June 26, 2010

The Material Girl

Do I really need 13 pairs of shoes? What about an entrie drawer full of underwear? Surveying the full closet of clothes I left at home and the suitcase full of clothes from my trip, I felt pretty disgusting. Okay, wildly gluttonous.

Before I left, I expected these excesses, but now, after cutting back on luxuries (and doing laundry a lot more often apparently), the scope of my possessions is outrageous.

In my parents' beautiful house, sumptuous living is easy. Our eight-foot doors and 72-inch mega TV make me feel like a dwarf. A very spoiled dwarf. We have a butler's pantry the size of a small bedroom, and it's stocked full of delicious food, coffee and shining pots and pans. I remind myself that this lifestyle is my parents' reward for having high education and stressful jobs. Part of me remains disgusted with materialism, but another part is asking, where can I get one of these jobs?

It's good to be home.

Hello, America.

The main drag of Louisville, Nebraska might not seem like a threatening place, but if you've been living in Cambodia and Japan, this is an IV of Americana. My parents love eating here, midway between the Omaha airport and Lincoln, a quaint little town with a real flare for country cooking.

Jet-lag already taking a serious toll, I surveyed the menu. Hamburgers, Chicken Fried Steak, Onion Rings, a side of Gravy—typical dinner fare. I chose the half portion of chicken and noodles on mashed potatoes, thinking it would be wholesome and filling. As I waited for my food, I could barely believe the scene around me: good old country folk out on a Friday night after a ball game, an obese waitress with a booming voice, and even Coors Light beer. It was like some strange movie about Nebraska, where I am the Asian foreign exchange student.

After dinner, we strolled down to the local soft serve ice cream stand. Inside, an overweight woman in a cut-off t-shirt that reveled her love of tattoos served up the best ice cream in town. As I enjoyed my small twist cone under a twilight sky, a herd of teenage girls wearing bikinis and towels, fresh from the pool, bounced and giggled out of the car to get giant ice cream cones. I couldn't imagine anything more summer, or maybe anything more Japanese men's magazine. Either of those.

Fried food, obesity and bikinis: Home sweet home.

June 17, 2010

Further exploration into the (dis)Orient

Three weeks of Japan behind me and I'm feeling a little out of it. The contrast in lifestyle and setting between less than one month ago until now leaves me disoriented. I've done much since arriving in Tokyo and taking time to write and reflect has been lost in the shuffle of those strange Japanese sandals. My deeper frustrations with the unknowns that await me at home are showing as I struggle with my continuing identity as a foreigner.

I've finally met my boyfriend's immediate family, some of his friends, and visited his father's grave to pay respects. I've been to a symphony, a wedding reception, and even to a dog hotel (no, I was not a guest). I've eaten cheap Ramen in local restaurants and Kobe beef in a 5-star hotel at prices only a mother could love. I've met with a shoemaker who was astonished at the poor condition of my feet, and I've met with a life counselor (the Western world would probably call her a “fortune teller”) to discuss my past lives, present life and future decisions (she thinks my foot problems are a manifestation of my mental frustration). I've developed a green tea habit and fondness for fine sake (the need-a-second-job-it's-so- expensive kind). I still can't sing worth a lick, but I haven't lost my passion for karaoke.

On the briefest of Japan tours, this week I visited Kyoto, the old capital city. The traditional temples built centuries ago still perch gracefully on hills in the forest, or nestle between modern buildings in the city center. The most striking element for me was the bright orange color used as an accent on the temple buildings and gates. Next, In Takamatsu, a city that most tourist pass by, I strolled the famed--though politically charged--garden of Ritsurin. One of Takeshi's father's best friends invited us to visit Takamatsu for the day, and what a wonderful tour guide he was! Besides showing us the garden, taught me how to eat the tasty, but uber-slippery Udon noodles; and he is the one who introduced me to the aforementioned fine sake. On my last Japan tour stop, I enjoyed the port city famous for beef so delectable that American basketball star Kobe Bryant was named after it. The city of Kobe is a quaint town with a heavy influence of the foreigners who helped create it. From the front seat of the bright yellow “Splash Kobe” amphibious vehicle tour, I was able to view Kobe's most notable attractions while being a spectacle for the locals. As the tour was given totally in Japanese, I learned little, but saw much.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world is watching soccer. As an American, I am not born in cleats and shin guards, but as a person with a strong interest in international relations, the World Cup is fascinating. And, in Japan, all eyes are on an underdog team whose first round upset against Cameroon has the nation's hopes higher than expected. Now all we need are American-style sports bars with mega TV screens and fried cheese—though I'm sure fried seaweed, fermented bean paste, or fresh fish eggs would also make good game food.

June 7, 2010

From Bong Jena to Jena-San

After five months of adjusting to Cambodia, the modernity and convenience of Japan is a relief, but also a major shock to my system. Instead of hailing (or dodging) tuk-tuks, I'm swiping my Suica card to board the JR train. Instead of sanitation practices that could best be described as non-existent, I'm enjoying the epitome of cleanliness and hygiene (don't get me started on the beautiful public toilets!). And instead of the constant harassment by people on the street, I'm occasionally the subject of a curious camera phone-user's snapshot.

I've left behind “Bong Jena”, my Cambodian title, in exchange for Jena-San, the proper Japanese version of my name. I've filed away my Khmer language to make room for Nihongo—yet another language with a new syllabic alphabet. In Cambodia, not speaking the language was almost never a problem. I was surrounded by English speakers and the signs around town were usually translated into English. In Japan, I am immersed in a Japanese family with Japanese friends in a community that does not need English to survive. I am very dependent on Takeshi's translations to help me do nearly everything—especially order food. If I couldn't read the menu in Cambodia, I would just point at one of the options and pretty much know that it was going to be a variant of stir-fry. In Japan, however, the point-and-pick is more like Russian Roulette. The Japanese have iron stomaches and the will to eat the craziest foods I've ever seen. Pointing at a random choice could get you a big plate of octopus dumpling.

Having said how scary the menu can be, the food here is fantastic. Of course I love the sushi, but Takeshi also introduced me to Rahmen, the greatest noodle soup imaginable; and to soba noodles, a healthy, slurpy meal. It will take me a while to get used to Japanese table manners. Two parts I'm struggling with are: cramming giant pieces of sushi into my mouth and chopsticking, sucking, and slurping noodles as loudly as my fellow eaters.

I'm still the tall and blond foreigner who neither speaks the language nor accurately performs local customs, but at least I have a personal guide and translator to help me navigate this strange new world.