Monthly Archives: July 2014

Chicago Pre-departure Orientation

One of the things I had to do before leaving to go to Japan was a pre-departure orientation. No I don’t think you’re stupid. Yes, I am aware that you can read the title of this post. Anyway, moving on. There was the usual set of speakers. Some of them were a bit doom and gloom. Some of them were funny, and some of them proved that being a good public speaker has nothing to do with how well you know a language.

A particular speaker jumps to mind. One of our travel coordinators, and forgive me his name has escaped me, was in charge of telling us all of the necessary information for our actual departure. Yes the one we were at the orientation to talk about. He was entirely unprepossesing, short, and a bit round in the middle. His accent was right out of a stereotype. There were rs instead of ls everywhere, but to be honest he was one of the most engaging speakers there. He managed to give us information and set us at ease with a laugh. It gave me a strange sort of hope that I’ll be able to get my personality across even though I may not know the right words.

The actual information was pretty basic. Get places on time. Keep your things where they need to be. Get your luggage somewhere so it can go on the truck, those sorts of things. However whenever you get a room full of nervous people certain personality traits begin to present themselves.

For this reason, I dread the part where someone asks if there are any questions. Those words bring out a few specific personalities. There’s always that person who needs to ask that question just to make themselves feel better about what they already knew. There’s always the person who doesn’t pay attention, so they ask a question someone else already asked. And, inevitably, there is always someone who asks a question whose answer is clearly to be found in the packet already passed out and sitting in front of them. Others tend to be annoyed by this, but I understand that it’s merely nerves. Sometimes, when people are nervous, they get a little stupid even though they’re very smart. It sort of makes me want to hug them.

By far my favorite person, who I never actually met or learned their name, was the girl sitting a table ahead of me. She sat very still and very quiet. She seemed to look above it all and to be a bit to cool for the questioning and information. She even managed to convince me of her aloof coolness until she pulled a sandwich out of her purse. Then with a single question, naturally about the sandwich, her face lit up. Suddenly she was a different, albeit still nervous, person. It’s certain proof that you should never immediately judge a book by it’s cover.

Something else I learned from this orientation is that I’m old. OK, before you older people shoot me down, hear me out. Most of the people leaving are four to five years younger than me. Many of them have been many awesome places. Some of them haven’t. I’ve seen a lot of bravado, but I know it’s secretly hiding nerves. Again it just sort of makes me want to hug them. You’ve got to be honest with yourself, or you will get yourself into trouble. I experienced the culture shock thing in Texas. You won’t always realize that’s what happening until it does. I’m not sure how you learn to look closely at your own emotions, but it’s one good way of learning how to do it. Unfortunately, it’s a bit sink or swim. You either get or you don’t. As long as you can start off by being honest with yourself and your feelings, I think you will end up being better off than those trying to play it up.

For this reason, last night I stayed way past the young kids. Yup that’s how I’m going to refer to the young twenty somethings. I’m going to be a bit crotchety. The reason I stayed was to talk to another married couple my own age who were not only taking themselves but also their two children. They both got placed in the program, however, they were placed ten hours apart. I will be keeping them in mind when I get a bit lonely in the next two weeks. I will also be doing my best to keep in touch with them, mostly because they were a bit crunchy and awesome.

By stepping back and watching over the last day or so I’ve sort of come away with a kind of confidence I didn’t realize I was capable of. Everyone I’ve talked to was grateful to talk. When I had a reaction to try to follow, I stood back and watched. I think I’m ready. I didn’t think I’d feel that way, but there it is. See you all on the other side.

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Holy Crap it’s only a week away!

I need to post something. Honestly I’ve been more than a little frazzled lately. In less than a week, I will finally be in Tokyo for the first time. I’m both excited and a little terrified. Who wouldn’t be scared about moving 6,000 miles away.

Bodhi and I are ready. My little purple lucky cat and I are also ready. I’ll do a full post later on the lucky cat phenomenon later on. The short version is that my lucky cat is something that guards my room, and, depending on the color, helps focus certain kinds of lucky energy. Mine is purple. Apparently purple is a color that is supposed to give you good creative energy. He lives above a doorway so that every time you enter the room you get a little extra boost. I haven’t named him yet. I’ll get to that later.

At the moment, most of my life is summed up into the clothes about to be packed into my two giant suitcases. It may interest you to know that there are a few things I’m stock piling for various reasons.

The first thing I’m taking a lot of is deodorant. Yup, I’m sure that wasn’t something you really needed to know about me huh? It’s ok everyone sweats, even girls. Unfortunately Japanese girls just don’t sweat quite so much and when they do, it’s not quite so smelly. Actually it’s not just the girls, it’s everyone. Lucky them right? Check this out if you don’t believe me.

