't so bitter anymore, but that's only a very recent development. my living room is also 6 tatami mats in size and more cluttered. this houses the Massive hardwood dressing closet/cabinet/storage chasm that could swallow someone's oversized yarn collection *ahem*, or possibly a dead body. this is probably the most enviable feature of my house.
usually, i have my creamy puff blanket draped over my shoulders and i trudge to the kitchen where the tea water machine is always on and always hot. i make myself a big cup of black tea with sugar and soy milk and then slide my legs under the heated living room table (こたつ) which i discussed back in September.

i write for 40 minutes and then hustle to pack a lunch, eat a bowl of oatmeal with raisins, brown sugar, and walnuts, straighten the unruly bedhead with my new hyper-power straightening iron (thanks mom!) that hisses so much it sounds like i'm cooking steaks, and dress before velcro-ing my shoes on and clomping down the steep hill to school. if i don't forget before i head out, i consult the complicated schedule for what variety of trash will be picked up that day and hoist my bags up the hill to the trash bin.

the high road to the bin:

the bin itself:

the scenic route to school:

when i enter the school yard, i bow and say good morning to any students i see, change into my school slippers at the rusted outdoor shoe locker, and usually make it inside just as the bells are ringing to signal the start of the morning meeting. as i go in, i smell the deliriously wonderful odor of fresh coffee, bow to the women sweeping the stairs, and glance briefly into the office to see if i can catch the eye of any of my friends. then i unload my computer, lunch, and other stuff into my desk and start ignoring the meeting. later i teach class, blah blah blah.
at exactly 4:15 i strike out for home, check my mail, step out of my shoes in the entryway (slide on my house slippers) and then decide what to do for the rest of the evening.

the front of my house:

the entryway:

a few bits more.
Come One, Come All; dye your hair Brown, Brown, or Brown! Blonde? Impossible! Red? Improbable! at least the boxes are cool for those guys who want a little "beauteen."

finally, i'll part with a shot that may comment on the "all part of the same group" mentality of japan, or it could be a coincidence. i call it: Movement In White. or..."i like white CARS and i can not LIE!"

Monday, January 29, 2007

hi super nintendo chalmers...i'm learnding!

today marks the day i finally put my international drivers permit to use and ventured out in a mini car on the left side of the road. hopefully all that practice hugging the left on my bike will make careening around in a car a little easier. it wasn't as weird as i expected: it's like driving while looking in a mirror, and, like, how weird is that? uhhh. yeah...it was a little weird. however, my passengers gave the ride positive reviews, so maybe it won't be so intimidating from here on out. i want to drive next year! as charming and romantic as it's been to bike to the grocery store every other day through the winter months, i long for the day when i can buy anything without worrying about how i'm going to get it home. the part that feels the strangest is not driving on the left (i toyed around with that some at home), but sitting on the right! and, thank God, the foot pedals are in the same order, but the blinker and windshield wipers are opposite. i can forsee some occassions where i'll be wiping vigorously when i go to turn.
seriously, though. getting one's japanese drivers license is a big frickin deal. you think you have to jump through hoops in the u.s.? here you essentially register (wait one month), take a written test (wait one month), take the driving test (make one mistake and you must wait another month to retake it), and if fate smiles upon you, in three short months you may have earned your license. did i mention: the closest place where i can do all of these things is three hours away? however, once i've achieved this, i think it will be a milestone in my life. a card-carrying driver in another country. how coolish is that!?

Monday, January 22, 2007

my blood, mine enemy, or: we're not out of the woods yet, not by a longshot

today i thought i might have TSS, a serious disease of which most women are at least vaguely aware. it's a potentially fatal bacterial infection that you can get from those handy products that make mensturation less of a pain, at least figuratively. in lieu of specifics, we'll just say there were less-than-optimal circumstances surrounding the whole shebang. so i looked up the symptoms (to be safe).....and then i sat around and waited to get them, or recognize them. so i thought i was in the clear, phew, when i was gripped by some serious dizziness while seated. i got freaked. then my female supervisor walked up and said sweetly, "oh! you look really pale." well now, that's just not right. i sat her down right then and told her my fears. she asked if i wanted to go to the hospital; that's what all medical clinics of any kind are called in japan. we hit the road headed for an aged, male ob/gyn. yippee.
in the waiting room, i sat with my very kind supervisor and she bravely interviewed me about all the most personal details of my Life as a Menstruator, since i could not decode the medical questionnaire on my own. having little experience translating medical terminology, she had to go straight for the easiest way of communicating these questions, thus, i was asked the following:
how many times per day do you go to the bathroom for not pee-pee?
have you had sex with not a man? (does this mean: have i had sex with a woman? or have i had sex with only boys? or have i never had sex?)
and finally,
has anyone in your family ever experienced the following: 肝臓病、腎臓病、心臓病、貧血症、糖尿病、高血圧?
we went in to speak to the doctor, and i guess i shouldn't have been worried about the possible pelvic exam, because he barely looked at me. he didn't take my temperature; he didn't check my vitals; he didn't even touch me at all. since my only symptom was one short bout of dizziness, waiting a little bit seemed smart to him. humph. well that's not how to discover a disease early! but i guess i'd rather go someplace else anyway.
when we headed out, i braced myself for the bill. what do they charge you in this country to do nothing but tell you to get lost? i guess i got what i paid for, because the total visit cost $6.68--that's right, six dollars. so if i die, it's on that guy's head, but my survivors won't owe the world a fortune for my health care.

