Log in

July 2007   01 02 03 04 05 06 07 08 09 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31
Jeez, a lot has happened since the last blog. I wrote one last night, but it was solely a response to boring questions about personal goals and the like. I didn’t post it and don’t plan to, because I think that it will be boring for you. What I want to write about, and what I think you all want to hear about, is the crazy amazing stuff that goes on in Japan. Ok. So, let’s start with the hiyaku-en sushi restaurant and my first experience “hunting” in Japan. Ethan and I had talked several times about needing to go out looking for dates in Shibuya, and it was during one of these conversations that I learned that such activity is called “hunting” in Korea. Ethan disappeared somewhere last Friday, but Andrew and I went hunting. Outside of Shibuya station is a large concrete (of course) courtyard with a statue of a dog in it. The dog is Hachiko, a legendary dog who continued to wait at the station every day for his master even after the master was dead and buried. The statue is a famous meeting place. “Let’s meet up at Hachiko at 21:30”, people will suggest. The courtyard, the station, and the neighbouring street intersection are always packed, and almost everyone is between the age of 17 and 25. Andrew and I, after coming to realize that most everyone there already had plans and had already eaten dinner, decided to write signs advertising our interest in finding dates for dinner. We wandered about until we found a Seven Eleven, which is, as I have learned, a Japanese company. We bought paper and markers, and Andrew wrote the signs. The clerk thought we were funny, got off work twenty minutes from our arrival, but didn’t herself want to accompany us to dinner. We then waltzed about Shibuya square looking for dates. More than 5000 people must have read my sign. Only about three did not smile or laugh out loud, but only about 15 or so stopped to talk. The first group consisted of five or so high school boys, still in uniform, who chatted heartily in broken English and presented me with a very detailed rubber dildo on a spring. They were very happy to have found what they seemed to think was an apt final destination for this novelty they had bought at “Condomania”, a nearby adult entertainment and gag shop. The second encounter was with a drunk, heavy set English man of about forty. He was a professor at Tokyo University, he said, and he was very amused and interested in our strategy. He praised us for our originality and polite boldness, and seemed to expect success for us. He seemed personally invested, after chatting with us for a bit, and he began waving down troops of subway-bound girls to explain our situation to them in Japanese and encourage them to join us for drinks. It didn’t go well. I wandered off and had a few successful conversations with women, at, least, successful from a Japanese language standpoint in that both parties understood each other. Ethan joined us at some point, but declined to don a sign. In the midst of all the fun, I chanced upon a stylishly dressed white guy with a guitar. I walked up to him and tried to ask him if he was a musician and about what he played, hoping to get info on how to form a band, but he muttered about not being a musician, about not having a guitar, and about not being interested in talking and having to go. I realized that he’d read my sign and thought I was hitting on him. We ended up with a group of loud and very fashionably dressed girls from the Tokyo school of design or something like that. They were against having dinner, but seemed eager to take us to a dance club party. We stood for what must have been 30 minutes laughing at each other’s awkward attempts to communicate in our respective second languages. Andrew had covertly tucked away the dildo. They learned, after some phone calls, that the party was for Fashion School students only, so they left us. It was 22:30 by then, and we were all too hungry to keep the game up anymore. We then found a restaurant that I will never forget. The hiyaku-en sushi bar. If you can eat 14 pieces of sushi, you get them all for less than 50 cents each. We had 15 minutes, and we each ate roughly 20 pieces, which was no small accomplishment for Ethan, who had already had dinner. Then we went back to the hotel to drink a bit on the roof and then go play soccer on a nearby field. Every step induced a wasabi burp, and Andrew and Ethan thoroughly trounced me in the game we invented. I ran in silly circles, burping and shouting, until I couldn’t stand the pain in my stomach anymore. I slept late on Saturday.

That was Friday and half of Saturday. Now for the most important story. Azumi Asai. I handed her my key every morning on the way to Tokyo Tech for language class, and she gave it to me again every evening along with a breakfast pass for the following morning. She has a great smile, short hair, and big glistening eyes. One night, after 23:30 when the lobby was empty, I watched her hum as she danced around the bar, cleaning the counters and returning glasses to their shelves. The next morning, I gave her a little note with my key on the way out to class. I had scrawled, over breakfast, some lame Japanese about her being pretty and about the possibility of us having dinner sometime. One of the Japanese teachers had given us a chocolate in class, and I gave it to Azumi in exchange for my key on the way back in. I had ruled out the possibility of a response and had even begun feeling guilty about the letter, as I continued to see her twice a day and thank her for the key and breakfast pass. Well, the Saturday afternoon after the Shibuya adventure, on my way back from the laundry joint down the street from the hotel, she caught her breath when she saw me, and seemed to hesitate when she gave me my key. Everything was overwhelmingly bright that day, and my head weighed more than my laundry, so all I managed was a squinty apologetic smile before making my way to the elevator. Just as the doors were closing, she darted up, and, catching the door open again with a whisper-shout “Arec-san”, she handed me a note card with her number and email and a bunch of Japanese I didn’t understand on it. I dropped some laundry to take the card, and I stood there blinking and smiling and straining to think of something to say. I don’t remember what I said. She thanked me for the chocolate that I’d left her. I said something else that I can’t remember. She offered to have dinner that night. I immediately agreed, then, remembering that we were having our orientation-conclusive dinner that night, I tried my best to tactfully change the date for Sunday. She agreed.

