St. Patrick’s Day Samba

In an effort to get out and find low-cost things to do in Tokyo (my job gets a month’s labor from me before I get paid. I know, it’s rough.), I asked one of my coworkers about St. Patrick’s Day. He said there was a parade.

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Now, I lived near Chicago. Chicago dyes the river a bright green shade, and everyone drinks to excess starting at sunup and going until well past sundown. It’s a ridiculous amount of revelry and vomit.

In perusing the advertisement for the parade volunteer requirements, I saw the following in bold print : “No smoking. No drinking. No high heels.” Well, at least two of those make sense to me (smoking and heels). Still, it looked like a small, humorous event. If I am being honest, I had no idea what to expect when considering the relationship between Japan and Ireland, if such a thing existed in any depth.

I invited my friend Sharon with me as an “interpreter,” and we went to Omote-sando on Sunday. The weather was perfect – sunny, not too cold or hot. I told her about Chicago, and at one point I had to admit that while there’s a chance an ancestor of mine came from Ireland, I had no proof and had never claimed Irish ancestry on St. Patrick’s day.

“That’s refreshing!” She said. “Most people try to claim Irish heritage, when it’s some second cousin’s uncle. Sorry, that doesn’t make you Irish.”

“Well, my patron saint is Saint Brigit of Ireland – and I don’t make crosses out of river reeds on her day either,” I added in full disclosure. I know my lineages pretty well, but I really only claim the ones in which I actively participate.

The parade started off with about as much awkward happiness as I expected, with the Irish Ambassador, Miss Ireland, and a tall man dressed as St. Patrick, complete with a fake beard, leading the parade. They were followed by bagpipes (“Scottish.” Was all Sharon said upon seeing them). Then came dancers, fiddlers, pubs advertisements, and giant inflatable Guinness pints. There were also samurai, cheerleaders, samba dancers, and a bunch of traditional Japanese…tap-dancers? I mean, it was the most glorious hodge-podge parade I have ever seen. Everyone was bedecked in green, orange, and white, and they were having a fun time.

And it was a lot longer than expected. There were no floats (the closest thing were the Guinness balloons), but there were a lot of Irish-appreciation groups. There were the Irish Setters club, the Druidic society of Japan (?!), at least three dancing schools, and of course the travel abroad and foreign exchange student programs. The parade went on a large loop between Omote-sando and Harajuku, so that at one point the samba dancers were competing with the bagpipers every time the parade stopped (usually coinciding with the crossing guards allowing pedestrians to pass through).

As the last of the emerald clad parade groups walked past, we decided to go on to Yoyogi park to check out the Irish festival, which had been going on all weekend. Sharon and I are both fans of hard ciders, which are notoriously hard to find in Japan (the closest thing I’ve found are some of the apple beers – not the same thing). We were in luck, and found that Magners (imported from Australia via Ireland we hope) was ready in cold bottles for just over $5.00 a bottle. I justified this by reminding myself that beer costs more for less at a baseball game. Magners is not my preferred cider (Angry Orchard or Woodchuck), but it was just what I wanted on a warming spring day. Too poor to buy souvenirs or actual food, it was a fleeting souvenir.

All in all, I am very happy I went to the parade. It got me thinking a little bit about the debate over cultural appropriation back in America. As Sharon and I watched the “Irish” band warm up – where only the fiddle player looked “Western,” I tried to build a theory. Irish fiddle music exists all over the world, but I have never encountered an Irish person upset at this idea. I theorized to Sharon that perhaps it’s because Ireland is seen as a partially “occupied” nation that it gets such acceptance into other cultures. The Irish are distinct from the English, and the English have an Imperial legacy that the Irish do not, even though technically they are both part of the same “United Kingdom.” Sharon agreed in part, citing that Irish music is distinct from Scottish or English music, and as such might travel better.

Imitation is the highest form of flattery, they say. Judging from the festivities, this was high praise indeed!

 

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Red Rock Canyon: Hiatus, then Hiking

I took an unexpected and rather abrupt hiatus from this blog, as you might have noticed.

Perhaps it was the election. Perhaps it was my sudden bout with sore throats and abdominal pain. Perhaps it was the conclusion of my Japanese contract. Perhaps it was all of this that crippled my desire to write.

If it makes you feel any better, dear reader, I didn’t write anywhere else either. I didn’t work on my book. I wrote no poetry. I kept no dream journal. I barely touched my actual personal journal. By all measurements, my ability to write simply dried up like a desert streambed in summer.

Speaking of…

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Before my recent re-relocation to Japan (having gone home briefly), I visited one of my favorite places in the United States: Red Rock Canyon just outside of Las Vegas, Nevada. I don’t know if Red Rock Canyon is my favorite spot – I love the Sequoias in California, the Hudson River Valley, and the tumult of Chicago – but it certainly ranks. If I had to give it a number one rank, it would be “Favorite place to go in the winter.” The desert in winter is something alien and unexpected. There is snow in the mountains, and in the late winter the melt swells the streams.

