Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Bookends

I recently had the chance to visit with my friend Joe. Joe and his wife are pregnant -- which is a fashionable way of saying that Joe's wife is pregnant, and not a way that Joe himself would ever choose to express the concept. I was there when Joe first met his wife. In fact, I think I might remember the event better than he does, as he was quite drunk at the time. I remember that he picked her up and lifted her across the table to sit next to him on the tatami during a party, that he was wearing a white shirt and she a gray skirt, and that while her feet cleared the tabletop, Joe managed to knock over several of the dishes and bottles on the table in her stead. It is hard to connect that image with the one of her 6 month swollen belly, and I wonder, if Joe could have seen the future outcome of that past dinner party meeting, would he still have picked her up to lift her to him? I ask him how impending fatherhood feels. "I can't think of it," he tells me. "When I try to get my head around it, it's just too big." He is rocking back in his chair in my japanese parents' sushi bar -- in our japanese parents' sushi bar, since he was here just as often as I was.

I was present when Joe had his 21st birthday, much of it spent splayed out on the wooden floor of my house in Tsuyama, also drunk, with someone mistakenly pouring whiskey in his eyes in a misbegotten attempt to increase the already dangerous amount in his stomach. The fact that I will soon be present for Joe's 28th birthday is not so remarkable, until you consider that I have no other friend I can claim to have known for so long. We have been friends now for seven years, across three different continents, and bridging two nationalities. When he told me he was leaving JET, I knew that I would leave, too. When he suggested I come to London for my masters, I came. He considers it a great failing that he never taught me to drink; I consider it a failing that I never really felt the need to insist that he stop. I tell people he is a professor in Nagoya; he tells people he knows the american ambassador.

The fact that Joe is pregnant, if we continue using the fashionable term, is not something I can easily get my head around either. He is frightened of the loss of youth and freedom it represents, still wants to be 21 and rocking back in his chair and not having to suddenly make decisions about work and home that have such far ranging repercussions. I think he still wants to be important and special, which truth be told is a huge draw of being a foreigner in Japan, particularly a white male foreigner. But no one is more important and special than a newborn. I promise that I will come and babysit, that I'll make crocheted blankets and clothing, that I will send the child books and toys from all over the world... I want to be upbeat, but the truth is I feel the loss inherent in this change of status every bit as much as he does. He asks several times if I will come to visit before mid-June, the due date. We don't talk about meeting in late June. We don't pretend that he will be able to visit me in DC or in Jordan. I ask if he plans to move back to Britain. He looks at his wife, who is smiling contentedly, hand over her bump. "Yes, probably..." he muses. "Not this year, though. Maybe next... you know, I have to think about the baby."

Monday, March 26, 2007

Wolves and Rabbits

Some days you think, 'Honestly, could Japan be any more pop?' The nonsensical clothing, the plastic food, the bizarrely complicated home exercise machines... It can't all just be gloss and consumerism and polite bowing. It makes you want to poke at it with a stick. A pointy Guitar Wolf shaped stick.

Guitar Wolf: 'Japan Greatest "JET" Rock 'N Roll Band'. And no, that's not a typo. A band so hip they sell their own brand of jeans. A band that references Joan Jett in every song. A band whose music makes the cat claw the furniture. I remember my friend Martin returning from a Guitar Wolf concert during my time in Tsuyama, slightly dazed and full of warning. "It's good you didn't come, Katie; that crowd was rough." He spoke at some length of fistfights and physical fear. Intriguing. Buying tickets through the local convenience store, the sales clerk was appropriately impressed. Hopes of seeing bare-knuckled rock 'n roll-induced scrimmages were raised to near impossible levels. Beneath the surface, you just know Japan is a seething mass of explosive emotion, and Vanessa and I were aiming to be in the blast zone. I was anticipating blood, and a lot of it, too.

We arrived fashionably late, ready to experience Japan's hard-edged social fringe. The venue was a dark and seedy bowling alley basement. So far so good. After my eyes had adjusted to the dim light, I scanned the room looking for potential fistfight participants. The crowd was at least a third gaijin. It's always a bit strange encountering other foreigners in Japan -- like showing up at a party only to discover that someone else is wearing the same dress as you. You go into a weird tapdance in the attempt to simultaneously acknowledge and ignore each other. The gaijin stood primarily on the periphery, looking self-consciously cool. Up on the stage, the opening band was using two giggling coeds dressed in nurses' outfits as props. As they took off their underwear and threw them into the crowd (Headline: 'American Diplomats Attend Concert Stripshow'), Vanessa and I thought perhaps we should use the time to redeem our 500 yen drink tickets.

