How to Piss off This Foreigner in Japan: Results Guranteed in Ten Seconds or Less

Let me set the scene: Lunchtime, sitting with two Japanese teachers and one school nurse. I sit there, munching away at my food, listening to the conversation with little initiative to pipe in. I usually eat lunch with the kids, but most of them are off at sports tournaments so I just decide to eat lunch with the teachers.

Lady Japanese teacher speaks to me with food in her mouth, “Jessica, ahadkjdksjknnkfnn.”

Say what? Was that even Japanese? Dear Jesus, gross. “Uh, hai?” So confused.

School nurse proceeds to try and help. “Ano, tsugi ga…nashi?”

Next nothing? What is she talking about? Next class nothing? Next day nothing? I stare blankly at her confounded.

Abruptly she bursts into laughter and shouts, “Eigo wakanai!” I don’t understand English!

I sigh. I was going to tell her to just go slower, but then she does the thing I hate the most.

School nurse turns to another teacher and asks, “M-sensei….?”

Male teacher shakes his head profusely, “Zen zen.” I don’t know English either.

They proceed to laugh and have a conversation right in fucking front of me about their lack of English ability and my lacking Japanese skills. I breathed in and out, deciding I’m just going to sulk (which I know logically is the wrong reaction, but fuck it), and tune out the rest of the conversation.

I don’t know about other expats, but certain things really piss me off when it comes to how some Japanese people try to talk with me. Here’s a top ten list:

#10: Food Talking

Be it food or gum or some kind of breath mint, if someone tries to speak to me with garbled Japanese it gets ten times harder for me to understand someone. One time, some Japanese guy tried to talk to me while slurping ramen, and all I could think was, ‘Seriously? Seriously?” 

Not only that but it’s super rude to me when it’s food. I don’t want to talk when there’s stuff spitting out of your pie hole. Chew, swallow, and then talk to me. It’s common courtesy and it prevents murder, as in from me wanting to murder you.

#9: Giving Up

Now, I’m not talking like if we’ve been attempting communication for the past hour and can’t get anywhere, I’m talking like a sentence and then utter shut down. It took seconds for the people in the above situation to decide that they couldn’t talk to me and just gave the fuck up.

#8: Calling Me “Gaijin-sama”

This is just a pet peeve of mine. A literal translation would be something like “Miss/Mr. Alien” and that’s what I think every time I hear it. I know it’s supposed to a formal “Miss Foreign Lady” kind of idea, but that still seems really strange to me. Instead, call me by my name or “gaikokujin” or literally anything else.

Hell, I’ll even accept, “Heeeeeey, sexy lady!” (Sidebar: PSY made this a thing. I can’t go a month without this getting shouted at me by some guy.)

#7: Stereotype Anger

I get this more often than I’d like. People get to know me and they’re somehow surprised I’m not a gun loving redneck who thinks A’murica is the greatest nation on the planet. I’m actually a chocolate loving dork with redneck tendencies who loves America but knows it’s quite a flawed place. I’ll forgive the annoying but understandable, “You don’t look like an American.” which makes me sigh often, but that I can blame on Hollywood and bottle blondes.

I can’t readily forgive, “You really don’t act like an American. You should try and be a little bit more (insert something ridiculously stereotypical here).”Or getting mad when I do something completely “un-American.”

Look, I’m a human being. I’m not a stereotype. I’m a living breathing sentient person who has her own ideas, thoughts, and feelings. I’m sorry if that doesn’t fit into your idea of how I “should” be, but screw you. I like who I am (most days), so get used to it.

#6: Expecting Me to Know You When We Met ONCE

Guess what? Don’t expect me to remember you from that one encounter at the grocery store. I get that we might’ve had a fun conversation a month ago, but unless we got attacked my mutant velociraptors together I’m simply not going to remember who you are.

I realize it’s easier to remember me. I’m the only (obviously) foreign woman living in this town. I get that seeing me makes you excited and that you’re super happy that you can talk to me again. I can’t say that meeting yet another person who is fascinated is a new thing. It happens all the time.

