Personal Safety in the City

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My husband had a business meeting in Paris last week, and I went along. Paris is a beautiful city, a wonderful city, and we both love visiting there. We had a weekend before the meeting started to wander our favorite sights and streets, and then I went off on my own while he was working. We have been there often enough now, that we feel fairly comfortable on the Metro, and finding our way around — we know where things are in Paris.

However, our trip started off with a somewhat unsettling incident. We had arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport, and took the RER train, as usual, into the city. It is about a 40 minute trip to Chatelet/Les Halles station, where we transferred — luggage and all — to the Number One metro line to our hotel on the western side of the city, near La Defense.

We both are usually very careful about guarding our belongings:  No wallets in the back or side pockets, purses and bags closed and secure, and being aware of the people around us. I have a slash-proof travel bag that I always use, and I had backed myself up against the wall of the train — at rush hour the train was crowded, and no seats were available.

After a few stops, a noisy group of teenage girls got on — 3 or 4 of them. One girl tried to nudge me out of my corner, asking questions (in French? or some other language, I couldn’t tell) and pointing to a subway map on the wall beside me. I moved a little bit, but did not vacate my corner. Then they were all over the place, still loudly asking the other passengers questions and pointing to the maps… to distract us all while one the girls started looking for pockets to pick!

My husband never carries his wallet in an easily accessible location, but after going through immigration at the airport, he absently slid his passport into the side pocket of his cargo pants. Luckily… someone else on the train was suspicious of the behavior of these girls and suddenly yelled “Pickpocket!” His passport fell to the floor just as the doors opened and the girls all ran away.

Truthfully, I don’t think they wanted his passport… I think they were just looking for wallets and cash, but it was an alarming “wake-up” for two seasoned, but jet-lagged and weary travelers. Something that has never happened to us before, and hopefully never will again.

I know pickpockets are very common in Paris and other large cities. The Paris Metro announces warnings at every stop in multiple languages (even Japanese). One does have to be very careful of petty crime in most big cities — Paris, London, New York, Atlanta, etc. But, since this is a blog “about Japan,” I also want to relate a story or two from here in Tokyo.

Certainly, no place is entirely without crime, and you have to guard your personal safety wherever you travel, but I have to say that of all the big cities I have traveled to, I feel the safest in Tokyo. And, for that matter, all of Japan. Just a few examples:

Twice, I have come across coin wallets lying along the sidewalk. Japan has a lot of coins — the smallest paper bill is equivalent to $10 — and many people carry small coin wallets. It is easier to have a coin wallet than to dig through pockets and purses to retrieve the right coins. So, twice I have seen these lying either on a wall or fence along the sidewalk. Someone has dropped it, and someone else has found it and placed it in an obvious location, so that (hopefully) the owner will walk back and find their lost property. It would be better to turn it in at the nearest koban (police box), but when pressed for time, the finder just places it in a conspicuous location. I have no doubt (truly) that every coin is still in the wallet. It is also the same with lost gloves, scarves, hats, coats, etc. They are hung on railings, or placed on walls and fences for the owner to come back to find. “Finders, keepers” does not work here.

In coffee shops and fast food restaurants, customers usually find a table or seat first, placing their belongings on the table, and then going to order food. The reason being that these shops are usually crowded, and if you don’t claim a seat before you order, you may not get a seat. I have seen purses, cellphones, packages, and even computers left unattended on tables in restaurants. No one bothers them. Period.

I have seen unlocked bicycles along the street with packages and sometimes purses in the the basket. I have seen little dogs and (yes) even toddlers left in bicycle seats outside of convenience stores. No doubt mama is watching closely from inside as she dashes in for some necessity, but no one bothers anything.

I have no really solid explanation other than that the Japanese (by and large) are a very honest and extremely honorable society. They truly value honesty and integrity. They truly want to do the right thing, and treat everyone with kindness, respect, and honor. Like I said, I am sure there are exceptions, and that there is crime to be found, but so much less than I have seen in other countries.

Japan is an amazing country — an amazing people, and an amazing culture. If only more people in the world could behave this way…

 

 

Wakarimasen… moichido yukkuri, onegaishimasu…

(I don’t understand… One more time, slowly, please.)

