Thursday, September 28, 2006

Fiscal Management in the Work Week from Hell

Perusal of this week's page in my daily planner conjures up all the same feelings of frenetic unease and cognitive dissonance as viewing something out of a Hieronymus Bosch sketchbook. To say I've overextended myself would be somewhat of an understatement. I have some vague notion of how this came about: mostly a combination of a week and a half out of the office, a week long visit by a friend from the States, and the apparent utter inability to say 'No, actually, I can't do that for you; I'm much too busy down here in the visa section drinking mai tais and practicing my golf swing.' The fact that our number of Japanese applicants has dropped precipitously -- thereby inversely raising my refusal rate to a rather surprising 25% -- is just one more stress. (Today's favorite rejection: the Peruvian who told me his consulate kept his old passport when he sent it in to be renewed. Yeah, right. "Sir," I asked him flatly, "exactly how long were you in Japan without a visa?" After some hemming and hawing and 'oh,-I-don't-speak-Japanese-so-well'ing he finally came out with: 5 years. やっぱり。 Enjoy your transit home through Europe.)

Anyways, one of my big projects this week is organizing a representational event (ah, shades of A-100!) for the consular section. 40 people have RSVP'd, though I had asked for funding for 60 people on the off chance that EVERY invitee came. Thus, I was able to arrange for food and drink at fully $300 dollars beneath my initial projected budget. Great, right? I was pretty pleased with myself. $300 back in the consulate's pocket. Then I get this call from the management section: Have I considered ordering more pizza? they want to know. Or a few sushi platters? Perhaps buying some beer? Merlot goes well with pepperoni, didn't I agree?

I didn't quite know what to make of this at first. 17 pizzas between 40 people already seemed more than adequate, and we have enough beer and soda in the consular fridge to crush a person. But what I had forgotten was that this is the government, not some private company. That money doesn't go back into the consulate's pocket; we don't get to use it later when we need to buy a new desk or replace the carpet. Instead, it disappears into some budgetary black hole never to be seen again. And moreover, to not spend the money you request is the fiscal equivalent of crying wolf; do it too often, and when you do need to spend to the last penny, you'll suddenly find your allowance has been cut. Rather naive of me, but somehow I'd always thought the whole government spending thing was more of a joke than an actual practice... It's a weird logic, but once I got my head around it, I felt rather stupid for not having seen my mistake: Only ask for funding for 60 if you really think all 60 are going to come. Or, apparently, anticipate 40, ask for 60 just in case, then go out and buy extra beer.

So, in the spirit of protecting the future of our representational event money pot, I made a late evening trip to the local supermarket to stock up on provisions. I bought out all their diet coke, picked up one each of every type of rice cracker and potato chip, and threw in some bags of snickers and milky way bars for good measure. If it weren't for the lack of hard cider and jello shots, I could have been on my way to a sorority party. Meanwhile, management is taking the car tomorrow to buy alcohol on my behalf, so I won't have to schlep it squirrel-like to the consulate on my own.

Also tomorrow, I have to give a 30 minute presentation on student visas in Japanese. Seeing as my last speech went so well, maybe I'll be cracking open some of that alcohol a little early.

If I can just make it to Sunday...

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Alien Body Parts

Hot on the heels of my return from Korea, an old friend from the States arrived for a weeklong visit. It was her first time in Japan; in fact, her first time anywhere but Europe and North America. Watching her reactions to things has been amusing (ex: "They don't go in much for dental work in this country, do they?"). Making the time to hang out has been totally worth the inbox triage I know I'll have to start performing first thing tomorrow back in the office.

Concerned by my lack of a personal life, my friend's solution was to stay up late hanging pictures, drinking plum wine, and painting our toenails with polish she'd bought at the 100 yen store. As this marked a slight deviation from the typical, 'you need to get a boyfriend' advice that seems to be everyone's panacea, I agreed to this plan. But I was a little hurt when, watching me struggle with the complexities of nail polish, she nearly doubled-over in laughter. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry..." at this point she was wiping away tears. "It's just... Kate (for some reason, friends from the time period in which we met almost universally call me 'Kate'), when was the last time you did this?" The thinking back this required was not made any easier by the fumes from the polish. "I don't know..." I pulled my foot up to my lap to examine the blue sparkley goop that was pooling around my cuticle. "Maybe four years ago..?" "Four YEARS?! You mean, the LAST time we painted nails together? Back in Florida?" "Is this why I can't keep a man?" I asked her somberly. She groaned and took the brush and bottle away from me like it was a loaded weapon. "Sweetheart, why don't I take care of this for you..."

