Monday, January 30, 2012

Host Family: Decoded

My demanding, demanding fans (Ellen) have recently brought it to my attention that it’s been a while since I’ve posted. I wrote something up yesterday but I think I’ll save it for another time.

Without further adieu, let's discuss my host family.

It’s been over a month since I moved in with my new host family and I think I’ve more or less adapted, almost. Before I came here, I was sure that I knew what the hardest element would be: Host Baby, my 17-month-old host sister (this turned out to be far from the truth, but I digress).

Subject: Host Baby
Position: Baby host sister/cute behavior extraordinaire
Most endearing quality: Pulling down my shirt and yelling, “Oppai!!!” (Boobs!!!)
Fun fact: “Oppai!!!” was her first word.

When I’m not studying or writing or reading or whatever, I try to spend time with Host Baby. Recently she’s become real interested in the stuffed animals, all of which are bears, lined up on the dresser near the living room, so we’ve been playing with them as of late. At first I played the nice-bear game, where whenever she’d come close I’d assault her with the bear and make Japanese kissing sounds as its face smothered hers. Chuu, chuu, chuu, chuuu chuchuchu!!

However, I realized I wasn’t adequately preparing her for real life, so I recently switched from nice-bear to realistic-bear. Now every time she comes close, the stuffed bears assault her with Japanese eating sounds, illustrating that one should never trust a real bear. Mogumogumogu! Grrr! Oh, she laughs and squeals and throws her arms like it’s all just one big game. I don’t think she understands the complex life lessons I’m trying to teach her, but maybe she’ll understand someday. Then she can thank me.

She’s possibly the most well-behaved, cutest child I’ve ever met in my life. The only time she gets fussy or starts hitting is when she’s hungry, and frankly, I behave the same way when I’m hungry and people don’t give me food, so I can hardly blame her. It’s not one of my best traits. Regardless, really good kid. Host Baby, that is.

Which is why I’m not sure why I was surprised when we were playing the other day and her bright red balloon popped. I’m kind of surprised it lasted as long as it did – over a week, which beats my personal childhood record of not accidentally popping a balloon for five days – so when it happened, we stared at the shreds laying on the floor. Well, Host Baby stared, trying to comprehend where her balloon went, while I watched her, slowly edging away, waiting for the screaming tantrum not unlike the ones I would throw when the same thing happened to me at that age. But instead, she stared pitifully at where it was, and quietly went, “Buu-ah-Buu-ah.”

This “Buu-ah Buu-ah” was very unlike the ones I usually heard her say. Whenever the balloon would be around, she’d approach it happily and squeal, “Buu-ah Buu-ah!” So to hear her voice so sad and confused about her popped balloon could have melted the ice around even the Grinch’s heart, pre-Cindy Lou Who.

I nearly burst into tears in the anticipation of her reaction, which I imagined included bursting into tears. But no tears or tantrum followed. She went off happily to play with her bears, and I gratefully complied in attacking her with them.

It turns out she also knows words I don’t know, which is, you know, embarrassing. Just today at dinner, when Host Mom and I were talking (more on that later), I was trying to explain something I had seen on TV before but forgot the keyword to explain what the hell I was blathering about. When I forget words and try to get the receiving end of the conversation to figure out what word I’m looking for by more or less creating riddles for them to solve.

“People who are allergic to, uh…the thing…that’s in the sky? The biggest star…uh…it’s up there in the daytime, but not at night…the opposite of the moon…” Forget one word, and I’m left rambling through sentences to figure out three letters.
“Host Baby, can you tell Haley what word she’s looking for?” Host Mom did a baby sign with her thumbs and forefingers, making the shape of a wide circle.
“That’s right.  Taiyou.

Well, that shouldn’t even count, because ba is nowhere near taiyou. Minus two points, Host Baby. But then plus 52 because you’re too damn cute. Seriously, so cute that I’ve even reconsidered my position on whether or not I’ll have kids in the future. I am now at a tentative, If my husband is rich and he wants kids, then yes, whatever you want, honey. Now hand me the credit card, I’m going shopping. Which is an improvement from, Hellllllllllllll nawwwww.

