After living in Japan for two years and China for five, I determined that the handling of racial inequities in the USA is very different from Asia. In America, race is an open book. It is a topic that we approach head on. We touch on race in televised speeches and graduation commencements; we comment on race on our TV shows and stand-up comedy (hell, we even have TV shows classified by race), and we openly discuss race among friends and family. Unlike in Asia, race is not something we shove under the rug in the USA. It’s out there for all to see.
When I told my Japanese friend Tohko that we were going to be in Japan, she said she would meet us in Kyushu on one condition:
We go to Yakushima.
Yakushima? Where and what is it?
It’s the greenest and wettest place in the country, receiving more rainfall than any other location in Japan. On top of that, the island has a strong reputation for being a spiritual and mystical retreat, and rightly so; it did, after all, serve as the inspiration for the animated film Princess Mononoke.
I always told myself that, someday, I just had to go to Yakushima (similar to my desire to go to Kumano Kodo). Not only is Princess Mononoke my favorite Studio Ghibli movie, but when I googled Yakushima and looked at the images, the greenery blew me away.
But first, we gotta get one thing straight: Yakushima is not an easy side trip. It’s far away. Really far away.
Even from Kyushu (the bottom island) getting to Yakushima is no easy feat. You’ll not only have to take a 3+ hour bullet train from Fukuoka City to Kagoshima, but then you’ll have to ride a 2 hour speedboat from Kagoshima to Yakushima. Once there, it is possible to get around by bus or scooter, but I recommend renting a car.
To be honest, I thought the inconvenience of going to Yakushima wasn’t worth it; but then again, I really wanted to see Tohko.
In the end, I’m glad Tohko gave me the extra push to go to Yakushima. It was my favorite part of Kyushu–and here’s why:
Where to Go
Cedarland (Yakisuki Land) 屋久杉ランド
When the tourism office told us to go to Cedarland, Tohko and I were super skeptical. It sounded like a corny, cedar-themed amusement park for kids.
But don’t let the name fool you. It’s a protected natural par… and it’s stunning.
To say Cedarland was lush and green is an understatement. It’s a rainforest. There is moss and growth everywhere. The water is clear, transparent and fresh. It’s extremely wet. We were constantly slipping around on muddied trails (in fact, I even fell in a mud pit!), but the added hurdle only added to the excitement.
The main trail is well-maintained, but if you venture off into the lesser-traveled routes you’ll find trails in disrepair. While it’s exciting to go off road, travelers should exercise caution: its extremely slippery and one wrong step will send you sliding down a muddy hillside. Be careful!
Seaside Hot Springs (Yudomari Onsen)
Japan loves hot springs, so it’s not surprising that people are willing to strip down naked in public to hop into a seaside thermal bath.
That’s exactly what we did at Yudomari Onsen. I have to admit, even I was self-conscious about the teeny-tiny two foot bamboo wall that attempted to separate the male and female hot springs. Although the water was lukewarm, it was an experience: who else can say they bathed in a seaside hot spring watching the sunset?
If you want to bathe in more, ahem, private quarters–then here’s a list of all the onsens in Yakushima. Kyushu is a hot spring lover’s heaven, and Yakushima is no exception.
Waterfalls and More
So, we saw a lot of epic waterfalls–and trust me, there are a lot of majestic waterfalls all over the island. You can’t go wrong.
I highly recommend Senpiro waterfall. It’s a quick stop and the observation deck not only provides the perfect photo opportunity of the gigantic waterfall, but also gives you a stunning 360 view of the villages and surrounding island.
Plus, there’s picnic tables up there. Bring some bento boxes up to the top and enjoy lunch in the bliss of a perfect waterfall view.
Where to Stay?
If you’re staying in Yakushima, I just have one word for you: Minshuku.
As I wrote in my Kumano Kodo post, minshukus are my absolute favorite type of lodgings in Japan. They’re basically the Japanese version of a British bed and breakfast. You can also think of them as as a more intimate ryokan.
Tohko reserved a room for us at a minshuku called Shiki no Yado….. and wow. I cannot recommend this place enough.
Not only is Shiki no Yado located beneath a dormant volcano, but the rooms are spacious; wooden and clean. Plus, the staff speaks great English.
The Japanese family running the minshuku are wholesome and kind. The wife told us she’s originally from Yakushima, but went to Tokyo for about 15 years to work until she said–enough. Now she’s living the simple life, running a minshuku in rural Yakushima… and I can see the appeal.
Where to Eat
At the Minshuku
Minshuku meals are Japan’s cuisine at its finest. At Shiki no Yado the owners not only prepared the meals fresh from scratch everyday, but they used locally sourced ingredients from their own farm (!!!). This food was legit farm to table, and at a stellar price.
Iso no Kaori
Tohko’s friend also recommended a place called “Iso no Kaori.” It’s a tiny teishoku (set-meal) establishment on the side of the highway that loops around Yakushima. It’s fresh food at great prices. Definitely worth a visit.
Yakushima Travel Tips
On my most recent trip to Japan I once again asked myself this question: Is Japan really technologically advanced?
Advanced robotics. Giant mechas. Bullet Trains.
To much of the world, Japan is seen as the world of the future. It’s no surprise the country that invented the Mario Brothers and the hybrid car is known worldwide as the most high-tech.
So when I moved to Japan, I was expecting to walk into the future. I was ready to see what life would be like in a world where technology ruled.
Instead, I felt like I stepped back in time–like, 100 years back in time.
Here are some shocking discoveries I made in Japan that proved that, maybe, it’s not so tech savvy after all.
- No Central Heating. Period.