Saturday was terrific, overall. We had dinner at a very fancy place nearby, and most of the guest lecturers and Japanese professors were there. Roger Buckley, a very hip old English guy, was the life of the party, making tactful, flattering, and cumulative jokes throughout dinner. I had fun practicing Japanese with my professors, who knew how to grill me on the stuff that I should have learned in their classes. Afterward, we all went to karaoke. Everyone got drunk, young and old, and we sang hits from the 80’s through now in Japanese and English. It was Ethan’s birthday, so I made an announcement and made him sing a sappy love song in Korean by himself in front of everyone. He blew us away with range and pitch, so luckily the dice fell with embarrassment and guilt on the bottom, and I felt pride in having encouraged him.

Sunday was a busy day. I bought a bike, left it at the hotel, carried my stuff by subway to my landlord’s office, did paperwork, rode with him in his car to the apartment and moved in, went back by subway to the hotel to retrieved my bike, rode back all the way to my apartment, and then tried to get to know the others living in the place. It’s a house, with each room rented out separately. The others all seem cool. Still don’t really know, yet. We’re scheduled to hang out together on Thursday night. Jake, Agi, Jake’s girlfriend (unofficial resident), Dave, and another Japanese woman whose name I can’t remember for the life of me. I then went to Keio University to scope it out before work started the next day. I gave up on finding the building. I had heard from Itoh-sensei that it was building 24, but there didn’t seem to be a building 24, and everyone stared blankly when I suggested it. Unfortunately, no ancient men with tobacco smoke curling from dry lips raised their brows and exchanged knowing glances as they informed me that the building had been burnt to the ground 7 years ago that very day. I did, however, find the student club building. In it, I doubled the number of contacts in my phone. Music clubs at Keio are awesome. Musicians practice diligently, but they are open minded and creative. Everywhere inside and around the building, people are standing against the wall running up and down scales on trombones or tapping drum sticks against t-shirt muted snare drums. I sat in on several band practices. There are almost as many female musicians as male, and both genders seem spread equally among all instruments. My new friend Yuki sang a flawless and elaborated version of “We will rock you” with a saxophonist, two drummers, a guitarist, and a bassist. Next, a wacky pop group featuring two flutes, bass and guitar, keyboard, drums and “official dancer” ran through a few songs several times. Finally, 21:30 rolled around, and I met Azumi near the hotel and had fun looking for a restaurant that didn’t close at 22:00. We ended up having really fancy ramen at a cool out of the way place in Roppongi, and, although there was a huge language barrier, we had fun and kept trying enthusiastically to talk the whole time. I bought her mango Haagen-dazs, which we shared in the subway station waiting for her train. We agreed at the last minute to meet again on Tuesday. She was adorable.

Monday was very intense. I hadn’t slept well on Sunday, as I hadn’t found where to buy a towel and didn’t know how to work the hot water and as the air conditioner in my room was broken. After a short, freezing shower, I rolled around sweating in my wet bed until somebody’s TV turned off and the cats behind the house shut up. Monday started at 6. I found the subway station from my apartment okay, which was something to boast as the winding and narrow little streets are not labelled and houses tend to look the same. I locked my bike outside the station and caught a train for Hiyoshi. I got there by 6:30. I strolled about looking for building 24, then, as time went on, began jogging, my backpack full of booze for my host professor clanking and swinging wildly on my back. I ended up back at the entrance, and I almost ran into my professor. He didn’t seem surprised at all to see me, asked whether I was lost, and walked me to lab. I then met 25 or so enthusiastic grad students, and we hung out for a bit before filing into a lecture hall. I introduced myself officially to the group in Japanese, and everyone laughed. One of them spoke for almost three hours, in English, about his research. There were many questions, and everything was very thoroughly covered, but I had a tough time following. I then toured the labs with Yohen, my Shishou (grad student boss), and Jun, a fellow undergrad subordinate of Yohen. Yohen is obviously brilliant, very reserved, and rather artistically inclined despite his seriousness. He reminds me of Shi Yue, my room mate in China, when I first met him almost two years ago. Yohen often stops while we’re on our way somewhere to pick up some little scrap from the ground. He examines and pockets these trinkets. I’ve heard from others that he’s a phenomenal carver and figurine fashioner. Jun is a terrific friend. He is very enthusiastic in general but particularly so about learning English. He remembers everything that I tell him, and he has a knack for finding ways to make jokes in English. These are often so clever that I want to jot them down as they occur. I taught him the sesame street song yesterday, and he has been singing it non-stop since then. He works two part time jobs in addition to his position with Itoh-sensei at Keio, and, although he doesn’t sleep and mentions feeling tired, I’ve seen no evidence of this. He’s great. I hope I get to hang out with him outside of work.