Speaking of Host Mom, my first impression of her was that she was a dictator in the shape of a housewife and housed no desire to talk to me what so ever…

Subject: Host Mom
Position: Ruler of the apartment
Endearing quality: Cooking me amazing, delicious food with her god-given talent, piles of cook books and cooking magazines, and clear aspiration to be the best Japanese-food cook on the planet
Fun fact: Her New Year wish was to make a younger brother or younger sister for Host Baby.

This was the case until just recently (read: three days ago) I realized that fearing her and making myself miserable is obviously a step in the wrong direction, and that obviously I misjudged her, and worrying about stepping out of place has made me step out of character, and that if I try harder and don’t get offended by things, then we can get along just fine. I mostly created this theory of the sake of my sanity and because I seriously don’t want to move all my shit from the apartment to a dorm room.

I’ll admit, there were a lot of things that bothered me about her simply from the shock of things she said or did, including, but not limited to: telling me to look up the pronunciation for a complex character myself; demanding I say thank you when I retrieve my dry clothes from the laundry, but not always thanking me when I do the dishes; not saying certain words in front of Host Baby; leaving a note on the toilet seat that says, “Let’s close the the lid after we use the toilet!” after I forgot to put the lid down, once; Getting condemned for not facing her when I say the obligatory, “I’m home!” or “good morning!”, etc.

My side: Asking her about the pronunciation was A) a much faster way than looking it up myself and B) an attempt to talk to her after a day of silence; I was too nervous around her to remember to say thank you at the time; I like the words you tell me I can’t say in front of Host Baby (they’re more or less manlier versions than the ones I’m supposed to use, but they’re way more fun to use, and I understand that they’re mostly used by guys, but teenage girls have started to use them as a fad and I want to show you that I understand that, ugh); Why, passive-aggressive note, why; I had no idea saying a greeting in passing was considered unacceptable, thanks for the lesson.

Her (hypothetical) side (that I have created for the sake of my sanity, so I won’t have to move, etc etc) : Looking up the word yourself will help you remember it better in the future; saying thank you is easy to do and polite and you are in Japan, for Christ’s sake, it’s the nicest country in the world so act like you belong, and I am the mother so I don’t have to say thank you back; Host Baby is at an impressionable age and just started talking and she likes you a lot and I don’t want her to say words that aren’t feminine, it’s not cool for little ones; the note is a helpful reminder because you sometimes forget things I tell you, and look, you haven’t forgotten since the note’s been up, have you, now; Just teachin’ you things you should know about greetings, especially since they’re so important in Japan. You shouldn’t look ignorant.

So there you have it. As irritating as the occasional reminder is, and as uncomfortable as my chagrin is when I have to be reminded, I’ve at least managed to explain her side of the story without flipping out about it (Okay, I flipped out a little, but only to my friends and they didn’t mind). And so, I’ve started putting forth a lot more effort to talk to her at dinner as she tries to persuade Host Baby to eat the foods she doesn’t want to eat, and have succeeded in making her laugh on a few occasions. Smiles are becoming less rare. It’s definitely progress. I have never been a quitter, so I won’t start now. And anyway, if the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, then the way to my Host Mom is through Host Baby. If that kid is happy, she’s happy, because she’s the most doting mother I’ve ever met in my life. And I think that’s a good thing.

Subject: Host Dad
Position: Drama and movie extraordinaire
Endearing quality: Owning all of the Ghibli movies and letting me watch them whenever my heart desires (read: all the time)/renting three new movies and sitcoms every week
Fun fact: His eyes practically popped out of their sockets when Host Mom told us her New Year’s Wish