I just returned from a very brain-draining spouses’ language/culture class at my husband’s company. And my brain is feeling fried. Atama ga itai desu, yo! (My head hurts, you know!) I want to participate in these classes, but I admit they can sometimes be very stressful for me. Today —  was especially humbling.

I enjoy getting together with these women, but I am still the only American, and also the only truly native English speaker in the group. There are several from India and Pakistan who speak English, but often when they are together with each other they speak in other languages instead. There are also several from Korea, Taiwan, and China who can communicate (at least to some degree) with each other because their languages are all based on the Chinese kanji characters. Japanese is also based on those Chinese kanji, so our teachers (sensei, in Japanese) can more easily speak to them.

I usually hang out somewhere in the middle of our group, and try to understand as much as I can from both sides of the room. Our teachers speak only a little English, so they can’t easily explain a language concept to me. At this point, I know only a few of the kanji characters, but I can read the kana — katakana and hiragana — characters. Sensei writes things on the board in a mix of kanji and kana… and she usually translates the kanji characters into kana for me. And sometimes she will write it in romaji — the Roman alphabet.

My husband and I both really want to learn Japanese. We have taken three sessions of classes with a private instructor, and we use several language apps on our phones and computers, but after almost three years here, we are still only minimally conversant in Japanese. I have learned a lot of Japanese vocabulary and grammar, and I can usually understand the gist of a conversation — if they would just slow down and speak clearly.

My husband talks about this problem a lot. The official language of his company is English, and every employee hired has to have a certain proficiency in English. But often he struggles to understand what people are saying to him because they are speaking Korean-English, or Japanese-English, or Indian-English, etc. We all tend to accent and enunciate the words in a significantly different way.

For example: Today, one of my Korean friends in the group, was trying to tell me that I should visit Hamarikyu (a garden near where she lives in Tokyo.) She kept saying the name over and over, and I kept shaking my head trying to understand what she was saying. Then another person in our group said it in a slightly different way, and… AHA! I got it! I have been to Hamarikyu several times, and am familiar with the name. I just couldn’t understand it the way she was saying it.

The point of all this, I guess, is that language — and therefore communication — is a really difficult thing. We have to work hard at it. And, beyond the mechanics of language, we have to work really hard to truly understand each other. I am not just talking about words. Our language is part of who we are, and is linked to our culture, our upbringing, our values, and our experiences. We aren’t just communicating our words. We are “communicating” who we are, and how we view the world.

Yes… it is a struggle. Yes… it is difficult. But I think it is worth it, and I am not going to give up on it. This is how we connect. This is how we unite. This is how we learn to understand and respect each other — not as individuals of many different races, but as members of the same HUMAN race.

 

Thanksgiving in Japan

It is the beginning of “Thanksgiving week” at home in the US, and people there are getting ready to launch the holiday season with the first big family gathering/ holiday/ food fest. We won’t be there for the Thanksgiving holiday… we will be here in Tokyo, where the 4th Thursday of November is just another day of the work week.

They do have a “Thanksgiving” holiday (of sorts) here. It is called Labor Thanksgiving Day, and in Japan it is celebrated every year on November 23rd. This year, that holiday falls on the Friday after Thanksgiving. Labor Thanksgiving is a national holiday that was established after World War II, and replaces an earlier traditional harvest festival. It was established to celebrate labor and production, and to give thanks for workers. They don’t usually celebrate it with a big feast of turkey and trimmings, but it is a nice holiday off work and school.

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In my supermarket this week, I found a freezer full of turkeys! So I guess some people here do plan on making a turkey for dinner, although is is definitely not a Japanese tradition. I am afraid it won’t work for us, however, since all we have in our small apartment kitchen is a cook-top and fish grill (broiler).

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IMG_0191No canned pumpkin for pumpkin pie either. We do have Japanese pumpkins here… small green-skinned pumpkins that are delicious when stewed and eaten in Japanese curry. But alas, again, no oven in which to bake a pie. Mashed potatoes would be possible, and green bean casserole could possibly be cooked in the microwave, if I could manage to gather all the ingredients. But no bread baking without an oven…

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No fireplace in our apartment, so no crackling fire to snuggle up in front of to watch football with family and friends after the big meal. Of course, we could find a You Tube virtual fireplace for a little bit of seasonal atmosphere… with the added advantage of never needing to scoop out the ashes! Our “American Thanksgiving Day” will be just another workday for us.