Right, so, back to Monday. After the tour, I grilled Yohen about research for a good two hours, not realizing that we were carrying over into lunch. Neither he nor Jun mentioned this, but continued to entertain my questions and attempted clarifications in Japanese until I noticed a clock and asked in general whether we would have time for lunch on the job. “Of course”, cried Jun, “and we should go there soon”. This is the sort of thing that I need to watch out for. I think that they understand that I was not intentionally wishing them discomfort by delaying our break, but there is a disposition in Japan to constantly watch out for the welfare of others and to avoid pointing out the mistakes of others. I made a mistake; I didn’t watch the time, and it hadn’t occurred to me to raise the topic of lunch. I didn’t think of Jun or Yohen’s physical states during our interview, and I picked up no indications that either of them were becoming frustrated or mentally tired. I believe now that they both were. My mistake was not pointed out to me. After lunch (delicious!), we went to Toyko University and spent six hours listening to lectures in Japanese from prominent government, company, and university lab researchers. Sharp’s one-step-down-from-CEO was there, as were other company big shots. I managed not to fall asleep for more than 30 second intervals. They had a reception afterwards with free sushi. Sweet! I got back to my apt at around 9pm. I planned on being productive in some way but instead began watching “the story of the weeping camel”, a DVD about Mongolia that my aunt gave me last Christmas and that I’ve been meaning to watch. I got about a fourth of the way through before I started drifting off and had to go up to bed. Whew, enough for now. I’ll catch you up hopefully by next week’s entry.

Japan Update, week2

Posted on 2007.05.29 at 00:43
Tags: , , , , ,
As promised, another assigned NanoJapan blog. There's more at the end though, if you're looking for interesting stories.

1. What are some of the “rules” that people follow when on public transportation? For example, what do you notice about how people sit or stand? Do any of these rules change depending upon the time of day or number of travelers?
2. What are typical activities that people engage in while on public transportation? Is there anything that people DON’T do?
3. Do there seem to be different rules or norms for issues such as politeness, appropriateness, and so forth?
Hmm. Rules on subways.. Nobody eats on subways during the day. In fact, I very seldomly see people eating in public at all in Japan. Scoring seats is free for all. Young men do not jump up to offer seats when old ladies get on. People do not converse with each other, either. A group of giggling high school girls will cut short their chatter as soon as they step off the platform, and a married couple will pause their conversation mid-sentence when the train pulls up. Once the doors do close, people pull out manga to flip through, cellphones to send texts, or DS’s to play mario, but nobody makes phone calls or idle conversation.
It seems to be generally understood in Japan that subways are places for sleeping. I estimate that 6 out of every 10 subway seats are occupied at any time during the day by sleeping people. Some tilt their heads back against the glass, others slump forward. Nobody snores, however, and sleeping bodies seem somehow able to withstand the tugs and lurches of highspeed turns the train makes. The most interesting thing to observe is how everyone awakes precisely at the same time when the train eases to a hault. Though you can’t help but feel a pull when you’re in a turning vehicle, the subways in Tokyo are remarkably smooth. Screeching breaks and jolting, grinding haults are few and far between, yet the Japanese still wake up in unison just before the doors slide open.
Exceptions to the rules include the actions of foreigners and of drunk people. Our NanoJapan group are always a spectacle. People stare at us even when we aren’t talking, and as we tend to be slower than most natives in nabbing seats, we stand in center stage, half swinging from the hand grips that suspend from the ceiling, and we talk. We talk quietly, by our standards, and although the looks we get aren’t scolding or admonishing, I get to feeling very out of place. This feeling has settled in by now, though, as a new norm. Drunk people in Japan are treated with respect and patience. It is culturally understood, says Andre, our program’s head guide and Japanese culture expert, that drunk people are drunk because they are blowing off steam from having worked so hard. The drunker someone is, the harder they must have worked, and the more they are deserving of respect and care. People will rush to help gather a drunk old guy’s scattered belongings, and they nod and listen patiently to garbled rants and follow the wild, swinging gestures.

4. In what ways does the experience taking public transportation in Japan differ from that in the US?
My experience taking subways in the US is actually pretty limitted. I only remember the crazy times in subways while visiting my brother when he lived in New York. Crowds were much thicker than in Japan, and people were much more aggressive about getting onto and off of subways. My brother could weave through crowds thicker than an elevator filled to capacity, and I did my best to follow him, stepping on toes and shouldering people’s elbows. I remember getting my arm caught in some lady’s purse and having her start yelling at me as I struggled to detach myself and catch up to my brother. Taking the subway here in Tokyo is much less stressful.
It’s much cleaner in Tokyo than in New York, too. There’s nothing quite so dirty that I can remember as a New York subway. People sleeping on stained newspapers, nacho cheese on the windows, the smell of piss from the seats at the far end; none of this exists here. It would be outrageous if someone performed for money inside a subway in Tokyo. Such things only happen outside exits to the station and only then rarely.