Winters in Japan were cruel, especially where I lived; I mean, it was known as snow country for a reason. We had over two meters (that’s 6.5 feet for you Americans) pile up, and we hit lows such as -15 Fahrenheit (that’s -26 C).
Those were cold, cold days.
Even more so because Japan has no central heating, and housing insulation is slim to none.
At first, I was appalled. It wasn’t just my home, but also public institutions. Instead of have any form of central heating, my workplace often lit gas stoves in the classroom and shut the doors to trap the heat. Many of my students cowered by the stove heater between classes, scrambling for warmth. My students often clutched heating pads known as ‘hokairo’ throughout the day, holding onto it for dear life.
There were times I saw my breath while teaching class.
I mean, that’s a lawsuit waiting to happen in the USA.
And it’s not just in the countryside, either. Many schools and homes in big cities like Tokyo also don’t have proper heating to battle the brutal cold of Japan’s winters.
As I sat shivering on my tatami floor with my rice-paper-thin walls, I often wondered if I was really in the 20th century, because I’m sure the samurais from hundreds of years ago spent winter in a very similar fashion (thin walls and all).
Basically, it was freakin freezin.
2. The Name Stamp
You know in those old kung fu and samurai movies, where they have a long scroll parchment full of calligraphy? And usually the lord or emperor or somebody takes out a big red stamp and pounds it on the parchment for authority, or as a signature?
Believe it or not, Japan still uses these stamps. All the time.
I remember the first time the delivery man came to my home in Japan:
“I’m going to need you to stamp your name here before I can give you the package.”
“You need my what?”
“Stamp? Oh, like… my name stamp?” (they made a name stamp especially for me, because without it I guess you can’t officially sign papers in Japan).
So I dug out my name stamp, he took out his handy-dandy red inkpad from his pocket, and I stamped his document with my seal of approval.
I used that stamp everywhere. I used it to clock in and out of work (heaven forbid we clock in using a computer!). I used it to sign my contract for my mobile plan. I used it to make a bank account.
I used it everywhere–and again, I started to wonder if I was in the 20th century or not.
All foreigners are required to have a name stamp (or hanko, in Japanese) if they plan on living in Japan long term. Without the red stamp, life just aint gonna happen.
3. Buy Stuff Online? What?
When I worked for the Japanese government, one of the most frequently asked questions I got was:
“Can I buy train tickets online?”
The answer is no. You can’t buy train tickets online–and frankly, buying anything online in Japan is a hassle.
Compared to the U.S., online shopping isn’t as prevalent either.
And forget about paying bills online. That’s far too ahead of Japan’s time.
4. Japanese People Don’t Use PCs. Really.
I often noticed that outside of work and school, Japanese people seldom used a computer. In fact, they didn’t even have a proper email address.
Whenever I asked for the e-mail addresses of my Japanese friends, they would just give me the e-mail address of their cell phone service (their SMS handle is like an email address), which baffled me…
..until I realized that they don’t have an e-mail address. At all.
Basically, Japanese people never use computers.
According to a tech study by McKinsey,
“Japanese users spend about 136 minutes a day on their PCs, ahead only of much-poorer India (64 minutes) and far behind Spain (375 minutes), Korea (359) and the US (308).”
As I was doing some random internet searching on average salaries across the world, I found a link for data on Japan. While the average, annual earnings of a 24-27 year old for your average Tokyo salaryman was alarming (27,000 USD/year), what shocked me even more was this:
For those that can’t read Japanese, the men’s salaries are listed in blue and the women’s are in pink.
While the pay increases for men as they age, the salary for women actually decreases. In Japan, women don’t even come close to earning as much as their male counterparts—in their entire lives. I knew the pay gap was quite atrocious in Japan, I had lived there and read enough research, but this bar graph was like being splashed with cold water. It’s that bad?
Ok, I thought. This data is from 2006—it’s a bit old. Let’s see if I can dig up something newer.
I came up with this recently published article from Japan’s Huffington Post with data from Japan’s Bureau of Labor, accurately titled as:
See the 2012 statistics for yourself (again, men are in blue and women in red):
Wow. I don’t even need to explain anything.
Look at age brackets 45-54: Men are making triple the amount women are!
Just in case the bar graph wasn’t enough, they made a line graph for our viewing pleasure as well:
The following highlights American women’s earning as a percentage of men’s versus Japanese women’s earning as a percentage of Japanese men.
To put things into perspective: The Huffington Post article mentioned that American women are earning 80% of what American men earn, which is a huge leap from 1979 when it was only 62%.
Japanese women, however, only make 53.3% of what Japanese men make, which is a tiny skip up from 1979’s recording of 51%.
Among all the first world countries, Japan and Korea have the world’s largest gender wage gap. Japan ranks at 28% while Korea clocks in at 39%:
Gender Wage Gap By Country 2009
When it comes to Japan and all of its racist and sexist tendencies, it’s hard to shock me.
It was like an explosion in my brain.
But Why? Why Japan?
I can’t speak for Korea, but Japan’s economy is in the crapper. GDP shrunk almost 2% in half a year. They’re having elections in a week after going through a handful of prime ministers in the last five years. The yen is at the lowest it’s been in ten years—120 to the dollar—and it’s still falling.
And you know what could, perhaps, help the economy? Aside from slack on immigration laws and an overhaul to their archaic social and business system?
Encouraging women to work.
As the Economist posted in an article a few months back, it’s not that Japanese women are being held back from the workforce—they voluntarily leave the workforce. A survey last year showed that a third of very young women want to become full-time housewives.
Japanese companies require hours of overtime, post drinking parties on a daily basis, and basically a blood contract that says I will never miss a day of work and refuse to use my paid leave or take vacation.
