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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.

The Latest

August 3rd, 2012 No comments

I went to the Japanese consulate yesterday and got some clarification on my visa situation. There’s no need to go into all the details here, but the basic conclusion was that my only option is to obtain a completely new work visa. Even if I were to return to Japan before the 15th, I would have to go on a tourist visa, and you’re not allowed to obtain a work visa if you’re located in the country, so returning early would be useless. On the encouraging side, the consulate said a new work visa could be processed in just four business days as long as I have a Certificate of Eligibility. The problem is that the typical processing length of a Certificate of Eligibility is 31 days. The person in charge of the Chiba branch office told me that they’d plead with them to process this as fast as possible and have it mailed to me by August 15 which would give me enough time to have the new work visa ready by my originally planned departure of August 29th, but no guarantees can be made. Worst case scenario, I’d be getting the Certificate of Eligibility on September 13th and looking at an arrival date in Japan of about September 28th. So I won’t miss my vacation, but I might miss a month of school. I hate that idea, but if I have to live with it so be it.

As for who will be considered financially responsible for the returning plane ticket and lost month of work, that issue has yet to be breached. With any luck, it won’t have to.

But in spite of all this bureaucratic stress, I managed to have a great time yesterday. A couple of other college friends, Luke and Marc, came into the city to apply for visas to Brazil where they’ve got an opportunity to run a bar for a person they connected with in their travels. They came back to Mike’s apartment and the four of us spent all afternoon and night together, mostly just walking around and talking. It was really great to see them again and we enjoyed every minute of it thoroughly. I almost forgot about the consulate business altogether.

I just have to keep enjoying this trip moment by moment and not let the uncertainty ruin anything that would otherwise be a perfectly wonderful time. The worst possible outcome of this situation is pretty bad in the short-term, but not at all devastating in the long-term. As much as it will suck while the consequences are still ongoing and fresh, eventually it’ll just be a story to tell.

Categories: Personal Tags: , , ,

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?

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...

My Gay Wedding Experience

July 27th, 2011 No comments

Historic Gay Wedding Photo

You never know when life will suddenly land you right in the middle of a semi-historic event, but when it does it helps to be equipped with a camera and your own blog.

I haven’t had much time to write lately as I just recently returned from Germany after teaching English there for three years, and I’m currently back in the USA for about a month before starting work in Japan. During that time I’ll be criss-crossing the country and visiting every old friend and family member who might want to see me. One of those visits took place this past Saturday evening, and it led to something completely unexpected.

I have an aunt and uncle with three kids who live on Long Island in Glen Cove, NY, and I went there Saturday expecting merely an afternoon and evening of chatting with the parents and playing with the kids. During an epic 5-hour session in their swimming pool (the heat was still pretty unbearable on Saturday) my aunt got a phone call from one of her friends from their church. Apparently, two fellow church members—a gay couple by the names of Gaitley and Jim—were having a small ceremony at the town hall at midnight just as the new gay marriage legislation was going into effect in order to be among the first gay couples in the state of New York to have their marriage officially recognized.

My aunt asked me if I wouldn’t mind going, and of course I said “of course!” Just a few weeks ago I’d been cheering the state legislature’s decision from across the ocean in Germany, and now I had an opportunity to be right at the epicenter of the historic occasion. I wouldn’t pass up such an opportunity for the world.

So at 11:15 I went with my aunt, uncle, and two of their kids (the third will, I expect, eventually regret his decision not to go) to Glen Cove’s town hall and were greeted at the back entrance by the mayor himself, Ralph Suozzi, and his wife. The front door was closed and locked, and there were no formal announcements made regarding the ceremony. They wanted to be extra cautious in case there were any nuts out there who might be inclined to make some kind of bloody political statement.

It was a relatively small gathering, about 30 people altogether, and the first thing the happy couple did was get everyone in attendance together for a few photographs downstairs. The actual ceremony would take place upstairs where the clerk could print out the marriage license and have them sign it, but this wouldn’t be able to happen until 12:01.

It was hot and crowded upstairs, but the anticipation of the moment to come was enough to keep the attendees from complaining. Someone had brought a case of bottled water to hand out to anyone who wanted one, which was a nice gesture.

The happy couple. Jim in front, Gaitlee behind.