5. What did you learn about Japanese culture from your reflections? Are all of the differences you observed cultural, or are some merely practical?
The group mentality that I’d been told dominates in Japan takes the form of privacy more than I had imagined. People are not outgoing in a group-oriented way like I experienced in China in restaurants, trains, and on the basketball court. Instead, I’ve noticed formality, mildness, and avoidance. People are more than willing to help someone in need who asks, but there is little to no innitiative on the parts of two strangers who aren’t lost to interact. People do business with each other, and in public places they move or sleep.. or do both.

More notes:
My landlord is a Turkish man somewhere in his late twenties to mid thirties who has been studying and working in Japan for several years. He used to be a race car driver, a boast that I only grew to believe for certain after he gave Andrew and I a little demonstration on the way to survey my apartment. He drove us there, talking about good times he’d had sneaking women into his foreign students’ dormitory parties by dressing them as men outside the security officer’s post by the front gate. He told us that in Japan, nobody knows how to interact casually with anyone outside their family and that that’s why women in Japan love foreigners. I didn’t know this about women in Japan, and my skepticism carried over to influence my reaction to his boast about being a race car driver, so when he pulled into the residential neighborhood with 6-foot wide streets and began pushing 40mph, dodging the light poles and trashcans, I was as shocked as the woman with laundry we sped past. My apartment rocks. The two Japanese women there are both smokers, but my room is being redone this week from carpet to wallpaper, and I have internet, airconditioning, a window, a sink, and a walk-in closet. The house’s kitchen and lounge are nice, too, and I dig the traditional Japanese feel: rice paper walls and sliding doors, etc.
Andrew accompanied me to scope out my apartment. Ethan had church, so he declined to come. He somehow found a Korean Christian church here in Tokyo. He told me, in response to my querry, that of course he’d found one and that it had been easy. Either the network is really developed or there are a lot more Korean Christians here in Tokyo than I had thought. I actually had never thought about it before at all. Anyway, Andrew hadn’t eaten yet all day, and so, on the way to the subway to my landlord’s office, we stopped by a convenient store to buy some lunch. Andrew bought some spagetti, and I found a salad (which I was thoroughly excited about, having not had one since my arrival). We ate in the subway station, on the train, and while walking to my landlord’s. The whole time, people widened their eyes and laughed at us. They didn’t laugh at us to us, but rather they laughed about us to each other. We were taking advantage, Andrew and I, of something that we call Gaijin exemption. There are many cultural rules that would be unspeakably rude for Japanese to break, but when foreigners do, they are exempt from disfavor and instead made into a humourous spectacle. I find this enjoyable. I predict, however, that my opinion will change before I leave. We didn’t finish our food. Poor Andrew carried his spagetti to my landlord’s office, on the way in his tiny car, through my future home, and finally out to the subway stop I’ll be taking starting next week.
We asked my landlord for directions to the subway, explaining that I wanted to know how long it took to walk there from the home. He explained, sped away, and we got lost. We threw away Andrew’s cold, leaky spagetti, bought some sprite, and asked a passing cop car how to find the station. Another car, however, pulled up behind the cop, and he hesitated in visible distress until I assured him we were okay and he pulled forward to appease the driver behind him. Andrew and I walked about ten minutes more before the cop, winded and flustered, caught up with us. We were pretty blown away. How had he found us? Why had he bothered? He pulled out a map and explained twice, slowly, in Japanese, where we needed to go. We understood, sure, up ahead, take a left and the big street, and and enterance is then up the way on the right. He bowed and strolled away, we finished our sprites and shook our heads in disbelief, and then we walked to the subway station, which was about 20 meters from where the cop had stood with his map. It was so close, in fact, that had we recognized the sign from where we’d stood we could have easily seen it from where we’d been stopped again by the cop. Why had he shown us a map instead of simply pointing?
One last story, the Fukt club. Ryoko is a beautiful Japanese woman finishing up her masters in the electrical engineering department at Tokyo University of Technology. She’s researching radio communication, and she’s going to work for Motorolla soon. She speaks almost fluent English, having studied abroad in both Australia (college) and Scotland (grad school), and her word choice and syllabic stress reflect this. Her accent, beauty, and unique but refined sense of style make her enchanting, and her relaxed attitude, curiousity, and fun stories make her a great date. Phew, needless to say, after dinner, when she invited me to bring friends and join her for fun at a dance club in Shibuya the next night, I was there in a heartbeat. Actually, waiting a whole day amounted to way too many heartbeats. Skipping a bunch, we arrived at bar Fukt, where the enthusiastic hostess admitted us for $20 with a pass for one free drink. The ad read: “lock up your daughters, bar Fukt is back in town.” Highlights incuded the guy coveres in skin-tight white bandage-like material who danced in slow motion like a robot in the center of the dance floor. He carried in one hand a pack of markers, and people drew on him while they danced. Ryoko drew a face on the back of his head, which, before it was covered by a big picture of a penis, made him really funny to watch. By the end of the night the guy was covered head to foot in penises and boobs and people’s names. A couple British DJ’s played some good hiphop; one was an extraordinary turntablist. A wacky Japanese band “played” next, but the guitars, despite each being hooked to 15 or so foot pedals, were muted, and all the music came save for two microphones came from recordings. The singers and guitar holders were enthusiastic, though, and we all kept right on dancing. There were two bongos in the corner, and I had fun beating my hands red. Ryoko’s busy preparing some big final project, and can’t hang out now. I wonder if I let her down at the show somehow. Ehh.. I’m supposed to memorize 58 verbs by tomorrow. Better get to work!

