2018 wrap up – Adamu’s Big Move edition

Another year draws to a close – in the Adamu household 2018 has been nothing short of momentous. Long story short – in August we moved from Tokyo to the greater DC area!

For the most part moving here hasn’t really changed my life all that much (certainly not compared to the rest of the Adamu household) – I still commute to work every day and do more or less the same job. All the same, there’s a lot that has been different – it feels really weird because having lived in Tokyo for the past 11 years I have never really had to live as an adult in the U.S. before.

For this post I will just list out and rant about some of the stuff I have noticed:

1. Basically no one speaks Japanese or cares one way or the other about Japan

This makes conversation hard sometimes because until now (and even now still) my whole life has been wrapped up in all things Japanese. The other day at a work lunch somebody brought up sumo and I couldn’t help but enter into my spiel about how the game is rigged and the wrestlers are all doped up because there is no drug testing. Of course most of the people at the table couldn’t change the topic fast enough.

2. I can walk the streets without sticking out as the only “foreigner” around, and I am not constantly asked why I am living here

This might be the single biggest thing that makes living in the U.S. more comfortable than living in Japan. It feels cliched to repeat, but it’s true that as a Westerner in Japan you’re constantly facing the same conversation topics (can you use chopsticks? can you eat natto? how did you learn Japanese?) that can get a little tiresome but also (being the surly unfriendly sort that I am) end up making me feel “othered” – can’t I ever just have a normal conversation? No, not in Japan.

But here I just look like your average everyday American, and I get the privilege of having normal everyday small talk like everyone else – weather, kids, traffic, and all the rest (although that has its drawbacks as well…).

3. I can just speak my mind in my native language and most people will understand me (though I have had to retrain myself to speak “normal” English) 

My Japanese was fine by the time I left, but no matter how well I could get by in Japanese, expressing myself always required me to think about what to say and make sure I was saying it correctly. Funnily enough, I was speaking Japanese with a colleague recently – basically my first extended Japanese-language conversation for a while – and he could tell it was making me physically tired.

It just feels good to be understood. One thing I have noticed, though, is that in Japan I had become used to speaking simplified English for the benefit of non-native speakers. Now that I am in contact with Americans all the time I have had to retrain myself to speak normally – using all the idioms, word play, cultural references, etc. that are common to everyday conversation.

4. I am actually treated like an adult and expected to be a part of society (and I hate it!!!) 

As a gaijin living in Japan I was never really held fully accountable for all the usual adult responsibilities. Part of that was structural (even if I applied for a credit card I was always denied) but part of it was just people seeing me and assuming I don’t know what I am doing. It’s a tiny example, but I always found it remarkable that basically no one EVER asked me for directions in Japan (except for tourists in Shinjuku a couple times). And at work it was usually the Japanese employees expected to do things like fire duty and even answering the phones in our island of desks. Mrs. Adamu was always the one dealing with anything that went wrong in the apartment, etc.

Here, however, I am most definitely an ADULT and have all manner of responsibilities – part of it is that Mrs. Adamu is kind of unfamiliar with how things work, so now most of the negotiating and dealing with contractors, real estate agents, and all that falls to me. It’s definitely a new layer of stress that I didn’t really have to deal with as a pampered foreigner.

And if in Japan I got tired of being asked the same questions about my personal background over and over again, here I get tired of having to repeat the same small-talk with people. But now I kind of get how small talk is a part of being an adult – if you step beyond it into topics like jobs, TV shows, or (god forbid) politics, you’re taking a risk of alienating someone that you have to deal with on a daily basis (a coworker, a neighbor, your kid’s classmate’s parent, etc.). This must sound incredibly obvious to a lot of people, but it really is a new feeling for me.

5. Businesses in America are MUCH more tech-friendly than in Japan

In Japan, I almost never texted anyone besides friends and a few coworkers.

But in the U.S., I am in a text message-based relationship with almost everyone I come in contact with, including almost every company I do business with.

I am texting photos for real estate inspections, signing contracts electronically, and even getting in heated text arguments with some of them. This would be unthinkable in Japan where just about anything official needs to be accompanied by a hand-delivered, handwritten form. I’ll never forget the number of times I have had to write out my address by hand in Japan (and of course when the staff see me write it in kanji they often ask how I managed to learn such a hard language!).

