Having relaxed and destressed a little bit, I realized I was supposed to meet a friend in a little while, so I hopped back on the trusty panda peddlar and headed over to one of the local Starbucks. Yes – the Evil S.
Paul Oakenfold – El Nino (Matt Darey 12″ mix)
Now, we all know the standard rallying cry of the fair-trade, living wage leftists out there (of which I consider myself a nominal member) vis-a-vis Starbucks: “It’s evil, a mega-corporation, hurts small farmers in poor countries, manipulates coffee prices, has a fake atmosphere, drives independent coffee shops out of business, etc, etc.” Now I don’t disagree with these assessments, though in Starbuck’s defense, some of these claims are somewhat exaggerated (Starbucks does actually offer great health insurance (even to part time employees) and buys an awful lot of fair-trade coffee). So what accounts for my continued patronage of the Evil S? I think it boils down to one thing:
The Iced Caramel Macchiato
Explaining further: The Iced Caramel Macchiato is possibly one of the greatest liquidy inventions known to man. I would willingly give up my brother’s left kidney for access to machine that would produce Iced Caramel Macchiato on demand for me. (sorry Paul, I’ll make it up to you, I promise. Besides, you only need one, don’t be a greedy bastard.) Besides only being a remarkable 280 calories for a Tall (the second largest size in Japan, equivelant to the smallest size in an American Starbucks), which seems like it’s an incredible steal for something with so much delicious creamy caramelly goodness squeezed into it, the Iced Caramel Macchiato also allows coffee-haters like myself to get away with claiming “we drink coffee” to our espresso-quaffing coffee-snob friends, since technically it does contain (a teeny tiny amount of) coffee.
Contemplating what mug to buy. For the most part I’ve managed to avoid paying actual money for anything that has an advertiser’s logo on it since I think that’s wack, but in this case the summery colored glass mugs at the bottom were on sale and deeply tempting. The thing is, like so many items that come in a variety of oddly imac-y reminiscent color variations, the glasses look great sitting on a shelf as a set with the rest of their colorful brethern, but taken on an individual basis, seperated from the crowd, they really lose a significant part of their charm. So you’re left with a choice: either buy the entire set and display it proudly as it’s meant to be, or else don’t buy one at all. Since I only have one shelf in my kitchen anyway, and that precious square foot of space is occupied by the sack of rice that (in addition to the taco shells from earlier this morning) constitute all the food I currently have in the world, I decided to hold off on buying an admittedly superfluous coffee mug today. But they are colorful!!!
Being an old Starbucks pro, I managed to deftly snag a table from a couple that was just picking up to leave as I arrived, which was something of a small miracle since the store was absolutely packed – lines stretching out the door, we’re talking. Not three seconds after I sit down, though, my phone rings – my friend’s stuck in traffic and could I please wait 10 minutes or so? Not that I mind waiting of course, but suddenly I become painfullly aware of the number of eyes fixed on my from people standing in line. Each and every gaze says the same thing too:
“Who’s that guy think he is, hogging that table all by himself!?”
Thus, faced with such an uncomfortable amount of unspoken peer pressure and silent societal judging, I did what any honest-to-goodness Japanese person would do – I pulled out my cell phone and started playing a video game until my friend arrived, purposefully daring anyone to say anything.
They didn’t. Incidentally, I beat Street Fighter II while waiting for my friend, who finally showed up as I was contemplating starting a new game.
This is Vanessa. And this is the “Five Questions with Vanessa” game.
Q1. Why did you come to Japan?
“Cuz I didn’t get into the Peace Core, that’s why. That and I had some Japanese friends about five years ago and thought they were very nice. But I didn’t know anything about the culture, so when this opportunity came up, I thought “Why not?“. And here I am”
Q2. What’s your favorite physical object?
“Hmm. I don’t know how to make this come out right, but I’m going to have to say pictures of myself. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not vain! But I just like the way I look – like, I like my face. I used to worry about it all the time when I was younger, but sometime – I think it was around age 16, I just stopped worrying about my physical appearance. Looking… looking at pictures of myself, I like the different facial expressions I have, the way my face is expressing things about me at the time.”