NanoJapan hw1

Posted on 2007.05.22 at 00:39
Current Location: Tokyo
Tags: , , , , ,
So I'm in Tokyo this summer doing research at Keio University. The program that sent me, NanoJapan, is having me write a blog every week, and, as my entries will be available to all program members, I decided that I ought to go ahead and make them available to everyone. They’ll be written in the format arranged for me in each blog assignment, and I’ll include the assignment prompt before my work each time. Ok, readysetgo!

Alec Walker

1. What are my initial reactions to Japan and/or Tokyo?
2. Are my reactions different from those of my travelling companion(s)? If so, how and why?
3. What type of experience do I feel engages me most? Isolates me most?
4. What interaction was the most confusing of the past week? The most stressful?
5. How effectively did I deal with these situations?
6. Who was most helpful to me this past week?
7. What am I doing to meet people?
8. Am I being viewed as an individual, as an American, as a foreigner?
9. Have my goals changed? If so, how and why?
Also describe any additional communication you may have had with your research host advisor and indicate what questions/concerns you still have that you will need to work on addressing with your host prior to arrival at your lab. If you have not already done so please send an email to your host letting them know you have arrived safely in Japan and asking that they please forward you and the NanoJapan program any updated information on your housing or other matters as they become available. This would also be an ideal opportunity to provide your host with your Japanese cell phone number. You may use the following text as a template for your email though you may revise this as needed based on your previous communication with your host.

1. My initial reactions to Tokyo:
Toyko is much less congested in general than I had imagined. There are some areas that, as I’ve noticed, get extremely crowded at certain times of the day, like major subway stations or that main Shibuya intersection. For the most part, though, the city falls somewhere between New York and Houston in terms of congestion. Maybe Seattle would be a good comparison in that regard. People speak much more English than I had imagined, and interactions with strangers are less stiff and formal than I had feared. There aren’t as many wacky street side-shows or giant cute puffy animal costumes as I’d been led to believe. The manga target audience is much broader than I predicted. We often see old people on subways in and restaurant windows leaning over the thousand-page comic books open in their laps. Toyko is even cleaner than I dared to believe. My allergies, fully tolerable so far, have been more due to the pollen from beautiful roadside trees than from dust and car exhaust. I haven't eaten any sushi yet. I eat ramen, udon, fried chicken, and curie rice.. and multivitamin pills. Japan is less expensive than I had imagined.

2. My reactions contrasted against those of my NanoJapan program peers:
This would be a good conversation to have with my peers, but it has unfortunately not happened yet. So in the following paragraph please realize that I am projecting based on my observations. I think that the majority of my peers regard Japan as more alien and less welcoming than I do. I notice that many would rather explore in larger groups than smaller and that we tend to be more prone to speculation than interaction. I think my exemption from this description comes both from my age and from my previous experiences in Asia and abroad elsewhere. There are only three of us who are 21. Parts of Tokyo resemble Shanghai, which I still remember vividly; I recognize some of the Kanji on signs and pamphlets; and I am familiar with being in an environment that functions in a language other than my own.