#5: Speaking Louder to be Understood

This problem is very common. People will see my confused face, and instead of going slower (which is infinitely more useful tactic), I get someone suddenly yelling at me like I’ve insulted their honor.The worst “conversations” I’ve had involved people yelling information at me with their dial turned up to eleven and continuing to do so even when I’m speaking at a normal level.

This annoyance makes my ears ring, which makes it harder to understand what you’re saying, and thus it makes me unable to communicate with you.

#4: Complimenting Me on Easily Accomplished Tasks

Nearly every expat could share my pain for this unfortunately reoccurring scenario, “Wow! You’re so good with chopsticks!”

Yes, I’m also very good at brushing my teeth but let’s not comment on it, please and thanks.

Using chopsticks is not rocket science. Also, neither is saying “Arigatou (thanks)” or “Dooitashimashite (You’re welcome).” That doesn’t make me, “So good at Japanese!” that makes me able to look up a video on YouTube. Seriously, I don’t need to be encouraged like a five year old.

When you see me defend the school from ninjas, feel free to compliment until you lack air. Until then, I’m good.

#3: Pretending I’m Not There

Sometimes the previously mentioned lunch scenario gets worse, with people talking about me and what I’m doing right in front of me like I don’t exist. It makes my eye twitch.

#2: Running Away from Me

I’ve had this happen to me usually around where I live. I walk into a store and the sales ladies get nervous and suddenly disappear. I have to end up tracking someone down to ask them a simple question and they look so terrified when I do.

I’m not going to eat you, you daft woman! I just need this in a different size!

#1: Telling Me I Shouldn’t Live In Japan

I get so many people asking me if racism exists in Japan. The answer to that in a simple way is yes, because racism exists literally everywhere, all over the planet. Every single country is dealing with prejudice issues in some way. The more complicated answer is that the racism here in Japan is often under reported, discussed, and usually just gets avoided as an issue altogether.

There are subtle racist problems that I’ve dealt with here and there, but everything I’ve been through doesn’t compare to friends of mine. They’ve been harassed by the police, spat on, and one man I knew in Tokyo did in fact get punched in the face because he “looked too black” at a club.

My main racist issue that’s very overt and hurtful is when a Japanese person tells me, “Oh, you can’t live in Japan forever.” or “If you live in Japan, you won’t be happy. Go back to America.”

Yes, actually, I could live in Japan if I wanted to and I do think that I’d be very happy living in Japan. It’s not a perfect country, but it’s full of cultural wonders that I deeply love. The insinuation that because I am from another country that I can’t survive or be happy here is founded on some inane principle that only people born in Japan can truly accomplish these things. When I hear stuff like that I feel unwanted, like everyone is just putting up with me until I may or may not go.

It pisses me off, because I dreamed for half of my life of coming to Japan. I didn’t come here to get told to, “Go home because you make me uncomfortable.” Guess what? Too bad. I came here legally on a work visa. I pay bills. I took the Japanese drivers test to get a license. I am living here, obeying the laws, and bending over backwards in many ways to behave in a socially acceptable manners when I don’t know all of the unspoken social rules. If you don’t like it, too bad, I’m here to stay until I damn well feel like leaving.

Now, all ten of these irritants are events that happen every so often, but I can live with them. I do still love Japan and I want to keep working towards being the best ALT I can be while I live here. However, I think it’s important to discuss the problems that exist in living in another country, because it’s not as easy as one would think. Most days I have the time of my life, but there are some moments I get frustrated. Today I got one of those moments.

And now that I’m done venting, I shall return to grading papers with Pokemon stamps, because I don’t know the meaning of growing up.

No Woman is Christmas Cake: On Mariji-harasumento (“marriage harassment”)

Japanese culture and I formed a deeply loving if complicated relationship over this past year and a half. I have the greatest opportunity to learn about it on Japanese soil, which is awesome. I’m one of the lucky ones. However, at times, Japanese culture and I discover irreconcilable differences. Christmas cake is one such issue.


Christmas cake refers to a woman who is over 25 and not married. The idea behind this term is that Christmas cake is only good and only wanted until December 25th. Past that day, it’s no good and nobody wants it. In Japan, this term applies to women as well. If a woman isn’t married past the age of 25, then she’s no good and no one wants her.