"I didn't know Guitar Wolf was so popular with the under six set." Vanessa gestured with her beer to direct my gaze. At a table next to the bar were placidly seated three little girls, one of them wearing pigtails and a pink Hello Kitty backpack. They seemed to be in attendance with their grandparents... This was my first hint that, despite the fact that the semi-naked go-go girls -- now changed into high school outfits -- were currently faux-wrestling atop the amp, the crowd was never going to achieve a higher level of angry frenzy than a really robust mosh pit. When the second band came on, the grandparents led their three charges past us toward the edge of the stage. People accepted this unblinkingly.

"Vanessa, where are the flying teeth and manga-esque volleys of guttural Japanese call-outs?" I was disappointed in the extreme. She tried to put a good face on things for me. "Don't be fooled; those toddlers are as tough as nails." Eventually the appearance of Guitar Wolf got some decent crowd surfing going, but we never did see any fighting. One of the mosh pit participants hadn't even bothered to take off his tie.

The next day I woke up stinking of cigarettes and beer, which I think was very good preparation for my scheduled jaunt as the compound's Easter Bunny. Popping my rabbit-y head into the entry way of the apartment where the kids were hunting eggs caused one young girl to release a full-lunged scream far out of proportion to the size of her body. Contrasted with the calm of the Guitar Wolf concert children, it was quite shocking; through the mesh eyes of the mask I could just make out the round pink circle of her open bellowing mouth. Classic. More so on Monday morning when my own encounter with that same rabbit head elicited a slight shriek from me. The costume had gotten soaked in the rain, and I'd forgotten that I'd hung it in the bath to dry. Pulling back the shower curtain to reveal a tall white rabbit is more effective than coffee in getting the heart going in the morning. For a brief moment, I thought I was being visited by a pooka. Briefly, only briefly...

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Number Two Indication You've Been in Japan Too Long...

...this guy starts looking kinda hot.


Isn't sumo weird? Japan -- a country of small, thin, relatively prudish people, trained to believe that no one person should really stand out over any other -- chooses beefy, near-naked men fighting it out for top prize in thrill-inducing bouts of showmanship as its national sport. I'm not complaining! The history of sumo is fascinating. But rather than bore you with a lecture, let me just show you this:


For the record, that's not me screaming. It's my sister.

Friday, March 16, 2007

One Year Down

Today is the one year anniversary of my arrival at post. In the past year, I have adjudicated 13,758 visas. To celebrate, I took the day off and went to the Osaka Aquarium.



It was all very peaceful. Except for the killer snowcrabs.



Number one indication of having spent too much time in Japan: at the aquarium, you realize you've consumed over half of the animals on display. And that whaleshark is looking pretty tasty.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

腹八分


Visa Line Rule One:
If the answer won't influence your decision, don't ask the question.

Visa Line Rule Two:
If an applicant's circumstances haven't changed since her last visa interview, the result of this interview won't change either.


Yesterday I had a DVC with Tokyo regarding E visas -- that is to say, business visas. Being at a consulate often means taking direction from people who are far away and don't always know the particulars of your situation. You can't take it personally; it's the embassy's job.

Tokyo seems concerned with our business visa practices. Maybe they ought to be. Not only am I not especially fond of our current system, but (personally speaking) I couldn't care any less about the intricacies of business visas. If a globally significant japanese company wants to send you to its US branch, odds are you're getting a visa. Does it really matter if it's an H1B or an E2 or a B1? Either way, you're going. You can have a Q visa for all I care. I get no pleasure from the 'Aha! You're asking for an E1, but actually you ought to be applying for an L1A.' moment. In fact, today anyways, I can think of no part of this job which imparts pleasure.