****

Four months in, I can’t really say I miss Japan or that I like living one place or the other better. Too early to tell! But it has been a big change for sure. I do hope to get back sometime soon if for no other reason than to keep from forgetting Japanese…

I hope you enjoyed this – stay tuned, I might do a few subsequent posts to list out some of the good things about the year.

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2017 – Game of the Year — Pokemon GO

This year was one of my best years for gaming in quite a long time. A lot of really fun games came to my attention, including Battle Royale games (I haven’t played the real PUBG yet, but there are a couple of knock-offs that I have liked)…

But one game has stood above all others, and that game is Pokemon GO.

I played casually when the game was released last year, but it didn’t really take hold.

That changed when I redownloaded it this summer to have something to do in case my son and his friends needed entertainment at the park one day. It turns out there is a LOT going on in this game that I had no idea about.

Playing together with the kids got me and Adamu Jr. hooked and now it is basically our number one topic of conversation. Every night when I come home from work he asks “Did you catch a new Pokemon?”

And when we can play with other kids too it is always a good ice breaker and bonding experience. I was happy to learn that the game is pretty popular in the US too and not just Japan!

The fun of this game has been slowly figuring out how it works – it requires a lot of intuition, research, and practice because the game itself doesn’t have much in the way of a tutorial.

Some of the fun elements include:

  • Catching new Pokemon – Right now there are 300 some-odd Pokemon that you can catch with various strengths and rarity. This is the part that energizes Adamu Jr.
  • Figuring out the Pokemon stat system – Every Pokemon caught has a CP value, level, and HP, but these are abstractions from their “real” stats, which is a system too complicated to get into here.
  • Walking around and exploring – There are a lot of incentives to get out and explore in the game – you can go find Pokemon, battle in gyms, and walk to hatch eggs. A downside of this is there is an incentive to walk while looking at your phone, which makes players basically an accident waiting to happen. Fortunately I have not had any issues so far.
  • Gym battling and raid battles – Taking over a gym and keeping it for long enough to earn serious gold is quite satisfying. And there is a sense of accomplishment from taking down a tough raid boss. Playing in Tokyo makes it easy because there are tons and tons of players that will gather to take down raid bosses, especially the legendary ones.

As fun as it is I still have my gripes – until the new generation of Pokemon was released just recently, it could get pretty repetitive to constantly catch the same Pokemon all the time.

And there are lots of weird bugs and quirks – for instance, there is a hard cap that limits the amount of gold you can earn by defending gyms to 50 per day, which creates a lot of complicated issues that are too dorky to get into here

But overall it is a lot of fun and something that I have really enjoyed playing both on my own and with my son.

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Thoughts on a 2014 relaunch

Hello to all, and a happy new year to you. I hope 2013 treated you well and that 2014 is even better.

After a long and only mildly interrupted hiatus, I am finally starting to plan a proper relaunch of the blog, although not ready to predict a date yet.

One reason for deciding to plan a proper relaunch (and please note that we are not yet there, and I do not know when my schedule will allow it) is a gradual and regrettable estrangement over the last couple of years from any sort of academic discussions. By this time I had intended to be back in school, in a Doctoral program, but events have unfolded differently. I still hope to apply next year to start the following year, but that does leave an awfully long gap.

I do miss the discussions of the old blog. And Facebook or Twitter are no substitute. Sure, there are discussions, and I even have many of the old regular commenters on there. But the ephemeral nature of those comment threads grates on me, and the endless timeline of trivia that has become the standard template for Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc. has gone from mildly irritating to somewhat repulsive, and I trust I am not the only one embracing a grumpy nostalgia for the web of the ancient days of the mid-2000s.

Key to this effort, I believe, will be commuting to a regular minimum posting schedule of at least one moderately substantive post per week, ideally at the same approximate time and date. For this to work I intend to bank a significant number of pieces in advance, on the order of a dozen or so, such that temporary schedule changes will not lead to a temporary but seemingly total collapse of the blog as an ongoing project. Should coauthors rejoin me on the effort there may very well be more than one point on the standard post schedule, but I believe that even a very low hertz cadence is drastically preferable to total unpredictability.

But what will those posts be? Some will be long-unfinished drafts, many others will be presentations of fun old documents from my personal collection and public online archives, but what else?