Friday, January 19, 2007

planes, trains, and automobiles: the journey home

We've been traveling far
Without a home
But not without a star."
-Neil Diamond (don't laugh...i grew up on that tape)

the first glimpse of my expansive country was as i descended into the san francisco morning after an oddly anxious flight across the pacific. the japanese united agent was kind enough to get me window seats on all four flights home, so i watched the blue night sky unravelling from above for endless hours. i knew i'd be arriving at sunrise, and since i was coming from the east, i couldn't understand why we weren't flying with the sun. it was dark ocean the whole way...
another remarkable kindness from the united agent: (though i had checked the website to see what things weren't allowed in luggage, i missed where it said no lighters of any kind) when they asked me if i had a lighter, i stupidly said yes, but only in my checked bag. she inhaled apologetically; they're not allowed at all!
but it's a gift! it doesn't have any fuel!
she called over her supervisor. i pulled out offending lighter. could i prove it had no fuel? sure...i demonstrated trying to light it with no success. he was satisfied. and....in a move very uncharacteristic of the japanese "we follow the rule book at all costs" attitude i've experienced until now, he actually leaned over the counter and said, "i don't think security will recognize this as a lighter [because of its unique shape]. if they do call your name because there's a problem with your luggage, i'll meet you at the security gate and walk the item through with you." wow. thank you mr. united man.
during the flight, i kept wondering if the guy next to me was going to stab me or something because he seemed very agitated, and everyone knows how dangerous rage can be at 30,000 feet. perhaps it was my own feelings of awkwardness at seeing so many other english-speakers that was really the problem (and a little travel-day paranoia). i had actually been hoping to sit next to some japanese businessman. after seven hours or so (well, i had plenty of time to let him chill out), i got him chatting about his home and job, so i felt more comfortable. through my sleepy haze, i witnessed a brilliant view of the golden gate bridge at sunrise and (even more exciting) a plane landing parallel and at the same moment as ours. the pilot actually said, "this is about as close as we're going to get to that other plane." you mean we're not going to try and touch wingtips!? aww, man! why didn't we get Iceman or Maverick as our pilot? finally we landed, but i was already lost in my exhaustion. after stumbling through customs where the agent only briefly double-checked my pink-coiffed passport ("oh is that your hair? i thought it was a reflection)," i wandered into a food court. what meal should i try on my empty stomach? or more specifically, what time of day did my stomach think it was? i went straight for the miso soup and burned my tongue. welcome home. i don't think they keep miso soup boiling in japan. i would have tried some eggs and hashed browns, but i couldn't really believe i wasn't still in japan, and i didn't want to chance having an allergic reaction to the eggs.
i kept seeing people i thought i recognized, but get a grip lauren, you don't know everyone in america, and you don't know more than three people in san francisco.
after twenty-four brutal hours of travel (a beast of four legs), i finally got close to home. as i anticipated, i ran into several people i knew in the denver airport who were going to durango, so i started catching up right away (one was a girl i babysat for several years starting when she was about four--who is now studying fashion in san francisco!--where does the time go?).
we touched down in durango in darkness. i buttoned my coat up tighly while waiting to deplane and walked through the wild, cold wind to the airport door. i was feeling a touch poetic...the colorado night was affecting me...until i realized i had buttoned my coat askew and probably looked like a crazy person...or one of those "artist types." wink

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

the monster in muffins

today i finally told my favorite teacher, naoko, that i was going to stay in japan another year. much to my surprise, she got teary-eyed and hugged me twice like she just couldn't help herself. i felt the lightness of her joy and relief. she said "i feel like celebrating! i was so worried, but i was afraid to ask!" (for heaven's sake--every time i re-read this, i get choked up.)
it's true, coming back from a place where no one was startled by my foreign face was a bit difficult, and getting into school again hasn't been easy. but that's work, right? i'm happy to have a lighter semester...four fewer classes per week than i was teaching before. and i've had some more memorable firsts:
i got my first honk and wave from someone i actually know in a car--the lunch room man! he’s so nice, but i still can’t remember his name. he always wants to know how cold it gets in colorado. (mainasu nijuu)
i also stopped into a tiny little gift shop i’ve been wanting to see. intimidating? yes. it looks like you're walking right into someone's home, and often you kinda are. it's a stuffed, but organized space with luxurious foreign cigarette boxes and butter cookies, traditional japanese tableware, and other curiosities. the shop mistress was on the phone when i came in, so i just stood in the middle of the bursting room and turned and turned to get a look at everything. she got off the phone and apologized. we conducted a stunted, but relatively varied conversation entirely in japanese. mainly i nodded my head in assent or confusion depending on how much i understood. i think i held up decently well, and she even offered her blog address as a calling card! (times are changing) i asked her if they had calendars and bought a beautiful washcloth. she even poured me some sakura ocha and offered me a seat in the tiny place. she spoke exclusively in japanese until the very end when i couldn’t understand her parting words (repeated several times) and she finally said very clearly “see you.”


