The Very First Christmas Abroad!

Well, it finally happened. This year, I ended up staying in Japan instead of going home. I expected that I’d feel homesick, that maybe I’d even feel like a terrible person for missing out on family time.

I have a confession to make: I felt NONE OF THAT NONSENSE. God, the amount of stress relief was amazing. No getting up at the crack of dawn to travel down to Narita. No crying babies for hours on a fourteen hour flight. No running to catch my stupid connection through a busy airport only to wait two hours for the next one. No traveling all over the country after I get to the U.S.A. because my family lives in separate states. No one bitching at me to come home instead of “living so far away.” Repeat process in reverse to get back to Japan and add in some really awful TSA groping at some point in Chicago O’Hare (aka the pit stain of airports). I love my family and friends, but being able to take a break from the Christmas madness was awesome.

Because I didn’t go home, I actually got to go the winter closing ceremony at Hinode Junior High School. At first, the students came inside the gymnasium, shaking and shivering while saying, “Samuiiiiiiii! (It’s cold!)” They divided into columns within their own year, dressed properly in their school uniforms. The boys were lucky because they got to wear suits, long sleeves and long pants. The girls wore long sleeves and long skirts, which exposed skin to the cold.

It was so cold they could see their breath crystallize in the air. The teachers all stood there, shivering like crazy, but trying to put on a brave face. Shouldering onward, the ceremony began with students standing up to bow before their vice principal and principal. I lazily sing the school’s theme song (I never remember the whole thing, so sue me). I stood in the back, pretending to pay attention, but my eye keeps drifting over to the one heater that reluctantly blazed into the huge, open two story tall building. The heater was pretty usless since it didn’t affect anything but perhaps two feet in front of it. The cord was only a foot long, so the heater stayed close to the wall, far away from all of us freezing humans.

I can’t count how many times I’ve heard ex-pats in Japan complain about the lack of central heating and air in schools. Strangely, no air conditioning doesn’t seem to be that big of a deal. Instead, foreigners bear a grudge against the Japanese anti-heating culture. It’s as if somehow being warm is a luxurious idea instead of a basic package deal with any school building in Japan.

In America, if a school didn’t have central heating in the winter, we canceled school (or at least they did in Kentucky). American parents would pitch an almighty fit if their children were forced to sit in freezing conditions like my Japanese students did that day. I can imagine the phone lines ringing off the hook for hours, just complaints after complaints. “How dare you make my child  sit there for a whole hour in the cold? That’s child abuse!” And other things like that.

Here in Japan, parents are fine with it. There is still a tough love is the best love mentality here when it comes to things like that. Most of my teachers think that central heating systems are “too expensive” and “frivolous.” They talk about central heating like it’s some kind of constantly running, energy depleting demon that cannot be stopped once the on button is pressed. I’m fairly certain they’ve been lied to by the construction companies, or the construction companies are awful. Either way, there’s a severe misunderstanding on their part about how central heating works.

Anyway, since I didn’t go home I was also able to go to the end of the year parties (bonenkai) with some friends associated with YES Eikaiwa, an English school that’s just down my street. We ate at a Chinese restaurant, where we sang Christmas songs and did a Santa Swap.

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YES Eikaiwa Party!

I ended up winning some bath salts, which are amazing. I don’t know where they’re from, but they make my skin nice and pretty.

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And of course, I got to do Christmas lessons. The students this year did songs and activities. The first years (7th grade for you Americans) got to make 3D Christmas cards. Some of them were really pretty!

ImageImageMy base school also had a bonenkai, which involved a buffet of Japanese food, BINGO Santa Swap, and some other games.

ImageThe BINGO game was fun. You could choose from a huge pile of presents when you won. I ended up choosing some fancy chocolates. I found that funny considering I gave chocolates as my gift. One of the teachers had this strange random number gadget that he would press for the next number. It kept doing old numbers over and over again, so all the teachers gave him a hard time.

ImageAfter the first round was over, we all went to the second round of the party (nijikai). We went to a karaoke place to sing and drink, which is par for the course of a nijikai. The party didn’t go onto a third round (sanjikai) because many teachers were also coaches that had games the next day.

Usually, people who are deeply liked, respected, and/or higher in rank are invited to the next party. If you’re just a part timer or the youngest of the bunch, it’s not uncommon to not be invited to the second or third rounds. For ALTs, it depends on the school if you get invited to the bonenkai or not. Some do, some don’t. Both of mine do, because they know I will sing Lady Gaga like no one’s business.

For Christmas Day, I went over to my friend Cameron’s house in Toride. She served some delicious chicken, salad, and some wonderful stuffing.

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I forgot to take a picture of the food, so here’s Cameron’s pretty tree instead.

We had red velvet cupcakes for dessert.

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Be jealous!

In between this time, I visited other friends in Japan, getting in touch with them again and having a blast. I remembered my family fondly, recalling all the times I’d gone to my grandmother’s house packed full of my father’s side of the family. All my aunts and uncles catching with up everyone about what’s going on and what everyone’s planning to do. The people in my age range talked among ourselves for the most part, my brother and I swapping stories and inside jokes. However, I didn’t really feel like I was missing out. I knew I’d be there again someday in the future, and I sent them my love from Japan.