Q3. How would you describe your fashion style?
“I call it ‘thrift store chic’. But more like a NYC thrift store – used, but still chic. I think my fashion style changes depending on what I’m doing. When I’m teaching, I have to dress a certain way, when I’m going out, a different. I’d like to have many looks, but I haven’t built up my wardrobe yet. I’d like to do that. My philosophy in clothing can be described as ‘seeking quality, but needs to be cheap too’.”
Q4. What was/is the happiest time in your life?
“When I was little – maybe around 5, I think – I was always with my mom. That was the happiest time in my life. But my mother and I stopped getting along when I was around 10.”
Q5. What’s in your wallet right now?
“Let’s see. (opens wallet and pours contents out onto the table). About 10,000 yen (~$100 USD). A bunch of point cards. Maybe 10 or so, but I really only use three… My New Jersey driver’s license… my gaijin (foreigner registration) card. My charge card pin number – I can never remember it so I wrote it down on a sticky note and always keep it in my wallet. *laughs* My business cards for my private hair dressing business – I do all sorts of things, braids, dreads, extensions, whatever. Here, you want one? (hands one to me). And oh yeah – my address here in Japan – I always forget how to write it!”
After meeting Vanessa, I ran into a couple of other friends. This is Chr and Amy. They’ll be tackling the “Five Questions” game together.
Q1. Why are you in Japan?
Chr: “I didn’t want to work at a job that would make me hate life for a year. I had itchy feet and wanted to work and travel at the same time.”
Q3. What’s your favorite physical object?
Amy: “Well, my boyfriend made me this jewelry box out of bamboo – like a little piece of Japan. He had cut down this bamboo from the forest – *laughs* wait, no, not like that! I mean, where he lives, there was all this bamboo around his house – it’s out in the country – and they had to cut it down anyway to construct something around there. Anyway, he cut this bamboo down, scrubbed and cleaned it all himself and made this for me. You know something interesting about him? His grandfather – his name was Yoshi Toshi – that’s not the interesting part! Wait! Anyway, he was credited with inventing – he’s got a patent for – the first four person circular ping pong table…! Is that cool or what!? Huh? No, I have no idea how you play ping pong with four people at once!”
Q3. How would you describe your fashion style?
Chr: “I’d say ‘Fashion Free’. Like, not trendy, but still original, ecclectic, brand-free. I love the New York Times Style section. Or I used to, at least – it’s gotten crap over the years. Ruth La Ferla, Kathy Horn – they’re good style critics. The slideshows are excellent but lately the Sunday Styles has become more about lifestyle than fashion. For example, last week they did this article on some guy who plays poker for a living – it had nothing to do with fashion!”
Q4. What’s an interesting fact about you?
Amy: “My mom’s Korean, but a very odd character. This one time – I mean, you gotta imagine this in a thick Korean accent – like, my boyfriend was over and my mom said to him, out of the blue – ‘You know, I really want to smoke marijuana’. This minister had come over from Korea and he asked my mom if she could get them some weed – I guess he wanted to have sex with her or something, you know how Korean ministers are (no clue…). Anyway, so my mom kept going – she was like ‘I’ve heard that if you have sex while you smoke marijuana it’s really wonderful.’ To my boyfriend! Anyway, that’s the kind of person my mom is – I mean, she never did that of course!! *laughs* But these… these sorts of stories were integral to my childhood!
…Wait, was that interesting enough? Let me think. Oh, I know! When I was little, I used to take taekwondo at this place called – and I swear I’m not making this up!!! – ‘Hallelujah Taekwondo’… I KNOW!! What kind of name is that for a taekwondo place?! Anyway though, I eventually switched to ‘Francois d’ Bernardo’s Taekwondo’ – he was a genuine French child molester… He would try and grope me during class – like when correcting my stance or something – I was 8 years old, but it wasn’t traumatic. It was more funny than anything! A few years later, I confessed to my friend that he’d tried to grope me – and she was like ‘Me too!!’. We were mutually groped at Taekwondo…! *laughs*”
Q5. Where do you see yourself in the future?
