Gaijin Geisha

Well… I just read an interesting article. Fiona Graham, from Australia, is the first foreigner geisha in the history of Japan. Being in Japan as a foreigner myself, I found this to be somewhat intriguing. I’m sure if I had read this article a year ago, I wouldn’t have understood exactly why she would put herself through the rigorous training and, I would think, potentially ostracizing position of trying to become a geisha. My first thought probably would have been, “Okay.. well, to each, their own.” But I’ve been in Japan for half a year now and I see the beauty of the Japanese as a distinctive and remarkable culture. I’m sure Sayuki (Graham’s geisha name), feels the same way a hundred fold since, after all, she’s lived in Japan for a good chunk of her life and is a doctor of anthropology as well.

Apparently, Sayuki’s original intent going into geisha training was to produce an academic and anthropological documentary. However, it seems now that she is happy being a geisha and intends to continue as one indefinitely. I say bravo! Good for her. She may not be paving the way for tons of gaikokujin females to enter the ranks of the elite geisha, but she is doing something amazing and she’s doing it her own way.

Ganbatte, Sayuki, and rock on!

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I was just informed that Fiona Graham was not the FIRST gaijin geisha, but rather, Liza Dalby was. That’s what I get for not researching thoroughly. Hah. Either way, whoever the first foreign geisha was, my opinion still stands. Good for you, ladies!

Settled In.

I am soon coming up on my six month mark of being in Japan. I’ve done a lot of things since I’ve been here: traveled across half the country, been in a major earthquake, been in a major typhoon, moved apartments, had a bike/car accident, ended my engagement, met someone else, broke up with them, got harassed by them, went to Tokyo Disneyland, went to a hot spring, rode the bullet train, stayed in a capsule hotel, ate raw chicken (as sashimi), got my first gray hair… it’s been a whirlwind experience. Sometimes I get lost on trains and can’t get back on track–no pun intended–for at least another 2 hours. That can be extremely frustrating when you can’t read or speak the language. Sometimes I buy a pastry at the bakery thinking it would make a nice dessert and it turns out to be savory. Sometimes I buy a shirt that’s a size L and it turns out to fit like a size S. These instances usually make me smirk a little because that’s the experience of a gaijin living in Japan. These are the things that will make me strut though life not letting the petty stuff bother me.

I just got my ticket yesterday to go back home to California and I’m looking forward to going home. I don’t necessarily feel homesick, per se, but I do welcome the opportunity to see my family (and what a great family it is), and maybe eat some real Mexican food. I also welcome the break from all things unfamiliar. Like driving on the other side of the road, or sleeping on an actual mattress as opposed to a futon. Baking something in an oven will be amazing because, quite frankly, who doesn’t like to bake cookies around the holidays? Most homes (apartments) in Japan don’t even have an oven. It will also be nice to fall into a pile of warm clothes that have just come out of the dryer. I don’t think anyone in Japan has a dryer. (I’m sure someone does, but that’s not the point). The thing is, home is home. It will always be that. I feel lucky as hell that I have a home too… I know some don’t. So I like to keep myself feeling lucky and grateful. I know a lot of people who love the town they grew up in and they’d never want to leave. Those people might say I’m ungrateful for wanting to leave my hometown. But I say leaving my hometown makes me even more grateful.

I’ve lived in three different cities around the world since leaving my hometown and now that I’m in a foreign country, I feel more at home than ever. I’m certainly not Japanese and in no way do I fit in around here. I was never really a Japan-o-phile but I always had an interest in the exotic and the world outside America, and Japan falls into those categories. It’s been a struggle to adjust to life here and there are a lot of things I wouldn’t be able to do without relying on someone who can speak Japanese and English. Strangely, though, I feel more independent and at home–with myself– than ever before. I do not feel that I have reached the pinnacle of self-discovery or self-realization by any means, but I do feel like I’m heading in the right direction. My future plans include living in one or two more foreign countries, possibly for an extended period of time. Depends on the country.

There is so much you can learn about yourself, your hometown, your home country just by learning about other people and their towns and their countries. My passion for communication and bridging the gaps between people and cultures has only been cemented by my experience living and working in Japan. As a teacher, I get to have some of the most amazing 50-minute conversations with my students. These stimulating talks are the mere tip of the cultural exchange iceberg. It’s times like these that make me want to stay in Japan another year. But I also feel the pull toward other countries. Like I said, I’m no Japan-o-phile. I find value in all kinds of cultures. The more experiences I can have, the better. There is so much I want to do, you have no idea. The best part about it all, though, is that I feel like there’s no rush. I certainly don’t feel as though I’m wasting any time, either. I’m going at exactly the pace I should be going.

I can only hope that others get to experience or have experienced what I’m experiencing now. I’m not talking about living and working in another country, specifically, but more the metaphysical and transcendental experience of realizing one’s own and the world’s potential. For me, it’s an overall satisfying experience. I wish I could share it with you, but this blog just won’t do it justice. I’ll still give it a shot, though.

Osaka Bang!

This is such an excellent example of what I like to call the study of people. Sure, you could say that’s sociology or anthropology, but I just think “the study of people” sounds much less academic and just more fun and appropriate when applied in small doses like this. Heheh.