What do you, the former readers, want to see? I must admit a significant lack of interest in covering current events in the general case, although I am sure that specific events will eventually prompt a reaction.

But, again, what did you read Mutantfrog for? What did we do differently from all the others? What gap looms?

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Japanese people can’t speak English because they live among tainted, Japan-savvy foreigners

It seems to me that a major factor behind Japan’s vaunted problems with the English language could have to do with the learning environment.

Specifically, some Japanese people are not sufficiently aware that Japanese-accented English is often incomprehensible to listeners who are not familiar with it.

I call it the Heisenberg property of language – simply being among Japanese people causes native English speakers (eikaiwa teachers, friends, coworkers, etc) to get used to how Japanese people speak, and of course alter how they speak to ensure Japanese people understand them.

This concept came to my attention in a big way at an investment conference that I recently attended for work.

The keynote speaker was a well-known American investment manager, and when it came time for the Q&A session, there was a roughly even mix of question-askers who were native English speakers, Japanese who asked their questions through the interpreter, and Japanese who opted to ask in English.

The guest speaker had trouble understanding all of the Japanese people who asked questions in English. One person in particular asked something like, “What is your view on Abenomics?” and it took about three tries before the speaker got that it was something about the new prime minister.  I understood it the first time because I could hear him say the katakana “abenomikkusu” just really fast and with an attempt at English inflection. But to the American guest speaker, the questioner must have sounded like he was mumbling “obb-nom” instead of the properly enunciated “Abe-nomics” that sounds similar to Reaganomics.

This is just one small example, but I encounter cases of this phenomenon all the time:

  • Several English-speaking Japanese people in my life have heavy accents, but I can understand them because my years in the country have gotten me used to how Japanese people tend to speak. 
  • Japanese commercials are flooded with simplified English
  • Eikaiwa teachers tend to use simplified English to make themselves understood in class. I have even known some to incorporate common Japanese phrases like “hora” to get students’ attention.
  • Lip my stocking!

And so on.

If a Japanese person spends all their time in this “Japanese-familiar” bubble, then when it comes time to go face-to-face with a less Japan-savvy foreigner, they are likely to run into trouble.

I don’t necessarily see this as a bad thing. For the sake of communication, speaking to make yourself understood (and listening carefully to understand) is only the most natural thing in the world. I just feel like pointing it out because Japanese people who equate speaking English with native speakers in Japan with “immersion” might be in for a rude awakening if they ever step outside that environment.

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Adamu will be on Livestream helping break down the election this Sunday starting at 8pm!!

Two major elections are coming up in Japan this Sunday — a general election to choose members of the Diet’s lower house, and a race for the Tokyo governorship. The chances of a change in government are high and of all people, that great buckler former PM Abe Shinzo is the favorite to become Japan’s next prime minister!

To help make sense of it all, I’ll be participating in a Livestream broadcast with Garrett De Orio and Kozo Ota, two of the Tokyo English-language blogosphere’s foremost political (and yakyu) junkies. You can save the URL here. We go on air at 8pm, once the polls close. It promises to be a fun and informative evening, so if you like sarcastic commentary and wading deep into the swampy weeds of the Japanese political system, this one is for you my friend.

During the stream we will be answering Twitter questions live with the hashtag #japanelection. Please drop a line! Given its importance, we will be focusing mostly on the general election.

Before Sunday I will try and do some posts highlighting aspects of the election that might fall through the cracks of what has become a quite robust Japan blogo/Twittersphere of late. Outfits like Japan Real Time, Japan Probe, and Shisaku have all been great.

Otherwise you can follow me at @adamukun on Twitter for regular updates. Please let me know in the comments below what sort of issues you want to hear about, and I hope to see you on the stream! Oh and if you’re a Japanese citizen make sure to get out there and vote!!

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Always-on Internet during a temporary visit home to the US from Japan

As it happens, I am visiting my hometown in Connecticut at the same time Roy is taking his trip to Japan. Before I went, I had the same problem – what to do about Internet/cell phone connectivity while I’m home? My solution to keep my Softbank iPhone 4S connected was to use WiFi at home and at friends’ houses, plus a no-contract MiFi for when I’m on the go. Overall, it worked out really well with a few unexpected bumps in the road.

