Come to Japan, we have dry cookies

I’ve never been as grateful for my love of food as I am here in Japan. Specifically, baking. Nothing says “I understand you” better than kneading tough dough with my host mom, or realizing the cookies are too dry from using Japan’s more popular cake flour. Don’t know what to say over dinner? Express my endless love for okonomiyaki. Or comment on the cooking channel we watch every day.

Thinking back, I think I underestimated the power of common interests. I get along great – best friends great – with my roommate, for instance, but we don’t have many common interests outside of being lazy and liking to shop and eat. More than interests, we share two years’ worth of common experiences and common humor. But in Japan, where experiences largely differ due to culture and personalities difficult to convey over language barriers, I’ve come to appreciate – no, desperately search for common interests.

And so 70% of my host mom and my conversations revolve around baking or cooking. And I guess that’s okay. She’s 65 years old, and that makes me realize… what do I talk to my parents or grandparents about? If not about what we’re doing at the time, it’s largely about life and childhood stories, respectively. If we weren’t family, would we have anything to talk about? But maybe that’s the magic of family; I question myself in conversations a lot: Am I being funny? Am I saying interesting things? But that doesn’t matter with family. I guess I’ve come to think of my host family as family in that sense, and it’s all thanks to cookies and cakes.

My dialogue with my host family has made me more aware of the nature of my conversations. Another being how much my parents and grandparents listen, like my host parents, to my life while sharing little of theirs. Though I talk about my internship-finding struggles with my father, he rarely shares details about the status of his business venture unless I ask. In my experience, the minimal information sharing corresponds to advanced age, but perhaps it’s culture as well? Regardless, I’m resolved to make a more conscious effort to ask about my father’s daily life and troubles when I head to China at the end of this month.

All in all, I’m more thankful that ever for my friends and family who stand my chatter on a regular basis, and look forward to English convos when I get back – in less than a month! Wow, time passes quickly.

I’ll conclude for some pictures of last week’s cinnamon rolls and the Doll’s Day (Hinamatsuri) onigiri I made with my host mom,  and some baking tips:

  • FLOUR: The most popular Japanese flour is CAKE flour (薄力粉, 8-10% gluten). Most American recipes call for All-purpose flour (中力粉; 8-11% gluten), which is vital, when following an American recipe, to creating the correct texture. In the case of cinnamon rolls, I used Bread flour (強力粉; 12-14% gluten).
    • Using cake flour to bake the cake for cake pops turned out surprisingly okay… though the cake was flatter than usual.
    • Using cake flour for thumbprint cookies made a really dry, flat cookie that baked super quickly, and was surprisingly good. Though not a thumbprint cookie by any stretch of the imagination.
  • Japanese eggs are slightly larger than American ones, but I haven’t seen any notable differences in result.
  • Japanese butter tends to come unsalted.
  • For these harder to find flour types and other uncommon ingredients, like instant dry yeast, I recommend specialist baking stores. If you’re in Kyoto, the Takashimaya along Shijo-doori (near the Kawaramachi intersection) has a great one in the corner of the basement.

Happy baking!

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On being abroad

Long time no see, blog.

Studying abroad is a strange thing. I planned on making this blog more cultural commentary, but I think I may start veering off towards a more personal/fun path… It’s not that I have nothing to blog about, but it’s that it seems I have nothing to blog about. One day I’m lamenting on cultural differences, the next I’m scurrying along the crowded subways like a native Japanese – or at least as close as I’ll ever get to becoming one.

It’s not spring semester of my year abroad, and I feel like I’ve been here for eternity. I can’t even imagine not having to commute 40 minutes to school each morning, not being able to explore a historic city after class any day I wish, and being spoiled by delicious, simple Japanese food. So why am I excited to return to America next month? I think that’s most people’s inherent desire to belong to a community, especially one as homogeneous as Japan’s, being expressed; I still feel like my personality and values make me belong to American society. I wonder if I moved to Japan, if or when that sense of belonging would shift to Japanese society instead. Having been here for a few months now, I feel like the difference between American and Japanese society isn’t that great, but I often forget exactly what it means to grew up and be immersed in a strong culture like Japan’s, particularly in the case of its numerous, loosely religiously-based annual events.

