Monday, February 26, 2007

Multicultural Japan

Though my euphoric high has begun to mellow to a more reasonable 'Ah, won't that be nice...' sort of pleased contentment, I'm still concerned with becoming too focused on where I'm going, as opposed to where I actually am. My one year anniversary of arrival to post (and thus my one year countdown until departure) is just next month; it's easy to forget, but my time here is limited. And there's still a lot I want to see in Japan.

Like the Kobe Lion Dance.

The Lion Dance -- perhaps more correctly a dragon dance, called 獅子舞 shishimai in Japanese -- takes place in Kobe's Chinatown, an area referred to as 南京町 Nankinmachi or 'Nanking Village'*. The dance is considered one of Japan's 'Intangible Cultural Treasures', an official label bestowed by the government. I had thought it was brought with the original chinese immigrants, passed down from generation to generation... Turns out it only just started in 1987. But still, it's one of the area's biggest events. With my 'Must enjoy this post while I can' determination firmly in hand, I woke up early on Sunday morning to catch the train into town.

Part of my interest in the Lion Dance is the government's official recognition of an ostensibly chinese tradition as being a cultural asset of Japan. Japan's homogeneity is a subject widely commented on; I'm a bit of a skeptic on this point. In addition to vast regional differences (try telling people from Osaka that they're just like the people in Tokyo), I think there is actually a fair deal of genetic and ethnic diversity here as well. Even Emperor Akihito recognizes this, and you'd think he'd be in a position to know. So I was curious to see how this particular event would be treated in relation to the 我々日本人 Wareware Nihonjin 'We Japanese...' mindset.

I arrived to crowds of onlookers... carefully roped off with yellow cord. The police had formed blockades and created detailed pathways and routes around the stage, a tiny pagoda in the center of Nankinmachi. And to make sure that no one in the crowd misunderstood EXACTLY where to stand and EXACTLY which way to go, they all had giant signs and bullhorns to make things even clearer. I estimate there were at least 15 policemen in the pagoda square; there were maybe 100 people roped into the official viewing zone. Those of us on the wrong side of the ropeline (maybe an extra 100 people) were repeatedly yelled at for blocking the walkway and storefronts, and asked to 'keep moving'. I'm not sure when I last saw such a ridiculous display of martinetism. Were they expecting riots? I stood quietly with a small group of Japanese tourists, trying to take pictures from afar.

After 10 minutes of blocked views and ear-piercing "TACHITOMARANAI DE!" megaphone-powered aural bludgeonings, I finally wandered off to get some ramen and dumplings...

So it turns out that even multiculturalism is a pretty controlled affair in Japan. I don't guess this should surprise me. Police, at any rate, seem pretty much the same anywhere you go.

*I'm not sure if the is a purposeful reference to the infamous massacre or not. Apparently the Chinese immigration to Kobe began in 1868, so likely no. It still gives me a bit of the creeps whenever I read the name on signs, though.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Who Am I Kidding? メール読もう!


After all that, my number one bid!*

Wow. I wonder if I can learn Arabic? I mean really learn it?

Thanks, Lee. If you hadn't called, I probably wouldn't have checked the email until Monday...

*Well, sort of -- I bid the Con-Pol rotation, and they gave me Pol-Con. But this doesn't seem like the time to split hairs...

Delayed Gratification?

Last night and this morning were again spent in Wakayama, this time to assist with a ship visit. I've just returned after a long train ride, put on the kettle, fed the cat...

We're supposed to know by now. I mull this over while puttering about in the kitchen.

After a bit of waffling, I log on to my email. Nestled in the middle of about 10 new messages, there's one from my CDO entitled 'Congratulations - Your Onward Assignment'. I've been looking at it for a little while now. It looks somehow very cheery, though I'm sure that it's merely a form email. I haven't opened it. The kettle is whistling.

Some part of me enjoys this anticipation. Or at least, I think I'm enjoying it. My heart is beating like mad, which I find sort of ridiculous. It doesn't matter when I open the email, or whether or not I'm happy with the assignment. Either way I'm going there. So there's no reason to be nervous, or even excited, really. It's fun though, like having a crush. You can imagine all the possibilities before the unpleasantries appear.

