Westerners traveling to Japan, especially the more rural areas, usually hear about the "Gaijin Stare" before they arrive. The Gaijin Stare occurs when a native Japanese, well, stares at you because of your foreignness. This phenomenon is likely not unique to Japan.
At just over two months in residence, I've grown accustomed to curious looks or questions about where I'm from. Many times, my Amerika-jin-ness doesn't come up at all. Matthew gets more attention than I do because of his height and The Moustache. The Moustache attracts wonder, awe, and on unfortunate occasions, laughter. A couple of weeks ago, it got laughed at by two separate groups in the same afternoon. The Moustache felt sad, turning its pointy tips down (or maybe that was the effing heat and humidity). Matthew confessed that this had happened previously and that it gets old.
Today, I got the full Gaijin Stare treatment, and it was kind of unnerving. I was putting my bags into the car after leaving the grocery, when I looked up to see the woman in the car across from mine staring at me. And I mean STARING. Open the car door -- staring. Close the door and move to the driver's door -- staring. Get in the car -- staring. Buckle seat belt -- staring. I did look up from what I was doing at one point to see her looking off in a different direction, but when I looked up to leave the parking lot -- staring. Even when I looked directly at her, she kept staring unblinkingly.
I don't know why today was different. Maybe others have stared and I just haven't noticed. I had my hair up, so it's not like I was rocking the curls, which might be stareworthy (Sidebar: Living in Kitakami has been FANTASTIC for my hair -- it's all bouncy and curly! Now I just need to hope for a decent stylist when the time comes.). Maybe it was because, in heels, I was standing about 5'9", or considerably taller than your average Japanese woman. Or maybe she actually was staring at my handbag, making it the Accessory Stare, known to women worldwide.
Our previous spider
has moved on, and this one came to replace it. We discovered it in the morning, which is a bit more auspicious. (Later, I saw it again at night. This spider seems to offer 24-hour service.)
Its web is really quite distinctive, too - the center is kind of fluffy, with a vertical "ladder" of thick webbing extending above and below it.
Sign Sign Everywhere a Sign
You Want Fries With That?
This is in Mizusawa, a small town south of Kitakami. And no, we didn't stop here for lunch.
The Coolest Lawn Mower Ever
When I was a kid running a lawn-mowing business, I always thought a radio-controlled lawn mower would be cool. It turns out, I was right.
This is one of the questions Matthew and I, and probably every other gaijin here, frequently get asked. In our experience, it is never followed by "la dee dah, dee dee dah."
There are enough English schools in Kitakami that foreign teachers come and go with some regularity, so we're not unusual in that respect. But, most people are a little surprised to learn that we knew about and loved Tohoku before we moved here. They generally are pleased to learn that Matthew chose his job in part because the company's schools are located primarily in Tohoku. Tohoku is not "where it's happening" in Japan; I've seen it, and specifically Iwate Prefecture, described in various places on the internet as "backwater." We can relate to this as native New Mexicans. When you live near Washington, at most you'll get questions about whether you're in politics, but when you talk about living in New Mexico, reactions range from: "You're so lucky -- that's God's country" to "But there's nothing/nothing to do there!"
When people learn that we came here from Washington, we start getting the latter. "What do you think about Kitakami? Don't you think it's boring?" And the truth is, not really. The area is beautiful, there's a lot of ground to be covered, and we're the new kids in town -- it's all still interesting to us. I don't really understand why people here don't dine alfresco, but that's hardly a dealbreaker.
Conversation naturally turns from Matthew's employment as the reason for our move to my profession. The first time I told someone I was an American lawyer was a revelation:
Person: What do you do? Are you also a teacher?
SKD: I'm a lawyer in America, but I will probably be teaching here.
Person: Sugoi! (translation: Fantastic!)
This reaction is pretty common and rather delightful. The Japanese don't hate lawyers. The relative lack of litigiousness in their society is surely one factor; another is that lawyers are comparatively rare here. None of the Japanese I've encountered has mentioned even knowing a Japanese lawyer. I don't think the Japanese even have lawyer jokes. Which, now that I think about it, is a nice side benefit of being here.
Nothing says summer like blueberries. Unique to Japan, that means a big katakana
banner heralding the aforementioned fruit.
My language partner and I visited Kitakami's blueberry farm this morning, accompanied by her daughter and a friend. I think this was a first experience for all of us, and speaking for myself, I've been deprived for thirty-two years. Really, it doesn't get any better than popping ripe, sun-warmed, straight from the bush berries into your mouth on a hot summer day, surrounded by beautiful mountains.
There was some competition for the title of "Best Blueberry Experience." In planning for the trip, I offered a lesson in muffin making because another foreigner had told my language partner how great blueberry muffins are, and she wanted to try them. Perhaps less altruistically, I knew she had an oven and I sensed an opportunity to get my bake on.
