9. Settling In
As I look back on what I’ve written over the last two weeks, most of it feels incredibly distant. I’m glad I didn’t wait to write, because if I had my difficult first impressions would have been washed over by my more recent feelings of joy and a much greater willingness to accept things.
Difficulties aside, this is a fun, unique country. If I have one regret so far it is that we don’t get to meet a lot of locals outside of work. Well… part of this is that it’s the wrong time of year. It’s too cold and a lot of us are too broke for excursions.
I got around a fair bit on my own today, though. I finally got my ¥800 haircut, and I traded in a 3m RCA A/V cable for a set of 10m cables. Now in conjunction with my other new adapters, I have my laptop on a table by my kitchen, and the TV on the opposite corner of the apartment is playing my music and showing the Winamp visualizations. It’s a great setup for movies and DVDs, too, and it’s much easier to gather folks around a TV screen than a laptop screen. Now if only I had internet, we could put my Slingbox that’s sitting dormant in the basement back home through its paces…
I’m also starting to try new things like heating frozen hash browns in a frying pan. Delicious! I hadn’t counted on having to do things approximating cooking so soon (real cooking is a LONG way off!), but I wasn’t watching the labels on one or two of my earlier shopping sprees, and I unintentionally bought a bunch of things that weren’t microwavable. Anyway, food’s been pretty okay. You can get all the Western staples at MaxValu, and I’m always up for Japanese things in small doses even if I don’t like the taste – but sometimes things can be surprisingly good, like fried shrimp. I would eat fried shrimp in a box, or even with a fox…
That last was one of the things I tried when we went out to the kaiten-zushi establishment, which had the sushi-and-other-things conveyor. L., D., F., K., and I had a table together, and L. was in fine form, letting us know about all the new things we could try – he’s been an excellent guide, and he’s even taking F., K., and me and probably some other people on an informal bicycle tour tomorrow afternoon. I’m excited, but I wonder how much we’ll be able to see before it gets dark. At least with Monday off we’ll be able to party afterwards. In fact, I think everyone else is partying (independently) now; I wouldn’t be surprised if S. and I were the only ones home as I write this.
Oh, and remember when I got locked out of my bank account because of all the oh-look-his-IP-is-in-another-country stuff? And did I say that it said, “call customer care; from overseas call collect, xxx-xxx-xxxx.” Well, I tried that tonight. Oh, yeah, my phone’s installed, I’d better update my Facebook profile next week when I get a chance. Please keep in mind the time zone difference if you call, though. From Halifax, Japan is 13 hours ahead in winter, but just 12 when we’re on daylight savings (making the conversion even easier then; just swap the am and pm); from Toronto it’s 14 now and 13 with DST. For example, 2pm Sunday afternoon in Halifax is 3am Monday morning here.
Anyway, I called Canada Direct and tried to place a collect call through to my bank. Guess what? The number their website provided specifically blocks collect calls. Thanks, jerks.
And now I’m trying to call my mobile phone provider and at least get my Canadian mobile phone switched to pay-as-you-go so I can pay a nominal rate just to hang onto my phone number (877-WILL, otherwise I would just let it go), but now they’re saying that their offices are closed, but try again between 9am and 8pm on Saturday and Sunday.
Problem: It’s 9:30am in Toronto already, and it was a 416 number. And it’s 11:30pm here, and I’d sure have liked to have gotten that over with so I could get to bed. Maybe I’ll just go to bed anyway.
So yeah, there are some problems that are merely geographic – anything involving money and bills back home will be a pain in the butt until I get internet. I have to have a gaijin card before I get internet, so I’m really just waiting for that. It should be ready next week.
After the cables and the haircut and a couple of other store look-ins, I headed into the downtown. Down to my last 81 yen, I went to the central post office intending to exchange a bunch of Christmas money I didn’t have time to deposit back home. Ah, but the necessary counters were closed; it was Saturday, 4:50pm. In fact, they might only be open Monday to Friday… well, maybe I’ll be lucky and they’ll be open tomorrow when I go in with L.. [Update: Hours are 8:00 to 6:00, Monday through Friday, and that’s it. So if I get on my bike right after work and really put the pedals to the metal, I’ll make it. Contrast with Poland, which had kantors on every downtown block, even in cities under 15,000.] Anyway, I’m not in any crisis because I was able to use the bank machines there, which are pretty much the only ones in the entire prefectural capital of 250,000 that will let you withdraw cash internationally. (Contrast with Poland and Ukraine, where virtually every bank machine permitted me to withdraw from my Canadian bank account.)