And on Host Dad, he works from early in the morning to late at night, like all Japanese men. It’s more or less required of the Japanese businessman’s job to go out and get drinks with coworkers afterwards (I’m seriously not making that up, it’s part of establishing the very important, “in-group” and “out-group” in Japan. Like how people greet each other in their neighborhoods, or in their own apartment building, but not to anyone who isn’t part of the same “group” as them. Actually it’s fascinating), so I see him more on the weekends than anything. He rents movies a lot, which I like because I haven’t watched a lot of Japanese movies, or seen a lot of dramas or movies in general since coming to Japan (though I have had my fair share of Japanese variety, cooking, and comedy shows, all of which are hilarious by the way). And it’s nice to see that he waits for me to watch them, so he must know I enjoy them, and to be able to spend time with him is a plus, too. Unlike his wife, who I usually have to pry conversation out of, Host Dad is a conversationalist and engages me in chats on varying things (usually stuff that's on the news; the divorce rate, the declining population in Japan, or what he thinks about variety shows, or what I think about basically whatever). He’s really easy to joke and talk with.

People always ask me what my Host Dad does for a living, but I honestly have not a god damn clue. One of the first things I asked him was that very question, and he said, “Ah, that’s boring stuff, Japanese people don’t like to talk about work when they get home after a long day of it.” So pretty much since then I’ve firmly decided that he’s a member of the Yakuza. Which explains why he’s willing to comply to Host Mom’s wish of having four (!!!!!) children total despite living in, I don’t know, JAPAN where even tiny houses are super expensive and people don’t have more than one or two kids usually, and why he supports a kid in Africa (to make up for the fact that he's in the Yakuza, obviously), and why he wears such nice suits and nice cologne and only watches the news and my God the evidence is all there.

So the beginning wasn’t easy, and adjusting never is. But little by little I’ve learned to get accustomed to the rules and the way things work around this place, and I’m pleased to say that I’m making the best of it.

And that I’m totally living with an inside member of the Yakuza.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Sick in Japan

I wake up three days ago feeling odd. I lay on my futon on the floor, staring up at the ceiling, wondering what feels off. I check my watch. Typical time, about nine. I roll over and sit up. My stomach feels funny. Must be hungry.

I go into the living area where my host mom and host baby sister have already been awake for three hours. I start a conversation with my host mom, telling her I feel funny. She suggests that I might be sick and that maybe I should put on a mask.

Note: In Japan, when sick or when suffering from allergies, face masks are common. Not only does it help prevent from spreading whatever virus you may be carrying, but the mask makes it so that you, susceptible as you are, to catch something else.

I listen to her carefully as she explains where in the apartment I can find a mask, when the edges of my vision start going black. And then my entire vision is black and my head is light and I realize I'm going to pass out, so I crouch down and lower my head between my knees.

Ah, yes. Being sick is fun. I ended up spending the rest of the day in bed. I would feel nauseous and the world would be sent spinning around me whenever I tried to stand, lost my appetite, and whenever I would eat, I would vomit. Good times you need to know about.

The next day I'm told we're going to the hospital. Host Baby is also sick, and we'd go to a place that takes adults and children. If I didn't know better, I would go straight into panic-mode about money and how serious the word, "hospital," is. But the word "hospital," in Japanese is basically equivalent to a health clinic.

I just googled, "Japanese Hospital," and I got a bunch of pictures about "Japanese hospital robots." I'm sorry to say I didn't run into one of these guys. They apparently help people, though. That's awfully nice of them.

So we go into the clinic and I fill out a form while waiting. I sit and close my eyes, trying not to feel the world churn around me as I wait. About fifteen minutes later, I'm called in to see the doctor.

He remarks that I seem to not be feeling well and we shortly after begin to talk about my symptoms. He checks my heartbeat and then has me lay down and pushes on my stomach a bit, asking me if it hurts when he pushes in certain areas. Finally I sit up and he tells me that my stomach seems to be working too hard but it's okay, there's a medicine for that! I hadn't eaten for over thirty-five hours, so he told me he'd hook me up to an IV for an hour and that I'd be able to start eating again, little by little (since I was starting to feel better on my own, already; that is, I walked into the clinic feeling so-so, but was able to walk into it nonetheless).

