Tag Archives: Everyday adventures

Reflections

In a few weeks I will have been living in Japan for two full years. This is the longest I have stayed in one place since I was 17. In honour of this anniversary, I thought I would post my reflection on my first year of living in Japan. This post was originally published in the 2012 Welcome edition of the TRAM, Toyama AJET’s magazine/blog. (Side note: I am now an editor of the TRAM. You can check it out here!)

Confusion: My First Year in Japan

When I was asked to write a reflection on my first year in Japan I hesitated a bit. I would love to write an essay about all the things I learned and the epiphanies I experienced. However, the truth is that I really don’t know what happened that year. It whizzed by in a big ball of confusion. I don’t just mean that I was confused; I was like a host for confusion, spreading it around like a virus. Anyone in my vicinity was susceptible.

I managed to confuse the entire school during the fall term’s opening ceremony. I walked up to the microphone and started to deliver my self-introduction flawlessly. Unfortunately, it was the principal’s turn to speak. I had to return to my seat and try again a few minutes later.

Outside of school presented an entire world of bewilderment. In the winter I got influenza and went to the pharmacy to buy a thermometer. I remember standing in a feverish haze, staring at a wall of thermometers, trying to figure out which one went where. Finally, I grabbed a thermometer and approached the till. I mustered up my courage and spat out “Sumimasen… doko?” while miming placing the thermometer in my mouth and underarm. Thankfully the lovely lady at the till stopped me before I had to mime any other potential locations. Still, she looked appropriately horrified a she pointed to her underarm. I thanked her and she rang me up. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall when she went home that night. You will never believe what happened to me at work today . . .

Despite the confusion – or perhaps because of it – I managed to carve out a comfortably strange niche in my school and neighbourhood. The teachers at my school were so kind after I screwed up the opening ceremony that for a few moments I actually believed it could have happened to anyone. My students were a bit more skeptical of my brand of weirdness, but I was able to win over most of them within a few conversations about K-pop or soccer. As for the pharmacy, every time I return the clerk gives me a huge smile and slips some freebies into my bag. We are basically BFF.

I would like to say that I make fewer blunders now that my Japanese is improving. However, I recently learned that I have been confusing the Japanese words for “girlfriend” and “subway” every time I used them. (No, they sound nothing alike.) So I am sure that this next year will bring with it many more grim “Meagan in Japan” stories. So it goes.

20130628-142422.jpg

One the one hand, taking this picture suggests that I have embraced the “cute” culture in Japan. On the other hand, I still think that seeing 4 oversized Poohs on the side of the road is strange enough to merit a photo op. I think we can agree that I have not yet fully assimilated.

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Méli-Mélo

Right off the bat, I will start by saying this post has no clear goal.  I certainly am not planning it out before I write it,sorry.  What can I say? It is hot.  When the temperature goes above 25 degrees, my brain goes on summer holiday.

So, life in Toyama right now is moving along.  I have been in Japan for almost a year now.  Soon there will be a new crop of people arriving in Toyama and I will be one of the experienced folks, who supposedly know the ropes. Ha!

But anyhow, I have been planning a trip to climb Mount Fuji. The planning has hit a few hurdles, but we seem to be progressing well now. However, when I was talking to a Japanese friend about this trip she looked at me with concern and told me that “Mount Fuji is not safe right now.”  (I am not abusing the quotation marks; those were her exact words.) She proceeded to explain that last year’s earthquake left a large crack in Mount Fuji.  This concerned me.  After all, large cracks in volcanoes are not to be treated lightly.

So I went home and got my Google on and found out that the crack is really no big deal. It is not related to volcanic activity and is really nothing to be stressed about.  (Read the article here if you don’t believe me.)

However, in my research, I also found this article, about the installation of new toilets at the 5th Station on Mount Fuji.  This is great news, as I hear the bathrooms at the 5th station were in serious need of upgrading. However, let’s pay special attention to this part:

The facility, built at the fifth station of the Fuji-Yoshida mountaineering route on the Yamanashi Prefecture side of the mountain, reopened to the public Friday following a ceremony to mark the completion of the work, a Yamanashi prefectural government official said.

Remember how I wrote about the opening ceremony in Japan?  I bet you didn’t believe me when I said that they happen all the time, did you? Well, officials held an opening ceremony for NEW TOILETS.  I do not want to undermine the importance of sanitation, but REALLY?

