Japan · Memoir

Japan Memoir Part 3: The Sound of Far-Away

I have no photos of this time period. None. Not of my apartment, or myself, or Husband. Not the street we lived on or the places we went. Though I bought an iPhone 5 around this time, my first smartphone, I didn’t use it for anything except downloading a voice recording program to use at work, just in case.

That leaves a funny blank space in our digital world, a three-month near-blackout between moving to Nagoya and Christmas of 2013. If there are no pictures, did a thing happen?

The day I received the email informing me of what already knew–that my hatred of my new job went both ways–Husband and I visited one of the strangest places I’ve ever been. It’s called “The Site of Reversible Destiny,” and it’s what happens if you turn a poem into a park, only the poem is about Wonderland and it sticks pretty closely to the original text. Except it’s the text after it’s been translated from English to Hindi to Japanese to Russian and back again, using Babblefish, with a lot of geography and zen thrown in.

It’s a bit crazy, but rather wonderful. Seriously.

Japanese site.

English blog explaining it pretty well. (Good photos there.)

Visiting there was the sort of release I needed on that day, running recklessly down hills and scaling tall boulders. I lost myself in the Critical Resemblance House, crawled through the Exactitude Ridge, hiked to the top of Insect Mountain Range without a clue about why any more than “I want to.” And there are no photos of it. None.

Yet I remember it more clearly than the months preceding it. Some places are memorable for what they are; others, for what they do.

These memoir vignettes might seem quite depressing, but it’s good to be down sometimes. If we never go down, we cannot come up. Good counters bad, light counters heavy; without either, you can have neither.

Some days must be taken one day at a time.

Part 1: When the Worst Happens
Part 2: Streets that Live


The Sound of Far-Away

I am being punished for quitting (or being fired) by receiving my schedule for the next day fourteen hours ahead of time. This makes job-searching difficult, as you can imagine. Or, at least, the interview stage.

On the other hand, when I tell potential employers that I can’t give much notice as to my schedule because of this, I seem to get a lot of sympathy and it enforces my story of “the last employer sucked,” so I suppose I shouldn’t complain, but I will.

Perhaps my employer should reflect that if he wasn’t the type of person willing to play these games, he wouldn’t be having these problems in the first place. Alas, some people are not capable of these insights. That is why they have those problems to begin with.

Nevertheless, I can be fairly certain of not being called into work much for the next month. My days are at my disposal, more or less, however I choose to fill them, provided that the event I wish to attend doesn’t require more than fourteen hours of notice in order to happen.

When I check back in with the Labor Standards Bureau I mention this and they say, “Hmm.” That is all I will ever hear about it, I’m sure, but someone, somewhere, has made a note.

Firing people should not be easy. Japan makes sure it is not.

cherry blossom

When speaking to an English speaker from Japan, certain speech patterns begin to jump out. Indeed, some of them are so common that they are nearly immortalized as horrible racial stereotypes. Indulge in true-to-life party impressions of Japanese people at your peril, as you are certain to be called out for your rudeness. Surely Japanese people do not really sound that bad, we can think from the safety of our home countries.

As an English teacher, it has been my job to make sure that they don’t. This is the number one thing a native speaker can do, because left in the hands of their well-meaning and not-so-well-educated junior high school teachers, students will come out pronouncing Thursday somewhat closer to sousaphone than an actual day of the week.

Japanese has no letter L. Nor does it have a letter R. Most people cannot tell the difference, and when presented with a word like eraser will come up with no less than four variations that may or may not be correct. As a Japanese sound exists which is somewhere between an L and an R, many simply use the sound they are familiar with, never knowing that there’s a functional difference in English beyond mere spelling. Mostly they just hazard a guess and get on with it.

It makes sense, if you think about it. If I told you that hashi going up at the end meant bridge, and hashi going down at the end meant chopsticks, what would you do? Would you carefully listen and memorize and remember each time?

Actually, the pronunciation might be the other way around, between which is bridge and which is chopsticks. I’m really not sure. Mostly I simply guess and let context carry me through.

cherry blossom

My fiancé formerly worked in a public junior high school as an assistant language teacher, or ALT. It’s a vague job description for a vague job. Even now, I am not really sure what he did all day.

During that time, though, he had a certain teacher who sat across from him in the staff room. One day this woman made a simple mistake, one that many Japanese people make: she complimented him on his chopstick prowess. Two simple words: “Hashi jyouzu.”

Few phrases are more condescending. Imagine you went into a French restaurant one day and a man turned to you in genuine surprise to say, “My goodness, you’re great with that fork!” It is perfectly well intentioned and one hundred percent uncalled-for, a trope of being a foreigner in Japan so immortalized among expats that it has become almost a joke. These days it is getting to the point where even non-foreigners can spot how stupid it must sound to us, and look away when they hear someone else do it.

Nevertheless, there is always one person. Always.

This woman, however, took it one step further. Hashi jyouzu is annoying but easily forgotten. But one day my fiancé brought in a Japanese orange to eat on his break. They are soft and peelable, the type I would call a clementine and Japan calls a mikan.

The coworker spotted his fruit, leaned over with approval and delivered the immortal line, “Mikan jyouzu.

From that day on it has become an in-joke between my fiancé and myself. Whenever one of us does something so obvious, so simple, so blatantly elementary that to praise it would imply a condescension unheard of since high school graduation, we are certain to earn our very own shiny jyouzu.

Let me give an example of how this goes. Are you paying attention?

Reading jyouzu.

cherry blossom

Some days must be taken one at a time. This week we learned how to use the garlic press properly. We’d been peeling the garlic, then putting it in the small chamber and squeezing the handles together. This has resulted in very nice minced garlic.

It turns out that by not peeling the garlic you also get a very nice result, with the added benefit of not having garlicky fingers, and making clean-up much easier. Garlic press jyouzu.

A garlic press is a device I cannot recommend enough. It’s handy in a way that you didn’t know you needed until you owned one, as so many devices are. Garlic? Presto chango. Ginger? Ditto. Myoba? That too.

You don’t know what myoba is? It’s a small little bud that looks almost like a tulip bulb. It comes from some sort of plant and tastes sharp and indescribable. It goes in a number of dishes you don’t know how to cook and can’t get the ingredients for anyway.

That’s how it’s like sometimes, trying to describe this country. There’s no good way to succeed, no bad way to fail. No complete way at all. But we can try.

I can tell you how it looks, mention how it acts, attempt to describe how it feels. But the taste?

Japan tastes like incense and car exhaust and greenery. It tastes like soy sauce and stale-fish-smell. It tastes of decay and concrete and a deep tinge of homesickness I couldn’t describe even if I wanted to because it is so buried that I don’t even know it is there until I am walking down a road and am jolted out of stride by the single thought: I am in Japan. I am not at home. I am the foreigner.

What is home, anyway? Is home where the heart is, or the family? The job? The apartment? Your dreams? Your interactions? What can you call home when those are scattered across three different continents and more experiences than can be counted?

Home. Home is where…well. Some days must be taken one at a time.

Part 4: What Can Be Bought


If you haven’t read them already:

Part 1: When the Worst Happens
Part 2: Streets that Live

Have you ever had an experience you knew you wouldn’t be able to explain? Be it tasting a food that didn’t taste like any other, or visiting somewhere incredibly unique, or feeling something that had no comparison? How did you end up explaining that to others? Did you explain it at all? Please feel free to comment below, we’d love to hear your thoughts as well.

Join us Saturday for a special conversation piece with R.R. Willica on writing background characters.

Thanks for reading.

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