Frog Storm and Foodie Papa

July 22, 2009

(Originally Published 21/11/2007)

(Originally written 11/18)

There is a very annoying habit among most Japanese people that when they first meet a foreign person they compliment that person on how well he or she speaks Japanese almost before the person can even begin speaking Japanese.  But I’ve never had it as bad as I did yesterday.  Two guys came up to me at school (where they should know better!) and asked me (in English) if we could chat a little bit.  I said sure and we sat down together.

Guy 1 (in English): “So, what’s your name?”
Me (in Japanese): “I’m Quill.”
Guy 2 (in Japanese): “Wow!  Great Japanese!”More...
Normally I just shrug it off when people tell me how skilled I am.  I know I’m not skilled.  It’s ridiculous to tell me how skilled I am because immediately I’m going to start faltering when we get outside the realm of self-introductions.  But this time, all I did was say my name.  How can that even possibly be considered skillful Japanese?  Luckily, I feel confident enough in Japanese that I was able to tell these guys off and ask them not to do that when they meet foreigners.  It’s not only embarassing, it’s really frustrating to hear it over and over again.

Saturday I went to a koto concert in Nishinomiya.  Nishinomiya is an interesting town that feels incredibly open.  My Japanese friends call it a “worker’s town.”  It’s a nice town but there’s really nothing special to see or do there.  It’s about halfway between Kobe and Osaka.  I got to ride the Hankyu line for the first time and it’s pretty nice.  There were three trains travelling side-by-side in the same direction all the way through three stations.  It was pretty cool to look out and watch the people in the other trains as though they were somehow attached to our train.  The koto concert was amazing.  It was a performance by a club from a college in Kobe and they performed in a really nice hall.  There were at least twenty-five members in the club (thirteen performed at one time!) and one shakuhachi player.  There were also two bass koto players (the bass koto has four more strings for a total of seventeen).  The music was really cool and it was so inspiring to watch them all play.  They all got really emotional at the end.  During the senior part of the performance (performances were broken up by class) the bass koto had several bridges snap off during the middle of the song.  They attempted to continue playing but it was really stressful for the poor woman playing the bass koto so they stopped the concert and let her fix everything before they continued.  The poor woman was in tears.  I felt bad because this was her final performance with the group and that must have been really devastating.  I got to fill out a questionnaire they passed out to everyone in the audience and it was fun to figure out the questions in Japanese and write my answers in Japanese too.

Coming back, I walked through Gotenyama and found a cool park on top of a hill that looks out over the river park.  In another park, I ran into two tanuki and we stood staring at each other and not moving for three or four minutes.  I found a vending machine where people can buy 10kg bags of rice.  I also found a traditional Japanese house covered with madly flashing Christmas lights.

Sunday I went to a bunraku performance with some friends in Nipponbashi.  Bunraku is traditional Japanese puppet theater.  The main characters are controlled by three puppeteers – the master controls the head and right hand, another controls the left hand, and the third controls the legs.  Minor characters are controlled by only one puppeteer.  All the puppeteers wear black and only the masters are allowed to show their faces.  It’s amazing how well they disappear while the action is going on and I had to remind myself again and again that there were about twenty guys on stage surrounding all the puppets.  Despite this, the puppets hardly move at all.  The puppets are about half life-size and are quite detailed.  To give you some idea of the complexity of these puppets, the master can bat the puppet’s eyelashes and the lands can open and close and grasp props.  The entire play is chanted by a guy sitting on a special side stage and he performs in tandem with a shamisen player.  The shamisen twangs away while the narrator sings Japanese that most Japanese people can’t understand.  The speech is really antiquated and is made even harder to understand by the way the narrator drones and warbles.  It was four hours long and incredibly hard to stay awake the whole time but overall it was quite enjoyable.  The only Japanese person I know who’s been to see bunraku is my ceramics teacher and he agreed with me that once is enough.

I have had some bad moments this week as well.  When I came to Japan, I expected to encounter some racism, but I never expected to encounter white supremacists.

(Originally written 11/19)

What is the proper response to hate?  Last night I met an entirely disgusting person and found myself consumed with rage.

I sat down at the dinner table next to this guy who was watching CNN.   I don’t really know him but I see him around the dorm every now and then and he’s always smirking and giggling.  I figured he just found the world humorous and it didn’t really bother me.  However, while watching the news, he started making more and more disgusting comments.  First he talked about how Hillary Clinton and Rosie O’Donnell should go start their own country of women.  Later he laughed when CNN showed a story of vigilante justice in Texas where a man shot and killed two people who were breaking into his neighbor’s house.  After that, the presidential debates came on and he asked me who I liked best.  I told him that I liked Bill Richardson but not very many people know of him so he’s probably not going to go very far in the race.  He asked me who that was and I told him it was the Hispanic guy from New Mexico.

Him (snidely): Oh, well, I think the president of the United States should be an American.
Me: What?  He is an American.
Him: Yeah, I know.  But you know what I’m talking about.  I think he should look like an American.
Me: What does an American look like?
Him: White. *chuckles*
I was shocked.
Me (incredulous): Do you seriously believe that?
Him: Yes, of course.
Me: Wow, I’ve never heard anything so racist.  That’s really kind of revolting.
Him: Racist?  I’m not racist.  I just don’t think a Mexican should be president of our country.
Me: Do you know what racist means?  Racism means treating other people differently purely on the basis of their race.
Him: Oh, well, if you want to define it that way, I guess I am racist. *smirks*
Me: I’m sorry.  I’m utterly disgusted.  I have to go sit at another table.

I was trembling.  My nerves stood out and I quietly choked down the rest of my sandwich by myself.  Another guy came over to ask me if I was okay and I told him that I was just really angry because I’d had an unappealing encounter with a racist bigot.  I told him what had happened and he laughed and said, “Well, that doesn’t really make him racist, does it?  As long as he’s not actively hating and being violent towards other races he’s not racist, right?”

I couldn’t believe it. Sometimes the world really bothers me.

Things I have discovered:

I find sanctitude in libraries.  Libraries are warm, quiet – womb-like.  Books are a safe world where I can be god for awhile.
I prefer staying home to going out.  I prefer cooking over eating.  I don’t enjoy eating and drinking to excess.  I’m happier being quiet with a small group than loud with a big group.  I often end up doing the things I don’t prefer anyway.

You can buy cans of spicy tomato soup from vending machines.  It comes out hot and the picture of the habanero on the can has a jack-o-lantern face.  Vending machines change with the seasons and most vending machines have hot and cold versions of the same drinks.  Some vending machines allow you to adjust the sweetness and amount of milk in your coffee.  If you walk a block or two you can find the same drink in a different vending machine for a cheaper price.

People who have never experienced something are usually the first to offer advice to others about what to do when that situation arises.

Overall, this week I’ve been pensive, reflective, and slightly depressed.  But it hasn’t been a bad week.  I’ve got another exciting weekend coming up and I’ve got tons of homework including two papers due soon that I haven’t yet started.  Gotta go do some research.


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