Chr: “I see myself – in 10 years or so – working as hopefully a journalist in a big city – NYC hopefully. For a newspaper – hopefully the New York Times – with writing a book or two on the side. I don’t think it’ll happen in the next 10 years, but hopefully 20 years, maybe. To be honest… I’ll probably be single!! *laughs*”
Finishing our coffee and little impromptu interview, Chr explains that after an entire year of holding out, she’s finally decided to get a cell phone – and could I please lend a hand? Since the majority of foreigners in the prefecture use vodafone, her heart’s set on getting one as well – fine with me, since as I’ve written before, I’m an official Voda-whore Panda. Although, to be honest, I was a little nervous going back, having switched to docomo a while back (it was traumatic having to break the news to the manager of the vodafone shop – he seemed so crestfallen!). But whatever, phones are phones and I’ll take any excuse to go gaze at new gadgets.
It’s funny how you can sometimes lose perspective living in Japan. See, usually when you sign up for a new contract with a cell phone company, they have a variety of low-priced to free phones you can choose from. Add to that the standard so-called “discount” ubiquitous at virtually all Japanese electronics retailers – (the process invariably goes like this: salesman/woman takes the item and types the labelled price into a big digit calculator seemingly produced from thin air. Then pretends to hemm and hawww, leaning in close with a conspiritorial look on their face and whispers that “just for you, they can give you a very special discount”, then proceeds to type, tap and pound the calculator keys with a frightening ferocity seemingly more appropriate for proving Fermat’s last theorem than subtracting a simple 5%, finally turning the calculator back around towards you, triumphant smile emblazoned across their face, certain that the last 250 yen they took off will seal the deal) – and you generally have a good chance of walking out of the store with a fairly high tech phone with virtually no money out of pocket.
For whatever reason, however, this time around there were no free phones, even with a new contract, and reacting with this news Chr fixed both myself and the saleswoman with a rather baneful stare. I can understand her disappointment – if you’re expecting something to be free and then you suddenly were told you had to pay for it, wouldn’t you be a little irked? But on the other hand, the more I thought about it, the more surprised I became at her reaction – after all, what’s so shocking about being expected to pay for something you get at a store? Back home, one of the primitive bricks that masquerades as a cell phone in the US – a device so big, so clunky and so utterly ugly and featureless it looks like a toy or historical curiousity compared to the super sleek multi-megapixel high tech devices they have here in Japan – would easily cost $200 USD or more, and for something that approached even one-third the feature set of the phones they have here, you would be lucky to pay no more than $700-$800 USD. So the fact that the Chr was so resistant to shelling out what in the end turned out to be $50 USD for a quite beautiful high-spec little cell phone (64K color screen, integrated TV/Radio tuner, memory slot, 64 MBs memory, 1.3 megapixel camera all in a cute and colorful form factor) was to me emblematic of the extreme disconnect with “the real world” people sometimes suffer from after spending too much time in Japan. We have to try and remember that the rest of the world does not work like Japan. I guess this forms the basis of the “reverse-culture shock” we hear about from time to time from people who go back home – expecting it to be as safe as Japan, as easy to get laid (for some people), the public transport to be as convenient, the store clerks to be as nice, whatever. It’s this little bubble, Japan, and it warps the mind and expectations, and to be honest, if we, as foreigners are so vulnerable to reality disconnects even after spending a comparatively short amount of time here, then can we really be surprised at some of the logic-defying things that occasionally come out of Japanese people’s mouths, considering they’ve lived here their whole lives? Perhaps, I suppose, we shouldn’t be so quick to judge them for being “insulated”, as sometimes we have a tendancy to do…
2Pac – Loyal to the Game (feat. 50 Cent/G-Unit)
Eminem – Still a G Thang (Club Remix)
After finishing up at the cell phone place, I headed over to one of my private student’s house for a lesson. I always enjoy teaching this student – to be honest, I’d probably do it for free if I didn’t need the money so badly. The student in question is a doctor of quite some esteem, not only within the prefecture, but within Japan at large. He’s well spoken, well read, and has a rather stunning command of the English language, which often makes me wonder why he needs me, since it’s obvious that having survived a few years working at the National Institute of Health (NIH) back stateside – (site of some of his most fascinating stories, including ones about the early days of AIDs research, when no one knew what the hell was going on, all the western doctors refused to do any AIDs research and more than a few scientists accidentally contracted the virus from broken test tubes filled with contaminated blood (driving home the point raised a few years earlier when I was working in the lab back in university and they gave you the grave faced centrifuge-safety-spiel: “be extremely careful when handling test tubes in the centrifuge, especially when putting them in or taking them out as there’s a chance they could shatter and cause a laceration” – though of course the verision I received didn’t end with “- and you’ll contract a lethal virus and DIE“)) – his English ability is as close to fluent as raised-in-Japan Japanese get.