I’m 23 years old and single. To well meaning Japanese men and women, they hear “nearing the expiration date” and forewarn me with a smile about Christmas Cake. At first, I just changed the subject and moved onto another topic. Now, I make a point to say, “女性はクリスマスケーキではない (Women are not Christmas Cake).”

Women are quite capable of being good wives and mothers past the age of 25, Japanese or otherwise. I don’t know why Japan has this idea that woman over 25 are somehow “used goods” or “too old.” Women are not like cake at all. When we age, we age like people should. We get (hopefully) smarter, wiser, and stronger. Beauty comes from experience, and to deny women experiences makes me a little angry with Japanese society.

Marriage is an experience, true, but in Japan marriage for most women means the life of a housewife. I can’t see myself getting married until far, far into the future. I want to travel, write novels, build up my career (whatever that is), and a thousand other things before I “settle down.” Quite frankly, I don’t see myself as ever really “settling” anywhere. It breaks my heart to think that any woman feels trapped due to this cultural concept to marry before they’re ready. No woman should feel worthless because she’s over the age of 25 and still free to do as she pleases.

A woman’s worth, in my opinion, shouldn’t come from her age or her relationship status. I am absolutely Western like that, and I refuse to change my views on the subject. If a woman decides of her own volition she wants nothing to do with marriage and children, then by all means revel in the freedom! In America, such a choice is becoming more and more common, for both men and women. In Japan, such a decision is rare and nearly impossible to consider.

Colin P.A. Jones’ article “Blame it on the hara: harassment vocabulary makes us all victims,” defined Mariji-harasumento (“marriage harassment”) as “any sort of commentary that makes a woman feel bad about still not being married.” I think the term Christmas cake definitely falls under that category of harassment. Japanese women, and foreign women such as myself, get constant reminders from well meaning people about our age. The idea persists in Japan that women must want to get married, want to become mothers as soon as possible, and must find a man to fulfill that ambition before it’s too late. They think of mariji-harasumento not as harassment but as encouragement.

For many women, I’m sure it is a dream to become a wife and mother, and that’s an honorable ambition. Finding someone to love and making a family shouldn’t be looked down upon as a life choice, by any means. Moms are awesome. They put up with all the crap from their kids and still love them. They take care of all the stuff we don’t think about as kids, not just cleaning and cooking but also scheduling doctors appointments for the whole family, getting everything ready for birthday parties, and, if you’re a Japanese woman, the household money.

Japanese Marriage photo

There’s a lot that goes into motherhood and the responsibilities of being a wife, which is even one more reason I think 25 is actually too young for marriage. When you’re a mother, you’re responsible for a whole other life besides your own, maybe even more. To me, that’s a little terrifying if I think about it too hard. Babies are especially prone to rolling around unexpectedly and toddlers like to walk into things. I baby sat enough to know children are not low maintenance even at the best of times. They need food, from you. They need love, from you. They need everything, from YOU. See? Terrifying.

Getting mariji-harasumento from a Japanese man is the worst. It sometimes takes every last drop of patience I have in my body not to lash out with some barbs about misogynistic cultural acceptance of outdated norms. It helps that I don’t know enough Japanese to yell all that out. Even if I did know the language for it, I’m sure I would confuse a Japanese man who holds firm to these ideas that I don’t want to get married at 25. Instead of understanding it as a decision, he would probably assume something is wrong with me, because that’s what all women want. I would never be able to convince him otherwise, but I can battle this cultural difference the only way I know how: Stubborn determination. And so, I just smile and say for the thousandth time, “女性はクリスマスケーキではない (Women are not Christmas Cake).”

Married or single, 25 or 105, Japanese or American, women are always good.

My Japanese Speech

On February 17th, I participated in the Kashima Friendship Association Japanese Speech Contest. Before the competition I practiced everyday for two hours for two straight weeks with the help of my friends Yoko-san and Osaki-san. It was tough, but I did it! Since some people couldn’t come and wanted to read it, I decided to post the speech for all to see.