Just last Wednesday, on March 3rd, it was Girl’s Day (ひな祭り/Hinmatsuri) here in Japan. Girl’s Day is a celebration of, literally, girls in Japan, with an equivalent day for boy’s later in the year. The most notable part of the day is that paper dolls are set up on in a 7-platform display, with the Emperor and the Empress on the top, the Empress’s three waiting ladies on the second platform, the five male musicians called goninbanashi on the third platform, and so on. They were originally believed to be able to retain bad spirits, but like most Japanese annual events, has lost a lot of its religious/spiritual meaning to be more akin to Mother’s or Father’s Day in the US. According to my host mother, the Japanese additionally take young girls in their first year to shrines, and eat Hinamatsuri-related foods. She chose to make tofu and mushroom-filled sushi, Emperor and Empress-shaped onigiri, and strawberry cakes “for” the females in our house and her extended family (pictured below).

What struck me about the day was that while my host mother mentioned similarly celebrating Hinamatsuri in her youth, it’s different hearing about aspects of Japanese culture and technically knowing that most if not all Japanese practice these events from when they’re born (when they’re taken to shrines upon birth) – and seeing my host mother’s granddaughter running around the house singing the song of the goninbanashi. In US terms, if Christmas was universally prevelant, that would be like a 3-year old running around singing a more traditional Christmas carol like Silent Night with an even older history behind it. Of course, to Sera, the song is nothing more that something she enjoys singing, but to me, it’s a reminder of how much I would need to learn to truly fit in Japanese society, from things as big as language to smaller, nuanced societal customs like singing the Hanamatsuri song; I know less than a 3-year old.

Of course, it goes both ways, with a bunch of Japanese people humming along to English Christmas songs but not knowing the words. But the US has much, much less of a cohesive culture with diverse demographics, so it naturally seems easier to belong to American society – but that’s me speaking as an American. I wonder if the Japanese would think so? If it would be actually difficult for them to belong to a society that has a weaker sense of homogeneous community? What does it truly mean to “belong” to or identify with a society? Looking back at my previous posts, while my feeling of belonging to Japanese society has increased, I’m still asking similar questions 6 months later. From that fact, it seems clear what my greatest concern would be with moving abroad permanently – which I before thought would be the language problem – and I have new respect for those who do so. Truly. Where do you belong?

Until my next post, enjoy these Hinamatsuri pictures!

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On being American

This weekend, I visited Okayama on a program-organized trip. I expected delicious fruit and beautiful scenery, both of which were present.

What I didn’t expect was to be in the passenger seat as the Japanese woman driving yelled ばか (baka/idiot) and honked the クラクション (kurakusyon/car horn) at the car in front of us, that had turned perhaps a little too close to the front of our car for comfort.

If this instance doesn’t seem that abnormal to you, it’s not. In America, that is. This past weekend was perhaps the second time I’ve heard a car horn in Japan, and that’s saying something since Kyoto has far greater car traffic than Ithaca. The woman honking the horn, Mari-san, was my host mother for the three days I stayed in Okayama. The above anecdote was on the third day, Sunday, when I had grown at least slightly accustomed to her “American” ways due to…

Friday: buying tons of cheap snacks, taking me to the “best cake” at Lawson’s (a convenience store) for my birthday

Saturday: approaching a random little girl and her mother to ask for details about a game that I was wondering about, ferociously spitting out baka at a car that dared to park in the middle of a parking lot lane, and shoving aside other mall patrons in a hurry

Again, normal?

It’s hard to convey the extent to which the above behavior is not normal, when I can’t forcibly drag you over to Japan for a month to show you the relatively small/infrequent amount of snacking, the ingrained expectation to pamper guests, the furtive subway glances because it’s impolite to stare – let alone – approach strangers, and the orderly way the Japanese line up even when we’re all pushing to get into that one express train to make it to work or school on time. My Japanese language partner spent a year studying abroad in America, throws the f-word in every few sentences, and still doesn’t approach the level of ferocity with which Mari-san yelled at the car in the parking lot. As for road rage? When two cars approach from opposite ends in a narrow street (aka 90% of streets of Japan), I’ve been in the car when my otousan (host father) spends 5 minutes backing all the way back up to the entrance so that the other car can get through, and then we politely put the car back in drive and breeze through.

Throw in the fact that Mari-san is about 5 feet tall, and we get my first bout of true reverse culture shock. I felt uncomfortable even sitting there in the car, witnessing the event.

In the moment, my initial question was why Mari-san behaved so “American.” My question was partially answered upon hearing that she had spent 5 years living in Columbus, Ohio – but my Japanese teacher spent years teaching at Ohio State, and is far from being so “American” in manner. And my okaasan‘s son-in-law just came back from a few years in California, and they’re from Mari-san as well. To add to the confusion, her perspectives and values are still so “Japanese.” We discussed the concept of humor in America versus Japan for an hour, and it took that long to explain the concept of different types of humor in America versus the one type of ユーモア (yuumoa) that’s commonly accepted in Japan.

