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Remembering 2012

December 31st, 2012 No comments

The first week of my winter vacation has been pleasantly boring. After that first day of going to the movies in Soga, I haven’t done anything noteworthy. I’ve just been hanging around, studying, jogging, riding my bike, playing Mario, and watching lots of football and political shows. I expect tonight will be somewhat more memorable, as Stephen is coming to Togane and we’ll be going to some sort of party with Josai students whom I may or may not have met on other random occasions. It won’t be as wild as last year, but it should be fun.

When I look back on 2012 when I’m older, I’ll probably mostly remember it as the year of my involuntary two-month hiatus from my teaching career, stuck in America delivering pizza due to an expired visa. That didn’t turn out to be terribly consequential, and I’ll no doubt look back on it in a much rosier light than it felt to me while it was happening. It really wasn’t so bad after all. I got to spend more time with my family and hang out with Mike in Brooklyn a few more times, and delivering pizza is not actually the least enjoyable job in the world (that’s a toss-up between McDonald’s cashier and hotel front-desk agent).

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But there was a lot more to 2012 than that. The year began with a pretty great night of clubbing in Tokyo with Trey, Stephen, Jack, Lily, and a bunch of other people. I partied with Trey a few more times in the first half of the year and we developed a pretty decent friendship before he left to go to Stanford in the summer, but we’re still in touch.

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I met Kim and Enam on the day of my first hanami, the cherry-blossom festival at Togane Lake which turned out to be a fantastic day.

I said goodbye to my first group of graduating students in March and began my first full school-year the day after the hanami in April.

 

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Easily one of the highlights of the year was the sailing trip in the Virgin Islands with my dad and his brothers and friends. With the exception of my blackout-drunk first night and the ensuing day-long hangover, I could hardly have hoped for a better trip.

 

 

I experienced my first Sports Day in Japan, which due to the infectious excitement of the students turned out to be one of the best days of the year, capped off with one of the most enjoyable enkais with my colleagues.

This was the year I walked across the Brooklyn Bridge at night with Luke, Marc, and Mike, an experience I’ll never forget.

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And while my vacation in America was still a vacation, I got to spend a week in Santa Barbara with Krissi which included three nights of camping in the mountains.

After the two-month hiatus, my triumphant return to school turned out to be a priceless experience as well, as I was flabbergasted by how delighted so many of the students were to have me back.

My return-to-Togane party, a night of dinner and karaoke a few weeks later, and Ben’s Christmas Party a few weeks ago were the highlights of the year’s end, and hopefully whatever party I end up at tonight will belong on that list as well.

Overall, 2012 was a year of split lives, with one foot in the West and the past, and one foot in the East and the future. I relived some old experiences like sailing and delivering pizza and lived the first of many new experiences in my life as a teacher in Japan. Of all the lives I’ve lived so far, I consider this the best. So at the end of 2012, in spite of all the pitfalls and setbacks, I can only consider it a success.

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Sayonaramerica

October 16th, 2012 No comments

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Barring any unforeseen catastrophe, in 24 hours I’ll be en route back to Japan, and I couldn’t be happier about that.

I took the train into the city on Friday to pick up my passport with a fresh new valid work visa (a beautiful thing to behold), and that went as smoothly as I could have hoped. On my way back from the consulate I passed by Times Square and spotted a crew of three people dressed as Disney and Sesame Street characters soliciting money from families whose kids might want their pictures taken with them. I couldn’t resist approaching them and telling them how I teach English in Japan and my students would get a kick out of a picture of me and Mickey Mouse in New York, but I was there alone so one of them would have to take the photo. Cookie Monster removed his gloves and took the camera, and I lined up to pose with Mickey as Elmo stood on the other side of me. I had to turn to Elmo and say, “Not you, sorry. My students don’t know who you are.” Poor Elmo. They took a couple of shots and opened their bags for my donation. I have no idea what the standard tip for those guys is so I gave them each 2 bucks. That was 4 dollars well spent. I also bought a Yankee cap for the super-friendly groundskeeper who works at my school in Japan, as he’s told me a few times how it’s his dream to go to New York City and see a Yankee game. I can’t wait to give it him.

Last night was my last shift at Domino’s and it felt unbelievably good when the time came for closing and I finished mopping up that floor for the last time. In the days leading up to my last day, I was surprised to find a few of my co-workers xpressing their disappointment at my leaving. One of the managers, Stephanie—who was also there the last time I worked there—said she’d just gotten used to having me back and didn’t want me to go. I’d definitely gone in their with a bit of a chip on my shoulder but after awhile I warmed up to my co-workers and it seemed they warmed up to me, apparently finding me to be a hard worker as well as pleasant company. So in addition to all the money, my time at Domino’s has also earned me a few extra Facebook friends.

As for the money, my nearly two months of work minus all my spending on gas and beer (my only regular expenses while living at home) netted me a decent chunk of what I would have made teaching in Japan. In fact, when you weigh all my income and expenses from both jobs in both places including the extra burden of the new plane ticket, it seems the net pay worked out to be almost equal. It’s just that to make that happen I had to work six days a week for six to nine hour shifts. I could have gone back to Japan in August as scheduled and sat on my ass until the Certificate of Eligibility came through, begging my family for cash when it ran out and perhaps demanding arbitration within my company for financial compensation for them having dropped their end of the ball on the visa, but this was definitely the better move. It was my mistake for trusting my company’s e-mails saying I could go on vacation and return without worrying about immigration issues, and a couple months of delivering pizza, washing dishes and mopping floors were the consequences of my error. I believe that’s called “accepting responsibility”…but what would a liberal-progressive like me know about that?

My replacement teacher Heath has been in touch with me over the past week as we’ve been waiting on Interac to organize the transition to bring me back. I probably misjudged the guy just as I think he misjudged me, but it seems I’ll actually get a chance to meet him on Friday. My branch manager called me yesterday and he said even though I’ll be arriving on Thursday it’ll be easier to have Heath finish out the week and have me start teaching a fresh set of lessons on Monday, but I’m certainly free to go in to say hello to everyone, pick up my textbooks and discuss the lessons plans.