The Japanese version:

いちねんの へんか

わたしが きょねん にほんに きたとき、にほんは 3月 11日の

じしんから ふっこうしている さいちゅうでした。

わたしのまち いたこは まだ すいどうやどうろが ふっきゅう していませんでした。

わたしが すんでいる ちいきの ひので では、すうかしょで じめんが かんぼつしていました。

まいにち ふっきゅうさぎょうをする こうじのおとが きこえていました。


そのような ひがいにも かかわらず、わたしは じしんが こわいとおもう いじょうに、 わたしは じぶんが ALT として よいせんせいに なれないのではないかということを おそれていました。


にせんじゅういちねん の くがつに わたしは はじめて じゅぎょうを しました。

いっしょに じゅうぎょうを たんとうする せんせいがたは まえに おあいしたことがありました。 でも れっすんぷらんの つくりかたも にほんじんのせんせいとのじゅぎょうのしかたも にほんごじたいも あまりわかりませんでした。

こんなしっぱいを するんじゃないか、あんなしっぱいを するんじゃないかと

いろいろなしっぱいを そうぞう してしまいました。


つきひは ながれ、 わたしの あぱーとの まわりの どうろも ゆっくりでは

ありますが たいらに そして まっすぐに なりました。 そのようすを しゃしんに おさめていきました。 つぎつぎと わたしの あぱーとのまわりの たてものは ふっきゅうされて いきました。 そんかいした いえは とても はやく しんちく されていきました。 わたしは このめで じぶんのすむ にほんのまちが さいがいを のりこえて いぜんより より ちからづよいまちに なっているのを みてきました。

いつも つねに よりよい しゃかいのために へんかを おこしている にほんじんを わたしは、そんけいしています。


わたしじしんも ゆっくりですが へんかしてきました。 どのようにすれば よいれっすんになるのか わかってきました。 にほんじんのせんせいと いっしょにおしえることは たいへんなことですが、 せいとに まなんでほしい というきもちは いっしょです。いっしょに はたらくことで おたがいにどうしてほしいかを はなしあって

いくなかで、よい じゅぎょうが できるように なりました。

わたしは かしましで にほんごを まなんでいます。たくさんのことを まなびました。

でも まだ たくさん まなぶことがあります。 たくさん まちがえました。 ときどき、とてもおおきな まちがいをすることもあります。

でも そのなかで わたしは せいこうするためには しっぱいをすることを まなびました。 そのけいけんから せいとにいつも いっています。

「まちがっても いいんだよ。」と。


てれびで みやぎの ひとたちが せいかつのたてなおしを しているところを みました。

ゆくえふめいしゃを ひっしでそうさく していました。

にゅーすを みるたびに ししょうしゃすうが ふえていきました。

そのたびに なみだが あふれてきました。

ししゃが はっけんされることもありましたし、せいかんしたひとも いました。

しかし、どんなときでも みんなきぼうを すてませんでした。

けっして あきらめない すがたが とても かんどうてきでした。


そして わたしじしんも よいせんせいになることを あきらめてはいけないと おもいました。

わたしは せいとたちの さくぶんの てんさくをしていました。 せいとは2011

年に おきた できごとに ついて かくことに なっていました。 もちろん ひがしにほん だいしんさいも とぴっくに なっていました。

せいとは おなじようなことを なんかいも くりかえして かいていました。




ひがしにほんだいしんさいは 3月 11日でした。 そのひのことをよくおぼえています。 じしんがあったとき わたしはがっこうにいました。

とても こわかったです。おおぜいのひとが なくなりました。あのじしんの ことは

けして わすれません。


そのことについて かかれた さくぶんを よむたびに こころが はりさけそうに

なりました。 ふくしまのちかくに かぞくがいる せいとも いて、ほうしゃのう

れべるが たかくなっている ということをしんぱい しているせいとが ふくすう いました。


3月11日 のすうじをみるたびに 9月11日のことが あたまをよぎって しまいます。

Twin Towersが こうげきされたとき じぶんが いたところも はっきり おぼえています。 がっこうの ろうかが ぱにっくに なったひとたちで いっぱいだったことを おぼえています。せんせいたちは はやくちで はなしていました。 りかしつにむかうと てれびがついていました。 こうそうびるから なにか けむりのようなものがみえましたが なにがおこっているか わかりませんでした。 それは さいしょの たわーが ひこうきで ついげきされたときでした。