I’ve been going to Red Rock Canyon since I was a child. We’d always go in the late summer or mid-spring, coinciding with spring breaks and the end of summer vacations. I remember finding the small spherical stones that had fallen off the sandstone like pimples (I learned later they were vaguely magnetic, attracting particles around them). It’s not a national park, but it is protected under the BLM’s National Conservation Areas, specifically for the tortoises. When I was young, there was nothing leading to the park – a sparse collection of old gas stations and parched houses. Now, Summerlin abuts the park almost to the inch of the protected space.

When I visited in February, it was with the intention of seeing the sunrise. Unfortunately, it was a rainy day in the desert, so there was no sunrise to watch. The sign at the gate warned against climbing on the sandstone (already a slick stone). Though I didn’t get the sunrise, I got a bounty of other sensations. Desert plants must act fast, and the aromas getting out of my car hit me like a wall of spices. Mesquite, yucca, agave sage – these are the plants that opened up to welcome the brief morning rain, and the scent was cleansing.

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Looking out over the vast living landscape, full of cacti that would dry out in a few months, pools of water that wouldn’t last, I felt free again. There is something so…fragile about the desert. I find it almost unbearable to be in Red Rock in the heat of the summer, when everything is bleached and dry and desperately holding on. But in the winter, the colors deepen and the whole place comes brilliantly alive (the desert is always alive, mind you, but its much more practical about it in the summer).

So I hiked around Calico Hills, the patchwork sandstone mounds near the entrance of the park. I kept a lookout for animals, but saw only hummingbirds and a hawk. I met a nice Naval man on the trails, who proved good company and thankful hiking buddy (I kept my distance from him for awhile at first, uneasy at being alone). From Calico Hills, I went back to my car and started the long scenic drive through the park.

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Note: Make sure you get gas before you arrive at the Park. There is no access point out of the park once you start the scenic drive – it’s a big loop.

I’ve hiked part of Pine Creek Canyon, about three-quarters of the way through the 13 mile scenic drive, but I’ve yet to hike the whole thing. I get too interested at the beginning, where they did a controlled fire. There are Ponderosa pines there, and I’ve seen the wild burros once as well. It’s a forest that doesn’t belong in the desert, which is why it’s so fascinating. Much like the geological face of the mountains, which feature old rock pushed on top of younger rock (due to the fault lines), it’s sort of out of place. I love it.

Sitting on a rock, I watched the stream/almost river flow across the road, and felt the tuggings of inspirations again. I can’t tell you how relieved I was to feel the desire to write and describe. I had been feeling isolated and numb. Much like the riverbed, I felt the great need to open up again, and let the life in.

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Addendum: I worry, as I have been worrying for months now, about how Trump’s environmental lethargy is going to hurt places like Red Rock Canyon. I’ve watched Summerlin’s cookie cutter homes encroach more and more on the space, and I’m genuinely worried that in this new administration that does not care about protecting anything except their own wealth, spaces like these will fall victim.

So go buy this shirt from Cotton Bureau, or one similar to it. Maybe some good will come of a “gentle” visual reproach…

…And into the Incinerator

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I got a letter from Japan Post, after failing to get that package.

I felt convinced it was going to tell me that I needed to go to Kawasaki to get this mysterious package. After asking and acting like a hopeless dope, I finally confirmed that the package was not my government ID card (my MyCard), which would have also required a signature. Turns out I got that weeks ago and filed it away so quickly I didn’t even realize I had gotten it.

Here is the essence of the letter:

“Someone is sending you bacon. You can’t import bacon into Japan. Do you want to return the bacon, or incinerate it?”

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…….

…….

…….

Yes, my father had sent me pre-cooked, microwaveable bacon. Japan found out, and Japan sent me all the friendly documents about what is ok and not ok to send to Japan. Shouldn’t they have sent this to my family? Also the meat wasn’t raw, or alive. It’s like sending someone jerky – I wonder if it’s illegal to import jerky into Japan…The brochure doesn’t say. It’s full of friendly looking officers and lists of “cloven hoofed” animals that can’t enter Japan, not to mention fish. Also “foul broods” of honeybees.

But here was the kicker – it was up to me to decide what to do with this illegal bacon.

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I do like bacon a lot. I’m not a bacon fanatic, though I do know a few. I felt a certain…internet pressure not to harm the bacon in any way (unless it was to eat it – that’s ok). However, as some of my friends here pointed out, if I sent it back my family would probably have to pay the cost of return.

The choice weighed heavy on me. It looks so final, doesn’t it? Return it, or INCINERATE IT. I pictured this gentle, unassuming package of pre-cooked bacon being thrown into an Orwellian furnace, wondering what it had done to deserve such treatment.

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I bet you can, you little snitch.

(I keep saying “pre-cooked” because it’s important that you understand that my family does not send me raw meat. I’m not a huge fan of  pre-cooked bacon myself, but in terms of practicality it’s one of the few bacon products that doesn’t require refrigeration, aside from bacon jerky and bacon bits, one of which I do like.)

I gave myself two whole days to decide what to do with the bacon. I asked co-workers their opinions, which varied once they stopped laughing at me. I considered what else was in the package that I would eventually get after I told them what to do with the meat.