To Med's credit, in the end they came through and provided me with an explanation. It took searching through chains of emails forwarded to me from the Department by my CDO, but I was finally able to locate a real human being in Med to email. They only want me to go to posts that have access to a neurologist. Naturally I don't feel this restriction is necessary -- since there's no cure, the best a neurologist can do is track progression merely as a matter of interest. I'll just be some specialist's fun case study; a doctor can't exactly help me. But no point in arguing. The nurse in Med sent me a list of posts that met their criteria. Pairing that with the available openings, it left 26 positions. I didn't bother trying to really rank them. I just sent my CDO a list of the six I didn't want to go to, along with the six from my original bidlist that made the cut: positions in Amman, Cairo, New Delhi, and Chennai. Everything else was Spanish-speaking 2 year consular tours. Which I suppose would be fine. It has to be fine, right? I have a friend going to Guadalajara; maybe we'd be near each other.

Deep breaths.

I'm going to make some tea.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Opacity, Thy Name is Med

Med has finally gotten back to me. And here's their helpful remarks:

Abu Dhabi not approved

Amman approved

Baghdad not approved

Cairo approved

Capetown approved

Dublin approved

Harare not approved

Islamabad not approved

London approved

New Delhi approved

Sanaa not approved

Skopje not approved

That's quite literally the full extent of what was forwarded to me by my CDO. No explanation or consultation with me. The list doesn't even reflect my final bid submission, since my CDO has yet to forward anything I've sent to her on to Med in a timely fashion. She has been very good, however, at sending me frantic emails about how I need to get things to Med right away. This forward came with instructions to pick at least 10 more bids as soon as possible, since "I’m afraid some of the pre-approved posts will be gone by the time we get to your equity group."

So, just to be clear on what's happening: because I am currently at a zero differential post, they will consider my bids LAST despite the fact that I'm now incredibly restricted on where I can go. I have asked her AGAIN why this is the case, and what will happen if every post I'm allowed to bid on is already taken. I don't expect an answer. I'm so frustrated. I am not taking medication for this condition. I am not expected to have another attack, only a gradual decline. THERE IS NO TREATMENT ANYONE CAN GIVE ME. What does it matter if I'm in Abu Dhabi or if I'm in London? Not that London was even on my final bidlist... Two more years of consular work at an English speaking post is not going to earn me any appreciable skills. I can think of few things less palatable, actually. Or more worthless for my supposed 'career'.

And the worst part is that it's already past midnight here. I won't even be able to deal clearly with this until tomorrow.

Monday, February 19, 2007

A Hearty Welcome to the Year of the Pig

This weekend we took a roadtrip to Konpira-san, where we ate like absolute fiends. Also, I may or may not have bought one of these hats:

And that's my story!

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Wakayama* Part II

My last trip to Wakayama Prefecture having gone so well, the CG kindly saw fit to invite me to go with him for a second visit. Seems that Governor Kimura (now former Governor Kimura) was arrested in a rather unfortunate slush fund scandal, and so the CG had made plans to meet Wakayama's new governor, Governor Nisaka**. Having already experienced this exact courtesy call not even a year earlier, I didn't think much about it. The NIV chief is out this week, the PAO is out this month, and I've been asked to fill both jobs in their absence. Between that, bidding, EER preparation, and MS research, I find my days are pretty packed. The evening before the trip I stayed at work till 7:45 or so trying to get things done. Wakayama was on my to-do list, wedged somewhere between 'follow up on E-visa questions with Tokyo' and 'write report on ABIC visit for PAS'.

Adjudications that morning went to 11:35 exactly; this left me 10 minutes to grab an onigiri and some coffee at the convenience store, put on my jacket, and sprint to the consular car. Gathering up my things to go, I realized I'd made an enormous error: I had completely forgotten my business cards. In Japan, this is something akin to leaving the house clad in nothing but a bathrobe. But, as there wasn't anything I could do about it short of bumming cards off one of the other JOs (an idea briefly considered, but ultimately abandoned), I decided to try and be graceful and cool about the mistake. Sitting next to the CG in the backseat, reading over the visit's schedule, I let him know calmly about my faux pas. He did his best to take it in stride.

"So, no meishi... Well, do you have a pad of paper or something with you? Something for notes?"