3. The experiences that engage me most and isolate me most:
I feel most engaged when meeting and attempting to converse with Japanese people as well as the foreign exchange students at Tokyo Tech. I love trying to speak Japanese. I feel like I’m performing improvisational comedy, except that I, as the comedian, have no idea when or why I am being amusing. I've begun playing simon-says type games with the little kids on the hillside between the library and main cafeteria. I suck at this game, and one little girl told me that I ought better to lie down. I have made several hilarious language blunders, some of which are only realized and appreciated later amongst myself and the other NanoJapan students, while others were apparent and comic only to the Japanese to whom I was speaking.
1) "Excuse me," I said to a Japanese girl at lunch the on the first day, "but I'm not an English language today but am instead an American of student."
2) At most restaurants, whenever a new customer enters, the staff all
turn and yell "welcome to our restaurant!" (in Japanese, of course).
I decided to join in a few nights ago, but I added an "n" sound to the end of the phrase, which makes the whole sentence negative. I was both encouraging everyone who entered that they were more than welcome to leave and implying that there were no honorable people in the restaurant.
3) At a restaurant, I asked a woman for one bowl of miso, or so I thought. It turned out I used the wrong measure word, which instead changed the meaning of my request. Roughly translated, I told the woman that it was miso time. When she paused in confusion, I tried again, but this time I
told her that it had already been miso time and that miso time was
over. Andrew, who knows some Japanese, has a laugh that tends to be quiet until he catches his breath, so I didn't get that I messed up until after the waitress had blinked a few times and smilingly turned away. No soup was brought, and that was just fine.
4) I have not been taught yet how to say good and bad, and, since a lot
of times I find myself in totally new situations in which letting
others know my reactions is desirable, last week I asked a Japanese
girl. My example was my cell phone. Through sign language and acting,
I communicated that her phone was superior (it could browse the
internet and take pictures and short movies, etc). I then posed the
question: my phone what, your phone what? She got it, and I learned
that good is Eh-ro-ii. I then began using this word to describe all
things that I felt were good. I learned yesterday that Eh-ro-ii comes from the English word erotic, which, in Japanese, doesn't have any negative connotations. It's like saying sexy in the states. Works for cellphones, I guess. Doesn't work when thanking restaurant staff for good meals, when thanking elderly women for directions, or, for that matter, when trying to get
my room key back from the hotel staff. Whew..

Everyone on the program is awesome. I hope to keep them all as lifelong friends, if not colleagues! Everyone is so fun, funny, enthusiastic, and smart that I often find myself jumping back and forth to hover around each conversation. I feel really lucky to be with these people. Nonetheless, the experience that isolates me the most is traveling in a large group of NanoJapan students. I feel separated from them, as I am distracted by the world around me, and our bulk and unruliness causes me to feel separated from my surroundings, as well. I feel that our numbers alter and the dynamics that would otherwise exist between us and those that we encounter, and I get to feeling impatient with our indecision and tendency to lose and subsequently wait for one another. I have resolved to limit my large group excursions to those mandatory ones organized by the program, and to our occasional mass rooftop meetings (our 12 story hotel leaves its roof unlocked).

4. My most confusing and stressful interactions:
These happen in language class. I get totally lost in grammar patterns that I try and read in Katakana and Hiragana from the workbook, and as all the exercises involve diagrams with arrows and images and references to the new vocabulary, I really have to strain my memory and think on my feet to juggle everything and come out with a coherent answer. Occasionally, I get totally lost, and when I do my peers are always patient and encouraging. It’s tough, but almost fun. Trying to use what I learn, or, in some instances, thought I learned, is the real magic. I suppose, in terms of confusion, those examples provided above rank pretty high and should therefore be considered again here, too.

5. How effectively I dealt with these my toughest situations:
The situations in class I dealt with as best I could: by stopping and starting over when necessary, and by jotting down and later reviewing the things that tripped me up. The crazy cultural and language blunders pretty much shake up situations beyond repair after they happen, but since nobody so far has been offended, and since apologizing and shrugging always induce smiles and at least work to break off the encounter, I guess things can continue on in this way until I figure out what’s going on a bit more.

6. Who has been the most helpful to me so far:
Hrmm. Perhaps Andrew has been the most helpful to me this past week. He knows a lot about Japanese culture and he’s pretty good at the language, so he corrects me and explains things. He’s also tons of fun. Ethan is a rival, though. He’s also 21 and is also new to Japanese. Like all my peers, he’s a genius, so his language abilities are accelerating spreading extensively. I had a great time buying contact lenses with him and our new friend named Ryoko today. He’s got great stories, and we plan to work out together once the internships start (he’s also in Tokyo all summer).

7. What I am doing to meet people:
All that I can. I met a cool old guy in the Laundromat last night. I was reading, and he leaned over my book and chuckled about how it was in English. I could smell sake on his breath, but he was all smiles, and he listened intently and shrewdly discerned my meaning from my garbled and gap-filled Japanese. He explained the drier protocol to me, and we planned to meet for breakfast this morning. Setting my alarm clock for 7 instead of 6, however, I slept past our scheduled meeting time and stood him up! This is a big deal in Japan, as people are usually early to whatever appointment they have made. As I never got his name, I don’t know how to find him, apologize, and arrange another meal. He’s at our hotel, and so I have my fingers crossed that I’ll bump into him on the elevator or something. This is an example. I’m pretty busy during the daytime with classes and homework, but I’ll keep up this kind of effort to meet people and interact as long as I don’t start falling asleep in class.

8. How I recon people perceive me:
Unlike in China, people recognize me as an American when they see me. I get questions about where in America I am from before we discuss my hobbies. This seems natural enough to me, though. My attempts to be outgoing land me right in the middle of the American stereotype bull’s-eye, but I think I’m a weird enough guy that people drop their stereotypes by the end of the second time I’ve met them. This excludes the people who don’t meet with me a second time. Interesting to speculate on whether those who do were hoping for more American-ness and are disappointed and whether those who don’t would have made good friends if I didn’t scare them off with my hair, my lack of style, my loud voice, my bad Japanese, and my silly gaping smile.