Anyway, seeing the downtown on my own was cool; I could take pictures and go where I pleased. Yes, I can take pictures when I’m walking about with others, but we all know how much people love to wait for me while I’m snapping off a few (dozen).
Now, the downtown here is pretty serious. For climate and architectural reasons it’s hard to do a direct comparison to Halifax – for instance, Halifax lacks a central, bustling square. For that matter, so does Toronto. And Tokushima’s square is pretty cool; elevated walkways, lots of activity, a railway station and a bunch of precious little shops – I’ll never forget the smell of Japanese curry from one. I’ll file that place with Casanova on my list of places to show guests.
* * *
Also add to that list a cozy little basement place a few blocks south of the central plaza that serves Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki. Man, that was good. It was just K. and I that got out with L.; F. was nowhere to be found. (I’m sure she had an equally exciting adventure, though. She’s the type that enjoys ventures into the unknown.) So at the end of our guided tour, we were eating at this little spot, the three of us sitting on pillows on the floor eating our pork-onion leaf-pancake concoctions, experimenting with sweet and zesty sauces and mayonnaise. It was heaven.
Really, the food here could be a lifelong adventure. Even the stuff that has a fishy taste is OK; I don’t mind it so much as some of the stuff I’ve tried back home. I was just about to write, “I can eat just about anything here in small doses,” but then I remembered the reams and reams of things I’ve heard of that I’m not willing to try, such as live fish. I’m serious. Here you can get little needle-sized fish that are best served… well, live, and so you take up a chopstick-load and down they go. L. says that when he tried them, he was careful to bite down on them in his mouth so as to put them out of their misery, reasoning that swallowing them whole would be cruel, as then they’d die a slow, agonizing death in your stomach acids. Oh, and then there’s the live baby octopus that will actually fight honourably to stay in your mouth with the stubs of its cut-off tentacles.
Um, yeah. But all those culinary extremes are clearly optional. It’s not as if you’re going to starve here because you can’t or don’t want to eat live / raw fish. Maybe you kind of have to be here to see what I mean.
Increasingly, too, there are lots of choices that cater to more international tastes. There’s a chain of stores here called Jupiter (and as of six months ago, Tokushima finally has one, and it’s been a boon to the foreigners*); it’s not much more than a little nook in a mall, but you can get things there like real cheese and bigger bottles of Heinz ketchup, Campbell’s soup if you want it (but at $2.75 a can, as opposed to 75¢ or less back home, you’d better really miss it), and probably most importantly, a wide variety of Anglosphere-style spices and other cooking things so that you could basically run an USAmerican, English, Canadian, or Australian household if you wanted to. The idea of becoming a stolid ex-pat does have a certain appeal, but it’s much more fun to try to integrate while allowing oneself occasional retreats.
* - There are lots of foreigners here; possibly more than is typical for a city of this size, but I’ll have to ask around. This can be a good and a bad thing; there are a few establishments in the city where foreigners are not really welcome thanks to the exploits of a few JETters in the past.
L. plays in an Okinawan band, and he’s organizing a big, casual get-together event for this coming Friday. I’m excited; it’ll be a great opportunity to meet lots of people – locals and foreigners alike. I’d like to meet a lot more locals, especially ones that don’t work at S.G.. I’m sure you know how it is; work is kind of work. It’s different with the foreign teachers, because we have sort of formed a casual friendship / partying / hang-out unit out of necessity. We all live on the same floor of this little apartment building and see each other every day in all manner of situations and dress (e.g.: pyjamas). Anyway, I need to cultivate more intercultural relationships both at work and outside work. I mean besides Australians. =)
Anyway, all things considered, I have to say I feel pretty good. I know I’m going to be caught flat-footed more than a few times as I teach, but the students have been quite patient with me so far; I find I kind of have to teach by the seat of my pants anyway, because every class has different requirements. For example, what worked splendidly with Grade 1-2’s Math class crashed and burned with Grade 1-1’s Math, and that was with identical material and supposedly identical children.