It's strange: if I were doing this work in any other capacity, I would have quit a long time ago. To have a job that is so psychologically draining it makes me turn down sidestreets, leave letters upopened, delete unread emails, and switch off the ringer on my phone all to avoid interacting even with people I consider friends* is ridiculous. To be sent to another country to do one more year of work for which I'm so wildly unsuited reaches sublime levels of absurdity. But it's stupid to consider other options. Refer to Rule One. I don't want to leave the FS -- I just want to push back my chair from the proverbial visa table and declare 'I'm full'.

Myers-Briggs says you can gauge job related stress in the following fashion: 1. Assess your job activities and assign them Myers-Briggs types; 2. See how closely the resulting types fit your own profile; 3. Lack of overlap = stress.

So. Hours of talking everyday: that's an 'E'. Attention to small concrete details, as opposed to big picture policy: that's an 'S'. Making decisions based on objective rules instead of personal relationships: that's a 'T'. Having things constantly thrown at you, with no sense of priority or scheduling: that's a 'P'.

Visa work is ESTP. I'm INTJ. And 'T' is my most borderline category. No wonder I wake up every morning wanting to punch the sun in the face. It's hard facing two more years of this -- two more years of always feeling crowded, edgy, and exhausted. Two more years of never getting to achieve a level of human interaction I would consider normal.

People keep saying it will get better. No it won't. Refer to Rule Two. What a shame that so much of life is just something to be gotten through!

And sir, I'm so sorry, but it looks like you'd be much better off applying for an L instead of an E...


*But please don't quit talking to me! I'm trying, I promise.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Ambassador Hayworth


During my recent turn in the Public Affairs Section (PAS), I was able to spend extended amounts of time with their senior FSN. It's a very different dynamic compared to working with the FSNs in the NIV section; most PAS events happen outside of the consulate, often after official working hours. There's a lot of travel and downtime. It makes things more casual and relaxed.

The senior PAS FSN has been at the consulate for over 30 years, an older japanese man who loves America and is already planning his retirement in Hawaii. He's frank and amusing. Listening to his stories (ranging from working as a waiter in a Tokyo cabaret to becoming a 'houseboy' for a wealthy family in Beverly Hills), it reminded me somehow of being in my japanese parents' sushi bar, chatting over green tea and げそ塩焼き with 60 year old Japanese men who called me お嬢さん ojousan 'little miss'. "Why did you want to go to America?" I asked him. "Well, if I were to speak truthfully..." he paused for dramatic effect, a particular skill of avuncular japanese males. "I went to America because I wanted to date beautiful american women." He leveled a gaze at me that made me raise an eyebrow in bemusement. Apparently, he'd grown up next door to a movie theater -- in his mind, Rita Hayworth was the american everywoman. He expounded upon his extensive success on the California dating front; reportedly, he had a thing for blondes. Leaning back and folding his arms, he recommended I find a nice japanese boyfriend. Everything was lightly stated, humorous, but there's always a mildly insidious underlying tone to these discussions. The implication is that the speaker knows what we western girls are really like after hours...

Later, the POL officer commented on the 'strange turn' the conversation had taken. He seemed almost apologetic. I was puzzled. "But that's every conversation I've ever had with a Japanese guy that age!" I told him. It had never ever occurred to me that semi-lascivious topics wouldn't arise in my absence; I just assumed that all Japanese men over 50 were スケベ sukebe -- that is to say, slightly lecherous. Apparently, this only comes out around younger western women.

Thinking this over later, the connection between the FSN's movie watching and his perceptions of western women struck me as more than just an amusing anecdote. Of course movies would be the main forum for learning about american women for those outside of the US: there aren't extensive writings on american women leaders, especially not ones translated into Japanese; there aren't particularly famous american women athletes; maybe some Japanese would have heard of Condoleezza Rice, a few more of Hillary Clinton... but many more would know of Scarlett Johansson or Angelina Jolie. I'm not saying I look anything like a movie actress*, but it makes sense that I'd be lumped into the same group. In the absence of personal experience, that's the only paradigm japanese men have to work with when dealing with western women: sexually objectified, scopophilia-encouraging flat images on a screen. It's a bit disturbing to think about, really.

So, there you go... all that sexually-charged imagery really does have an effect. Makes me want to write another grad school thesis.


*Though this is less true here, since Japanese have some trouble making fine-grained distinctions between different western facial features and phenotypes...