9月11日のできごとのあと、せんせいたちは がっこうが もとどおりに なるように いっしょうけんめい ちからをそそいでいたことを おぼえています。

ときどき、そのじけんのことを はなしていましたが、ふだんは さきにすすもうとしていました。

にほんでも せんせいや せいとが じしんをのりこえて ぜんしんしようと しているところを みてきました。

大きな じしんがおこると いまだに せいとは こわがっています。

あるせいとは、2011年の11月に じしんがおきたときに こわがって、わたしのてを ぎゅっとにぎっていました。わたしは 「だいじょうぶですよ。だいじょうぶ。」とてをにぎったまま いいました。 いぜんのじょうたいに もどれるように びりょくながら てつだいたいのです。

せいとたちは、ほんとうに つよく ぜんしんしようと しています。 まいにち わたしはえいごをおしえていますが、すこしずつ じぶんじしんも つよくなっているのをかんじます。

じぶんがしていることがわかりますし、どうすればじょうずにおしえることができるかもわかります。どうしたらいいか わからなくなることも ありません。

こどもたちは、じしんが おきるまえのように むじゃきに

まださきの はるやすみのことについて はなしています。そして すぐやってくる バレンタインズ ディのこともきになるようで、 わたしに、だれかに ちょこれーとを あげるかどうかもきかれました。

まちもいぜんのすがたに もどりつつあります。

たてものや どうろが しゅうふくされ、あたらしいとし とともに あたらしいへんかが あるといいなあと おもいます。 にほんにとっても、わたしにとっても よりよいへんかがあると うれしいです。 3月11日の きおくを ぬぐいさることは できませんが ここにいて にほんの おてつだいをすることはできます。

すべてを もとどおりにすることは できませんし、ふかのうです。でも いっしょにいて、せいとをあんしんさせることはできます。

じしんは また おきるかもしれませんが、わたしはどこにもいきません。 ここにいて にほんの これから いちねんの おおきな へんかに きたいしているのです。


The English Version

One Year of Change

When I came to Japan last year, I found Japan recovering from the March 11th earthquake. My city, Itako, still had places without running water and many roads were still really damaged. The ground in my subdivision, Hinode, dropped by a few meters in some places. Every day I heard construction workers trying to rebuild the city.

Despite all the damage I saw, I wasn’t scared of earthquakes. I was afraid that I would be a bad teacher. In September of 2011, I taught a class for the first time. I had seen other teachers teach before, but this was my first experience being in front of the classroom. I didn’t know how to make lesson plans, how to work with a Japanese English Teacher, and I didn’t know that much Japanese. I kept thinking about all the ways I could make a mistake. I kept imagining that I would fail in this way or that way.

As time went by, the roads slowly became smooth and straight again around my apartment. I took pictures of the damage being repaired. Constantly, the buildings around me changed. Houses would go down, and the quickly replaced in a few weeks with a new house. I watched my city build up from the disaster to become stronger than before. I admired the Japanese people. Always there were changes.

I changed slowly, too. I learned how to teach. I figured out how to make good lessons. I discovered that working with Japanese English Teacher can be challenging, but we all want the students to learn English. By working together and communicating what we want from each other, my co-workers and I have done some very good work at our schools. I studied Japanese and went to Japanese classes in a nearby city called Kashima. I learned so much, but I know I have much to learn still. I will admit that I made mistakes. Sometimes, I even felt like a big failure, but I learned from my mistakes. I learned that sometimes you have to fail to succeed. I tell my students all the time, “It’s OK to make a mistake.”

I watched on the news as the people around Miyagi rebuilt their lives. They fought so hard to find missing people. The death toll from the tragedy rose with each news story. I watched the numbers rise with tears in my eyes. Still, there was hope. Sometimes, people were found. Sometimes, families didn’t get swept away into the sea. Sometimes it was just a simple misunderstanding. Always, people kept hoping. They never gave up. It was inspiring to me.

I couldn’t give up, either.  One day, right after the New Year of 2012, I was grading essays, and the students were given different things to discuss over the year 2011. Of course, the Great East Japan Earthquake was a topic. Some students wrote about it. They said pretty much the same thing over and over again.