So now I have copper-colored toenails, the brush that came with the glittery blue version having been deemed too thin to allow for even application of the personal life improving elixir that is nail polish. Everytime I see my feet, it gives me such a start that I actually jump; the coloration makes them look somehow disembodied. Showering this morning, I couldn't shake the feeling that I was sharing the bath with a cadaver. Thus I've resolved to no longer look down. Maybe that's the secret to nail polish's apparent social magic -- encouraging better posture and increased eye contact through jolting encounters with one's own alien appearance.

I just hope this isn't a first step down the path that leads to constant need for wearing lipstick and eyeshadow. I don't think I could handle having a disembodied face.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Coming Home

Arriving home late at night, bag, sweater, suitcase peel off in layers, leaving a bread-crumb trail from the front door to the couch. I don't bother to turn on the light. At the sight of the familiar blinking cityscape through the balcony windows, everything I had wanted to say to him wells up in a sudden spasm of gall and tears, sharp sobs of broken glass that tear through me in thin jagged lines. It's over quickly, for which I'm grateful. I allow myself to remain prostrate on the sofa, listening to the secret nighttime workings of my apartment. The sound is just my own sound echoed back at me, like holding a seashell to one's ear.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

韓国 Part 2: 皆さんと一緒に

Aside from an uncomfortable personal situation that's tinting my time here, it's truly wonderful to see everyone. Just to share physical contact, a hug, a quick pat on the back... To be without that is one of the hardest things about being in Japan. I find I can't stop touching people. I'm sure they don't understand; my verbal and written contact has been sparse, to say the least, just a few postcards and an occasional quick email, and this tactile desire is not really in keeping with what they knew of me in A-100. It doesn't help that from time to time the personal matter overwhelms me, and I suddenly have to walk away rather than risk exposure. At dinners, topics unmentioned out of respect for me hang in the air like overripe fruit; I'm afraid to talk, afraid of shaking loose a taut-skinned globule that will smash on the table, upsetting the dishes. It's a mixed message I'm sending, to be sure, yet people have been kind and allowing. I thought I might feign illness to avoid anything discomforting, but it turns out there's no need to pretend -- regret and self-pity, having mixed in some fabulous chemical reaction, are burning a hot hole in my stomach. Eating is an impossibility. A shame, as we're paying $38 for each lunch at the hotel, and I have a special fondness for kim chee.

But I digress.

The conference here has been really quite good, much better than I expected. The planning and organization speaks to the high quality of the JOs and management at Embassy Seoul, and I'm rethinking my earlier reticence with regards to serving here. At the recommendation of a friend, I spent one session of the conference having a meeting with a higher-up to discuss my 'career goals'. To be honest, I didn't think I had any; I've always just wanted to go where I'm needed, where I can make a positive difference, and the thing is I really mean that. So I was taken aback to hear myself say, "I'm not sure I would want to return to Mission Japan..." The supervisor's surprise echoed my own. But seeing people I care about again, drinking in casual touch, listening to stories about camaraderie in the face of hardship, I realized that I want to be where there's a tightknit community, and people reach out to support each other. Of course, no post can guarantee those things, but some circumstances favor their creation more than others. It's what I had loved about my time in Japan before. I don't want that love to be diminished by an overlay of new, less pleasant experiences.

So I find I have a lot to think about.


Sunday, September 10, 2006

韓国 Part 1: 一人旅

Back in Korea after a five year absence... I really enjoy Seoul, but feel a bit guarded here. Enjoying the place seems almost like an insult to my japanese friends, which is something I feel guilty about on several levels. Once you're caught up in the intricacies of japanese 義理 giri and 恩 on (social obligations / debts of gratitude), it's a hard thing to extricate yourself from. I don't resent my emotional obligations to Japan, but the strength and reach of them startles me sometimes.