And… on our Japanese Labor Thanksgiving holiday, we will be heading to Paris where my husband is scheduled for meetings next week. The long holiday weekend will be very different for us, traveling to yet another country that doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving Day:  no turkey, no football, and no Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.

But no matter…  we happily embrace the culture of our temporary adopted country, and the varied cultures of the countries we are privileged to visit. Life is about collecting experiences, after all. And as much as we miss our family, and the traditions we have established with them for so many years, we are very thankful for the experiences we have had while living here in Japan.

We think of our home and our family, and miss many things about “home” — especially during the holidays. So, to all of you, you and yours, friends and family… may you experience a Happy (and thankful) Thanksgiving.

Think of us, and eat another slice of pumpkin pie!

 

IMG_2732*** Extra cultural tidbit…    Look at what I found in the supermarket next to the sake. The Japanese says “Fugu fins.” Fugu are pufferfish. Certain parts of the pufferfish contain a lethal poison, and not preparing it correctly — removing the toxic portions without contaminating the edible parts — can result in death. Sushi chefs must complete several years of rigorous training before they can serve fugu.

These fins (not a toxic part of the fish) have been grilled and dried. They are used to make “Hirezake” — the fin is placed in a cup of heated sake, and allowed to steep. This imparts a smoky (and I would also say, a somewhat “fishy”) flavor to the sake — lol. Yes… I have tried it. Not really a favorite of mine, but some people apparently find it appealing. 498 Yen for enough fugu fins to serve all your holiday guests!

 

 

Tokyo to London

Although my job assignment is in Tokyo, I work for a multinational company that also has an office in London. So, on occasion, I take the flight from Tokyo to London.

One thing you quickly come to realize when living in Japan is that a trip to just about any other country is a long trip. Going to the United Kingdom is no exception. It is a l-o-n-g trip.

There are a few direct flights from Tokyo to London. But they tend to be pretty pricey. On this trip, I opted for the less expensive one-stop flight on Air France.

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Photo by Frank K., Anchorage, AK

About 11 hours in the air from Tokyo to Paris, then a layover of about 3 hours, followed by a quickie 1-1/2 hour flight to London Heathrow. At about $1,300 USD for a bare-bones economy seat, it still wasn’t cheap, but it was substantially less than the direct flight … and only about 3 hours longer travel time.

London’s usually a pretty easy city to get around. We took the Piccadilly Underground line from Heathrow, then changed at Green Park to the Jubilee Line to Canary Wharf, the location for this trip’s hotel. 150px-Underground.svgAbout an hour on the tube, which costs around 3 GBP – around $4 USD. Of course, if you’re averse to the subway, there’s always a taxi… if you’re willing to pay around $100 USD. I’ll opt for the tube, thank you.

After being in Tokyo for awhile, it’s refreshing to be someplace where the predominant language is English. Of course, London is such a multicultural city, you hear a multitude of languages and accents. Still, we come to appreciate the ability to hear and read with ease most of the time.

 

This trip involved a venture outside of London. Southwest Railway train to Poole, then a rental car to Lulworth Cove on the southern coast.

 

My first chance to drive on the left side of the road, on the right side of the car, shifting a manual transmission with my left hand. Actually, it was kind of fun…with only a few near-death experiences in the roundabouts.

We enjoyed our journey to the UK, and had a good time. But after a few days, we found ourselves ready to go back home to Japan. After living in Tokyo for nearly three years, it really does seem like home…a place we look forward to coming “home” to.

 

Flu Shots.

It is fall again, and one thing we always do in the fall is get our flu shots. Back home in ATL, I was required by my workplace to get a flu shot every year (I worked in healthcare there) and the vaccination was provided by my workplace. My husband’s company also provided the vaccination to workers, and even scheduled “vaccine clinics” to make it more convenient for their workers to get the shot. Of course, we could also go to lots of other places to get our flu shots, and it was fully covered by our medical insurance. It was easy and convenient for us to get the vaccination.