“The East Japan earthquake was on March 11th. I remember that day. I was in school when the earthquake happened. I was very fearful. Many people passed away and died. I will not forget that earthquake.”

My heart broke each time a student wrote about it. Some of them had family up near Fukushima and worried about them being so close to the radioactivity. More than one student mentioned the radiation levels getting high, and also about the earthquake damage in Itako.

Every time I saw the numbers 3/11, I couldn’t help but get flashbacks to 9/11. I remember that day very well. I could point out exactly where I was when the Twin Towers were attacked. I can remember how the hallways in middle school were full of people panicking. Teachers were talking to each other in hurried voices, trying to decide what to do I guess. I remember turning to the science room and the TV was on. I saw something smoking and a tall building. At the time I had no idea, but it was the first tower struck by the airplane.

I remembered how after 9/11 my teachers did their best to keep things normal. We talked about what happened from time to time, but usually we just tried to move on. I can see my students and teachers are trying to move on in Japan, too. I can still see the fear students have when a bigger earthquake happens. One student held my hand tightly when an earthquake hit in November of 2011. I squeezed her hand and said, “Daijoubu desu. It’s alright.” I want to keep doing that. I want to help make everything alright again.

My students are definitely strong and moving forward. Every day I teach them, I feel a little stronger, too. I know what I’m doing, and I know how to do it well. I don’t feel lost anymore. I’ve built strength inside thanks to Japan. I am confident in my teaching abilities now. My students already talk about spring vacation even though that’s quite a ways away. Valentine’s Day is also just around the corner. A few of my students have asked me if I’m giving away chocolates to a boy.

As the buildings come back, as the roads get fixed, I hope this next year brings new changes. I want change for the better, both for Japan and myself. I know I can’t take the memory of 3/11 away, but I can be here to support Japan. I can’t get it back to the way it was. That’s impossible. Still, I can try to make them feel secure again. The ground can shake all it wants. I’m not going anywhere. I’ll be here for yet one more year of change.


The Return of the Flu Season

Last year, I nearly died, or at least I felt that way. My body was ravaged by a fever of 39ºC (sometimes rising to 41ºC) with a side of cold flashes, hot flashes, sweating, coughing, sneezing, runny nose, and aches. I went through five boxes of tissues, praying the whole way through the experience that God be merciful and cut off the blood supply to my entire face.

Needless to say, the flu is not fun. It’s a horrible experience. I was one of those unlucky people who got the Type A, which is the more severe influenza virus. The Type A virus causes the big spreads of flu from person to person (and sometimes even from person to animal). Type B is the typical crud virus that might take you out for a day but you’re fine come the next morning.

Recently, many students at my base school tested positive for Type A. The school immediately took full defensive measures and put on the white mouth masks. I wore one off and on throughout this season, but when my Vice Principal actually sat down to talk with me about the issue with an English dictionary I decided to make it a permanent fixture on my face for the near future.

It’s interesting how some Japanese customs are similar and different from American ones in terms of flu prevention. Both recommend washing your hands as often as possible. Every classroom at my school has hand sanitizer and students are encouraged to use it the most when they’re sick. Both also recommend not going outside into the cold. If it is necessary to go outside, bundle up. Wear a jack, scarf, and mittens. It’s winter, for Pete’s sake, quit exposing your legs!

Winter Idiocy

However, Japan and other Eastern countries put on the mouth masks for protection from illness Americans generally don’t unless we’ve got some kind of lung condition that makes it necessary. Japanese people do it for everything: colds, flus, viruses, you name it. If there’s something in the air, the white masks go on the face. It was strange walking around my town this week since everyone wore one. I felt like I was in the midst of the movie Contagion, and I feared for my body.

Check out the one dude who's being an individual.

The fashion for winter.

Japanese people also have this habit of chugging health drinks. Vitamin D is especially popular. When I went to my local 7 Eleven a few days ago, the place was sold out of them. In America, people generally take the medicine a doctor gives them and not much else. Maybe an American might pop a Centrum pill in with the pharmaceutical cocktail the doc gave them, but health drinks aren’t really a thing.