Things about Japan that Surprise me

I guess that I expected a completely foreign world when I got to Japan. And, granted, I was right to expect things I’d never seen before. I can honestly say that my world has been turned upside down, coming here. For instance, they drive on the other side of the road here, and all the cars are SMALL. (Total opposite of America). There are no preservatives in the food here and they eat most everything raw. Even eggs. Also, everyone here smokes cigarettes, and it’s illegal to smoke outside. They prefer you smoke inside or in designated smoking areas so as to make sure you don’t leave any cigarette butts littered in the street. I wonder if the Japanese have ever heard of second-hand smoke. But what surprises me more than the differences I’ve found here are the similarities. For example..

Mayonnaise – I can’t even begin to tell you how much the Japanese love mayonnaise. It’s like an addiction. They put it on everything. Salads, pork, french fries, noodles… the list goes on.

Convenience Stores – 7-11, Circle K, Family Mart, Lawson, Sunkus, etc… These handy little marts are like the Starbucks of America. There’s one on EVERY corner. They are certainly convenient. You even pay your utilities bills at the convenience store.

Shopping – While I admit I knew the Japanese liked to shop, I don’t think I understood just how much they like to shop. Some of the big department stores in Nagoya or Sakae are like the 5th Avenue designer stores you would expect in New York. Or Monte Carlo. They have uniformed concierges and everything.

I was wandering through my neighborhood today (which I was told was all housing) when I came across a Seiyu. This giant building slightly resembled a tiny shopping mall and I figured it was public since it had a McDonald’s on the first floor. So I curiously ventured in to find what must have been the biggest grocery store I’ve ever seen, besides the Navy Commissary. I actually uttered the word “woah” under my breath. Plus, there were two more floors. On the second floor, I found a small photo studio with costume kimonos for the whole family to wear, bedding, furniture, household items, cookware, and fake plants (the real plants were on the first floor). I bought some wooden spoons to use in my “kitchen.” Then (dare I?) I went to the third floor where I found clothes, more bedding and household items, bicycles for sale, electronics, appliances, and toys. And for a Sunday in Japan where the economy is on the rocks, the place was hoppin’. Families, couples, little old ladies inspecting dishware like it was a fine red wine. You’d think this place was the local pub in an Irish village, but on a grander scale. As I walked around not only perusing the aisles but the customers as well, I felt for a small moment as if it was 1984 and I was back in America. The words “materialistic” and “yuppie” came to mind. For another small moment, I wondered if I should immediately leave, go home, and take a shower to rid myself of the commercialism.. but naaaaah.. I needed clothes, bedding, and groceries. So I stayed and enjoyed every minute of it. :)

I’m not sure if I’ll ever completely understand this strange land and its people, but I’m not sure I want to. I like the mystical, ‘time warp’ feeling I get while I’m here. For now, anyway….

Differences

The days are winding down (20 more to go) to Japan and I have yet to pack my clothes. Heh.

However, I am doing my homework on the culture and (a little bit of) history of the Japanese people. I was directed to a blog written by another former Foreign Teacher from the same company that I will be working for (I am leaving out names for everyone’s protection), and I must say, I was very disappointed. What he wrote about his experience with this company was supposed to be the “truth” about what it’s like to work for them. Apparently he and the company had some disagreements. What disappointed me wasn’t so much the company but, rather, what he had to say. His blog was very informative, and I certainly got some useful tips out of it. But I was completely unimpressed with him. He complained about certain aspects of the Japanese world of business and, quite frankly, he should have known better. What he was so upset about was the way the Japanese handled situations. He didn’t like that he could not argue with his manager about something at a business meeting. He felt like he was being stifled and that he was not allowed to be “productive” via speaking his mind. He was also very taken aback by what he saw as passive aggressiveness in the Japanese.

Now, I don’t have to go to Japan to know that the Japanese highly prize group solidarity, especially within the business world. Just look at the way Japanese businessmen dress. See any bright colors? See anybody trying to stand out or beat the system? I don’t.

This blogger claims that he went to Japan to explore it and learn about another culture and yet he was kept from doing so because he had to work all the time. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, buddy! But more than that, he cheated himself out of the Japanese cultural education because it was happening to him the entire time he was there! Alas, he was too busy imposing his American standards of behavior on everyone he worked with to open up his mind and broaden his horizons.

I’m glad I read the blog, really, because it is a reminder to me that when I go to this brand new Eastern world, I should let myself be open to and understanding of the differences I know I will encounter. I may be going to to Japan to teach English conversation, but I’m not there to change the Japanese into Americans. I’ll do what I can to help them understand Americans and our nuances. But I won’t judge them for it if it doesn’t come naturally to them. This is a learning experience on both sides and I am happy to help create this bridge of communication.

Land of the Rising Sun

Well, I have some very exciting news:

I am moving to Japan to teach English for a year!

I was recently accepted for a position in Okazaki (Central Japan, near Nagoya) and I leave this coming June.  I know that this will be an extremely enlightening and exciting adventure because, besides the fact that I have never been anywhere in Asia, this will be such an inspiration to my writing.  My whole experience there will be one based on language.  The challenges of learning a new language, teaching a language to a new people whose language I don’t understand, and immersing myself within their culture is going to be an invaluable opportunity for me!

I plan to use this experience to grow as a person, of course, but also to make my blog grow.  I think I’ll be able to write some pretty interesting things once I get to Japan.  At the moment, I’m going through some books I got about Japan, the Japanese language, and the Japanese people.  Because of their long history of isolation, they have been able to preserve some of their oldest traditions and remain very unique in culture.  Unlike Western Europe and the United States, both of which have common backgrounds and melded histories, Japan is a singular entity and I expect to receive some major culture shock.  :)

Hooray!