According to Heath, things might be a bit different when I go back. Since he’s been there he’s only been teaching with O-sensei (whom he actually worked with at a different school when she started a couple of years ago) and only doing lessons from the textbooks that the other teachers couldn’t get to because they’re behind on the teaching. That’s probably how things will continue even after I return, so I’m a bit disappointed that I won’t get to work with the other teachers anymore but somewhat relieved that they’ve only been doing the kind of textbook work which leaves little room for fun and games. Even if that’s the material they give me when I go back, I have complete confidence that I’ll be able to make it fun and the students will be glad to have me back no matter how great and experienced a teacher Heath has been. I shouldn’t be thinking of myself in competition with him—his 17-years of experience are just motivation for me to raise my own bar even higher.

So that’s what lies ahead. As for what’s behind me, it wasn’t all that bad when all is said and done. I can’t deny that it was depressing to not be doing what I love and frustrating to be missing precious weeks of my students’ lives that I only have so little time with in the first place (not to mention the Speech Contest), but in the end all I can do is chalk this one up under valuable life experiences. It reminded me of what work is like for most workers, and greatly enhanced my appreciation for being able to do the kind of work I do.

And I also got to spend extra time with my family and friends I never get to see in Japan. Getting to see the fall foliage—far more beautiful here than Togane—was also an added bonus.

So goodbye once again, America. I won’t be back for a very long time and I can’t say I’ll miss you too much when I’m gone, but you’ve treated me well enough while I was here.

On a final note, the owner of the Domino’s I worked at, Teddy, was desperately in need of drivers when I called him to come back to work. (On my last shift working with him I had him snap a photo I thought would also be quite funny for my students to see.) As I was leaving he said he thinks God sent him back to me this time. Well, if God caused me and everyone at my company to not consider visa-expiration dates before I went on vacation just to boost Ted’s service numbers then He works in mysterious ways indeed. But if He does exist, I suppose He could have had more than one purpose. It’s hard for me to believe there was any purpose to this at all, but maybe one day I’ll look back and see one.

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Quadruple Cultural Comparison

August 17th, 2012 No comments

In my entry on the California trip, I was so focused on just documenting the various events that I forgot to write about the most interesting element. I’ve got a few cultural observations to share, but I’ll start with a quick “update” on the visa situation.

After still getting no word by e-mail yesterday evening (Friday morning in Japan) I called my branch office and spoke with the guy who is normally in charge of keeping teachers’ visas up-to-date. But for whatever reason, it’s not him but the branch manager himself who’s handling my case, and he’s on vacation all week (yes, it was very considerate of him to let me know). He’ll be back on Monday and will get in touch with me then. But I was told something like, “We’re just waiting on the processing of your application now, but getting the visa will be easier when you’re back here in Japan,” which totally confused me because of course I’d thought the entire problem was that I couldn’t get the visa from inside the country. But this guy clearly wasn’t too familiar with my case and just told me to wait until Monday. Before I let him go, I just asked him very directly if I’m in any danger of losing my contract, as this is the fear weighing most heavily on my mind. He said, “No, we’re keeping that here” which I thought meant “here in Chiba” but later thought maybe he meant the physical document of my contract. But either way, he was very cordial and nonchalant the whole time, giving off the impression that everything is fine and there’s nothing to worry about, the total opposite of the branch manager who’s always made the situation sound very urgent and dire. So all in all, while I still won’t know anything until Monday at the earliest, the phone call helped put my mind at ease a little until then.

Now, as for California, the view I had through the Japan-tinted lenses was extra-tinted by my East Coast lenses as well as the Germany-lenses. When I visited Santa Barbara last year after three years in Germany, it struck me how in many ways East Coast / West Coast culture is more different and distinct than the difference between German and American culture overall. German culture overall is very similar to American culture, what with the meat and the beer and sports and politics, but the whole busy, hard-working, rude and direct demeanor of Germans in general corresponds much more closely to East Coast culture than the laid-back, relaxed, casual friendliness of the West Coast.

When it comes to Japan, it’s very clear that the subtle differences between East and West coast culture are extremely minor by comparison with the gaping cultural gap between East and West hemisphere. That said, I found it interesting how some of the cultural contrasts I drew between Japan and New York don’t apply to California, and how some of the contrasts between Japan and California wouldn’t apply to New York. For instance, while there’s a gaping difference in the demeanor of shop clerks in Japan and those in New York/New Jersey, it’s not so striking in California where they’re generally much friendlier. They may not be as rigid and professional as Japanese clerks, but they’re very polite and serve you with a smile, as opposed to East Coast clerks who seem to hate you for making them have to do ten seconds of work.

On the other hand, the laid back and relaxed attitude of the West Coast stands in extremely stark contrast to Japan, whereas the East Coast is a bit more similar. For one thing, Japanese drivers and New York/New Jersey drivers have got to be among the most aggressive in the world, as opposed to Californians who are perhaps the least aggressive (and annoyingly so). And while I’m sure this is true for many if not most East coast workers as well, everyone I had a chat with in California had the same basic attitude about work—that it’s just something you’ve gotta do to get money to afford having fun—as opposed to the Japanese mentality where work is the be-all-and-end-all and fun is just a luxury you can have from time to time, as long as it’s scheduled well in advance.

Then there’s just the basic sound of the way people talk. In southern California they speak very slowly and lazily and with a ton of slang. In New York they tend to speak more quickly and aggressively and with a ton of slang. In Japan they speak quickly but non-aggressively, and always adjust to the appropriate level of slang for all situations, which almost never includes adults talking to one another in a public setting. Germans tend to speak quickly and aggressively like New Yorkers, but with surprisingly little slang.

Other minor tid-bits: surfing is a way of life for many Californians and Japanese, whereas it’s pretty rare on the East Coast and almost unheard of in Germany. Baseball is hugely popular all across America and in Japan but Germans couldn’t care less, while soccer is of paramount importance to Germans and Japanese but not at all to Americans.