Because of the timing issue, they had to separate the ceremony into two parts. At about quarter to eleven, Mayor Suozzi started things off by saying a few words to the effect that this was one of the proudest moments of his political career and he didn’t care if it lost him a few votes in the next election. I think it’ll actually help him, as just about every gay person and supporter of gay rights in Glen Cove will now be much more likely to show up to the polls than they might have been before—a political calculation I think it would be wise of the current President of the United States to make as well.

Religion and gay marriage CAN mix.

After the “I do”s, they paused to let the remaining time before midnight pass, and that’s when Gaitley addressed the crowd to make his emotional speech about what this meant to him. He said that while they’d actually been “married” twice before (once as an unofficial ceremony and once in a different state where gay marriage was legal) this meant the most to him because now his partnership with Jim would be officially recognized by his home state as 100% equal to the marriages that all other couples enjoy. He compared the feeling of being in a gay relationship to being a Jew during Christmas, watching everyone else enjoying the whole Santa Claus thing but knowing that it wasn’t for you. He said, “But today it feels like not only is it Christmas but Santa is real and he’s coming!”

The crowd was mostly made up of middle-aged and older people, not exactly the stereotypical image of gay rights enthusiasts, but they were all visibly happy for their friends, applauding frequently throughout Gaitley’s speech.

Gaitley remarked on how he’d never expected this to happen in his lifetime, but here they were. Jim was a lot more shy than his partner, first declining to say anything but then remarking on how happy he was to have found such a wonderful circle of friends in Glen Cove. One thing that was apparent to everyone was just how overjoyed the two of them were. Gaitley was positively beaming.

Making it official.

At midnight, the clerk printed out the marriage license and the two of them got to filling out the paperwork. The number on their marriage license was 10, so it appeared that 9 other couples in New York had beaten them to the punch, but it was still cool enough to witness the 10th gay marriage in the history of the state of New York, as that number will probably balloon to tens of thousands very shortly.

Once everything was signed and notarized, Mayor Suozzi stepped up to complete the ceremony. The rings were exchanged and the pronouncement was made: “By the power vested in me by the state of New York, I now pronounce you married!”

Mayor Suozzi at the big moment.

Big kiss, thunderous applause, champagne corks popping…just like any other wedding only with one additional element: this was not only a marriage but also a victory. This was the culmination of decades upon decades of fighting relentlessly in pursuit of equality on the part of the gay community, and in New York state they’ve now triumphed. It should only be a matter of time before the rest of the country follows suit.

Two nights later I was visiting another set of relatives whom I don’t want to besmirch by identifying in any way, but suffice it to say they’re from an older generation and spend a good deal of time watching Fox News. I had to hear their reaction when I mentioned that I’d been to a gay wedding, and it was a combination of amusement and mild disdain.

We launched into the standard arguments for and against gay marriage, and I poked holes in every case they laid out. “The purpose of marriage is for procreation,” they said. “Then what about a barren woman? Should the state ban her from getting married? What about a very old couple that can no longer produce children? No marriage for them either?”

“If gays can get married, what’s to stop a man from marrying a cow?” My reply: “There’s no slippery-slope argument. As long as there’s consent from both parties, the marriage should be legal. Cows, children, and inanimate objects can’t consent, so the slope ends at gay couples (and possibly polygamy, which I also don’t have a problem with)”.

Of course it all boils down to religion. “The Bible says marriage is between a man and a woman.” “Or a man and many women,” I said, “the Bible says that too.” “The Bible says homosexuality is an abomination.” My reply: “If God hates gay people, why did he create so many of them? Either he made a mistake or he meant to create them.” They insisted that God doesn’t make mistakes, so I insisted it had to be part of his intention. Their only response was that it might be some kind of test. I decided not to say that if God intends to test people by making them fall in love with members of the same sex and then demanding that they never act on this love, he’s a cruel sort of God indeed.

Love, after all, is really what it’s really all about. I wished my relatives could have been at this ceremony, as the love between Gaitley and Jim was powerful, their joy at having this love now deemed equal to the love of everyone else was palpable. I don’t think anyone could have been at this ceremony and not seen it as a good thing.

“They just want to be treated like everybody else,” I said. In unison they replied, “They’re not like everybody else!” Resisting my urge to start singing my favorite Kinks song, I summed up their feelings by saying, “So you believe that your heterosexual love should be legally superior to their homosexual love?” They said yes.

And that’s really all there is to it. People who are opposed to gay marriage don’t necessarily hate gay people—they just see them as inferior, and don’t believe their love is as valuable as the love between a man and a woman.