Then, with heavy finality, I sent the bacon to the fires. What would you have done? Launch a daring raid on the Kawasaki Customs building in an effort to rescue the bacon? How many lives would you be willing to risk? HOW MANY – for BACON?!

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Out of the Frying Pan…

I got a failed delivery notice from the Post Office. I get these a lot – I’m at work during normal delivery hours. So I went through the arduous process of rescheduling. By “arduous,” I mean scanning a QR code and translating the different boxes so I know which information to put where. I selected a night delivery, since I knew I’d be home. In the process of doing so, I forgot to add my name. This reset parts of the form, which I did not realize. This detail will become important in the next bit of the story.

I got a second failed delivery notice from the Post Office. They had tried delivering while I was technically on my commute home. How had this happened? Well, when the form reset, it reset the delivery time. I harumphed up to my confirmation document, and sure enough, under time, it did not say “19-21.” It said something in Japanese, which I know is not a good sign. I put two and two together, and realized that when the form reset, it changed my time to “any.”

There is a rule I had learned – one of the many rules I had been trying to follow. It is this: never miss the second delivery.

I asked my coworker Harry what I should do. “Babe,” he said. “Never miss the second delivery.” (I like Harry. This was not helpful.)

I asked up the chain of command, to one of our PCs.
“Was this the first delivery?” She asked me.
“…No.” I had to grudgingly admit, sensing the answer.
“Ah,” was her response, followed by a solemn pause. “Well, you must call the number. They will have your package. And maybe they will resend it.”

So I called the number, which had been conveniently programed into my work cell phone (I must not be the only one to break the commandment). After a long message letting me know how much the phone call would cost down to the tenths of yen, I spoke to a nice gentleman who I am going to call “Charlie.”

“This is *Charlie*, how may I help you?”
“Yes I need to reschedule delivery of a package.”
“May I have the package number?”
“Yes” *reads package slip number*
“One moment…ah.”
“What?”
“This package cannot be delivered unless released by the sender. Who is the sender?”
“The slip says ‘Japan Post.'”
“No, Ma’am. At the top of the slip, under the line labeled ‘Addressee’ you will see a line labeled ‘Sender.’ Please read me the name on that line”
“It’s in Japanese, but I had it translated. The sender is ‘Japan Post.’ You are the sender.”
“We cannot release the package unless it is released by the sender.”
“You are the sender.”
*Frightening long pause*
“Ma’am, I’m sorry, but I cannot help you with this. Maybe you must go to Kawasaki and reclaim your package in person.”
“I don’t understand. If you’re the sender, then you should be able to release my package for delivery.”
“Yes ma’am. I don’t know why it’s labeled that way. That is a strange decision. But we cannot help you. Will there be anything else?”
“I suppose not. Thank you.”

I have seen glimpses of the bureaucratic web here in Japan, touched the outer edges with the help of a native speaker. Mostly I avoid it as much as possible. There’s too much paperwork, too many redundancies that must be crossed and recrossed. I think that’s why the rule is so simple. Don’t miss the second delivery.  And I did catch the popular speech pattern of “maybe/must.” The Japanese don’t like to speak in absolutes, though they certainly use them. In order not to offend, a “must” gets softened with a “maybe.” But the must is still there, iron under all that linguistic cushioning.

Japan Post sent me something from Japan Post, and Japan Post could not resend it until it gave itself permission to do so, which it could not do. This is the sort of kink that might send one to Kawasaki, to the customs and immigration mail depot.

No, I’m not going to Kawasaki. I’m convinced that something will happen to right this situation. I’m also wondering what the package might be. I think I have all my important Japanese documentation – what could Japan Post be trying to send me? Why is it standing in its own way?

I was going to find out what happened in about ten days. I will write the conclusion in my next post.

Current Events

I won’t write about the election. I know this is the space to do so, but I don’t think my voice is going to tip any scale out there.

There has been too much about it. Too much noise, too many opinions, too much grief, too much glee. And the instant backlash in too many directions – suck it up, love with love, be angry, don’t be angry, keep your head down, fight the power, love thy neighbor. It’s like America is a rubber band that snapped back in on itself after being pulled too tight.

I will say this: my students don’t know what to say, or what to ask. They can’t believe it. One of my older students is afraid. One of my economics students is worried about the TPP. Some laugh, because they believe he is a joke and don’t understand enough about politics to see what he means for my country. They ask me what I think, how I feel, and what it all means.

What would you say?

Here’s what I’ve been saying, “Well, I’m scared. I’m upset. I’m confused. But I have English to teach, and we have work to do.” And I leave it at that. Soapboxing here does nothing. I am honest, because it’s best. I am brief, because I won’t waste words that will go misunderstood. And I focus on my work, because otherwise I’d start ranting and raving, which doesn’t help my EFL students and doesn’t help me.

I feel as though anyone who goes abroad has an obligation to build good relationships and set a good example. Now? Now I’ll have to work harder, because now we have a president who is regarded as a dangerous buffoon by the global community. Now I’ll be pre-judged, and I’ll have to try and explain what is going on back home.

I know people on both sides. I pass judgments of my own, but judgment doesn’t solve problems. Communication is essential. Teaching is essential.

 

So that is what I do. I teach.