Wednesday, September 8, 2010
My Experience in Japan Land
This blog is long over due. But really, it is perfect timing. I just passed my one year mark living in a foreign country!!! I feel so lucky. Almost every single night I fight the urge to write (yet again) in my gratitude journal about how lucky I feel to be living in Okinawa, Japan, on a remote sub tropical island, and to be surrounded by all this palm tree bliss. The people are kind, polite, warm and generous. The American military is diverse here, many branches reside here and I dig that. This sure isn't no country, dried up Army base town. It is a thriving metropolis island with Air Force, Navy, Marines and Army! I think that is great. I love having friends in every unit. Okinawa is a completely different culture from anything Westerners are used to or accustomed to...I mean totally different and I love learning about things that are not natural to me. I feel like I have found myself here and this really, really surprises me! I know who I am. I know what I want. I know where I want to go. I realize my goals and visions. I have rediscovered old hobbies that had long collected dust and have found some new ones. I think it is safe to say, I needed Japan -desperately.
A couple stories about the kindness of the locals here. Now, I am solely speaking about the Okinawan locals. I actually have spent no more time on the mainland island of Japan than for two separate lay overs. One thing I do know that the Okinawans share with the mainlanders, however, is there love for and the way they dearly revere children. It was A DREAM flying through Tokyo as a single Mom. My daughter, Mirabelle could do NO wrong. They pushed us to the head of every line and gave her whatever she wanted or needed to be peaceful after long flights and too many airplanes for a 2 year old. The Okinawans (pronounced Ah-kee-nah-wons) revere children until the age of about 3, they believe until this time they are like literal angels here on earth and should be treated as royalty and can do no wrong. Everywhere we go, they say Kawaii (or, cute)!!! They honor nursing Mothers and give plenty of private rooms and places for that need in public. It is lovely living here with children. Even some of the public bathrooms have potty training toilet seats added to their public toilets for little bums. They really make it nice to have a crazy 2 year old. She never bothers any of them and I love that. Just the other day I was eating at a restaurant with all American clientèle and got at least two very, very dirty looks for daring to bring my loud child to this breakfast joint. Living here sometimes makes me loathe America and sometimes makes me miss it.
My first trip to Japanese McDonald's was hilarious. They offered me sesame tea with fresh lemon juice and handed me my food as though they were handing me an ancient artifact as they bowed humbly. There are no rude, over weight, greasy, disgusting employees of the Micky D's over here. They are clean, respect themselves and others and make you feel really good about eating food that is not at all healthy. Once I thought I had paid them with a $50 bill (in yen) and they gave me change for a $10. So I mentioned it, they hurried and got an English translator and corrected the transaction apologizing all over the place about 100 times. I wasn't even sure if I had made a mistake or not, just asked them to verify the change and without even looking they handed me 40-some dollars and sent me on my way. Would that ever happen in the US? Not in the Augusta, Georgia back woods McDonald's, you might be shot there and forget about finding foreign language translators, you better speak English in the US or else don't step foot there!!!!
Weather it is genuine or not their politeness is so refreshing. They are humble, quiet, subtle, gentle, demure, loving, kind and helpful. Sure, there are businesses who do not welcome Americans but for the most part, they adore our business we bring them and are very kind about dealing with the extreme language barrier and helping us however they can. I try to be as humble and kind right back to them. I honor that piece of their society. On the road, I have never heard a horn honk, seen very few car wrecks and if someone cuts another person off there is no raising of middle fingers or screaming out the windows, no. They ignore a lot of emotions that we feel in the west. If someone cuts you off or does something rude on the road, they ignore it and drive on. They do not even bat an eye. Why should anyone loose their temper over a car that will be out of their vision within seconds? This demeanor is so awesome and I have learned a lot from this. Their temper is virtually as strong as steel. I wonder how they can be so mellow? It is not as though they bottle up all these emotions and temper tantrums, they seem to just not have them at all. I don't think I have seen one, single obese Japanese person and I KNOW I have never seen one raise their voice since I have been here. Not one. It is quite a lovely culture in this way. Healthiest in the world. I totally appreciate this fact endlessly, and love living among it.
Now how is the culture weird? "What's up with that??" Now that statement sure does come out of our American mouths all the time!!! First, they love their umbrellas. They never want sun on their skin. Why any of the Japanese have chosen to stay in Okinawa is beyond me, due to the fact that the average temperature all year is like 85 degrees. It must be due to the fact that it rains more than Seattle here. Which would lead you, logically, to all the umbrella usage? Not so, they mostly use their parasols when the sun is out. Just like many Eastern cultures fair skin is definitely important to the women. The whiter, the better. Paris Hilton would NOT fit in here.