New Years Eve I went to Tokyo. My friend Candice and I went to a couple of clubs and danced the night away. I got to see the sunrise on January 1st, 2014 in Roppongi.  Image

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ImageA few days later, I went with some friends to the Kashima Shrine (Kashimajingu). I did go there on New Years Day about two years ago and it was a madhouse! This year I ended up going later, but guess what? It was still a madhouse!

New years and Beyond! 050

GAH! I can’t move!

We purified our hands before going inside and getting our fortunes for the new year (the year of the horse, by the way).

This is where people line up to wash their hands and gargle (NOT DRINK) the water.

This is where people line up to wash their hands and gargle (NOT DRINK) the water.

Turns out that for at least a week local shrines are packed full of people buying things for the New Year, such as good luck charms and fortunes. People will also burn certain items as offerings to the god(s) of the shrine and might get themselves purified within the shrine in the spring. The spring, by the way, is freezing cold, but it’s supposed to give you long life and good health so people go in for a dip. You can take a drink from a running spring in the back of the shrine, too, which is also for good health and longevity.

I did neither of those things because I would rather not be colder than I already am. Besides, my fortune was the top ranking, you can do anything you want this year congratulations kind of fortune.

Whoo-hoo! I won the luck lottery! Now if I could just win the real one...

Whoo-hoo! I won the luck lottery! Now if I could just win the real one…

These fortunes are fun little things that supposedly tell you what you’re supposed to do this year to get what you want out of life. If you get a bad one, most people tie them to trees or a standing wire board provided by the shrine so you can expel the bad luck.

I took mine and put it in my wallet. Putting good fortunes in your wallet is believed to bring you more money. It’s only good for one year, so once the year is over, you have to take it out, or so I’ve been told.

All in all, I was very pleased with my first Christmas away from home. It was a nice change of pace, and really did make me feel more at ease than trying so hard to get back. I think I will go home next year for sure, though, because Christmas really means a lot to my family.

Happy 2014 everyone! Let’s make it EPIC!

Share Your Christmas! For Tohoku Children in Need

During this season of giving, I want to ask for those people living in Japan to help the children of the Tohoku region. A wonderful little charity called Share Your Christmas is collecting children’s toys and other items to give them. The event lasts from December 21st to January 31st. All you have to do is send a present of your choice to:


Share your Christmas
c/o Jeffrey Jousan
Katsuragi Nesaki 45-1
Tsukuba, Ibaraki 305-0824
Japan

Please wrap your present in clear wrapping paper so they can know whether to send it to a boy or girl.

 
For more information see
the website: http://www.shareyourchristmas.org
or the Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/shareyourchristmaswithtohoku

Thank you and Merry Christmas/ Happy Holidays!

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Merry Kentucky Fried Christmas LIES!!! And Other Cultural Christmas Differences

Once upon a time, I’m innocently gallivanting through the Aeon Mall in Narita with my good friend, Ai. We’re checking out different stores, and I’m squealing like a ten year old at every little cute thing in the huge shopping area. Basically, I was squealing at everything. Japan is full of cuteness that makes me happy.

Anyway, just as we’re swinging through the last bit of mall, I catch sight of a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in a food court. I remembered that I promised someone I would look at the price of their Christmas bundle of grease, so I walked over there with Ai to find it.

You see, in Japan people can’t get turkey. Turkey is hard to find, and if you find the bird it is really expensive. Instead of turkey, Kentucky Fried Chicken is used as a replacement.

Most foreigners find this tradition a little baffling, since Christmas usually also implies all the food is cooked by a grandmother or mother. Why would you want to eat fast food for Christmas? Honestly, it’s just a cultural thing. Why do Americans blow stuff up to celebrate the birth of America? Because we’re Americans and that’s what we do.

Anyway, I found a sign that looks like this:

Kentucky Fried Chicken Christmas Barrel

Yes, I do kind of want it.

I picked up a pamphlet and began to walk away.

But then, I discovered an atrocity.

There,  sitting on the table with all its disgusting merriness, was a Christmas plate. Did the plate say, “Merry Christmas!” No. No it didn’t. It said:

“Kentucky Christmas.”

Ai got to experience one of my rants that day. It’s been a long time since I just let one off out of blue, and I might have scared some poor Japanese people in my near vicinity.

I believe I said something along the lines of, “We don’t eat KFC for Christmas! For the thousandth time, we eat ham and turkey! HAM AND TURKEY! Not fried up  grease attached to dead poultry!”

Ai was laughing pretty hard, and she wished she had recorded it all to put up on YouTube. I’m really glad she didn’t. I do not want to be an overnight YouTube star.I do not want to go down in internet history as “The Kentucky Fried Lunatic.”

The thing is I wouldn’t care so much if not for the unfortunate problem that some Japanese people do believe that folks in Kentucky eat KFC all the time and must eat it at Christmas (for the plates tell them so). It makes me want to beat the marketing people senseless.