Life before MiFi

I have lived abroad since 2006, but until now I have been pretty disappointed with my solutions for connectivity during visits home. Until this trip, I had opted to reactivate an old flip phone that I owned before I left. Each time I seemed to need to pay a reactivation fee plus minutes and texting fees. The whole package usually cost around $50-60 each time. It worked as well as an old cell phone usually does.

Mrs. Adamu and I joined the smartphone crowd in late 2011 by getting the iPhone 4S. We visited home a couple months later and used the old cell phone as usual. It felt kind of weird to use an outdated phone for voice calls when we had such a powerful tool at our disposal, but we went with it anyway.

The Virgin Mobile MiFi 2200 is your friend – if you can set it up right

For my next trip home for Thanksgiving 2012 I came by myself. During the preparations I started to look for some alternative connectivity options and came across what seemed like an amazing deal – a 3G MiFi selling on Amazon for just $30 or so! The Virgin Mobile MiFi 2200 is a small device that connects to Sprint’s network using Virgin’s no-contract MVNO service. I decided to order it for delivery at my destination and purchase 2.5GB of data for another $35 (top-up card pictured under the mug).

The setup went very smoothly in line with the included instructions – except that the last screen in the process said there was an error that I needed to call customer service to resolve. Weirdly, the representative said there was no problem at all, and sure enough the MiFi was already working. So if you go this route, check if the Internet is working properly before waiting on hold for 10 minutes.

All was right with the world and I had a working MiFi for my first day.This was especially useful since I took a trip down to NYC so Roy could show me the best of hipster-fied Brooklyn (see fancy pizza pic below).

The product description advertises just 3 hours of battery life, but in my experience I got around 5. I have a pretty beefy spare battery (white object in picture) that holds around 1.5 iPhone charges and extends the MiFi’s usability by quite a bit (I would estimate an extra 6 hours or so). But since the max battery life is only around 12 hours-ish, you will want to know where your next recharge station is. I ran out of juice halfway through the night and had to rely on Roy’s sweet tethering feature until we got to his place where there was WiFi and free plugs to charge all my devices.

A puzzling error

Unfortunately, the next day the MiFi inexplicably stopped working. I spent another night in NYC and did not have time to call tech support and figure things out. It would turn on and connect, but websites would redirect to the MiFi settings page, which said the device was “Not Activated.” This is apparently a common issue, and I tried many times to redo the “activation process” to no avail. So I spent my remaining two days in NYC surviving on scraps of WiFi from apartments, Apple Stores and Starbuckses.

I returned to CT and finally called to find out the cause of the problem — they deactivated me for the weirdest reason… One of my activation codes began with 00, but apparently I was not supposed to enter the 00 during the activation process. Would have been nice for them to tell me!

After clearing that up with a friendly call to customer service (the Indian-sounding lady was very helpful), the MiFi has worked very well. It is not as reliable as having the Softbank 3G connection, but close enough. I can send/receive messages, load Facebook and Twitter, and see websites with no problem. Low-res YouTube videos even load without complaints.

People forget their WiFi passwords

One thing that has surprised me on this trip is that people often do not know the passwords to their WiFi. In cases like that I have to keep using the MiFi to maintain the coveted always-on connection. Most households have spare mini-USB chargers available (especially if they have Android phones) that can recharge the MiFi, but in one case the battery ran out during a long night that ended with a viewing of Tangled on gorgeously realized Bluray. I had foolishly left behind the spare battery and did not bring my mom’s car charger, leaving me unacceptably disconnected for almost six hours. I did not make such careless mistakes again.

Concluding thoughts

All in all, the MiFi has worked out pretty well at a reasonable price, and I intend to keep using it until something better comes along.

Despite the initial difficulties and disadvantages, I liked the MiFi solution for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it costs no more than activating the old cell phone but allows me to use all my iPhone functions. Also, now that I own the device, future trips to the US will only require me to top up my data, which should be a pretty good savings after a few trips. And by using a MiFi, both me and Mrs. Adamu can connect at the same time. And if we top up before arriving, we can have an Internet connection as soon as we touch down.

Some things would have been easier if I had decided to pay Skype to get a phone number that people could have called. It probably would have made texting possible as well (I am not totally sure about this; Skype texting didn’t work for me, but I don’t know if having a number would change that). But I did not have that many people trying to contact me, so it didn’t make that much sense. And the few people in my social circle that did not have smartphones were reachable in other ways in a pinch, so texting was not exactly essential.