The solution is clear, and luckily the gay community has already been carrying it out with great success for some time now: come out. Come out of the closet and let everyone see your love, let them see how happy it makes you and how the only difference between it and the love they feel is that it’s directed at someone who happens to share the same anatomy.

If everyone in the country could attend a gay wedding and experience that kind of joy first-hand, there’s no doubt in my mind that gay marriage would be legal nationwide within a couple of years. Here’s hoping it will be anyway.

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?

New York’s 26th: Is Hope Still Alive?

May 28th, 2011 No comments

As someone who believes that the democratic process in America is pretty much dead and buried, election results that go against the establishment always surprise me. Even with all the talk leading up to the special election in New York’s 26th district about how the seat might go to a Democrat even though it’s one of the country’s reddest districts and has been held by Republicans since the Civil War, I still assumed the Republicans would hold on to it.

douchebag But I underestimated just how bi-partisan the opposition to Paul Ryan’s budget plan would be. He proposed that Medicare be replaced with a voucher program, basically giving senior-citizens a coupon to go buy insurance on the private market. Naturally, senior-citizens aren’t too optimistic about putting their lives in the hands of private insurance companies (most non-senior-citizens aren’t too happy about it either but that’s another matter) so when the Republican candidate Jane Corwin announced her support for the plan, her poll numbers started dropping and she wound up losing the election, much to my great surprise.Corwin (R), Hochul (D)

I figured that Republicans wouldn’t have made such a radical proposal if they hadn’t believed they could survive it politically. Medicare is an extremely popular government program that even die-hard conservatives want protected. The same goes for Social Security, and you can ask George W. Bush just how popular the idea of privatizing that is with the American people.

The truth is that as much as they may rail against it, Americans love their socialism. Talking about getting rid of these programs has always been akin to political suicide. This seems completely obvious, pretty much Politics 101. If you want to keep your seat in Congress, keep your hands off Social Security and Medicare.

But the oligarchs have had their eyes on these programs for a long time and they’ve been dying to kill them for decades in order to free up room in the national budget for more tax-cuts for corporations and the wealthy. To finally pull the plug on the last bit of national wealth being distributed to the middle-class and make sure it now all goes to the very top. Once the top 1% have more money than everyone else combined, it’s check-mate and game over.

This moment in American politics seemed to be the right time to finally make their move. All the pieces were in place. Fox News has had plenty of time to sufficiently brainwash a large portion of the population that all social spending is evil and that trickle-down economics is the only fiscal policy that works (even though it’s been obvious for at least 20 years that it doesn’t). The Koch Brothers and other wealthy elites have been financing and pulling the strings of this Tea Party movement which their pals in the media have helpfully inflated out of proportion and created the impression of a sweeping grassroots rebellion among middle-class Americans who are apparently demanding that the rich take more of their money. And most importantly, their pawns on the Supreme Court have ruled that Corporations can spend as much money as they want in elections.

The thinking was that it no longer matters what most Americans think. As long as your proposals are perceived to have public support—and the media makes sure they are—you can safely do the bidding of the oligarchs without concern for what the majority actually thinks. Enough money will be spent on negative ads against your opponent that your seat will be safe and you can go on doing your corporate masters’ bidding in perpetuity.

But apparently we’re not at that point just yet. In spite of the massive amount of money spent to defeat the Democrat Kathy Hochul in the special election in New York’s 26th, she still emerged victorious. And while Fox News and other media outlets are trying to downplay the importance of the Medicare issue (lest the American people find out that they’re pretty much in agreement on it) it’s clear that the result was due to people’s fear of losing Medicare.

The oligarchs overreached this time, and they’ll presumably put their plans to gut Medicare back on the shelf for awhile. Democracy, in this case, seems to have worked. Despite all the media-spin and big money donations to keep one of their puppets in that seat, the American people spoke and definitively rejected their plan. We believe the government should take care of the elderly, and we let our leaders know it.

But the fight is by no means over—not by any stretch of the imagination. This only demonstrates that we are in fact still capable of winning if we actually choose to fight. The oligarchs have put us in check but they haven’t check-mated us just yet. That doesn’t mean that in just a few more moves we’ll find ourselves trapped in the scenario I described above in which corporations can force through whatever legislation they want regardless of how unpopular it is.