Uh, paper? Notes? I looked at him blankly. The only thing I had with me was a purple spiral bound 8 1/2 by 11" notebook I'd been using to keep track of my bids. I pulled this out. It seemed huge, like something a sweatpants-wearing grad student would be toting around. He handed me a printed write up of the notes from the last visit to Wakayama as an example, by which I gathered that I was to be the official notetaker for this courtesy call. I don't even remember there being a notetaker the last time; certainly it wasn't me! But no problem. Well, small problem:

"Do you happen to have a pen I could borrow?" I asked him. At this point I was cursing violently to myself while biting my lips in mortification over my clear lack of preparation. It was terribly tempting to shower him with apologies while cutting off a little finger to prove my remorse, but I thankfully stopped myself. No one cares about intentions. All that matters are results.

The next day, back in the office, I stayed late to write up my notes for him. The reply? "This is great. Run it through spellcheck and send it to PAS and POL." Spellcheck. Right. Well, only the mediocre are always at their best!

Here's a picture from our consulate website:

That's me in the back, grimacing. Next time, I'm bringing along an entire stationery store.

*The name of this prefecture literally translates as 'Harmonious Singing Mountains'. Isn't that nice?

**Kimura wins points for better business cards (made of wood!; I guess that's what slush fund money gets you), but on the whole I found Nisaka much more thoughtful and personable. And, you know, my opinion counts a lot here.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Up, Up, Up

This weekend I went through three books in quick succession: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, The Painted Veil, and On the Road. Each quite different; all quite quite wonderful.

My final list of 20 bids is due on the 15th. Looking at it on Sunday night, I had a horrible panic attack. Earlier that morning I had awoke to discover that half of my right hand was not just numb, but actually lifeless. A wad of meat and bone that did not move and did not bend and did not respond to entreaties or caresses or starkly terrifying recollections of touching my grandmother's hand just before they buried her. After a few minutes the familiar tingly numbness returned, indolent and unapologetic, but the sense of loss of control -- however brief -- remained. I haven't heard from Med; my CDO has not answered a single question I've asked her; and pushing bids from one rank to another I suddenly felt like I was in a total vacuum. I started emailing friends and pressing for advice. Was I insane to think I could handle Baghdad? Could I really hold it together enough to do a GSO job? Was it worthwhile to even put a list together when I knew Med was going to butcher it anyways? Should I just get out of this career now? It was a long time before I could sleep.

Since Tuesday I've thought I had a touch of the flu. Now I realize the nausea's real cause is stress.

Something about that realization has been immensely calming. Sitting in the corner coffee shop immersed somewhere in the middle of Kerouac's journey from Denver to San Francisco, it occurred to me that I had enjoyed all of the books I've read this weekend, despite their differences. More than enjoyed them, in fact. Had actually felt enhanced and shaped by each one.

And I had this weird sort of mini-epiphany, 'road-to-Damascus' moment. That it doesn't matter where I'm posted; that I had meant it when I said I'd go anywhere; that I really did join because I want to serve, and I want to help, and I want to see for myself what America's policies are doing around the world and take responsibility for it.

And if it's consular work I will do it, and if it's PD work I will do it, and if it's tedious paper-pushing I will do it. And MS is not going to prevent me from handling any of those things.

And if they insist on sending me to The Hague when I'm asking to be sent to Hell, well, I will find something there to enjoy and study and grow from.

Sorry if this is overblown. I haven't been able to eat or drink much since Tuesday, so I'm a bit light-headed. But now I think I'll make myself a sandwich.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Bidding in Thirty Easy Steps

Round one of the bidding is over, meaning that anyone with greater than 25% differential has received their onward assignments. I was somewhat relieved to find that it left my original bidlist relatively unscathed, with the exception of the Iraq jobs (gone), an Abu Dhabi spot (gone, but I wasn't all that enthused about it anyways), and, sadly, my number one choice: a PD tour in Jerusalem including Arabic training (gone gone gone -- not that I hadn't suspected as much would happen). So now on to round two...

For those of you still in the dark about the whole '2nd tour bidding process', I've created the following instructional diagram:

As you can see, I'm currently working on step (3), subsection (q)(5).