Finally, the most interesting contrast between all the cultures is probably religion. Both East and West Coasters are a part of America and therefore more religious in general than Germans and Japanese who are mostly very secular, and yet both East and West Coasters are far more socially liberal than Germans and Japanese, who themselves are actually more socially liberal than Bible-belt America. Both Germany and Japan are considered to be more “conservative” cultures, but their brand of “conservatism” doesn’t even come close to the radical right-wing religious extremism of the conservatism you see in parts of America. That’s unique to that sub-culture, and unfortunately for everyone they don’t have the slightest inkling of just how much of tiny minority they are in global terms because they live in a bubble in which they’re the vast majority, and never spare a thought for the world outside “Amurrica”.

In any case, I’ll end this before it starts getting too political. I just wanted to record some of these thoughts. Maybe I’ll come back to this later and revise some of my opinions, but these are just my general impressions of the different cultures I’m familiar with now. I’ll undoubtedly see things a bit differently and a bit more clearly as I become more familiar with the cultures I know, and more familiar with cultures yet to be experienced.

New York to California

August 10th, 2012 No comments

It’s Friday morning in Santa Barbara and I’ve got some down-time, so I might as well get the blog caught up to where I’m currently at.

Last Saturday, I went with my parents to see the new batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises, at a dine-in theater, eating dinner afterwards at a very good Italian restaurant. I’d heard nothing but great things about the movie, so I was surprised to find that it wasn’t very good. At least no one shot up the theater.

On Sunday I drove up to Red Hook, New York to visit my grandparents for a couple of days. It was nice to see them again, and I also got to hang out briefly with my Aunt Marleen and her daughter Casey whom I haven’t seen in at least five years. My grandpa and I somehow managed to get through the two days surprisingly few political shouting matches (though some are of course inevitable).

I was back home for dinner with my parents on Tuesday evening, and the next morning I had to get up extremely early to catch my 7:20 a.m. flight to California. I flew from Newark to Dallas Fort Worth, where I had a two hour stopover which could easily be the only two hours I’ll ever spend in Texas, and from there to Ontario, CA where Krissi picked me up and took me on the two-hour drive from there to Santa Barbara.

It felt strange to be back here again, but not nearly as strange as last year. This time the cultural gap just feels a bit wider, as Japan is as rigid and conservative as it gets while the people here could not be more loose and laid-back.

We stopped at Kevin’s place (other friend from Voorhees High School) and hung out, with him and Krissi’s current boyfriend for a little while, then proceeded to get everything we needed to carry out our plan for the night, to go camping in the mountains like we did last time. We’ll actually be going camping again this weekend with a bunch of people for Krissi’s friend Diana’s birthday, but we wanted to have one night just to ourselves to get all caught up and reconnected. Like last year, it was a wonderful night filled with excellent conversation

We got out of there very early in the morning as soon as the sun started baking us alive in the tent, and drove back into town for some breakfast before heading back to Krissi’s place to take naps and replenish some of the energy our early wake-up had cost. When we got up in the afternoon we headed to a Mexican restaurant for some dinner, then Krissi had to go into her Irish bar Dargan’s to work.

I took a bike downtown to Kevin’s place and went with him and Natalya—the girl who brought us on last year’s beach bonfire adventure—to a free concert in a park across from the beach. The concert was a bunch of local youth bands, with all the musicians between 13 and 16 years old and the audience almost exclusively made up of families with young children. The bands were pretty good considering their ages, but the pop-punk/ska sort of music they played didn’t really appeal to any of us. We stayed until the last band was finished though, mostly amusing ourselves by watching the ever-increasing crowd of lame white people in front of the stage engaging in the lamest white-people-dancing imaginable. The last band was a group of three 16-year-old boys, and while they were impressive enough with their instruments, I couldn’t help but feel a hint of contempt for the over-privileged white kids getting to indulge their rock n’ roll fantasies at such a young age. It wasn’t so much their ages as the fact that they were clearly just mimicking everything they’ve seen adult rock stars do, including taking off their shirts on stage and basking in the screaming of the girls in the audience (rather disturbing in this situation, as all the girls were either under 12 or over 40). At the very least, it was an interesting experience.

Natalya and a guy we met up with there went off to eat at a restaurant on State Street while Kevin and I hung out on the beach for awhile, then we went to join them at the restaurant and had a little to eat and drink. After that, I biked back to Kevin’s place and watched a little TV, then biked back into town to head into Dargan’s as Krissi closed down her bar.

When she was done we drove back uptown to her place, then biked over to the nearest bar for one last drink. While we were there my exhaustion finally caught up to me, and while we were having a nice conversation with another guy there, I kept dozing off. We biked back to Krissi’s place, indulged in an awesome midnight snack of Trader Joe’s pita and hummus, then had a nice long sleep.

And that takes us to right now. When all is said and done, I’ve been having an excellent vacation. It’s nice to think it’s not even half over.

As for the visa situation, there’s apparently no way to know whether whoever handles the processing of Certificates of Eligibility will be able to get that done in time for me to return to Japan on a valid work visa by my scheduled departure date of August 29th. I got an e-mail from Interac yesterday laying it out nice and clearly for me. Either they get the piece of paper by the 15th, in which case they can mail it to me and I can get the visa processed in time, or they don’t and we have to start thinking about other options. Either I wait here in America until I get the work visa processed, in which case I might not be able to get back to Japan until as late as September 28th, or I could return to Japan as scheduled on a tourist visa, and just fly to an overseas embassy like in Korea or China once I get the Certificate of Eligibility. It might cost less to do that than to buy a whole other cross-Pacific plane ticket, but while in Japan I wouldn’t be able to work, whereas if I stay here I could make some money by delivering pizza or something.

I wrote back explaining that my main concern is the obligation I have to my school and my students, especially those in the Speech Contest. I said if there was any way I could go back to work unofficially, to do the same job and just not get paid for a month, I’d be willing to do that. I highly doubt that’s possible, but it might be the case that I could at least go in after school to help the Speech Contest students prepare. I asked them to look into that, and if they’d at least let me volunteer to help with the Speech Contest, then I would without a doubt choose to come back on a tourist visa and just fly overseas again to get the work visa processed as soon as possible. You never know, but I suspect that’s what will end up happening. We’ll see.