If the Democrats were smart and/or not bought by the same corporate interests as the entire Republican Party, they’d take this cue to go on the offensive. Instead of merely running their 2012 campaigns on the promise of defending Medicare from the Republicans who want to kill it, they could (and should) vow to expand Medicare: to re-ignite the push for a public healthcare option by proposing that anyone can buy-in to Medicare regardless of age. The contrast between the parties this year would be sharper than ever: one party wants to kill Medicare, the other wants to make it available to everybody. If New York’s 26th is any indication, we’d probably see a massive Democratic sweep the likes of which we haven’t seen in modern history.

Unfortunately, Democrats don’t seem to have any desire to be so bold. They’re not going to take the lesson that New York’s 26th could teach them—that popular support still counts for more than Big Money donations. They apparently still believe that democracy is as dead as I thought it was and the only way to hold on to political power is to cater to the wealthy and corporate elite.

I would not be shocked if President Obama announces that in the spirit of bi-partisan compromise he will make a few modest cuts to Medicare and Social Security, thus securing a great deal of campaign money for himself at the expense of a few more progressive voters. He’s banking on the fact that the Republican primary will weed out any serious candidate who might stand a chance against him, so his only opponent will be so far to the right-wing fringe that he can win as a center-right candidate.

True democracy is dying, gasping for air under the weight of corporate power and income inequality, but the fact that a Democrat can win in one of the country’s most Republican districts because a majority of voters agreed on an important issue is proof that it’s not dead yet. It can be resuscitated, but only if we remain active and not expect our politicians to do it for us.

Goodbye, New York

September 28th, 2010 No comments

Monday, September 20, 2010

When Mike got up early Monday morning, I woke up too in order to wish him farewell, as I didn’t think I’d be seeing him again. He’d spent the previous day finishing up his upgrades to my lap-top, replacing Windows XP with the far-superior Windows 7, and he said that to really put the finishing touches on the upgrade I should buy a couple of 2 GB memory cards that he showed me on the Best Buy website. After I woke up I found an e-mail from him saying that if I picked up the cards in the city and brought them to his office at Rockefeller Center, he would install them for me.

The only thing I had planned for the day was to visit my Uncle Lance and his kids out in Glen Cove, Long Island that evening, so I had most of the day free and open. I was supposed to meet Lance when he got back home at 6:00, so I knew I’d have to either arrive super-early or sit in some rush-hour traffic, and figured that if I left by 4:00 and resigned myself to hitting the traffic, two hours should be enough time.

That allowed me to venture back into Manhattan one last time, this time on my own. Mike had given me instructions on how to get in the easiest way—just taking the R train straight to Broadway, where I could stop at Kristin’s sandwich shop for lunch. Kristin, once [not-so] affectionately known as “Little Cracky” (for reasons I’ll leave up to your imagination) has really turned her life around in the past few years and is now managing a really successful sandwich place called “Wichcraft” (get it—sand “wich”?) in Manhattan, and I figured I might as well check it out.

After just a little bit of trouble I found the place and Kristin told her underlings to hook me up with some food while she remained busy doing what she had to do to keep the place running. I didn’t get to chat with her while I ate, but I did get to eat the most excellent tuna sandwich I’ve ever had, and thanks to my ‘in’ with the manager I got the $8 sandwich completely free. When I was done I bid her a fond farewell, saying I hoped I’d see her again sooner than two years from now, and I firmly meant it. I’d like to go back to America again as early as next year if I can somehow manage that, though it depends on so many factors. But yeah, I definitely want another one of those bangin’ sandwiches.

Now I had to get down to business, first to find the Best Buy and then Mike’s building at Rockefeller. Of course I always end up going the wrong direction when I get out of the subway, so I lost some time that way, and I was already running out of time before my 4:00 goal of leaving Brooklyn when I finally found the store. To make matters worse, the Best Buy wasn’t selling the nice, relatively inexpensive combination-package of memory cards Mike had found online but I had to buy them individually for what would amount to more than twice the price I’d been expecting. They said I could try another store a few blocks away, but by then I was really running out of time and I just wanted to get it over with. Of course I knew I could just forego the whole memory-upgrade process for the time being and maybe figure out how to do it in Germany, but I just wanted the whole thing to be finished. So I paid through the teeth for the cards, accepting what I like to think of as the ‘git ‘er done’ fee (in life you frequently have to pay a lot more if you don’t want to wait for something), and headed up towards Rockefeller Center.

