Oct 30, 2006

"American boy is COWARD!"

I am pleased to say that after less than a week in Japan, I've already sampled one of this country's most famous and august cultural wonders- I speak, of course, of that subtle and inscrutable art that is known only as "karaoke."
Some of the coworkers invited me out to a Halloween outing this weekend, which was nice since I'd like to make some social connections, and because good 'ol Sam Hain is easily my favorite holiday. I met one of the coworkers at the train station, and we hopped on over to Kurashiki, Okayama's neighboring city which (apparently) has lots more cultural stuff than "Hilly Mountain" (i.e., "Okayama") does. After getting off the train, my coworker opened up her bag and proceeded to thrust a black Dracula style cape at me, "here," she said, "wear this. It's Halloween, after all." She, meanwhile, was applying angel wings and a halo.
"So," I asked, "do they have Halloween in Japan?"
"Not really."
"So we just look like a bunch of eccentric foreigners, then."
"Pretty much."
People seemed to get a kick out of the two nattily-attired gaijin walking down the street. I did my best to make my cape all billowy, with dubious success. We met two more of our party, a fellow company worker and his Japanese girlfriend, at a fairly nice restaurant, and were later joined by two of the Japanese girlfriend's accquaintances. One of them had this highly ambitious Stitch (of Lilo and) costume that was most impressive. The other company worker was dressed up as Ghost Face from the Scream movies, his girlfriend as a catgirl, and the other as a generic princess type.
We socialized for a while, I introduced myself, and after two beers Ghost Face asked me if I wanted to try some sake.
"I think I'm good," I said.
"Well, it's all you can drink," he said. "All you can drink" was a new one for me- like some sort of cirrosous-inducing buffet, this restaurant didn't have per drink prices. It was per head, and you could sling back as much booze as you wanted whist you were there.
"Ok," I said, "one more drink."
(You can probably see where this is going.)
I acquiesed to glass of sake, and thereafter declared myself done drinking. I should have kept my mouth shut, because that instigated a very rapid stream of Japanese from Ghost Face's girlfriend who then pointed at me and loudly proclaimed "American boy is COWARD! COWARD!" (this is from a tiny Japanese woman dressed as a catgirl, by the way) "You drink till you puke!"
"No," I said.
"Yes, you drink till you puke!" I made the mistake of looking to my coworkers for support, but instead they were simply laughing their asses off and ordering more sake. By the time we left the restaurant, I was more than a little buzzed, and we ambled our way down the street to-
A karaoke parlor. Where I decided that it was only right for me to belt out Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody at the top of my lungs. I mean, really, could it have been any other song? Bohemian Rhapsody is the sort of song that jauntily points its finger at you and commands "Sing me!" And of course, you obey. When it comes onto the radio, people everywhere belt out those "momma mias" and "galileo figaros" with a sort of collective unconciuos Jungian gusto only hinted at in Wayne's World.
And you know what? Karaoke is actually a blast. You get a room with your friends, you can order snacks and drinks and stuff, and you all sing your lungs out. I enjoyed myself on an entirely unironic level. Of course, I could also have been enjoying the catgirl-induced intoxication, but I imagine that karaoke would still be a lot of fun sober.
I managed to get home without a problem, which was nice. If I can drunkenly navigate a foreign country's train system and make it home in the middle of the night, I think I can do a lot in life. Or maybe I'm just on my way to becoming some sort of degenerate expat Bukowski wannabe. We'll see.
And I didn't puke. I sobered up at home and felt fine. Take that, catgirl!

Oct 29, 2006

In Which I Begin an Experiment

I've heard from multiple sources that there's a common psychological reaction to travelling and living abroad. Apparently the first few weeks are a totaly honeymoon period, wherein everything seems shiny and new, there's lots of wonderment and awe-struckness, and all that sort of gaping gradiosity. Then, there's a sort of crash after about three weeks or a month or so, where the person becomes horribly homesick, gets really depressed, thinks that everything sucks, and becomes really, really hostile to their host country. After that, things equalize and stuff's normal.
Now, I'm curious to if this is going to happen to me. More to the point, I'm wondering that if I'm cognizant of the process, that will change the process. Thus far, I haven't been in much of a honeymoon period- I've so far just tried to acclimate myself to my job and catch up on sleep. Also, I seem more bewildered than anything.
But- watch this space for my potential wild mood swings! Who knows, maybe I'll start getting way over enthusiastic about things. Or maybe I'll get totally emo. Who knows? It'll be awesome.