Despite questioning why he bothers taking lessons with me, I’m not one to look a gift horse in the mouth and I try and go out of my way to accomodate his sometimes crowded schedule, such as the fact that I’m spending my Sunday evening biking up the top of a rather steep hill to give a private lesson when all I want to do is go home and have a lazy night in front of the TV. I do this because as I said, he’s a fascinating and interesting person I’d talk to even if I wasn’t getting paid (which is an extremely rare sentiment in the bottom-feeding world of English tutoring) and also because he feeds me.
Well not like a full course meal or anything of course, but he always has a cup of tea and a variety of delicious seasonal snacks waiting on the table when I enter. Those little touches really help the time fly by, and also, being a doctor, his financial means – and consequently the quality of his table fare – are of a substantially different nature than mine. This particular day our tea was accompanied by freshly washed cherries. Now cherries (like all fruit) are expensive enough in this country, but, it was explained to me, these particular cherries were of the satonishiki variety, grown only in the highlands of yamagata-ken and ringing in at a stunning 300 yen or more (~$3 USD) a piece…! (though this site lists them as 1000 yen/cherry, for some reason. I can only assume there’s different varietals). It’s a safe bet to say that ne’er hast a $15 bowl of cherries ever passed before my eyes before in my life (and I doubt they ever will again), so I graciously partook of his generosity and proceeded to devour them with a relish that only the impoverished possess when illicitly sampling the mana of the Bourgeoisie. (there were a lot of confused words in that sentence, yeah?).
Anyway, not being a fruit snob I can’t really compare objectively, but I will say that they were incredibly delicious – flesh firm and taut, healthy sheen, succulent, juicy, flavourful interior. But still, I don’t really know how any fruit can be worth $3 a piece. Except maybe a pineapple. Because it’s big. And has spikes.
Yeah. I’d pay $3 for spiked fruit.
Paul Oakenfold – Eugina 2000 (Progressive Summer Mix)
Needing to eat and being too lazy to cook (despite my desire for tacos, I just couldn’t be arsed to go to the grocery store, get all the ingredients, go home and prepare everything) I met up with Starbucks Girl and headed over to a friend’s restaurant.
Aforementioned restaurant. It reads “French and Italian Bistro” which handily describes 85% of Japanese restaurants out there, serving some vaguely defined genre of “fusion cooking” that consists primarily of pasta (done in the Japanese style, don’t be fooled!) with some quasi-french touches (generally in the bread department). Olive, though, does it better than most and the atmosphere – and owner – make for a lovely dining experience!
Our friend and proud proprieter, mugging for the camera. Quite the lady’s man, and lately taken to random bursts of English (generally taken off of Japanese T-shirts which heaven knows is hardly the place to try and take your language cues from) which make everyone laugh and his wife turn red from embarassement.