My second, "what's up with that?" would be given to the nail art. Holy Jesus (I am sorry for taking your name in vain, but for real) this is a culture in itself. I would not be surprised at this point if I saw women coming out of the nail salon with a helicopter spinning with sparkley, rainbow spray paint all over them coming out of each and every one of their finger and toe nails. So after I lived here for about 8 months I got tired of seeing my boring pale pink toes and started to pick some nail art...but just for my toes...I have not succumb to the finger claw designs as of yet. These toes pics are about as far as I reach....but we do have two more years here....
My third "wussupitdat??" is the bathroom toilet paper dispensers. I don't usually use the term OMG, but O-M-G, why oh why do they feel the need to have these toilet paper covers?
They are in every single bathroom, public, private, gas station, restaurant and residence. I am a bit of a germ-a-phobe as is, why do they feel the need to add yet another surface we need to touch when doing our business? Does it protect the glorious tissue paper-feeling toilet paper they use from collecting dust before you wipe your hind quarters with it? Well, whatever the purpose, you inevitably HAVE to touch the paper lid-cover-thing to get your toilet paper as the person before you ripped the paper to the edge of the cover's line....too much touching of things in bathrooms for my taste, says I. In the US, I succeeded to learn to get into and out of a public restroom without having to touch not one single thing. Here, not so much. Ew. The bathrooms here are wack for many reasons and I won't go off about it any longer. Potty humor is really not humor at all, me thinks. No, I have no clue where my inner-pirate came from.
My fourth "WTF??" is (you loyal MomArtYogaBabe readers have heard me talk about this before) what is up with the curtains in the automobiles?????? The bigger and nastier the vehicle, the daintier and lace-ier the curtain. It makes NO sense to me. Why have car curtains? A. they obstruct your view even when folded back. B. they cannot possibly make your car feel any cooler in this 99 flippin degree heat index and humidity. C. they make all rides look like a Hearse and straight up freak me out. D. yet another thing to collect dust and germs that is simply NOT needed. It irritates me, all the curtain-age. But to each his own I suppose :)
The next weird thing is the gelatinous type foods. If you have been to China, Korea or Japan, you know what I speak of here. From tofu to coffee, they make a gelatinous mutation out of it. They like their jelly-textured foods and this aint just in OKI, apparently it is an all over Asia sort of passion. Ew. Me no likey.
I could go on and on about how they pull over in the middle of the road to take a phone call so as to not be driving while talking, but end up causing a near fatal pile up while screeching over the the "side" of the road to get that call, but I will not go on and on, they expect one another to do those things and it just takes some getting used to. Be like the locals and with no expression, just swerve around them and assume it is critical that person ahead of you has taken that call and drive on NOT causing yourself a heart attack :) So my final "supwitdat?" is the napkins. Now ALL you military living in Oki all know what I am talking about. When one goes to a public place or restaurant in Okinawa one must use about 400 of these dainty, thin, microscopic napkins in order to get any job done. I mean, why even put these stupid things on the tables?? The napkins at every, single restaurant here are about the size of the palm of my hand and are the texture and feel of literally: TISSUE PAPER. Not bathroom tissue, tissue like that goes into a gift bag, tissue. They do NOT clean your face and hands and certainly are not enough for families with children at food establishments. It makes NO sense.
Then one day I went to buy cheap-blowing-your-nose tissues to have have in my car for my daughter. And these, now these have designs of hello kitty, cute doggies and other various Japanese art and when taken out of the travel-size packages are about the size of queen bed blanket!! Can we have someone who is bi-lingual please explain to the paper manufacturers here in Japan that we really need this to be the other way around!!?? No, I don't need to clothe my daughter with your tissues I just need to wipe her 2 year old nose. And no, I do not need your 1 cent napkin to clean her face at a restaurant, what I really need is that facial tissue blanket in my car! Thanks.
This is not weird it is cool. The pears here are about the size of a 12 month old's head and are the yummiest, juiciest things you have ever sunk your teeth into. The pears here are to die for! Filled with fiber and quite delicious. Love me some Japanese pear.