If you had the choice of working to death as a salaryman or just staying at home while spending your husband’s hard earned paycheck, it’s no surprise Japanese women take the path of least resistance.
Even K once told me that Japanese women don’t want to work. They just want to get married.
And even if she did want to work, how could she work until 11 PM every night, attend drinking parties with her boss or participate in her child’s school play without using paid leave?
Simply, there is no wiggle room for a woman to juggle a family and a career in Japan.
To quote the Economist article, “When women have their first child, 70% of them stop working for a decade or more, compared with just 30% in America. Quite a lot of those 70% are gone for good.”
And the few that do somehow manage to balance career and family or push forward to make it in the business world are faced with rampant sexism and placed into “clerical” roles.
It’s no wonder one of my Japanese friends, a woman that started a wildly successful PR business in China, had to move to Shanghai to get anything done. Oh, let’s not forget that she wasn’t able to get married until 40 and had to find her Japanese husband in Shanghai (plus, she’s smoking hot and intelligent–I’d marry her).
Japan could stimulate its economy if half of its workforce—the women—were not only allowed, but encouraged, to participate in the workforce, bring their ideas to the table and actually play an active role in its economy. Prime Minister Abe is trying, but like so many things in Japan, it’s going to be a tough act to change.
PS: On a totally unrelated note, I found this really cool
Global Wage calculator
Image Courtesy of Sachi’s blog
When I heard about the newest show to premiere on NHK, “Massan,” was all about the trials and hardships of a marriage between a white woman and a Japanese male, I was a bit skeptical. I was afraid the show would be another ridiculous showcase of stereotypes about foreigners. The advertisement revealed a blonde hair, blue-eyed woman frolicking around the fields of Scotland with an attractive Japanese man running to embrace her.
Oh god, I thought.
This is going to be another repeat of My Darling is a Foreigner.
Instead, I was pleasantly surprised.
Go ahead, call me a wimp, but after I researched the show and actually watched a few episodes—I was holding back tears.
I think the show struck a particularly deep chord with me because…
It’s a True Story
Courtesy of The Guardian
When I read the synopsis for this story, I thought to myself: This is BS, no foreign woman from the early 1900s would marry a Japanese man and run off to Japan.
But my god, she really did.
You know Suntory whiskey? Japan can thank Masataka Taketsuru (Massan in the drama) for the gem that is Suntory Whiskey. Taketsuru-san’s life was changed forever after his first sip of whiskey in Japan. He boarded a boat in the early 1900s, sailed the seas to Scotland, and learned how to brew quality whiskey while snagging a hot Scottish babe, Rita Cowan (Ellie in the drama). Since he was too poor to afford rent, he rented out a room in the Cowan household and taught the family Judo.
I guess he woo’d Rita with all of his martial arts moves, because he was able to convince her to get on a boat and leave Scotland forever and move to Japan in 1920. I want to make great Scottish whiskey in Japan, he told her, and she said “and I’ll be there to support you.” Both families opposed the marriage.
After successfully helping Japan launch its whiskey industry (aka Suntory), he and Rita moved from Osaka to Yoichi in Hokkaido because the terrain was similar to Rita’s homeland of Scotland. They started a new whiskey distillery there called Nissa, and lived out the rest of their years in Hokkaido.
Using the last of her inheritance, Rita opened a children’s nursery in Hokkaido.
Rita passed away in 1960 and was buried with her husband.
In that small town of Yoichi you can find a street in remembrance of Rita Cowan.
You can still walk down “Rita Road” in Yoichi today.
For more background, check out a recent article by The Guardian about their trials and tribulations.
The Struggles of AMWF
Image Courtesy of Sachi’s blog
AMWF: In other words, the very small community of “Asian Male White Female” relationships.
As it is heatedly debated on the net, the AMWF circle is small. While we see many white males dating Asian females, we rarely see the opposite. I can count on my fingers how many AMWF relationships I have seen in both China and Japan.
In other words, we stick out. In Asia I was used to having fingers pointed at me or hearing the words “foreigner foreigner!” shouted at me.
But if I was walking arm-in-arm with an Asian man?
It felt like the whole country stopped to stare.
International relationships have a slew of problems, and dealing with my past Asian boyfriends and family was, to put bluntly, traumatizing. The disapproving parents, the cultural clashes, the feeling of being thrown into a pool of water and expected to swim, constantly asking myself: what should I do, what should I say, what will they think?
And to imagine that Rita (Ellie in the show) went through all of this back in the early 1900s is absolute madness. I can barely handle living in Japan in the 21st century, but living relocating there permanently in 1920s with a Japanese husband?
I can’t even fathom it.
People were still wearing kimonos then. At that time I bet most of Japan never heard of Scotland, much less seen a foreigner. She said goodbye to her entire life in Scotland, never looked back, and strode forward with her husband until the very end in Hokkaido.
If that’s not true love, I don’t know what is.
The Show Itself
Image Courtesy of Sachi’s blog
Sure, the foreign stereotypes in Massan run rampant—but it was the Taisho era, and I’m quite positive that back then foreigners had yet to use chopsticks and were completely blown away by the concept of taking shoes off before entering a home.
The director chose an American actress that speaks zero Japanese to play Ellie in the drama. While picking a fluent ex-pat seems like the better decision, I think the choice in picking a complete ‘newb’ was the right one.
She’s struggling with the language. Her Japanese sounds funny. Everything about Japan is alien and unfamiliar–yet she dives in head first with a smile and embraces the opportunity. In Ellie, I see a woman charging blindly forward into a foreign country in order to better understand the man she loves. I see her struggling to deal with her in-laws. I see her walking on eggshells and treading dangerous waters in order to be accepted, yet is rejected time and again. I see her raw and honest passion to support her husband and his dream, and he also reciprocating that love.