At any rate, Seoul is nice, nicer than I remember. The night I arrived I wandered around the area surrounding my hotel, watching the street vendors and sidewalk cafe tables where fashionable Koreans were gathered, eating and laughing. On one corner, older korean men were playing igo, sliding the black and white discs across the thick wooden gameboards with a nonchalant sort of concentration. My commute now from home to work means that I never really get to experience Osaka nightlife, and I wonder how it would compare. Osaka is older, losing itself slowly to Tokyo, and stoically self-aware of the loss. Seoul lacks this tinge of melancholy. 楽観的な町です: an optimistic city.

My hotel itself is fantastic, a no-nonsense garishly korean affair with just the right amount of comfortable squalor. I suspect it doubles as a love hotel. The brochure and map provided by the airport information desk claim it to be located in 'central Seoul'; this translates in practice to the city's printing district. Opening the wooden shutters of my room's tiny window allows in the mechanical clack-clack-clack of the presses, which rolls out of the surrounding warehouse storefronts in heavy, heated waves. A sign in the two-person elevator warns not to push the button for the basement, as this will open into the kitchen area of a restaurant.

Surpringly, the place is teeming with Japanese, and this is the language in which I communicate with the hotel staff. We've chosen to ignore the slight absurdity of this. (Also to be ignored: the fact that I'm speaking more Japanese in Korea than I normally would during a weekend in Osaka.) Over breakfast, I've been able to chat with some of the other guests, mostly younger japanese women travelling on their own. One, a girl from Gifu prefecture, a very rural area of Japan, tells me a story of walking into a coffee shop in Seoul and announcing "I'm looking for korean friends, but I don't speak any Korean whatsoever." She said a group of Koreans who'd done exchange programs in Japan approached her right away. I was impressed by her willingness to risk embarrassment and rejection, not something I myself am terribly good at doing. Her attitude gave me hope for Japan-Korea relations.

My handful of korean words has proved useful: 화장실, 식당, 부탁함니다... I can communicate just enough, but not so much that I feel uncomfortable. You can lose some part of yourself in talking, give things away that I'd rather were controlled and regulated. To be in a place where it is impossible to give up that control is strangely comforting. It's the equivalent of swimming without getting wet. I had thought that these few days of mute solitude would help prepare me to greet my A-100 colleagues, would 'center' me somehow, but am finding the opposite to be the case. As the hour approaches for me to leave for our shared hotel, the slight anxiety is causing my stomach to raise and lower uncomfortably. I hope things go more smoothly than this physical reaction would imply. I know I know I know what I'm afraid of, but am trying not to think about it.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

The Care and Feeding of Geraniums

“No other flowering plant has shown a greater rate of increase in dollar value to commercial floriculture and better performance to the purchasers during the last twenty years.”
--Fischer USA website

One of the great virtues of moving about as a child was that when public speaking assignments were issued, I was able to deliver the same three speeches from middle school all the way up to college without anyone having been the wiser. The topics of these three speeches were:
  1. The dangers to world health presented by the rise of TB
  2. Why we ought to care about China receiving back Hong Kong
  3. How to pot a geranium
Of the above topics, how to pot a geranium was by far my favorite.

“One of the most popular of all flowers worldwide, drought-tolerant geraniums are exceptionally easy to grow.”
--Better Homes & Gardens website

It was thus with great delight that I purchased my first geranium in college, a lovely Pelargonium inquinans with red blooms. I had been making that speech for so long, I could have potted it blindfolded, a la Daisy Duke assembling an engine in the dark.

It died almost immediately. But you saw that coming, right?

“Geraniums grow best in full sun.”
--Iowa State University horticultural webpage

In retrospect, I think my apartment balcony was much too shady (as in lack of light, not as in prone to loitering thugs and late-night drug deals). Also, I think that I was over-confident; knowing how to pot a plant is not the same thing as knowing how to care for one. I tipped out the spent geranium and planted ivy, which grew like mad, even when a family of doves trampled it down and built a nest on the flattened leaves. It was great fun watching the doves, but did not fully make up for the trauma of having so quickly lost my first geranium.