At my husband’s workplace here in Japan, they also encourage everyone to get their flu shot in the fall, and we have been provided with a list of clinics in our area where we can go to get vaccinated. Since we are still covered by our US health insurance, we pay for the vaccine here, and then submit the bills to our insurance company back home for reimbursement. We are also covered under the Japanese National Health Insurance for most other medical expenses, but I don’t think the flu vaccine is a part of that coverage.

The first fall after we moved to Japan we were home for a visit and just got the flu shot while we were in the US. But last year — and this year — we got the vaccine here. It is not difficult… but there are some hurdles to doing anything when you can’t speak the language very well. It can seem daunting at times to do even these simple tasks. My husband’s workplace does provide us with a liaison — an employee who can help us with these sorts of communication challenges, but we do try to manage as well as we can on our own.

Once we got the list of clinics, it was simple enough to type in the address into Google maps, and find out where we needed to go. The clinic we have chosen is nearby — right here in Minato-ku (our “ward” of Tokyo). My husband did have someone from work call to make sure they had vaccine available before we went to the clinic… phone calls are especially a challenge for us. We manage day-to-day communication with a mixture of our meager Japanese, and quite a lot of pointing and gesturing. It works fine when you are face-to-face, but over the phone, communication with a non-English speaker is nearly impossible.

So… with GPS in hand, we walked to the clinic, and this is what we found:

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More language challenge. The floor guide was all in Japanese. But, we are actually learning(!) and after some (rather slow) translation, we determined that our desired medical clinic was on the 3rd floor. “3F Minato-Mita (the first three are kanji characters) ku-ri-nik-ku (followed by 5 katakana characters)” — Minato-Mita Clinic! We couldn’t read all of the kanji on that sign, but we could read enough to get by. Success.

Once inside, it was very much like any clinic in the US. A waiting room and a reception desk. The staff spoke minimal English, but all we had to say was “influenza shot” and they gave us each a form to fill out (in English!) and a thermometer to take our temperature. After handing that back in, we waited for our “interview” with the doctor.

We came to this clinic last year too, and had the same doctor for this part. He speaks English, but very heavily accented, so it is sometimes hard to understand him. He goes over our medical forms and asks questions. He is elderly, and always asks us how old we think he is… lol. This year, he is 82(!) and still healthy and working at the clinic. I know they have other doctors there, but I think they always send us to him because he has the best English.

Anyway… so after our interview with the doctor, we wait out in the reception area for our turn. The nurses get everything set up, and in no time we are done and vaccinated for this year. We go to the waiting room while they prepare our bill, and when they call us up, they punch the number into a calculator so that we can read the amount we owe. Most businesses here have a calculator on the counter so that they can show us the numbers — they know we are really SLOW understanding the numbers in Japanese… lol.

Our bill was 3500 yen each — about $35 — which we will now submit to our insurance.

Sometimes I feel bad that even after 2 1/2 years here, I still can’t speak Japanese. But we do manage, and actually… I think we are understanding more that we think we are. It is a gradual process, and we have become comfortable doing this kind of day-to-day communication… even if we aren’t fluent speakers of Japanese.

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Voting from afar

It’s almost time for elections in the United States. I’ve always been diligent about voting, as I think it is the responsibility of every citizen to be part of the process. In today’s turbulent political environment, voting is even more important.  But being 6,000 miles from my voting place does make things a bit more difficult. Voted

Fortunately, there is support for people living in other countries. Google “voting from outside the US” and you’ll get suggestions for a variety of websites with information on the absentee voting process. As a Georgia resident, I was also able to get the needed information from my county election commissioner’s office.

It’s actually a pretty easy process to request an absentee ballot. Once early voting opens, the election commissioner’s office emails a link to an official ballot, along with the appropriate instructions on how to complete it. The hardest part of the whole process was figuring out where to address the envelope for returning the ballot. Once that was done, it was a matter of getting postage at the local post office, and voilà- I have voted in the US election, from my current residence in Tokyo.

What happens with my ballot, once it is in the mail? As far as I can tell, there is no way to verify that my vote has been received. I can only have faith that it will make it through the mail, through the US voting system, and be counted as intended.