this week i got invited to a kimchi nabe party. nabe is an aesthetically delightful winter soup. the office girls at my school are starting to involve me in their social lives--YAAAY! so this is my first invitation to a friend's house that i don't technically work with and who doesn't technically speak english. or something. though i've already been out with said office girls once, this event wasn't orchestrated by me, so it feels, you know, like they like me. tonight i made blueberry muffins for the party tomorrow. my oven can't manage cookies, but the muffins turn out ok. and though they contain those japanese eggs to which i have a dreadful allergy, i ate three. even if i get all itchy and oozy, i think it was worth it.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

steady as she goes

it's been obscenely long since i posted, but my lesson plans are set for tomorrow and (amazingly) it's only 7pm, so you have me for at least a few hours...i seem to have endured most of the depressive despair and giddy mania it requires to reacclimate to a foreign country. i've overcooked some pumpkin for dinner because, though i'm a decent cook, i'm absurdly forgetful of things in the oven.
where on earth do i begin this epic retelling? i struggle with being too linear...
i'll start with today.
sunday morning. i hold my breath when i wake up. the sky is bright outside, but i can't tell if the light outside is cool or warm, so i'm unsure of the weather. if it's raining, i will probably pace restlessly around my house and get nothing done all day. if it's sunny, i might have better luck. with my glasses still sitting on the bedside table (crap eyesight at the ready), i pull the curtains open in one swish: SUN!
thanks to the heater, my bedroom is a toasty 70-something degrees, but like every morning, i have to open the sliding doors to the rest of the house. a wall of cold air crashes over my sleep-warmed body. the thermometer says 48 degrees. i know i'll be lucky if this is the coldest it gets in my house, but it makes me want to cry when my hands go numb in the glacial water. the tea water is already hot and there's a swath of sunlight shining into my laundry room, so i situate a chair in its center and nibble on some shell-shaped almond tea cakes i bought as omiage. they're surprisingly good, and i can scarcely stop myself from eating the whole package.
i get some laundry on the pole to dry before the sun moves away from it. here's my laundry pole with the biggest clothes clamps you've ever seen keeping my duvet from blowing away.

i have a few errands to run in town, so i steer my bike into the glorious cold day. the light in my house is dingy and inadequate, though i've tried to remedy it with extra cords and bulbs in the bathroom and kitchen. that helped some, but i was still bummed to come back to my dim house after two weeks in my mom's home: the Land of Light. her bathroom is especially cozy and inviting, and i enjoyed many languid baths during the holidays, but i wouldn't be similarly inspired in my own house.
until today.
while mulling over the lighting options in my local grocery, i decided to scrap fluorescent and go back to my incandescent roots. at the very least they give off some heat which might make my bathroom a spot warmer. i installed the bulbs with low expectations. after all, the fluorescents were 100W bulbs, just like these. i flicked the switch, and HALLELUJAH; is the sun shining from my washroom!? i've harnessed a supernova--and hey, look how dirty my bathroom is! i've never seen grime with a such glee! it was such an incredible change that i rode straight back to the store and replaced the rest of my screw-in bulbs with incandescent ones. my blue mood doesn't have a chance.

yesterday was a perfect day. it was the remedy for two days of incredible stress and boredom, one day of "the world wants you in the gutter", and several days of "where the hell am i, again?" that's a brief summary of my time since i hopped over the pacific pond. but yesterday was full of wonderment. miss hess and i struck out to see what we could see in the fine nagoya metropolis. we emerged on a corner in the heart of the shopping district, sakae. as we waited for the light to change, we spotted two magnificent (for lack of a better term) goth girls. these were not the grim, morbid, bondage-fascinated kids clad in glossy plastic pants. they were tall, stunningly and confidently wearing all black frocks and, yes, some dramatic eye makeup. these exquisite dark flowers started across the intersection towards our corner as we struck out for theirs. i don't like staring, so i was looking straight ahead. however, just before we crossed paths i looked toward the tallest one and it dawned on me that she wasn't japanese. in the briefest of moments, she looked right into my eyes and nodded. it felt like the acknowledgment of some thrilling secret.
later, in the Loft, we meandered over to a workshop of people making paper out of recycled banana fibers. young, attrative, artistic-looking japanese people looked at us hopefully. did we want to participate? marina and i stood there under all those windows, caught in time for a moment. we hesitated and they waited. finally marina broke the silence and asked how much it cost. kindly, it cost nothing. gently they gathered around, a whole table of helpers and, ever-so-gently and patiently they took turns volunteering a word or gesture to explain how to fabricate our recycled paper. the moments were beautiful and flawless, and afterward, we floated off.

before we hit the tracks for tsu, we stepped from the mad rush-hour foot-traffic into a little sushi restaurant in nagoya station, and it was stunningly peaceful. we sat back (surrounded by fresh orchids), took deep breaths, and enjoyed our mugs of tea.

parting shot: this darling, dressed from tips to toes, waiting alone in the nighttime station. photo courtesy of marina.