In Ellie, I see myself.
The acting isn’t the greatest, the stereotypes run rampant, and sometimes I just can’t understand Ellie’s Japanese—
But Massan is a rare, and most importantly true story about how love can really overcome cultural boundaries and flourish.
I have no idea where you can find Massan, but if you would like to find out more information about the show you can visit the show’s Japanese homepage here. Massan is NHK’s latest ongoing morning show broadcast everyday for 15 minutes.
(PS Unlike Legal High and Hanzawa Naoki, this drama is definitely not a good pick for learning Japanese. Not only is Ellie’s Japanese extremely difficult to understand, but Massan and his entire family speak with a thick Hiroshima accent. I gotta give Ellie credit, she doesn’t just have to learn Japanese—she has to understand gangsta Hiroshima-ben!)
The Convenience Store
The first thing I do when I go back to Japan is run to 7-11 or Family Mart, fall to the linoleum floor and sob with joy as that familiar door jingle rings through my ears and welcomes me home.
For those who have never been to Japan, you may think: “it’s just a 7-11.”
No, my friends. It’s far more than just a 7-11. It’s a joyous wonderland of food, beverage, entertainment and convenience all wrapped up into one little store.
At the convenience store in Japan you can literally do everything. To be honest, I don’t even know why other establishments even exist because the convenience store has it all.
The conbini (short for convenient store) in Japan has an ATM that accepts most of the world’s major debt/credit cards, performs domestic and international shipping and mailing, offers ticketing and vendor services and has full-blown printing services.
Oh yes, did I mention all of this can be done 24/7?
Aside from the services listed above, the offerings at 7-11 are immense. New onigiri (rice ball) flavors are offered on a daily basis, with bentos galore, dozens of attractive and unusual drinks at your beckoning, and fresh servings of oden and fried chicken at the cashier to go with your ‘limited time’ seasonal beer. If you happen to need hosiery, underwear, toiletries, books, magazines, batteries—you name it, the conbini has it.
This one is only 920 kcalories…
The Dark Side: Prepare to get fat. Those seemingly “healthy” bentos will beef you up in no time. Think that box of fish and rice is healthy? Take another look at the 1,000 calorie sticker slapped on there. All those tall beers and wasabi flavored chips you eat with it don’t help, either Constraint within the conbini is difficult—or damn near impossible.
All the Food is Amazing
I know. This sounds extremely one-sided and subjective, but it’s actually a fact.
I dare you—no, I triple dare you—to find a bad meal in Japan. It just doesn’t exist.
The Japanese people take pride in what they do, and food is definitely a high priority on that list. No meal is ever half-assed in Japan. Hell, even Japanese McDonalds blows its USA counterpart out of the water in terms of quality and taste. The freshness of the rice, the fish, the vegetables; the cut of the meat, the marble of fat on the beef, the temperature of your hands when preparing fish—these may all seem like minor details to the American eye, but it’s these key components that the Japanese focus on which makes their food so damn delicious.
The Dark Side: While it’s all good, Japanese food can get old. You can only eat so much sushi, noodles, and rice. After a few Japanese meals, you’re going to start craving exotic Thai curries or even a big stack of waffles. Although Japanese food isn’t bland, it definitely doesn’t take the gold when it comes to variety.
Ok, there is some crime. But for the most part, Japan is one of, if not the safest place on Earth.
In Los Angeles? Yeah, there have been a few freeway shootings in my neighborhood. Go home after 9? Maybe if I want to get raped and killed on the train.
America. Come on.
The Dark Side: Nothing. There is no down side to being safe.
Best Public Transportation in the World
I did not live in a big city when I resided in Japan. I lived in Nou, a small village with 10,000 people. I lived in the absolute boondocks surrounded by the sea, the mountains, and pretty much nothing else.
Yet I didn’t buy a car, nor did I have a need for one.
Even in a town with such sparse population, there was an extensive bus system and a railway. While the buses weren’t many, they still got me to and from a remote elementary school in the mountains, a seaside junior high school and back to my apartment.
Plus, I was only a two-hour train ride form Tokyo.
Just think about it: In Japan, you can go ANYWHERE by train. Anywhere. Even Nou.
I can’t even get to the nearest grocery store in America without the aid of a car.
This makes not only travel for visitors easier, but it also cuts down immensely on costs for residents by eliminating the need for a car.
The Dark Side: Bullet trains aint cheap. A one-way ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto can run you 150 bucks. That’s like a plane ticket. Still, I think it’s worth it.
Before I moved to Japan, I kind of knew from movies and anime that Japanese people like to take baths. I just kind of shrugged my shoulders and didn’t think too much on it; I mean, some people in the states take baths, too.
Then I realized that Japanese people don’t just like to take baths.
It’s a vital, necessary function of their day.
No Japanese person in their right mind goes to sleep without a dip in the tub. It’s like the ritualistic end to their day. Work, home, dinner, bath. That’s the dream.
My Japanese apartment came with a tub that looked like a giant boiling pot, like this:
In America we like to stretch our legs out and recline in the bath, but in Japan the baths are ‘deep’ and allow for total submersion of the body. Unlike the shallow baths in the States where you’re lucky if the water goes up to your ass and actually runs hot the entire time, the Japanese baths come with a control panel that remotely manages the temperature of the water in addition to a tub so deep, it covers you up neck to toe.
Needless to say, I became a bath addict. I converted into a bath-before-bed girl, and oh how I miss the loving embrace of that deep-dish tub.