At least we’ll know for sure by the 15th what will have to happen. I’ll probably end up taking a substantial financial hit, but nothing I can’t recover from. In any case, I’ll just be relieved when the uncertainty-phase is over.

Japan-Tinted Lenses

August 1st, 2012 No comments

One of the best things about spending significant amounts of time abroad is coming home and seeing all the old familiar things from a slightly new perspective. This was certainly the case each time I came back from Germany, but after a year in Japan it’s even more extreme. All kinds of mundane little things you take for granted are suddenly endowed with cultural significance.

Seriously? I can keep my shoes on in your house?

Wait, we’re going to cross the street before the light changes?

Oh my god, almost every last person at the supermarket is morbidly obese!

Oh right…I have to tip the bartender.

Dude, people are just casually bringing up politics in conversation. It’s like they don’t even care if an argument breaks out.

Damn, these convenience store clerks really hate their jobs and they actually let it show.

I spent the first few days back at my parents’ house, pretty much just relaxing and trying to overcome the jet-lag (which hasn’t quite fully subsided yet). On Sunday I went with my dad to a nearby micro-brewery and did a beer-tasting. When I came back from Germany I felt like now I had to settle for mediocre American beer, but coming back from Japan is the polar opposite: “Yes! Delicious American beer, how I missed you!” On Monday we went out to dinner and I indulged in some genuine buffalo wings, loving the sauce but disappointed at the low quality of the chicken. You can get better-quality chicken wings at the Japanese supermarket, just not the sauce. But last night I had some genuine New York pizza, and for that there is no comparison with anything they have in Japan (or pretty much anywhere else in the world for that matter).

I’m in Brooklyn now, visiting my friend Mike a.k.a. Craig who used to work full-time on Wall Street as an IT manager but now does part-time consulting (but makes about the same money, it seems). Being in the city is much more of an in-your-face reverse culture-shock, partly because in Japan I live in what many consider “the countryside”. I don’t know how it is in Tokyo, but I’ll bet you can’t just go online and have several hundred restaurants’ worth of food to select from and have delivered to your door within 20 minutes, all without saying a word to anyone. Most restaurants in Japan don’t even have take-out, let alone delivery. If you want their food you’ve got to eat it there.

To add to the whole America-experience, I just happened to time my arrival perfectly with the 2012 Olympics. Last night was a big night for Team USA, with our gymnastics girls winning team gold for the first time since 1996, and Michael Phelps winning two medals to become the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time. [Sidenote: the whole “you’ll never amount to anything if you smoke weed” argument has to be slightly undercut now that we know you can take a few bong rips and still be one of the world’s greatest athletes, let alone President of the United States.] I already knew what happened when we were watching it at a bar, but it was still incredibly fun to watch it while drinking with random New Yorkers and cheering our people on. We just pretended that we hadn’t watched the news earlier, or that maybe Brian Williams had been lying.

I’ll be here for another day before heading back to New Jersey tomorrow, so it promises to be another day full of cross-cultural observations and uniquely-perceived experiences. I’ll try to document as many as I can.

In other, perhaps more serious news, it looks like my little difficulty with immigration at the airport when I left Japan might end up being consequential. I e-mailed Interac with my concerns as soon as I had the opportunity. They took a few days in responding, but finally yesterday they said they were looking into it. This morning I had two more increasingly alarming e-mails in my inbox, telling me that I might need to go through the Visa application process again. That wouldn’t be too big a deal except that it takes two months, which would mean I wouldn’t be able to return to Japan until October. I’d be missing an entire month of school, including the Speech Contest, which would suck for the kids if I can’t be there to help them.

I can at least rest assured that none of this is in any way my fault, as I e-mailed Interac months before leaving to ask them exactly what I needed to do before leaving Japan in order to be able to re-enter the country without issue. I was told that new rules were going into place, so while I’d needed a special stamp in my passport the last time I left, I wouldn’t need anything of the sort this time. If it turns out they were wrong, I’d expect them to compensate me for any financial losses incurred, including the month of missed work and plane tickets back. It’s a huge company so they can definitely afford it, but if it’s more cost-effective to just cut me loose and put a replacement in there….I just don’t know how evil they are. But I’ve got a contract, so I feel pretty secure about it. I just hate the idea of missing an entire month of the school-year. I love the job, so I’d much rather work for the money than get it for free, even if it means an extra month of vacation.

Wow, that doesn’t sound American at all, does it?

Cross-Polar Transit

July 28th, 2012 No comments

My last night in Japan before coming home to America for a month was spent in an appropriately Japanese way. It just happened to be the night of the summer vacation enkai, the last teacher drinking party before the long holiday (during which I assume most teachers will be going in every day anyway). I’m used to these events by now, so it wasn’t nearly as special or interesting as my first couple were, but I still find these to be worthwhile experiences.

It took place at a fancy hotel and tennis club not far from the Togane Culture Hall (venue for the Chorus Contest and Spring Concert), a kind of place where weddings are held. The meal was 5,000 yen per person, and consisted of about five small portions of very fancy, very traditional Japanese cuisine (mostly bizarre seafood concoctions). A few speeches were made by the principal and head teachers about the school-year so far, as well as an impromptu speech by one of the new teachers from each grade.

I was also called upon to put the teachers to a kind of trivia quiz with a twist—the twist being all the questions and answers were in English—and it was slightly embarrassing because no one had told me about it beforehand and I was just kind of thrust up to the microphone and told to go ahead. The teacher who put it together, the young one who has hard time speaking English, apparently spent all her time translating the questions into perfect English and no time thinking about how the quiz was actually supposed to work in terms of who competed and how they were supposed to answer, so we had to figure that out and explain it to everyone on the spot. There were some excruciating moments, like when I asked a question on Japan’s voting age (it’s 20, by the way) and none of the teachers knew the meaning of the word “vote”. I don’t know it in Japanese either, so I couldn’t help them. Eventually one of them asked an English teacher and got it. But for the most part it went smoothly enough, with easy questions like “What’s the highest mountain in Japan?”

Almost everybody drove to this place (I rode my bike) so almost nobody was drinking, making this a far less loose affair than usual, and there was no karaoke after-party this time either. But even if there had been I wouldn’t have gone, as I had to get up at 4:00 a.m. the next morning to begin my painfully long and excruciating travel ordeal.