8. How my goals have changed:
I have decided to drop my goals of finishing all the novels I brought, picking back up some Chinese that I had lost, doing that little Tokyo energy conservation research project, studying thermodynamics for next semester, getting the research I’ll do at Keio published, and finding true love. This program will be busy enough, and so far it’s busy in almost exclusively good ways. I’m still going to find ways to play music, though. I want enough results to put together a little demo by the end of the summer.


Dear Itoh-sensei:

Konichiwa. I wanted to email you to let you know that I have safely arrived in Japan and begun my three-week orientation program in Tokyo. As part of this program I will be taking three-hours per day of Japanese language classes and two-hours per day of introductory nanotechnology classes in preparation for my joining your research group in early June. During the next two weeks I will be staying at the Sanuki Club in the Azaba-juban neighborhood. If you need to reach me at the hotel you can obtain their contact information from the website at: http://www.sanuki-club.com/English/top_english.htm. You can also reach me on my new Japanese cell phone at 08030918994.

In addition to Japanese language classes I will also be taking an Introduction to Nanotechnology course and have a number of lectures and site visits on Japanese Culture & Society. I would appreciate if during this time you could continue to forward me any additional papers or background reading on the research currently being conducted in your lab so that I may review these prior to arrival at Keio. I will travel to your lab for my internship starting on Monday, June 4. On that day, in the morning, I will take the subway to Hiyoshi station. I have the address of your lab from your website, and I will find the lab and join you as soon as possible on that day.

On Wednesday, if you do not object, I will give a short presentation to my peers about your research. I would like for them to understand a little bit about what I will be doing with you. They will also give presentations about the research that they will do.

I would like to thank you again for agreeing to host me at your institution and look forward to working with you and your research group this summer. I am very excited to work for you. It is such an honor. I will try to check email regularly during the next few weeks and will confirm my travel arrangements to your lab on June 3 prior to departing Tokyo.

Kind regards,

Alec Walker

07 1 20

Dear diary,
I used to have a problem while writing. I still have many, but I think I’ve mostly managed to overcome this one in particular. The problem was that I’d censor myself. I’d get into whatever point or reflection I was making, and then suddenly it would occur to me what someone else might think—a stranger, a loved one, a teacher, and future employer.. and I’d hold myself back or alter my form a bit. Sometimes it was more than a bit. Sometimes I’d scrap what I was doing entirely. The curious thing about it was that I’d do it under the mindset that I should have nothing to hide. I’d imagine walking into my room and finding these people reading my writing, and I would stand there, smiling, totally unswayed. I didn’t even realize that I was censoring myself; I concentrated entirely on the details of this fantasy world in which everyone cared so much to find out what I thought. I would imagine each person’s opinion of me elevating upon discovering the soundness and purity of my innermost thoughts. I was totally free, since I had no need mental or communicative restraints. It was a rather silly form of self-deception, but I fell for it for quite sometime.

Now, I still do it, but I think I’ve become much better and recognizing when it’s happening. I think I do it for the most part purposefully, knowing full well what I’m not saying and why. The truth about my opinions remains illuminated internally, while the words unfolding on the screen run through the filtration net I weave with my fingers on the keys.

A live journal is very filtered. I don’t know yet what net is best to weave, however, so I may do some experimenting. I could adopt a feelings-aside approach, focusing only on the physical actions of the day’s events. Even some of the more pivotal of these would probably end up stuck in the net (and hence not on the net!). More probably, I’ll end up giving a little torque to my opinions of what’s happened, and I’ll type out a lot of crap to make it sound convincing. “It’s a web of lies,” my Mormon high school friend would say, and I thought he treated the internet as something to hide from, as the information it contained might present him with challenges and upset the careful balance of his beliefs. Now that I deliberately filter the information that I expose others to, I look less as reproachfully his decision to filter the information that he exposes himself to. It’s not that I’m beginning to agree with his decision; it’s just that I’m humbled by recognition of my own faults on my side of the line between our worlds.

SO, today I met my parents’ old buddy, a former leader of the Houston revels program, former CEO of Space Industries, and now CEO of a top-notch “physical security” provider to international endeavors by fortune 500 companies in developing nations. He’s a true renaissance man, with one hand on a calligraphy paintbrush and the other a palm pilot from the United Arab Emirates. He spoke enthusiastically and seriously about his work and his experiences since my parents saw him last, and my oooos and aahhhhs were not borne out of politeness. He inspired me, not purposefully, I’m sure, to quit focusing and narrowing so much yet. While studying Chinese is a good thing for me to do, why does this mean that I will necessarily move to China? Why do I need to delve into something so deeply already that it bullies aside my opportunity to explore more of the breadth of material available to me. Why not take Arabic? Why not learn about India, Sierra Leone… It’s funny that this sudden realization hit my when David said, of his son, “He’s not as far along as you yet…He’s been to several African countries, several East Asian countries, several European countries…He tells me he’s not anywhere near deciding yet on which he should focus. I ask him where in the world he would want to live, and he answers that he’d like to live now wherever he can travel from most easily.” This son of David’s is farther along than I am, because the sturdy foundation that he’s laying down will be able to support a much taller tower than the one I’ve been hastily stacking up on a swamp.