Finding Mike’s building was also a huge bitch, as it wasn’t where I thought it would be and I ended up stumbling around for a good twenty minutes trying to figure out where we’d been on Saturday. It looked a lot different during the week when everything was in business, and I was hoping to see some of my favorite NBC celebrities walking around but I had no such luck. (Unfortunately, this wasn’t one of the days that Cenk Uygur would be guest-hosting at MSNBC, as if I’d seen him I would have pounced on him and demanded to know why he hasn’t answered any of my e-mails).

But I did find the building and told the doorman I was here to see Mike H up at Myd-Marketing (that felt kind of badass) and then I headed upstairs and strolled right into the Wall Street trading firm right when they were in the middle of their dirty evil business, which felt super-mega-badass. The French guys who own the company shot me and my long hair a dirty look when I came inside, but I just said “I’m here to see Mike” and they let me on through.

Mike greeted me, apparently not too busy at that particular time, and tore open my computer to get those new cards installed, while I looked around and appreciated the fact that I was now in the lion’s den with the lions (even if most of these particular lions were French). Every work-station with its multiple monitors was occupied, CNBC was running on the big screen, and more money than I make in a year was being traded back-and-forth as I sat there, trying to resist the urge to start shouting doomsday scenarios about the inevitable next financial crisis that’s going to hit sometime soon.

When the installation was complete, Mike gave me instructions for the fastest way back to Brooklyn and he walked me out of the building and sent me on my merry way. I made it back to his apartment (in his awesomeness, he’d let me keep a set of keys for the next time I’m around) and got the rest of my stuff, finally getting back to my car and on the road at about 4:15. Not too bad in the timing department.

I definitely hit the traffic on the Belt parkway and later the Long Island Expressway, but somehow I got to Lance’s house just 10 minutes after the planned 6:00 arrival time, and just minutes after he and the kids had gotten home as well.

I spent the evening with Lance and two of his kids, as his wife Sue and oldest son Max were away that week on some kind of mountain-climbing adventure. His kids are all in this special school with its own educational philosophy, developed by Rudolf Steiner (the brain behind Theosophy, one of my favorite metaphysical belief-systems), so they do all kinds of cool trips like that. The focus is much more on learning through experience than it is in the rest of academia. Whether or not having such a radically different educational experience than their peers will be a disadvantage for them later in life is yet to be seen, but I hope not. I’d rather the rest of the educational system become more like the one he’s got his kids in.

Lance is another deep-thinker, so I always love talking to him because I never have to worry about staying on the same page. As his second-oldest son Beau cooked us up a nice dinner of angel-hair pasta and tomato-sauce (pretty damn good for a 12-year-old) we chatted about my experience living in Germany and how different America looks to me now that I’ve been gone for so long.

After dinner we were summoned outside by his daughter Margot, now age 7, who wanted us to see the full moon. The moon wasn’t quite full but that didn’t matter. She was a bit nervous around me but I started helping her play with her paper airplane while Lance went inside and before I knew it I was sitting under a tree with her in the twilight and having a very long and meandering discussion about everything from fairies to stars to bugs and spiders to whatever else popped into her 7-year-old mind while we were talking.

I made sure to really appreciate the fact that I was having that conversation, as it’s not at all often that I get to speak with young kids for any length of time. I certainly can’t speak to German 7-year-olds because unless they’ve got an English-speaking parent none of them have started learning English yet. But Margot is super-adorable and about as sweet as you can imagine, so it was quite a pleasure talking to her. The last time I saw her she was only 4 years old, so she didn’t remember me but she did believe me when I told her that I’d met her before.

I also appreciated how easy it was to talk to her, as my job as a language teacher is to keep conversations going which can often be rather difficult, but Margot just never ran out of things to say. She just went on and on about this and that and some other completely random thing. “I like it when bugs fly by my ear. It feels kind of weird.” You know, I never thought of it that way. Or maybe I did but just forgot…

I spent a really pleasant, very out-of-the-ordinary evening with Lance and his kids until he put them to bed and the two of us stayed up talking until about midnight. I told him about Revolution Earth, an idea he really liked, and he told me all the latest news about his business, Braun Brush (check it out if you need any fancy brushes) and his invention brush-tiles which are apparently still pretty popular among interior decorators. I hadn’t spoken to him in two and a half years but it felt like we’d picked up right where we left off and we’ll do the same the next time I get around to seeing him.