Japanese people also make the bath an all-day activity by visiting their local ‘hot spring’ (onsen). Whether you want to bathe at home—or even better, in a public, natural spring with a bunch of strangers—Japan is your bath destination.
The Dark Side: While the bath is most commonly used to ‘wash away fatigue,’ it’s also used as a substitution for central heating. Believe it or not, Japanese houses are not equipped with central heating and they are C-O-L-D in winter. If you don’t take a bath, you might just freeze to death.
A place with Roman-esque baths, convenient transportation and a one-stop-destination called 7-11 where I can pay the bills, print out vacation photos, buy tickets to the concert next week all while getting dinner!?
Only in Japan.
The location for the Chinese-Japanese Friendship Group’s speed dating event seemed like a place where love goes to die. From the outside it looked like a local convenience store, the kind where you can easily purchase 50 cent baijiu (rice liquor) and tar filled cigarettes–maybe even a cell phone charge card. If it weren’t for the hand written sign taped to the wall adjacent to the shop keep, we would never know that a dating event lie in wait just beyond the foul stench of the convenience store’s stinky tofu, and up the stairs from the grime filled storage room.
“I’m scared, Lingling” I turned to my raised-in-Japan-can’t-speak-Mandarin-well-but-has-perfect-Japanese-Shanghainese-friend, Lingling, who heard about the event on a Japanese message board.
“Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea,” she looks up the stairs in hesitation. “What do you think, Mary? Make a run for it?”
We stand in silence. The sign taped to the wall falls to the floor.
“You know, we’re here already, maybe we should just go up and check it out.”
“You’re right,” Lingling nodded. “Let’s just go up and see what it’s like.”
Lingling and I had just split up from our Shanghainese boyfriends, and while the two of us weren’t in desperate need of a date we were looking for the chance to maybe—just maybe—meet a half decent guy in Shanghai.
How wrong we were.
If we thought the convenience store exterior was bad, we were ill prepared for the interior. We found ourselves in a dimly lit coffee shop wallpapered in brown argyle reminiscent to my grandmother’s living room. Random and broken antiques dotted the tables in an effort to provide ambiance, but failing miserably. A strange, musky cologne scent (also similar to my grandmother) permeated the air. It was dark and gloomy. The place was near empty.
Just as Lingling and I were about to bolt, the organizer of the event dragged us to the far end of the room where we found ourselves face to face with 15 men and 15 women. We were given name tags and two sets of stickers, 5 blue and 5 red, and told to stand in a line with the women, facing the line of 15 men head on.
There have been many awkward and possibly embarrassing moments in my life.
But this speed-dating thing? Takes the cake.
I look around to check out the other contenders.
On the ladies’ side we had 17 fairly pretty Chinese women; one lone, super kawaii Japanese girl; myself, and a big, black lady that spoke little Chinese and no Japanese (just how the hell did she find this place?).
The men were mostly Japanese (surprisingly), but with a good mix of Chinese thrown in. No foreigners. There was a man with a cane and a cape. I counted at least four nerds with pocket protectors, shifting their eyes from the ground to the girls while fumbling their fingers. The others were typical Japanese salarymen with black slacks, button up white shirts and perfect hair.
On the end was a pretty Japanese boy that I called Jun Matsumoto, because he looked like the main dude from the boy band Arashi. His expression was apathetic and disinterested, and I could feel the ladies swoon over him.
It was an interesting crowd.
Survival of the Stickers
“Hello everyone and welcome,” our host smiles. “Now first of all, we’re going to have the line of women go up to each man and introduce herself for a few seconds. Tell these handsome studs your name, your age, your line of work–the usual.”
Extremely awkward; but doable, I thought.
“Introductions alone are boring,” our host continues. “That’s why we gave you two sets of stickers. After the quick line of introductions, we would like you to hand out your red stickers to the men you find most attractive. Remember, you only have five stickers, so use them sparingly.”
I choke on my coffee and start coughing. Lingling looks at me in horror.
“Then,” she continues. “It will be the men’s turn to give stickers to the ladies.”
“Lingling,” I turned to her and whispered in English so no one could (hopefully) understand. “What the hell? We’re judging each other on looks alone? This makes me really uncomfortable.”
“I don’t like it,” Lingling looks around. “Unbelievable.”
There was no turning back. Lingling and I braced ourselves for 15 awkward conversations and took a step forward.
War of the stickers
In the end, I gave my stickers to no one. Blame my morals, or my upbringing, or just plain call it a way to rebel against this ridiculous “game”—but I just couldn’t rank these poor guys on good looks alone. I didn’t have it in me to split the contenders into have-stickers and have-nots.
The men, on the other hand, were more than glad to rank us ladies according to sticker.
Chinese women, black girl and me: 0 red stickers
Lone, kawaii Japanese woman: 40 red stickers
“Looks like we have a winner,” the host smiled and brought the Japanese woman to the center of the room. She blushed. “This lovely young lady is the most popular of all!”
This felt like a nightmare right out of a high school popularity contest.
More than that, it confirmed my worst fears:
Asian men would rather have a cute, Japanese girl than a westerner.
“Now then,” the hosts continued. “Let’s start the speed dating! Ten minutes for each table!”
“You have to be fucking kidding me,” I say out loud in English.
Let’s just say, my outburst didn’t help in the second battle of the stickers.
I won’t bore you with the details of the 15 mini-first-dates I had. They ranged from awkward bouts of silence to men that were utterly disinterested in western women (and even said it to my face). The Jun Matsumoto boy was actually half decent; a graphic designer sent from an ad agency that had previously lived in Scotland and spoke somewhat good English. Another man donning a green cape and top hat actually turned out to be a famous architect from Hong Kong that had self taught himself Japanese (which was just as good or better than mine). He had a wife and two kids and wasn’t there to find a date; but rather, accompany a shy Chinese friend that found it hard to keep eye contact with the female species.