I’ve also been told repeatedly by my co-workers that I should gargle. Apparently, gargling and spitting out all the crud from your throat and mouth supposedly gets rid of a lot of germs. Most Americans I know don’t put much stock in this piece of advice, and to be honest no study I know shows that it does anything. Still, I’d say if you’ve got a sore throat, go ahead and gargle with some salt. It’s a nice old fashioned home remedy that both countries agree will help get rid of the soreness quickly.

And, of course, Japan recommends drinking copious amounts of tea. America loves to drink water for hydration when there’s a flu outbreak. Japanese people will thrust green tea at you if you sniffle. All my teachers recommend drinking tea with honey, especially honey harvested locally. I know of no bee farms near me, so I just use the grocery store’s stuff.

Personally, I’m doing my best to avoid the flu. I do not want a repeat of the nightmare from last year, I hope everyone else stays healthy as well out there in the germ riddled world.

After all, the flu is out there, waiting, plotting it’s next move to strike when we least expect it.

Some Parts Assimilated. Some Not-So-Much. It’s All Good.

When I went through the JET Program orientation in Tokyo, I got a serious lecture about the stages of living abroad. Firstly, a foreigner will experience euphoria. Everything is new and awesome! I went through this phase for a while, but I hit the next phase around Halloween. Secondly, a very tired of all this new stuff foreigner will experience things such as culture shock, which should actually be called cultural fatigue. I hit this stage for only a few weeks, getting back into euphoria for December because it was Christmas time. Thirdly, there’s assimilation. This phase basically means you’ve moved onto the “same stuff, different day” mentality, which is actually a good thing. Getting into a sense of normalcy with the environment and people around you makes for a much better living abroad experience than being constantly amazed by it. Being amazed all the time gets exhausting.

I’m on my second year in Japan and I plan to stay at least another year (but I’m aiming for about 6-ish years). I love living here in Japan, even though Japan and I can have issues with each other on either a cultural or language level. I think it’s safe to say I’ve assimilated in the sense that I’ve developed a sense of normalcy with all the aspects of my new life. I surprise more than a few Japanese people around town with my Japanese or in other cultural ways.

For example, bowing is one of those little cultural things I picked up easily as most people generally do. Bowing is a simple way of showing respect, humility, and apology all at the same time. I use it around strangers the most. If I don’t know someone, I’ll be moving like one of those toy bird water dipping things over and over again. I also tend to use “Gomen (ne)! ごめん (ね)!” all the freaking time. Saying “sorry” over and over does the same cultural functions as bowing. I use bowing and sorry together a lot over here.

I’ve used it so much it’s become an automatic reflex. When I hit the atrocity that is the Chicago O’Hare airport around Christmas time, I bumped into people. Now, a normal American might say, “Oops, sorry!” or “My bad!” and proceed onwards. My reaction was to come to a full stop bow and say “Gomen! ごめん!” I believe the man I said that to thought I must’ve been insane. I tried to recover (as in run away and never look back), while mumbling “Sorry…” with a huge embarrassed blush on my face.

Bowing like a boss

Like this, only with more panic.

What I did falls under the reverse culture shock part of living abroad. Reverse culture shock basically means when a foreigner becomes so accustomed to a foreign culture that he or she has to readjust to the home culture. Some people can go through this after the cultural fatigue part of living abroad, but I didn’t. It wasn’t until I went back home that it really hit me. When I got back, I did little things here and there that showed I was going through reverse culture shock.

Once, I made friends uncomfortable with some accidental “silent treatment” as we were hanging out. I realized that I’d fallen into a nice comfortable relationship with silence. In Japan, people don’t talk over one another, and if there’s nothing to talk about then nobody talks. They just sit there and listen or enjoy the company. In America, people have this avid fear of silence, so people tend to talk over each other, interrupt, and talk for the sake of talking more than Japanese people do. Since I had been away for so long, I had honestly forgotten about some of these things I did in America.

But really in Canada!

If you get the joke, give yourself a cookie.