The lovely Kasumi models Starbucks Girl’s handmade handbag. We think she should start her own line!
Hide proudly shows off his restaurant’s mention in a local magazine. I inquire about the dish on display, since it looks delicious. “Oh that?” he replies in his typical easy going manner – “We don’t actually serve that -I just made that up for the magazine! Doesn’t it look great?”
Perhaps picking up on my dejected face after finding out I couldn’t actually lay hands on the savory dish printed in full mouth watering color on the glossy pages before me, Hide attempts to cheer me up with some of his signature shrimp croquets, which I have to admit worked. It’s a little known fact, but Pandas love croquets, and Hide’s is some of the best I’ve ever had in my life.
Back when I was in Madison, I used to date a girl who made the most delicious croquets in the world. I mean, seriously delicious – not too greasy, not too dry, – everything just right… It’s sounds stupid to say, especially in this day and age, but there was something deeply fascinating about that – never had I met a person who was such an outstanding cook – who loved to cook for others, derived pleasure from seeing others eat something they had made. Or, perhaps I should say, I have known such people in the past, but a lot of what they made was too elaborate – too highbrow – for everyday consumption. Like the droolworthy dish gracing the tourist mag in the picture above – great and wonderful when you have it, but it’s not like you’ll be having it everyday. And while Kuniko embodied all those attributes of the more fanciful chefs out there, the food she made was imminently accessible – everyday comfort-type stuff that ultimately left me depressed whenever I had to partake of the non-Kuniko-made versions.
I remember she had the most beautiful, impeccably maintained french-manicured fingernails. I’d watch them everytime we ate, little streaks of white flashing back and forth as her hands moved, tiny pearly edges hinting out from her hand wrapped around a pencil when we would do our homework together, this little two-stepped click-pschttttt when she typed – the nail striking the keys first, then sliding up and off the smooth surface into the space between each key as the finger pad came in contact and depressed each key, repeated over and over again in an undulating staccato rhythm interrupted by moments, pauses punctuated by a slight pursing of her lips as she’d reconsider a word, hesitant tap-tapping on the backspace, then a resumption of patterned drumbeats, nails glinting yellow streaking off of sparkling white undercoat tracing lazy liquid light beams of reflected lamplight.
Kuniko went back to Japan at the end of the summer between my sophmore and junior year and after a few e-mails, I never heard from her again. The last e-mail I ever got from her – and I realize this sounds utterly cheesy and sappy – was her croquet recipe. I had often asked her for it – especially when I found out she was leaving – but she always refused to give it to me – it was our game of sorts. I think it’s because she liked forcing me to ask her to make them, or maybe it’s because she saw how utterly useless I was in the kitchen, (I tell you, you spill hot oil and melt a plastic cutting board just once…! and you’ve got a reputation for life)… I don’t know. Maybe I sensed a finality of sorts in it – the message was all in Japanese whereas before she always made a point of trying to practice her written English – I remember feeling unsettled about it – I wrote her back, tried to start out pleasant, beat around the bush, but finally laying down that one question that was in the back of my mind: Why’d you send me that recipe now?
She never wrote back, despite my repeated attempts to contact her – e-mails, letters, cards – though I never did call her, maybe sensing it was a line I shouldn’t cross – with letters you could always pretend the the address was wrong, with e-mail that maybe the junk mail filter got it or the mailbox was full – sometimes ignorance is bliss or something, you know, the cursory suspension of belief, the subtle solace we can derive from perpetuating a mutual fiction without forcing a reconciliation with reality to the fore – but with a phone call, there’s no thing but a headlong collision with fact, whichever way it happens to fall. I even sent her a couple of letters every time I came to Japan – this last time included – but I never receive anything back – not even a returned letter stamped “no such person at this address”. Just the silence of not knowing and wondering, which is perhaps worse.