And this may only be worthwhile until I get my next phone. I like the iPhone, but because of my international situation it is tempting to switch to an unlocked Android device. The Nexus 4 starts at just $299 unlocked (compared to $649 for the iPhone 5), so if I get that I could probably do something similar to Roy’s solution when he came to Japan. At any rate, the convenience of always-on Internet has made my trip back home much more enjoyable than it would have been otherwise, so I would recommend anyone heading home to try and work something out like this.

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Some impressions after getting a herniated disc in Tokyo

So the last week and a half has been pretty harrowing. The morning after an official company function I woke up with excruciating pain running down my left leg, like something was stabbing me from my thighs down to my toes. It was persistent, constant, and intense. With the help of Mrs. Adamu I was able to just barely walk out to the street, call a taxi, and get to the orthopedist.

Because I had recently been on a long bike ride with my full weight on the seat for about 4 hours, I was sure I broke my tailbone. Turns out that was not the case — the doctor said I had a herniated disc! The prescription: a bunch of drugs, plus a regimen of stretches and an order to lose some weight.

By the time I reached the clinic, most of the initial pain was gone, reduced to mostly an aching in my Achilles area. Since then it has tended to be worst in the morning, easing off gradually from there. The pain has dulled a bit each day, and now I feel much much better.  According to the doctor, I am one of the lucky cases whose hernia will likely be eradicated by my white blood cells. Otherwise I could need vascular injections or even major surgery. Here’s hoping that won’t be necessary.

Since this happened in Japan, the experience is perfectly germane for MFT. So here are some observations:

  • The doctors were not the horror story I hear about – My doctors (I started with a young doctor and then switched to the clinic director) were patient, listened to my bad Japanese (and explained things to me and my wife very clearly in Japanese without making a big deal of it), and gave advice that seems to have worked perfectly.
  • Japanese painkillers are weak, on purpose – The pain drugs they gave me didn’t seem to do much. For those first four days I just basically ached without relief. This is by design, apparently. The clinic director explained that in Japan the consensus is that painkillers should not be over-prescribed to avoid their side-effects, specifically stomach irritation. This experience plus some other doctor visits have confirmed this tendency. It’s enough to tempt me to trot out that line about Japan having an “endurance” (gaman) culture. My mom was not happy to hear this and told me to take extra Advil if necessary, but for the most part I stuck to the doctor’s advice and toughed it out.
  • Japanese hospitals can be crowded – After hearing that the clinic did not open until 8:30, we waited until around then to show up. Big mistake. By the time we arrived, the waiting area was already packed with patients, mostly elderly (understandable in an orthopedist). Thankfully the pain had become more manageable by then, because we ended up having to wait hours and hours to see someone. Which brings me to my next point…
  • The iPhone rules (and so does the iPad) – On that first day, I used an iPhone app to call the taxi, e-mailed and called coworkers to let them know my situation, looked up possible diagnoses while I waited, and generally killed time. Then over the next few days when I was basically stuck on the couch, I used the iPad (and TV to a lesser extent) to entertain myself with My Chinese Bride, YouTube, and Twitter. A laptop would not have worked in my case because I needed to remain in one position to stay comfortable.
  • Commuting with a disability is NOT easy – After four days out of commission I was ready to try commuting to work, initially with a crutch for support. My office was very understanding of my situation and nice enough to let me come in late all last week to avoid rush hour, which was a godsend. I have a new appreciation for anyone out there riding public transportation with any kind of physical disability in Japan. The society is not built for them, and the infrastructure built to help them is generally not respected. Healthy people storm the elevators, meaning that slow people like myself always have to wait for the elevator to make a second trip.
    And that brings me to the train situation. As anyone following my Twitter feed will know, finding seats on the train has been probably the most frustrating part of this experience. Even with a crutch, it is a crapshoot as to whether anyone will offer you a seat. I counted four kind souls in total, which according to one of my Twitter followers is a pretty good batting average. Due to the pain, eventually I stopped waiting and just straight up asking people as soon as I got on. Usually people complied readily, but I could see how the disabled could feel worn down by having to grovel to strangers just to get from point A to point B.
    Eventually, I stopped needing the crutch but brought it around with me anyway to avoid confusion when asking for a seat. And speaking of seats…
  • The “priority seat” system is stupid and should be abolished – As visitors/residents of Japan know, almost all Japanese trains set aside a section of seats as “priority” meaning that the elderly, physically disabled, and pregnant women should be given priority to sit there. But this doesn’t work and is a misguided idea to begin with. For one thing, when the seats are full of healthy people and a disabled person comes on, you have the problem I described above.
    But the worst part about these is that it corrals the people who need the seats into one section of the train. For whatever reason, the train companies decided that the physically disabled etc. don’t deserve to sit anywhere else on the train. Why not just make all seats “priority”? In my experience, I never knew which section of the train would have priority seats, and in many cases they weren’t near where I got on. So instead of limping over to the priority area, I would just go ahead and ask someone in the regular seats to get up. According to Wikipedia, Hankyu and a few other railways have figured this out. And last but certainly not least…
  • Having a caring and understanding wife is the best – Mrs. Adamu has been my lifesaver through all of this. She accompanied me to the hospital and took care of me when I couldn’t get around freely. That was awesome.