Anyhow, my school held closing ceremonies for the spring term on Friday.  That means it is summer vacation now. Although, it must be said that it is summer vacation in name only.  My first and second year students will still be at school most days for club activities and my third years will be here studying all summer. That, of course, means that teachers in Japan work all summer as well.  I cannot complain though, I am saving my vacation days for a fantastic adventure in December.  (Spoiler: it involves finding out whether or not Santa can find me in Thailand. I have faith in him.)

Oh, and I wrote a short write-up on my visit to the Space Science Museum in Hakui, Japan.  You can read about the museum at the TRAM, Toyama AJET’s magazine.

Hopefully I will write more often this summer. I will try anyhow.  No promises though.  After all, it is hot and my brain does not know the difference between “summer vacation” in Canada and “summer vacation” in Japan.

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Have you flashed anyone today?

Ah, the opening ceremony….

The Japanese hold opening ceremonies much the same way that Canadians throw around apologies. They happen all the time, regardless of whether or not they are actually required.  Some are elaborate and a bit over the top, the way you would apologise for kicking someone’s baby; some are quick and nonchalant, the way you would apologise for bumping someone’s elbow in a crowded subway.  The ceremony is something that is completely natural in Japan but can feel  a bit awkward for those of us who are new to the custom. But you get used to it. I’ve been in Japan for just 6 weeks and I’ve witnessed or participated in more opening ceremonies then I can count.

I made it through the opening ceremony at my school without any major embarrassments. I mean, I didn’t set myself on fire or anything.  That’s not to say there were no, ahem, incidents.

I had to make a self introduction speech to the students and staff. It was entirely in Japanese and it was very simple. Basically I said: Hello everyone and nice to meet you all.  My name is Meagan Connor but please call me Meagan.  I am from Kingston, Canada.  Canada is famous for Anne of Green Gables. Maybe you know her?  My hobby is photography.  My Japanese is not very good but I am studying to learn. Let’s have fun in class together! Please look favourably upon me. (Ok, that last bit is from a Japanese phrase that’s really hard to translate but you say when you meet new people.)

The speech was short and simple, but there were enough vocabulary words that I felt I had plenty of opportunities to screw it up and deeply offend someone.  I was pretty nervous.  Anyhow, one of the teachers gave me a schedule for the assembly and told me step-by-step what would be happening and when I would be speaking.  It was a very kind gesture and I was so grateful for his help.

When we got to the gym for the assembly I took off my shoes and was going to go barefoot, since that’s what all the other teachers were doing and I had confirmed the day before that would be ok.  However, upon seeing my sock feet one of the teachers hustled over to me to give me a pair of slippers. These are the one-size-fits all slippers that are all over Japan for situations when you don’t have your own indoor (or, in this case, gym) shoes.  Most westerners complain that they are too small. Yeah, well, I bet those people can also reach the top shelves in their kitchens. Show offs.

I shuffled into the gym in my oversized slippers and I followed another teacher to the front, where I was instructed to sit in the lone chair in front of the stage. So I sat, while everyone else in the room stood.  Eventually someone started speaking into a microphone and then the room fell completely silent.  It stayed silent for a few seconds before another teacher whispered “Meagan, now.” I slowly shuffled up the stairs, being careful no to fling my slipper into the audience.  I walked up to the podium and started speaking into the microphone. I have to tell you, I killed the first few lines of my speech. I completely rocked it. I had confidence, style, and perfect pronunciation.  I didn’t even need to look at my paper, which was good. If I had been looking at my paper, I might not have noticed the strange looks on everyone’s faces.  Or the teacher who was rushing up to the stage with a modest, but undeniably horrified look on her face.

Oh. No. What have I done? What did I say? Is my zipper undone? No, I’m wearing a skirt. IS MY SKIRT TUCKED INTO MY UNDERWEAR?  Panic.  How do I check if my skirt is tucked into my underwear without drawing further attention to myself. 

Finally, after the longest and most panic-stricken interior monolog  ever, my co-teacher  made it up to the stage.  “Meagan, first the principal will speak. Then it will be your turn. Please sit in that chair on the stage and wait.”  Oh. Well, that’s embarrassing,

I sat in the chair as the principal spoke and a calm washed over me.  That had been bad, but could have been so much worse.  When the principal finished he gestured for me to come up to the podium. I gave my speech, somewhat less enthusiastically the second time, but I made it through without flashing anyone. Which, I decided later, is a mark of success in its own right.

I have been teaching now for two full weeks. I’m still getting used to team-teaching and it takes me hours to mark essays that should probably take me minutes. But I have yet to flash any students. Or co-workers, for that matter. Success!