The other thing I’m taking a lot of is toothpaste. This is a little more down to my own personal preference. I do like that fancy enamel rebuilding stuff. You can get pretty good toothpaste over there and yes Japanese people do take pretty good care of their teeth. It is not quite what the stereotypical knowledge would have you believe. Still there isn’t necessarily the same type of things I’m used to finding in the U.S. To make matters worse you have to understand a completely different reading style to figure out exactly what you’re buying. This is why things like this exist.

I’m sure as I actually spend time in the country that I will find other things along this same line. This is why I have some willing people in the states who will send me those essentials I don’t realize I’m going to need yet.

Rollin’ in yen!

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Proof that my husband is infinitely better at looking cool than me…..sigh

Last week Adam and I made a point of going to the bank to order ourselves some currency since my coordinator told me I’d most likely not have time to exchange money at the airport. We both had quite a bit of fun checking out each of the bills. For the moment, I’m enjoying the novelty. I know, eventually I won’t even look twice at the money just like I don’t pay attention to American money.

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Let’s start with the biggest bill I have, the 10000 yen bill. Now before you freak out and ask me what the heck I’m doing with a bill that big or start asking why Japanese people in general need bills that big let me give a small explanation.

The Japanese yen is counted the same way that you’d count American money if everything was determined by how many pennies you have. An easy example of this is the one hundred yen coin or, in our way of thinking, the dollar. Same value just a different way of thinking about it. Our dollar is technically the same thing as having one hundred pennies we just don’t really think about it that way. Another easy way to find the relative American value is to simply subtract two zeros. Using that simple rule with my initial big bill 10000 minus two zeros equals 100. Much better? I thought so.

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The next bill is the 5000 yen bill (subtract your zeros and what do you get that’s right it’s a 50).

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Thirdly is the 2000 yen bill (I’m not doing math for you any more.)

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Lastly is the 1000 (Seriously? There just zeros.)

Now you might be wondering what’s wrong with me. Why don’t I have any five hundred or one hundred yen bills? It’s for a very simple reason. They don’t exist. Instead of using paper to make these bits of currency, like we do, they use coins. I suppose I should point out that we also have a one dollar coin, but obviously not a five dollar coin. We aren’t being very efficient about this are we. Ah well that’s an entirely different topic better and more amusingly explained here.

I don’t currently have any coins, but I’m providing some pictures other people have taken of them down here. If you’d like to know about Japanese bank notes there is a wealth of information out there.

Japan’s Test Foods

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Japanese people are known for lots of things weird commercials, samurai culture, the ability to keep their emotions to themselves, and a variety of other things that are much less common than the rest of the world would like to think. Something that often gets left out is their inherent sense of humor.

Something that seems to be universal among people who have lived or spent a lot of time in Japan is the food test story. Spend any time in or around a group of Japanese people and they will inevitably test you on your willingness to try any food. Ok. It’s not just trying the food that’s the key. You need to try the food and not make a fuss about it. Since Japanese people look down on making others uncomfortable with inappropriate feelings, being a good sport is very important.

With this in mind I present three foods that are very popular test foods. These scary foods can make or break your image with your group. Are you hard core enough to eat stringy tofu? Can you smile through extremely sour pickled plums?

Now this is by no means a comprehensive list, but these are some favorites I’ve heard of over and over again.

3. Umeboshi/Umezuke

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Look appetizingly wrinkled don’t they?

Ume are tiny little plums. They can come in one of two ways. Umeboshi are salted and dried whereas umezuke are pickled. They are the same fruit. These little dried or pickled plums are likely to make you pucker up the same way that a warhead would only there isn’t really a sweet interior.

To be fair most times umeboshi are put inside of rice or along with other food. You don’t really just pop them into your mouth and chew, unlike the stupid gaijin writing this post. Yes I was curious once. The assistant in my college class was good enough to bring them to our weekly language meeting. Before she could tell me, I’d reached in and stuffed one in my mouth. I think I may have spit it out. Not my finest moment.

2. Shirako

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Ok, Mrs. Emeigh it looks like sushi right?

Sushi, it looks like sushi. Once you get past the fact that a lot of sushi involves raw fish you’re good right….right?

What’s in that picture is definitely raw and it’s definitely from a fish. It’s just that in this case the part of the fish it’s from is what makes it a bit suspect.

Now you’re looking back up at the picture wondering if what is rolled between that single piece of seaweed is brains. The way it twists and turns makes you think you’d be right.