“Geraniums need to be kept evenly moist. However, slight drying out between watering is much better than too much water.”
--Bachman’s Floral, Home & Garden website

My second attempt at growing geraniums was not until I’d returned to Florida from Japan. My then- boyfriend had a porch that received plenty of direct sun, and I convinced him that a geranium was just the thing to liven up his domicile. This geranium, another zonal variety, did not die quickly. Rather, it slowly and painfully rotted away (and here, we will avoid all comparisons to the relationship he and I had). Applying my keen horticultural acumen, I diagnosed the problem as overwatering. I highly suspect that the pot is still sitting on his porch in Florida, though he himself has long since moved away.

“Pest problems are minimal with geraniums.”
--Ohio State University Extension Fact Sheet

Back again in Japan, and on round three of my bout with genus Pelargonium. It was all going really swimmingly, until one morning when I went out to dead-head* the plants and discovered the presence of caterpillars, methodically decimating everything from the roots up. The only thing to do with caterpillars is violent and unprintable; when I left for work later, the bottoms of my shoes were covered with sticky green goo. Vigilance paid off, and I was eventually able to stave off the plague of destruction. But the geraniums were never quite the same after that.

“Although over 45 different diseases have been described on geranium, most of them fortunately do not occur with any frequency.”
--The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station website

Other recent botanical near-death experiences included a wind-inspired suicidal leap off the balcony ledge (repaired with copious amounts of super glue), and a week away in Tokyo where the rainy season suddenly cleared up, leading me to regret having not asked a neighbor to see to it that the plants were watered. We have survived all of these affronts.

However, now I have come across a problem for which even the magic of the internet seems loath to provide a solution. My geraniums are turning white. Not the flowers, the leaves. The difference between when I bought them and now is the difference between Michael Jackson ‘Off the Wall’ and Michael Jackson ‘Dangerous’. It looks like some chlorophyll-thirsty vampire has been stealing on to the balcony at night to suck the plants dry.

“If your geraniums are diseased or are infested with pests, it is best to trash them and start over with new, healthy starts next year.”
--Oregan State University Extension Service Garden Hints

I fear this may be the death-knell for my poor Pelargonium. I’ve tried moving them in and out of the sun, watering them less, watering them more, talking to them lovingly, and threatening them loudly. Cajoling in both Japanese and English has produced no result. All that’s left is to bring them inside and make them comfortable in their final hours. My coffee table has become some sort of ghastly plant hospice.

“You already know that geraniums thrive outdoors, in summer flower beds or containers, but did you know that geraniums can be grown successfully indoors all year round?”
--Creative-Home website: ‘The Medicinal Uses of Geraniums’

There’s no real moral or ending to this story. Except that now I see why emotionally fragile people opt for ferns.


*The systematic removal of expired blossoms and leaves. It has absolutely nothing to do with Jerry Garcia.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Long on Time, Short on Cash

Due to a series of miscommunications and missed opportunities, I found myself at the beginning of a three day weekend in Japan with less than 8000 yen in my wallet -- and this only because I raided my stash of old japanese bills I'd been saving to someday frame. This calls to mind a roughly four month span I experienced as a grad student in London, when the value of the dollar suddenly plummeted, causing my actual expenses to increase by half quite literally overnight. The only difference is that in London, most museums are free, and I could walk to many of them. That is not the case with most attractions in Japan. (And also, in London I knew Mom and Dad would bail me out if I asked them to -- when I found myself in the 'fell-off-the-truck' discount grocers debating whether or not I could afford to spend 34 pence on butter, I realized it was time to do just that.)

So, my grand plans to travel back to my japanese hometown ($60 for the return trip bus ticket), or to stay over the weekend at a japanese countryside inn (prices starting at $100 a night), or even just to go hiking in Kyoto (a less than $20 train trip, but if anything were to happen there's no way I could get back by taxi for under $60) having been thwarted, I set about trying to entertain myself at home. Sara is at a conference in Okinawa this week, Heather's on homeleave, and everyone else has a family and doesn't want to play. So it really was just me, for three days straight. Lucky for me that I'm such wonderful company.