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Things I did this week, in no particular order:

  • Observed the grim reaper as he wrote a placement test, restlessly swinging his scythe back and forth.
  • Taught an official “how to trick-or-treat” lesson.
  • Ate live octopus (you have to chew a lot or else it will stick to your throat on the way down.)
  • Sang the most awkward noraebang duet of my life. (“You’re Just to Good to be True,” accompanied by my school’s other foreign teacher, after we were peer pressured by the Korean staff.  We did, however, recieve a perfect score.)
  • Remembered how hyper children can become just by thinking about candy.
  • Celebrated the return of frosty weather by breaking out the alligator mittens.
  • Looked ridiculous awesome while zip-lining through the trees.

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The doctor will sea you now . . .


A visit to Dr. Fish

Originally uploaded by meaganconnor

It’s about 4:00 in the afternoon on a sunny day in March. I’m sitting at a cafe in Seoul with a few friends while we relax and recover from a somewhat exhausting bike ride. Fish nibble at my feet. What?

A common Asian massage involves soaking your feet in a tub of water while little fish eat away the dead skin. In Korea it’s called “Dr. Fish” and you don’t have to go to a spa to have the experience. As I mentioned, I had my fish massage at a cafe in Seoul.

I had read other people’s accounts of the experience and mostly they say that it “tickles.” Allow me the set the record straight, because I don’t think that “tickles” tells the whole story. Have you ever been swimming in a lake and had a fish brush against your foot or your leg? Well it feels like that. Except that then the fish bites you a little bit. Not hard, and not with teeth, but you definitely feel it bite your foot, and it continues biting repeatedly for several minutes. Now imagine that same experience but substitute the one fish with fifty fish.

They're hungry!

I’m not trying to write a horror story, because the situation was not at all scary. It did, however, require some getting used to. The first time I put my feet in the water and felt the fish I panicked and took my feet right out. However, after a little while I did get used to it and at the end my feet felt pretty nice.

Now, there are some pretty clear hygiene concerns with this whole situation so I’m not sure that I would recommend Dr. Fish to everyone.  That said, it was a memorable experience.  I had no idea when I woke up that morning that within a few hours there would be fish nibbling at my toes.  It was one of those really funny and pleasantly surprising expat days, the days that balance out the culture shock uglies. Those are the days that make living abroad a worthwhile experience.

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I have a feeling that this post will be more fun to write than to read

A lot of people who come over here to teach end up rarely using their kitchens. This is for a few reasons. The first is that generally the kitchens in the apartments supplied by the schools are not what we’re used to at home. For example, my kitchen currently has two burners. I have no microwave and no oven or toaster oven. (A toaster oven will be one of my first purchases next pay check.)  The second reason is that you can eat out at Korean restaurants for very little money. In fact, if your Korean skills are good enough, you can have pretty much anything delivered to your apartment too, even if the meal is only 3 000 won.

Despite all of this, I am using my kitchen quite a lot.  And not only to make peanut butter sandwiches. (Although I have consumed an alarming quantity of peanut butter since arriving.  Oops?) Mostly this is because I like cooking but it’s also because comfort foods, like spaghetti, are not readily available in my neighbourhood. Hence, I make somewhat frequent trips to the grocery store. As I have mentioned before, this isn’t always a simple task.  I have been drinking 1% milk rather than skim because that’s the only thing that I know for sure is milk.  The first time I tried to purchase milk I discovered upon my first sip that it was actually milk’s gross cousin, cream.

However, I consider Saturday’s grocery adventure a complete success because I managed to find several items that I had either not remembered to buy or not been able to find until now.  The first is a re-usable grocery bag. I’m so used to them being at every check out and scattered around every store at home but in Korea you don’t have to pay for plastic bags, so the reusable bag hasn’t caught on in the same way yet. Until today I had dedicated a portion of every trip to finding the elusive eco-friendly bag, convinced that they must exist. It turns out that they are stocked in the same aisle as the brooms. (Obviously!)

I also bought rice today, and soy sauce to go with it. That was time consuming. The rice was simple enough to find. The soy sauce, on the other hand, was challenging. There were two complete aisles of dark brown or black sauces and it took me until the end of the second aisle to find the bottles that said “soy sauce” in tiny writing. I’m just grateful that it was written in English at all.

And here’s a surprise for the elusive catagory: garlic. Although perhaps it was less elusive and more camouflaged. I have strolled the produce sections many times now, looking for bulbs of garlic. I once found a bag of pre-peeled cloves but that just wasn’t going to cut it for me. I know that Koreans use garlic in their cooking, so I figured I must have been missing something. As it turns out, I was missing a BIG something.

This is what I was looking for:

and this is what I found:

Seriously.  Does anyone know the best way to store garlic long term?

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