So thankfully I seem to be getting better and might not have to worry about this stuff for much longer. But I have definitely gained a newfound appreciation for a lot of things, not least the medical system and the people who have to ride the trains with a disability.

I am interested to hear your Japan medical stories in the comments. Is my case the norm or more of an outlier?

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Passport blues

I have procrastinated for months in getting a new passport, even after my old one expired at the end of June, because the cover came off and it therefore counts as too damaged for a postal renewal. So, I finally found my birth certificate and biked over from my nice new (as of just over a week ago) residence in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn down to the very lovely main Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza in Prospect Park, where the most convenient all-day-long passport application center is located.

Upon arrival, I realize I forgot my printout of the application form at home, but no matter; I can easily fill it out again. After all, it would be silly to go all the way back home for my neatly printed printout of the filled-out-online PDF version of the form. And so I fill out all the forms again, whereupon the agent checks my documentation, She is at first suspicious that my birth certificate is merely a photocopy, and therefore invalid, but I show her—no ma’am, you can see that there is a faint, but genuine raised seal upon the surface—and she acquiesces.

But then a curveball. I am told that because my state ID1 is less than 6 months old, the State Department does not have the updated records and it is therefore not a complete and valid form of identification, necessitating an alternate and more comprehensive approach to the application process. My options are laid out: I need to either go home and find the expired ID card or make an affidavit application.

What is an affidavit passport application you ask? I have heard of affidavit voting, you may think. All you have to do is fill out one extra form attesting that you are not a lying scoundrel, and they will put your vote in the pile that they will look at if they get bored. Surely an affidavit passport application is no more of a burden? In fact, it is.For you see, it is not the applicant who completes the affidavit, but the witness attesting to the applicant’s identity. That is, I would need to bring a relative or long-standing acquaintance with me to the application office, this person would need to present his or her identification, and sign an affidavit swearing to be a relative or long-standing acquaintance of mine, whereupon my application would be accepted.

Having no desire to subject another individual to such a dreary procedure, I cycle back home, stopping only shop at the Duane Reade for sundries I have been delinquent in purchasing, and being a frantic search for the expired card. Having just moved over a week ago I expected the search to be fruitless, but luckily I discovered the card in a matter of minutes, on a table, unexpectedly laying underneath a hat.

And so, the story ends with far more annoyance than drama, yet another example of the seemingly endless procedures to which all we citizens are subjected by the splendiferously tentacled bureaucratic state, and an anecdote which I hope will prove to be of some small amount of education to the reader.

  1. Non-driver’s license state ID. Yes, that is something I never did at all. []
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What are your best “Japanese mistake” stories? I’ll start

In a couple weeks I am supposed to give a presentation (in Japanese) for my company’s family day. The topic is “common English mistakes by Japanese people.” I didn’t decide the theme, but I am hoping to use the opportunity to spread the message that speaking “wrong” English should be welcomed as long as you are at least communicating and using what you know.

And since I don’t think it’s fair to focus only on Japanese people’s English mistakes, to help make my point I am including the following anecdote about my own linguistic history:

About a month into my time as an exchange student in high school (my first-ever visit to Japan), I started staying with host parents who loved to feed me. Very, very nice and welcoming people. One time they served me hot cocoa, and I told them I liked it. Big mistake, because for the next two weeks they gave me the same hot cocoa with dinner every single night.