Voting from Japan does take a little more time and effort than it did in the US. I hope that if I and my fellow expats are willing to participate, all my friends back in the US will also get out to be part of a huge voter turn-out in 2018. Voting has always been an important responsibly of US citizens. In this election, everyone’s participation is vital to the future of our country. Please VOTE!

 

Am I ever going to be able to speak Japanese?

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My bento box lunch today after Japanese class — Japanese food is always so beautifully arranged.

Just checking in on the language progress. Today was another Spouse’s Language and Culture Class at my husband’s company. It is nice that they offer these classes for us. We meet three Wednesday’s per month, and it is usually a luncheon meeting: Ninety minutes with language instruction, and then a box lunch while the teachers (sensei) present a short cultural program. Sometimes we go on a “field trip” to a museum, or other interesting cultural spot, and sometimes we do some sort of traditional craft (origami, for example) after our language lesson.

I have been attending these classes for 2.5 years now. Spouses come and go depending on the husband’s job assignment… there are always new people coming in, and others that leave to go back to their home countries. It is an interesting class, with people from so many different places.

And how have I progressed — linguistically — in these 2.5 years? Sometimes I feel good about my progress, and some days are just… humbling. Certainly, I have made progress (from knowing almost NO Japanese 2.5 years ago):  I now know a lot of vocabulary, and quite a bit of grammar… and I can read both hiragana and katakana, and… even a few of the kanji! “Romaji” is the translation of the Japanese characters into Roman characters. Most things in Japan are written in the Kana and Kanji — but there are more and more signs, etc, that are being written in Romaji… in preparation for the 2020 Olympic games.

[ FUN FACTS:  Japanese has three character systems that are commonly used to write the language. Kanji — the Chinese characters that written Japanese is based upon, Hiragana — the characters representing each spoken syllable, and Katakana — the characters used to spell out foreign words. In written Japanese, all three character systems are used, and in fact, may be mixed together. There are thousands of kanji symbols, and the average, college-educated Japanese person knows almost 3000 of these kanji characters. Just to read a newspaper here, it is estimated that one needs to be able to read about 2000 of the most commonly used kanji.]

Today’s class felt a bit more “humbling” than usual. I have been moved up to the upper class… but probably more because I have been here so long, than any actual ability to converse. The lower class is where all the “newbies” go when they first arrive, and they seem to do the same basic Japanese phrases over and over because… whenever a new person joins the class, those are the things they most need to learn. Things like:

Konnichiwa (hello, good day), Watashi no namae wa _______ desu (my name is ____), Yoroshiku onagaishimasu (nice to meet you), Watashi wa ______ kara kimashita (I am from _____)… etc… etc…

I well know those phrases by now, so they moved me into the next class. Most of the other women in the upper class are from Korea — and the Korean language has many similarities to Japanese, so they have a bit of an advantage over me. The Korean language is also based on the Chinese kanji, so they have that advantage as well. In the lower class are several women from India, one or two from China, and a Taiwanese. The Indian women speak English, but not many of the other class members know much — or any — English. The teachers both speak a little bit of English, but not a lot. I am the only American in the class — there are two spouses from the UK in the company, but neither of them attend the language classes.

If the teachers speak very slowly and clearly (yukkuri, onegaishimasu), I can usually pick up the gist of the conversation in Japanese… but it can be a struggle. Today seemed more frustrating than usual for me. My brain was just not processing the Japanese very well, and after 90 minutes of that, my brain was fried, and just stopped trying. I am sure I probably had that glazed, deer-in-the-headlights look on my face.

But, I WILL persevere. I will keep going to language class, and I will keep studying my Duolingo app every day — I have gotten through all of the Duolingo Japanese lessons now, but I will keep practicing the grammar with (hopefully) more and different vocabulary. And, I will keep studying my textbook, and listening to Japanese TV programs. Eventually… I WILL do this… domo arigato gozaimasu! Ja mata… (until next time…)

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Today’s cultural lesson was about the Japanese Tea Ceremony.

If you would like to know more about the Japanese Tea Ceremony, using powdered green tea (matcha), there are many YouTube videos available. This one below is from an NHK TV series that I like to watch.