It started with a 5:00 a.m. train from Togane to Chiba with a transfer in Oami. The Oami to Chiba train-ride at that time of morning is apparently quite crowded so I didn’t get a seat, but just to add to the anxiety there was a spider moving about and spinning a web right over my head, often dangling down just a foot or two away from me and igniting my arachnophobia. But the train was too crowded for me to move, so I just had to put up with it for thirty minutes. I only had three minutes in Chiba to change trains, but I was able to get to the Narita Airport Express easily enough and arrive at the correct terminal with plenty of time to spare.

Going through immigration this time was a bit different than last time, as this time I’d checked with Interac beforehand to ask what I needed to do to get the proper re-entry permit. They told me that the rules are actually changing and I wouldn’t need a re-entry permit this time, but the guy at the immigration counter was giving me a hard time anyway. I still had that stamp from back in April which expires on August 15th, do when I told him I’d be back on the 31st he was confused. I told him that my employer told me the rules were changing and I didn’t need a permit anymore, and although he did let me through he took my Alien Registration Card and punched a hole through it, saying it’s no longer valid and I’d have to get a new one when I return. I wrote to Interac this morning just to be sure I also don’t need to apply for a new visa before coming back either.

As opposed to the April flight which was just a nice straight shot with United Airlines from Narita to Newark, this time I was flying Air China because it was about a thousand dollars less than any other airline. But it meant I first had to fly four hours in the wrong direction, from Tokyo to Beijing, and transfer flights there. I only had an hour between the landing of one plane and the departure of the next, so I was a bit worried I wouldn’t make it, and when the line at the transfer desk was taking forever and you had to go through a security checkpoint after that, my stress level rose. But I made it to the right gate with about five minutes to spare, and felt much more at ease once I got on the plane that was actually taking me to New York.

The flight itself, however, was rather painful. It was about 14 hours, and unlike United Airlines it had no amenities whatsoever. For their long international flights, United now has little TV screens for each seat, equipped with hundreds of on-demand movies and TV shows for your entertainment. They’ve also got electrical outlets in the seats, which is what made my last cross-Pacific flights a piece of cake to endure because it allowed me to play addictive, time-consuming computer strategy games. The Air China plane was super-old and had no such things. There were no electrical outlets so I’d only be able to get an hour or two of gaming in at best (I didn’t even bother), and there were only three screen in the whole cabin—two small ones to each side too far away from me to see, and one bigger projection-screen which was so feint as to be barely visible. Not that I would have been interested in the entertainment anyway, as it was just Chinese movies with Japanese subtitles. So for fourteen hours I just cycled between listening to an album on my iPhone and reading a few chapters from A Song of Ice and Fire (a.k.a. the “Game of Thrones” book series), with one two hour podcast-listening session on my laptop, which drained half the battery. I’m thinking of buying a couple of spare batteries for the return journey to make the more bearable.

But at least I got a few awesome firsts out of the journey. I had a window seat for both flights, so I got to see Korea for the first time on the first flight, and although I never left the airport I can now technically say I’ve been in China. On the flight to New York I got to see a bit of Russia from the window, the really vast sea of nothingness part of it that I believe is known as the “steppe”. (Coincidentally, the podcast I listened to was part of a history series, the most recent of which just happened to be about Genghis Khan and his Mongolian Army, straight from the steppe I was flying over).

But coolest of all was seeing the polar ice-cap. As Beijing is practically on the same line of longitude as New York, we flew almost directly over the North Pole. The sun never actually set during the flight—just dipped down near the horizon and swung back over from west to eat. I’d never seen the actual arctic ice-cap before and it looked pretty cool, like some alien landscape on an ice-moon like Europa. The ice was all cracked up too, which makes me wonder if that’s how it always is or if it’s like that now due to global warming. In any case, given my window direction and our flight path, there’s a chance I actually laid eyes on the actual North Pole.

Whenever we passed it, we went from flying almost due north to almost due south in an instant, and the second half of the flight took us into New York. They switched the lights off after both meals—one early on and one at the half-way point, and both times I managed to doze off slightly but of course it wasn’t nearly enough to ward off jet-lag.

After that eternity of flying was over, we finally landed in what I’d thought was Newark airport because I hadn’t checked the flight info the previous day closely enough. When we landed the cabin crew announced “Welcome to John F. Kennedy airport”, and I immediately hoped my dad had checked the flight info carefully before coming to pick me up, as I’d told him Newark in the e-mail I’d sent the night before.

I got through immigration easily enough—the guy didn’t say a single word to me as he just took and stamped my passport, then waited nervously for a good twenty minutes at baggage claim, uncertain that my luggage had been as lucky in making the tight one-hour Beijing transfer as I had. But my bag did appear and I breathed a sigh of relief, and when I got through customs and spotted my dad waiting for me, the relief was now complete. I’d made it. All that remained was getting back home to New Jersey.

Unfortunately, even that proved to be a bit of a hassle. A drawbridge on the Belt Parkway had been stuck when my dad drove out there, so he tried to take a different highway back to avoid the bridge but by now this was extremely clogged as well. We ended up getting off the highway altogether and driving through the streets of Brooklyn, though we somehow get turned around and were going the wrong direction. I had to use his iPhone to navigate us back to the Belt Parkway, and we lost an hour total in the process.

A long, traffic-congested drive later, we were finally back in Clinton, and we stopped at a bar for dinner, some cold beer and delicious pizza. The meal and the atmosphere it was in—a redneck bar filled with rednecks and redneck families—could not have been a larger juxtaposition from the fancy Japanese cuisine formal dinner of the night before.

When we got back home, my dad had been invited over to visit some neighbors he hasn’t seen in awhile, and although I was ready to pass out at any time I figured I’d join him for the hell of it. (My mom is vacationing in Jamaica right now and won’t be back until late tonight). So I went over and found myself drinking beer on a typical back-porch of a typical American home with a bunch of typical American families. It felt like diving in head-first.