The health room where I received the IV was freezing but luckily I got to lay down with blankets, except for my exposed arm, which chilled quietly. By the time it was done, my fingers were ice cold, but I also felt less weak than I had coming in, malnourished.

So I'm about to leave the office and you must be thinking, my God, I can only imagine the bill. Medical expenses are, well, expensive. I'm going to have to take out a loan just because I caught a cold.

1,300 yen. Roughly 15 dollars to see the doctor, get a prescription, and get hooked up to an IV for an hour. Be amazed at the power of an advanced and well-developed medcare system. And my medicine? Only another 2,000 yen or so, around 24 bucks. You jelly, America?

I ended up with four different types of medicine, pills for when my stomach hurts, pills I take twice a day, pills I take three times a day, and also a powdery substance I take three times a day. This powdery substance is disgusting, by the way. Japanese people just take it straight, without mixing it into anything, "because that'd probably make it worse," my host mom said. I try to sprinkle it over my food and trick myself like a dog but it doesn't work. Host Baby has the same powdery medicine, and when host mom gave it to her the first time, her nose scrunched up and her eyebrows bunched together so that her entire face was puckered, and then she started to wave her little arms up and down and making sad whiney noises, like, "No, NO, I don't want this! Noooooo!!" Which pretty much summarizes how it tastes really well. I felt like she was projecting my feelings excellently.

Fortunately I'm better now. I'll be taking these meds another four days or so but I'm feeling better since. I still get tired a little fast if I walk too far or push myself too hard, but that'll pass, I'm sure. Also, being sick gave me an excellent opportunity to read all of Memoirs of a Geisha, which was an AMAZING book. Actually, probably my favorite book I've ever read. Chiyo's wisdom is astonishing, I was actually moved by her writing and her story. I'm going to add it to my favorite's list on my facebook just so you know that I'm serious.

Also started school again today. Screw that.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Traveling Around Japan

Winter break is coming to a close and that sucks. Once again I'll have a test every other day, forms and kanji and words to memorize, and stress will be had. But until then, I plan to enjoy every single minute of my break.

So here's what you've missed. For one, today I went to the Tokugawa Museum. The Tokugawa family ruled Japan for over 200 years starting from the 1600s, so they had a lot of things left behind for me to look at. A lot of various things, but there was an entire room devoted to katanas and a bunch of different Japanese swords, and that was pretty cool to look at.

There was also several rooms filled with illustrations from the Tale of Genji, which I've actually read, so to be able to see it in person was pretty cool. Even though Genji was kind of just a pervert and a womanizer. Yeah actually I hate the guy but seeing the illustrations was fun.

MORE than that, I went on a four-day trip with Ayame, who, as you guys know, is my best Japanese friend. We went to Kyoto, Nara, and Osaka, in that order, and saw beautiful temples and shrines and went shopping about I show you?

For reference:

Nara is right next to Kyoto and Osaka.

On the train, on the way to Kyoto:

I love trains. I love watching out the window on trains. I love watching Japan's countryside roll by as I approach a destination I've been waiting to go to for over six years. It's such a fulfilling feeling.

Snow on the ground on the way!

Kyoto station!
And mom, if you're wondering, "What's THIS? What're you doing with your hands?" then I'm kind of really surprised you don't know about this yet.
In Japan, people make peace signs in pictures. Everywhere. All the time. Unless it's a family portrait, we are making peace signs. I do it without thinking now. If you don't do it while you're in Japan, frankly, I think you look ridiculous.
So there you have it. Brace yourself for the peace signs.

Just outside the station was Kyoto Tower, so we were like, guess we're going there!

Kyoto wasn't nearly as bright as Tokyo (Kyoto has a population of 1.5 million and Tokyo has a population of 12 million, so it's not even comparable. If you were wondering, Nagoya, where I live, has 2.17 million people), but the view was still beautiful.

Though it's hard to get a good picture in the dark, you get it.

The following are me with the Kyoto Tower mascot, but it's mostly just me being good at pictures:

Because that face is ridiculously hilarious to me. And also I am ridiculously good at impersonations.