Following our clumsy dates, the host rounded us up in line fashion once more and made us face off. Take out your blue stickers, she commanded.
I’m sure you can guess the rest.
A part of me was secretly hoping that maybe, just maybe, the men had looked past appearances and actually managed to find an emotional bond with one of the other sixteen women during our mini dates. Another part of me just wanted to throw the stickers at the host’s face for organizing such a confidence-wrecking event.
In the end, I stayed.
And in the end, the results were:
Chinese women, black girl and me: 0 red stickers
Lone, kawaii Japanese woman: 20 blue stickers
Again, the host took her by the hand and crowned her Queen of the prom. I mean, winner of the speed-dating beauty contest. Or whatever this event was. I didn’t even know what the whole purpose of this gathering was anymore.
The men started to crowd around kawaii Japan woman like monkeys in mating season. Lingling and I saw that as our cue to leave. We tossed our blue stickers to the ground and left as quickly as we could, saying a word to no one.
The Hardships of Dating in Shanghai as a Woman
I won’t lie.
I felt pretty goddamn awful after that event.
I didn’t just leave the event. I ran. I ran down the stairs, past the stinky convenience store and straight onto Nanjing Road. I fled the venue and stopped in my tracks when I was as far as I needed to be. Skyscrapers crowded in all around me. The famous department store 818 on Nanjing Road was on my left, the subway station on my right, and floods of Chinese shoppers all around me. I looked up to the sky; it was cloudy without a hint of sunlight, a swirl of grey and white.
Was that event the cold, hard truth punching me in the face?
Am I simply undesirable here?
In Shanghai (really, all of Asia) finding a decent man, or partner in general, can be a difficult task.
As a western woman, we have two choices in Shanghai: Ex-pats or the local crowd. Most young ex-pats going to Shanghai aren’t looking for someone to pop the “I do” question to. In most cases, the foreigner’s stay in Shanghai is temporary—which is also how they prefer their relationships.
The local men, on the other hand, are the exact opposite: They want to settle down, and they want to settle down NOW. Most western women in China may not be adverse to the idea of marriage or commitment, but we usually aren’t in the same kind of rush as the locals. Plus, locals are more hesitant to marry foreigners mostly due to language barrier, cultural incompatibility, and possible conflicts with the in-laws.
Between the party hard ex-pats and Chinese men are quick to bend the knee, finding a happy medium in Shanghai can feel like wading through a kiddie pool.
Bottom line: Going to a speed-dating event where I was rejected by 15 men in the span of 5-sticker-posting-minutes brutally reminded me that Asian men aren’t interested in me—and it definitely wasn’t a confidence booster for post breakup Mary.
“There you are, Mary” Lingling ran up beside me and patted me on the shoulder.
“Are you alright?”
“Because I’m not!” She shouted. “That was goddamn terrible! I can’t believe Chinese people can construct an event like that—it’s so—so—demeaning!! And that Japanese girl wasn’t even pretty! In Japan she would totally be below average.”
I laughed and looked up at Lingling, her face red in anger.
“Yeah!” I shouted and let it all out. “Those stupid Asian guys! They just want a stupid, giggling, Japanese bimbo from their AV fantasies!”
“Exactly!” Lingling laughs. “Plus all those guys were weirdos, Mary. None of them were interesting at all. Really. Don’t let it get you down.”
“You’re right,” I smile. “Fuck ‘em.”
“Fuck ‘em all.”
“Let’s get some beer,” Lingling claps me on the shoulder as we walk toward an open taxi. “I think the Kaiba near here is still doing happy hour.”
“You read my mind, Linging.”
My motto in life?
No matter what happens, as long as you have beer and good friends—you can overcome anything.
Dating abroad can be tough, but having good friends to help you through troubling times might unexpectedly guide you to that person you’ve been waiting for.
It sure did for me. A few, short weeks later a certain man—Chinese, even—found his way to me.
And I would definitely give him all of my red and blue stickers.
*WARNING: I do not think Asian men or women are stupid. This is a satirical post mixed in with personal opinion, read it with a grain of salt*
I Like Stupid Girls (Chinese Version)
I like to believe that the majority of western men don’t date women for looks alone, and intelligence plays a small role in the selection of a partner. Personality–most importantly, intelligence–plays a huge role in who we want to date or spend the rest of our lives with.
Not for Asia.
It was about two years ago when my friend got a new girlfriend. He had been single for quite some time and, despite being 25, had never truly had a girlfriend. When his friend set him up with a fellow girl from Hunan, he was elated to meet her. On the first date they hit it off, and by the second date things were starting to get serious. As his best friends, he wanted us to meet his new girl and give him some very important feedback.
She was small, petite, cute–a shy little figure that managed to glow in a pure, innocent kind of way; almost as if rainbows were shining out of her in all directions and smacking us with this dumbfound joy. When I talked to her, she smiled and giggled and was squeezibly cute, and I couldn’t help but smile back. It was like looking at a baby panda.
After sending her off home, all the dudes and myself exchanged opinions about my friend’s new gal. He was blushing pink; everyone said she was gorgeous and sweet. I patted him on the back with approval.
The next line from his friend’s mouth, however, threw me back a notch:
That’s Chinese for
“She’s a bit stupid.”
Now if you’re surprised as I was, don’t worry, that’s normal. I shook my head in disbelief and blurted out, “you shouldn’t say that, it’s rude!”