I was starting to get pretty sick of it, but I wanted to be polite and as such didn’t want to say no without doing so properly in Japanese. So I looked up how to say “I am getting tired of X” in the dictionary and went to my host mother and told her:

ココア、飽きたです (broken Japanese for, “I sick of cocoa”)

Her reaction? She looked shocked, started to cry, and asked why I would say such a thing. She then got her husband, and he demanded an explanation. I was starting to get nervous at this point, so I just repeated ココア、飽きたです thinking they’d get it this time. They didn’t and just seemed to get even angrier and more hurt…

Sweating now, I tried a few more times with different, untested sentence structures, mustering all my training from stateside Japanese classes. (ココアおいしいけど飽きたです?). With each utterance, they would look at me curiously and then start talking among themselves in words I couldn’t understand.

Finally, it dawned on me – ココア、飽きたです sounds a lot like ここは、飽きたです (I sick of this place). So I finally found the bag of cocoa and started pointing to it, saying  ココア ココア!!

Once they finally got it everything settled down. But for a moment I thought I might be in some serious trouble for making a cultural faux pas. I had heard how much Japanese value social protocol, so until I realized the mistake it seemed like saying no to cocoa was a really big deal. I still feel bad about making my host mother cry.

***

Have any of you had similar linguistic misadventures? Please let me know in the comments section. Note that if your story is really good I might have to steal it for my presentation!

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Best ways to cope with routine gaijin questions? A reaction to Debito

Debito’s latest creation is a column about “microaggression,” which is his new term for the routine, repetitive questions and lines of conversation that Japanese people commonly have with white Westerners (“You can use chopsticks?” “Can you eat natto?” etc). He says they add up to a form of soft discrimination. It’s one of his better thought-out and organized pieces in a while, so I heartily recommend reading it.

I will admit at first the column touched a nerve because I easily tire of hearing these questions and have many times cut conversations short rather than continue (partly because my Japanese sucks). But while I agree with the basic framework of the idea–that people treat gaijin this way because they are different–I ultimately don’t think it’s worth calling that out and out discrimination and prejudice.

He goes into lots of details, and if you want to get into the finer points of his column in the comments, I will be there with you. But for now I just want to point out my biggest issue.

Boring, repetitive conversations are had all over the world. It just so happens that when Japanese people see a Western face, it calls up memories of learning English in school, the images on TV, and the experiences they or their friends have had with foreigners in the past.  It’s all completely natural and utterly mundane. A shout-out and a thank-you go to those rare people who can break this mold and have lively and fun conversations.

Rather than a small form of “aggression,” in my experience people who do this are almost always just sticking to the script of safe, polite conversation. Most people are not great conversationalists, so they gravitate to what’s easy. Doctors always hear the same questions about their job, so does that mean they’re being discriminated against?

I am totally on Debito’s team when it comes to being pissed off at ignorant prejudiced people. It’s just that while the ignoramuses do engage in the routine rote questions, doing so isn’t a capital offense, socially speaking. You will screen out a lot of perfectly decent people if you denounce everyone who ever mentioned your chopstick skills.  For one thing, talking about food is probably the best ice-breaker for intercultural encounters, so it’s kind of unfair to try and rule that out!

In the column Debito mentions “coping skills” like it’s a dirty word. But coping skills are absolutely essential for living in Japan, and they don’t need to involve trying to change the whole society. There might be a time and place to discuss with Japanese people the absurd repetitiveness of some of these conversations, but it’s probably not worth “resisting” someone you are meeting for the first time.

What are some go-to ways to cope with these situations? As I said I am not good at this, so my most common method for complete strangers might be to politely answer the questions and then clam up, thinking, Hurry up and finish cutting my hair! But when I am feeling festive, I’ll sometimes turn the question around, or even better– change the subject! People usually move on. Ken on Twitter had a good one: “Best part of being ambidextrous is as soon as I get [the chopstick] compliment I issue the challenge to use them lefty.” Really, this is an area where I’ve fallen into a pretty unfriendly routine, so being better able to deal with it would probably brighten these people’s days, not to mention my own.

Update: While Mr. Arudo’s column was worth our unqualified attention this time, our “no Debito” policy lives on in the comments section – our hope against hope is that you try to avoid talking about the man himself and his approach and blahblahblah

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