I’m also able to see how this experience will fit in with what I want to do with the rest of my life. I have all these little ideas and possibilities; sure, life will probably throw something else entirely at me, but it’s nice to have some idea of where I might be going. It’s gotten to the point that I have done more than just forgive R.; I may someday actually thank her. =)
Well, it’s time to study some kana and hit the hay. Tomorrow is a holiday, but I still need to be up early for garbage collection which will still take place. This will be burnables day, so I can toss my orange peels and probably also the previous participant’s heaping mound of cigarette buts. (I say again, “GAH!!”)
* * *
Remember that stuff I said about having a better chance of inheriting a hyperclean apartment if you were a girl?
Maybe that’s still true, but now I’ve seen the reality of the situation. In the same way that girls can take eneminity to a level of subtlety unknown to men, girls can be slobs in a whole other manner too. (But I’m seriously generalizing here, by which I mean I need an excuse to lie so I can make my point.)
Anyway, my apartment is not all that bad. Sure, I was chagrined to be re-sorting the previous participant’s garbage, which wasn’t done properly (although to be fair, also probably not by the participant), and there were dust bunnies the size of real rabbits all over the place, but now that I’ve sorted that garbage, vacuumed those dust bunnies, and done my of pile laundry including those travelling clothes that smelled like an airplane lavatory, I’m quite happy with things. Sure, there is that red skull-and-crossbones “Keep Out” sticker on my front door, but I’m keeping it because the bright red helps me and others identify my apartment (though, generally speaking, I’d like others to disregard the message and feel free to knock – if this were a dorm, I’d actually keep the door open most of the time like I did at Sainte-Anne).
So, yes, I’m happy with this spot; it’s modest, but it fits requirements admirably. And there are lots of shelves, too, so I don’t have to have a lot of things just lying around.
But you can’t possibly be interested in all this. Let’s get to the anecdote.
K. and I are heading down to the collection point with our bags full of garbage, and she’s talking vaguely about how groady things were for her. Last night she regaled us with the tale of how she unclogged her shower drain. It’s not for the faint of heart. (We can’t put that one on the previous participant, though, because that drain probably hadn’t been cleaned in many years.)
“Ugh… like, you know, someone else’s snotty tissue… it’s disgusting. On a 1-to-10 scale, I’d give that a 2.”
“Ha-ha, you had some 8s or 10s?”
“I had a 12.”
Imagine that. Actually, don’t.
I also finally got a hold of my bank and my phone company, but I had to cave and buy a $30 phone card that gets me about 80 minutes of time to Canada. The rate is an exorbitant 40 yen (or cents) a minute, which is about ten times what I pay in Canada for calls to Canada, the United States, the UK, and also Japan. I’d better save the rest of it for emergencies.
And I learned something new today, too. I just discovered that you can’t leave fresh chicken in the fridge for a week waiting for the right time to cook it. Even on the skillet it smelled a little off (to say nothing of how it smelled in the fridge when I opened up its sachet); I had a taste of a little cooked piece, and I was like, “Yuck!” Oh well, at least it won’t be raw in the dumpster.
Oh! D. and S. were just outside, so we had a little chat:
S: “Are you cooking supper?”
Me: “Yeah… but… well… um… okay, F. and I were at the grocery store in Fuji Grand last week, and she gave me some chicken…”
S: “And you just discovered that you can’t leave chicken in the fridge for a week?”
D: “Let me tell you about a magical place. It’s called the freezer.”
S: “So what are you going to do for supper?”
Me: “Well, I’ve got those bean paste-filled fish-shaped cakes I can heat up…” [Update: BLECCH. I only bought them because I had been fooled by the Boston Cream-like ones in the same mould that some parents bribed us with in the staff room one afternoon. I knew these weren’t cream, but I thought they’d at least be tasty.
Oh, I miss those hash browns. Now I have ketchup, but no hash browns. Thank goodness we get paid tomorrow. I don’t know how much I’ll be getting though, because I’ve only worked a week. Heh-heh, maybe I won’t get anything. Heh. Heh. … Oh dear. [Update: We were paid for the month, thank goodness.]
Time to microwave some chicken nuggets. They’ll go with ketchup.
[The weather forecasts here are really cute. All the icons are pretty of course, but they also tell you how many layers you should wear (to the point where there’s a weather map illustrating this, and for tomorrow Tokushima has a t-shirt with a red X, which I assume means, “Don’t wear short sleeves”). The bilingual (via a second audio program) national newscasts that I’ve caught so far include frequent appeals, “Please dress warmly.” So cute!]