It also happened to be the night of the Olympic opening ceremony, so I ended up watching that as well once it started raining and we went inside. There was another family visiting so it was a pretty decent crowd, with two couples, a single mom, three high-school girls whom I haven’t seen since they were middle-schoolers, and two middle-school boys whom I haven’t seen since they were elementary-schoolers. It was a pleasant enough time, going back and forth between answering questions about Japan and cracking jokes about the Olympic ceremony.

At 10:30 my brother came home from work, so my dad and I headed back home and watched the rest of the ceremony with him. It was midnight when it ended, which meant that with the exception of a few very brief dozings, I’d been awake for 33 hours straight.

So if I consider the last 48 hours total, it was quite the eclectic series of experiences. A fancy dinner with my Japanese colleagues, my first time in China, my first glimpse of the polar ice-caps, a journey through the back-streets of Brooklyn, pizza and beer at a redneck bar, and watching the Olympics with American neighbors—quite the mish-mash of events indeed.

The upcoming month promises to be full of fun and interesting experiences. Let the summer of 2012 begin!

Destroying America to Defend It

December 21st, 2011 No comments

constitution_burning

I’ve had no desire to write about politics in recent months, but the National Defense Authorization Act that passed both houses of congress last week with overwhelming bipartisan support is something so egregious and abominable that I feel obligated to express my outrage over it.

This is quite possibly the most despicable and inexcusable act of congress in American history. It spits in the face of the founding fathers and destroys the core principles this country was founded on. The ghost of King George is laughing at how two hundred and fifty years after freeing themselves from his monarchy, the colonies voted to restore the same despotic powers they had rebelled against.

The Americans of the 18th century fought bravely and spilled their blood to win certain rights they believed to be inalienable. One of the most important among these was the right to defend oneself in a court of law. For thousands of years, in civilizations across the planet, enemies of the Emperor or the King could simply be taken away and thrown into a dungeon without ever being told what they were charged with let alone given a trial, but what happened two and a half centuries ago was revolutionary—the colonies won their independence and for the first time in human history a government was founded on the principle that no individual person should have such Absolute Power.

That is what The United States of America is all about. That’s why for hundreds of years no matter what sins our government may have committed—the extermination of Native Americans, slavery, wars of imperial aggression, the oppression of the lower classes for the benefit of the wealthy—Americans still had reason to be proud of our country. We were the first nation founded on an ideal: that human liberty is sacrosanct.

Now that founding principle is a mere pen-stroke away from annihilation. The president need only sign the document in front of him, accept the powers his office was deliberately designed to lack, and The United States of America as we know it will be officially dead.

You might say that I’m over-stating the case. The new legislation does not grant the executive branch the power to do anything it hasn’t already been doing for at least a decade. We’ve already been using the fight against terrorism as an excuse to spy on our citizens, detain people indefinitely, and assassinate terrorism-suspects without a trial. Why make such a fuss over a bill that only legitimizes the powers that the president has already been using?

I’m saying that it’s precisely the legitimization of the powers that makes this so terrible. It’s one thing if the president exercises extraordinary powers in violation of the law. It’s another thing completely if those extraordinary powers are the law. When Obama took office he could have put a stop to these abuses and restored the executive branch to the same level of power it was originally intended to have, but instead he not only continued the blatantly unconstitutional and anti-American practices of the Bush administration but codified them. Once this is signed into law, we will officially live a country where the chief executive can throw any citizen in prison for life without a trial and the citizen will have no recourse whatsoever because this will be perfectly legal.

Welcome back to the British Empire.

The fact that there was no fight whatsoever over this—that the bill passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in both houses—is the most infuriating thing of all. Every single one of those lawmakers took an oath to protect and defend the Constitution and every single one of them violated that oath as completely and thoroughly as it could be violated. It may sound like hyperbole but it’s true: they are all guilty of treason.

They have destroyed the very thing that made America America, and because they did so quietly and without a fight, while everyone’s attention was on the dismal economy and their own personal financial struggles, they managed to do it without being noticed. There was no conflict, so the media barely covered it. The vast majority of citizens are unaware that their country has suddenly undergone a fundamental alteration of its very nature.

Perhaps you can say that practically speaking, this is not so devastating. Sure, in the abstract world of ideals and principles it is an outrage, but what difference does it make in the real world?

President Obama will probably not use the new powers any more than he did when they were unofficial. He will probably only target citizens for whom there is strong evidence are working with terrorists. Perhaps the next president will also use the powers responsibly, and the president after that. But can we really trust that every administration from now until the end of time is not going to abuse this power?

If we are realists, is it not realistic to assume that a future president will eventually succumb to the temptation to target a citizen and throw him in prison for life without legal recourse not because he is working with terrorists but merely because he’s a nuisance? Perhaps that journalist is too close to exposing a secret the president wants hidden—if it’s perfectly legal and risk-free to simply remove her, why not do it? Just say we have evidence to suggest that she’s working with terrorists. Perhaps that independent politician is becoming too popular and could threaten the president’s chances for re-election—why not accuse him of having ties to terrorists? No one will ever have a chance to prove it one way or another.

Perhaps that grassroots political movement which aims to restore the middle-class to prosperity in spite of the inevitable harm to corporate profits is becoming too powerful—why not accuse them of terrorism and get them off the streets? It may be an egregious abuse of power, but they will never have a chance to plead their case.

By our own hands, we’ve handed the real terrorists a victory as great as any they could have hoped for. In essence, we’ve said to them: “Your tactics have worked. We are so terrified of you that we are sacrificing the rights our country was founded on to keep us a little safer.”

Farewell, America. It was a great country while it lasted.

Goodbye New York, Goodbye America

August 12th, 2011 No comments

Manhattan as seen from Brooklyn.

Last night was my last big party night before heading to Japan, and I think I did it in style. There’s no place like New York City to go out and have a wild time, and that’s what I did with my friends Mike and Kristin last night. Most of it was, naturally, a drunken haze, but I took copious amounts of pictures which definitely tell the tale. I also took a few drunken videos, but in the interests of protecting some shred of my reputation I won’t be posting them here.