In the end, this turned out to be somewhat of a blessing. I went running for the first time in forever (my adductor muscles where NOT happy about this, shaking their little fists at me in indignant rage). I made brown rice with the giant ricecooker I had bought on a whim at CostCo (a Tiger brand 10 cup monstrosity, the Cadillac of ricecookers -- by eating directly from the cooker, I find I can affect a whole new level of militant singlehood). I ate through part of my stash of ready-made curry (running revealed that this has given my sweat a distinctive - yet not unpleasant - south asian vibe). I went walking along the river in my town and fed the koi and pigeons stale bread I'd been saving for that purpose (clearly I'm not the only one ignoring the signs that say not to do this, because the pigeons had no compunction about perching on my arms and shoulders in varying degrees of dramatic incline to eat the bread out of my hands). I hung out at night in the coffee shop near my house (a $4 cup of coffee being the one thing I could afford), and read both Japanese (a translation of Sherlock Holmes stories) and English (David Foster Wallace essays). Lacking a TV, I used my computer to watch a Japanese language sub of Casablanca on DVD ("We'll always have Paris." = 君と過ごしたパリの思い出がある。). All very pleasant, parenthetically rich activities. Though I think the most satisfying thing I did all weekend was study Korean.

Now why, you might ask, would I be doing something so irrational as begin study of a third language when I am sucking so badly at the language of the country I'm actually living in? Well, frankly, I feel restless and discouraged with my Japanese; I need a smaller scale project to take on where I can see immediate gains. Thus, in anticipation of many more days trapped at home once the Dante-esque hell of japanese winter begins, I bought a korean language text book and signed up for the FS online Korean course. The grammar is supposed to be similar to Japanese, so my hope is that one will reinforce the other. (I can always hope, right?)

At any rate, my first revelation concerning Korean came when I learned the word for 'hat': 모자. Having learned this from a book, I can really only guess at the correct pronounciation, but it's something like 'maw-ja'. At any rate, what was so exciting about this is that I realized the korean sound 'ja' (자) must be equivalent to the japanese sound 'shi' (し), since the japanese word for 'hat' is 帽子 'boshi'*. The kanji character 子 that sounds like 'shi' in the japanese word for 'hat', and presumably 'ja' in the korean word, means 'child'. In Japanese, it can also be pronouced 'ko' (こ), and is a very common ending for japanese female names (Keiko and Mariko and Junko and the like). And so (stay with me here) this must be why so many of the korean female names I see at the window end in 'ja': it's the korean version of Keiko and Mariko and Junko! QED.

Being able to follow this deductive chain from beginning to end marked a high point in this weekend's accomplishments, right up there with finally filing the stack of paper that's been on my floor for over a month, and sewing the fly button back on my black work pants. I haven't been able to feel in any way accomplished in language study in an awfully long time. So thanks, Korea! If I have anything to say about it, Tokushima will someday be definitively yours.

The fact that I can't as yet form the sentence 'This is a hat' in Korean is completely inconsequential...


* The languages of the two countries share a common Chinese root; using that as an axiom, I felt this was a pretty safe assumption.

Friday, September 01, 2006

'See Japan.' Check!

Today, taking a taxi back from an event I'd attended on behalf of the consulate, I chatted a bit with the driver. "What things do you recommend I do while I'm in Japan?" I asked him.

"Well..." he strummed his gloved fingers on the steering wheel, considering. "Have you been to Koya-san? That's a really wonderful place."

"I was just there a couple of weeks ago, for the Candle Festival," I told him.

"Ah. I see." More strumming. "Have you climbed Mt. Fuji?"

"I did that my first time in Japan. It was beautiful. I don't think I'd do it again though; you know the saying: 'If you don't climb it once, you're stupid; if you climb it twice, you're stupid.'"

"Yes, that's true. Say, I'll bet you've never seen sumo!"

"Oh, well actually... I saw a tournament in Osaka."

"Have you been to a hot springs?"

"Yes, many times. They're great."

"Have you eaten a lot of japanese food?"

"Yes."

"Pufferfish sashimi?"

"Yes."

"Fermented soy beans?"

"Yes."

"Any Osaka food?"

"I especially like okonomiyaki."

"Hmm." He thought a bit longer, raising one hand up from the steering wheel to adjust his glasses. "Sounds like you've really seen Japan."

I guess I can go home now!