Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The New and the Familiar

Before I start, I have to say that one subtle interesting thing that I've noticed from traveling to different cities is how different birds seem to pervade each city. While New Haven doesn't seem to have too many birds, New York is filled with pigeons and sparrows. Seoul has magpies, and Tokyo seems to have quite a few ravens (or crows?) whose call has started to become very distinct to me.

So I've survived my first week in Japan! It's funny because since it's my first time doing a Light Fellowship in a second country, there's an uncanny yet familiar feeling to everything. As Japan and Korea (and China) have been in contact for thousands of years, there's clearly a lot of cultural overlap. The busy gait of all the people matched with the modern development of the cities since World War II, the traditional and somewhat awe-inspiring atmosphere you feel when you walk into a temple or pass by a traditional household in the middle of the crowded city, there's a lot that's familiar. Even for the grammar and vocabulary, I mix up the two a lot since they're so similar from the heavy contact with each other and with China.

But of course, as you continue to experience things, you begin to notice the difference. Of course, I've only been here for a week, but already differences are creeping up. Apart from the notable price differences (I still cannot wrap my head around the fact that there is a coin that is worth about 6 US dollars) and food differences (I've definitely been missing the spicy food I'm used to), it's interesting how general personality differs too. Before coming here, I was worried my host family would secretly hate me because of whatever habits I have but wouldn't let me know and just stew behind my back, as I've heard from some people and read on some blogs that Japanese people will say yes when they mean no. Koreans on the other hand will not hesitate to tell you if you've gained weight, are dressed badly, or act strangely. However, I had the luck of having a host mother who is used to hosting foreign students.

I've gotten along very well with my host mother, Naoko, and have had a decent conversation with her almost every day. Not only is it great speaking practice for me (and I've learned many random food names when I help her shop for groceries), but it's also been really interesting to learn more about her and her family. I asked her why she decided to host students and she told me that as her mom had done it, she was very used to it in the household. Including me, she's had three host children now--a German high school student, an Australian high school student, and me. As if she were addressing my concerns about my displeasing her, she mentioned how a lot of Japanese people abide by 我慢 gaman (patience, funnily in Chinese it's, albeit ungrammatical, "I am slow"). She mentioned however, that she is a bit different from other Japanese people in that she will voice concerns, as she did with her Australian student. Apparently, this student not only never wanted to go to school, but didn't even want to leave her room, despite the places that Naoko would plan out. She also had rude manners like putting her feet up on the table and taking two hour showers both day AND night! Imagine that! Despite asking her to not take as long showers and to not put her feet on the table, she still continued. What an experience that must have been! She said that had this student been her first homestay experience and not the German student (who was polite), she might not have continued doing homestays.

Lucky for me, she did, because she is the best host mom I could ask for. Living with a host family is also a new experience for me. I have to say that I worried at first about whether I would have manners that annoyed my host family or whether they would have strict rules about when I had to be home, but Naoko relieved all my worries when I first met her. She was super sweet and, having a 22 year old son of her own (so my age, and funny enough, only 12 days older!), she's probably been conditioned to allow me enough freedom. Her cooking is also so delicious that I look forward to dinner every day! Also, one of her hobbies is confectionary making. Food heaven! And as I've mentioned, it's always fun to talk to her and her husband (though he's not home as often). It's also refreshing for me to see Naoko's uniqueness in the design of her house, especially given how I've noticed that almost everybody I see on the streets dress the same, with the exception of a few people who are REALLY out there. There doesn't seem to be much of an in between. Naoko's house is pink, pink, and more pink (pictures to follow). The outside of the house is all pink and the inside of the living room is all pink with pink furniture, a pink kitchen, and a bunch of pink utensils and appliances, some of which she ordered on ebay from America since she couldn't find them in Japan. Her bedroom is also full of pink. It's a bizarre obsession, but very cool!
Pink outside (turtles will be explained shortly).
Pink kitchen, appliances, utensils.
Pink living room.
My yummy dinner today. I think she's literally made cuisine from a different country each night.
Two halves of a feast she prepared for a coworker dinner. Sooo delicious and diverse!
An awesome Darth Vader cake she made for a Star Wars fan.

To add to her bizarre/awesomeness, she has four turtles, named Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello, and Michelangelo. Yay for childhood show references! Leonardo is the youngest but also the largest by far. He's about a foot and a half by a foot big I'd say. Maybe bigger!
"Leo-chan" being fed by Naoko.

I've gotta say that my commute is very convenient too. No transfers, which cuts down a lot of money (I don't understand why transfers mean you basically pay twice, or three times, or four times, etc. as much!), and it's a comfortable 30 minute ride on which I've always gotten a seat. 運がいいねえ〜

In regards to the rest of my life here, it's been a lot of fun hanging out and getting to know everyone. My main crew seems to consist of Rewon, Eunbi, and Somin (which Rewon has affectionately dubbed "The Korean Trifecta+1" due to the fact that Eunbi, Somin, and I speak about Korean and Korea wayyy too much in relation to our Japanese learning/to Japan), and often Gabe, Randy, and Colby as well. Hopefully I'll get to know the rest of the kids too but it's a bit hard because while our whole group is smallish, it's too large for us to move around efficiently!

This weekend was a fun combination of Korean dining, almost being charged for banchan (Korean side dishes, which are free in Korea, but in Japan, it's not, but they didn't even tell us we would be charged if we ate it!!!), drinking makkeoli (Korean rice wine), half considering pulling an all-nighter to go to Roppongi, deciding not to and taking the last train back (Tokyo subway closes around 12:00-12:30 and it is a madhouse--worse than the morning commute!), karaoke the next day with some of the Japanese language partners, once again taking the last train and cutting it even closer to our limit! That was a mouthful, but some of the other fellows have already written about it plenty so I won't repeat the same things ;).
Karaoke fun times.