Before the drinking began, I had to get from Mike’s place in Brooklyn—where I parked my rental car—into the city. That was about a 40-minute subway ride, and about half-way through it a very cute girl with black hair and the smoothest-looking almost porcelain-like legs got on and sat across from me. Our eyes met, then we both looked away and a few seconds later our eyes met again. I of course wondered if perhaps it meant she found me attractive too, but it could easily mean she just wanted to check to see if I was still looking at her. For the next twenty minutes I’d let my eyes wander and occasionally glance in her direction to admire that sweet face or those perfect legs of hers, and occasionally she’d look back. When it finally came time for me to exit, I went up to the door right next to her and looked at her for one last glimpse before leaving, and she looked right back at me. I couldn’t help but smirk just a little, and then something miraculous happened: she started smirking a little too. My smile instantly widened, as did hers, then the doors opened and I walked away, my head now practically in the clouds.

That was almost the highlight of the day for me. That never ever happens to me, especially with a girl that beautiful. To think of all the beautiful girls on the tram in Germany that I’d make the occasional glance at just like this one, but none of them every actually smiled at me. I don’t actually think I’m capable of attracting members of the opposite sex, but this was some welcome evidence to the contrary.

The night begins (and for some it ends) From the City Hall exit, I wandered around looking for Mike while calling and texting him, and after a little bit of trouble we finally found each other. We headed into an Irish pub and met two of Craig’s friends from the finance industry, had a shot and a beer with them, then went down the street so I could grab a slice of genuine New York pizza. After that it was back into the pub for more shots and beers, this time with a couple of girls who worked there as bartenders but who weren’t working that night and were instead getting hammered at their own bar, which I thought was interesting. One of the girls got so drunk that she had to go to the bathroom and puke, and when she came out she was stumbling and incoherent. A little extreme for 6:30 p.m.

NYC at dusk is awesome. Happy Mike

We took a cab from there to another bar, a place with the word “Hurricane” in the name, The beer tower. where some of Mike’s friends work so apparently we could drink for free. The place was packed, there were a couple of kick-ball teams there out celebrating after a match, but we were able to get ourselves a giant tower of beer from which we could refill our own glasses and not have to go up to the bar every time. I don’t remember ever seeing such a thing before, and I’d be very curious as to what my German friends would think of the concept, as they even find the idea of buying beer by the pitcher to be strange.

When we were done drinking there we went out to a place called Kat’s Deli which is apparently an extremely popular eatery in New York City and the place where Harry met Sally (about which I couldn’t possibly care less). Mike and his buddy, whose name is one of the many things from last night that got flushed down the memory-hole, got some delicious-looking meat sandwiches that I couldn’t partake in because I’m not a red-meat-eater, but I enjoyed watching them enjoy them.

It's this packed at 10:00 p.m. on a Thursday. Wow, it's like...famous or something.

Anticipation... ...reward.

Once that was done we headed back out and went into one last place, getting ourselves another self-dispensary of beer and going to the back to play some pool. Going into it I thought I was at just the right level of drunkenness for pool (you can’t be too sober or you’ll think too hard but you can’t be too drunk or your coordination is shot) but my awful playing revealed that I was in fact beyond that point. Mike’s friend is really good at pool and the two of them were on one team, but somehow Kristin and I were miraculously able to come from way behind and win—though I have to confess it was almost entirely her doing.

Three drunksketeers. What'd you say?

Classic Mike facial expression.For the win! KristinMy favorite pic of Mike ever.  

The last part of the night was a very drunken cab-ride back to Brooklyn which is almost entirely documented on my camera, but I’m going to opt not to post the video of us smashed out of our minds and singing The Pixie’s “Where is My Mind?” over and over again, which I imagine was probably of great annoyance to the poor cab driver.

Streets of NY at night. Where is our minds?

Brooklyn-bound You'd better tip him well.

We headed back up to Mike’s apartment where some diner food was delivered only minutes later, Mike having timed it perfectly. We stuffed our faces and passed out, another successful night of drunken debauchery brought to completion....the morning after.

Mike had to go to work this morning, so we all woke up at 6:30 to say goodbye, then Kristin  and I hung out and talked for a couple hours before she left and I went back to sleep for an hour. I would have slept all day but I had to return the rental car at 1:00, which after a surprisingly pleasant drive back to New Jersey I was able to do on time.

And that’s the crazy night I had in New York City just two days before leaving for Japan. Less than a week ago I was in California, and just a few weeks before that I was in Germany. Did I mention this is also the same year I went to Rome? That feels like a million lifetimes ago, but it was just four months. I can’t even begin to describe how insane that feels.

           At the Pacific coast.              At the Atlantic coast one week later.  

But the truly crazy part is that the insanity is just about to begin. As unbelievably awesome as 2011 has been so far, the most interesting part is yet to come.

I probably won’t be posting anything until then, so this will be my last blog entry from the USA and the last before several years’ worth of blog entries from Japan. America, you may have some serious problems but you’ve been good to me this past month. It’s time to see what the other side of the planet has in store.

To the other side...

Crossroads

July 18th, 2011 No comments

Backyard at my parents' house in NJ.

Well, I’ve been back in the states for three days now and already feel like I never left. The entire life I had in Germany is already starting to feel like one big dream that I just woke up from.

After finishing my last blog entry from Hannover, I spent the next several hours packing up, throwing stuff away, and taking care of a few last-minute tasks like closing my bank account. I had to leave a lot of stuff in my apartment that my landlord is going to have to deal with, but it’s his fault for never getting back to me all those times I called to let his receptionist know I was moving out. I was always told he’d contact me shortly but he never did, and on the last week I sent him a fax just letting him know the situation and that he’d probably have to throw some of my stuff away because I didn’t have time to dispose of it properly. In any case, he has most of my security deposit money and the number where I can be reached here in case it costs him more than that, so as weird as it feels to leave all that there I feel like I did all I could do.

Goodbye to my building.

Oliver came by while I was doing that and helped me finish up, then I bid a fond farewell to the flat and we drove to his friend Peda’s apartment in a town called Witten, which is on the outskirts of Dortmund and only a 40-minute drive to the Düsseldorf airport. There we had a pleasant evening, staying up late reminiscing and joking around like old times, and in the morning he drove me to the airport and we said our final farewell.