My favorite part about living here is the FOOOOOD!!!!! I am a food junkie and the food here is right up my ally. But not for everyone. My husband says it all tastes bland and boring. Well, I think that is because he is used to eating too much butter, sodium and sugar as all Americans are. Here, the fried things are lightly fried and low fat. The sweets are not very sweet, just lightly sugared. And the restaurant food is made to be either VERY spicy or seasoned with soy sauce which is quite salty. So you have to adjust the foods to your taste. And they expect you to. At most restaurants there is a jar of chili juice or spicy sauce to be added to most anything. I adore sushi, but it is so much more than that here. Yes, lots of rice. Lots of fish. Not so much red meat. They l-o-v-e their swine in Okinawa. This is my only complaint. I just don't dig on swine, but they find this fatty pork product (found in everything) to be a delicacy here. Not for me. What is for me is this:
These noodles are called "zarusoba." They are buckwheat noodles and a Korean friend of mine, here, introduced them to me. They are offered everywhere from fine restaurants to convenient stores. The sauce that you make with them is like a light soy sauce but you add fresh ginger, green onions and wasabi to it. Then with each bite, you dip the noodles in. It is lovely, filling and healthy. I have fallen in the love with the noodles here. Yakisoba is like a stir fry noodle dish. Then the regular ramen-fresh made-noodle-soup is just plain old Soba. I am not a huge fan of Udon, which are BIG, fat noodles. But the Soba I love!!!! Love, love, love. Eat it regularly. I adore Japanese food. I always have for years before moving here, and still do.
I had an interesting exchange and conversation one day with a fluent English-speaking Japanese sushi chef. I was hoping to buy a knife from him at his kiosk, but then found that they cost over $175 and thought, I might not be that great of a sushi roller to reallllly need this. But as we spoke and he told me where these were made and how the history of the knife factory dates back to the original samurai sword makers from centuries ago with the same craftsmanship, etc. etc. And so I asked him, what knife do you use when making your sushi? And he retorts, to my huge surprise and laughter, "I got my knives from factories in Chicago and New York City." Haha! What? Then what was all this about tradition, the quality and what about the samurai? He laughed and said, "my dear, the way of the Japanese and tradition is going, going, almost gone. All Japanese want American quality in their products. Japanese are used to having a history that dates back thousands of years, it is of no meaning to them. Americans do not know what a history this old feels like for a country, so they seek it elsewhere." So he marketed these traditionally made, artisan, craftsman hand made quality knives to Americans and Canadians only. He said no Japanese on mainland or Okinawa would ever be interested in buying these knives. They all buy US brands and want US quality. They disregard tradition and only look for quality. This conversation sat with me for days, weeks even! How could they deny this amazing heritage (as he told me)!!??
As I drive and walk around here I often see the elderly locals and wander, what does this woman or that man think of Americans? And the answer is basic. I think some, perhaps most, have a fabulous view of us. They were told before WWII that we tortured and mutilated any Japanese we came across. When we won our battle with Japan and Okinawa, and they quickly saw how humane we were and actually helpful in trying to get families who had gotten split up due to the war, back home and reunited with one another, we didn't just up and leave them or throw them into torturing camps. Then there are those who appreciate our humane ways of being in wars but wish we would turn their land back over to them 100%, treaty or no. I was driving one day and caught eyes with an old Okinawan man. He smiled at me so kindly. I thought, he must be at least 85 years old and MUST remember and have his own experience with or have family who had battle memories from the battle of Okinawa with the US in 1945. The battle the Americans won and how the Japanese referred to Americans as, tetsu no bōfū ("violent wind of steel"). And yet, as we passed one another and locked eyes, he smiled at me. And in Okinawa, smiling at passers by is not common. It is common to ignore or keep a straight face when you walk past a person or people. It is thought to be insane to smile at a stranger. But this man was not insane. I knew from his head nod and our quick exchange that he obviously knew I was American and accustomed to smiles from strangers. He knew I was unsure about occupying his land and his nod and grin seemed to say, "it's ok, young one. Have a nice day, friend."
That very quick exchange with the old man made me realize, he honored me by not judging me and thinking he knew what kind of person I was. And I honored him by not judging his opinions before smiling his way either. It reminded me to always remember that you never know the steps someone has walked in. Perhaps an American was nice to him or helped him at some point. Perhaps he had had a good experience with us somehow as a community. I immediately think the Okinawans are going to be mean to us or just simply not kind, wanting us gone and out of their way. I let that idea go this particular afternoon and just smiled at this man and got a big, kind smile in return. It made my day.
Sure, I have felt the wrath of being a minority for the first time. I have felt not wanted here or there, out and about in Okinawa or even in Hawaii. Once, when I was vacationing in Hawaii, I recognized some tourists speaking Japanese and I told them I was from Okinawa and they snickered, then glared at me and turned their backs. Our children were playing together on a play ground and I thought they would appreciate my small amount of Japanese speaking and for recognizing theirs while on US soil. But no, they said with their eyes, "you get off our Okinawan island, whitey." I have seen and heard protesters every single day since we have moved here, telling us to leave with their signs, sirens and motorcycles revving at 3am outside our bedroom windows. But they have recently faded off into the far away distance of my attentions. What I see mostly is the love toward my daughter, the bow at McDonald's, the sincere kindness of the restaurant owners across the street from my home and the love of the idea of world peace from the Japanese high school girls toward the Americans. And these are the only things I wish to focus on and remember about my time in Japan.