You’ve gotten the entirely wrong end of the fish. This particular food can only come from a male fish. It’s attached to a particular part of the male fish and without it female fish couldn’t fertilize their eggs. If this hasn’t been enough to clue you in, I’ll be straight up with you.

It’s a fish sperm sack. To be more specific it comes from a cod. I’ve yet to eat this food (I’m also secretly hoping I won’t have to), but the accounts of this particular delicacy bursting under your teeth in your mouth is enough to keep me on the sidelines. Enough said? I thought so.

1. Natto

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Umm, Mrs. Emeigh, what the heck is that?

Surely whatever is last on this list can’t be worse than a fish sperm sack, right Mrs. Emeigh? Right?

Ahh, readers I really wish that were the case, but there is one food almost universally reviled and universally forced on gaijin. That food is none other than natto.

Natto is made entirely of fermented soybeans that are slimy, smelly, and above all stringy. Look at it! Do you see the fermented tendrils waiting to stick to your tongue?

Many Japanese people don’t even like the smell let alone the taste, but the foods inherent healthiness has kept it around. Many of them will ask you if you like natto. Many will even try to test you on it if you claim to. Still other evil individuals with force you to try it, more on that in just a moment. You can find it everywhere from nice restaurants to combini (corner convenience stores). Generally people eat it straight with a little seasoning and nothing else. Other times they put it on toast.

Ahh yes, back to evil individuals. One such individual already has plans for this writer to try natto on a day that is none other than her birthday. Thank you husband. Since I’m going to get to spend an extra two weeks in Japan, I must, on my birthday, consume natto on camera for my husband.

Don’t worry I’ll be sure to take pictures and write about it. I’m sure you’ll all love to watch me suffer. Ahh schadenfreude….

Please enlighten me. Are there any foods most people dislike that you simply love? Maybe I’ll even consider eating them some day.

My last major dose of Americana

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Friday morning I was sitting on a street just outside of Grand Rapids. It’s a regular street just like thousands of other streets spread throughout the country. Normally you’d make your way down it without a thought. It’s nice. It’s got a lot of trees and extra lanes for extra traffic.

But, for one day, it gets to be a special place where special things happen. Children get to follow a very slowly moving police motorcycle down a major road on bicycles. There is a stream of them that starts off what will eventually be a parade. They start out fast, but they don’t stay that way. At the very beginning one of the more eager kids wipes out. His bike slides sideways into the grass and he flops over unceremoniously. Somewhere there is a concerned parent, but I can’t see them. They pretty quickly get sucked into the crowd.

Eventually the parade of tiny multicolored bikes gets swallowed into a slow stream of toddlers whose only speed is teetering and snail like. It’s ok. They’re having a great time. Eventually even they make it to the top of a small paved hill.

The sound of the first of many sirens announces the start of the parade. Yeah, I know parades whoopie. It was nice all the same. It reminded me in some ways that no matter what part of the country you’re in we are essentially at least a little bit the same.

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One thing that all parades share is sirens. Give someone a large vehicle and a siren, and they will find every imaginable sound it can make. This held true through four separate caravans of fire vehicles. My favorite was the first mainly because of the sirens. The last was pretty good too. Every so often they’d blare horns. Shave and a hair cut….two bits! Every one knows that most favorite of rhythms. Hearing it blared across a four lane highway courtesy of no more than four separate fire engines makes it that much better.

Another thing every parade, well every Fourth of July parade anyway, has in common is tractors. That’s right in the middle of a well to do part of Grand Rapids there are a variety of tractors to be found. Never mind that probably only a few people at the parade, myself included, even know how to drive one, they must be there. They are, after all, a big part of that American image. For that day at least, everyone gets to imagine they are one of those old timey farming types coming home to apple pie and milk. My favorite was a steam powered tractor probably well over one hundred years old.

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I’m not really sure what the purpose of this particular car was. I think it had some affiliation with a theater company. All I can say is that I’m all for someone with the gumption to cover an entire car in different fabrics.

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What followed can only be described as a hodge podge of cars, tractors, and local businesses on trucks. Being that it is Michigan, we do really love our cars. I took a lot of pictures, but I’m only going to include a few mostly because I’m not the best photogapher. You don’t need to see how many bad pictures I can take.

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Last but not least a pristine car the exact model and color of the car Kennedy was shot in. I can’t decide if this is really patriotic or just sort of creepy.

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If there is one thing to remember on a day like the fourth, it’s that we are essentially all on the same team. The World Cup may be over for us, but that doesn’t need to be the only reason we can stand together. Even if we don’t share the same heritage, and lets face it most of us don’t. For one day at least, it’s just sort of nice to celebrate our shared country.

‘Murica!

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