Afterwards we went to our hotel, then went out to grab a bite to eat at a bar where Ayame told me that saying, "ha?" like, "what?" which is something my host father does often, is actually a really obnoxious thing to do. The more you know.

Here's a bit of Kyoto at night and the Gion district, where our bar was located:

I really liked the Gion district. The river, with the shops flanking either side of it, was really cool. And the willow trees were beautiful. 

After a good night's rest, we hit the road the following morning to go to Kiyomizu-dera, a Buddhist temple in eastern Kyoto.

On the way were many shops, which we of course explored. 

A view from some public bathrooms on the way to Kiyomizu-dera, because Ayame is needy and I am so patient.

We've arrived~! 

These buildings are seriously intimidatingly beautiful. And as a matter of fact, all of Kyoto holds that same beauty and calm to me, and someday I'd love to live in Kyoto. It's not too country-side that I would want to kill myself, but it's not a huge bustling town like Tokyo, either. Just walking around t made me feel at ease, and like it was where I should be. There's so many trees and rivers and nature and small stores, that it's very nature-centered but there's still 1.5 million people living there so it's not hillybilly-crazy-small.

Sorry for digressing, on for more buildings!

Saw these guys coming out - Matt, what were they doing?

Check out the shoes. Also, I'd be their feet were freezing, it was close to 40 degrees Fahrenheit out.

Getting closer to the best part of Kiyomizu-dera.


There it is. The money shot.

Here's what Wikipedia has to say about Kiyomizu-dera: Kiyomizu-dera was founded in the early Heian period. The temple dates back to 778, and its present buildings were constructed in 1633, during a restoration ordered by the Tokugawa Iemitsu. There is not a single nail used in the entire structure. It takes its name from the waterfall within the complex, which runs off the nearby hills. Kiyomizu means clear water, or pure water.

There's also this to say:

The popular expression "to jump off the stage at Kiyomizu" is the Japanese equivalent of the English expression "to take the plunge".This refers to an Edo period tradition that held that, if one were to survive a 13m jump from the stage, one's wish would be granted. Two hundred thirty-four jumps were recorded in the Edo period and, of those, 85.4% survived. The practice is now prohibited.

Yeah, that's probably a good thing.

 Right, so this is when my camera, unbeknownst to me because I busted my screen four months ago, decided to stop using color in the pictures. Which sucks. Fortunately, once Ayame gets her camera cord she will send me all of her pictures, but from here on out, the pictures will be in black and white. Although this depresses me, it's also given me the opportunity to experiment with the concept of "art" and play around with the brightness and such. But since I am not a photographer/artist, it is mostly me trying to make black and white pictures look less shitty. 

After Kiyomizu-dera, we went to Ginkakuji - the Silver Pavillion. This temple holds a special place in my heart because I actually learned about it in Madison.

Here's the story:

Yoshimasa is a terrible shogun. Like, for real. Towns were going to war, people were starving and dying in the streets, and Yoshimasa hid away eating feasts nearly ever other night. And then he decides to start taxing everyone he can - yeah, the dying, starving people, and rich people who are brown-nosers - and then he decides to build a "resting" place, costing millions of yen at the time. Because he's an asshole.

So while 30% of then-Kyoto is dying in the 1460's, Yoshimasa makes his playground and a garden and everyone that doesn't hate him (anyone that isn't a peasant/shop keeper), talks about how beautiful it is.

I read about Yoshimasa and the Silver Pavilion and I thought, "Wow, this guy is the worst shogunate in the world," because, frankly, he was (btw, the term shogunate means absolute dictator, so, yeah, it was like that) but when I stepped into the garden I was like, Ohh, this is what people were saying about how amazing of a person he was, able to put a beautiful garden together.

It was seriously gorgeous, a rock garden and a path through woods and bridges and wonderful. I hope to share colored pictures with you one day.

The Silver Pavillion.

There's the rock garden.

The garden before the Silver Pavilion.

There was more but black-and-white depresses me.

So then we went to kinkakuji, the GOLDEN Pavilion!