But as as I recalled the weekend, my second question took me by surprise: how exactly does my way of thinking about Mari-san’s behavior, not the behavior itself, reflect on me as an American studying abroad in Japan? My quotation marks throughout this post have been on purpose; who am I to judge whether something is “American” –  because my nationality is American? Who’s to say she’s not just a very outspoken Japanese? If we take the words like American and Japanese to mean what is generally expected behavior from the people of those nationalities, would I really have called Mari-san’s behavior American just a month ago, when I just arrived in Japan? If not for being surrounded by Japanese culture for an extended period, perhaps I would’ve referred to her behavior as only outspoken.

Consequently, does this period of time and/or this way of thinking make me more Japanese? Perhaps. When we had to share Okinawa experiences in Japanese class, the teacher strongly agreed with my statement of Mari-san being very アメリカ人みたい (amerika-jin mitai/seeming like an American), which at least confirms that at least some Japanese with America experience believe she exhibited “American” behavior.

But these questions and answers give birth more questions. Would my teacher have the same standards of being “American” if he lacked experience living in America? For my fellow American classmates, who displayed various levels of surprise and agreement, are they too becoming more “Japanese?”

Events like these have introduced a new facet to the question “what am I?” and quite honestly, I’m not sure if I’ll be able to answer that question while I’m in Japan this year. For now, I’m content with being somewhere in between, undefined, yet happy as I peacefully glare a little at the bike that almost ran me over this morning.

And thus, this curious American bids you a temporary farewell from Japan.

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I had a great time this weekend, and am forever grateful to Mari-san for hosting me! PSA to stop here if you have no interest in pointless photo dumps.

Sophie from Howl's Moving Castle's hat shop! (I wish)
Sophie from Howl’s Moving Castle’s hat shop! (I wish)
Kurashiki scenery
Kurashiki scenery
koi fish  ( ✧Д✧) カッ!!
koi fish ( ✧Д✧) カッ!!
DANGOOOO!!!!
DANGOOOO!!!!
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Surprise, It’s Japan

As I was being squeezed to death in the subway this morning, I had a sudden moment where I realized “wow, I’m in Japan.” As in wow, sometime in these past two weeks, I’ve started to feel like I’ve been in Japan forever. Though whether that’s a great or dangerous – perhaps making me less self-motivated to further my Japanese studies – is up to debate.

The point is, I’m starting to forget what things that first surprised me when I got here, so I thought I’d dedicate this post to jotting them down. No, it’s not the general things we hear in class, like bowing, or the interesting things we hear about in the news, like a man who’s somehow accumulated 50 blowup dolls. Rather, it’s the simple things in daily life that I’m starting to just accept. Quite fittingly, we just read an article in Japanese class yesterday titled “The surprising things American’s notice about Japan: Best 3,” which I’ll discuss below.

The article starts with the standard surprises: the sheer population in such a small country (about the size of California), the business of morning commute, and how the Japanese will stuff to no end into an elevator. But we’re here for the best 3:

  1. Why are Japanese people are so kind?
  2. There are many Japanese with poorly aligned teeth.
  3. There are special slippers for the bathroom.

My thoughts:

On 1, true though I feel like it can be kind of expected from how polite the Japanese language is, which subsequently bleeds into behavior. The article lists examples like how store clerks always appear when you’re in a bind, and otherwise just always have concern for you. Which are… true? I have little comment on this since it’s not something that surprised me.

On 2, another things I deducted from pictures I’ve seen, etc. though the issue isn’t really that obvious – though perhaps I have a bias since I’ve never gotten braces or any other superficial alterations to my teeth, which the article says is common for Americans (true). What I found interesting about 2 is that the article says the reason for this is that imperfections, like double teeth, are kawaii (cute). To which I say, the beauty of culture is that we have differing views.

On 3, yes, I was surprised. The article states the reason is to not dirty the other rooms, which I can understand with Japan’s stress on cleanliness. My classmates and I all had question about this one in class, and our teacher revealed that the number of houses that have toilet slippers is declining and is now mainly in bathrooms with tile floors. Though as to why tile floors, he hypothesized that it may be because it gets cold in the winter, since tiles are actually easy to clean. What I don’t get is how my family can be so clean (and see below) yet use the same towel and sponge to wipe the dishes forever – which are notoriously carriers of lots of germs.