After some thirteen hours in the air, I touched down in Japan and didn't even notice. Even as I went through Kansai International's overlong immigration maze, nothing seriously occured to me other than "this is an airport." Airports, of course, are always anonymous, and in this case that masking seemed to extend to nationality as well. When I finally got through immigration, baggage, and all manner of shuttling and walking, I was pleasantly surprised to see a besuited man with a sign that said my name on it. Honestly, I expected to be stranded for some time, sitting there, alone, in an anonymous airport, with my pickup horribly late. Nothing like that at all. He was there, waiting for me, and quite helpful in getting my bags sent to my hotel.
He introduced himself, we made some smalltalk, and he took me to the train station. On the platform was a small food kiosk, and he asked me if I was hungry or wanted a drink. I said sure, and that that particular seaweed looking thing would be great, and I thought about getting some tea.
"How about a beer?" he asked.
"What?" I said dumbly.
"Beer. They sell beer here. You're in Japan now." I remembered knowing that Japan's alcohol and open container laws were far laxer than what I was used to, and had not thought about it until now. "Sure," I said. The beer (which was, surprisingly, actually cold rather than tepid) was less good than what my spoiled Oregonian tastebuds were used to, but much more palatable than something like Pabst or Budweiser. Admittedly, I felt like some sort of wino standing there and drinking on a subway station, especially with the flock of schoolchildren that were next to us. (If it is socially acceptable for normal people to pop a cold one in Japanese train stations, one wonders what the winos are like.)
We boarded the train, beer in hand, and my pickup began to hold forth on all sorts of miscellaneas details such as the legal loopholes of pachinko parlors (Gambling is illegal in Japan. Pachinko parlors get around this detail by not technically giving out money. If you win at pachinko, the machine spits out a given number of small metal balls. You take those balls to a counter, and give them to a clerk who puts them into a hopper and then gives you a requisite number of chips. That's the end of things, legally, at the parlor. However, the owners of the parlor always have a place next door, down the street, or whatever, that "buys" the chips from you. Obviously this flaunts the law, but apparently no one cares.) and Japanese ideas about what's "rural," i.e., what I would consider suburban.
My pickup had to leave at Osaka, and told me to get off in three stops at Okayama. A note on the shinkansen, aka, bullet train: They're not kidding. Those things are fast. Very fast. Amtrak, I'm afraid, is only worthy to grovel in a piteous heap at the feet of the shinkansen, such is their speedy might. We need some of those. A supertrain from San Diego to Vancouver, B.C., would be a fixture of the world that would make me very, very happy.
Another company employee met me at the train station, and took me to one of the two schools that I work at here in Okayama. The one she took me to is considered the "main" school, but I only work there on saturdays. The school seemed nice and clean, if a little lacking in pegagogical decorative bits. The managers and other teachers introduced themselves, and a few of my new coworkers asked me if I wanted to go out with them for drinks. In all honestly, I would have loved to have crashed right there, but I wanted to make a good first impression, so I said yes. They introduced me to the local gaijin bar, run by an Australian guy. My first impression was that it looked pretty much just like any other bar, what with the TVs and beer, though after the fact I thought about what a godsend it could be for foreigners to find a perfectly normal bar in a weird country.
"So," said one of my coworkers after a while, "do you like anime?"
Now, I love anime. Sure, I've seen some that I think is total crap, for the most part I totally geek out over stylishly-haired characters who gleefully violate the laws of physics. Hell, I've been to an anime convention. I went to a weekly social gathering known as "anime night" among my friends (though we didn't always watch anime). But, I certainly didn't want to sound like some pathetic otaku who was in the country because of the cartoons. I hedged.
"I've seen some that I liked quite a bit," I said.
"Like what?" Another coworker bent her head in our direction, joining the conversation.
"Well, I really liked Cowboy Bebop." Cowboy Bebop, I thought, is reasonably hip enough to like without being thought a total geek.
"Yeah, that's a good one. I love anime, and she's nuts about it," he refered to the other coworker. Relief. We proceeded to geek out about why the end of Evangelion was a total botch of a good show. Sometime later, I looked at my watch, did some time zone calculation, and realized that I'd been awake for something like 26 hours. Quite the way to beat the jet lag, it seems.