My friend laughed and said, “Mary, in Chinese, 笨笨的
may mean stupid, but it also denotes a feeling of being cute. I mean, she’s just so unaware of what’s going on around her, like a lost little puppy. You look at her big, beaming eyes and can’t help but think ‘awwwwwww.’”
We all hit it. That point in our lives where the fast growth suddenly comes to a halt and we run right smack into a wall with no exit. We just can’t seem to escape and find a way to start moving forward again. You feel trapped, you feel helpless, and no matter what you do you still see yourself at the same place you were a mere few months ago.
I’m not talking about a mid-life crisis. I’m talking about learning Japanese and Chinese.
There’s always a point in language learning where you feel comfortable, but you’re not feeling the growth. You find yourself studying, pushing yourself to the brink in trying to chat up the locals, memorizing your flashcards–but the amount you’re learning and the rate at which your language ability is maturing is far slower than when you first started. I think all languages learners, whether it be French or Spanish, encounter the dreaded language plateau and feel stuck. How can I get better ? What can I do to improve my language studies?
Just Follow These Three Steps:
1. TAKE A TEST
I remember living in Niigata, Japan and speaking Japanese everyday. I used it at school, the grocery store; hell, I even chatted up the delivery guy when he came to my door with a package. I was on the prowl for learning, and I was a language monster when it came to practicing Japanese. Yet while I was forward and persistent in my language learning, as the months passed by I didn’t really feel myself grow. Yeah, I can talk to the postman and gab with my student’s mom about how much I love Japanese food, but I still felt myself lacking. I couldn’t FULLY express myself. I didn’t speak Japanese like I did English; rather, I was merely trying to communicate the message.
English Mary: “I think the difference between Asahi and Kirin is in the way it is brewed, because Asahi has more of a heavy and frothy flavor while Kirin is a bit watered down, but still it retains that traditional, Japanese beer taste.”
Japanese Mary: “Asahi and Kirin are made differently. Asahi is heavy. Kirin is light. Kirin is more Japanese.”
I mean, both of these sentences are saying the same thing, but when I was at the plateau stage I couldn’t express myself eloquently, and my Japanese was still in the “I get by” stage.
People always ask me how I blew up the plateau and managed to speak Japanese like a 14 year old instead of a 4 year old.
I hate standardized tests. Really. I’ve met a horde of Chinese people that get full marks on JLPT 1 and speak the language terribly. It doesn’t necessarily prove that you’re fluent in a language, but for some reason it is still recognized by most formal institutions as an indicator of how good you are at Japanese.
But while I shed blood, sweat and tears learning JLPT 2, I also learned a ton of words that I never even imagined I’d learn in a foreign language. And I often noticed the night after cramming my brain with JLPT 2 vocabulary, I’d hear that same vocabulary the next day in a conversation between co-workers. While studying JLPT 2, I catch myself recognizing kanji in newspapers that I used to swat away before. It was like slowly being enlightened.
Whether you fail JLPT 2 or not, the energy you put into studying will definitely pay off in overall language ability. There is no way that you can study JLPT 2 two hours a night and have your Japanese suck even more than it did before. Also, the JLPT wasn’t made by a group of Japanese people that merely want to torture foreigners: They actually selected words that are necessary not only to everyday living, but in order to speak proper and ‘intelligent’ Japanese.
Plus, the test is A GOAL. Having a goal gives you motivation, and motivation allows you to study. Telling yourself to ace that goddamn mofo, and making a plan to implement said goal, is what makes you get better at a language. There’s really no way around poring over kanji for hours at a time to learn Japanese; but when you make it into a goal–and you succeed at that goal–well, let’s just say you’re going to feel pretty damn good when you see that 合格 (pass) on your exam card after studying so hard.
Just as a note: I have passed JLPT 1, and I honestly didn’t think it was that useful. It was just ridiculously hard grammar that no one uses anymore combined with ambiguous listening and reading sections. Whereas JLPT 2 content is actually the kind of Japanese that Japanese people speak in this day and age.
(*note: I think HSK isn’t as useful as JLPT, but for the sake of giving you motivation to study Chinese, then by all means try and take it).
How to Study for JLPT? (HSK)
I have two words.
Just don’t look at any other language materials, they suck.
As for HSK, it’s more about mastering how to take the test rather than the content of it. Just do a bunch of mock tests and you’ll be fine.
2. READ READ READ
Change the link to your homepage. I want you to change it to www.yahoo.co.jp or www.mainichi.jp or www.asahi.com. Like, right now. I hope you did that. I don’t want to hear any excuses. I also want you to read at least one article a day, but probably 3 will be necessary since the Japanese write their news articles so darn short.
In addition to reading Japanese news on your computer, you’re going to start reading a book in Japanese. Yes, you heard me, an honest to god book cover to cover. Don’t start with something ridiculously hard, like some sci-fi story or a political scandal–and for god’s sake don’t read Harry Potter or something in Japanese. Can you imagine all the katakana in there for all the weird, made-up, Hogwarts language? That’s what I thought.
I wanted to learn more about economics, so I bought this book.
I’m already Haruki Murakami, so I’m reading this.
While he’s a bit weird at least his novels are somewhat easy to read. It’s usually conversations between two people, or how a guy stares at the moon for five hours. Stray from manga, please, because not many people in the real world talk like Naruto or scream about how they’re going to kill titans ala Eren in 進撃の巨人 (shojo manga is ok, I guess, but still it’s better to read actual narratives to improve not only your reading, but your writing).
3. LISTEN TO THE NEWS
Watching dramas is great for improving your everyday conversation skills, but when it comes to leveling up your Japanese and describing the process of how beer is brewed rather than ‘how it git made,’ (aka, speak Japanese like an adult), then the news will hep. The news is hard. It’s not a walk in the park. And that’s why you need the challenge.