However, parts of me are still intensely American, and those parts will most likely never die. For example, Japan tends to deal with people not well liked in a passive aggressive manner. I once watched a cashier smile the entire time a woman harassed her over some grocery prices, never once breaking her genki mask. I was very impressed, because I can’t do that very well. As I’ve mentioned before, “genki” isn’t just a word that means “happy” but also a kind of cultural aspect of Japan wherein people put on this kind of exterior image and hold it no matter what the circumstances. It’s all about not being impolite and shoving your unwanted positive or negative emotions onto people.

I don’t deal with people I don’t like in a genki manner. I get mean. I’ve had a couple incidents wherein I’ve utterly lost my temper, and both incidents taught my two things. 1) I sound far more intimidating than I ever did in Japan and 2) Japanese people have no idea what to do when you get really angry with them. My first big incident happened in a club in Tokyo. A Japanese guy got way too aggressive and demanding while I was dancing with him. When I refused to give him my email, he called me “a bitch gaijin” and I lost it. Security watched in amusement as the guy backpedaled his way off the dance floor while I yelled at him in a mix of English and Japanese I’m not entirely sure made sense.

My aggressive behavior, which I don’t even think is actually all that aggressive, scares Japanese people. For most of them, people only yell when they absolutely have to. Meanwhile, I’ve had screaming matches with my Sigma Tau Delta crew (a haughty English Majors society in University) about fictional characters and the problematic ending of Wuthering Heights. For me, aggressive sometimes equals fun and interesting.

For Japan, aggressiveness is generally viewed as a sign that someone is an “angry person” or “bad person” that should be avoided. I can’t tell you how many times during orientation people told us not to get angry at work. It causes all kinds of problems for an ALT to be viewed as an “angry foreigner.” If an ALT gets that label, then they’re often considered also as “hard to work with” and “unprofessional” and “creates problems in the workplace.” Even if there’s only one incident, it can make an ALT’s life very hard while he or she lives in Japan.

Thankfully, I’m not expected to “act Japanese” since I’m American. This lack of expectation makes it easier to find a balance between who I am as an American and what I wish to accept into my own identity while living abroad. Little by little, though, I’m starting to realize that some of these little changes might be a bit more permanent than I thought. Sometimes I get scared when I think about the bits and pieces changing without my full awareness. I don’t want to lose my original identity, but I’m not about to become a shut in to keep it. I’ve heard of people that can’t assimilate. They hole up inside their homes, never learning Japanese, just counting down the days until they go home. I don’t want to be like them. I also don’t want to go to the other extreme end of the spectrum and become that person who acts, thinks, and talks only Japanese.

Finding the balance is tricky, and there’s a lot of compromise involved. I wish someone had forewarned me about that part. Some things can’t exist in the same space, so I’ve had to deal with accepting some parts of Japan on an academic level but not taking them in with my own identity. Now, for me, that can be done easier than the other way around wherein I take in something Japanese culturally and in a sense replace something from my American identity. I’ve done it a couple of times. For example, I made the conscious effort to start walking over driving everywhere I go. When I had a car, I used it at first like an American would use it. I drove pretty much anywhere and everywhere that was outside of my house. I began steadily using it less and less until I walked more than I drove. It was an interesting change, but one I felt made me healthier and changed me for the better.

I think that living abroad and/or studying abroad provides a very unique experience for people. It can mold them into someone they never knew they could be. Learning about cultural differences can teach a person much about his or her own cultural biases. Cultural identity can be tricky to maintain, and putting yourself in a position that forces you to change isn’t for everybody.  Still, I recommend that to someone if he or she is thinking about it to try it out. It doesn’t have to be Japan, either. Heading out to Germany, China, Brazil, or wherever can grant a different perspective as well. Assimilating, learning to change, can be one of the most rewarding experiences. Missing out on that experience would be a downright shame.

Hint, hintity, hint

Do it!

On that note, if you live in Kentucky and want to study abroad, you should check out the KIIS (Kentucky Institute for International Studies) Program! I studied abroad in Japan for one month using the KIIS Summer Program. Apply online by Jan. 20, 2013 to save $100 off of any KIIS summer program fee. It’s like a $100 scholarship for every student. Plus those with complete applications on Jan. 20th are eligible for early acceptance. The regular application deadline is Feb. 15, 2013. You can also sign up for other programs that let you stay for a whole semester in a foreign country.

You can apply online at

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?”


“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: