Saturday, 26 December 2009

Deck The Love Hotels With KFC Buckets

I just spent my third Christmas in Japan and it still doesn't cease to inspire the occasional shake of the head and utterance of "what the f---". Christmas here is so fundamentally different from what I am accustomed to back home that trying to make sense of it seems as impossible a feat as finding a lost earring on the floor in Forever 21, Harajuku on opening day. I guess the only way for me to tackle it is to get into the three recurring themes that continue to baffle me year after year.

Part 1 - Work

Many of my co-workers bemoaned the fact that they had to work on Christmas Day but that fact didn't bother me at all. Aside from the years I spent in school, I've never had Christmas Day off. My first job was in the call center of a cell phone company in Jamaica, and I had to work on Christmas Day. I didn't work on Christmas Day at two of my four subsequent places of employment - one being the IT department at my college and another being small film production company where the film makers felt like spending the day with their families.

So, working on Christmas Day didn't bug me (so much). The difference is the manner of work.

When I worked at the cell phone company, we got our quarterly bonuses in December, so everyone was in a festive mood at the office. Also, Christmas Day was a casual dress day and the company gave everyone a complimentary bottle of rum cream, which I suppose was to be taken as thanks for working on a day when everyone would rather be elsewhere.

In Japan, December 25 is not a holiday. It's a normal work day and everybody is expected to show up for work, of which I was well aware before coming here and so it didn't bother me at all. Also, the office is quite festive during the weeks leading up to the big day, but not in the same manner as offices in the U.S. or Jamaica.

Come December 1 (or earlier at some companies), every eikaiwa teacher (especially those teaching children) knows the drill. It's all about decorations, making origami Christmas objects or other crafts, reading stories about Santa Claus and sometimes dressing up as Santa Claus. Whereas back in Jamaica, one might work on December 25 in spite of it being Christmas Day, here, as an English teacher at an eikaiwa school, Christmas IS work! Christmas is a Western holiday and the activities we do at work are part of a large effort to tell the story of Christmas to our students. In fact, what we end up doing is sharing the Japanese vision of Christmas in America, with the turkey and the red-and-white-clad Santa Claus. After doing this show for three years, it is not at all shocking to me that quite a few Japanese people (kids especially) have the impression that all people from the West celebrate Christmas in the same way.

I can recall a conversation I had with an adult student about Santa Claus.

Student: I bought my daughter's Christmas present yesterday. I have to hide it until Christmas morning so that she thinks it's from Santa.
Me: Oh? Your children believe in Santa Claus?
S.: Yes they still do. Oh! You're from Jamaica, right? So, what is Santa Claus' costume in Jamaica?
Me: [cringing inwardly] I beg your pardon?
S.: How do Jamaicans imagine Santa Claus' wear? Does he wear swim trunks and sunglasses?
Me: Well....and I can only speak for myself, of course but...when I was a child, I just saw Santa Claus as a character on TV. In fact, until I was about four years old, I thought he was American cartoon character, like Mickey Mouse.
S.: [bewildered] So, you don't believe in Santa Claus in Jamaica?
Me: Now, I can't say that NO CHILD in Jamaica believes in Santa Claus, but I never did. I just always thought it would have been impossible for a fat man to come down a chimney. Besides, Jamaica is a tropical country. We don't have chimneys and fireplaces in our houses.
S.: But, Australians have Santa Claus even though they have Christmas in summer. He comes to Australia on a surf board.
Me: Is that so? Well, I don't know what to say about that, since I'm not Australian, but that surely is interesting.

Part 2 - The Events

How do you know Christmas is coming in Japan? Lights. Christmas illuminations here starting from the end of November herald the coming of one of the big shopping seasons in the country. Elaborate light shows around various shopping malls and train stations (many of which boast large department stores) bring people several miles from home to take them in and then take part in the subsequent bargain-hunting around the surrounding areas. The illuminations usually lift my spirits somewhat (in spite of my inner Grinch) and those that are done well are definitely sights to see.

I recently walked around Ebisu Garden Place and checked out the Baccarat Eternal Lights chandelier that's displayed there every Christmas.

Christmas lights in Ebisu Garden Place

The red carpet leading to the chandelier. Ebisu Garden Place.

Baccarat Eternal Lights

For those of you in Tokyo, the chandelier will be on display until January 11. For a list of Christmas illuminations in Tokyo (some of which might be continuing through January) check out this list.

Another thing you will notice about Christmas in Japan is the ubiquitousness of KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken) here during the season. Somehow, KFC has managed to convince Japan that its chicken is THE traditional Christmas food and thereby has managed to take the lion's share of the fast food market during the Christmas season for a long while. I still marvel at the long lines and the many sold-out lists posted to certain delivery dates leading up to December 25. I went to KFC a few weeks ago because I had forgotten my homemade lunch in the kitchen like an idiot. I went up to the cashier and (to her apparent dismay) ordered two pieces of original chicken and a side of coleslaw. She looked at me disappointed that I was not ordering a Christmas meal. I looked back at her thinking:

Lady, I am from Jamaica. This fast-fried nonsense will never compare to the ham, rice and peas, roast chicken, stuffed fish, sweet potatoes, manish water and sorrel I grew up eating and drinking at Christmastime so hurry up and give me my damn lunch so that I can go back to my office. *kiss teeth*

Christmas lights, thumbs up. Christmas food will be somewhat satisfactorily left to the facilities in my Japanese kitchen.

Part 3 - The Loved Ones

Now, I am the first to say that my family is screwed up. I am related to far too many crazy-ish people living dysfunctional lives to think that I have a snowball's chance in hell of calling my family normal. Still, I liked being with them all at Christmastime. The sorrel always flowed. The ham/chicken was always perfect, as was the rice and peas and my family could always put aside their pettiness for show, especially in the presence of my great-grandmother (who passed away at the grand age of 97 in 2008, R.I.P.). For me, Christmas was the time when my always pensive mother would relax, and laugh and show me how to cook things and how to make sorrel (without rum until I was 18). I didn't feel distant from my distant relatives at that time of year and whether or not I got presents, it was always a happy time for me.

Well, here I am in Japan. I haven't laid eyes on my mother since January 2006 and each Christmas that passes by, I miss her more. For me, Christmas has always been about family, even if it involved snickering at crazy relatives with my mother in some corner of the kitchen or watching animated Christmas specials with my cousin on Christmas Day.

Here, Christmas (especially Christmas Eve) is a time when young couples get together and have a romantic time on the town. Usually, this involves a romantic dinner and a stroll around town looking at Christmas illuminations, capped off with the exchanging of expensive gifts and a stay in a love hotel.

I've never had the Japanese ロマンチッククリスマス (romantic Christmas). My first Christmas in Japan was spent at work thinking about a guy I had met a few weeks before who had gone home for the holidays. By the next Christmas, I was in a relationship with said guy, but he got violently ill with a stomach virus after we had exchanged presents and this year, we spent Christmas night watching old animated Christmas DVDs while I fell asleep on his shoulder after a long day at work.

So, Christmas has been neither here nor home for me during my time in Japan. My boyfriend and I have each other, the makings of a ロマンチッククリスマス in Japan, but without our families, it's just not the same.

Monday, 2 November 2009

On Looking For Love In Japan

Nowadays, I hesitate to talk trash about online dating simply because I met my current boyfriend on the Internet (true story).

This is the wildly romantic story of how we met:

One day, after a few weeks of dealing with my former company going bankrupt, losing my company-leased apartment and subsequently resorting to squatting on my friends' couch tied up in a neat bow with the tragedy of my father's death in the midst of my own misfortunes, I got a message on Facebook. This professional basketball player had found me attractive, wanted to get to know me better, and after a few messages back and forth, wondered if I'd like to come and see him play. I had agreed to go and watch one of his games - I do love basketball, until he informed me that he wanted me to come (with one of my single girlfriends ) and meet him at his hotel the night before the game, spend the night and then go to the game together. I also discovered later that day that he was married with a five year old daughter. I promptly declined his invitation and blocked him from seeing my Facebook profile.

A few days after my exchange with the basketball player, I got another message. A guy living in Tokyo had noticed that we both had listed V.S. Naipaul's A House For Mr. Biswas as one of our favourite books and had thought it remarkable that he managed to find someone else on Facebook who even knew who V.S. Naipaul was. I sent back a snotty reply saying that yes, for someone who's not from the Caribbean, I could see why that would have been remarkable (or something to that effect). I tried my best to use a caustic tone in my message. I was done with assholes contacting me on the Internet looking for easy sex. I had my own problems, after all.

Still, he persisted. He wanted to talk more about how he felt about the book. I eventually decided not to be abrasive anymore and casually asked him about how he got introduced to a Caribbean writer. His mother had recommended the book. Also, he had noticed that I was working for the then ill-fated Nova, and wondered if I were planning to leave Japan. I casually replied, telling him my whole sad story of being unemployed and evicted. He never trawls the Internet looking for dates, but he wanted to meet me. I relented and after a few postponements due to my then part time job's crazy schedule and menstrual cramps, we eventually met, exchanged phone numbers, went on a few more dates, talked incessantly on the phone, fell in love and are now living happily ever after spending our weekends together playing Mario Kart, discussing politics and books, cooking, watching movies and occasionally going to museums.
So I can't say that looking for love via some medium or other that doesn't involve meeting people in person at the outset never works.

Being an English-speaking ex-pat in Kanto, I read Metropolis (a free magazine which can be found at select locations around Tokyo) regularly and a funny habit I developed when I was a teenager is that I start reading magazines from the back page and work my way to the big articles in the middle. I usually reserve the front pages for reading while commuting or while eating lunch. When I first came to Japan and first discovered Metropolis, the one thing that instantly got me hooked while moving from back to front was the classified ads section, which includes personal ads. Recently, the quality of the articles has changed, but the personal ads have remained entertaining and I admit that this is one of the reasons I keep picking up the magazine wherever I see it.

Here's a sample of what you will find in Metropolis' personal ads pages:

Submissive SJM [single Japanese male]. Cute, sincere and submissive SJM, 30, is looking for a woman who is into or interested in domination. I can be a pet, toy, slave or whatever. I can take humiliation, pain, abuse and more.

Email w/photo. Would you like a young, straight, black male to give you wild night of no-strings fun? It will be our secret. You can call me when you need me. I'd love to see you!

Filmmaker, new to the city, seeks fun! SWM [single white male], 25, seeks SJF [single Japanese female] for fun adventures in the city. Must speak some English, as my Japanese is poor. Love of food, film, and art is a plus. Creative types are very welcome!

Married but good-looking guy. Married JM, 35, seeks discreet partner. I'm good-looking and very friendly. White, Latino or mixed woman preferred.

Anyone in Kanagawa? Japanese Miss Piggie, 37, seeks serious relationship. If you are a gentle Kermit in Kanagawa, then please email her. Serious only.

Deep down I am superficial. Beautiful, sexy JF wants to be spoiled by a single white male, over 30, no children, successful generous gentleman, living anywhere in the world.

Spoil me! Young, hot, energetic European girl wants a sugar daddy to spoil her mind-numbingly!

Two Japanese girls are looking for two Americans or Canadians! We are looking for boyfriends. Let's have a party at an izakaya [Japanese pub] first.

Like I said before, I can't hand down judgement purely because these folks are looking for love (or something like it) by posting personal ads in a magazine. Still, I'm amused by the fact that there are people out there who expect their crazy expectations, which are often based on misinformed notions of race and sex, to be fulfilled by someone reading the personals in a free magazine. All I can say is, good luck to all the love seekers out there and if you happen to be looking for a "casual encounter" don't forget to Rap It Up.

I can't believe I just cited BET.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

A Way In Japan

Right now, I'm reading V.S. Naipaul's A Way In The World, and it's got me hooked. In this book (well, up until the point I've gotten to so far) he's talking about his journey as a Caribbean writer. This book resonates a lot with my own experience.

How can I be prolific without being pretentious? How can I be honest and rational without being abrasive? How can I make a career out of writing while living in a country that doesn't speak the language in which I'm writing while supporting myself (that is me, being a poor black girl from a poor Jamaican family with a mountain of student loan debt) on an income being incurred from a job that does not stimulate me intellectually?

I've asked myself these questions many times trying to justify my staying here.

Trying to justify my staying here, largely in part, to maintain my relationship with my boyfriend. Trying to maintain one of the few relationships I've had my entire life that does not require me to be something I'm not.

Trying to put my life together after many years of tragedy and disappointment, including my first Japanese company going bankrupt along with my father's death in one year, in the midst of me trying to save enough money to help my mother own her own home since she was her twenties.

All I can do is live, is my answer to these questions. Trite as it may sound, all I can do is live, love all (except idiots, pro-life/anti-reproductive choice fundamentalists, racial and sexual hate mongers and war mongers, all of whom I find completely intolerable) and do the best I can.

The best I could do was go on a cruise this weekend. Not a Somewhere Beyond The Sea type cruise. It was one night of a summer-long event around Tokyo Bay wherein revelers could choose to go dressed up in yukata.

At times like these, I think to myself, how can I not love this? How can I not love my life, even if it's a farce?

Then, I think that this is life. This is my life: the stress, the history, the drama and the beauty. Then I allow myself to look at pictures like this:

And I think to myself, when I was taking this picture, I had thought about the boat ride home, that is, home - in Tokyo. Maybe, I'm on of these people who can say:"Jamaica is my country but --- is my hometown."

But for all intents and purposes, Kingston is still my number 1 hometown, especially when I think about music like this:

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Digital Scraps #2 - My top ten for the week of August 24-30

Here are some things that caught my eye on the Internet over the past few weeks.


It's always nice to see another Jamaican soaking up life in the Big Mikan. Be sure to check out Marcus' hilarious mountain party episode on his YouTube page here.

9. posted an entry about 10 mind-boggling meat structures. I would like to have a conversation with some of the people who makes things like this:

Personally, the machine gun one is my favourite. View all the others on Gizmodo's website.

8. A friend of mine posted this article on Facebook. I looked at it and wondered, how many people are going to get fired over this:

Okay. So, I guess some people might be ready to justify this by saying that there aren't many black people in Poland and so Microsoft had to adjust the ad to appeal to Poland's majority demographic. Still, that was just cold. Also, the photo-editing job was just horrible - you can still see the black man's hand there, as well as the Apple laptop on the table. Crappy PR campaigns = signs of the recession?

7. R.I.P. Ted Kennedy.

6. This was my favourite newspaper headline this week just because I work with boisterous children on a daily basis and I often get the urge to run away screaming whenever I happen across a noisy group of rugrats on my days off: More people irked by sounds of kids at play

5. I am a huge Mario Kart fan and when I play I usually get really competitive. This video cracked me up to no end:

4. Bye-bye Taro Aso. The Japanese went to the polls today and the Liberal Democrats conceded after some five decades in power. I wonder what that will mean for foreigner registration?

3. Speaking of politics, our own esteemed prime minister admitted that his government "should have taken the fiscal challenges by the scruff of the neck more vigorously." Well then, why didn't you? I guess it takes a big man to admit when he's made a mistake, right? Right.

2. Wow. Mexico waits to find out if they have the Guiness record for the most people dance to Michael Jackson's "Thriller" simultaneously. Check out the story here.

1. This was just brilliant. The woman just goes straight for the cameraman. I hope he made it out unscathed.

I guess she was just not having that.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Digital Scraps (in no particular order)

Here are some of the things my friends and I have been looking at on the Internet over the past week:


Who wants a pair? I know that women often try to select pants that attract attention to their buns, but I don't think this is the way to go about it.

2. This story from The Guardian interrupted my exuberance over the performance of our athletics team in Berlin:

Student Debra Morolong chalks defiantly on a school blackboard. "Caster always is a winner," she writes. "I am very proud about Caster cause is my best friend. Caster is the champion in 2010."

The classroom has cheap wooden desks lining a bare concrete floor. Paint is peeling off the graffiti-strewn walls beneath a corrugated tin roof. Caster Semenya was just another pupil in this impoverished corner of South Africa until her body propelled her to international glory – and very public humiliation.

Semenya, 18, stormed to victory last week in the women's 800 metres at the world athletics championships in Berlin. But her rags-to-riches journey had been called into question even before the starting gun. The athlete's muscular build, deep voice, facial hair and suddenly improved performances led to a frenzy of speculation that the fastest woman in the world over two laps is, in fact, a man.

Read the rest of the story here.

3. This has been circulating for a while. All I will say is that I hope he's not taking himself too seriously. Further comments might land me in court.

4. This bit on CNN about the 12 most annoying Faceboook updaters includes characters such as The Sympathy-Baiter, The Maddening Obscurist and The Self-Promoter. Check it out here.

5. Melanie Walker rides the Berlin 2009 mascot after winning the women's 400m hurdles gold medal. Classic.

6. So, Barney Frank is at a town hall meeting about health care reform when a woman gets up and asks, "Why do you continue to support a Nazi policy?" A proper dressing down ensues. Absolutely great.

7. Why Do Jamaicans Run So Fast? Before I first clicked on this link, I whispered a little prayer saying, "Please, please don't let it be another foreign made documentary set on the beach with half naked Jamaican children running around and void of interviews with people who are actually articulate." Alas, you can't always get what you want.

8. Well, not a this week thing, but I seriously cannot stand these relationship articles, especially the ones with the lists. 10 Ways To Keep Your Girlfriend From Nagging or Five Tips To Keep Him From Straying. The self-satisfied tone with which these writers ooze this garbage is nauseating. Here's an example of some recent barf-worthy shit.

9. I'll dedicate the final two spots to both of our 100m world champions. Unbelievable run from both Usain Bolt and Shelly Ann Fraser. Here they are again, in case you've been on Mars for the past week.


Monday, 17 August 2009

You Remind Me...

For no particular reason, I started thinking a few days ago about how people's perceptions of us often vastly deviate from reality. I remembered a conversation I had with a girlfriend a few months ago. She had been talking about a time her computer had crashed or something like that, to which I had responded in my most condescending why-do-you-not-know-this voice by going off on a number of troubleshooting techniques. My friend then expressed her shock and what she thought to be my adeptness at understanding computers. "Wow. I had no idea you knew so much about computers," and in the very second after she made that utterance, I had two thoughts.

Thought 1: Is this going to be one of these Well, MY uterus precludes me from having any knowledge of machines moments? (Sadly, too many women I know are guilty of harboring this sentiment.)

Thought 2: This surprises you about me? Who are you? What body-snatching alien civilisation are you from and what have you done with my friend?

Rewind to last June. I'm at work, when I hear the mother of one of my students say to the school manager in Japanese that I look like a model. The manager does the obligatory translation of said comment more for show than for my benefit. I do the obligatory shy laugh, also for show. The parent leaves and then the manager tells me that, yes, I do look like someone who belongs on TV, doing English language programmes for children.

Thought 1: No, woman. I do not look like a model. Go and see an eye doctor.

Thought 2: Yes, English language programmes for kids. That's exactly what I need to do with myself. Put on a weird furry costume and get in front of a camera and act silly, for example:

Often (more often since moving to Japan), I find that I usually fall into one neat category in the lives of people around me. I'm either the Party Friend or the Shopping Friend or the Token Gaijin Friend or, more specifically, the Token Black Gaijin Friend as opposed to just being a friend (common letters, no prefixes). This is not to say that is an experience unique to living as an ex-pat in Japan, but since coming to a place so far away from home in distance and culture, a situation in which making meaningful connections is vastly more difficult, the experience of being categorised in this fashion is a bit more pronounced.

Obviously, we make judgements based on what we see. Unless you're visually challenged, sight is the first way you experience new things so, yes, it stands to reason that we react to people based on the way they look. However, sometimes, the assumptions, categorisations and comparisons get ridiculous. More times than I care to try and count, I've been told that I look like Rihanna and/or Janet Jackson.

Okay, this is me:

Here's Janet Jackson:

And here's Rihanna:

Exactly. Absolutely no resemblance and yet, not only do I resemble these two, but because of said resemblance, I'm expected to be able to sing (which I can't, at least, not well). I asked a few folks about their personal experiences and here's a bit of the discussion that ensued:

Colin: I have been told repeatedly that I look like Quentin Tarantino, and it pisses me off. I hate anyone that says that to me forever.

I dare one of you to point out the resemblance here:

Michaela: I have been told I look like almost anybody. People walk up to me all the time and say, don't I know you? Men and women, so it's not a pick up line. I feel I must have a common face or common energy. When I was about 20 lbs lighter I was compared to Jada Pinkett, but I was 20 lbs. lighter.
L'Oreal: I've been told: Whoopi Goldberg -- mainly Celie and Erika Alexander -- Pam from Living Single.
Helen: Someone almost always tells me I look like a cousin, bff, a girl from school, a brother's ex, etc. of theirs. it makes me wonder...perhaps we do have twins in other parts of the world.
Caroline: Like a lot of jobs in Japan, you have to submit a photo of yourself on your resume. So when my old school received the picture and my data before I arrived, I was told (long after) that my head teacher (who is now a good friend of mine) thought because I was overweight and had a Polish last name that she thought I would be lazy and sloppy...
I suppose that's more a stereotype based on my general physique rather than my face in particular, but, as you can imagine, it saddened me a great deal that people would make that assumption about it, as, I think most people would say, it isn't true...
But anyway, everyone fights against some stereotype, so I suppose I shouldn't be any different...
Marcus: My list: ( in no particular order )
1) Brian McKnight
2) Remy Boyanski
3) The 7up Guy
4) Djmon Honsou

1) This surprised me because I look nothing like Brian McKnight, but a Canadian guy I met swore I resembled him.

2) Remy Boyanski is an M1 fighter who my friend who fights (he's training for UFC) told me I looked like. I guess there's a vague resemblance.

3) I definitely resemble this guy, and I have no qualms about people saying it to me. This happened a lot if I went out on Halloween with no costume. People would be like "Dude! It's the seven up guy!"

4) This happened when I was watching the Colbert report in New York. A stand up comedian warms up the crowd and zeroed in on me. I don't look like Honsou at all, but he was saying I look like an actor. But he started out by asking me if I was an actor (that happens with reasonable frequency) so I didn't feel out of sorts.

Wendi: This is not at all insightful but funny: three or four years ago I walked into a class at [work] on a help shift and these college girls shrieked with glee and "kawaii!"s all over and then told me, "You look you know Dakota Fanning?!" Blue eyes, fair skin, but seriously there's like a 20-year age gap there.
And when I tell some Japanese people I'm American, they respond with, "Wow, you're not even that fat!" I love the "that." Thanks, jerks.
Caroline, I'd be totally pissed if someone made that confession to me. I hope she thinks twice before she makes a snap judgment like that again.
Caroline: Wendi: Not pissed, actually, kind of dismayed...
I don't know if I'm alone in having this perception, but as you get to know people and they becoming friends, as they begin to trust and confide in you about things, it sometimes comes out that they actually do hold stereotypes or other biases/prejudices not against you in particular, but of your "group." It's strange and ironic, I think... For one, why are these people your friends if they hold these notions, and two, how could they continue to keep their obviously inaccurate perceptions? Do we become exceptions to the rule? How does that make sense? We represent a stereotype to people, and at the same time, through the growth of friendship, we break it. And yet the stereotype continues to exist, being directed at other people...
My friend that I mentioned before said that she regretted ever thinking that, and I think that she meant it--she realized that she couldn't make a judgement on an entire "type" of people (fat Polish people) based on her experience with one (one of my predecessors at the school I was working at). So I think she did learn from her err in judgement...but, sadly, I don't think everyone does.
Michaela: Caroline you mention a valid point, you are the exception to the rule. Unfortunately, that's how people see it. "They may say, well, she's (in my case) black, but she's not like the black people on Ricki Lake. So she's different. But the rest of black people are like the ones on Ricki Lake." Each person has to end up proving herself against a stereotype. I don't get to skip the proving stage just because someone debunked a stereotype. Just think if you HAD been lazy and didn't want to do anything, she would have believed her prior judgment. So let's say you are a stellar employee (which you are), but the next one isn't. Then guess what, that stereotype pops right back up and we go back to the beginning. Sad, but true.

Maybe Helen's right and we do have twins in other parts of the world. I just wish the celebrity comparisons didn't come with the expectation that I'll spontaneously break out into song and dance.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

The Company We Keep

A thought ran through my mind a few months after coming here and someone vocalised said thought to me just the other day. The thought was this:

When you live abroad, many of the friendships you form are relationships of convenience.

Which is something I understand - this idea that relationships that may appear to be meaningful on the surface only exist to serve the immediate needs of one or both of the parties involved. I grew up in a family wherein many of the women engaged in long-term, emotionally destructive and physically abusive relationships just because they needed to experience and do several things like (just off the top of my head) living in a home with what they considered necessary material amenities or raising children in a nuclear family.

Now, take that need to cling to people for arbitrary reasons multiply that by the complexities that come with living in a foreign country with completely different social mores than you're accustomed to. Multiply that by the factor of living in a country wherein the official language is not your own and you have a hotbed of fleeting acquaintances with people coming and going in and out of the country or in and out of your immediate circle. I guess you could attribute that phenomenon to the fact that we tend to act differently while living abroad in an attempt to make our ex-pat lives more justifiable. If I were going to live exactly that way I normally do, then why not just stay in my own country where I'd have the comfort of being around people I have much more in common with? For example, where I wasn't before, I have become more open to the possibility of sustaining contact with strangers I meet in nightclubs and bars and while I've met some interesting people in this way, I'm still a little cynical about the depth of any ensuing relationships formed by way of such meetings.

The thing, I've come to realise is simply this: being sort of an introvert, I've always been cautious about getting close to people. This is still the case now, to an extent, but less so because I guess the fear of being all alone here pushed me to cast a wider net, sometimes resulting in the occasional scroll through my phone book wondering, "Huh?" or "Why did I ever exchange numbers with...?" or (even sadder) "Oh, right. She/He's not in Japan anymore."

That said, I must hastily add that not all of my friendships here have been so ephemeral and I still enjoy meeting new and interesting people regularly. I've just noticed that several of the (what I thought were) meaningful friendships I've formed here have startlingly shorter lifespans than what I'm used to and I find that fact a bit unsettling. That's one of the things I'm still getting used to here, having been here for over two years and all and I know I'm not alone in that respect. I asked a some friends to weight in on the topic and here's what some of them had to say:

Caroline :

I think my situation was a lot different than most people coming to Japan. I worked for a company that staffs university English programs, so, though I only worked with a couple of foreigners, 22 foreign teachers lived in the same apartment complex. It was quite a similar atmosphere to a college dormitory, except we were the teachers. So it was easy in that scenario to meet people and make some relationships--some of which I still have, though most of the people I worked with at that time moved to other countries. That was a 3 month contract, and, thereafter, I moved into [a hostel] for 2 months, where I met [several folks I'm currently friends with] a year after I had moved to Japan.
The truth is, I have maintained no friendships (with the exception of my Japanese returnee head teacher) from the year and a half I worked at [an English conversation school]. I do, however, keep in touch and often go out with my students from that school. Now that I've been here for 3 years, I can say that I have made no new friends at all (if you exclude my boyfriend) that don't have something to do with my current group of friends.


My feeling is that living overseas is a pretty unnatural situation that creates friendships that would not otherwise exist. Often that’s a good thing, and often it’s not. You end up talking to a much higher percentage of the people that speak your language, especially if you come here with no ability in the language of your new country, as I did. A lot of these are people who would not attract a second glance from you if you were home. Again, this is both good and bad. You have the luxury of being instantly judgmental when your options for friendships are limitless, and in a way that acts as sort of an inverse limitation, at least for me. But overseas, you tend to give people a longer interview process.
On the bad side, you may end up bound up with people that you soon wish you weren't. You may form relationships with people before learning that in truth, they’re dicks, or insane in some way. This is disappointing. Even more disappointing though, is that probably 90% of friendships that you form while overseas have a shelf life of about 1-2 years. Just when you start to rely on a friendship and get used to that person being around, they're gone. I now ask people how long they're going to be around soon after meeting them, and if their answer is shorter than my cell phone contract, adios potential muchacho.

I can say that I’m lucky enough to be good friends with a few Japanese people, people who call me and want to hang out with me sometimes. They’re sort of a mix of the three types of Japanese friends you can have: the ones that you already had when you came, the ones that you meet at random while you’re here, and people you meet at work/ former students. That’s no mean feat I’m told and it makes it a lot easier to live here. If you stick with the foreigner crowd, you’re going to get fed up and bail before long.

Yasmeen :
I must say that it seemed a lot easier to form friendships while abroad just because of the commonality of language. Whenever I saw a foreigner it was easier to just break into conversation about where they were from, what they were doing in Japan, how long they had been there or were planning to stay, etc, whereas in your home country, there's no real blanket excuse to step up to a random person and start yakking.

Also, because of the odd nature of being abroad and needing to feel a bond or closeness with someone reminding you in the least of your humble beginnings, I feel like I may have gotten attached and felt more of a bond a lot more quickly. There we all were, sharing a unique experience that not everyone can relate to, so when you reconnect with friends that have been through it with you, you just feel all the more close.

All in all, I feel like the friendships I had- even if they were just for a "season" are pretty unforgettable, therefore making them extra special in my friendship book.

That last bit from Yasmeen is enough to abate my cynicism somewhat. Lasting friendships or not, though, living abroad is a really good people-watching exercise:

While jogging, Colin snapped this shot of a guy who unicycles while juggling and wearing a cowboy hat.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Video Killed The Radio Star

"I grew up in White People Land..."

That was a statement made by my boyfriend a few nights ago when we were talking about music videos. We were in the middle of a two or three-hour exchange of music videos we loved as adolescents and that was his response to my showing him Nas' "Hate Me Now" video and asking: "You've never seen this?"

One might be inclined to say that the obvious thing here is the race thing. However, the longer we swapped videos was the more it became evident that, yes, it's the race thing but it's also a whole host of other things including the difference in taste thing and also the six-year age difference thing.

While he was watching heavy metal videos like this on TV...:

...I was just discovering MTV and VH1 thanks to my parents' new satellite dish and on the verge of starting an unhealthy obsession with Michael Jackson.

As much as we would like to discard popular media as incidental, the media we consume tell a story (albeit not the whole story) about us and the way we experience the world. My boyfriend is obviously a real child of the '80s and you know this when you first start talking about movies with him. Understanding the period in which he first became an active consumer makes it easier to understand him, his politics and the way he sees the world outside of America.

My mother grew up listening to music via radio and the loudspeakers of various sound systems in Jamaica. There weren't any showy, egocentric (as she often puts it) music videos. Of course, she spends much of her time bewildered by the musical tastes of my generation.

I now understand my mother's bewilderment when I hear/watch stuff like this on TV:

The hilarious thing is that, as annoying as I find Japanese pop, there are women here my mother's age who list J-pop as their favourite genre of music.

While I was thinking about the topic, I asked some friends what their favourite music videos were. Here are the responses I got:

From Erin (Canada)

From Garreth (Jamaica)

From Channon (U.S.A.)

From Davis (U.S.A.)

From L'Oreal (U.S.A.)

From Nivi (Kenya)

And from me...?

Earlier on in this post I may have given a hint. Here's one of my all-time favourites:

What's yours?

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Odds and Eggs

One thing I've been wondering since moving to Japan: Why is it that my refrigerator's egg holder has room for fourteen eggs when cartons of eggs hold up to ten?

Silly question, I know. I just thought I'd ask.

I haven't updated this blog in a while, so here's a hodgepodge of updates:

1. I went to China early last month. It was a great trip. Lots of great, inexpensive food was consumed and many great, interesting sights were seen. Of course, I went to the Great Wall:

And Tiananmen Square:

And many other places. What still left an impression on me though, was the fact that Chinese people would stop and take pictures of me. Really, I'd be standing at an intersection waiting to cross the street and some strange person would just come up, point a camera in my face, click and walk away. This happened several times every day we were there. My boyfriend thought it was funny. I found the whole experience weird and disconcerting. Annoying too. Why can't I just enjoy my vacation like a normal person instead of making some one's Beijing photo album more interesting by being the odd foreigner? That's one thing about living in Asia that I'm really getting sick of: being the odd foreigner.

2. I went to the One Love Festival in Tokyo a few weeks ago and was once again amazed by the number of Jamaicans living here. Each time I go to the festival though, I ponder the role of our embassy in Tokyo. The one and only time I ever went there, I have to admit, I felt so disappointed. The only (Japanese) staff member at the desk was bewildered at the fact that I was interested in knowing where the embassy is, or where I can find Jamaican-owned/related businesses in Japan.

I didn't come here as a JET or through any ALT programme that was recruiting in Jamaica. I came here working for a company that was recruiting in the U.S., and that company had a dearth of Caribbean nationals working for them in the Tokyo area. Needless to say, despite having met many interesting people from all around the world, and having formed many interesting and meaningful friendships, during my first year here I still felt very much alone. I guess I just wish that our embassy would look like it functioned as more than a branch of the Jamaica Tourist Board.

Anyway, the festival was fun. I met some great people, ate some good food (yes, I'm always eating these days) and jammed to some good music.

3. I haven't been writing as much as I'd like. I've seen so much horrible poetry being posted everywhere on the Internet from Blogger to Facebook and as horrified as I am by the terrible writing, I begrudge these writers their courage. I also see the mountain of praise that terrible writing attracts sometimes and I am scared to death that things I've written and received tons of accolades for in the past were actually glorious crap.

In order to remedy all of that, I decided to help a friend start a writing circle. We'll see how that goes. If there are any writers in the Tokyo area reading this, drop me a line if you're interested in joining.

Okay, back to listening to this week's This American Life.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

A tale of the phallus in two cities

The other day, while I was talking to my mother over the phone, she told me about a radio talk show host's discussion about the statues at Emancipation Park. Again.

Ever since the statues were unveiled, the [then PNP] government and the National Housing Trust (the group responsible for the project) have been the subject of some vicious criticism. One website even called the statues "pornographic". And why?

Personally, I think it's just because of the penis.

I don't think I'm reaching with that statement. Before I left Jamaica in August 2002, all anybody talked about was how big the penis is - how grotesque this naked male form is (especially next door to the posh Liguanea Club and across the street from the Hilton Kingston, the Jamaica Pegasus and the Courtleigh Hotel). Never mind the naked female form facing it, the penis is what we should all be concerned about for the sake of our children or some such nonsense.

I had long gotten over the nonsensical discussion about Emancipation Park, but when my mother reminded me about it, she did so after commenting on a phallic experience I recently had here in Japan. She marvelled at how Japanese people were not culturally bogged down by archaic, imperialist-imposed morals when it came to the human form. 

Anyway, a few weeks ago, I went to the Kanamara Matsuri, held at a shrine dedicated to a steel penis.

Yes, a steel penis. 

Actually, this steel penis:

So, the story about this steel penis goes like this (basically):

A young woman had a demon inhabiting her vagina. Each time she got married, however, the demon would bite off the penis of the groom. One day, a priest built a steel penis which tricked the demon into biting it, thereby breaking off its teeth.

I found this festival hilarious/amusing/shocking/interesting. I cannot really comment on it further than saying how refreshing it was to be in a place where people didn't have these stringent (and hypocritical) hang-ups when it comes to the human form. What I will do for the remainder of this post, though, is let the pictures speak for themselves (with a few captions).

The usual Japanese festival fare: stalls selling various food items including, but not limited to, yakitori, yakisoba and crepes (and, of course, beer).

One of the mikoshi featuring a black penis.

Another mikoshi featuring a pink penis.

Penis candy for sale at the festival.

Carvings made out of daikon (Japanese radish).

What else can I say? It was an interesting day. Also, if I may add, Jamaican people need to chill regarding the statues at Emancipation Park. Seriously.

P.S. - By the way, for all the readers out there, check out Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra when you have the chance.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

To the next person who mentions Cool Runnings to me

Yes, I am Jamaican.

Yes, I have seen Cool Runnings.

No, I don't like it. In fact, there are few crappy movies that I so fervently despise for their ties to my national identity. Shottas and Rude Boys are close to the top of that list, but I won't get into a discussion about those two films (if you can even call them that) right now. One of the reasons (I suppose the main reason) I hate Cool Runnings so much is not so much the fact that it, like some other popular Hollywood movies, succeeded once again in portraying people from the Caribbean as buffoons. That, I've come to expect from Hollywood films - this idea that we island people only hang out and live "right by di beach, bwoy!"(Half Baked), smoke weed and don't do much else. Cool Runnings has managed to slightly separate itself from the rest by taking a few more ambitious buffoons and placing them in a groundbreaking moment in sporting history.  Inspiring story of these four  with nothing serious going on in their lives, blah blah blah, when in fact, three of the members of the real bobsled team were in the military. The fourth member was a railway engineer.

But, that stuff, the idiotic portrayal of our people as laid-back (read as lazy), not taking life too seriously and not really knowledgeable about the outside world, that's not what really gets to me about this movie. What really annoys me is how ubiquitous it is outside of Jamaica as a frame of reference when talking about Jamaica. I can't count the number of times I've had this conversation since moving to Japan:

Person X (usually a new student): What's your name?
Me: I'm Biankah. And you?
X: My name is ____. Nice to meet you.
Me: Nice to meet you too. Are you from Tokyo/Saitama?
X: Yes/No, etc. Where are you from?
Me: Jamaica.
X: [Did you say] America?
Me: No, no. Jamaica.
X: Where is Jamaica? Africa?
Me: No. It's pretty close to Florida, actually. (I then pull out a world map or atlas.)
X: Ah! Jamaica! I watched the movie Cool Runnings. Do you know [it]?
Me: (wearily) Yes, I've seen it. 
X: I thought it was very interesting.
Me: Really? (I then force a smile, groan inaudibly and mentally put a loaded pistol to my head.)

That's what happens six out of ten times. Since the Beijing Olympics, (thank god), people more often bring up our track and field team in conversation upon hearing where I'm from.  Sadly though, there are still more people who refer to that damned movie, and who honestly believe that it presents a realistic portrayal of life in Jamaica. It makes me sick.

So, to anyone out there who might read this before meeting me in person:



I hate the movie and I don't want to talk about it again.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

On Sleep

Shortly after I started teaching English in Japan (maybe a few months in or so), I conducted an informal poll among a few of my friends. Here's what I asked them:
What's the most popular pastime among your students?
The answer that came back from almost everyone was this:
I was dumbfounded. I was, for as long as I could remember, of the belief that weekends and days off were for pursuing some hobby/interest or the other. People actively did something in their free time, not sleep, I thought. At that point in time, "My hobby is sleeping," was the saddest thing I had ever heard.

Of course, at that point in time, it was still the honeymoon phase of my life here. I had just started living what I considered to be my real adult life (college doesn't count). I had an okay, not too demanding job, a nice apartment and a social life that brought me the very well deserved envy of many of my friends  back home (and some of my friends here too, for that matter).

Then Nova went bankrupt.

That's right. The sort of okay, not too demanding job I had when I first came here was working as a Nova instructor. Sitting in a booth teaching forty-minute lessons was not too physically taxing. Plus, I only had three children's classes per week, so I always had the energy to go out after work and the night before a workday with plenty of energy to spare for my lessons that did not require much preparation. 

But October 26, 2008 came. I was asked by one of my then co-workers what time I was supposed to start working that day. When I replied saying that it was my day off, the relieved response was, "Great. Good thing you weren't up and heading to work since all the schools are closed indefinitely." She had learned this when she got to work and saw the shutters on our school's door closed with a note in Japanese taped to it.

Time to look for another job, and another job I did find about a month later. Now, my days are filled with screaming  kids in the early afternoons and sleepy, demotivated junior high and high school students at night. I started this job working longer hours and commuting farther than before (and for less money).  As if that weren't tiring enough, as of this week my hours are even longer with the extension of the junior high and high school classes.  On Wednesday, I commuted for one hour to work, taught six classes over the course of eight hours and twenty minutes with only half an hour to prepare, commuted for an hour and a half to my train station and finally got to my apartment at about 11:20p.m. That's just a taste of what my work week is like.

Now I understand what it means to look forward to sleeping on the weekends. As I write this post, I'm thinking about how much I'm going to sleep tomorrow, on my day off. I'm imagining the feel of my futon...wait...that's not accurate because nowadays I keep entering a near-comatose state when I sleep. Sometimes I'm in such a deep sleep that not even the sound of my boyfriend's alarm clock, the most obnoxious alarm clock in Tokyo, can wake me up.

Right now, I'm looking forward to not hearing four and five-year-olds screaming, to not looking on in envy while exhausted high school students fall asleep in class and to not feigning interest in gardening for the millionth time. Tomorrow, I will sleep. I will actively enjoy my slumber. And it will be divine.

Thursday, 12 February 2009


Let me begin by explaining the title of this blog. "K-Y" (ケーワイ) is a Japanese slang which is the abbreviation of "kuuki ga yomenai" (空気が読めない), which literally means the "air is not readable." In Japanese, K-Y is used to describe someone who can't read between the lines or can't understand a situation. Basically, what we refer to as "clueless" in English.

I've been in Japan for two years and even though I've gathered up enough knowledge of my surroundings and the culture by way of good old experience, I still feel clueless here sometimes (and this is not only due to my ineptitude with the language), hence the title of the blog.

More and more though, I find myself baffled (most times amused) by the reactions of people back home and friends of mine in the U.S. to some of my experiences here. Maybe my friends are right. Maybe I have been away from home for too long to understand why people would sometimes opt to remain closed to having certain experiences that I take for granted.

The other day I tried fugu (blowfish) for the first time. I don't usually photograph my meals in restaurants,  as many people in Tokyo are in the habit of doing, but since eating fugu is kind of a big deal (the possibility of almost immediate death on account of the poisonous liver) I decided to document the event.  We went to a really nice, reputable restaurant in Ginza, so I was pretty sure I was in no danger of suffering from fugu poisoning. That aside though, it was a first for me, so as soon as the first dish came out, out came my camera.

What you're looking at below is fugu sashimi (thinly sliced, raw fish). It's a pretty bland fish, but with some spicy daikon (Japanese radish) and ponzu (soy sauce with citrus juice), it's  pretty good.

Another fascinating thing about the place was that they had this special sake called "hirezake." "Hire" means fin and zake, of course, is sake. They put some fugu fin in a cup followed by warm sake. Then, they light the drink with a match to stave off the raw smell. It was interesting.  Weird enough for one of my girlfriends in Canada to react to this picture with: "OMG...whatever happened to Jamaican food?!"
What really got to my friends in Jamaica and the U.S. was the following video, which sparked responses such as:

"OMG!!!!! Nassstyyyy"

"I pride myself on being pretty open minded especially when it comes to trying new things in the food department... but that is disgusting."

"Reminds me of Star Trek Klingon food."

"I would have to find the nearest Mcdonalds, KFC or Burger dude..........."

Here's the video. Watch closely; it's only 15 seconds long:

Now, as I watch it again, I'm thinking that I probably would have been tripped out by seeing this had I never come to Japan. Maybe I've become somewhat "asianized" as one of my friends put it. But when it comes to life here, even two years later, I'm still definitely closer to the margins than to the center. More on that later.
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