The lesson was great fun. Channeling my inner Julia Collin
, I explained the steps and did the preliminary mixing and instructed the girls on how to mix wet into dry ingredients, leaving the batter lumpy for light muffins, and gently folding the berries into the batter so they wouldn't break. We all took turns watching the muffins in the oven and barely tolerated the wait to eat them when they came out. It was kind of awesome. So were the muffins. :)
Tonight, I'm busting out the chopstick whisk again to whip cream to serve alongside the otherwise unadulterated berries.
It's official: Every Davis is a resident of Kitakami-shi, Iwate-ken, Japan. Yesterday, we took Moki and Aki's importation paperwork to the city office and registered them with the city. They're now rocking their Japanese dog tags, written in kanji
, and feeling very pleased with themselves. Actually, they're sleeping because it's really honking hot in the house, which is what happens in the summer when you don't have central A/C.
Speaking of hot, it was hot enough yesterday (and probably today) that the city employees were dressed in their "Cool Biz"
work clothes. The Japanese government began promoting "Cool Biz" in the summer of 2005 as a way to lower energy consumption through reduced use of air conditioning. Basically, when the temperature gets above 28 degrees Celsius (82 degrees Fahrenheit), some offices encourage male workers who usually wear suits and ties to wear short-sleeved dress shirts with open collars. Everyone is encouraged to wear breathable, moisture-wicking fabric. Essentially, Japan is advocating environmental responsibility through government-sanctioned short-sleeving.
Merchant gift update: Since our last report, we've received another box of tissues and a box of laundry detergent from the cell phone company.
Adventures in Puddingmaking
We were invited to a potluck this evening, which in my old world would translate into the production of baked goods. As you've all heard or read, however, we now live an oven-free life. Our cooking is limited to whatever we can make on a cooking unit composed of two gas burners and a small broiling drawer designed for fish. So instead of a cake, or tart, or cupcakes (mmm, cupcakes), I made banana pudding. I figured it was better to make something tasty from my country and leave Japanese food to the pros.
Store run: Bananas, check. Flour, milk, eggs, check. Vanilla of indeterminate origin, check. Vanilla wafers . . . um. Hmm. Nothing on the shelves appeared to be terribly similar to American vanilla wafers. I was going to pick up a bag of potato chips because they had the same shape, until I recognized the word "po-te-to" written in katakana (syllabary used for foreign words) on the bag. Disaster averted. Because you make pudding with the cookies you have, not the ones you wish you had, I bought a box of what appeared to be simple butter cookies and crossed my fingers.
Back in the 'Bash, the helpful dogs offered to lighten my load by eating the bananas. I rejected their kind gesture and got to work. We've got a rather sparsely appointed kitchen out of necessity, which is how I ended up standing at the cooktop stirring custard with bamboo cooking chopsticks. Also, I discovered that with an ample handful of them (six are better than four), you can whip cream to stiff peaks. It only takes about twenty minutes, or roughly the duration of the first six songs on the second disc of Prince's "The Hits/The B-Sides" box set. These things, I know.
Verdict: The pudding was a hit, even eaten with chopsticks.
Things to soothe a soul on a gray, rainy, depressing day: an oolong highball, a friendly face, and a new dining venue.
Last weekend, while walking the dogs, Matthew and I noticed the telltale red lantern of a restaurant on the side of a building just slightly out of our normal everyday paths. Reading the menu, it appeared to be reasonable; hearing the laughter emanating from inside, it sounded like a good place to know. It also appeared to be teeny-tiny. We finally made it there tonight, and were greeted by the standard hearty shout of "Irasshaimase!" ("Welcome!") (Sidebar: this tradition can be unnerving the first few times you go into a restaurant in Japan because the first thing that crosses your mind is "Why is everyone in the joint yelling at me?"). Apparently consistent with our previous assessment, it was tiny -- only three tables, and about five seats at the bar, only one of which was unoccupied.
Seeing our disappointment, the proprietress directed us through a curtain to a traditional room in the back, meaning a room with low tables and zabutons (floor cushions for sitting). We took the table next to the kitchen serving window and set about making our dinner decisions -- katsu kare (breaded pork cutlet with curry) for Matthew, yakiniku teishoku (grilled meat set with rice, pickles, and miso soup) for me. A note on the menu directed patrons to ask "Father Hige" something after dinner. We regret to inform our readers that we did not comply with this directive.
Father Hige was the cook, who came out to chat with us personally. He and Matthew bonded over their moustaches before he took our order and disappeared. Matthew and I unwound over shochu (a distilled spirit) and the aforementioned oolong highball -- iced oolong tea mixed with shochu. Dinner itself was fast, hearty, and comforting.
As we were leaving, Matthew and Father Hige had a longish conversation in Japanese. Father Hige gave us a laminated delivery menu (yay!), complimented Matthew on his Japanese skills, and exhorted us to return. We assured him that we would, and wandered off into the night, full of good eats, good drinks, and the cheer resulting from being welcomed into someone's world.