I'm required to submit a final bid list by the 15th of this month; though, as I have yet to hear back from Med, this is still all an exercise in wishful thinking. My big fear is that they'll take so long in telling me where I actually can go (as opposed to merely which jobs are open), that by the time I know what my 'real' bid list looks like all the positions will already have been taken. Which leaves me... DC? A permanent jump to the Civil Service? Well, we'll see. Meanwhile, I guess I'll move the Con-Pol rotation in Amman up to my number one spot. And maybe being Staff Assistant in Iraq would be interesting..? "How about Algiers?" I asked Sara over lunch. "I've always like pirates." She snorted. "How about you shoot yourself in the head?" Okay, so maybe not there.

Ah, but you'll be happy to know that no one in round one opted for the positions in Yemen.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Intercultural Relations

Well, the weekend proved more interesting than I had anticipated. I think I may have gone on a date. Maybe. Probably. I'm never very sure about these things. A japanese guy. He happened to be in Osaka on Saturday and called to see if I'd have dinner, ended up staying over that night*, and then we hung out in Kobe till late on Sunday before heading back to our respective towns. Nice. Sort of strange. Nothing I was really expecting.

On the train on the way to Kobe from my apartment in Nishinomiya, we sat on the short bench seat at the rear of the car, nearest to the conductor's cockpit. Only room for the two of us, and his bike propped up against the front of our legs with the train swaying and the car a bit quiet. It was so pleasant to be next to someone on a train without having to pretend to not notice the close proximity -- with being able to actualy enjoy the proximity. I had the duty phone on 'manner mode', and kept pulling it out of my pocket thinking it was ringing. It took me a while to realize that it was just my hand tremoring. I was supposed to act as a judge and give the closing address at a regional high school speech contest that afternoon, and he had offered to wait until I was finished so that we could have dinner again together before he left for home. We talked about the speech contest, about how public speaking made me nervous, about his work and his new apartment... He asked what I was reading; I pulled One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest out of my bag and handed it to him.

Watching him frown at the English description on the back cover ("In this classic novel of the 1960's, Ken Kesey's hero is Randle Patrick McMurphy, a boisterous, brawling, fun-loving rebel..."), my heart lurched. His English isn't bad, but words like 'boisterous' surely weren't in his vocabulary. I well know the frustration of puzzling in vain over something that seems like it should come so easily; I felt instantly small for having shown him the book. Besides my own shyness, the main barrier to dating is the whole language problem. My spoken Japanese is absymal. I mean, really awful. I don't know if it's MS lesions gumming up the works, or just a matter of disuse, but even English grammar has been coming out a bit garbled lately, not to mention 2nd languages. How stupid of me to have highlighted the problem in so glaring a manner. I tried to explain the plot briefly in Japanese. I used to know the word for 'cuckoo'. "It's a bird you always read about in..." the word I was searching for now was haiku. I could still feel my hands buzzing. Please god, let that have been a bad MS day, and not something more...

Usually people laugh at this problem (seems like western men and asian women don't have any trouble getting over it) and say something about 'The Language of Love'; well, for me the language of love appears to be English. I asked Vanessa what you do when your Japanese isn't quite good enough and his English isn't quite good enough... "That's when you spend most of your time making out," she explained. Oh. I guess that's how western men and asian women work around the problem. I'm not sure if that's really me, though.

Anyways, I don't know. We'll see what happens.

At reception following the speech contest, I had wanted to speak to the high school students who had put in the time to memorize Kennedy's 1963 Civil Rights Address, but ended up instead being accosted by various community heads who wanted to press the hand of the consulate representative. I have no idea why. I won't pretend that I've never been impressed by a title or a big name (you should have seen how excited I was to give a visa interview to the drummer from The Boredoms), but honestly: this is a visa waiver program country; I can't do anything for these people. When I was in Japan before, I drew attention all the time because I'm blonde and boiled-egg pale; now I get it because of some overblown title on my business cards..? It's all pretty silly, really. My closing remarks in simple English ("President Kennedy gave his speech because he wanted two groups to understand each other better, and become better friends...") were not delivered nearly so eloquently as the students' recitations had been.

Some part of me suspects that being annoyed at having people treat you differently because of a title or affiliation is somehow just as big-headed as enjoying it. I need to work out a way to gracefully handle the situation.

At dinner, we ordered a dish that was labeled 鍋「なべ」, or 'winter hotpot', but the Italian interpretation we received was something entirely different. "Damesareta!" I laughed. He smiled. "Yes, damasareta," he corrected me. And I was pleased to discover that I didn't mind.

*He lives somewhat far away, and I have a spare bedroom -- please people, this is a family blog.