There are only a few people in this life whom I’m ever regretted losing and she was one of them. I know it’s stupid – in reality it was not much more than a summer fling – I’ve met enough exchange students – and been an exchange student before – to know it’s always tempting to have a bit of fun – no strings attached – when you’re over somewhere on the otherside of the world and nobody knows you. It’s part of that unspoken convenant and in the end you have to let it go, to read into that last e-mail, that croquet recipe spelled out in loving, meticulously worded Japanese – ever considerate, she even took the time to carefully write in the readings for the more difficult kanji in parends after the phrase – and just drop it – never send another message, never write another letter.
To this day though, I still sometimes wonder where she is, what she’s doing, if she’s married, who the lucky guy is who gets to eat those delicious croquets and watch those beautiful flashing french manicures weave scintillating light patterns in the yellow glow of dim lamplight – not in an obsessive way, but in a deeply sad and profound way – brushing up against that tenuous web of fragile human interconnection I’ve written about before – the “what ifs” and the reflective nature that anyone who’s ever lost contact with someone overseas with is intimately familiar with – the snipping of a single thread in that web of human relationships and one day you know someone and the next day you realize you will never see them again and it’s not so much the loss of the frienship as it is the suddenness and abruptness of the cessation that is striking.
The older I get, the dimmer the memories become, the peripheries of clear recollection shifting along the tickertape bylines of our life like a polymerase creeping down a fragile strand of DNA and the clarity of recent years begins to overshine the rapidly graying images of even my college days until they are naught but dim suggestions of shadows and blunt outlines in watery black marker, devoid of color and what was once a lump in the throat moving down to a twinge in the heart, and then up to an intellectually significant patch of neurons in the brain, then but a suffused suggestion in the back of the subconcious before finally sinking into the imperceptible thick depths of that murky primordial blackness that lays beyond the farthest boundaries, deep in the realm of the involuntary and unremembered, never to be seen again except perhaps in a bubbled up image or two shooting across still frames of dreams or perhaps triggered, ever so briefly to flit back across the back of retinas, by a delicious fried shrimp and pototo side dish conjured up by a wisecracking hair-gelled restauranteur to appease a customer who just moments before the wave of nostalgia and sadness washed over him, was thinking only of a seafood carpaccio drizzled in savory french sauce.
A beautiful flower arrangement by Hide’s wife, an accomplished florist.
Heading home in the torrential downpouring that accompanies tsuyu – the Japanese rainy season. Against such gale force winds and cloudbursts, it’s best not to even pretend with an umbrella and just lean back and accept your fate.
Utada Hikaru – Hayatochiri (remix)
Death Cab for Cutie – Photobooth
Sasha – Airdrawndagger
Arriving at home, and preparing tomorrow’s bento (lunch box). Being of meager means, as previously stated, tommorrow’s lunch is limited to fried rice, here cooked with the assistance of Mistar Onsen Kumachan, whom we saw laying on my bed earlier in the morning. While ultimately satisfying, Japanese rice does not, in my honest opinion, lend itself as well to the cooking of fried rice as the less sticky, longer grained “chinese” varieties. There’s something about the way it clumps up and refuses to take the egg as well. I dunno.
Winding down for the day, I iron my shirt. I would give my kingdom (or at least the $10 USD I currently have in my wallet) for a proper full sized ironing board – I can’t stand these little tiny “portable” affairs which is all they seem to sell in Japan. You can’t fit a shirt on them, so you’re forced to iron one little bit at a time, and by the time you’re done with one half, the other half is already all wrinkled and frumpy looking again! *sigh*
And finally, checking the colors against the suit. Since I failed to get a tie earlier in the day, it looks like I’ll go tieless tomorrow, which is fine for that “casual professional” look, or perhaps my own personal take on the Japanese notion of “Cool Biz“, though the last time I tried it, I was informed that I “looked like a host”. Depressing, but actually I’m too tired to iron another shirt, and so deciding that the kids will just have to deal with any potential similarity I might bear to the bleached mullet-sporting Japanese denzins of the big city downtown at night, I turn off the iron, brush my teeth and head to bed.
And that, pretty much, is a typical day in the life of panda. Thank you for reading.