This picture's from Wikipedia. I hate my camera (new one's on the way, btw, so this won't be happening again).

The following pictures are me being "artsy."


Next was NARA. Brace yourself for the deer.

Nara has a population of a little more than 300,000, so it was comparatively quieter than Kyoto. But still beautiful.

Walking around Nara on the way to the temples and shrines. 
So this is where I stopped and went, "Is 40 pictures of deer too much deer?"
The answer is no. Enjoy.

Particularly perky this morning.

I just thought that was adorable.

 First stop: Toshodaiji.

Inside the shrine! Oh, you're lucky to see this.

My first encounter with a Nara deer. For those of you who don't know, Nara is famous for Nara park, where wild deer roam free and aren't scared of humans and eat deer biscuits that you can buy for ~$1.50.  And then promptly get terrified because deer freaking ATTACK YOU if you are holding biscuits.

And they know. They know because they watch you and then approach you like, "Oh hey, bro, I see you got some biscuits there you need some gettin' rid of, how 'bout I help you out?" And the minute you don't have biscuits anymore, they give you the cold shoulder and they are NOT TRUE FRIENDS.

But it was fun to get chased by deer, anyway. Ayame's camera is full of pictures of her running away from deer (about four were chasing her at the time,) while she yelled at me to help her and I just took pictures, laughing away.

Yeah, Nara was fun.

Anyway, this guy was my first encounter. He didn't move the entire time Ayame and I were conversing next to him, and finally I saw him and was like, "is this deer even REAL?" He was so still he looked like a stuffed animal. Then he moved and I screamed.

The 51 steps to something or another. Climbed 'em.

Example of deer not giving a damn where they walk.

Five-storied Pagoda in Kofuku-ji. 

Tokon-do, East Golden Hall.

Heading into Nara Park for some fun!

On the way to a shrine I've forgotten the name of:

I love this picture, that's why I made it big.

My Japanese boyfriend. He's a dear. HAWWWWWW

Baby deer makes me squeal when I see him.

This is when things get crazy. As Ayame and I sat down eating lunch, we made a friend. "FRIEND" being a loose term here. He kept trying to eat the plastic our rice balls had been wrapped in.


The next is a series of pictures of a baby deer I befriended.

At a distance...

Creeping closer...
Hello there...

Brave now...


Yeah, the deer were fun. ANYWHO CULTURE THINGS.

This is Todai-ji, Eastern Great Temple. This is the largest wooden building in the world, and it houses the largest bronze statue of Buddha Variocana in the world. Since deer are seen as messengers of the gods in Shinto religion, they roam freely on the grounds here, too.


I cannot describe to you how big this guy was. Big. 

Its entirety is 50 feet tall. His face is 17 feet, his ears 8 feet tall. The entire statue weighs 500 tonnes. It made me feel insignificant and I was humbled by its presence.

One last stop: Osaka. Ayame and I were exhausted by sightseeing so we spent the night in Osaka at a FANCY bar/restaurant with delicious lemon pasta and potato salad, then went back to our hotel room to watch a Japanese drama while eating ice cream and potato chips.

We are the definition of class.

Anyway, the next day we went around shopping in Osaka. I'll post pictures because, duh, but Osaka is one big city. It basically felt like a huge mall. I'd love to live there if I were rich, but alas, I am not yet. 

By GDP it is the second largest area in Japan (Tokyo is the first). The biggest thing that happened here is that we ran into a 30-minute time sale, and I bought two necklaces that were worth 200 dollars each for 12 dollars each. So that was pretty sick. (Though there is still a debate going on as to whether the marked prices were real or not).

So, some pics of Osaka:

This is about where Ayame and I ate some delicious egg tarts, still warm from the oven. Mmmmm.

Guriko, Osaka's famous for it. It's just a big man in a leotard.

A man making Takoyaki, something Osaka is famous for.

So this post was huge and I don't even know if you made it down here, but if you did, CONGRATS! It's been so lonely all alone down here.

ANYWAY that was my trip. Thanks for reading, tune in next time!