While the above 3 are good points, I’m not sure if I’d really call them the best 3. Though they’re fairly strong ones, since I can definitely see how these points vary from person-to-person. Here’s a non-ordered list of things that really surprised me:

  1. Toilet slippers
  2. How clean all bathrooms are, even ones at traditionally unclean places like subway stations — edit// tried a convenience store bathroom… and take it back on everywhere being clean, but almost everywhere!
  3. Having to clean and vacuum my room every week… I barely do that once every 6 months in America
  4. How (at least outwardly) patient everyone is with my lacking Japanese skills
  5. People always acknowledge others when greeted or approached, even if it’s for an undesired flier
  6. The popularity of shorter hair
  7. How put together everyone’s appearance is (I’ve heard of it before, but it’s different when everyone you see is dressed decent-to-amazingly with styled hair and, if female, makeup)
  8. The sheer number of mosquitos and the humidity
  9. How polite, aka lack of shoving, people are while waiting to board to subway, go up the escalators, etc.
  10. The distance people put between themselves and others when taking seats on the train, aka as far away as possible
  11. Like a mange, how there are actually middle aged-to-elderly women who voluntarily sweep the ground of leaves in the morning
  12. How it seems like every Japanese baseball team has a few foreigner players, though apparently there’s a rule on how many you’re allowed to have (I’m not a fan of baseball, but my otousan/host father is)

Result: [picture to come]

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Japan so far…

Hello again, sadly neglected blog. I’m sorry for the delay, but I’ve been so busy and tired, tired, tired. All the time. I don’t even think it’s jet lag because I sleep at 9pm every night and wake up at 9am if I can (aka no school). Though school started today, so it’s 7am for me every morning to make the morning commute.

I was going to give a more formal introduction to KCJS, the program that I’m attending, but I think it can be pretty much summed up by an intensive Japanese program ran by Columbia University. More information can be found here, for those curious minds: http://www.kcjs.jp/index.html. I was also going to sum up what cool Japan things I’ve done so far, but I’ll be holding off on that as well. My post topics may be a bit random, depending on my mood – apologies in advance! For today, it’ll be a post on all those cheesy things called feelings.

Before studying abroad, I thought I was prepared. Beyond prepared. I went to info sessions, knew why I wanted to study abroad and vaguely what goals I wanted to accomplish, extensively researched the program, and even referenced other study abroad blogs.

I was not prepared.

According to other blogs, I think I’m still supposed to still be in my honeymoon phase. But I already constantly have thoughts like “what am I doing here?” “is this [moving to Japan] really something I want to do in the future?” “how can my Japanese ever improve?” We have Japanese class every morning for 2 hours, can only speak in Japanese in Fukosan (the international building where we have classes), can obviously only speak Japanese with our host families, and each and every corner is Japanese. I’ve tried my best going places with my host family, exploring the area with a Japanese Doshisha University student, making friends with other KCJS students, and buying manga and listening to songs to practice. But I already feel the Japanese overload and I’m at week 1 of ~30 weeks.

Everything else is fine, so the problem must be with me, right?

If you think something sounds a bit off here, you’re right. I think studying abroad has made it so easy to internalize my insecurities and while that’s something that study abroad prep may warn of, I didn’t realize exactly how easy it is. When things are or feel like they are out of my control, it’s so easy to think the problem’s me. But while I may have a problem, I realize that I’m not inherently the problem. I just need to relax while pursuing my Japanese goal, but it’s hard not to do something just because I’m in Japanese. I’m sure it’s something I’ll struggle with throughout this year so I’m glad I have it out in the open. I’m far from miserable, but I feel stressed over and obligated to do things that I would normally love – which is not conducive to an enjoyable study abroad experience.

One other smaller point that I don’t often see addressed is being East Asian is an East Asian country. I’ve read and heard from my KCJS classmates complaints about treated like a gaijin (foreigner) in Japan, experiences from being spoken to in English or stared at. While I sympathize, I struggle to empathize because the issue of being Chinese in Japan is completely opposite. I’m often – aka always by people who don’t know me – mistaken for Japanese before I talk/express/otherwise act in some manner that’s foreign. While receiving native treatment can be valuable for truly experiencing the culture, as a relative beginner, I am quickly recognized for the gaijin I am. And from there, it’s hard watching the Japanese become closed off when they were so open and natural before, and it makes me hesitant to react knowing that I’m so, so far from meeting their expectations. I know I shouldn’t let this natural way of life make me feel self-conscious but… it’s hard.

I guess it’s better for me to jot down these feelings now, when I still feel strongly about them. Overall, I couldn’t ask for a better host family, food, and teachers! I know it’ll be a great year and will post about cooler things in the future with gross iPhone 4s pictures to match (like below, with my host family).

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