About 10 hours later I was landing in JFK and my Dad picked me up and drove me back here. The first evening was quite enjoyable, drinking and talking to my parents and my brother Billy, who is now 18 years old and on his way to college at the end of next month.

House of the Blue Men.

Saturday was mostly uneventful, but Sunday we all drove into the city (that’s what “New York City” is called around here) to see Blue Man Group, which I’ve been wanting to see for many years and was not disappointed. The music was as great as I knew it would be from the albums I have, but the show was also much more comedic than I’d expected. One of the coolest things was that before the show, one of the stage-hands asked Billy if he’d like to be a My brother, honorary Blue Man.part of the show, then took him to the back and told him what to expect. At the end of the show the blue men brought him up on stage, put a little blue mark on his face, then put him in a costume and a helmet and brought him backstage. On the screen it showed him getting splashed with blue paint, tied up by the heals and then smashed against a canvas to make an imprint of his body in blue paint, then the blue men came out on stage rolling a box with some gelatin on the top and it was revealed that his head was actually inside the gelatin. We found out later that it wasn’t actually him getting smashed against the canvas.

Misogyny bar. After the show we walked to a nearby tavern called McSorley’s, which my Dad says is the oldest continuously-operating tavern in NYC, which didn’t used to allow women up until a couple decades ago, and when they were finally forced to they just didn’t put in a ladies’ room. We each drank some beer there but it wasn’t that great and the place smelled pretty funky so we left after just fifteen minutes or so.

We then drove most of the way back home and stopped at an Irish bar/restaurant for dinner and more drinks, and had a very pleasant evening there before finally coming home.

I contacted a bunch of people when I got back to try and figure out who I can visit and when, but most of them haven’t gotten back to me yet. I’ll almost definitely be going to Brooklyn this weekend and possibly up to Red Hook to see my grandparents next weekend, but it all depends on a lot of things.

As for my overall feelings, it’s actually hard to say. I’m simultaneously glad to be back and sad to be away from Germany, but thanks to Skype I’m able to keep in touch with my closest Germany friends (I’m actually chatting with Oliver as I write this) but it’s still weird to think I won’t be seeing them in person for many years. I’m also extremely excited to be going to Japan next month, but a little nervous that I still haven’t gotten any definite information from them regarding my city-placement or date of arrival. I just sent them an e-mail to inform them of my change of address and phone number, as well as a little “wtf?” (though much more professional) to express my concern over it being only a month before I’m expected to go there and I still don’t have any of the details.

But overall, I really don’t have anything to complain about. My life right now is actually pretty frickin’ awesome when you think about it. I’ve got at least a month of little more to do than hang around, visit people I love, and kick my Japanese-studying into overdrive. I might also do a little driving for Domino’s like old times, as one of Billy’s friends works there now and he said he might be able to get something worked out for me whereby I’m not actually a full-time employee but just on-call for busy evenings. And then next month (assuming all goes smoothly) I’ll actually be starting a new life in JAPAN!!! It’s quite a major crossroads I’m at now, and it’s impossible not to appreciate how monumental it is.

I don’t know how frequently I’ll be posting over the next few weeks, but I assume it’ll remain about as frequent as before. If you’re one of my American friends and you’re reading this and I haven’t contacted you, feel free to contact me if you want to meet up sometime and I’d be happy to. I only contacted the people I saw last time but there are plenty of others I’d like to see that I’m just not sure would be interested.

See you soon?

How to Fix America (In 3 Paragraphs)

July 5th, 2011 No comments

On the surface, the problems affecting America appear so varied and complex that it seems absurd to suggest there’s one quick fix. But when you get down to the core it’s actually very simple, and can be explained in very few words and in such a way that almost all people can agree on regardless of ideological background. We’re not going to get anywhere until we can brush our disagreements aside and engage with each other honestly about the heart of the matter. In the following 3 paragraphs I will identify the problem and state how we can fix it. The bold-faced sections can actually stand alone as the entire argument, but I’ve buttressed these points with brief examples and explanations. None of this will be new to anyone, but its obviousness is the whole point—if I can explain it so succinctly, anybody can. My hope is that more people will reach out to those who normally disagree with them and see if we can at least agree on this.

2527780-dollar-symbol

1. The root of the problem is that some people can make incredible sums of money by doing things that harm everybody else. Investment bankers can earn huge amounts of money by inflating financial bubbles which collapse economies when they inevitably burst, energy companies earn higher profits by not spending money to protect the environment, insurance companies profit by denying people treatment, prisons profit by taking in more prisoners, and so on. This is not necessarily due to greed—it’s simply the nature of a business to try and earn as much money as possible, and to use that money to ensure that it can continue doing the things which allow it to keep earning.

2. The secondary problem is that our political system depends on campaign contributions from private donors to fund political campaigns. Politicians have a much easier time seeking large contributions from a handful of big businesses than by attempting to amass large amounts of small donations from average citizens. In order to be competitive, politicians must take money from businesses which profit by harming society. In exchange for these contributions, the politicians agree to either fight to protect the ability of these businesses to continue profiting at society’s expense, or to at least not fight very hard to stop them. As a result, the problems caused by these businesses are never fixed, and the negative effects on average people continue to accumulate.

3. Before any of America’s problems can be fixed, this central problem must be tackled first. Money must be taken out of politics if there can be any hope of politicians acting in society’s best interests as opposed to the interests of those who fund their campaigns. As long as the banking sector supplies most of the campaign money to politicians on both sides of the aisle, we can’t expect politicians to honestly reform the banking sector. As long as our politicians take money from private insurance companies, we can’t expect them to honestly reform the health care system. As long as politicians take money from energy companies, we can’t expect them to honestly work to protect the environment. These companies should have a seat at the table, but they can’t own the table. If we want politics to be about finding real solutions to problems, campaigns must be publicly financed so that politicians are elected on the merits of their ideas as opposed to how much money they can raise. Government should be the tool with which society fixes its problems, but problems can’t be fixed with a broken tool. The only way to fix the tool is to get money out of politics. Explaining how we do that, unfortunately, would require a lot more paragraphs…