I’m resigned to the fact that people will forever and always associate my state with a gross fast food chain. However, Christmas is a sacred time of family, presents, and real food. For someone to dare tarnish the reputation of my beloved commercial holiday memories throws me into an irrational fury.

As Christmas draws near, the number of people asking me questions pertaining to my Kentucky heritage and my version of Christmas has increased. There’s the common question of, “Do you eat KFC on Christmas?” I respond, “No. No I don’t. Most of the people I know eat ham and turkey.” With a hundred side items and desserts, but I never get to that part.

People usually then respond, “Oh, really?” (I’ve come to recognize this phrase as something thrown at Japanese in English class, and I know this information because I’ve been wincing every time my students have to use it in class.) I usually respond with a small sigh and say, “Yes, really. And we have fruit cake.”

“What’s a fruit cake?”

A gross concoction  that looks like food. I’ve had very few good experiences with fruit cake. However, my mom just gave me a recipe for chocolate rum fruit cake. I’m kind of excited about that one, but I’m not ever excited about the prospect of fruit cake otherwise.

Picture brought to you by Badger Girl. No, I'm not kidding.

Japan has a decidedly better improvement. It’s called a Christmas Cake, and it looks delicious.

Yum yum!

I want to get one, but they’re apparently in really high demand. I don’t know if I will, but I’m going to try!

The other questions pertain to what I do on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. I told my friends and JTEs about how Christmas Eve is usually reserved for getting together with family and friends. I have a family tradition with my Dad’s side of the family that involves invading my grandmother’s house so we can eat good food and open up presents together. Most families reserve the present opening until Christmas Day, and I open my presents from my mother and her side of the family on that day.

A couple of people have asked me if I’m going to spend Christmas with a boyfriend, to which I responded two different ways:

“Where’s this imaginary Japanese man that’s fallen madly in love with me and why haven’t I met him?”

and

“Why would I celebrate Christmas with a boyfriend?”

Apparently, Christmas time is couples’ time in Japan. Boyfriends apparently do romantic things for their sweethearts, like buy them a present or take them out somewhere nice. If they want to be really beloved by their girl, they will take her to Disney Land or Disney Sea (depending upon the age. Disney Sea has drinking.). I won’t lie, if I had a boyfriend, I would totally beg him to take me there. Do you know how cute that place is? Ridiculous I tell you!

Come on, you totally just went, "Awwww!

I explained that it’s really a big family time of the year, so I would not celebrate with a boyfriend on Christmas. I would celebrate on Christmas Eve with him before my Dad’s family time, but I don’t think I could’ve done it on Christmas. Dedicating the whole day to a boyfriend would get me disowned.

I’ve also discovered that Japanese parents have it tougher than American parents when it comes to sneaking the presents. American parents just have to sneak into the living room and put the presents under the tree and fill up the stockings. Japanese parents have to put presents beside their children’s beds at night. I couldn’t do it. I would wake up my child instantly due to some klutzy error.

Apparently, Santa Claus is pretty much the same jolly man in red. I’ve been asked if Colonel Sanders in Kentucky dresses up for Christmas, and I had to really think about it. I couldn’t remember our KFC even having a Colonel Sanders statue. I said I think so, but I honestly don’t remember. I know for a fact that Colonel Sanders does dress up as Santa Claus in Japan. It actually looks pretty neat.

No thanks, Colonel Santa.

Right now, I’m trying to avoid KFC, lest I fly off the handle again and cause an international incident. I’m sure I’ll eventually eat there (I do love the biscuits), but until the holidays are over it’s best to just stay clear.

I will say that some cultural things about Christmas are the same. It’s about being with the people you love and showing you care. Regardless of where the presents go or the thrice damned chicken, both Americans and Japanese jump through hoops to get those special gifts for their beloved people. Just as in America, parents have got it tough, and in the name of love for their children they will do anything to get that stupidly popular (insert item here).

Christmas cheer is everywhere, and I do mean everywhere. The Christmas music started earlier than America because there’s no Thanksgiving to hold it back, and oddly enough it’s mostly the same American choices for music. For example, Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas” plays all the time. I kind of like it, but I’ll be sick of it by the end of December.

There are Christmas trees, too. They’re a little smaller than the average American tree, but that’s to be expected since most Japanese homes are smaller than the average American home. I’m considering getting either a small tree or a poinsettia. I was surprised to find the poinsettias over here, but they’re apparently just as popular here as in America.

Alas, I will not be celebrating Christmas in Japan, however. I will be going back to Kentucky for Christmas, which means no KFC for me! Yay! Instead, I’ll be chowing down on ham and fudge and pie and burritos and tacos (because Mexican food is only found in all of two cities, and I live in neither of them) and more pie and cheeseburgers and…Well, you get the idea.

I’ll be back in Japan for New Years, so until then TTYL and Merry Christmas!

P.S. Here’s a link to Badger Girl and a recipe for fruit cake so you can make it for the unsuspecting person of your choosing:

http://learntocookbadgergirl.com/?p=1761