In relation to another familiar thing, I've so far met two friends I studied with in Korea! Yesterday I went to Tsukiji with Yukiko, her husband Justin (who was her boyfriend at the time I was in Korea), and Yukiko's friend Noriko who also studied at Sogang. What a surreal but awesome feeling to be meeting someone you met in a different country in yet another different country! Catching up was fun but sadly brief, as she and Justin would be taking a plane flight to Korea the next day. I should be able to see them in the short time I'll be in Korea though!
Tsukiji seafood. So fresh!
The newlyweds!

Today, I introduced my Yale buddies to Chihiro, who I also studied with at Sogang. We wandered Harajuku (sadly didn't see any of the famed Harajuku girls who are supposed to be quite the strange sight!) and then went to see the Meiji Jingu temple, which was quite beautiful under the misty fog. Talking completely in Japanese to Chihiro while tossing a Korean word in here and there was quite the accomplishment and really cool! I look forward to seeing my other Sogang buddies around Japan :D.
Chihiro at the far left! Everyone else is the crew :D.
Meiji Jingu.
Gabe, Chihiro, Colby, and Randy being silly.

Random picture time:
The famed 無料案内所 , which means "free information booth." I heard about these from Kana's Korean friend who accidentally walked into one when he was in Japan, thinking they were actual information booths! These places are a not so subtly disguised place to go "have some fun" if you get my drift.
I find it ironic that a convenience store called "FamilyMart" advertises liquor (that kanji there being sake "liquor"), sometimes tobacco too, and when you walk in has erotic magazines right out in the open.
Delicious, delicious spicy ramen at a ramen shop near our school.
Tokyo Tower, made to look like an imitation of the Eiffel Tower. Gotta check this out at night!
A cool model of a boat made out of salt, that we saw at the Tobacco and Salt Museum (タバコと塩博物館).
Adorable and TINY poor little kitten that was in my neighborhood. I didn't know if it was stray or someone's pet =[.
In accordance with the "Crazy English" task, this could totally be a postmodern poem. The karaoke place we went to had five different floors named for different "princesses" (Alice, Kaguyahime [the Japanese moon princess], Cinderella, the Little Mermaid, and I'm blanking on the last one). Hopefully we'll come back and see the other amazing writing.
More silly English--words from an addict.

Til next time!

Saturday, June 18, 2011


After a rather comfortable 13 hour flight (more leg room on an economy ride than I've ever experienced), I finally landed in the land of the rising sun. It's funny because I've been to Narita Airport to transfer to go to other countries in Asia so many times yet it was the first time I've actually set foot out into Tokyo! Sorting out the 宅急便 service (which delivers your luggage to where you're staying) and buying a bus ticket for the Shinjuku Washington Hotel was much easier than I thought it would be. I could have sworn I heard them say the ride would be 二十分 (20 minutes), but as I was told by Somin later, that's the distance from Haneda airport. Instead, the ride turned out to be 100 minutes, just about as long as it takes to get from New York to Yale. Quite the challenge trying to stave off sleep.

Well I made it to the hotel, luckily not missing my stop, and after being rerouted twice (the first floor reception was apparently the lobby of the building, while the lobby of the hotel was on the third floor, and I thought the "foreign visitors" desk would have my name from Sun or something, but it turned out I had to go to the front desk anyway), I got into my room without too much trouble. Yay for awesome Level 1/2 Japanese at Yale!

Met up with Somin, had a dinner of ramen, turned in early, and then the orientation today. Already the teaching system seems like it'll be a lot like that of Sogang, which is familiar and awesome! Meeting the teachers, my "buddies" (basically like language partners), and host family was nice. Already feels like a really tight-knit community. My host mom appears to like pink a lot, as the living room is covered in pink, her bedroom's all pink, the sink outside the bathroom is pink, even the toilet paper is pink, and the house's outside is pink as well...I'll be sure to get a picture of the living room some day without seeming too creepy ;).

A cute stitch calendar up in my room.

Also they have four turtles, who are cutely named Michelangelo, Donatello, Leonardo, and Raphael (yay for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reference!). One of them is humongous. I have never seen a turtle that's probably about 1/2 feet by a foot or so. My host mom was going to open the door to the turtles' room to let me see them but the humongous turtle was in the way so we had to give up haha.

They took me to a sushi dinner yum yum with the grandfather coming along as well. He also insisted on speaking to me in English even when I responded in Japanese. Not to mention I got the question of "do you know how to use chopsticks?" He also explained to me that the small dish in front of me was for soy sauce. And that one of the sushi on the conveyor belt was shrimp. Of course it was all in good intent though :).

One thing I couldn't help but do was notice some similarities and differences with Seoul and New York. Immediately, I could sense that there was something familiar in the atmosphere but still alien. Seeing a lot of people wait on the street corner for one thing is something I rarely see anywhere else. Like New York, there are a lot of skyscrapers, but it looks much more modern, like Seoul. A lot of this was due to the fact that I was in Shinjuku though, which is supposed to be a really popular place for people to go. Seeing my host family's home nested in a smaller street definitely brought back memories of Seoul. Oh and the subway system is huge and really intricate. It looks like a denser version of Seoul's subway system or a wrapped up version of that of New York's system.

I'll leave on a note about money. I can already tell that Tokyo is going to be expensive to live in. You know a country's currency is worth a lot when something that's value is similar to the equivalent of about $6 is a coin. Yep that's right, imagine our $5 and $1 bills being coins (and not rare like the dollar coin but the only thing available).

This is almost $10 worth of coins.

Til next time!