After David left for the airport, I went to my room and grabbed a bunch of books off the shelf: classics by Hesse, Rand, Stowe, Wharton, Hemmingway, and Smith. I carried them with me on my walk back to Rice, and I read the first 12 pages of Siddhartha. It was absorbing and fun, and now that I’ve put it down, picking it up again has become another obligation. The most frustrating thing about me is my impatience and resulting tendency toward over-committing. I never finish the work that I set out for myself in the timeframe that I provide. Everything seems to be constantly pushed back, and I feel like the tower I’m building is sinking into the mud, rather than resting soundly on a broad and sturdy foundation. I never learned the difference between building and paving. I hope it’s not too late, now, to pave my swamp.

Classes all set now:
1. Thermodynamics
2. Organic Chemistry
3. Computational Methods in Chemical Engineering
4. Engineering Mechanics
5. Contemporary Chinese
6. Independent Study: Chinese characters in context
7. Sustainable Water Purification for the Developing World
8. Preparing for Engineering Communication in Traditionally Structured Societies
9. Independent Study: Computer Modeling of Bioengineering processes

Goodness. It’s a lot when it’s all listed out like this. Better start my homework.

Spring Semester, Chemical Engineering, and fun?

Posted on 2007.01.14 at 01:54
Current Location: Rice Dorm - Jones
Current Mood: melancholymelancholy
Current Music: The Sounds of Alec Typing
Tags: , , , ,
07 1 14

Energy is conserved.

The process of evening out of differences in temperature, pressure, and density is gradual and inevitable in any system.

So our hero had a terrific break; one he's been unable really to stop thinking about since his return to the rather religious and conservative labs of Rice University. 米饭大学 looks less insane than last semester: only 15 mandatory credit hours and a Chinese class, though our hero would like also to take that water purifications lab class, the Chinese art history class, the bioengineering computer modeling lab, and a swimming class. Oh, and the class that teaches engineers how to communicate effectively to non-technical people and members of different world cultures (MONGOLIA!). All in all, this would push our hero way over 20 credit-hours, the max allowable here at 米饭.

There’s the choosing class dilemma to face, but the real challenge our hero must overcome is the, well, the fact that he’s writing on live journal instead of doing his thermodynamics homework. Luckily, things haven’t really picked up yet in any classes but Chinese, and our hero is all about Chinese right now. However, the weekly codes will have to be written, that organic chemistry problem set will have to be drawn out, and the first 150 pages of thermodynamics read by Tuesday. This leaves two days. Will our hero make it?

Hmm.. trying to turn my life into a comic book is not making me any more motivated. I guess our hero has once again returned to his mild-mannered alter ego. Why is it that all the chemical engineering work that is hanging over my head is not making me nervous in the least? If I’m not worried about failing, what then will compel me to care about succeeding? I can think of only one thing, dreaded as it may be: personal interest in the material itself. Oops, I should have chosen underwater basket-weaving as my major. 我肏.

Had fun at Johana’s room mate’s party on Friday, and before that I had some fun taking Cassie out to Korean food with Mike and Zhe and those two girls from my Chinese class. Navy soup is yummy. Apparently, the stuff was first made by starving post-war coastal Koreans who, having accepted hotdogs and canned spam from the American soldiers, mixed it with tiny rice dumplings, noodles, various vegetables, and hot bean and pepper sauce in big pots of boiling water. If the value of food is determined by its taste, then Navy soup definitely deserves its spot on the expensive side of the menu, despite its modest beginnings. I’ll have to feed some to Cindear sometime.

Cindear is THE woman who I met in China. The girl, like the soup, has come from a tough background and has had to overcome a lot to find the place she deserves. And she certainly has: solo three-room apartment in the center of Beijing, classy job at a cinematic animation studio, lots of ritzy men chasing her skirt, or trying to get her to wear a skirt, or you know, just trying..
Sigh.. She likes Korean food. She cooks curry. She can draw beautifully. Smiles and cute big hoop earrings.

My roommate is finally engaged! Well, he had a girlfriend for a while, um, er, that is, well, he had a female friend for a while. A while means a whole semester. Now, she has become an official and wonderful girlfriend, and the two of them are like bread and butter. Peanut butter and jelly, even. Of course they’re not really engaged, being two very seriously Christian Christians, but they’re the type that marriage was evolved for, says our hero. Whoa! I’ve become our hero again? Ok. I suppose hero-hood was a necessary adoption, as jealousy of the happy couple and moping might otherwise have overcome our normally mild-mannered Alec Walker, and we’d all rather read about larger-than-life splendor than emo-rant, especially emo-rant broadcasted straight from the moldy labs of the nation’s dorkiest university. Eesh! To infinity, and beyond!

Next 10