I told him to wake me up in the morning before the kids left, because I knew it might be a few more years before I’d see them again and I wanted to make it a bit more likely that Margot will remember me next time, when she’ll probably be 9 or 10 and a completely different person. Beau already remembers me because I saw him a lot more often when he was younger, and he’s definitely a great kid. Sue and Lance may be raising their kids in a somewhat outside-the-box kind of fashion, but so far it seems to be working. 7-year-old girls can often be awful little brats, but Margot is the farthest thing from that (at least from what I was able to see) and Beau is just an incredibly nice young boy.

It almost makes me want kids of my own…but not quite.

Tune in tomorrow for the not-so-thrilling-but-still-hopefully-somewhat-interesting conclusion of my American adventure stories.

The Craziest Day

September 27th, 2010 No comments

I’m back at work now as I write this, in the one-hour period of time between lessons. I’m still slightly sick and extremely tired, and all I want to do is go home and relax but I have to write the account of at least the next two days of my trip before I can let myself off the hook for the day. So without further ado, here goes:

Friday, September 17, 2010

After two nights with my grandparents I was ready to head back home. Saturday was going to be the Big Day—the reunion with my closest college friends, the people who also lived at the notorious 12 Autumn Lane, an off-campus house with 7 residents, not counting Mike (the one now in Brooklyn) who squatted on our couch during most of that time and made for the unofficial 8th resident. I wanted to crash at his place in Brooklyn that night so I’d already be in New York the following day, but I needed to swing by my parent’s house in New Jersey first to pick up some fresh clothes.

The day began in Red Hook, as I rolled out of bed around 9:30, took a shower, and had breakfast with the grandparents. Shortly after eating we got a call from my aunt Marlene, who was supposed to have picked up my cousin Casey from the train station that morning but Casey missed the train. I decided to go to Marlene’s apartment in Rhinebeck and wait for Casey there, hoping she’d return before my planned departure of 2:30.

That was not to happen as Casey wouldn’t arrive until 3:00, but I spend the time from noon to about 2:00 with Marlene, in a completely different head-space than with my grandparents. Marlene was telling me things she remembered from my early childhood, shedding light on the darker parts of my past which I wrote about yesterday in an entry best kept private.

I stopped by my grandparents’ house at 2:00 for one last little talk, and we said our goodbyes at 2:30. Now I would be in a completely different mode-of-existence during the two-and-a-half hour drive home, which I finished with a little more driving around the back-roads of that area with which I became so familiar during my pizza delivery days.

Getting home around 5:00 I had some time to re-immerse myself in the internet side of my life, e-mailing people and getting up to speed with what little was happening on my new website Revolution Earth. Tearing myself back out of that head-space around 6:00 I had dinner with my parents, and got packed up and ready to go by 7:00.

Another conversion to driving-mode brought me back across the Goethals and Verrazano bridges and back to Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where I arrived at Mike’s apartment just a few minutes before he did himself. After three different houses and five different modes of existence, I was now settling into the sixth and final head-space of the day—hanging out with an old friend from college.

To throw yet another thing into the mix, another one of my college friends, Kristin (whom I actually shared a room with at Autumn Lane) also lives in the same neighborhood and she came by to drink a beer (only one) with us and get caught up with me. We wanted to go out and have a few more drinks with her but she’s at a point in her life where she’s trying to avoid partying of any kind.

So Mike and I went out alone, to his favorite bar in Brooklyn—the name escapes me—which is also the oldest bar (or maybe it was the second oldest) in Brooklyn. There was karaoke going on which normally I hate but at least it kept things interesting. What struck me most about the bar was the crowd. There must have been at least one representative from every age group and cultural background on the planet. From twentysomethings to middle-aged folks to those pushing their senior years, from blacks to Hispanics to Asians to just plain old white city folk—I’ve never seen more diversity packed into one small space in my life. Quite the contrary atmosphere to anything you’d find in Germany, especially in a non-cosmopolitan city like Hannover.

I knew I wanted to save some energy for the next night, so Mike and I went back to his apartment at a relatively early hour (about 3:00) and ordered some food before going to sleep. I could hardly believe this was the same day in which I’d been eating breakfast with my grandparents. Three different meals in three different states, four different residences and two different long car-trips, that was definitely the most jam-packed day of the trip.