When I lived in Japan I watched 目覚ましテレビ every morning, and at night I watched NHK. Since I don’t live in Japan anymore, I actually download the NHK podcast every morning and listen to it. It’s going to be hard, but have your handy dandy dictionary ready and trust me–you’ll learn a plethora of new words you never knew before.
And I don’t cut a chunk out of my day to listen to the news. I listen to it as I walk to work, or when I’m riding the subway. Do it on your commute; and if you can’t look up vocab while listening to it (for whatever reason), then you can listen to it once in the morning, and when you come home from work speed through the podcast to try and get all the words you didn’t pick up the first time.
If you keep watching rom-com dramas on Japanese television, it will improve your Japanese (no doubt) but it will not help you overcome the plateau. You already KNOW what they’re saying, and you’re not being challenged linguistically. Step up to a harder drama (Hanzawa Naoki) if you dread the news, or try your hand at some TV shows in Japan that are actually somewhat intellectually stimulating (that last one will be a challenge to even find, but good luck).
And remember: No English Subtitles.
Properly learning keigo. I think we kind of put keigo on the backburner when we study Japanese (just learning regular Japanese is hard enough); but after you have a grasp of how to speak Japanese, mastering keigo should be next on your list. While some foreigners detest even the cold, harsh, emotionless tone of keigo; it’s necessary in order to sound like a proper and educated Japanese person–no matter how many barriers it might create.
There’s a billion keigo websites on the web, but usually searching “business Japanese” in google will be the most helpful. Like websites such as this that list every office-email-situation you can fathom.
When I wanted to improve my Keigo, I actually found a language exchange partner and asked him/her to prepare work situations where I would have to write an e-mail. After writing my sorry excuse for a business e-mail, they would whip out their red pen and tell me how it’s done. This was not only crazy useful, but it helped me make Japanese friends in all realms of business: e-commerce, banking–even NGO!
I took the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) N1 last Sunday. I won’t even go into the logistics of the test. Like, who says あるまじき anymore? Whatever.
What I want to complain about is: The test center. I signed up for the nearest testing location in Shanghai, which was deep in the-middle-of-nowhere subrb. I get to the university (testing location) and ask the nearest guard about the JLPT test, and she’s oblivious. She points me to a nearby sign that has some stuff on it. Lo and behold, it lists all information about the JLPT–except where to actually take it.
After searching the no-signage campus and asking 25 random Chinese students, I was finally able to locate the testing center.
So imagine my surprise when I walk into the test room and see that, lovely, there’s no air conditioning.
I don’t know if any of you have ever lived in Asia in the summer, BUT IT SUCKS. It’s basically like living in a sauna. A big, hot, steamy sauna. I was already a sweaty mess, and I was about to join 40 other piles of sweat in a tiny room for 4 hours. Let’s just say, it wasn’t pleasant.
If any of you have ever taken JLPT in Japan, you know they aint fcking around. They bust out the red and yellow warning cards and aren’t afraid to use them. You touched your booklet before the starting time? Yellow card. I remember someone actually flipped their test booklet over and got a red card. You just don’t mess around with standardized tests in Japan.
Of course, in China, as soon as we received the booklets everyone started looking through the questions before the start time. The proctors didn’t care and watched the students flip through the test questions 20 minutes prior to the test. Awesome.
I couldn’t find my seat, so I asked the proctor in perfect Mandarin:
“Excuse me, I can’t find my seat, could you please tell me where it is?”
Answer? I don’t know. She started speaking Shanghai dialect to me.
Now. My biggest pet peeve is Shanghai-hua, so don’t get me started on this subject. But seriously, man, I was even holding my USA passport with my big white woman face to match. Do you honestly think I’m going to understand Shanghai-hua?
In Japan they speak to me in broken English. In Shanghai, they speak to me in a dialect that only 1% of the population understands. I don’t know which one is worse.
Test starts and I’m whizzing through. I’m reading one of the reading comprehension passages over for the third time or so when I hear it.
Someone hawkin a loogie.
Chinese people love to spit. I always ask my Chinese friends why, but they just kind of shrug and look at me. They tell me that older people spit because they don’t know better and weren’t educated, but I was in a room with 20-30 year olds taking a Japanese test. I mean, seriously. Explain that.
Listening section starts. In the JLPT, they only play the recording once so you really have to concentrate on what the speaker is saying and don’t miss a peep. Not even one vowel.
The two proctors were talking throughout the entire first question. They didn’t leave the room to talk, nor did they talk in quiet voices. They were talking in weinaloudclub type voices. I was appalled no one said anything at this point, because it was beyond distracting. I most likely missed the first two questions because I had to hear this Shanghai-hua garbage over the Japanese dialogue.
I couldn’t take it anymore.
I stood up, slammed my hands on the desk and screamed:
They shut up.
Thoroughly stressed and a few blood pressure points away from a heart attack, I handed in my test and got in a cab to the nearest bar.
A few months later–somehow–I passed the test.
I am, officially, JLPT 1 certified.
Registering for the JLPT in China
Surprisingly, it’s easier to register for the JLPT in China than it is in Japan. The process in Japan involves hunting down a Kinokuniya bookstore to get a paper application, which requires a special stamp and specific mailing instructions. Register online? Good god, that’s too convenient for Japan.
The Chinese office was really helpful–in fact, they even answer the phone on a frequent basis! (they can help you in both Chinese and Japanese, but I’m not sure about English).
For general info about the test visit the Japanese Language Proficiency Test official homepage.
For registration in China, easily register online at the National Education Examinations Authority, Ministry of Education, the People’s Republic of China (try saying that ten times fast).